Barry Jackson

Two Canes greats - Irvin and NFL executive Highsmith - assess UM program at Paradise camp

Michael Irvin talks about at Paradise Camp

Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin talks at Paradise Camp for high school recruits Saturday, July 22, 2017, at UM.
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Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin talks at Paradise Camp for high school recruits Saturday, July 22, 2017, at UM.

A six-pack of notes from UM’s annual Paradise Camp on Saturday:

▪ Few Canes greats have as unique a perspective as Alonzo Highsmith, who was a high NFL draft pick and a longterm NFL executive. And few are more famous than Michael Irvin.

In conversations with the media on Saturday night, both Canes luminaries expressed optimism about the program’s future under Manny Diaz.

“I believe we’ve got a shot now,” Irvin said.

But Highsmith, who’s vice president of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns, made clear what must change here.

“I think we have the athletes to compete with anyone in the nation,” Highsmith said. “The only thing that is going to separate us is the quarterback position. That’s the driving force at any program. It even goes back to Pop Warner. Whoever has the best quarterback usually has the best team. When you don’t have the quarterback play - we don’t need Aaron Rodgers or Baker Mayfield - we just need a good college quarterback. One of these guys has to develop into a quality college quarterback to get us into the NCAA playoffs.”

Why has it been elusive here (since the days of Ken Dorsey)?

“It’s been elusive everywhere, not just Miami,” Highsmith said. “Everyone’s looking for quarterbacks. They’re hard to find. When you get one, you appreciate of how special it is.

“I think we’re always going to have athletes at Miami. I think we’re always going to have running backs. We’re always going to have receivers. We might not have a Jerome Brown type defensive tackle, but we’re going to have some good players. But where we need to get stronger is the quarterback position. If we get solid quarterback play, we can play with anybody in the nation.”

That player, Highsmith said, must be the “first in, last to leave. Total leadership position. The quarterback embodies everything. He’s an extension of the head coach. Everyone looks to him and it’s a lot of pressure. He has to be the ultimate gym rat. And if you’re not that, that position is a bad position to play. I just know our quarterback position was up and down last year.”

Irvin agrees: “I’m sure they want to find the guy that will be the guy for the next three or four years and not have to go in every year saying we’re still looking for that guy.”

But what about the need to find another elite offensive lineman like Bryant McKinnie?

“If you’re a quarterback that knows how to get the ball out, and understand the blitz pickups, you understand the game, you’ll make the offensive line better,” Highsmith said.

Head Coach Manny Diaz speaks to the media about his vision for the program and Paradise Camp at Carol Soffer Indoor Practice Facility in Coral Gables, Florida Saturday June 22, 2019.

Both Highsmith and Irvin see similarities between Diaz and Jimmy Johnson.

“I think you can see the commitment in him; you see a lot of fire,” Highsmith said. “I think he’s determined to get this program where it needs to be, and I think you can see that - and don’t take this the wrong way - but that’s how Jimmy Johnson was, fiery. We’re going to get this right, we’re going to fix this, and we’re going to work hard. That’s what I’ve seen from him and I’ve been impressed with everything they’ve done so far.”

Irvin, who played for Johnson at UM and with the Dallas Cowboys, said “Jimmy is a special dude. You heard what coach Diaz was talking about was competing. That’s what Jimmy was about. He wanted to make sure we competed. That was the first time I got educated on scholarships, when we were not competing that well. Jimmy would tell you, ‘I don’t know about your brothers out there, but some of you are telling everybody you have a four year scholarship. That is not the truth. Those scholarships are one year renewables. Go home tonight and read the fine print. If I don’t see some competing out here, you will not be renewed.’

“Competing is the key to it,” Irvin continued. “I don’t care how fast you run the 40. It’s about competing every day, and that’s what [Diaz] brings. In that sense, he’s exactly like Jimmy Johnson…. Football is a hard game. The only thing that makes it less hard is having fun and winning, and Manny allows you to have fun. Some of these kids I talked to, of all the kids that played here now, not a one has anything bad to say about Manny. They all love Manny and you know they’re going to play hard for him. That’s the start of something right now.”

Like many Canes fans, Irvin has wondered when the program will return to the level of Alabama and Clemson.

“You always wonder that,” Irvin said. “Credit those guys for what they’ve created - what Nick [Saban] has done at Alabama, what Dabo [Swinney] is doing at Clemson, and even Georgia getting in there. But we want to get back to that level. Those guys are the clear horses that are out front. You’ve got Clemson in the [conference] so you get a chance to measure yourself by what is the greatest at this level. We want to get back to that level and we want to get back there quickly.”

