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They're from the same family and play the same position and boast the same frame, but Dontez Ford and his cousin are very different receivers.

Ford, Pitt's 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt junior, has always thought of himself as a physical wideout, never shy to take on defensive backs and help someone else break off a long play. His cousin, current NFL free agent Toney Clemons, has used his 6-foot-2, 205-pound stature to blow by defenders at the college level with Colorado and get drafted by the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, in the seventh round in 2012.

With plenty of throws to be caught for the Panthers this spring, Ford has relied on Clemons more than usual lately, texting him regularly for tidbits on how to become a bigger threat in Pitt's passing game.

"He has a different style of play," Ford said. "I feel like he's a faster guy, and he has more of a finesse game, but I just feel like I want to bring that type of game into what I do. I've been talking to him a lot recently and just taking little tips and advice on how I can work on my craft and become a better receiver."

This is welcome news to a Panthers aerial attack that became overly reliant on Tyler Boyd last season. Defenses know what the junior sensation is capable of after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. They'll also no longer overlook James Conner in the backfield, not after his ACC player of the year campaign in 2014.

So it is up to Ford and the other receivers to help diversify Pitt's offense. Ford has done his part so far this spring, drawing rave reviews from his new coaching staff after a number of big plays and, thus far, earning the inside track to start opposite Boyd come fall.

"He started to get better toward the end of the year last year, stepping up and making some plays," receivers coach Kevin Sherman said. "My goal for him this spring was the same thing: Just keep mastering your craft, learn the game, because we're trying to teach the game to these guys conceptually, not just position-wise."

Opportunity knocked down the stretch of 2014, with senior starter Manasseh Garner missing three games because of a foot injury and Ford earning extended action in his place. The audition gave him a confidence boost heading into winter workouts and spring ball, where he is now being relied on more than ever.

If that sounds like a bit much for someone with just three catches and 50 yards to his name, well, consider that Ford is the Panthers' leading returning wideout in 2015 not named Boyd. Returning tight end J.P. Holtz's 21 catches last year marked the closest any Pitt pass-catcher came to Boyd's 78 grabs, which overwhelmed a stat sheet with hardly any room to spare.

Ford and the majority of his fellow wideouts are cognizant of the perception of them out there as the other guys, and they know the onus is on them to change it.

"The way I see it, it is what it is," he said. "People on the outside are going to say things like that as much as they want, but what happens on the field between us is what happens. As long as we can get out there and win games, then that's what's most important to us, and part of that is other receivers contributing for us to win games.
So I'm just going to go out there and work and try to contribute as much as I can. It'll take more pressure off of him, it'll put more pressure on defenses because we'll have multiple weapons out there."

A Pittsburgh-area product who redshirted as a safety at Syracuse in 2012 before transferring, Ford is playing under his third different position coach in as many years with the Panthers. And Sherman, who came from Purdue, has presented a blueprint right up the alley of a receiver who takes as much pride in laying into a cornerback as he does breaking off a big gain.

"I want to turn a 10-yard gain into an 80-yard touchdown," Sherman said. "I want these guys to understand their job is to be a blocker as well. We want these guys to take pride and be a complete football player, catching the ball and learning reverses and things like that. But I want them to be a complete football player, because I think that just helps our football team."

Q&A with Clemson DE Shaq Lawson

March, 27, 2015
Mar 27

Vic Beasley is gone, but Clemson doesn't expect to take much of a step back at defensive end. Junior Shaq Lawson will be stepping into a starting role after being a key backup the past two years, accumulating 21.5 tackles for loss in the process. We caught up with Lawson after Clemson's first spring scrimmage this week -- he had three sacks -- to see how his transition into the starting lineup is going and how coordinator Brent Venables is bringing along the rest of the defense.

David Hale: Has it felt different this spring knowing you're going to be a focal point of the defensive front?

Shaq Lawson: Oh, yes. I figured out it was my time during the offseason. It’s my time to lead because I’m a vet now on the defense.

Hale: Were able to learn a lot about this role from playing with Vic for the past two years?

[+] EnlargeShaq Lawson
AP Photo/John RaouxShaq Lawson is ready to be a star player for Clemson after providing big plays as a reserve the last two seasons.

Lawson: I learned a lot from Vic, and it’s paid off really this spring. Speed, my pass rush has gotten better. That’s my whole goal going into this season is to get better as a pass rusher.

