Wednesday April 2nd, 2008

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- The whole high school-to-college thing seemed pretty easy to Marcus Forston. The defensive tackle left Miami Northwestern High in December and enrolled at the University of Miami in January, but he never had to leave his comfort zone. When he walked into the Hurricanes locker room for the first time, Forston found his locker alongside the lockers of former Northwestern teammates Jacory Harris, Aldarius Johnson and Sean Spence.

About two months later, Forston noticed coaches had moved his locker. Instead of his buddies, he sat next to a group of older offensive linemen. Forston immediately clammed up. What could he possibly have in common with these guys? It didn't take long for Orlando Franklin and Reggie Youngblood to notice their young neighbor wasn't holding up his end of the conversation.

"Why are you so quiet?" one would yell.

"Young guy! Say something!" the other would chime in.

Under pressure, Forston opened up. Within days, he laughed and joked with the big uglies as if he'd known them his entire life -- which is exactly what Miami coach Randy Shannon had in mind when he shuffled the locker assignments.

With last weekend's spring game in the books, Shannon plans to rearrange the 'Canes locker room again soon. Defensive backs will sit next to receivers. Quarterbacks will hob-nob with defensive linemen. Scholarship players will share personal space with walk-ons. Shannon believes his players need a change of scenery every so often because they need to care about one another. If each 'Cane has a personal connection to each of his teammates, he's less likely to let them down by skipping that last rep in the weight room or by forgetting the snap count on a Saturday in October.

"You can sit by a guy for four years, and that's the only guy you're going to talk to," Shannon said. "Now, you mix them around the locker room, so you get to talk to four or five guys every so often. By the time your senior season is over, there are about 70 guys that you've had two to three months to spend every day with."

Shannon, a former 'Canes linebacker, believes an unbreakable bond between teammates allowed Miami to dominate college football with five national titles in an 18-year span (1983-2001). Clint Hurtt, a former 'Canes defensive tackle who now coaches defensive tackles and coordinates recruiting, believes that bond helped he and his teammates break Miami out of a brief, probation-induced lull in the mid-'90s and allowed them to storm back into the national-title picture. Now, the coaches hope that if they can force the current 'Canes to bond, they can rescue Miami football from the clutches of mediocrity.

Miami's lowest point last season came on Nov. 10 when the 'Canes were embarrassed by Virginia 48-0 in the final game in the Orange Bowl. They would lose two more games to finish 5-7, but on that night, with so many former 'Canes in attendance wearing national title rings won as few as six years earlier, Miami players and coaches realized how far the program had plunged. The fall came quickly, too. When the 'Canes closed the 2002 season with a loss in the national title game to Ohio State, most of the players on the two-deep depth chart had NFL potential.

But something changed. The former 'Canes, who still flock to Coral Gables for offseason workouts, noticed. Though NCAA rules prohibited them from lifting and working on the field with current players, the alums could dispense wisdom. Miami tailback Javarris James said he received advice -- solicited and unsolicited -- from his cousin, Edgerrin, and from receivers Andre Johnson and Roscoe Parrish.

"We really don't talk about the season that much," James said. "[Edgerrin] just tells me what they used to do back in the day. When they had breaks and stuff, guys would still work out. Guys would stay around the campus, always hanging together. They always had that team bond."

James said that rarely happened during his freshman and sophomore seasons, but he has noticed more camaraderie in recent months. When the team broke for spring break last month, most players still reported to the weight room and the practice field. After workouts, they would walk to nearby Coconut Grove and play video games at Gameworks or commandeer an entire section of a restaurant. One night during the break, James and three teammates headed to South Beach. Phone calls were made, text messages were exchanged and before long, 20 'Canes strolled along Ocean Drive, laughing, joking and admiring all the feminine pulchritude Miami has to offer. One Miami player even tried to give the ladies something to admire in return.

"[Cornerback DeMarcus] Van Dyke was out there," James said. "He had his little muscle shirt on."

But trips to the beach and quips about unfortunate wardrobe choices are only part of the equation. Miami coaches know the bond won't help if the players don't have the raw talent or the proper respect for the program. When Shannon brought in Hurtt as his recruiting coordinator last year, the coaches agreed they could best solve both problems by recruiting as close to home as possible. For a few years, Miami had reached for highly ranked recruits from across the country. And while some of those players were good, many had not lived up to their rankings because they played against inferior competition.

In Dade (Miami), Broward (Fort Lauderdale) and Palm Beach counties, the coaches knew the level of competition intimately. If they recruited players they liked from those areas, they could more accurately project how those players would perform in college.

"We wanted to make sure we made Florida -- in particular, South Florida, because that's our own backyard -- our main goal," Hurtt said. "Obviously, there are a lot of great players all across the country, but we know this: Florida has the best talent in the country, hands down. We feel like if we win here, we'll be in contention every year -- especially if we win in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties."

The South Florida players also have more respect for "The U." Most of today's recruits were just leaving elementary school when the 2001 'Canes were the baddest men on the planet. For kids who lived in South Florida at the time, Ed Reed and company were larger than life. "The 'Canes were the gladiators that never could get beat," Forston said. "They always found a way to win. When I was growing up, those were my heroes, my role models."

No five-star player from California could possibly understand what it will mean to Forston the first time he runs through a cloud of smoke with a U on the side of his helmet. "I might cry," he said.

The young 'Canes love the program that much, and they'll have a chance to prove it on the field in the fall. Forston probably will have to play because Miami is so thin at defensive tackle. Harris, who will remain in contention with favorite Robert Marve for the starting quarterback spot in preseason camp, likely will take snaps even if Marve does win the job. No matter who plays quarterback, Johnson likely will catch passes from him. Meanwhile, Spence and fellow early enrollee Arthur Brown -- who had eight tackles and an interception in the spring game -- should have a chance to win playing time at linebacker.

Hurtt, who came to Miami with the likes of Reggie Wayne and Dan Morgan, believes the older group that includes James, Van Dyke and tailback Graig Cooper is analogous to the group of 'Canes who arrived in Coral Gables and laid a foundation as Miami struggled after NCAA sanctions. This year's class, Hurtt said, reminds him of the cavalry that came next -- Reed, Clinton Portis, Vince Wilfork and the others who took Miami back to the pinnacle of college football. If they can form the same bond the older 'Canes did, Hurtt said, Miami may be on the verge of another renaissance.

"In my heart of hearts," Hurtt said, "I believe we're back on the path to being what we were again."

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