GREENSBORO, Ga. — When offensive tackle Jason Fox orally committed to the University of Miami, the national polls only fueled his perceptions of the program and expectations for what awaited him there.
In mid November 2005, the Hurricanes rode an eight-game winning streak to a No. 3 ranking. They seemingly were bound for the inaugural ACC title game and, perhaps, a spot in the Bowl Championship Series finale for the third time in five seasons.
"I thought winning was going to be easy," Fox confessed.
Not so much.
The 'Canes finished second in the Coastal Division and were humbled by LSU in the Peach Bowl, 40-3. Then during Fox's freshman year in 2006, the 'Canes slumped to 7-6.
Last season under first-year head coach Randy Shannon, they fell to 5-7 — their first losing season since 1997 when the team was reeling from NCAA sanctions and went 5-6. Perhaps just as unimaginable to Miami fans, the Hurricanes lost the final game they would play at the storied Orange Bowl to Virginia, 48-0.
"It was painful; it was definitely painful," Fox said during the ACC Football Kickoff media days. "Now it's a new season."
But will it be much different?
Although this is the time when optimism is the highest for everyone, folks around the league think Miami will be raising cane this season, beginning with Shannon, a Miami native who played at UM and has spent much of his coaching career at the school.
"Last year was a step for us to try and create a winning atmosphere, a winning culture," Shannon said. "It's a process."
What he didn't realize until after an evaluation at season's end was that the program's foundation wasn't as sturdy as when UM was winning five national championships.
"Maybe the depth wasn't there like I thought it would be because I take such pride in the University of Miami," said Shannon, who played 11 true freshmen last season. "That's (like) seventh-graders playing against 12th-graders. That's going to be tough to win games that way."
Especially when you fall behind early as the 'Canes did against North Carolina (27-0 at halftime before losing 33-27), Virginia Tech (17-0, although they cut the deficit to 20-14 in the third before wilting, 44-14) and to Boston College (14-0, a game they tied at 14 in the fourth and lost, 28-14).
"We had chances to come back and get into games, but when you're young, that's where game experience takes over," he said. "We're young, but we've got a lot of game experience."
The second year with those players means that the coaching staff is more familiar with them and they are more comfortable with the staff and the playbook.
Just as important, the players are in better synch off the field. Last year, a never-ending quarterback controversy between Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman (who has transferred for his final season) didn't help their relationship and bled over into the rest of the locker room.
"I think, actually, I know, everybody on this team is dedicated more than ever," Fox said. "So far since I've been here, this is the closest the team has been."
Shannon has pointed out that redshirt freshman Robert Marve, a former Plant High star, and freshman Jacory Harris — the top quarterbacks who he said will share the job — are inseparable and fast friends.
"So much of it is guys getting to like each other, being around each other, coming together," ESPN analyst Doug Flutie said. "You can have the individuals in the world with all the individual talent in the world, but unless they want to play for each other and for a common goal, it doesn't happen. Miami's got all the ability in the world."
Led by Harris, the state's Mr. Football after leading Miami Northwestern to the Class 6A state title, Miami's recruiting class was ranked No. 5 nationally by Rivals.com.
"Both of us have slipped, but I think both of us will be back. It's all built around recruiting," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "Miami's beginning to recruit (like old), and we are, too."
Like Fox had expected when he chose Coral Gables.
"We've had trouble and I don't want to keep talking about the past because it's behind us, but I still have a chance to bring it back to where it's supposed to be at," he said. "If we can do that, that would be just as special to me."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.