Hale: Even with Vic as the starter, you were in for more than one-third of the snaps last season. Do you expect to take a heavier share of the workload as the starter than Vic did last year?

Lawson: Yeah, I expect to play a lot of snaps.

Hale: How important is it to get some of the younger guys ready to fill the role that you played last season, stepping into the rotation on the D line?

Lawson: I feel like those guys are stepping up great. Ebo [Ogundeko] is having a great spring and will help us a lot on the pass rush. That’s one guy that’s definitely going to help us a lot this year.

Hale: The guys who left, they played together for a long time and really knew each other well. How has the chemistry been on the line for you and the new starters?

Lawson: That’s what we’ve been doing this offseason, just building a relationship with each other. We’re hanging out as a D-line, building that core and just hanging around each other and bringing the young guys with us.

Hale: What kind of things have you been doing?

Lawson: Playing video games, talking, chilling with each other. We’re always with each other on the weekends. We eat, go out to dinner. We’re a family. We’re trying to build a family bond on the D-line.

Hale: Last year's defense set a pretty high standard, leading the nation in a number of key categories. Do you guys have similar goals?

Lawson: I’ve said there’s no drop off with us. We’re going to continue to bring it. All of us have played in a lot of big games, made big plays in big games. I don’t feel like there’s a drop off. We’ll live up to it, we just have to continue to work hard and get better. We’ll have that goal again of being the No. 1 defense in the nation.

Hale: With so much turnover in personnel, has Coach Venables changed his approach at all during spring practice?

Lawson: Oh no, no. Coach V is the same. He pushes us, comes to work every day to get us better and give us the stuff to make us better. He’s hungry. He’s a hungry coach. That’s what I like about Coach V. There’s no drop off. He doesn’t care who left. He’s doing the same work with us.

Hale: The defensive backs did a nice job last season, but they obviously benefitted from the success of the guys up front. Do you think their experience this season in the back end of the D can now help the younger guys on the line get acclimated?

Lawson: Yeah, those same DBs -- [Jayron] Kearse and Mackensie [Alexander]. Jadar [Johnson] is stepping up for us. T.J. Green. They played all last year and got great chemistry, and they’re going to help us a lot -- hold their coverage and let us get sacks.

A combination of injuries and departures have left Virginia Tech’s secondary sparsely populated this spring -- at least when it comes to veterans. And after Thursday’s practice, defensive coordinator Bud Foster told the Roanoke Times, he was doing a lot of mixing and matching.

It’s tough to formulate a plan with both starting corners -- Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson -- out with injuries, and that’s forced Foster to adapt a bit.

From the Times:

Foster and secondary coach Torrian Gray wanted to keep Chuck Clark at cornerback, rather than move him to what they’ve said is his more natural position at safety, although he’ll play there some this spring too.

That led to more shuffling. Foster didn’t think the top free safety candidates, C.J. Reavis and Desmond Frye, had the straightaway speed to handle the coverage responsibilities required of the position. Enter Donovan Riley, a senior who has played corner his entire career but will get a look at both free safety and rover this spring.

The Times notes that Clark, Facyson and Fuller likely have starting jobs nailed down, but the extra reps for the rest of the group could be helpful in finding safeties ready to perform and depth behind the veterans.

Why is that important? Well, for the first time in a long time, the secondary wasn’t exactly rock solid for Virginia Tech last season.

It’s no secret Foster likes to be aggressive on D. He brings the blitz often -- 47.1 percent of the time in 2014, second in the ACC -- forcing his DBs to hold up in coverage.

Usually, it’s worked. Last season, not so much.

The Hokies allowed 79 plays of 20 yards or more last season, the sixth-most in the nation. Overall, more than 9 percent of their defensive snaps resulted in a gain of 20 yards or more, which was the worst by any Power 5 team by a fairly large margin.

So perhaps some changes at safety aren’t a bad thing. Facyson also missed most of last season, which caused some problems in the secondary. Clark’s move to safety or nickel could help corral some of those long runs, many of which came from opposing QBs, and Fuller remains a star that’s apt to improve in Year 3 in Foster’s system.

