The talk coming out of Florida's locker room and practice field
last week ranged from mildly disparaging to outright threatening.
But each time a reporter relayed to Brock Berlin another dig at
him from a former Gators teammate, the Miami junior quarterback
batted it away with an aw-shucks grin or a "he-didn't-mean-it"
response. While observers marveled at Berlin's seeming passivity,
his former high school coach, Dennis Dunn, knew better. "I'll
tell you a little secret," Dunn said last Friday, two days after
he talked to Berlin on the phone. "There's a fire in Brock's
belly like you wouldn't believe."
It took awhile--6 1/2 quarters, to be exact--but that fire
finally flared last Saturday night in a packed Orange Bowl in
Miami. Midway through the third quarter, with the Hurricanes
trailing Florida 33-10 and Berlin coming off his second
interception, the 22-year-old quarterback was told to run the
no-huddle offense to save time. What he did was save the
game--and maybe the Hurricanes' season. Of Berlin's final 20
throws, 18 were completions, including touchdowns of 26 yards to
senior receiver Kevin Beard and six yards to freshman wideout
Ryan Moore. Berlin's 62-yard pass to Beard set up a touchdown
plunge by sophomore tailback Frank Gore that cut the lead to
33-25, and on Miami's last drive Berlin led his team 89 yards in
11 plays, with Gore carrying 12 yards for the touchdown that put
the Hurricanes up for good. The final score: 38-33.
"You could hear the crowd start to boo after Brock was picked off
at the beginning of the second half, and it was the sort of thing
that would send most new quarterbacks into a shell," Beard said.
"Instead, Brock got into a rhythm, our offensive line started to
make the blocks they were supposed to make, and we receivers
started catching all the balls we were supposed to catch. It was
courage and teamwork."
Come again? In recent years Miami's primary virtues have been
talent and experience. But the Hurricanes lost plenty of both in
the off-season. After a bitter overtime loss to Ohio State in the
national championship game, they bid farewell to Ken Dorsey, the
winningest quarterback in school history, as well as running back
Willis McGahee, wide receiver Andre Johnson, and defensive
linemen Jerome McDougle and William Joseph, all four of whom were
first-round NFL draft picks. Against Florida four positions on
both offense and defense were manned by players with no more than
one start--a season-opening 48-9 walkover against Louisiana
Tech--to their credit.
Three years ago the possibility that Berlin would be among those
reinforcements would have been unthinkable. Miami was one of the
many big-time programs to recruit him during his stellar high
school career at Evangel Christian Academy, the small Shreveport,
La., football powerhouse. But the self-described country boy
preferred the college-town feel of Gainesville, and he wanted to
study under Gators coach Steve Spurrier. Problem was, so did Rex
Grossman, who came to Florida in 1999, a year ahead of Berlin,
and blossomed just as the Louisianan arrived. By 2001 Berlin was
a distant second on the depth chart. His Florida roommate, Reid
Fleming (who started at middle linebacker for the Gators on
Saturday), remembers seeing his friend struggle that year to keep
his chin off his chest. "Brock is such a positive, fun guy, but
he kind of withdrew," says Fleming. "Anyone who knew him could
tell how low he was."
Berlin's parents, Rick, a pastor, and Nancy, a Mary Kay Cosmetics
sales director, also missed the Brock they knew: the one who as a
kindergartner led the pack of neighborhood kids on his Big Wheel;
who as a 16-year-old audaciously drove his mom's pink Mary Kay
Cadillac around town; who as a high school senior steered his
team to a come-from-behind win in the state championship game
before more than 45,000 fans. During a heart-to-heart early in
Brock's sophomore year, Rick helped his son put together a list
of the pros and cons of cutting bait with the Gators. "He knew he
wanted to go to the next level after college, and that meant
going to a school where he would get broad exposure quickly,"
says Nancy. "That led us to Miami."
