Spring look around the ACC
This week's ACC spring notebook addresses the big questions for each team in the conference.
Who will play linebacker for Clemson in 2006? Can Myron Rolle make an immediate impact at Florida State? Will Ralph Friedgen reverse Maryland's recent trend? Our ACC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Boston College Eagles
Matt Ryan is the starting quarterback, but Chris Crane is getting plenty of work in spring practice as his backup. In each of the last three seasons, BC's starting quarterback has been knocked out of games with injuries. Crane played in one game last season as a redshirt freshman, completing 3 of 4 passes for 42 yards and a touchdown against Ball State. In BC's first two scrimmages of the spring, Crane combined to complete 21 of 34 passes for 207 yards and three touchdowns. He connected on a 44-yard strike to Brandon Robinson in the first scrimmage on April 1 and teamed up with Robinson again on a 13-yard scoring pass in Sunday's scrimmage. Crane also threw a 22-yard touchdown to Greg Anderson in the second scrimmage. "It's important to have another one ready to play," coach Tom O'Brien said. "Hopefully, Matt will stay healthy and be able to lead the team all year, but we are very excited about Chris Crane." O'Brien said he is unsure whether he will continue to regularly use his backup quarterback in the second quarter of games next season.
Starting receiver Aaron Kelly, Clemson's second-leading receiver last season, was lost for the rest of spring practice after tearing the posterior cruciate ligament while making a cut during a non-contact drill on March 31. Kelly's knee will not require surgery and the sophomore is expected to be ready to go once fall practice begins in August. Kelly caught 47 passes last season for 575 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman receiver Jacoby Ford, who has been impressive, missed part of the final week of practice after spraining his foot while making a 16-yard catch during a scrimmage on April 1. Sophomore Antonio Clay was in a close battle with incumbent starter Tramaine Billie at strongside linebacker this spring, according to coach Tommy Bowden. Clay played in the middle last season as a true sophomore and made 27 tackles, including a team-high nine stops against Temple. Billie, a senior, has been a starter since the second half of his sophomore season in 2004. Including Billie, each of Clemson's starting linebackers returns. Billie, middle linebacker Anthony Waters and weakside linebacker Nick Watkins accounted for 301 tackles last season. Clay may end up pushing Watkins for a job on the weak side. Clemson announced that its game against Temple has been moved from Philadelphia to Charlotte, N.C., and will be played at Bank of America Stadium on Oct. 12.
Duke Blue Devils
Marcus Jones, who played quarterback and receiver last season as a freshman, is exclusively a quarterback this spring. Jones caught 11 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown and completed 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards in limited time at quarterback. "In this offense you can't be a part-time [quarterback]," said Duke coach Ted Roof. "I think that we'll see, and have seen, some big jumps from Marcus at quarterback because all your time and your preparation is devoted to one position, not being in the multi-position scenario." Roof said Jones and incumbent Zack Asack are competing for the starting job. As if Duke doesn't have enough worries among its every-down players, there is also concern at punter, where Chris Sprague will have to be replaced. Sprague was one of the Blue Devils' most effective players last season, finishing fourth in the ACC with a 41.4-yard average on 76 punts. There's no one on the roster who has punted in a game before. Alex Feinberg and Randy DeSmyter are getting the first crack at the job this spring, although Roof said that incoming freshman Kevin Jones will also get a shot at the job. Safeties Chris Davis and Andreas Platt, linebacker Michael Tauiliili (formerly Michael Brown) and fullback Segun Akande will have criminal charges resulting from a fight in Chapel Hill, N.C., last year dismissed if they complete community service requirements and pay fines. Tauliili, Akande and Platt were charged with failure to disperse upon command. Davis was charged with assault on a law enforcement officer as well as failure to disperse. In an unrelated matter, Platt must return to court on May 15 for sentencing after being found guilty of driving while impaired.
