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Storm Front Bolstered by a mammoth offensive line, Miami blew into Tallahassee and blew out Florida State to regain its No. 1 ranking

Oct. 22, 2001
Oct. 22, 2001

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Oct. 22, 2001

Storm Front Bolstered by a mammoth offensive line, Miami blew into Tallahassee and blew out Florida State to regain its No. 1 ranking

NOSTALGIA ALERT: Vintage Miami swagger isn't dead after all.
It's just been held in reserve so it can be sprinkled around on
fitting occasions, such as last weekend's visit to Tallahassee.
During a Friday afternoon walk-through at Florida State's Doak
Campbell Stadium, a bunch of Hurricanes used their feet to gouge
the letters um into white paint on the protruding chin of the
Seminoles logo at midfield, an act of landscape vandalism
started by senior fullback Najeh Davenport, who was quickly
joined by several teammates. "Simple message," says senior
tailback Clinton Portis. "We came up here to Doak Campbell, but
ain't no Hurricanes intimidated by it."

This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2001 issue Original Layout

That message was reinforced before Saturday's noon kickoff, in
the cramped Miami locker room beneath the rocking northeast
stands, when the Hurricanes' fifth-year seniors--seven of whom
were redshirt freshmen in uniform during a humiliating 47-0 loss
in Tallahassee in 1997--told the team to huddle and join hands.
"A huge moment," says tackle Joaquin Gonzalez, one of the
fifth-year players. The first to speak was another fifth-year
senior, All-America strong safety Edward Reed, who implored his
teammates to remember the pasting of '97, the low point of Butch
Davis's six years as coach. "We came here and got beat, 47 to
nothing," Reed shouted. "Forty-seven to nothing!" Others echoed
his words, the anger building.

The Hurricanes (5-0) played as passionately as they prepared,
beating Florida State 49-27 and handing the Seminoles their
first home loss since Miami's 17-16 win 10 years ago, a span of
54 games. Coupled with Florida's 23-20 defeat at Auburn, the
victory allowed the Hurricanes to regain their No. 1 ranking.
Nearly as significant as the final score were Miami's 15
penalties for 125 yards, including three personal fouls and
three for unsportsmanlike conduct, in a defiant performance that
is perhaps best illustrated by mild-mannered Miami quarterback
Ken Dorsey's frequent jawing sessions with Florida State
defenders, which looked as incongruous as Alistair Cooke's
slinging mashed potatoes in a food fight. "Florida State has
made a living hitting quarterbacks late," Dorsey said after the
game, "and I wanted them to know that I wasn't going to let it
affect me."

The entire performance was an amped-up version of the laid-back
2001 Hurricanes who had rolled past Penn State, Rutgers,
Pittsburgh and Troy State. They have been riding the feel-good
wave they caught on Feb. 3, when offensive coordinator Larry
Coker was named to replace Davis after athletic director Paul
Dee failed to entice, among others, Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin),
Sonny Lubick (Colorado State) and Dave Wannstedt (Miami
Dolphins). Coker, a sad-eyed, jug-eared, 53-year-old grandfather
who hadn't been a head coach since leading two Oklahoma high
school teams in the '70s, has responded by running Camp Coker, a
low-maintenance program geared to a talented, mature team.

Coker (who, it should be said, didn't approve of the vandalism
or the penalties) mingles with players during practice, telling
cornball jokes. "He's with us, like a player's coach," says
Portis. No longer do the Hurricanes go full contact in every
Tuesday and Wednesday practice, as was Davis's preference.
"We're intense, but nobody gets taken to the ground, and that
keeps everybody fresher," says senior offensive tackle Bryant
McKinnie.

No segment of the team has thrived more under Coker than the
offensive line, a collection of three seniors and two juniors
who are all likely to play in the NFL and who form the backbone
of the Hurricanes. They are bound together by the absurd goal of
keeping Dorsey, who was sacked only eight times in 2000,
unsacked for the entire season (so far, so good), and they
unwind by going, en masse, to a Miami dance club and ripping it
up, more than 1,500 pounds of gyrating, floor-shaking flesh.