The flip side to those numbers, of course, is that the Hokies had as good a pass rush as there was in the ACC. That’s certainly enough to remind Foster where his bread is buttered (as if the win over Ohio State hadn’t already done that), but it would certainly make those gambles on D a little easier to call if the secondary was back to its usual standard.

video The Clemson Tigers continue to prove to be one of the top recruiting staffs in the country. After signing the No. 4-ranked class in February, Dabo Swinney and his staff are at it again. With three ESPN Junior 300 prospects already committed, including, No. 12 Tavien Feaster, the Tigers added another huge pledge Thursday in Rahshaun Smith. Smith joins No. 135 Tavares Chase as Tigers commits from IMG Academy.

By the numbers: Clemson's DBs

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26

Last year, the No. 1 passing defense in the country belonged to Clemson.

This shouldn't be a huge surprise. The Tigers' defense was tops in the nation in 11 categories, and its 157 passing yards per game and 5.3 yards per attempt averages were just the icing on the cake.

But the common wisdom is, despite returning a hefty dose of young talent in that secondary, it's a unit that's apt to take a step back in 2015. The reason is the loss of stars like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony in the front seven.

"They need to be better than what they were," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "That ball may not come out [as fast]. They'll need to be tighter in their coverage, play better awareness and eliminate some mistakes. They need to make marked improvement."

If Venables says it, it's surely true. Then again, the engineer of Clemson's remarkable defense doesn't mind using blunt pessimism as a means of motivation. Venables wants Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and Co. to get better, regardless of how good they were a year ago.

But there should be no question that this secondary is ready to play a leading role in 2015 after enjoying the spoils of Beasley’s pass rush in 2014. In fact, the numbers suggest that, even if Clemson's front seven hadn't been so dominant last year, the secondary would've been awfully good.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Clemson's D affected the quarterback (via either a sack or a hurry) on 29.6 percent of dropbacks last season, which ranked second in the ACC to Virginia Tech. That type of disruption obviously helps the DBs -- forcing the ball out faster and increasing the probability of an offline throw.

But what about the other 70 percent of the time when the quarterback wasn't under pressure?

The numbers show a pretty consistent performance for the Tigers' DBs regardless of the pass rush, with the ACC's lowest yards per attempt and fewest plays of 20-plus yards.

When the QB remained in the pocket, no team allowed a lower completion percentage than Clemson (53.7 percent) and the Tigers' YPA allowed (5.5) was nearly a yard better than any other ACC defense.

In other words, this was a secondary that held up well in coverage.

"I felt this way last year," Kearse said. "We want to show that we're the most talented on the field every time we step out there. It was great to have those guys up front and do what they did, but we held our own in the back end -- and we're going to do the same this year."

Still, Venables' concerns aren't without merit.

Last year, Clemson brought more than four rushers on just 24.7 percent of passing plays, according to ESPN. That was among the lowest rates in the ACC, a course made possible because Beasley and the rest of the line were so effective without additional help. That strategy might not be as effective this season, and Venables said he's willing to open things up if necessary.

"If four doesn't get there, you bring five," he said. "If five doesn't, you bring six. If you're desperate, bring seven. We're aggressive by nature. We want to be able to get there out of our base, but we're not afraid to bring pressure."

So there might be more times this season when the corners are left out on an island, and after Clemson's first spring scrimmage Wednesday, Venables wasn't entirely enthusiastic with his options there.

But perhaps the biggest worry for Venables isn't the shortcomings of Clemson's DBs when the pressure isn't there, but rather the amazing success when it was.

As good as Clemson performed when opposing QBs had time to throw, the numbers when they were hurried were absolutely off the charts -- an 18.1 percent completions percentage, 2.0 yards per attempt, no touchdowns and just one completion of more than 20 yards.

Clemson had 83 such plays last year. If that number is cut significantly in 2015, even those same solid stats the Tigers managed in non-pressure situations last year would be a serious step back.

So perhaps it's not fair to say that the DBs will suffer if the pass rush isn't as good. The numbers suggest they won't. What's more accurate is that if the pass rush isn't there as often in 2015, the DBs simply need to do more to make up for that lost production.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When an all-time program great leaves a school, his presence is felt far longer than the last time he played.

This spring at Florida State, it’s not just Jameis Winston’s name being consistently thrown into that conversation. Former receiver Rashad Greene is talked about at length despite leaving almost three months ago, and he’s spoken about in a manner that can be described as nothing short of reverential.

After four seasons starring at Florida State, finishing as the program’s most prolific receiver, Greene is pursuing an NFL career. His absence leaves a gaping hole at receiver in both leadership and production, but his successors said they’re using the lessons Greene passed along to make up for his departure.

