MIAMI Stoops rebuiltdefense
Youngstown native Mark Stoops has made the Hurricanes secondary one of the best in the nation.
By ROB TODOR
VINDICATOR SPORTS EDITOR
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Despite being ranked No. 1 in both major polls since the preseason, many college football observers felt that if Miami had an Achilles' heel it was in the defensive backfield.
Not only did the Hurricanes graduate all four players who started every game last season, they also lost two others who were used in nickel and dime packages.
But, under the guidance of defensive backs coach Mark Stoops, the 'Canes' secondary developed into one of the nation's best, leading all of Division I-A in defensive passing efficiency and in fewest passing yards per game.
Stoops, 35, is a native of Youngstown and a member of one of the most successful coaching families in football. He is the son of former Cardinal Mooney assistant coach Ron Stoops and the brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and the Sooners' co-defensive coordinator, Mike Stoops.
Phillip Buchanon, James Lewis, Edward Reed and Mike Rumph all started every game in Miami's 2001 national championship season. Markese Fitzgerald and Jermell Weaver also earned letters in the secondary.
That group helped the 'Canes' defense lead the nation in scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and turnover margin, and intercepted a school record 27 passes. Buchanon, Lewis, Reed and Rumph were first-round picks in last April's NFL Draft.
"There was certainly a transition [from last season]," said Stoops Tuesday. "Not only did we lose some great football players but we lost a lot of character and lot of personalities in our meeting room and in practice. They were a bunch of characters and a lot of fun to coach.
"I can remember back to the first meeting [in the spring of 2002] and everybody was just kind of looking at each other because all these guys had never said much," Stoops said.
"It's been a very gratifying process to see them come a long way not only on the field but with the personalities and their character and how they've become a very cohesive unit.
Sikes is the leader
Strong safety Maurice Sikes, a junior, emerged as the leader of the unit. He and left cornerback Antrel Rolle were named to the All-Big East first team.
Right cornerback Kelly Jennings is a redshirt freshman and free safety Sean Taylor, perhaps the most athletic player of the group, is a sophomore.
"Maurice had probably the most experience coming back," said Stoops. "He had prepared himself as a starter all last year. He was a backup but had a lot of experience and kind of knew what was going on in the secondary and what we expected of him, so he kind of took on a leadership role.
"Antrel came out of nowhere because at the end of spring ball he wasn't starting," Stoops said. "He's probably been our most consistent player; he's really made a lot of plays, but we always knew he was very talented and a very good football player.
Sikes finished the season with 68 tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, three interceptions, nine passes broken up and a blocked kick. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
"I didn't have the year that I wanted to have," Sikes said. "Some of the goals I that I set for myself I did accomplish, but the number one goal that's still out there is obviously the national championship.
Began to bond in spring
Sikes said the young players in the secondary began to bond in spring practice, but especially over the summer.
"Nobody knew who was going to start, so we all worked together to get better," he said. "Once two-a-days came around we kind of knew who the starters were going to be and we just focused on becoming a cohesive unit.
"It took a little while; it definitely wasn't there from the get-go. Towards the end of the season we really played well together, feeding off each and reading off each other and knowing what each other was going to do before it happened."
Rolle said the camaraderie has showed on the field and off.
"It's been a day-by-day process," he said. "It wasn't something that we really had to get together, but now, it shows. We hang out together, go to the same clubs. It just came about naturally."
Rolle said much of the credit should go to Stoops.
"I love him a lot," he said. "He's a really funny character; one minute he's ripping us pretty hard and the next he's smiling and joking around with us.
"But he's worked real hard with us and taught us to become a better group."
Led the nation
This season, Miami again led the nation in defensive pass efficiency, allowing less than 120 yards per game. Sikes said one of the unit's goals was to not allow any opponent more than 200 yards passing -- which was achieved.
He realizes, though, that helping to stop Ohio State's rushing attack on Friday night may be more important.
"We all want to chip in and all want to make tackles. Myself, Sean and Antrel are all at 65 tackles and better [for the season] and that's a tribute to wanting to get in there and get dirty and be a part of the running game. That's something that we look forward to."
Added Stoops: "Maurice [Clarett] is a fantastic back and we've got to be in good position and ready to make good, solid tackles, or he could embarrass you."
XVindicator sports editor Rob Todor is providing daily Fiesta Bowl updates on radio station Hot FM 101 (WHOT-FM 101.1).