UM FOOTBALL

Miami Hurricanes’ A.J. Highsmith, Kacy Rodgers compete to fill void left by Ray-Ray Armstrong

 

Good friends A.J. Highsmith and Kacy Rodgers are zeroed in on trying to fill a hole in the secondary that was created when Ray-Ray Armstrong was booted off the team.

mnavarro@MiamiHerald.com

Both played high school football in Texas, have fathers with jobs in the NFL and at times are confused for one another by teammates because they resemble each other.

Juniors A..J. Highsmith and Kacy Rodgers certainly have a lot in common. But there’s one difference at the moment: Rodgers has the jersey and the starting job Highsmith covets at safety.

“When I ended the spring as the starter I told myself [I’ve] got to work through the summer to keep that job and today when I saw I had a black jersey, it put a smile on my face,” Rodgers said. “My hard work paid off. Hopefully I can keep it going.”

The battle to keep the black jerseys – or earn them – began Friday at the University of Miami, but not until typical summer thunderstorms delayed the first fall practice until the sun was on its way down.

Al Golden’s football team finally sloshed its way onto a wet Greentree Practice Field shortly after 6 p.m., wearing shorts and helmets for the first of 25 practices before the season kicks off Sept. 1 at Boston College.

Among those out there: defensive end Anthony Chickillo and special teams coordinator Micheal Barrow, both alleged in the latest Yahoo! Sports report last month as being rule-breakers in the ongoing NCAA investigation into improper gifts and benefits that were given to players and recruits at Miami (Chickillo declined comment Friday because of the investigation but is confident he will play this season).

Not out there: former highly-touted safety Ray-Ray Armstrong, who was booted off the team last month and whose vacancy has opened the door for Rodgers and Highsmith to partake in one of the more interesting position battles this fall.

Highsmith (6-0, 204) called it “a very unfortunate situation” that Armstrong is gone because they were friends. Rodgers (6-2, 213) said he was sad because “I looked up to Ray.” But now, both are zeroed in on trying to fill a huge hole in the Hurricanes’ secondary and earn the spot alongside three-year starter Vaughn Telemaque.

“You can never have a leader – especially a safety – make a lot of mistakes. I think the guy who makes the least mistakes, the guy who is most consistent and who makes the most plays – disrupts the ball, gets turnovers and forces turnovers – will win the job,” Highsmith said. “Consistency is going to be a big part of it.”

But neither Highsmith nor Rodgers has played a lot at safety for Miami.

GETTING ACCLIMATED

Rodgers, whose father Kacy Sr. is an assistant with the Miami Dolphins, got in for “about 20 snaps” last season. He finished with three tackles – all on special teams. Before signing with Miami in 2010, Rodgers said he only played cornerback at nationally ranked Southlake Carroll High. He has been learning how to play safety since.

“I’ve gotten a lot better, but I don’t think I can stop now,” Rodgers said. “There’s so much more room for improvement and I’m excited to try and do that. Just the physical aspect and running the show [has been the biggest adjustment]. The safety is the quarterback of the defense. If you don’t know it, it’s going to show. You definitely have to know your calls and get everybody on the same page.”

Highsmith, whose father Alonzo is a former Hurricane and currently works in the Green Bay Packers’ front office, spent his first two seasons at Miami serving as the backup quarterback to Jacory Harris before switching to defense last season. Highsmith said he got in for “roughly 80 to 100 snaps” behind Armstrong, Telemaque and JoJo Nicolas last season, finishing with 12 tackles in 11 games.

“I don’t even remember playing quarterback anymore,” Highsmith said with a grin Friday. “I think I’m definitely adjusted to the defense now. In spring I noticed I could start taking on blockers better, being more physical. I can take on a lot more with those extra pounds. I’ve gotten stronger over the summer. We’ll see how it works out.”

Regardless of who wins the battle, Rodgers and Highsmith said they will maintain their friendship and respect for each other.

“A.J.’s probably the smartest DB we have. He’s probably one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around. The other one was Sean Spence,” Rodgers said. “Any questions I have I go to A.J.”

Said Highsmith of Rodgers: “He’s a freak – strong, fast, tall, he can run, dunk. He has he whole package. He’s just a great athlete. Hopefully we both can play and make the team better by competing every day.”

ELSEWHERE

• Of the eight defensive backs UM signed in its last recruiting class, Rodgers said only two – Miami Columbus’ Deon Bush and Rayshawn Jenkins of St. Petersburg – are working at safety. “They’re athletic, big, fast, strong. As look as they take care of the playbook they should be on the field soon,” Rodgers said.

• The freshman class as a whole has drawn rave reviews. Davie Western coach Rashard West told The Miami Herald on Friday he recently received a phone call from offensive guard Jonathan Feliciano, his former player, who told him: “This [running back] Duke Johnson guy is unreal.”

“They came in and had an attitude about them,” Highsmith said. “It wasn’t anything cocky or anything arrogant. But they really had a presence when they walked in – just as a group collectively. They’re going to do some good things for us and contribute a lot this year.”

Highsmith said Johnson, a five-star running back from Norland, has been doing backflips during summer 7-on-7 drills. Cornerback Tracy Howard, Highsmith said, is confident.

“A lot of kids you kind of have to guide them, show them the ropes. But even from Day 1, we showed him what to do and he went out there and did his thing and he held his own out there early,” Highsmith said of Howard. “Just because of his mind-set, I think that’s what separates himself from most kids.”

RAIN DOESN’T STOP CAMP

Talk about delaying the excitement.

The first fall UM practice was supposed to open at 8:20 a.m. Friday.

Then, school exams caused it to be rescheduled to 2:10 p.m.

But rain and lightning Friday afternoon took care of that.

Finally, at 6 p.m., the Hurricanes gleefully emptied out onto Greentree Field for their inaugural session leading to the 2012 season.

“We just had a little weather pattern,” Hurricanes coach Al Golden said. “Not a big deal.”

TWO STARTERS OUT

Starting outside linebacker Jimmy Gaines did not practice Friday. He was out with an apparent foot injury that he also had during the spring.

Golden said he’s “day to day” and would do “controlled drills in agility with the strength and conditioning coaches.”

Offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson did not attend practice because he was in Minnesota to attend the funeral of a friend.

Golden said he would be back for Saturday morning’s next practice session.

Miami Herald sportswriter Susan Miller Degnan contributed to this report.

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