[+] EnlargeTravis Rudolph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTravis Rudolph caught 38 passes as a freshman -- the same number as Rashad Greene three years earlier.

“We’re going to take what he told us and do what we have to do,” junior receiver Jesus Wilson said.

Wilson is the most experienced receiver on the roster. He’s started seven games; Greene started 43.

The Seminoles will rely on a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Wilson and Kermit Whitfield are the only juniors at the position, which is why Wilson acknowledged it is his time to take on a bigger role. The 5-foot-9, 181-pound receiver registered 42 catches as a sophomore. He caught only three passes as a freshman.

While Florida State lacks experience and a proven commodity at receiver with Greene graduating and Kelvin Benjamin bolting for the NFL following the 2013 national championship, the current group of Florida State receivers has the talent to potentially make up for it.

Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Jones, who was academically ineligible last season, was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class. Whitfield also was a highly-ranked recruit in that 2013 class. Sophomore Ermon Lane was the No. 2 receiver in the 2014 class, and Travis Rudolph was not far behind at No. 6. Two 2015 receivers are already enrolled and participating in in spring practices: top-rated athlete George Campbell and sixth-ranked receiver Da’Vante Phillips.

“Just working on our craft and that goes into learning the playbook,” said Rudolph, about the key to turning the promise into on-field production. “What can stop a guy from his highest potential is not learning the playbook.”

Rudolph said he doesn’t assume he will be the No. 1 receiver in the fall, but that it is what he’s working toward -- and he expects his teammates to be doing the same. Rudolph arrived in Tallahassee as one of the more polished high school players, so the expectation was for the 6-foot-2, 187-pound South Florida native to play early. After failing to record a catch in the season’s first three games, Rudolph finished the season with 555 yards. He capped his freshman campaign with six receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.

“It went well, but not as well,” Rudolph said. “But I just got my feet wet and now I know how the system is and adjusted. … Now I’m at the point where everything is natural.”

Last season, Rudolph started six games and worked his way to becoming Winston’s No. 2 threat on the outside. Sean Maguire, the odds-on favorite to be the starting quarterback, worked with Rudolph with the second-string offense to start last fall and he said the difference between Rudolph then and now is “night and day.”

Then Maguire brought up the name from the past, inciting the hype and trying his best to curb it within the same breath.

“I’m not comparing anyone, but I slowly see him going toward Rashad, that route,” Maguire said. “... I was here when Rashad was a sophomore and this is going to be Travis’ sophomore year. They’re both great players, explosive, got that fifth gear to go get the ball and Travis is becoming a leader pretty much every day out there, too.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is not inviting the comparisons, but he isn’t squashing them, either. He said he will wait and see whether Rudolph is the next Greene.

For what it’s worth, Greene had 38 catches as a freshman -- the same as Rudolph. Greene used that season to springboard to 232 more.

“There’s nothing that says he won’t [be like Greene],” Fisher said, “but until someone does that, I’m not going to say they’re going to do that, you know what I mean?”

Dave Clawson was only half kidding when he said the offensive line he inherited at Wake Forest last year would've struggled to match up physically with some high school teams. Talent was one problem, but the size and strength were the immediate concern.

A handful of incoming freshmen probably could've started, but Clawson redshirted them to give them time to bulk up. The rest battled through an unmitigated disaster -- one of the worst offensive performances by an FBS team in recent memory. But as the Demon Deacons hit the practice field this spring, there are only faint reminders of just how bad last year was.

"There will be some growing pains, kids getting out there for the first time," said Wake offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero. "But physically, those younger guys are good players. They're getting better every day, and that's really where you see the biggest difference in our football team. That's really the one spot that's been different, no doubt.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wolford
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsLast season Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford struggled behind an offensive line that allowed 26 more tackles for loss than any team in the country.

To truly appreciate the current state of affairs, it's best to understand rock bottom.

Last season, the line coughed up 26 more tackles for loss than any other team in the country.

Quarterback John Wolford was sacked once every 8.2 attempts, the worst rate of any QB in the nation.

When the QB wasn't on the ground, the running game mustered just 2.47 yards per rush -- the worst rate by any FBS program in more than 10 years.

For the year, Wake averaged just 3.4 yards per play. That's a half-yard less than any other Power 5 team in the last decade.

Turning those numbers around is a daunting task, but as gory as the results were at times last season, the momentum for Clawson's program is clearly pointed in a positive direction.

