Editor's note: Miami was the fourth and final stop of a four-campus college football preview tour made by Todd McShay and Mobile ESPN. To see exclusive videos from Todd's college football tour, go to ESPN Motion or get Mobile ESPN.
Despite his 53-9 record in five seasons as Miami's head coach, it's widely understood that Larry Coker is on the hot seat. Inconsistent play on the field and issues off the field have led to understandable scrutiny. In an effort to right the ship, Coker overhauled his staff in the offseason, hiring six new assistants. Although the local media is frustrated by the decreased access to coaches and players, it's difficult to argue with Coker's decision to pull in the reins. From what we saw during Saturday's practice/scrimmage session, this year's team seems to be more focused and enthusiastic in its preparation.
From a personnel standpoint, Miami's running back situation is in shambles. Starter Tyrone Moss is suspended for the opener versus Florida State for a "violation of team policy." Even upon his return, there's no telling how effective Moss will be following his season-ending knee injury suffered vs. Virginia Tech in their eighth game last year. Moss' expected replacement is Charlie Jones, who filled in admirably late last season and rushed for an average of 4.1 yards on 123 carries. However, Jones has been nursing a strained hamstring and missed a number of last week's practices. Jones is expected to start in the opener against Florida State, but how long his hamstring holds up in that game is anyone's guess. The Hurricanes have some talented youngsters at the position, including Edgerrin James' cousin, Javarris James, but their inexperience is a concern in such a big-game setting. In preparation for the worst-case scenario, new offensive coordinator Rich Olson is using more practice time with his unit in multiple-receiver sets, and he is also using quarterback Kyle Wright in more shotgun formations than usual.
With wide receiver Ryan Moore serving a two-game suspension, the Hurricanes head into the showdown with the Seminoles shorthanded on offense. Moore has been a career underachiever, but he is a talented 6-foot-3, 215-pound receiver who averaged 16.6 yards on 28 receptions in 2005. Lance Leggett and Darnell Jenkins, who combined for just 40 catches last season, are the likely starters while Moore is out.
The good news is that Wright looks sharp. Olson brings more aggressiveness as the new play caller, and so far Wright has been up to the mental challenge of a scheme that requires more pre-snap motions and more downfield throws.
A year ago, the big question mark for both Miami and Florida State heading into the season opener was the inexperience at quarterback (with Wright and Drew Weatherford at the helm). After witnessing the maturation and development of both quarterbacks during summer camp, it wouldn't be a surprise if Wright and Weatherford fight for Player of the Game honors when the Seminoles visit the Orange Bowl on the night of Sept. 4.
Miami's defense set an intense tone during Saturday's scrimmage. Six starters and several other key contributors return from a unit that ranked fourth nationally in total defense and scoring defense in 2005. Tackle Kareem Brown, for example, saw significant playing time last season (8½ tackles for loss), but he wasn't technically listed as a starter. With Brown moving into a starting role next to junior Teraz McCray, versatile defensive lineman Baraka Atkins will return to his more natural position at defensive end. Atkins will start opposite defensive end Bryan Pata, but expect Atkins to see some playing time inside as a pass-rusher with nickel and dime personnel.
The linebacker corps is as deep as any in the country, and defensive coordinator Randy Shannon should be able to consistently rotate six linebackers in and out of games. Jon Beason isn't the most naturally gifted player on the unit, but he is the most complete player. Beason provides great speed and instincts as the starting Will linebacker, and he should be up for All-American honors after notching 43 tackles (including 7.5 for loss) last season.
Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips make up arguably the best safety tandem in the nation. Phillips is an up-and-coming standout who notched 53½ tackles as a freshman in 2005. While not as big or athletic as Phillips, Meriweather's experience, toughness and savvy make him a more complete player at this point. One thing is certain: Meriweather is the vocal leader of the Canes' defense, and he backs up his big mouth with his play on the field. At just 188 pounds, Meriweather is the leading returning tackler from last year, when he notched 72½ total tackles (including 12½ behind the line of scrimmage).
If there's one question mark for Miami defensively, it's cornerback. The unit's best cover corner from the past two seasons, Kelly Jennings, will play on Sundays this year. Glenn Sharpe has good size and speed, but he's coming off a 2005 knee injury. The other starting job is still up in the air, but it looks as if Randy Phillips will beat out fellow sophomore Bruce Johnson for the job.
Shannon loves to play aggressively, with his safeties cheating up near the line of scrimmage, but he'll need to take fewer chances early this season until he knows exactly what kind of man-to-man coverage skills he has at the two cornerback spots. Against a Florida State offense that is loaded at wide receiver (see: Greg Carr, De'Cody Fagg and Chris Davis), the Canes' secondary will be tested immediately.
Todd McShay is director of college scouting for Scouts Inc. Numerous NFL teams have relied on his independent draft prospect evaluations since 1998. Listen to Todd break down the biggest games and give you all the scores on College GameDay on ESPN Radio every Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. ET. He is also a frequent contributor to ESPNU.