Florida State Seminoles
Freshman safety Myron Rolle capped an impressive spring by returning an interception 64 yards for a touchdown, causing a fumble and making three tackles during the Seminoles' Garnet and Gold game. "Not to sound cocky or anything, but I've always had confidence in my ability that I could play at this level," said Rolle, who enrolled at FSU in January. "My goal is to be a starter that first game." Rolle entered spring as the second-team rover behind Anthony Houllis. "[Rolle] has raised his stock, but has he raised it enough to pass [Houllis]?" FSU coach Bobby Bowden asked. "I don't know. The thing he has shown us is all that we read must be true." One of the battles going on during spring practice is for the vacant punting job. Graham Gano, a first-team USA Today All-American as a high school senior in 2004, served as the Seminoles' kickoff specialist for the final six games last season and is competing with Brent Moody, a transfer from Louisville, to replace Chris Hall. Quarterback Drew Weatherford finished first among ACC quarterbacks last season with 18 interceptions. But Weatherford was not picked off in spring practice until he was intercepted by safety Roger Williams in the Garnet and Gold game.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Senior safety Joe Gaston, one of the most experienced defensive backs in a secondary looking to replace three starters, sustained a major knee injury in practice and will be lost for the 2006 season, coach Chan Gailey said. Gaston, also a top special teams performer, was expected to fill one of the two vacancies left by the departures of starters Chris Reis and Dawan Landry. Jamal Lewis has been moved from cornerback to safety to replace Gaston, who is eligible to redshirt and return for the 2007 season. Djay Jones is working as the starter at the other safety spot. If it wasn't for a hamstring pull during fall practice last year, Rashaun Grant might have entered spring practice as the starting tailback. As a redshirt freshman in 2004, Grant finished second on the Yellow Jackets with 425 rushing yards, including a 122-yard performance against North Carolina State. Grant likely would have been P.J. Daniels' backup last season if not for the hamstring pull that wrecked his season. The injury made it possible for both Tashard Choice and Chris Woods to pass Grant on the depth chart. Grant finished with only 44 yards and 10 carries last season. Choice, who transferred from Oklahoma, had a big season and entered spring as the No. 1 tailback. Even if Choice opens the season against Notre Dame on Sept. 2 as the starter, the speedy, 5-foot-10, 202-pound Grant figures to get plenty of work and a chance to make good on the promise he's shown in the past. Defensive tackle Darryl Richard is back competing for a starting position after missing the 2005 season with a right knee injury. Richard started four games as a true freshman in 2004 and finished with four sacks, including two in Tech's 51-14 victory against Syracuse in the Champs Sports Bowl.
The Terrapins began spring practice on April 1 with coach Ralph Friedgen serving as the team's offensive coordinator. Maryland has been without an offensive coordinator since Charlie Taaffe, who held the job in Friedgen's first five seasons, resigned in February. "I just don't want to hire a guy," Friedgen said. "I have specific needs I want and I'm still looking for that individual." Friedgen could chose to hire a quarterbacks coach and retain the duties of offensive coordinator. No matter who he hires, Friedgen is expected to call plays next season. After going a combined 31-8 in Friedgen's first three seasons, Maryland has registered back-to-back 5-6 seasons. Asked if he was feeling pressure, Friedgen responded, "The pressure is, I'm tired of losing. Whether it's self-imposed or not, doesn't matter. It's time we start winning again. I told our team we probably have more talent now than we ever had since I've been here. To me, we should be peaking right now." Friedgen insists that the starting quarterback job is open despite the return of incumbent Sam Hollenbach, a fifth-year senior. Hollenbach threw for 2,539 yards and 13 touchdowns, but was also intercepted 15 times and displayed questionable decision making at times. Part of Hollenbach's problems are attributable to a collarbone injury he sustained in the seventh game against Virginia Tech. Hollenbach did not undergo surgery and has been cleared to practice, although he won't take part in contact drills. Jordan Steffy, a sophomore who redshirted last season, will push Hollenbach. "One of the things he's got to do better [is], the ball's got to come out of there [quicker]," Friedgen said of Hollenbach. "He's got to make quicker decisions and more accurate decisions. And his pocket presence needs to be better."