"We survived it," Ruggiero said. "Now, they're executing the offense a little better and things aren't breaking down as quickly. We've got to keep getting better and do that against Florida State and Clemson and Louisville, so it's certainly not going to be an overnight thing. But there's definitely optimism."

Ruggiero said he's confident that he'll at least have a solid five -- and maybe a few more for depth -- to start the season on the line.

Josh Harris, last year's best blocker, returns at left guard. Redshirt senior Dylan Intemann is getting work at both tackle and guard this spring, providing some much-needed versatility. Junior Will Smith got his first year of real experience under his belt last year, and he's shown marked improvement. Redshirt freshmen Justin Herron, Phil Haynes, Patrick Osterhage and Ryan Anderson have all looked vastly improved from where they were a year ago.

Most importantly, the entire group simply looks like a contingent of real ACC linemen.

"Just looking at the numbers they're lifting, it's just a lot different," Ruggiero said. "You add up the poundage, and we're just playing stronger and more physical. That's just guys in the weight room for one year."

It's not a fully-stocked cupboard yet, but when the Deacons line up during practice, they actually look like a functioning offense routinely.

There's a trickle-down effect. The line does its job, and everyone else can finally do theirs.

"John was avoiding disaster most of the time last year as opposed to actually running plays," Ruggiero said. "This year, he's getting to run some plays and actually execute things and get to the second receiver and third receiver in a progression and have guys in the right spot."

It may sound like marginal progress, but the starting point was so low that the steps Wake is taking this spring appear immense comparatively.

There are still concerns. Experience is lacking. The skill positions are young, too. There's no established depth at running back.

It's a process, and Wake's coaches are still digging for answers. But for the first time, there's a hint of what could be in store, a faint outline of the offense Clawson and Ruggiero envision for the future.

"The young guys are definitely giving us a chance to be a little more optimistic than we were last year," Ruggiero said. "As they continue to improve not just this year but next year and the year after, we'll keep on an upward swing."

Clemson held its first scrimmage of the spring Wednesday, and the offensive star was quarterback Nick Schuessler, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsThe hope for Clemson is for Deshaun Watson to take the majority of the snaps in the fall.

Schuessler is the only experienced QB practicing this spring thanks to a knee injury that has sophomore Deshaun Watson sidelined, and The Post and Courier points out, it might be a blessing that the understudy is getting a lot of work after seeing what a prepared backup meant for the defending national champs, Ohio State.

No one has specifically linked Clemson's situation to the reigning national champs as motivation for the would-be backups who are steering spring practices. Junior Nick Schuessler and rookies Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel don't quite need the reminder, anyhow.

"The next guy's got to be ready," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "We're not going to expect to not win all of a sudden because this guy's out. That's why you recruit, and prepare the depth of your team so when you get in those situations, guys are prepared to respond."

Schuessler, a Mississippi State transfer, entered the spring with 10 career attempts, and he spent nearly all of last season taking second- and third-team reps. This spring, he's gotten a ton of work with the starters, and given Watson's injury history -- three serious issues in the past year -- that's an important safety precaution for the Tigers' offense.

"It's been a big confidence boost getting out there with the great receivers with that first group," Schuessler said. "Getting to prove to everybody that I can play if my number is called, it's been great for me to get some experience with the 1s and some real-time reps."

For all the in-case-of-emergency preparation going on this spring, however, the hope is that it will be Watson taking the vast majority of the snaps in the fall, and on that front, Swinney sounds optimistic, too.

"His rehab has gone tremendous," Swinney said of the QB who underwent surgery on a torn ACL just three months ago. "He's probably about 80 percent right now. Most people would be 50 or 60, but he's not most people. He's a uniquely wired individual. He's great. He's healthier now than he was when he beat South Carolina."

Swinney said he expects Watson to be back leading the offense in summer drills, but in the meantime, the sophomore is getting a chance to catch up on all those mental reps he missed out on when he was thrown to the fire so early in 2014.

"He's working hard in his rehab and his strength, and he's mentally going through practice every day," Swinney said. "When we do our team stuff, he's right by me, and he has to read and process the signal, give me the play, talk through the play -- just like in a game. He's mentally engaged."

Essentially the QB that needed the reps is getting them, and the QB who needed time to process the nuance of the offense is getting that, too.

In an ideal world, Watson would be 100 percent healthy and on the field. But as Plan B scenarios go, this isn't a bad one for the Tigers.