They are also a mini-United Nations: Senior right guard Martin
Bibla (6'4", 306 pounds), regarded by one scouting service as
the best guard in the nation, is the son of first-generation
immigrants, a mother from Poland and a father from Russia. He
speaks fluent Polish and passable Russian and drive-blocks like
a steamroller. Junior left guard Sherko Haji-Rasouli (6'6", 315)
was born in Iran and spent the first tense days after Sept. 11
explaining the nonviolent tenets of Islam to classmates and
teammates. Junior center Brett Romberg (6'3", 289), Dorsey's
roommate, is from Windsor, Ont., and sings and plays guitar in a
rock band.

The core of this team-within-a-team is a yin and yang who are
among the best pairs of tackles in recent college football
history. One of them, 6'9", 336-pound senior left tackle
McKinnie, is a freakish combination of size and agility, a
nimble giant with a pterodactyl's reach who has only been
playing football since his junior year in high school. Huge
money awaits him after he's picked in "the top half of the first
round [of the NFL draft], maybe higher," says John Dorsey,
director of college scouting for the Green Bay Packers. The
other is right tackle Gonzalez, a 6'5", 295-pound Miami native
who passed up Harvard to take a shot at the Hurricanes' program
as a walk-on with an academic scholarship. Gonzalez, who weighed
only 225 pounds after he graduated from Miami's Columbus High,
has willed himself into an All-America. He eats a dozen meals a
day to keep up his weight. Together they make Dorsey nearly
untouchable.

"They're an ideal tandem," says Rick Reiprish, director of
player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "You get people
built like that, who play like that and have experience playing
together, it's invaluable. That's what we're looking for on this
level."

As always, assorted quarterbacks and running backs are vying for
the Heisman Trophy, but McKinnie might be the best player of
all. This is remarkable, considering that as a high school
sophomore he was a 6'6", 220-pound bass drum player in the
Woodbury (N.J.) High School marching band. McKinnie was raised
by his mother, Michele Green, who would buy eight boxes of
cereal each week and hide one in her closet so that Bryant
wouldn't consume them all. "When I baked macaroni and cheese, he
got his own pan," says Green, who works as an executive
assistant at the Atlantic City Convention Center. McKinnie went
out for football as a sophomore, quit one month later after a
disagreement with the coach, then returned to play his junior
and senior seasons. He was a 6'8", 255-pound senior defensive
end when Iowa assistant coach Frank Verducci found him and
recommended him to Mark Duda, a former defensive tackle with the
Los Angeles Rams, who was the coach at Lackawanna Junior College
in Scranton, Pa.

Duda met McKinnie in the summer of 1997 and suggested he become
an offensive lineman. "My exact words were, 'You'll make
millions,'" recalls Duda. He entrusted McKinnie to his offensive
line coach, Al McElroy, who took McKinnie to lift weights at his
home because, having never lifted, McKinnie was embarrassed to
work out in front of the other players. (His best bench press at
the time was 185 pounds.) "He's tall, with long arms, so it was
hard for him to bench-press and squat, but he was plenty
strong," says McElroy. "First day I had him over, he was doing
60-pound dumbbell curls; normal people don't do that."

During his second season at Lackawanna, McKinnie was recruited
by Miami, Arkansas and Syracuse. He signed with the Hurricanes,
who, in an act of remarkable patience, redshirted McKinnie in
1999, preserving his two years of eligibility. Last fall he shut
down two of the nation's premier ends, Florida State's Jamal
Reynolds and Florida's Gerard Warren, and has yet to give up a
sack. He is a walking contradiction, a huge man who generally
talks small; a dominant player who not only doesn't talk trash
but who, according to one Pitt player, also was telling his
teammates to tone down the smack in Miami's 43-27 win on Sept.
27. While eating dinner in a Coral Gables restaurant 10 days
before the Florida State win, McKinnie scarfed down chicken
wings, then surgically removed the fat from the bacon on his
club sandwich, acts that didn't strike him as remotely contrary.
Asked by a reporter if he had any children, McKinnie answered
gravely, "Four," then burst out laughing. "No, no kids," he
said. "My mother would kill me if I did."

