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August 22, 2009
Whipple takes over young Miami offense
"We are so young," he says. "I like the line, it's coming together and we have depth. We have some guys who are faster and quicker on the outside.
"But, gosh, we are young."
It's a theme that peppers most every conversation Whipple has about his new job. And it's an important job: Whipple's success or failure in his new post likely will determine the fate of Miami coach Randy Shannon.
Whipple doesn't buy all of that. He's just here to do a job, to be part of a staff that is trying to get Miami back among the elite in college football. Remember: When this decade dawned, Miami was the top program in the nation, winning the 2001 BCS title and playing in the 2002 championship game. Now, the Hurricanes are just a middling ACC program.
"Everyone is trying to get better," Whipple says. "That's what it's about during camp. It's a learning process for all of us. I have to continue to get better as a teacher."
The first two seasons of Shannon's tenure have been mostly a painful process. The Hurricanes have gone 12-13, including a 6-10 ACC mark, with one bowl trip. There also was one of the most ignominious moments in program history: a 48-0 loss to Virginia in 2007 in Miami's final game in the Orange Bowl.
Shannon enters 2009 at a crossroads of sorts, and one reason he is at a crossroads is the offense.
Last season, Miami's attack ranked 89th in the nation (326 ypg). The rushing game finished 78th (129.2 ypg), the passing attack 77th (196.8 ypg). In 2007, the offense was even worse, ranking 110th (315.1 ypg) in the country.
Following a loss to California in the Emerald Bowl, Shannon opted to dump offensive coordinator Patrick Nix. Nix preferred a spread attack, while Shannon wanted to employ more of a pro-style scheme.
Whipple, 52, has the exact background Shannon was seeking. Whipple had been an assistant in the NFL since 2004, serving three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (as quarterback coach) and last season with the Philadelphia Eagles (offensive assistant) after not coaching in 2007. Whipple helped develop some strong attacks at both stops. His crowning glory was grooming Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and helping the team win the Super Bowl following the 2005 season.
"Mark has been successful in every phase of his career," Shannon says. "He developed a Super Bowl quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, won a national championship [1998, in Division I-AA] as the head coach at UMass and created an effective and potent offense most recently for the playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles."
As coach of UMass from 1998-2003, Whipple was 49-25 with two league titles. Whipple also was coach at Brown (1994-97), where he was the quarterback from 1977-78, and New Haven (1988-93). Working for a big-time college program is a new challenge for Whipple.
"Our goals [Shannon's and Whipple's] are the same," says Whipple, who only vaguely knew Shannon from recruiting south Florida earlier in his career. "Why did I come here? I have some say. I wasn't going to be the coordinator [in Philadelphia] and I had been an assistant for four years [in the NFL]. I was a head coach for 16 years and a coordinator for 16, so I just missed that part of [the decision-making process]."
Whipple's offenses have been known for their variety and creativity. Count on myriad formations and lots of receivers. And he likely has a trick play or two up his sleeve.
"We want to try to get the ball in the end zone," says Whipple, who almost got the Boston College job in 2007 after Tom O'Brien left. "We are a work in progress. We have a good approach, but we are young in a lot of places and I am reminded of that all of the time. We have thrown a lot of things at them mentally and I think they've handled it well. I think we will continue to improve."
One guy who must play well is sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris, who played in all 13 games last season and started two contests en route to earning ACC Rookie of the Week honors three times. Harris showed flashes last fall that he could be the program's best quarterback since Ken Dorsey earlier this decade.
After the season, starter Robert Marve opted to transfer and eventually landed at Purdue. Now, it's all on Harris, who threw for 1,195 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions in '08.
"Jacory is a good player," Whipple says. "I just have to keep reminding myself that he is just 19 years old. He is very bright, a good leader. He is maturing, loves the game. The players really respect him. I think he can be a very good player.
"We have a lot of players who could be very good. They're just young. But they will get better."
How soon is the question.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.