Hurricanes football has suffered from being laggards to new philosophy... until Lashlee

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Miami was once at the forefront of modern ideas. Howard Schnellenberger’s passing attack, Jimmy Johnson’s 4-3 defense, and Dennis Erickson’s one-back offense were all innovative and against the grain. The late great Sam Jankovich, Miami’s then Athletic Director, aimed at finding young coaches who were masterminds of philosophy and schematic plans. Back then Miami was hiring innovators and early adopters. Lately though, Miami has been a laggard when it comes to the adoption of new scheme and philosophy.

The City of Miami as a football laggard has shown with the constant hiring of pro style coaches to run the ‘Canes offense. It even has carried over to the high school game where South Florida teams were lining up in double tight formations and trying to win low scoring games until Jacory Harris’ Bulls teams from 2006-2007. Harris spread his wide receivers out while he called his own plays en route to two state championships and a 30-0 record.

South Florida high school football has been poorly coached for some time. It’s a mixture of having the talent to get by without having to be innovative and the low paying teaching jobs and high cost of living in Miami. But the college coaches at Miami haven’t had to be so late to adapt or adopt- they just have hired that way from the admin level.

While Bob Stoops was out looking for the next Mike Leach in Lincoln Riley, Mike Leach was hiring Alex Grinch, and Mike Gundy has been scouring the D2 and Ivy League for coordinators- Miami hired Mark Richt, Al Golden, Butch Davis, Larry Coker and Randy Shannon. Those coaches have hired other stale coordinators like Mark Whipple, James Coley, Mark D’Onofrio, and Rob Chudzinksi. There wasn’t a lot of innovation going on in Coral Gables.

Bobby Bowden never feared innovation, just kickers. In 1993 Bowden used Heisman Trophy winner and point guard Charlie Ward, mostly in the shotgun, with many new philosophies from then OC Brad Scott. After the 1993 championship season Brad left FSU to be the head coach at South Carolina and Mark Richt took over. Richt, too, innovated including his use of Peter Warrick in the FSU offense in 1999.

Also in 1999, Oklahoma took a shot at an innovative offense with Mike Leach and the Air Raid. It brought the Sooners their first and only national championship (2000) since 1985 (notably after Leach had taken the job at Texas Tech). In 2005, the University of Florida took a reach on Utah’s Urban Meyer. Meyer’s offense would “never work in the SEC” until it did. Meyer guided the Gators to the national title in 2006 and 2008 with a fullback behind center.

Sooners fans were used to wishbone offenses from the Barry Switzer days and got the passing version of the ‘bone. Leach has repeatedly said the triple option Wishbone was the influence for the Air Raid, just with overhand throws instead of underhand pitches.

Urban Meyer liked shovel options, inside zone reads, speed option, crossing routes and using his quarterback in a run-first scheme at Bowling Green, Utah and then down in Gainesville, FL. In 2005, it looked bleak but by 2006 the Gators had Tebow and Chris Leak and an idea of how to incorporate both QB’s for success. Leak would command the offense, and Tebow would come in to pound the rock on short yardage and goal line situations. Innovation won Florida two national titles and Tebow a Heisman Trophy.

Meanwhile in Tuscaloosa... Alabama would never adopt to a spread, right? And then the Crimson Tide hired Lane Kiffin and started Jalen Hurts at quarterback. Oh, and then Tua Tagovailoa ran an RPO based offense under Mike Locksley (or Josh Gattis, or both). This led to LSU hiring the Saints Joe Brady, and the Tigers national championship in 2019. What about run-pass options? Once thought of as a gimmick Miami was late to adopt. It was an idea semi-created in the 1960’s which was ignored and brought back multiple times.

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The RPO was also used by Hal Mumme at Kentucky as far back as the mid-90’s. From Alex Kirshner’s Banner Society piece:

we couldn’t block Jevon Kearse, and so we told Tim Couch to either throw a bubble screen or hand the ball off. It was so easy to do. I don’t know why we didn’t keep doing it.

Imagine using some RPO’s while rebuilding in 1997... it might’ve saved Miami quarterbacks from being bounced off of goal posts and Edgerrin James from taking a beating against the Noles.

Miami has been such a laggard to adoption of new philosophy that fans of The U didn’t even understand how RPO’s worked as Mark Richt tried to use them from time to time. Jon Gruden would’ve been the perfect hire for Miami, he too was late on the adoption and has an 11-21 record since returning to the NFL in 2018.

