Seldom does a player make it through his first year without getting a nickname. When offensive tackle Eric Winston arrived at Miami in 2002, teammates didn‚Äôt take long to come up with a sobriquet. ‚ÄúIn strolls this 6'7" kid with long, wild hair, a huge forehead and the appearance of maybe he hadn‚Äôt taken care of himself in a little while,‚Äù says senior guard Chris Myers. ‚ÄúWhat else would we call him but Neanderthal?‚Äù
The suitability of this nickname starts and stops with Winston‚Äôs physical characteristics. A finance major who took so many advanced placement courses at Lee High in Midland, Texas, that he entered Miami at the sophomore level academically, Winston proved to be a quick study on the field as well. Heading into his second season as a starter, the 313-pound junior has shown an understanding of blocking principles and pass-protection techniques beyond his years. ‚ÄúEric came in as an exceptionally gifted student as well as an extremely well-trained football player,‚Äù says line coach Art Kehoe. ‚ÄúYou can tell this by talking to him, and more and more he‚Äôs showing it in his play.‚Äù
Yet few people from Winston‚Äôs native West Texas could have seen him as an interior lineman, much less one at Miami. While helping Lee win three Texas 5A championships, Winston built a reputation as one of the top tight end prospects in the country. After a senior year in which he caught 20 passes for 210 yards and three scores, friends and family members expected him to go to Texas A&M, where his brother, Matt, was a student. Instead he chose the school that had just turned out tight ends Bubba Franks (now with the Green Bay Packers) and Jeremy Shockey (New York Giants).
By his second week at Miami, Neanderthal had shown teammates he had the skills to match his imposing figure. But even as he revealed pass-catching ability as a backup to All-America tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Winston was most impressive as a bullish run blocker for 2002 Heisman finalist Willis McGahee. As a result, coaches began to view Winston as a potential standout at tackle. Winston couldn‚Äôt disagree. ‚ÄúI had been fighting to keep my weight down, eating a few tiny meals a day, and it was really tough,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúI relaxed my diet, started lifting for really the first time in my life, and everything started to come together.‚Äù Through an intensified weight program and frequent trips to Flanagan‚Äôs, a well-trafficked trough for Hurricanes linemen, Winston has added 40 pounds without losing a step in his 40 time of 4.8 seconds.
Just as the added bulk came easily to him, so too did the interior line assignments. During 2003 spring practice Miami slid second team All‚ÄìBig East selection Carlos Joseph from left tackle to right and moved Winston into the starting spot on the left. He was a bright spot in an up-and-down season for the Hurricanes, who had their second-lowest scoring average (27.8 points per game) in two decades. Many blamed the drop-off on first-year quarterback Brock Berlin, a junior transfer from Florida at the time, who turned in some shaky performances. But injuries to Joseph and fellow senior lineman Vernon Carey contributed to Berlin‚Äôs uneasiness.
Winston, for his part, neutralized All‚ÄìBig East defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka of Boston College and All-ACC defensive end Eric Moore of Florida State. He earned praise from Kehoe, who since 2001 has coached five players who went on to become NFL draft picks. Winston, says Kehoe, ‚Äúholds his line when players form a cup to protect the quarterback. He keeps his shoulders square, kick-slides real well and makes defensive tackles beat him to the outside.‚Äù If his top lineman has one fault, it‚Äôs that his assignments come so easily to him that now and then he loses focus. ‚ÄúHe has mental lapses sometimes in practice,‚Äù says Kehoe. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs so talented that he can‚Äôt just be O.K. He has to be exceptional.‚Äù
Exceptional play by all the linemen from the outset this season would give Berlin more time and, by extension, some much-needed confidence. It will also boost the prospect for a run game that will rely on speedy sophomore tailback Tyrone Moss, who gained 511 yards in limited duty last season, and junior Frank Gore, an immense talent who is attempting yet another comeback after missing all of 2002 with a torn right ACL and most of ‚Äô03 with a blown left ACL.
The linemen believe that if they can avoid injuries and cut down on the high number of penalties (34) that plagued them in 2003, there‚Äôs no reason they can‚Äôt dominate the way the Hurricanes‚Äô line did in Miami‚Äôs back-to-back undefeated regular seasons of ‚Äô01 and ‚Äô02. In addition to Myers and Winston, experienced returnees along the line include senior center Joel Rodriguez and junior right tackle Rashad Butler, who started three games last year. Completing the starting lineup is junior left guard Tony Tella, whose athleticism turned coaches‚Äô heads in the spring. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not huge,‚Äù says Myers of a line on which only Winston exceeds 300 pounds, ‚Äúbut we‚Äôre exceptionally fast. We have more game-breaker-type talent than I‚Äôve seen on any line I‚Äôve been on at Miami.‚Äù
In explaining the line‚Äôs motivation, Winston shows just how far he‚Äôs come since he was catching slant passes and good-natured grief as a freshman. ‚ÄúI think a lot of us grew up last year,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúWe used to do a lot of talking about how we needed to tighten up. It‚Äôs now time to stop the talk and just start doing it.‚Äù --K.K.
2003 RECORD 11‚Äì2 (6‚Äì1, T1 in Big East)
FINAL AP RANK 5 RETURNING STARTERS 10
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
CB ANTREL ROLLE (SR.)
42 solo tackles leads all Hurricanes returnees
DT ORIEN HARRIS (JR.)
18 quarterback hurries were second on unit
QB BROCK BERLIN (SR.)
Completed 69% of his third-down attempts
G CHRIS MYERS (SR.)
Allowed one sack playing guard and center
RB TYRONE MOSS (SOPH.)
Averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a freshman
Consecutive victories by the Hurricanes against opponents from the state of Florida, dating from Oct. 7, 2000.
Refusing to allow his height (barely 6 feet) or a long line of other candidates at his position to hold him back, 286-pound defensive tackle Teraz McCray surprised coaches when he proved to be one of the toughest linemen to block during spring practice. While McCray, a redshirt freshman, is likely to begin the season as a backup, don‚Äôt be surprised if the Pompano Beach, Fla., product plays his way into the lineup of a unit that lost seven starters.
Sept. 6 FLORIDA STATE
18 LOUISIANA TECH
23 at Houston
Oct. 2 at Georgia Tech
23 at N.C. State
30 at North Carolina
Nov. 6 CLEMSON
13 at Virginia
20 WAKE FOREST
Dec. 4 VIRGINIA TECH
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES
The experienced blockers will ease the sophomore Moss‚Äôs move from able fill-in to starting tailback.