Spring look around the ACC
As spring practices start, our ACC notebook addresses the big questions for each team.
Why is Miami quarterback Kirby Freeman thinking about transferring to another school? Which defensive player is enjoying a standout spring for Florida State? Could John Kinzer's career be over at Virginia Tech? Our ACC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
The departure of Mathias Kiwanuka was a big hit for BC, but the loss of middle linebacker Ray Henderson might be felt just as deeply. Coach Tom O'Brien calls the middle linebacker spot "the most important position of the front seven" on his defense, and Henderson filled that role admirably, starting the last 37 games of his career. In Henderson's place steps in junior Jolonn Dunbar, who finished seventh on the team with 50 tackles in 2005. Dunbar started against Maryland in place of an injured Brian Toal and returned a fumble 94 yards for a touchdown, the longest in school history. Linebacker Toal is taking part in spring practice even though O'Brien admits the junior hasn't recovered fully from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the 2005 regular-season finale against Maryland and limited him in the MPC Computers Bowl victory over Boise State. Punter Johnny Ayers will sit out spring practice to play for BC's baseball team. Counting games through March 26, Ayers was leading the Eagles with a .356 batting average and 10 stolen bases. It will be a big spring for kicker Ryan Ohliger, whose inconsistency cost him the starting job in 2005 before he regained it later in the season. Ohliger made only 9-of-14 field-goal attempts last season and could be pressed for the job in fall practice by freshman Billy Flutie, the nephew of Doug Flutie.
Offensive line should be an area of strength for Clemson, which returns all five starters. Four of the starters -- center Dustin Fry, tackle Marion Dukes and guards Roman Fry and Nathan Bennett -- are seniors. Tackle Barry Richardson is a junior. Among the quintet, only the 295-pound Bennett tips the scales at under 300 pounds. Bennett is the most experienced player among the returnees with a string of 30 starts over the last three seasons. There's also experience among the backups. Guard Brandon Pilgrim started four games in 2005, while senior tackle Tim DeBeer played in 11 games and over 150 snaps. The 24 receptions by Clemson's tight ends in 2005 were the most in 30 seasons. Senior Thomas Hunter, who started six of 12 games last season, is penciled in as the starter. He had 13 receptions for 130 yards last year, including a career-high three catches in the Champs Sports Bowl victory against Colorado. None of the other tight ends on the Tigers' roster has caught a pass. Punter Cole Chason, a two-year starter, hopes to forget 2005. Chason's average dipped from 40.2 yards in 2004 to 36.4 yards, and he had five punts blocked as the Tigers struggled all season with their protection. Clemson's net average of 29.42 yards was the third worst in Division I-A. Freshman Richard Jackson could push Chason for the job, although coach Tommy Bowden has praised Chason's work in spring practice. "I just have to figure if he is teasing me or not," Bowden said.
One of the main priorities of spring practice must be finding four starting offensive linemen. Right tackle Demetrius Warrick and left guard Jim Moravchik were seniors last season and left tackle Lavdrim Bauta and right guard Tyler Krieg chose to give up their senior seasons. The only returnee is center Matt Rumsey, and that's not all bad news considering the Blue Devils finished next to last in the ACC with 32 sacks allowed. "For the third straight year, we'll have to retool this group," said third-year coach Ted Roof. Aside from Rumsey, the only player on the roster who previously has started a game is tackle Cameron Goldberg, who opened the 2005 regular-season finale against North Carolina. Goldberg is expected to be the starting left tackle. Junior Patrick Bailey, who started the first eight games of 2005 at linebacker before missing the rest of the year with an ankle injury, has moved back to defensive end where he played 10 games as a freshman. Cornerback John Talley, an All-ACC first-team defensive back, is not participating in spring practice as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Talley leads a secondary that may be the strongest unit on the Blue Devils' squad. Cornerback Deonto McCormick and free safety Chris Davis (both players started every game last season) are back. Andreas Platt and Glenn Williams are competing for the vacant strong safety position.
With Leon Washington gone, Antone Smith has moved up a spot on the tailback depth chart behind Lorenzo Booker. Smith saw action in nine games last season as a true freshman and rushed 36 times for 188 yards and three touchdowns. Among FSU runners with more than 10 carries, Smith ranked first with 5.2 yards per attempt. Smith, at 5-feet-9 and 188 pounds, generally was considered the nation's top high school running back in 2004 and caused a stir by choosing FSU instead of Miami. Junior Lawrence Timmons has solidified his hold on the strongside linebacker position with a big spring, and that's big as in big hit. That's what he handed fullback Joe Surratt during a scrimmage last Saturday, causing a fumble. "Everytime I see a collision out there, I look around to see if [Timmons] is out there, and it's usually him," said FSU coach Bobby Bowden. Timmons is replacing Ernie Sims, who opted out of his senior season to enter the NFL draft. After playing middle linebacker the past two seasons, Buster Davis was moved to the weakside at the beginning of spring practice with Timmons on the strongside and Derek Nicholson in the middle. The Seminoles have a host of players vying to replace defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, including sophomores Letroy Guion, Emmanuel Dunbar and Aaron Jones III and redshirt freshman Kendrick Stewart. Guion is the only candidate with more than mop-up experience. He started against The Citadel last season in place of Andre Fluellen, who returns to start at the other defensive tackle spot. Jones was considered one of the nation's top high-school interior linemen in 2004, but has yet to live up to his press clippings.
