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Debriefing: Old ‘Canes take their last shot at turning over a new leaf

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

The least you should know about the 2011 Hurricanes. Part of ACC Week.

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You flatter us, really. Miami still has a reputation as an elite talent magnet that's been unable to convert its potential into actual results, and to a large extent, that's true. But the Hurricanes' absence from the upper echelons of the final polls in January has coincided directly with its decline in the recruiting rankings in February: Only one of the five recruiting classes feeding into this fall's roster — a 33-man haul packed with local stars in 2008 — has come in among Rivals' top 15 classes nationally, and it was also the only class under ousted coach Randy Shannon that consisted mainly of four and five-star signees. And even then, only barely.

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In the meantime, Florida State is closing fast on its fourth straight top-10 recruiting class in 2012, by which time its fortunes on the field may be right in line. For new coach Al Golden, priority No. 1 is closing that gap, which begins with taking a discernible step forward on the field that rivals Jimbo Fisher's solid debut in Tallahassee.

We're still here. As for that ballyhooed 2008 class, it has certainly held together: More than a dozen members of the '08 crop have started at least 10 games over the last three years, all but one of whom (NFL-bound cornerback Brandon Harris) are listed as likely starters going into their fourth season. Five of that number — defensive tackle Marcus Fortson, quarterback Jacory Harris, receiver Aldarius Johnson, linebacker Sean Spence and guard Brandon Washington — came out of the same nearby high school, Miami-Northwestern, where they and three other '08 Miami signees led the No. 1 prep team in the nation as seniors.

As seniors in college, their hourglass is almost out of sand.{YSP:MORE} Since a promising (albeit brief) foray into the top ten over the first half of 2009, the 'Canes are a disappointing 11-9 in their last 20 games, including five straight flops — four of them by double digits — against ranked teams. Only one remaining member of the '08 class, Washington, has come in for first-team All-ACC notice, and only one more (Spence) has been named to the second team. Harris, the early star as a sophomore, is battling just to get on the field again after exploding into a confetti shower of turnovers as a junior. If the unofficial face of the Randy Shannon era is passed by Stephen Morris, it's probably time to give the 2008 class a C+ and consider the page officially turned.

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The virtues of experience, part one. Whoever wins the ongoing quarterback derby, he won't have any room to complain about the surrounding cast: The top three receivers and at least three-fifths of the starting offensive line are seniors or redshirt juniors, not including fifth-year senior Joel Figueroa, a former full-time starter at guard before sitting out last season with an injury. If Seantrel Henderson, a freshman All-American last year after a late arrival in the summer, finally manages to lock down the left tackle job over spring insurgent Malcolm Bunche, every starter on the offense will bring at least ten career starts to the table except Morris (if he wins the job over the veteran Harris) and the new tight end.

The virtues of experience, part two. The strong point of the team last year, by far, was the combination of a pass rush that led the nation in tackles for loss and a secondary that led the ACC in both pass defense and pass efficiency D. The most notable members of both of those groups — defensive end Allen Bailey and cornerback Brandon Harris — are both gone, as is the architect of the defense, Shannon. But everyone else is back, including strong All-ACC candidates on the line (Fortson), at linebacker (Spence) and in the back four (safeties Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque), which should put the 'Canes in the running for the top defense in the conference.

Then again, very little of what should happen with the personnel here actually has happened over the last six years. So stay tuned.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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