CommitCast: No. 54 Rahshaun Smith replay

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26

OLB Rahshaun Smith, No. 54 in the ESPN Junior 300, announced his commitment to Clemson. Watch the replay and hear why he chose the Tigers.

Dominating Florida is always critical for Florida State, but another secret to the Seminoles' success is doing well in Virginia, and highly-coveted corner Levonta Taylor could be the Noles' next big get from the state.

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They looked pathetic. Even they won't argue that.

Kelby Brown and Braxton Deaver are two of the most accomplished players in Duke's recent program renaissance, but when they rolled up to Chipotle in Brown's pickup truck, stumbled out of the cab and retrieved two sets of crutches from the back, passersby stopped and stared and the hungry patrons inside snickered through their burritos. "It was a hilarious sight," Brown said. "But man, it was terrible."

That scene - hobbling into a fast food restaurant alongside one another - might be the defining memory of what was supposed to be a climactic senior season for Brown and Deaver. They'd both enjoyed career years in 2013 as Duke surged to an ACC Coastal Division title. They both had eyes on a repeat performance and a shot at the NFL in 2014.

Then Brown went down during a scrimmage last August and suffered his third ACL tear in five years at Duke.

A week later, Deaver met the same fate, his second knee injury in the past three years.

In an instant, all the dreams had vanished. The season began, the team moved on and all Brown and Deaver were left with was another long road to recovery together. "I was so distraught and upset when it happened," Deaver said. "Literally, my life was in shambles, and I didn't know what direction to go in. But the people around me, especially Kelby, they allowed me to see the right path. He carried that load with me."

To read David Hale's full story click here.

In this era of accelerating expectations following coaching turnover, some staffs fail to make it to a third year at the program.

NC State coach Dave Doeren and his offensive staff weathered the storm in 2013 as transfer quarterback Jaocby Brissett sat out a year. What followed in 2014 were dramatic improvements in their second season last fall with Brissett orchestrating the offense.

Now in their third year, the Wolfpack passing offense is focused on fine-tuning the unit and ironing out the details.

[+] EnlargeBra'Lon Cherry
Lance King/Getty ImagesBra'Lon Cherry is NC State's leading returning receiver after catching 27 balls for 394 yards last season.

“I think now everyone understands what we want to do,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “There’s familiarity and every knows each other well.”

The offensive numbers were not overwhelming last year. The Wolfpack were 67th in yards per attempt, and Brissett, as a redshirt junior, completed less than 60 percent of his passes. Those are surface statistics, though, which do not tell the full story of a program and player adjusting to the new outfit at NC State.

Brissett was a fourth-year player but had minimal on-field experience. He lost out on the starting quarterback position at Florida and then was forced to sit out a year after transferring to NC State before the 2013 season.

“Jacoby is getting the ball where it needs to go. He does a good job of that,” Canada said. “You have to remember he hadn’t played a lot, but he’s blessed with talent. We saw him mature last year.”

The Wolfpack will need Brissett to continue to mature and lead the offense as NC State has suffered significant personnel losses at receiver. Leading receiver Bo Hines elected to leave school to pursue an Ivy League education. As a true freshman, Hines had 13 more catches and close to twice as many yards as the Wolfpack’s next leading receivers, and he averaged 17 yards per catch on third down.

Sophomore receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who hauled in 22 passes a season ago, is not on the 2015 roster either. Tight end David Grinnage, who showed major promise the second half of 2014, has been sidelined much of spring practice though his health continues to improve.

Canada doesn’t sound too concerned with the receiving corps, however, and said he’s “pleased” with the group he has. Bra'Lon Cherry, who finished second among wide receivers with 27 catches last season, could become the top receiving target in 2015. Canada said the junior is “unbelievably talented” and has played well this spring.

Cherry said his connection with Brissett is getting stronger with each practice and 7-on-7 workout. The timing is almost to the point where each knows where the other will be, and when Cherry turns for the ball Brissett already has the throw en route to the 5-foot-11, 188-pound receiver.

The next step is for Cherry to turn a short reception into an exceptional gain once the ball is in his hands. NC State was a middle-of-the-pack team in explosive plays last season, and Cherry said his personal goal is to increase his 20- and 30-yard catches.

Those plays can ignite an offense, and it’s much easier to put together a four-play touchdown drive than a 12-play drive, especially as a quarterback continues to learn the nuances of the position.