Although it has been widely reported that McKinnie has a 94-inch
wingspan, in fact it has never been measured. However, he enjoys
the myth, so he rides it, along with his various nicknames: Big
Mac, Big Sway, Big Head and one he doesn't like, Bubbles. He can
now bench nearly 400 pounds and squat 435. In August, for the
first time, he completed Miami's torturous 16 110-yard sprints,
and he remains uniquely imposing at the college level. Says
Pittsburgh defensive end Ryan Smith, "His arms are so long and
his frame is so wide that pass rushing is like, How do I get
around this guy?" Answer: You don't.

When Gonzalez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was a high school
senior, sitting on a 4.0 GPA and 1,320 on the SAT, Columbus High
had a small celebration on the day his principal announced over
the intercom that Harvard had accepted Gonzalez. Soon afterward,
he told his family that he would instead take his skinny, 6'5"
body over to Miami and play football. "I said to Joaquin, 'Are
you sure about this?'" says Gonzalez's brother, Tony, now 32. "I
mean, Harvard, the pinnacle of education and power."

What seemed a difficult decision was, in fact, easy for
Gonzalez. "I knew what I wanted," he says. "I knew nobody would
give me anything at Miami, but that's O.K."

Gonzalez redshirted in 1997 but has started every game since, a
total of 40 consecutive starts. After getting bashed around as
an undersized freshman, Gonzalez has worked like a madman in the
weight room, improving his squat from 250 pounds to 500, his
bench press from 200 to 375, his vertical leap from 24 inches to
31 and his 40 time from 5.4 seconds to 4.95. He graduated summa
cum laude last May with a degree in business marketing and will
receive his MBA in January. His intelligence makes him a
valuable asset and, occasionally, a nuisance in tape sessions.
"He's always five steps ahead," says Hurricanes offensive line
coach Art Kehoe. "He asks questions, and I have to say, 'Hey,
Joaquin, I understand you're trying to plan for football in the
year 3000, but can we just get through this tape?'"

His attitude is as helpful as his brain. "He's a nasty football
player," says Rutgers assistant Mario Cristobal, who coached
Gonzalez at Miami. "Very aggressive and very savvy." Gonzalez
often takes carloads of teammates to his family's vacation home
in Key Largo, where they swim, fish and eat the tender bistec
guajiro (a steak dish) that Joaquin's mother, Georgina,
prepares. He has taken the role of captain and expanded it to
include den mothering.

Late last Saturday afternoon he stood at his cubicle in the same
ramshackle visitors' dressing room where Miami players had
celebrated after Wide Right I in '91, the last time they won
here. It seemed fair to ask if this pillar of leadership, this
model student-athlete, this self-made blocking machine, helped
with the Friday field defacing that launched Miami's raid on
Tallahassee. Gonzalez paused before answering, stuffing sweaty
clothes into a mesh bag and covering his shaggy hair with a
winter cap. Finally he looked up and said, "What? Me?" shooting
off a smile that told the truth.

Of course. A little discipline, a little intimidation. That's
what makes Miami Miami. Now, as then.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Protection plus Dorsey is safe behind Romberg (66), Haji-Rasouli (74) and McKinnie (78), who haven't yielded a sack this season.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Impass Romberg held off Bradley Jennings and the Seminoles, helping Miami move the ball at will.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Rock solid McKinnie, a 6'9", 336-pounder, has been playing football for only six years, but he's the nation's best lineman.
With the Heisman up for grabs by quarterbacks and running backs,
McKinnie might be the best player.