The Yellow Jackets began spring practice on Wednesday with three starters limited by injuries and a key backup sidelined for all 15 practices. Defensive tackle Joe Anoai, fullback Michael Cox and linebacker KaMichael Hall (all returning starters) will not take part in contact drills while they recover from injuries. Jacob Lonowski, a reserve offensive lineman last season with a chance to start in 2006, will sit out the entire spring while recuperating. Reggie Ball is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, but the Yellow Jackets will be looking to establish a backup during the spring. The odds-on favorite for the job is Taylor Bennett, the only quarterback on the roster besides Ball to have playing experience. Bennett, a redshirt sophomore, played in three games last year and started against Connecticut after Ball became ill prior to the game. On his very first snap against the Huskies, Bennett hit All-American receiver Calvin Johnson with a 42-yard touchdown pass. Overall, Bennett completed 14-of-37 passes for 145 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in 2005. The other candidates for the backup job are Kyle Manley and Jonathan Garner. "Taylor is No. 2 right now, but nothing is etched in stone," said Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey. Georgia Tech ranked among the Top 25 in virtually every defensive category last season, but it must replace several key performers. The hardest hit area on defense was in the secondary, which lost three starters. Gone are cornerback Dennis Davis and safeties Chris Reis and Dawan Landry. Junior Djay Jones and senior Joe Gaston have the inside track on the two starting jobs at safety while Jamal Lewis, a nickel back last season, moves up to the No. 1 cornerback opposite two-year starter Kenny Scott. The Yellow Jackets' defensive backfield led the ACC in interceptions last season with 19.
The Terrapins will be the last ACC team to open spring practice when they begin on April 1, and one of the main orders of business will be to find some receivers for quarterback Sam Hollenbach. Vernon Davis, arguably the nation's best tight end in 2005, left early for the NFL and the top two receivers, Jo Jo Walker and Derrick Fenner are also gone. Dan Gronkowski, primarily a blocker, is listed first on the depth chart at tight end although Jason Goode will push him for playing time. There's little experience at receiver where senior Drew Weatherly is the team's top returning pass catcher with 10 receptions last season. "We are young, but I think we have talent," coach Ralph Friedgen said. Defensive lineman Melvin Alaeze, considered the Terps' top recruit in 2005, is still trying to meet NCAA academic standards so that he can enroll at Maryland. Alaeze prepped last season at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.
No. 2 quarterback Kirby Freeman said that he's contemplating transferring after spring practice ends. Freeman, a sophomore, is the backup to starter Kyle Wright, a junior. If Wright remains in school through his senior season, Freeman would get his only shot to start as a senior in 2008. "I don't want to leave," said Freeman, who played well last season in nine appearances. "I'm happy where I'm at. But in the long run, I want to play. Right now, I'm playing behind a really good quarterback. In the best case, Kyle plays really well and he has the opportunity to play at the next level [after the 2006 season] and I get two years to start. That's perfect for me. It's a pending process. I don't know what I'm going to do." Losing Freeman would be a major blow for the Hurricanes. His departure would result in Miami going into next season with only two scholarship quarterbacks -- Wright and incoming freshman Daniel Stegall. With the Hurricanes short on receivers this spring, punter Brian Monroe is getting some work at the position and coach Larry Coker said there is a good chance he could contribute on offense next season. In Miami's first scrimmage last Saturday, Monroe pulled in a 70-yard pass. Monroe, a senior, has been working out with the receivers since he was a freshman, but things have become more serious this spring. He was handed a playbook and has been attending daily meetings with the team's wideouts. Coker has often said that the 6-feet-1, 208-pound Monroe is athletic enough to play an every-down position. "I'm very excited about that," said Monroe about the opportunity to play receiver in 2006. "Anything that will help this team. But I'm still going to be the punter."
Among the list of players not participating in spring practice because of injuries are several starters (left tackle Brian Chacos, middle linebacker Durell Mapp, strong safety Trimane Goddard and cornerback Jacoby Watkins). Starting linebacker Larry Edwards is sitting out the second part of spring practice to "focus on his academics," according to a school press release. The Tar Heels need a comeback season from junior kicker Connor Barth, who connected on only 11-of-21 field goal attempts in 2005 after making 14-of-18 as a freshman in 2004. Barth especially struggled on kicks from 30 yards or further (5-of-14).
