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ON FOOTBALL

For NFL hopefuls, only one prep school

Guys like Vernon Carey get no credit and little recognition, but tomorrow all the pressure will be on the bulky University of Miami offensive guard. For once, he will be the impact player, instead of some gazelle-like wide receiver or a linebacker who's more perfectly sculpted than Michelangelo's David.

This time, the outcome will be decided by a regular guy -- a 335-pound guy with a weight problem. He will decide how things go for the University of Miami on Draft Day.

If the Hurricanes want to break the NFL record for most first-round selections by one school, Vernon Carey must become their go-to guy. If the Hurricanes are going to break the record they share with Southern Cal, it won't come down to what anyone thinks of Sean Taylor or Kellen Winslow Jr. or Vince Wilfork. Linebackers D.J. Williams and Jonathan Vilma may be impact players, but they'll have no impact on this situation. Those five are all unanimous first-round selections, guys at or near the top of every positional breakdown of talent. All are among the 32 top-rated players.

So if Miami is going to have a record-breaking sixth player taken, it will come down to Carey, a point he conceded to the media after the school's annual Pro Day workouts Feb. 28.

"We're trying to make big things happen here," Carey told a gaggle of reporters and TV cameras after impressing a field full of scouts, personnel directors, NFL head coaches, and their assistants with his agility, power, and, frankly, the length of his arms. "That's what the University of Miami is known for."

There were 16 prospects on the field that day, including the five surefire, first-round selections, which will tie the record set by USC in 1968 and the Hurricanes two years ago, when Bryant McKinnie went seventh overall, Jeremy Shockey went 14th, Phillip Buchanon went 17th, Ed Reed went 24th, and Mike Rumph went 27th. If six Hurricanes are taken, it will mean 19 players have been drafted out of Miami in the first round in the last four years and 34 since 1987, a remarkable statistic when you consider how many schools play college football.

But if you attend Pro Day in Miami, you see why this has happened and not just by looking at the talent on the field. It's by looking at the talent looking at the talent.

"I think the biggest thing is they've developed a culture of their former players taking an interest in their next generation," explained Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick. "That's been pretty consistent from one staff to the next. I don't think another school in the country has former players nurture, interact, help train and mentor new players coming into the league. There's something special about it.

"It's a great place to work out. I think [Ravens safety and ex-Miami No. 1 pick] Ed Reed would tell you his biggest mentors are guys who went before him. Everybody has interaction with former players but not to the degree that UM does."

Respect for tradition

Ask Winslow about the NFL and he'll tell you he's talked to Shockey. Ask Wilfork and he'll say Warren Sapp has advised him. Talk to Vilma or Williams and they'll mention Mike Barrow or Ray Lewis. Speak to Taylor and you'll hear of Reed or even Colts running back Edgerrin James. Talk with Carey and you hear about McKinnie.

The scouts come because there is a mother lode of talent here every year. Talent on the field and on the bench. Talent pushing talent, which is why Miami will become the first school to produce at least one No. 1 draft choice for the 10th straight year tomorrow. There is always talent in Miami. It has become a tradition.

"It started way back," Vilma said. "I don't know if you heard of him but we had Mo Crum back in the day. We had George Mira Jr. Then it just kept going and going and going. Micheal Barrow. Darren Smith. [Jesse] Armstead. Dan Morgan. It's been a long tradition.

"A lot of them come back. A lot of them work out [there]. They have busy schedules but they go back, try to talk with us, teach us what they know. Just show us the ropes.

"Micheal Barrow came back probably for about two months. He was out there while we were in spring practice, watching us and helping us out. A lot of guys try to give us a wake-up call to what the NFL is going to be like. And a lot of our coaches came from the NFL. They teach us the same schemes. They teach us how to rest our bodies, how to relax, how to mentally prepare ourselves. I think we have a greater advantage than some other schools."

That has certainly been born out by the numbers on Draft Day. That record has spawned a belief that Miami is the school to go to if you are fast, aggressive, and believe you can make it in the NFL. It has become a mind-set among high school players in a state that doesn't lose many stars to a place like Boston College, because if you want to play in the NFL and Miami wants you, why would you go elsewhere?

"There is an agent who's been banned from the parking lot at UM," one rival agent said of Drew Rosenhaus. "He stands on the street where the players have to stop their cars to make a right-hand turn out of the lot. He stops every car. If that's what you want to do, that's by far the street to stand on.

"The state of Florida is full of kids who are poor, hungry, aggressive, and athletic. They see football as a way out. Culturally, it's become the thing to do in the state. There's a school in Tampa, the University of South Florida. It didn't exist seven years ago. They get the talent that doesn't go to Miami, Florida, and Florida State. They were getting guys drafted by last year."

Unparalleled production

The production of future NFL players at Miami has become so commonplace that the uncommonness of what they are doing can almost be lost on people such as Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis, who ran the Miami program for six years. Although the flow of talent there is a roaring stream, it's become expected.

