Spring look around the ACC
This week's ACC spring notebook addresses the big questions for each team in the conference.
Which Virginia Tech QB enters fall drills at the top of the Hokies' depth chart? How does Florida State's running game look this spring? Which Miami receiver is hoping to step up his game in 2006? Our ACC notebook addresses those questions and much more.
Boston College Eagles
The Eagles haven't gotten a chance this spring to see what their defensive line will look like when the season kicks off on Aug. 31 at Central Michigan. BC lost All-American end Mathias Kiwanuka and defensive tackle Al Washington, and three key players -- Justin Bell, Jim Ramella and Keith Willis -- were out all spring while recovering from injuries. "It definitely is a concern," said BC coach Tom O'Brien. "When you lose a guy like Kiwanuka, that will be a tough thing for us to make up." The returning starters on the line are junior end Nick Larkin, who finished 2005 with six sacks, and junior tackle B.J. Raji, a 337-pound run stuffer. Both Larkin and Raji started every game last season. Linebacker Brian Toal is not taking part in contact drills during the spring, but he said the nerve damage sustained in the shoulder area last season against North Carolina should be completely healed by fall practice. The Eagles will need a healthy Toal following the departures of starting linebackers Ricky Brown and Ray Henderson. Juniors Jolonn Dunbar and Tyronne Pruitt figure to be capable replacements, but depth is a major concern. Kevin Akins and Garrett Seeger were moved from the secondary to linebacker for spring drills.
Quarterback Will Proctor, the heir apparent to Charlie Whitehurst, had a forgettable performance in the Tigers' spring game on April 8. Proctor completed 4-of-9 passes for 73 yards and threw three consecutive interceptions during one stretch. Still, neither Proctor nor Clemson coach Tommy Bowden seemed particularly troubled by the outing. Bowden indicated Proctor had already proven himself to be ready as the Tigers' next quarterback during his work in the spring. "He hasn't traveled a long way, but he didn't have a long way to travel," Bowden said. Starting receivers Aaron Kelly and Chansi Stuckey sat out the spring game with injuries. That allowed Tyler Grisham and Rendrick Taylor to shine. Grisham caught nine passes for 106 yards, while the speedy Taylor had a 97-yard touchdown off a short screen pass and finished with four catches for 174 yards. Clemson appears well-stocked at receiver. Stuckey led the ACC with 64 receptions while Kelly had 47, the second-highest total by a Clemson freshman, in 2005. Sergio Gilliam, competing to regain a starting cornerback job, intercepted three passes in the spring game. Gilliam started the first nine games in 2005 but entered spring listed as a backup.
Duke Blue Devils
No player is more important to the Blue Devils' fortunes than sophomore quarterback Zack Asack, who started six games last season as a freshman. Asack had his moments -- he completed 26-of-43 passes for 328 yards against Clemson -- but finished 2005 with eight interceptions and five touchdown passes. Asack, battling fellow sophomore Marcus Jones for the quarterback job this spring, says he's much further ahead than he was at the end of last season. Coach Ted Roof agrees. "He's definitely a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident," Roof told the Winston-Salem Journal. "Confidence comes from understanding things, not just ability. I've definitely seen some improvement, but we're not ready to say he's done." The success of Asack or Jones will depend greatly on the team's inexperienced receiving corps. Duke is practicing without projected starter Jomar Wright, who continues to recover from a knee injury that forced him to miss the final six games of 2005. With Wright unable to take part in contact drills, opportunities have opened for the team's other receivers, including senior Deon Adams. Adams has been hampered by injuries for much of his career and was limited to 10 catches for 100 yards in 2005. The best of the receivers might be sophomore Eron Riley. Riley caught 11 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman and had a breakout game against Clemson, pulling in four passes for 130 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown. As a freshman in 2005, middle linebacker Michael Brown led Duke with 92 tackles. Brown is back for his sophomore season, but now he's known as Michael Tauiliili. He changed his name to pay respect to his Samoan heritage. "My mom is from Samoa," said Tauiliili, who took the name Brown from his stepfather. "When I went back to Samoa and talked to my family, I felt that as I got older and more mature and understood my heritage, it was necessary to embrace it to the fullest." Whatever the name, Tauiliili will be back in the middle of the Blue Devils' defense in 2006. Not only did Tauiliili lead Duke in tackles last season after replacing the injured Codey Lowe in the starting lineup, but he also led the nation's freshmen in tackles, tackles for loss (10) and forced fumbles (3).
