‘The U’ needs a stellar secondary to bounce back

Artie Burns

Miami (Fla.) is one of the elite of college football programs about which college football fans will say college football is always better when they are good.

In that sense, Miami is just like Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC and Texas, to name a few. But in so many other ways, “The U” is unlike any other program in the country.

The Hurricanes have a distinct aura and a swagger. They play at a different speed, with a different style, under a different spotlight. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to do. They are a combination of the Raiders and the Lakers made just for college football. (Oddly enough, all three of these historically successful teams are trying to regain relevancy right now.)

When Miami is at its best, they are a factory of future pros. And when Miami is at its best, it has a stellar defensive backfield.

The Hurricanes’ last national championship squad, in 2001, boasted a secondary that had three of its four starters play in the NFL: safety Ed Reed, and cornerbacks Mike Rumph and Phillip Buchanon. The fourth starter, safety James Lewis, was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts but never played in the league. Among the backups on that 2001 roster were eventual pros Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Kelly Jennings, Marcus Maxey and Alfonso Marshall.

The last Miami national championship team before that, in 1991, featured two NFL players in its starting secondary: cornerback Ryan McNeil and safety Darryl Williams.

Other NFL defensive backs who from “The U” include Brandon Meriweather, Fred Marion, Bennie Blades, Duane Starks, Ronnie Lippett, Kenny Phillips, Sam Shields, Burgess Owens, Bubba McDowell and Devin Hester, the NFL record-setting kick returner who is a part-time receiver now but played corner at Miami.

Any member of that group of illustrious alumni would’ve been shaking their head at what happened last Saturday, when the Hurricanes were routed 58-0 at home by ACC rival Clemson.

Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson completed a modest 15 of 19 passes for 143 yards and one touchdown in the game. It was really the Clemson running game that did the damage, compiling 416 yards on the ground and benefiting from several missed tackles, bad field positioning and poor pursuit angles by the Miami secondary, which includes starting cornerbacks Artie Burns and Corn Elder, and safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Deon Bush.

It was the worst loss in the history of Miami football, and the day after it was over, head coach Al Golden was fired. He has been replaced in the interim by tight ends coach Larry Scott. And two days after Golden was fired, the Hurricanes were dealt more adversity when Burns’ mother, Dana Smith, passed away from a sudden heart attack. She was 44 years old.

Now, as the Miami program begins the process of starting over again, the secondary is a source of inspiration for the entire team. From the Miami Herald:

“It’s a sad situation,” safety Dallas Crawford said Tuesday, the first day of UM practice for Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at No. 22 Duke (6-1, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) in Durham, N.C. “It feels like we haven’t gotten good news in a while.

“This right here will define us as a team. At the end of everything it will make us better young men.”

The Hurricanes (4-3, 1-2) and newly appointed interim coach Larry Scott met the media for the first time in this new era Monday, a solemn day except for, perhaps, when the players “got back on the grass,” Scott said, “and let it loose.”

“As I was telling the guys, it’s like getting back out on the playground. It’s like recess. You get back to doing the things you’ve been doing since you were 4 years old, 7 years old. … I think a lot of that helps the healing … You started to see the energy and passion level pick up, a couple of little shoves, a couple of things that were good, in the spirit.

“It made you walk away and kind of smile and say, ‘You know what? We have a chance to push through this thing.'”

The players were clearly sad about Burns, tied for third in the nation with five interceptions, and weren’t sure if he would make the trip to Duke. He and his brothers are now with their grandparents.

Miami has set up a GoFundMe web page for those who want to donate to help support Burns and his brothers. As of 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, more than $35,000 had been raised.

“Losing a mom is unimaginable,” safety Deon Bush said. “We’ve got to rally for him. We can’t be negative.

“Artie is a brother to me. His mom was like a mom to us. We’re here to support him.

“It’s crazy.”

Bush was one of at least 15 players who visited Burns’ mother Monday night as she clung to life.

“It has been difficult,” said defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. “Certainly all of them are hurt. They need our support. It’s been a lot to deal with, but they are resilient.”

Golden learned of his firing Sunday evening. After athletic director Blake James informed Golden and then the team of his dismissal, Golden addressed his players and coaches, initially breaking down with emotion. Tears flowed in all directions.

“He’s human. He’s got a family,” said cornerback Tracy Howard. “It definitely touched us playing for him for four years. Nobody wants to hear news like that. I wish he could have finished the season out with us.”

Said Crawford: “He was heartbroken. It was sad. But he gave us his best and he told us to go win it out for him. Everybody in the building loved coach Golden. Each of us got up individually and told him how much we appreciated everything he’s done for us.”

While Burns looks like a future pro, the Hurricanes probably won’t be threatening for a national championship again until more than one member of the defensive backfield is of that caliber.

Miami currently ranks 13th out of 14 ACC teams in points allowed (27.7 per game), total yards allowed (406.1) and rushing yards allowed (202.9). The ‘Canes also rank last place in the conference in yard-per-carry allowed (5.3 per rush) and first downs allowed (21.6 per game).

The secondary has made big plays — leading the ACC with 11 interceptions, five by Burns — and Miami actually leads the ACC with a plus-11 turnover margin. But the secondary has also given up big plays. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 60.1 percent of their passes against Miami, and the Hurricanes have allowed 203.3 passing yards per game, 12th-best in the ACC.

On third downs, Miami has given up successful conversions 35.7 percent of the time, which is 10th-best in the ACC. On fourth downs, it’s 57.1 percent (when opponents go for it), second-to-last in the ACC. Miami has also given up eight passing touchdowns in the red zone, 12th-best in the ACC.

If “The U” is ever going to get back to challenging schools like Texas and LSU for the mythical title of “DB U,” recruiting will obviously be paramount.

Golden was a good recruiter. In his nearly five years at Miami, he landed four recruiting classes that placed in Scout.com’s top 25 national recruiting rankings. He brought in five-star cornerback Howard; four-star corners Burns and Deion Jackson; four-star safeties Bush, Jamal Carter, Kiy Hester and Jaquan Johnson; and a slew of three-star safeties and corners. Elder was a four-star running back in high school who has been converted to cornerback.

But even more important than recruiting will be player development.

During Golden’s tenure, despite all the stars on his impressive recruiting resume, only three Miami defensive backs were selected in the NFL Draft. And two of those were picked in 2011, meaning they never played for Golden. The only Miami defensive back who actually played for Golden and was chosen in the NFL Draft is Brandon McGee, a fifth-round pick in 2013 who plays for the New York Giants.

At the moment, developing the Hurricanes’ DBs falls on defensive coordinator D’Onofrio, who has been a scapegoat to many Miami fans for the program’s recent struggles, and DBs coach Paul Williams. Both of them were brought to Miami by Golden after coaching under him at Temple. So whenever Miami hires its next full-time head coach, they could be out with a new regime coming in.

In the more immediate future, Miami is 4-3 this season and still in the mix to make a postseason bowl game; the remaining schedule has them at Duke, home for Virginia, at North Carolina, home for Georgia Tech, and at Pitt in the regular-season finale.

Plenty of changes are sure to come soon for Miami. A good place to start will be addressing the last line of defense.

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