“You just catch the ball and make one guy miss and make the best of every catch you get. That’s the big thing,” Cherry said. “… That’s what’s going to separate the good from the great -- having big, explosive plays.”

Ask NC State running back Matt Dayes about his breakout year in 2014, and he quickly issues a correction.

"I wouldn’t call it a breakout year for me," Dayes says.

A double-check of the stats shows Dayes was one of just three players nationally with more than 300 yards rushing, receiving and in returns; he led the Wolfpack with 1,278 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns; and he won team Offensive MVP honors.

[+] EnlargeNC State
Alex Menendez/Getty ImagesNC State's Matt Dayes had 571 rushing yards and 321 receiving yards on 32 receptions last season.

If that doesn’t qualify as a breakout season, what does?

"Make it to an ACC championship and individually, I would love to have 1,000 rushing yards this season and 1,000 receiving yards -- if that’s even possible," he said. "Those are my personal goals and team goals."

To do that, Dayes would have to accomplish the nearly impossible. Brian Westbrook is the only player in Division I history (FBS or FCS) to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in one season, accomplishing the incredible feat at Villanova in 1998.

Plus, he shares running back duties with Shad Thornton -- not to mention quarterback Jacoby Brissett getting carries of his own. But Dayes says he always has had high standards for himself, going back to his days in high school.

For him, being good is not good enough. Though he played as a true freshman and ran for 252 yards, he called that season a bad time in his life because he came into camp out of shape, did not produce enough, and he had a hard time juggling his schoolwork.

He rededicated himself last spring and became an integral part of the offense, helping NC State average 204.5 yards rushing, its highest average since 1992. With Dayes, Thornton, and Tony Creecy in the backfield -- and Brissett a big part of the run game as well -- the Wolfpack became one of the most balanced offenses in the ACC.

Dayes had hoped for a 1,000 yard season, but ended up with 573 yards on the ground to rank third on the team. He was second with 32 receptions, which went for 321 yards; and he added 384 yards in returns.

Among the players who hit 300 yards in all three categories, Dayes is the only player with five or more touchdowns rushing and receiving. He ended up ranking No. 3 in the ACC in scoring, with 80 points.

"I thought it was down year for me because I expected so much more," Dayes said. "I’m happy with what the team did, but I’m not really happy with what I did. I always want more."

Why does he put so much pressure on himself?

"I always try to be the best at everything that I do," he said. "Someone else is always working hard, so I have to work harder and outperform someone else."

Dayes already has set sky-high goals for himself, but he also wants to make sure he slims down a little more and stays in the 203-205 pound range while building muscle. So far this spring, his teammates have noticed a renewed energy out of him.

"He’s always been fast and explosive," receiver Bra'Lon Cherry said. "He’s being more of a leader, and everybody is looking up to him to make big plays. He’s another big playmaker on our team. We’re going to make sure that he does all he can and plays to his best, and he’ll make us play to our best."

There should be plenty of opportunities. Not only is Dayes expected to get a few more carries, the NC State receiver group is young and trying to build depth, so it would not be a huge surprise if the Wolfpack uses Dayes more out of the backfield to help out the passing game.

"He’s very versatile," offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "He has great hands, he’ll catch it and find a hole. He’s a great football player. He was our offensive MVP because of his versatility."

If he has an even bigger year, Dayes could be a repeat winner.

ACC reporter Jared Shanker contributed to this report.

BUFORD, Ga. -- There is an ongoing argument among fans from the states of California, Florida and Texas about which state produces the best football talent. For years it was a two-state race between California and Texas due to shear numbers of prospects that signed with Division I universities on an annual basis. In recent years, Florida has been much more in the conversation and is now arguably the most talented state when factoring in FBS signees, Power 5 signees and NFL draft choices vs. California and Texas who have a much higher population.
[+] EnlargeTrenton Thompson
Radi Nabulsi/ESPNGeorgia signee Trenton Thompson was the Peach State's top prospect in the 2015 class.
The state of Georgia will never ink the most FBS players in a singular year. That much is known. It's simply a numbers game in that regard and the Peach State's population in 2014 was 10 million compared to nearly 39 million in California, 27 milllion in Texas and closing in on 20 million in Florida. But an argument can be made that the Peach State is actually the top talent producer in terms of top tier or elite talent. Let's take a peek at some numbers that illustrate why the Peach State can make an argument as the top talent producer.

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