Florida State Seminoles
Tailbacks Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith shared the Seminoles' spring MVP award on offense, while linebacker Lawrence Timmons was named the defense's MVP by the team's coaches. The play of Booker and Smith was particularly welcomed considering that increased production from the ground game is a priority heading into the 2006 season. The Seminoles finished last in the ACC in 2005 in rushing with a 99.7-yard-per-game average. Booker seriously considered skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft but chose to return. He'll be the starter ahead of Smith, a sophomore who many considered the nation's top high school running back in 2004. As a freshman, Smith rushed 36 times for 188 yards and three touchdowns while playing behind Booker and Leon Washington. Timmons, a junior, replaces Ernie Sims as the starting strongside linebacker. Smith and Timmons also were named recipients of the Hinesman Award, which goes to the spring's most dominant player on offense and defense.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Kicker Travis Bell went from Mr. Dependability as a freshman in 2004 to Mr. Unpredictable in '05. Bell began the season well enough, hitting his first five field goals. Then things got crazy. Bell missed his next six attempts, bounced back to connect on five in a row, then missed his final four regular-season opportunities. He finished 11-for-21 after making a 29-yarder against Utah in the Emerald Bowl. As a freshman, Bell made 15-of-17 attempts and was a second team All-ACC selection. Coach Chan Gailey thinks that surgery for a sports hernia before the 2005 season may have derailed Bell. "I think what happened is he tried to come back a little [too] quick and he changed his motion just barely, and all it takes is just a small adjustment to throw you off as a kicker," said Gailey, adding that Bell has had a "great spring. He looks like he's back to his old form." Gailey says Mansfield Wrotto's move from the defensive to offensive line is a big success. The 6-5, 310-pound Wrotto started 32 games as a defensive tackle his first three seasons before shifting to right offensive tackle this spring. He'll join four returning starters when the Yellow Jackets open the season against Notre Dame on Sept. 2. "He'll step right in and be a big boost," Gailey said. "He's had a good spring. Plus, if he's going to play at the next level, it's going to be in the offensive line. So it's a great move for him personally." James Johnson, the other Johnson in Georgia Tech's receiving corps, likely will miss all of spring practice because of a hamstring pull. Johnson caught 14 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns last season and was projected to start opposite All-American Calvin Johnson in 2006. But his absence this spring has given valuable practice reps to other receivers, including Xavier McGuire, who has closed in on James Johnson, according to receivers coach Buddy Geis.
Except for throwing a combined three interceptions, quarterbacks Sam Hollenbach and Jordan Steffy put up good numbers in the Terrapins' first spring scrimmage on April 8. Hollenbach, the starter for most of last season, completed 10-of-16 passes for 158 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception. Steffy, who redshirted in 2005, connected on 11-of-19 passes for 165 yards. He threw two interceptions and two touchdown passes. After starting the scrimmage by completing only 1-of-6 passes and throwing both of his interceptions, Steffy finished the day by going 10-of-13 with two scores. The Terps are looking for some quality receivers and may have found a couple in senior Drew Weatherly and sophomore Darrius Heyward-Bey. Weatherly, the team's leading returning receiver with 10 catches, caught two passes for 79 yards and a touchdown in the April 8 scrimmage while Heyward-Bye, who reportedly has 4.32 speed in the 40-yard dash, caught five passes for 114 yards and one touchdown. Florida transfer Josh Portis impressed in his first action in a Maryland uniform. Portis completed 2-of-3 passes for 28 yards in Maryland's scrimmage and showed good zip on his throws. Portis must sit out the 2006 season under NCAA transfer rules.
After a strong freshman performance, starting receiver Ryan Moore has turned in two consecutive disappointing seasons. After catching 44 passes for a team-high 637 yards in 2003, Moore followed with only nine catches for 85 yards during an injury-ravaged sophomore campaign in 2004. Last season, Moore started off well but finished with only 11 receptions in his last six regular-season games and was suspended for the Peach Bowl loss to LSU for an undisclosed violation of team policy. Moore considered departing for the NFL in January but returned for his senior season. He wasn't able to do much in spring practice, missing two full weeks after pulling a leg muscle. Despite his past woes, he is being counted on to step up in 2006. Beyond Moore, Lance Leggett and Darnell Jenkins, the Hurricanes have little depth at receiver. Backup quarterback Kirby Freeman was expected to announce at a Friday news conference that he is staying at Miami for his sophomore season. Freeman, from Brownwood, Texas, said during UM's spring practice that he was contemplating transferring in order to get more playing time. The 6-feet-3, 204-pound Freeman is stuck behind junior quarterback Kyle Wright, who has two more years of eligibility remaining. If Freeman had transferred, the Hurricanes could have found themselves in a very difficult position next season with Wright and incoming freshman Daniel Stegall as the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. If Wright plays out his remaining two years, Freeman will not get a crack at the starting job until his senior season in 2008. The Hurricanes received relatively good news on starting defensive tackle Teraz McCray, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee this week but should be ready to participate in summer workouts. McCray, a junior, missed the last week of spring practice after getting hurt. He injured the same knee during spring practice in 2005 and underwent reconstructive surgery. McCray returned to play in the final five games of the season and began spring listed No. 1 at right tackle.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels concluded spring practice with no clear-cut No. 1 quarterback. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The competition between redshirt freshman Cam Sexton and Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey was good enough that coach John Bunting feels that he will have a solid starter no matter who ends up with the job. Bunting said he would not make a decision until fall practice. The quarterbacks' performances in the team's spring game didn't do anything to separate them. Dailey, who started 11 games for the Cornhuskers in 2004, completed 8-of-15 passes for 65 yards. Sexton connected on only 2-of-3 passes for 13 yards, but two of his longer completions were called back by penalties. Dailey is considered the better runner, while Sexton has the stronger arm. "The major difference right now is that Joe has been under center in 11 games, and that's an advantage -- that's a distinct advantage," Bunting said.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
The Wolfpack flashed depth at tailback during the Red-White Game on April 8. Andre Brown, named the offense's most valuable performer for his play during spring practice, had 58 yards on 10 carries. That was surpassed by both of his backups. No. 2 Toney Baker ran for 114 yards on nine carries, including a 64-yard touchdown run. Most impressive was redshirt freshman Jamelle Eugene, who ran for 105 yards in 16 attempts and caught three passes for 29 yards. "Jamelle Eugene -- don't forget that name," coach Chuck Amato said. Starting fullback Reggie Davis was moved to weakside linebacker during the final week of practice on an experimental basis, but he might wind up playing there next season. Davis finished tied for the team lead with seven tackles in the spring game. That was the most tackles by a linebacker during scrimmages this spring, according to Amato. The move was reportedly made with the thought that Davis would return to fullback for the Red-White Game, but he chose to stay at his new spot. "He has some really good instincts," Amato said. "I think it will be a work in progress." The Wolfpack lost two starting linebackers in Oliver Hoyte and Stephen Tulloch. Redshirt freshman Willie Young had three sacks in the Red-White Game. Young is being counted on to provide some of the pass-rush presence that was lost with the departures of standout bookends Manny Lawson and Mario Williams.