Hurricanes coach Larry Coker, who isn't one for slick sells or
ego massaging, told Berlin he was welcome to join the team but
that a starting job would not be waiting for him after he sat out
his mandatory season. Berlin nevertheless made the move and
prepped for the battle ahead. Although he good-naturedly
accompanied his new teammates when they sampled the South Beach
nightlife during his first week in Miami, Berlin committed
himself to a nearly uninterrupted regimen of intense weight-room
workouts and film study. "He created his own little world in the
middle of that big city," says Nancy. "Outside of class his daily
life followed a triangle: from his apartment to the football
complex to the local Quiznos and then back home." This narrow
focus paid off, as did his charisma and strong arm. Last spring
he beat out three others for the job of taking up where Dorsey
In his first start, against Louisiana Tech, Berlin looked a lot
like his predecessor--circa September 2000, when Dorsey, then a
sophomore, was still searching for his groove. Berlin wasted two
of Miami's first-half timeouts and was just 14-28 for 203 yards.
"He read some things off his wristband incorrectly and was not as
smooth as we'd like in and out of the huddle," says quarterbacks
coach Dan Werner, who set the Hurricanes' practice-field play
clock in motion five seconds early in the following week's
workouts to force Berlin to act more quickly.
Then came the taunts from the Gators, the most vocal of whom was
guard Shannon Snell. "I hope our defense makes his mouth bleed,"
said Snell, who added an even more ego-bruising dig: "I don't
think he'd start for us."
In the first half on Saturday, Berlin made Snell sound like an
Emmy-winning analyst. He hit on just 8 of 16 throws, was out of
sync with his wideouts and looked especially shaky on two passes
he tossed in the general direction of unsuspecting receivers, one
of which, a lateral, was scooped up by Florida cornerback Keiwan
Ratliff, who carried it 34 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the
second quarter. But once Coker called for the hurry-up offense, a
mandate that would have flustered many first-year starters,
Berlin--as his high school coach predicted--sparked to life, and
Miami's offense began churning out yards and points. "Suddenly
the defense wasn't able to give him so many looks," says Werner,
"and things cleared up for Brock immediately." Said Berlin on
Sunday, "It was just a matter of getting some flow to our
offense, and getting some confidence and momentum."
Aside from Berlin, who had 126 passing yards in the fourth
quarter despite severe cramps in his legs (he finished 27 of 41
for 340 yards), the Hurricanes' most important offensive cog was
Gore. He, like Berlin, sat out 2002 (with a torn ACL) and is
intent on making up for lost time. Gore finished Saturday's game
with 127 rushing yards, two touchdowns and high praise for his
backfield partner. "Having Brock in there really helped us," Gore
said. "He was calm in the huddle and made sure we stayed focused.
We kept digging and came out with a win."
It appears the Hurricanes will have to do a lot more digging to
duplicate Miami's undefeated 2001 and '02 regular seasons.
Florida's fast, feisty skill players and blitzing, swarming
defense exposed flaws in the Hurricanes, notably a soft
underbelly on defense and an inability to hang on to the ball on
offense. Miami also suffered a rash of penalties--16 in all,
including three for unsportsmanlike conduct. Nothing will come
easy this season for the Hurricanes, who begin Big East play in
two weeks by traveling to dangerous Boston College and after that
face daunting matchups with Florida State, Tennessee, and
conference powers Virginia Tech and Pitt. Said the plain-talking
Coker after Saturday's victory, "We are not a good football team
Still, these Hurricanes could prove courageous in ways their
predecessors did not have to be. After an interception by
cornerback Alfonso Marshall sealed the Miami victory, Berlin ran
around the field, cramps be damned, like a toy rocket with no
place to land. He sprinted toward the dumbstruck Florida student
section, clapping his arms together in a mocking Gator chomp. He
then made a beeline to the press conference room, embracing
everyone--cheerleaders, graduate assistants, even a
sheepish-looking Snell--in his path.
After spitting out a few exuberant sound bites--"My emotions are
sailing right now"--Berlin begged off further questions and
collapsed, at long last, on a locker-room bench. It was just as
well. For one week, at least, enough had already been said.
"I'll tell you a little secret," said Dunn. "THERE'S A FIRE IN BROCK'S
BELLY like you wouldn't believe."