"I think the 1987 class that had Vinny Testaverde, Jerome Brown, and Alonzo Highsmith was just a phenomenal group of guys at that time," Davis said. "Then in 2001 with Dan Morgan, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Damione Lewis. That was a real strong class. This year is clearly another one. It's got some high-profile players. I'd say it's a typical University of Miami class."

Typical for Miami, perhaps, but stunning if it were happening at any other school. Certainly USC had its run and so did Nebraska. Texas did it back in the day and Notre Dame was its own football factory while Lou Holtz was there. But no program has ever had the kind of sustained pro production as the University of Miami.

It all started with Howard Schnellenberger, who won a national title in 1983. When he left after that season, the Hurricanes brought in Jimmy Johnson from Oklahoma State.

Johnson won another title in 1987 and created a monster. When he left for Dallas, current 49ers coach Dennis Erickson took over in 1989 and went 63-9 and won two national championships before leaving for the Seattle Seahawks after going 10-2 and finishing sixth in the country in 1994. But by the time he was replaced by Davis, there were as many questions about the program as there were victories.

Problems off the field had developed dating back to Johnson's days, and Davis was brought in to calm the waters. There was a growing sense in some corners of the university's academic community that things had spun out of control and the football program, though successful, had become an embarrassment.

So Davis arrived at a time when the sport was deemphasized slightly and entrance requirements were tightened. He helped clean things up but in two of his first three years, the team finished out of the national rankings, going a dismal 5-6 in 1997. That was so stunning, the people in charge sprung into action and things quickly returned to normal. Normal, at least, by Miami standards.

Over Davis's final three years, recruitment was reemphasized and the talent flow returned. Predictably, Davis's teams went 29-8 in those years, 11-1 in his final year when the team was ranked second in the country.

Only seven players were drafted in the first round during Davis's six years, a reflection of the brief administrative downturn in emphasis. But 20 Miami players coached by Davis would be selected in the first round, and 50 were drafted overall. Fourteen first-round choices came over the last three years when current coach Larry Coker reaped the benefits of Davis's recruiting.

Groomed to join elite

NFL teams view the University of Miami as the Harvard of college football. If you want top-notch lawyers, you go to Harvard. If you want the kind of players they might one day represent, you go to Miami.

Miami is guaranteed to have a record-tying five first-round picks tomorrow, giving them a record-tying nine over two years for the third time since 2001, and they seem destined to break the three-year record for No. 1s of 13 they set the past three seasons.

Why is this the case at Miami and nowhere else? St. Louis Rams general manager Charley Armey noticed one thing a few years back on one of his annual pilgrimages to the school's campus.

"I looked around and there had to be 100 high school kids watching the spring workouts," Armey said. "For kids in that area, Miami is where they want to go and football is what they want to do. The school is in the middle of a hotbed of talent. Success in football is about numbers, numbers, numbers, and there are just so many great athletes playing football in Florida.

"Down there they go the extra mile in high school. They have spring football in high school. They have weightlifting programs. They produce fast players. For kids in that area, it's where they want to go, and they have the talent right in the state to sustain it.

"Miami has a great program and once you get that going, it seems like you can keep it going forever. This year coming out they might have, overall, as good a class as any group I've seen in 27 years going there to scout and the glamour guy, the quarterback, isn't there. I wouldn't doubt that they have six guys taken in the first round. I know they've got six players rated in the top 32."

Linebacker Williams, who is projected to be a mid-first-round selection, says his success goes all the way back to playing at De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) High School, a place that seems to do as much to train football players for big-time colleges as Miami does to train them for the NFL.

"De La Salle prepared me as much as anything could have," Williams said. "The program was very strict. It was run like a college program. We worked out all summer. We watched film at lunch. Guys would take film home. You weightlifted early in the morning."

"If you don't want to be just an Average Joe [at Miami], you've got to make a play out here," said Taylor. "You don't get points for batting down balls. You get points for picking balls off and running the other way. Anyone can catch an interception. They kind of want to see what you do afterward.

"Guys coming straight out of high school running 4.3s. Off-the-chart stuff. You get a lot of NFL-type simulation. As far as them knowing as much [as NFL players], no, but they're fast and they can run.

"There's always competition. Me and Kellen compete. Me and the receivers compete. There's competition all in the air. I think that's what makes us better players around here."

Not just better players. Among the very best players. If some NFL team decides Carey belongs in that group, Miami will set another Draft Day record. That won't be news in south Florida, where the talent is as thick as the humidity in August and its presence causes its own unique problems.

"Everybody thinks just because we rotate [defensive linemen] at UM that my conditioning is bad," Wilfork lamented recently. "That's not the issue. The issue is we have a group of men down here who can play football and can't sit on the bench.

"Look at the athletes and talent we have there every year. When someone signs with us in our recruiting class, right there they have a good mind-set that they can play. If you want to go pro, this is the program to come to. That follows after the University of Miami."

Follows the best of them right into the first round of the NFL Draft.

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