▪ Highsmith said that one thing that needed to change about the program already has, with the construction of modern new facilities, include the indoor practice field and the Schwartz Center.

“This is a beautiful facility,” he said, standing inside the indoor practice field. “I’ve been in the NFL 21 years now and traveled all across the nation and seen what other schools are doing and seeing how we’re doing things, I was always a little bit disappointed that we weren’t able to showcase our school.

“We showcase it with wins but as the times changed, schools were building these mega-complexes and Miami stayed the same. It happened to Chevrolet. All of a sudden, Chevrolet was the No. 1 car in the world. And all of a sudden,the Japanese started making better cars and all of a sudden they were last. Now we’re catching up with everybody.

“I think Miami is a very unique place. The thing I’ve always said about Miami is the thing that’s separated Miami from other universities is because we were such a small school and we didn’t have the biggest facilities and we didn’t have a lot of the things the other big schools had, but the one thing we had was the camaraderie amongst the alumni. No team could beat us with that and that was part of the aura about ourselves. They didn’t want to coach. They were there as a presence to say we’re behind you and no other school could get that. Without that, we’re just a regular old school.”

▪ Both Irvin and Highsmith gave speeches - Irvin to the high school players and Highsmith to the parents. Highsmith encouraged parents to “coach your kid to be the hardest worker.”

Irvin gave a passionate speech after the 25 or so Canes alums in attendance were introduced.

“I said if you don’t want to be great and be a champion, just get up and leave. Here, it’s about greatness, about doing things at a different level. And when you do things at a different level here, the whole world knows about it. Make sure you take those opportunities and make the most of it.”

Irvin also told the high school prospects that “we invented swagger [and the concept of] we are about to beat your butt and we may not do it nicely.”

Getting instruction from a bunch of current and former NFL Canes “is better than any computer, any Internet,” Irvin told them. “You would be stupid not to peel off as much knowledge as you could.”

▪ Irvin said the knee injury that sidelined his son, tight end Michael Irvin Jr., for all of last season was a positive in one regard.

“What I’ve seen from Michael has been incredible,” he said of his son. “You can see him turning into a man. The injury was probably the best thing for him because it focused him in on the seriousness of time, and that time is running out. Every time you’re out there, you have to squeeze that opportunity because you never know if you’ll get another opportunity. He has taken his work ethic and it has skyrocketed to another level.”

Offensive coordinator Dan Enos praised Irvin’s work in spring football practice.

▪ Highsmith said “the trait of Miami players since I came out in college” was being a “hard worker, tremendous work ethic, tough. When you get a Miami player, you know he’s a competitor.”

Six Canes are on his Browns roster in Cleveland: David Njoku, Duke Johnson (who has requested a trade), Chad Thomas and rookies Sheldrick Redwine, Jhavonte Dean and Trayone Gray. There are also three former Canes on staff.

“It’s fun,” Highsmith said. “I’m on them [the UM players with the Browns] a lot. It’s good for the player but it’s bad for the player because I’m there. We joke about it all the time. Now these guys know they’ve got to play. Miami guys get cut too. I like the kids. I’m not worried about them. They’ll be fine.”

▪ Colleague David Wilson will have all the recruiting news from Paradise Camp, including Saturday’s commitment of Tennessee-based two star offensive lineman Chris Washington. But the biggest prospect takeaway?

Tyler Van Dyke, the four-star Connecticut based quarterback and UM nonbinding 2020 commitment, is really, really good. He has a cannon for an arm, and most of his passes were delivered with crispness, accuracy and precision.

Las Vegas based five star tight end Darnell Washington, a top UM target, caught several of those passes.

▪ Instead of having players run the 40-yard dash and get measured for size and weight, Diaz had the players partake in a 40-minute classroom session with UM’s assistant coaches, both as an educational tool and as a way to see what they retained when they worked on the field.

Diaz said his focus is to see “who competes. They’re playing in shorts but what we can see tonight is their level of competitiveness. What happens when they get beat? What happens when they make a play? What happens when they get coached? Those are the intangible things.”

He listens when former Canes players mention a player who impressed them at this camp. A couple of years ago, Jon Beason pointed out a player to Diaz, which was confirmation of what the staff already thought.

Diaz was heartened to see Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine return, two months after the NFL draft.

“Duke Johnson is talking about how he’s taking care of Sheldrick and Choc [Gray] and Jhavonte Dean and all the Hurricanes in Cleveland right now,” Diaz said. “That’s the reality of the U family, the brotherhood. At Miami it’s different. It’s real here.”

Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin talks at Paradise Camp for high school recruits Saturday, July 22, 2017, at UM.