Redshirt freshman Darryl Sharpton is beginning to emerge at middle linebacker for the Hurricanes. Junior Glenn Cook began the spring as the starter, but was knocked out of several practices by illness. That allowed Sharpton to step up to the first team and he's left a big impression on Miami's coaching staff. Sharpton played in the Hurricanes' first three games last season before ankle and knee injuries forced him to redshirt. Coach Larry Coker admits he hasn't been "overly pleased" with the play of his middle linebackers the past two seasons. Another young player making a big impression during spring practice is sophomore Reggie Youngblood, who is replacing Eric Winston at left offensive tackle. Youngblood is one of four new starters on the offensive line. Despite limited experience, Youngblood was installed as the starter when practice began in March and has solidified his hold on the position. "He's going to be as good as advertised," Coker said. "He's still young. He's still learning, but he's really going to be a good player, a difference maker-type player. I'm not concerned about him." Safety Brandon Meriweather, Miami's leading tackler, missed the final two weeks of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery. Meriweather will be ready when fall practice begins. Starting receiver Darnell Jenkins was expected to miss the final week of the spring after severely twisting his left ankle on April 7. Ryan Moore, the Hurricanes' other starting receiver, was sidelined for two weeks by a leg muscle pull.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Linebacker Larry Edwards, the Tar Heels' co-leader in tackles last season, sat out the final few workouts of the spring to focus on his school work but is not in danger of being ruled academically ineligible for the 2006 season, according to coach John Bunting. "I know what Larry can do [as a football player]," Bunting said. "Larry will just focus on school work every day, Monday through Friday, at our academic center during the time that we're practicing." Edwards finished with 91 tackles last season, tying fellow linebacker Tommy Richardson. Joey Bozich, who began spring practice competing for the starting quarterback job, has been moved to fullback and will stay there for the 2006 season. Bozich backed up starter Matt Baker last season, but played little while completing 3 of 9 passes for 12 yards and an interception. He was competing this spring with Joe Dailey, a transfer from Nebraska, and redshirt freshman Cameron Sexton. The 6-2, 228-pound Bozich had fallen to No. 3 on the depth chart before switching positions.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Much of the attention this spring as been on the defensive line, where the Wolfpack are trying to replace stalwart defensive ends Mario Williams and Manny Lawson as well as defensive tackle John McCargo. But there are also key vacancies in the linebacking corps where holes were left by the departures of three-year starter Oliver Hoyte and Stephen Tulloch, who enjoyed an outstanding junior campaign that spurred him to enter the NFL draft. The only returning starter is junior LeRue Rumph, who started the first nine games of the 2005 season before sustaining a rib injury. Rumph is listed as the starter on the strong side. Senior Pat Lowery is expected to start at middle linebacker. Lowery started three games last season, including the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The biggest question mark is at weakside linebacker, where junior Ernest Jones opened spring practice as the starter. "We're going to be young on defense," coach Chuck Amato said.
As if the Cavaliers needed any more manpower problems, they lost Eugene Monroe, who was projected to replace D'Brickashaw Ferguson as the starting left tackle. Monroe, the prize of coach Al Groh's 2005 recruiting class, dislocated his left knee on April 1 and underwent surgery on April 7. With Monroe out, sophomore Zak Stair is working with the first team at left tackle. Groh is still holding out hope that Nate Lyles, a starting safety before he sustained a season-ending neck injury against Georgia Tech on Nov. 12, will play. Lyles underwent surgery and is not participating in spring practice. His return would help offset the loss of Tony Franklin, who was dismissed from the team. "His surgery, from a layman's point of view, was remarkably successful," Groh said. "He's doing very well with his rehab. I wouldn't say count him in, but I wouldn't say count him out. It will be some time yet until we can make a determination." Jason Snelling has moved from fullback to tailback and has the inside track to open the 2006 season as the starter. Snelling, a senior, was the Cavaliers' second-leading rusher last season and ran for a career-high 126 yards against Temple. Senior Michael Johnson is the most experienced tailback on the roster, but continues to be plagued by injuries. He is not taking part in spring practice because of an ankle injury that he sustained last fall. "He got hurt in October, came back and played some in December and now he's worse in March," Groh said. "We do have a concern there. His game is speed and we've got to make sure his wheels are in shape and try to avoid any antagonizing of the issues that are involved with his ankle."
