Miami to use Florida game as measuring stick for program

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Miami coach Randy Shannon was eating lunch at one of his regular stops near campus this week when a young fan approached his table and interrupted his time with Texas Toast.

"Are you Randy Shannon?" he asked.

Shannon nodded and posed for a picture with the boy, who informed him he'd be at the game against Florida this week in Gainesville.

In his second season as head coach, Shannon has become the face of Miami football. The identity of his team, though, is not so clear.

Of the 100 players on the roster, 40 are either true or redshirt freshmen -- quarterbacks included. Overall, 21 true freshmen played in the Hurricanes' season opening 52-7 thumping of Charleston Southern. While they looked good in the process, Shannon knows Saturday's game at No. 5-ranked Florida will reveal a lot more about where his team is and how much further the program must go before it regains its status as a national title contender.

"I really do think we need a game like this," Shannon said. "We need to know where we're at as a staff, and as a football team to know where we're at from this point. Playing Florida is a great opportunity to put our standards and our measures to where they're at right now.

"I think that's what you want to get at, to that level. Florida has been one of the premier teams in the country for probably the last four or five years. You always want to get back to that level. We've got young players like they had young players when coach (Ron) Zook was there. ... This is the backbone of what we're trying to build this program with. This is just the foundation and the start with these young guys."

While the Gators' offense will be run by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, the Hurricanes will be led by redshirt freshman Robert Marve, who has never played in a college football game. One of the reasons Marve came to Miami, though, was to play a role in rebuilding the program.

"In high school, my high school team started off on the bottom going up," he said. "It was a big thing to be a part of that. I know how great it can be to be on the upside of a program that's been down for a second, and I'm just trying to do as much as I can to prepare and help us get to where we need to be."

Had this game been played at the same time a year ago, Shannon said, he probably would have lost some weight and chewed his nails down worrying about it. Not this season. The difference is he has a core group of veterans who can share time with the younger players.

"This is the first time we've been healthy since I've been a head coach at the University of Miami," he said. "Last year, the second game of the season, third game, we was trying to dress 50 guys. Now, we're able to pick and choose who we need to try and things like that."

The strengths of this team are the offensive line, the tight ends and the running backs. But in a program trying to rebound from a 5-7 season that included just two conference wins, everything is a question mark.

Doubt swirled around the program this summer mainly because of the uncertainty at quarterback and the unproven talent on the roster. The Hurricanes were picked by the media to finish third in the Coastal Division behind Virginia Tech and North Carolina, respectively. But both of those teams looked unimpressive in their debuts last week, causing some to wonder if Miami might be capable of more than originally expected.

"This game will at least set a mark for the University of Miami," said senior safety Anthony Reddick. "Coming into this game, coming into this year, a lot of people are doubting us, except for the people that are here, except for our families. We have a lot to prove. I think we have just as many playmakers as they do. We really do. I think everybody that's here could've went to Florida."

Not only is this a chance for Miami to prove itself within the conference, but following an opening weekend in which the ACC was embarrassed on the national stage, it's a chance for the Hurricanes to help heal the league's bruised reputation.

"We're always looked at like we're not a strong conference, but for us and the ACC it would be a tremendous boost," Shannon said. "It would give us a lift and get the conference what I call some growth to it."

Shannon's 2008 recruiting class has been lauded as the best in the nation and was ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN.com. But even he can't predict how the teenagers will respond to playing in the Swamp.

"You don't know until the game time comes," Shannon said. "You don't really know. All you can do is throw 'em out there."

That's exactly what he did last weekend.

Eleven different receivers caught passes, six were true freshmen.

"It's the best gauge of the season, without a doubt," said receivers coach Aubrey Hill. "With so many receivers we're playing, to see them against really good competition for 60 minutes, for the whole entire game will be very exciting."

Five true freshmen rotated in on the defensive line, three in the secondary and two at linebacker. Expect more of the same against the Gators -- as early as the first quarter.

Shannon has no choice.

"They have to play," Shannon said. "We don't have the numbers not to play the young guys. They are our second team guys. They are the guys that are going to help us win."

Saturday's game will help determine how quickly they can do it.