||Sunday, December 30
'Canes go nationwide to secure best talent
By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine
PASADENA, Calif. -- A little more than three years ago, they were the after-thought program. Just like he was the after-thought recruit.
It was December 5, 1998 and UCLA was making a national title run. The Bruins only had to get past unranked Miami, a team that had gotten blown out 66-13 by Syracuse the week before. Few people took the 'Canes too seriously back then. That is, until Edgerrin James and the UM offense slashed holes through the Bruin defense and Miami pulled off the 49-45 upset. Lightly regarded QB recruit Ken Dorsey sat across the country at his home in northern California and couldn't believe his eyes. Maybe Miami was indeed back. The false alarms were over, he thought. Ken Dorsey was ready to take a shot on UM. A few weeks after Signing Day, fellow Californian D.J. Williams, the nation's No. 1 recruit, decided Miami was right for him too. And soon, Miami was hot again.
The secret of Miami's success has been a four-pronged recruiting attack: Capitalizing off a host of reasons, UM has developed pipelines in New Jersey (LT Bryant McKinnie, LG Ed Wilkins, SS James Lewis and OLB Howard Clark); the Southwest (FS Ed Reed, WR Daryl Jones, TE Jeremy Shockey, OLB Chris Campbell); California (Dorsey, LB Williams and WR Kellen Winslow Jr.) and Canada (C Brett Romberg and OG Sherko Haji-Rasouli).
Miami actually has been striking gold in the Southwest for years, ever since Jimmy Johnson was coaching the 'Canes almost two decades ago. And under former coach Butch Davis, Miami kept going to the well.
"People back there were seeing how well Texas kids were doing at Miami, that they were winning and making it in the NFL and that's what they wanted," says senior tight end Robert Williams, a Dallas native. "I saw how well (fellow Dallas products) Kevin Williams and Jessie Armstead did, and I also saw how well Miami would do with these 'lower-ranked recruiting classes' and what Texas and Texas A&M did with those 'top-five classes' every year. Obviously those Texas kids aren't getting much coaching at Texas or the classes are very overrated."
And while Miami may not go as deep into the surrounding states as they do in Texas (they have 10 Texans on the roster), Miami still continues to pluck top talent out of the region. The latest coup: WR Aikeem Jolla, Louisiana's top prospect this winter, who comes courtesy of ace recruiter Curtis Johnson, Miami's receivers coach. Miami also is still battling for blue-chip TE prospect Eric Winston from Midland, Texas.
Cleaning up in New Jersey has been a little easier for Miami. For starters, as lineman Ed Wilkins points out, they're selling warm weather, pretty girls and Big East championships to kids whose state college is Rutgers. Of late, Miami has also been able to capitalize on the downswing of Penn State. It also doesn't hurt that D-line coach Greg Mark is a New Jersey native. Five of Miami's six Jersey guys have had major impacts on the program, and that other guy, freshman DE Thomas Carroll, was the top recruit in the state last year.
Of course, things could get a little tougher now that former Miami coaches Greg Schiano and Mario Christobal are coaching at Rutgers (Schiano even has a billboard near the Miami airport with him and Tony Soprano just to let South Floridians know that Rutgers football exists), but as long as Miami is competing for national titles, Carroll says it'll be a tough place to turn down.
As for the 'Canes connection into Canada, Miami can thank feisty O-line coach Art Kehoe and his friendship with Ron Dias, Canadian football guru who runs several scouting combines up north.
Five years ago, Dias turned Kehoe onto a former moguls skier named Richard Mercier, who ended up blossoming into a star guard for the 'Canes. Dias later showed Kehoe a gritty wanna-be guitarist named Brett Romberg, who has since developed into one of the nation's top centers.
"I'd never ever heard of Miami," Romberg says. "But then, I heard how Richard Mercier did down there. He became a star, he graduated and did well in school."
Next fall, Miami's O-line might start three Canadians.
"The thing about Canadians is they love Miami. They love the beach. And everybody we've gotten from Canada has been great," Kehoe says. "I'll take 'em all."
Miami's on such a roll now, the 'Canes are even trying to tap into some previously uncharted waters: Tallahassee. Pat Watkins, a big-hitting 6-3, 210-pound safety is considered one of the nation's top prospects and is giving Miami a hard look. Witnessing UM blowing out the hometown 'Noles didn't hurt. Neither did seeing Miami safety Ed Reed become a two-time All-American.
"The bottom line," Shockey says, "is guys want to play for a winner and at a place where they have fun and where the team plays together and enjoys playing with one another. And we do."
Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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