From The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 13th-ranked Miami Hurricanes appear to be one of the best teams in the ACC heading into the 2010 season, and they will have a chance to show off their skill in Thursday's opener against the Florida A&M Rattlers.
Florida A&M, which plays its football at the Football Championship Subdivision level, was recently predicted to finish second in the MEAC standings this season behind only defending conference champ South Carolina State. The Rattlers placed five players on the league's Preseason All-Conference First Team and three on the Second Team, so there is significant talent for coach Joe Taylor to work with. Taylor has posted over 200 career victories and is a well-respected member of the coaching fraternity, but his team is a significant underdog entering this opener.
"I think it's time to take the next step," says coach Taylor, who has turned around the program he inherited in 2008. "The ship has been righted."
Miami was a program in despair when Randy Shannon took over four years ago, but the well-regarded coach has restored the 'Canes to respectability. In 2009, Shannon guided his team to the program's best mark since the 2005 at 9-4, including 5-3 versus ACC competition. Miami made its 35th bowl appearance and returns a wealth of talent from that squad.
Miami owns a 7-1 series advantage over Florida A&M, which includes a 48-16 romp over the Rattlers last season.
Speaking of 2009, FAMU scored 28.0 ppg and averaged 370.3 total ypg, but maintaining that level of success without the services of MEAC Player of the Year Curtis Pulley will be difficult. Eddie Battle and Martin Ukpai both saw limited action under center in '09, and it wouldn't be surprising if both players saw action in this opener.
There is no doubt that Florida A&M will depend on both Philip Sylvester and Isaac West to be playmakers both in this game and all season long. Sylvester is a diminutive running back, but the 5-7 senior ran for 455 yards and seven touchdowns on 112 carries a season ago. Now the full-time starter, there is little doubt that those numbers could potentially double in 2010.
"We're really going to feature him a lot more this year," said Taylor, who also wants Sylvester to take direct snaps. "Last year the offense when through Pulley. This year it's going through Sylvester."
As for West, a 6-2 senior receiver, he made 36 catches for 641 yards last season. West only reached the end zone twice, but he figures to be more of a red zone target this year. Kevin Elliott is another reliable target at 6-3, and he posted 44 catches last season for 554 yards and seven touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball for Florida A&M, players such as Qier Hall and Alvis Graham are expected to stand out against the mighty Hurricanes. Hall is a 6-2 senior defensive back who broke up six passes and intercepted three balls in 2009. He registered 42 tackles and is the leader of that back tier. As for Graham, he recorded 69 tackles as a sophomore and figures to be even better as a junior. Graham posted 6.5 TFLs in 2009 and never shies away from contact. Another player worthy of mention is actually the team's punter, Trevor Scott, who plays a major role in determining field position. Helping Hall in the defensive backfield will be Curtis Holcomb, who registered a pair of interceptions and 35 tackles as a junior.
The Rattlers managed to limit foes to 21.2 ppg and 332.5 total ypg a year ago, solid numbers for sure. Still, the defense may need to be even better to help offset the loss of Pulley on the offensive side.
Miami was formidable on the offensive side of the football last season, averaging 400 yards per game, 261.9 ypg of which came through the air. A lot of the success had to do with the play of sophomore QB Jacory Harris, who completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 3,352 yards and 24 TDs. Harris has an injured thumb but is fully expected to play in this opener. While five starters are gone offensively, the team's top five receivers are back in the mix, including Biletnikoff Award candidate Leonard Hankerson (45 receptions, for 801 yards, six TDs). Expect Damien Berry (616 yards, 6.6 ypc, eight TDs) to carry the load on the ground in this opener, as Graig Cooper (695 yards, 5.2 ypc, six TDs) continues to recover from a serious knee injury. Receiver LaRon Byrd will almost certainly miss this tilt as well with a knee injury.
The Miami defense did a solid job a year ago, and with eight starters returning for the 2010 season, major improvement is expected. The defensive line figures to be an area of great strength, as three starters are back in place. All-America candidate Allen Bailey is a man to watch, as he can be used at both tackle and end. Bailey posted seven sacks in '09 and hopes to establish himself as the most recent in a long line of great Hurricane defensive linemen. The linebacking corps will be paced by senior Colin McCarthy (95 tackles, 9.5 TFLs) and junior Sean Spence (36 tackles, three sacks). The secondary returns three of four starters, including talented cornerbacks Brandon Harris (58 tackles, 15 PBUs, two INTs) and DeMarcus Van Dyke (30 tackles, one INT).
"Colin McCarthy, Allen Bailey and another young man in Brandon Harris. Those are the three guys that will lead us in far of communicating and talking," says Shannon.
Miami is clearly superior to Florida A&M and will win this opener easily. Is it safe to say that the 'Canes are for real? Only time will tell.