Virginia Tech Hokies
Defensive end Noland Burchette, a projected starter for the 2006 season, fractured his left forearm during a scrimmage on April 1 and was expected to undergo surgery. He is expected to be ready for fall practice in August. Receiver Josh Hyman was also lost for the rest of spring practice because of a shoulder injury that will also require surgery. Quarterback Ike Whitaker was reinstated for the Hokies' final eight spring practices after he pleaded no contest to charges of public intoxication, underage possession of alcohol and destruction of property in an on-campus incident that took place March 1. All three misdemeanor charges will be wiped off Whitaker's record if the redshirt freshman stays out of trouble for a year and serves 25 hours of community service among other requirements. "I'm working hard to be part of this football team," Whitaker told the Roanoke Times-Dispatch. "I've got a lot of work to do on and off the field, and that's all I'm concentrating on at this point." Whitaker is No. 4 on the quarterback depth chart. With starter Branden Ore sitting out spring practice while he rehabilitates his surgically repaired right shoulder, sophomore George Bell is getting snaps as the No. 1 tailback. Bell has played little since badly injuring his left knee as a junior in high school. Bell played in three games games as a high school senior, redshirted in 2004 then saw action primarily in garbage time last season as a fourth stringer while rushing 42 times for 192 yards and two touchdowns. "Bell is showing, more than ever, that he's over his knee injury," said coach Frank Beamer. Bell is competing with 5-9, 221-pound Elan Lewis, who Beamer concedes is "a little bit heavy," and Kenny Lewis, a member of Virginia Tech's 2003 recruiting class who spent the past three years playing baseball in the Cincinnati Reds' organization. "There's a little bit going on with all of them," Beamer said. One of the three will share playing time next fall with Ore in running backs coach Billy Hite's two-tailback system. Macho Harris moved back to cornerback after spending the first two weeks of spring practice at tailback. In his final scrimmage before heading back to defense, where he played last season as a freshman, Harris ran for 47 yards on 10 carries, but fumbled twice. Beamer has said Harris could be a two-way player, but his major value for next season will be as a cornerback. "I want to solidify the secondary right now and I think we need Macho to go over there and challenge Roland Minor and [Brandon] Flowers for some playing time," Beamer said.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Alphonso Smith, coming off a strong freshman campaign, is a certain starter at one cornerback spot for the Demon Deacons. Not so certain is the other cornerback position, where Riley Swanson and Kevin Patterson are battling. Patterson won the job at the beginning of 2005 season, but was knocked out of the lineup after he was required to undergo an appendectomy in November. Swanson, a senior, stepped in for Patterson and is listed first on the spring practice depth chart. Nate Morton, Wake's leading receiver in 2005 with 39 receptions for 482 yards and two touchdowns, was out after breaking his hand in the opening days of spring practice. Fortunately, the Demon Deacons have no shortage of pass catchers. There are 10 scholarship receivers in camp and three walk-ons. New receivers coach Tim Billings is looking for someone to emerge as a starter opposite Morton. The best player in the ACC you may not have heard much about is Wake free safety Josh Gattis. The 6-2, 212-pound senior finished eighth nationally last season with five interceptions and was one of only three players in Division I-A to return two interceptions for touchdowns. Gattis also made 15 special teams tackles, tops in the ACC, and finished with 72 tackles to finish second on the team. A second-team All-ACC selection in 2005, Gattis is one of 10 starters on defense returning for the 2006 season. Since the 2003 season, only Virginia Tech (18) has scored more touchdowns on defense than Wake Forest's 13. Of those scores, 10 have come on interceptions and three on fumble returns.
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.