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June 19, 2007
Miami looks to Nix to revive offense
Patrick Nix scoffs at the notion that Miami will need a couple more years to move back into national title contention.
He didn't agree with it when he was coaching against the Hurricanes.
And he certainly doesn't believe it now that new Miami coach Randy Shannon has hired him as the Hurricanes' offensive coordinator.
"Every game we walk into, we expect to win," Nix said. "That's the way it is. That's the way it always has been. And that's the way it probably will be for a long time."
While it's easy to dismiss those comments as the overenthusiastic boasts of a new employee, Nix was well aware of Miami's talent level long before he arrived in Coral Gables.
As the former Georgia Tech offensive coordinator, Nix doesn't need a long memory to recall Miami's last flirtation with a national championship. Nix was at the Orange Bowl in November 2005 when the Yellow Jackets faced a Miami team with legitimate title aspirations.
"The funny thing is people think Miami all of a sudden is awful, not any good and on the slide," Nix said. "Last year things happened and it wasn't a good year. But the year before that, going into the 10th game of the year, they were the third-ranked team in the country - and people thought they were the best team in the country."
That 2005 game with Georgia Tech represented a turning point for Miami's program.
Georgia Tech upset Miami 14-10 that night to knock the Hurricanes out of title contention. That loss started a 16-game stretch in which Miami has gone 8-8, including a 7-6 mark last year that cost former head coach Larry Coker his job.
That's a humbling fall for a program that had gone 67-8 in its previous 75 games.
Defense hasn't been the problem. Miami allowed just 15.5 points per game last year and ranked seventh in the nation in total defense.
But the Hurricanes have averaged just 10.6 points per game in their last 11 losses. Miami has exceeded the 17-point mark in just one of those games – a 30-23 setback at Georgia Tech last season.
Nix now takes over as the third offensive coordinator in as many years for a team that still doesn't know the identity of its starting quarterback.
"Last year left a bitter taste in our mouths," senior offensive guard Derrick Morse said. "We're ready to go out and play again and prove we have what it takes to be a dominant offense."
That's coming from a guy with a pretty strict definition of dominant.
"Obviously our goal is to have an offense like 2001, where you just go out there knowing we can compete with and beat everybody," Morse said. "Ultimately that's everybody's goal. We just want to be that dominant force."
The Hurricanes scored at least 500 points - counting bowl games - in three consecutive seasons from 2000-02, including the national championship season of 2001. Those years represent the three highest single-season point totals in school history.
Miami hasn't scored more than 353 points in any of the four seasons since.
The Hurricanes averaged only 19.6 points per game last year to rank 87th out of 119 Division I-A teams in scoring offense. By contrast, Miami failed to break the 20-point mark just once - in an 18-7 victory over Boston College - during that glorious 2000-02 run.
Of course, those record-setting seasons occurred back when Miami played in the Big East. The Hurricanes now play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where points come at much more of a premium.
Clemson was the only ACC representative ranked among the top 49 Division I-A programs in total offense last season. Five ACC teams finished among the top 18 in total defense.
"That's the way it is in the whole ACC,'' Nix said. "There's not a team in the ACC where generally you're not talking about their defense more than their offense. This conference is a defensive conference right now.''
Miami failed to win the turnover battle in any of its six losses last year. No wonder Nix has emphasized the importance of avoiding mistakes.
"Our offense has to understand what our role is," Nix said. "We're not going out and trying to break records. You want to score and do those things, but you've got to be smart sometimes so you don't put yourselves in bad situations that give other teams a chance to (score).''
That doesn't mean Nix is overly cautious.
Georgia Tech finished third in the ACC in total offense last year in Nix's only season as the Jackets' chief play caller. Although Nix spent three seasons as Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, head coach Chan Gailey handled the majority of the play-calling responsibilities until last year.
The Jackets' season included that 30-23 victory over Miami, which made Georgia Tech one of only two teams - Louisville was the other - to score more than 20 points against the Hurricanes.
"Patrick Nix did a great job last year adjusting to what we did as a defense," said Shannon, who spent the last six seasons as Miami's defensive coordinator. "And as we adjusted on defense, he adjusted on offense again to keep us off balance. Imagine what he'll do against other defenses."
Nix proved last year he knows how to get the ball to a team's top playmaker.
Georgia Tech had received plenty of criticism before last season for not using All-America receiver Calvin Johnson often enough. Johnson caught 76 passes for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns last season to shatter his previous career highs in all three categories. However, Johnson was held without a catch against Clemson and had only one reception against Georgia.
"The biggest thing I learned is the game doesn't revolve around one person," Nix said. "Last year at times we got ourselves into trouble trying to force it in to him too much when they double- and triple-teamed him. There were other opportunities and other things open, and we were sitting there thinking we've got to get the ball to Calvin. It put him in bad situations and put (quarterback) Reggie (Ball) in a bad position.
"You have to use everybody. It's not just a one-man show. But at the same time, you do have to understand and realize how important it is to use the guys you do have."
Before he can get the ball to his playmakers at Miami, Nix must identify them.
Nix acknowledged the team's lack of depth on offense, but he still believes the Hurricanes have enough talent to challenge for conference supremacy.
"I don't think the number of guys we have here is quite what we want and expect for the future," Nix said, "but there is enough here that if we stay healthy, we'll be in every game and we'll give ourselves a chance to win every game."
The Hurricanes also must choose a starting quarterback.
Kyle Wright has started each of the last two years, but he missed the final four games of the 2006 season with a broken thumb. Kirby Freeman replaced Wright and led Miami to victories over Boston College and Nevada in the Hurricanes' final two games.
Freeman provides more mobility, but he also has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes in his career. The Hurricanes might not declare a winner of this competition until shortly before the Sept. 1 season opener against Marshall.
"There's no timetable right now on who's going to be named the starter," said Nix, the starting quarterback at Auburn from 1993-94. "We're going to let it play its way out and just see what happens in the fall. I don't think it will happen early. It will probably be closer to a game-time or game-week decision."
Nix might remain unsure about Miami's quarterback situation, but he's much more certain about one thing. The tumult of 2006 hasn't done irreparable harm to the Hurricanes' confidence.
"I'll tell you this," Nix said. "I wouldn't spend my hours in this office if we didn't think we could go out there and win every game. I'm not going to say we're going to do it. I don't know. We'll have to play them on the field. But if I didn't think we could do it, I'd be spending more time with my family and I don't think those kids would be out there killing themselves to get ready for the season like they're doing."
That represents quite a proclamation regarding a team that barely finished over .500 last season.
Nix now wants to see his offense make a similar statement on the field.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.