Innovation at Miami

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In 1979, Howard Schnellenberger brought his NFL pro style passing attack to a college football landscape littered with wishbone option quarterbacks and ground-and-pound running games. In 1983 Schnelly won a national championship at Miami, and his tenure produced two future NFL quarterbacks in Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar, brought in another in Vinny Testaverde for Jimmy Johnson, and of course former Georgia and Miami head coach and FSU Seminoles offensive coordinator Mark Richt.

Then Jimmy Johnson developed the 4-3 defense aptly named the Miami Over front. It was so damn good it killed the wishbone, Troy Aikman’s leg, the run & shoot, and was named after itself. Johnson’s 4-3 defense produced a national championship for him, and future NFL stars in Jerome Brown, Danny Stubbs, Bubba McDowell, and Bennie Blades to name just a few. Johnson was smart enough to keep the pro style offense and it produced stars like Michael Irvin, Brian Blades, Brett Perriman, Steve Walsh and Vinny Testaverde. JJ’s Hurricanes were innovative on both sides of the football- imagine that!

In 1989, Sam Jankovich hired Dennis Erickson and his one-back offense away from Washington State. Where Johnson continued to run a pro style, Erickson spit in its face. Miami didn’t abandon the run but the ace back sets were definitely a run first approach. Erickson’s approach on defense was to leave well enough alone so the ‘Canes continued to run the 4-3. The system fit Miami’s trio of linebackers in Michael Barrow, Jessie Armstead, and Darrin Smith well, and they all made Pro Bowls during their NFL careers.

Erickson’s offense won two national championships and a Heisman trophy. Gino Torretta and Craig Erickson ripped through defenses that weren’t prepared for that much speed and the 4-3 defense dominated the option attacks of Nebraska and the plodding bigger-is-better college football world of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Receivers like Randal Hill, Wesley Carroll, Chris T. Jones, and Lamar Thomas were exciting to see as they danced in the end zone.

Late Majority

When Erickson left for the NFL, Butch Davis inherited a defense with NFL stalwarts in Kenny Holmes, Kenard Lang, and some guy named Ray Lewis. It was 1995 and Butch decided to install a pro style offense and called upon Larry Coker. Coker had been the offensive coordinator at Tulsa, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma before a short stint coaching defensive backs at Ohio State. Coker had crossed paths with Jimmy Johnson for the 1983 season in Stillwater, and Davis was a Johnson disciple from Miami and the Dallas Cowboys.

Davis brought innovation to recruiting and talent evaluation, along with Pete Garcia, but his offense and defense weren’t exactly innovative for 1995. Once he compiled elite All-American talent both began to click. The ‘Canes finished the 2000 season with only one loss, and as Coker took over the program things were looking primed for a national championship.

And I get it, with a depleted roster in 1997 Davis chose to run the scheme he would run with a better team to prepare them for better days. But using a few Air Raid philosophical ideas like vertical sets, wide receiver screens, and quick releases could’ve kept Miami in games in ‘97, as well as 2018 and 2019 when the offensive line just wasn’t good enough to match up with the big boys (or Central Michigan or FIU).

The one thing no on expected as for Miami to fall behind on talent acquisition and ever need to be innovative, or even an early majority adopter to new philosophy. However, as the internet was developed Miami no longer had a strangle hold on South Florida talent. The ‘Canes were forced to share talent with other schools who could use Hudl, YouTube and databases to find players. It doesn’t help that good high school coaching talent has traveled up to Georgia to make more money, thus the South Florida recruits are high on potential and low on polish.

Laggards

Rob Chudzinski was the first ‘Canes coach to look blatantly confused as to what he should do when the talent wasn’t loaded with the NFL’s future elite. It was 2003 and Brock Berlin was the quarterback at Miami. Berlin was recruited by Steve Spurrier to play in the Fun & Gun, a shotgun offense that relied on timing routes and put a quarterback in the shotgun so that his eyes were always on targets and threats.

Chudzinski landed Berlin, who needed to start after transferring because Ken Dorsey was in the NFL and Marc Gullion, a top quarterback prospect, didn’t pan out. Chud forced a square peg into a round hole as Larry Coker wasted one of Miami’s best defensive units ever with losses to Virginia Tech and Tennessee in back to back weeks in 2003.

I remember sitting in college apartment thinking how on earth can Miami be shut down by Tennessee? Miami scored 13 combined points over those two weeks. The saving grace for Chudzinski was Florida State being so down that Miami could beat them twice in the same season on the back of ‘Canes legend Sean Taylor. The worst part of Chud’s dud? He saw what Berlin did in the shotgun in the comeback against Florida, but the laggard offensive scheme just couldn’t adapt to Berlin’s talents.