Coach Chuck Amato is happy with the spring performance of junior quarterback Marcus Stone, who has solidified his position. "Marcus is better now than when we finished last season," Amato said. "There is no question about who the quarterback is." The bigger question is who will be Stone's backup. Sophomore Daniel Evans and redshirt freshman Mike Greco are battling for the spot. Neither of the potential backups has any collegiate playing experience. Amato said he's also pleased with the development of Darrell Blackman, the special teams standout who is making the move from running back to receiver this spring. Blackman began the transition to receiver during practice for the Meineke Car Care Bowl in December. The Wolfpack are looking to replace their three leading receivers from 2005. "I think he sees how much damage he can do," Amato said. "He has great hands. If we can get him the ball, he is capable of making big plays."
The Cavaliers opened spring practice on Wednesday following a turbulent offseason that was capped by coach Al Groh's announcement this week that two starting defensive players -- linebacker Ahmad Brooks and safety Tony Franklin -- and a key reserve -- defensive end Vince Redd -- had been kicked off the team for repeated violation of team rules. "It's not a big issue for me," Groh said. Another potential starter, cornerback Mike Brown, was arrested on Monday night and faces felony and misdemeanor charges in connection with a brawl at a fraternity house. Apart from the personnel issues, UVa is also incorporating four new assistants, including new coordinators on offense, defense and special teams. "We have a significant rebuilding job ahead of us," Groh said. The career of Brooks had been in a free fall since he was an All-ACC pick and a Butkus Award finalist as a sophomore in 2004. Brooks, the USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 and one of the highest-profile recruits in school history, missed six games last season with injuries. Brooks, a senior, cannot transfer to another Division I-A school, but would be immediately eligible if he takes a step down to Division I-AA. Another option could be applying for the NFL's supplemental draft. Brooks was once considered a certain first-round draft pick, but he's far from that now. Among those not expected to take part in spring practice are linebacker Rashawn Jackson, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and Michael Johnson, an injury-plagued tailback now bothered by a right foot injury.
John Kinzer, who was penciled in to replace Jeff King as the Hokies' starting tight end, is sitting out this spring with a neck problem that could jeopardize his career. Kinzer started seven games last year in Virginia Tech's two tight-end sets and caught nine passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. A junior, Kinzer said he's been having problems with "stingers" for two years. "Whether he'll play next fall is still up in ther air," coach Frank Beamer said. No other tight end on the roster besides Kinzer has experience. Beamer said a pair of redshirt freshmen, Ed Wang and Sam Wheeler, will man the position during the spring along with Richard Graham, another redshirt freshman who is being moved over from the offensive line. Of Wheeler and Wang, Beamer said, "They both have athletic ability. They both have toughness. They just don't have experience." The Hokies are grooming Victor "Macho" Harris to be a two-way player. Beamer said the sophomore will spend the first half of spring practice at tailback and then return to cornerback, where he played last season, for the second part of the team's 15 workouts. Harris was the only true freshman to see action last season. "When I recruited him, I told him my plan was to get him on offense some and on defense some and I think he's kind of guy that can handle it," Beamer said. "He's got that kind of ability. I saw him [in high school] and I thought he was pretty special when he had the ball in his hands." Beamer's staff had remained largely intact in recent years until this offseason. Four new assistants have been added, but Beamer said he's worried about the turnover. "It's one of those things that I lost some good coaches and I got some good coaches," said Beamer, who hired Mike O'Cain (quarterbacks), Kevin Sherman (receivers), Curt Newsome (tight ends/offensive tackles) and Torrian Gray (defensive backs). "I'll be honest with you, I think sometimes maybe some new guys, some new thoughts, it's not totally bad. I think we got that."
Ben Mauk is one of the highest-profile recruits in Jim Grobe's five seasons as the Demon Deacons' coach. But Grobe and the team's fans are still waiting for Mauk, who set national high-school passing records in Ohio, to make good on the hype. Mauk has started nine games over the past two seasons, but he has thrown nine interceptions and only three touchdown passes. "He's had quite a bit of pressure on him because of his high school background," Grobe told the Winston-Salem Journal. "There were a lot of expectations. I think, coming in, probably too many by him and too many by people that support our program. But now all that's done. There's no more mystique. Now the only pressure is to perform." Grobe makes clear that the starting job is Mauk's to lose. The only quarterback on the roster with experience is sophomore Allan Holland, who played a few snaps in last season's rout of Duke. Riley Skinner and Brett Hodges are redshirt freshmen and freshman Zach MacDowall enrolled at Wake in January.
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.
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