There has been a definite shortage of good news this offseason in Charlottesville. Local police announced on April 11 that two more Virginia football players -- offensive tackles Eddie Pinigis and Zak Stair -- have been arrested in connection with a March 3 break-in and brawl at a campus fraternity. Pinigis and Stair were charged with entering a property with intent to damage, a misdemeanor. Pinigis is a projected starter at right tackle, while Stair had been taking first-team snaps at left tackle since Eugene Monroe was lost for the rest of spring practice with a dislocated knee cap. Also charged in the incident are Cavs cornerback Mike Brown and former defensive end Vince Redd, who was dismissed from the team last month by coach Al Groh for unspecified reasons. Brown was charged with a felony and misdemeanor but has been allowed to continue taking part in spring practice. Ian-Yates Cunningham is working as the No. 1 center after spending most of his career at guard. Cunningham started five games as a freshman in 2003 but redshirted in 2004 after undergoing back surgery. He was limited to seven games last season, including one start, as his recovery progressed slowly.
Virginia Tech Hokies
A few days after spring practice concluded, coach Frank Beamer announced that sophomore Sean Glennon will enter the fall drills as the Hokies' No. 1 quarterback. Glennon is listed No. 1, followed in order by Cory Holt, Ike Whitaker and Greg Boone. Beamer emphasized that it's not guaranteed that Glennon will start the season opener on Sept. 2 against Northeastern. "We have a pecking order," Beamer said. "We're not saying who is the starter. We want the competition to continue, but we wanted an order right now of how we see this thing. I think somewhere in mid-preseason, we really need to get it established say this is the direction we're going. The sooner we can do that, the better." Senior Brandon Frye solidified his hold as the starting left offensive tackle. He replaces Jimmy Martin, who started 45 consecutive games before a knee injury knocked him out of Va. Tech's Gator Bowl victory against Louisville. Frye stepped in and held Elvis Dumervil, Louisville's All-American defensive end, to two tackles. The plan at the beginning of the spring was to move Frye to right tackle and switch Duane Brown to the left side. But that decision was nixed and Frye will open the 2006 season against Northeastern in Martin's old spot. Victor "Macho" Harris, who spent the first half of spring practice at tailback, beat out incumbent Roland Minor as the starter at one cornerback spot. Beamer said that Minor "had gotten a little shoddy" with his fundamentals. Greg Boone, listed No. 4 on the Hokies' quarterback depth chart, might be moved to another position. Boone, a redshirt freshman, weighs 275 pounds, and that's down from 287 pounds. "I certainly think he can help us at another position," Beamer said. "That would have to be his call if he wants to move somewhere else." Running back Elan Lewis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and is expected to undergo surgery. Lewis was one of three candidates for the backup job behind starter Branden Ore, who is sitting out this semester while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Trainer Mike Goforth said Lewis might be able to play in 2006 even if he has surgery.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Any question that junior Benjamin Mauk will be the Demon Deacons' starting quarterback to begin the 2006 season against Syracuse was put to rest this spring. Coach Jim Grobe said he saw nothing during the 15 spring practices that would keep Mauk from opening fall practice as the No. 1. "It's absolutely Ben Mauk's job," Grobe said. "He's our quarterback right now, and we want it to stay that way, and the other quarterbacks understand that. He's had a great spring. He's performing like a veteran quarterback now and that's what we need." Mauk started six games last season, but threw only one touchdown pass with six interceptions. Grobe said Mauk has improved his decision-making substantially. "The one thing Ben's done is he's calmed down a lot," Grobe said. "He doesn't have happy feet. He's not looking to run around all the time. The thing he's doing best right now is that when everything falls apart, his job is to get back to the line of scrimmage. We've got to limit the number of eight-to-10 yard sacks we took last year."
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.