A step towards late majority

In 2004, the ‘Canes promoted Dan Werner to offensive coordinator. Werner was a graduate and volunteer assistant coach at Miami from 1987-1989. Werner didn’t exactly set the world on fire as an OC and was eventually fired in Coker’s later years, but he did put Berlin in the shotgun and Brock threw 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions versus a 12:17 TD:INT ratio the year prior.

Eventually Larry Coker proved to be nothing more than a pawn, and his staff was fired twice over at Miami following the struggles losing to FSU 7-10 and then being absolutely destroyed by LSU in the Peach Bowl 3-40 during the 2005 season. 2006 saw more pathetic offensive output as Miami failed to score more than 21 points in seven games. Coker was out and Randy Shannon was promoted, even after the Louisville game in 2006 completely exposed him and his defense.

What was Miami missing out on at this time? That the game was completely changing. If you aren’t going to be Nick Saban’s Alabama and recruit at a five star level and be able to pound opponents into submission, you have to be an innovator. Floating around college football at this time was Rich Rodriguez up at WVU winning 9 or 10 games a year with the Mountaineers, Urban Meyer was at Utah winning 22 games in two seasons, and Art Briles was named the head coach at Houston in 2003 (not saying Briles is a good dude, he sucks as a human, but he knows his offensive football).

Miami could’ve been on the cutting edge of offense and any of these offensive minds could have kept Randy Shannon as the defensive coordinator, but that wasn’t the case. The shotgun, spread, and idea of inside zone read or run-pass option wouldn’t come to Miami truly until Rhett Lashlee was hired in 2020 and we haven’t even seen that come to fruition yet.

Right back to the laggard

What did Louisville do to Randy Shannon? They proved that even with NFL talent on his defense he was an easy mark to be picked on with a little motion and some crossing routes. Oh and the crosser in the GIF above looks an awful lot like Diaz and Baker trying to defend Virginia Tech in 2019.

The Cards receivers averaged over 20 yards per reception in a 7-31 drubbing. Calling cover 2 man and wagging a finger to “do it again” wasn’t going to work. Remember all of that ingenuity? Miami has instead at this point been running nearly the same defense in Coral Gables since 1985.

Some of that lack of creativity couldn’t find a way to get Arthur Brown or Willie Williams on the field in Shannon’s defense. I don’t think Manny Diaz and Blake Baker would struggle to get either on the field, and the Williams disaster was telling of how little innovation Shannon was willing to give in to in order to win games.

And the offense? It seemed that at every corner Miami was going back to the status quo of a pro style attack using 21 personnel and relying on out-talent’ing their opponent. It was working for USC at the time with Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart but Miami didn’t have either of them in their backfield. Instead by 2006, Miami had Kyle Wright, Kirby Freeman and Javarris James.

Missing on innovation (or at least early adoption)

Miami had the chance to hire Mike Leach following the 2006 season. Leach wanted the job and was putting up 8 and 9 win seasons in Lubbock. His offense hadn’t completely caught fire yet, because the big win over Texas was in 2008. Miami instead promoted once again- this time making Randy Shannon the head football coach. Where Sam Jankovich was hiring innovators, Paul Dee was hiring laggards.

The most appropriate part of the Shannon hiring is what Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets did to the 4-3 defense, which was created to stop the triple option of Oklahoma’s Wishbone offense. The Jackets pounded Shannon’s Hurricanes 41-23, as the 4-3 defense gave up 472 rushing yards on the night.

I’ve always said that in order to be a successful high school program, a head coach needs the big three to fall in place: administration, community, and parents. The admin has to get football players into weight training, commit to facilities and uniforms, and leave you alone. The community has to donate money and rally behind you. The parents have to support you, and produce some athletes.

At the college football level you need admin, community (read: boosters), and the media. If you don’t have the support of those three you’re probably doomed. The Miami admin has been on shaky ground since the end of the Paul Dee era, and it’s gotten worse under Blake James. I won’t delve any deeper there.

I want you to picture Jacory Harris, one of the first South Florida high school QB’s in the shotgun spread (watch the Bulls destroy Orlando Boone here), running the Air Raid under Mike Leach. Do you see the 2009 team winning a national title and Harris as the Heisman Trophy winner? I sure do. Leach forces discipline on and off the field and mixes it with his high octane score at will offense. He’s done it at Texas Tech and Wazzu. In 1984 and 1989, Jankovich jumped on coaches that weren’t tell known or in the spotlight. That could’ve been Dee’s move with Leach in 2006 after some good but not great seasons at Texas Tech.

Miami instead went with Randy Shannon, and Shannon managed a 28-22 record including losing to South Florida in overtime (reminds me of Manny Diaz losing to FIU, but no, Manny’s was worse). Shannon brought in Mark Whipple in 2009 and it paid off to an extent, but losing to the Hokies, Clemson, UNC, and Wisconsin left stank on the season. The 2010 season was a total disaster and Shannon was fired.

Passing on Leach, again

Mike Leach was once again available, having been fired at Texas Tech over the Adam James scandal (proven by Adam James himself to be completely false). Leach was down in Key West, just waiting for a chance. Miami instead went with Al Golden from Temple. It looked good on paper, but it’s not as if Golden was doing anything earth shattering. He too ran a pro style offense and some how the only non-aggressive 3-4 defense in the history of the 3-4 defense.

After a 6-6 season in 2011 and a 7-5 season in 2012, Miami could’ve gone after an up and coming name like Gus Malzahn who had just posted a solid season at Arkansas State, but Auburn beat Miami to the punch. Since then Malzahn has been 62-31 and Al Golden has been fired by the Hurricanes and the NFL’s Detroit Lions as an assistant coach. Malzahn will always play second fiddle to Saban and the Crimson Tide pull in Alabama, but he’s still managed to keep his job by beat Alabama every so often.

Think about Ed Orgeron. USC passed on Coach O after his 6-2 interim run in 2013. I’m assuming Miami felt that 6, 7 and 9 wins was enough to keep Golden and not give Orgeron a look. He’s now a national champion. There are other names that could’ve been options at Miami that would’ve used a more innovative approach. And Miami head coaches might still be here had they hired on ability over nepotism.

Al Golden’s buddy Mark D’Onofrio weighed the ‘Canes down with his bend and break in half defense. Had Golden just fired his buddy as DC he might still be Miami’s head coach. Golden’s offense and special teams play was better than the two guys before or after him. His recruiting was solid and filled with NFL players, too. Imagine Golden’s recruiting and even James Coley’s boring but effective offense with Manny Diaz as the defensive coordinator? Golden might still be at Miami.

Dan Enos doing more of the same

Years after Rob Chudzinkski put Brock Berlin under center and tried to ram a square peg into a round hole, Dan Enos was back at it. Manny Diaz promised innovation and gave Miami fans the only bowl shutout of the 2019-2020 bowl season. Enos was fired and Manny has now gone to an early adopter in Rhett Lashlee. Lashlee, along with his former mentor Malzahn, have been early adopters to tempo, spacing, quarterback option and RPO’s.

Think about what Malzahn and Lashlee did with cornerback turns quarterback Nick Marshall at Auburn. How about their one year with Cam Newton? Marshall throwing the football downfield late on post snap RPO’s was a thing of beauty in 2014, and Lashlee just keeps on innovating with a flavor of Air Raid concepts. Auburn’s offense with Newton at QB was Cam and a bunch of JAG’s (just another guy) but the Malzahn-Lashlee duo made it work. They also made a cornerback into a national title contender behind ce

Thankfully, Miami fans will have an innovating offensive coordinator even if the Miami admin is lagging behind with the times. Miami was late to get an Indoor Practice Facility, late on the graphics and video packages other programs like Georgia Tech have (bet better than FSU’s social media people, for sure), and the national search that turned up the defensive coordinator poached from Temple.

Manny started off stubborn but he’s learned lessons of the 2019 season. Gone is Dan Enos and in comes Lashlee. Diaz has let Lashlee bring in a few of his own assistants, too. D’Eriq King could be Miami’s Cam Newton or Kyler Murray and it seems Manny prioritized character over talent in the transfer portal this off-season, being a little more careful about who comes into the locker room moving forward.

The Wrap

The Hurricanes administration may never jump out and hire a young innovator again. They seem secure in hiring a known quantity (for better or worse) from inside their own program to run the football and baseball programs- and it sounds like basketball could go that same route, too. But maybe Lashlee can open up their eyes and show that early adopters are what wins games while laggards just... lag. The admin is even slow on the uptake on things like the Chief of Staff and the branding manager type positions at programs like Oklahoma, UNC and Georgia Tech.

I’m excited to see what King, Brevin Jordan, Cam’Ron Harris, and Dee Wiggins can do in a real offensive system under Lashlee. One that innovates, maximizes tempo, space, timing and prioritizes getting the football out of the quarterback’s hand. Lashlee could be the key to Miami becoming an innovative place once again. It’s been far too long.

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