Breakout players to watch in the ACC

With spring practices getting started, our ACC notebook takes a look at this season's potential breakout players.

Updated: March 27, 2007, 12:54 PM ET
By Jorge Millian | Special to ESPN.com

Will Vince Oghobaase help Duke turn its program around? Can Antone Smith step up for Florida State? Will Josh Adams help Wake Forest build on last season's surprising campaign? Our ACC notebook takes a look at this season's potential breakout players.

Boston College Eagles
Ready to break out: Brandon Robinson, receiver. As a sophomore last season, Robinson finished third on the Eagles with 36 receptions for 490 yards, but his 13.6-yards per catch average was best among players with more than 10 catches. With starting receiver Tony Gonzalez gone and quarterback Matt Ryan back, Robinson will get even more opportunities this season to pad his numbers.

• Linebacker Brian Toal will not participate in spring drills because of a shoulder injury. It's the second consecutive spring that the senior has been forced to sit out by the injury. Coach Jeff Jagodzinski has indicated that he may no longer use Toal as a short-yardage and goal-line specialist.

• How did Eagles punter Johnny Ayers spend his spring? By becoming part of a trivia question. Ayers, who doubles as an outfielder on BC's baseball team, became the first batter to face Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka during an exhibition game on March 2. Overwhelmed? Not at all. Ayers ripped Matsuzaka's first pitch -- a fastball -- for a double in a 9-1 BC loss.

Clemson Tigers
Ready to break out: Ricky Sapp, defensive end. Sapp, a heralded recruit, lived up to his press clippings as a freshman, although he spent most of his time on the bench behind Gaines Adams, the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year. In limited action, Sapp registered six tackles for losses, including four sacks. Only Adams (10.5) had more sacks.

Duke Blue Devils
Ready to break out: Vince Oghobaase, defensive tackle. One of the most highly touted recruits to sign with Duke in recent years, Oghobaase finished with eight tackles for losses last year as a redshirt freshman. He became the first Blue Devil to register a safety since 2000 when he dropped Florida State tailback Lorenzo Booker in the end zone.

• If the Blue Devils can get some blocking, they should be able to run the ball this season. Their top four running backs return, including leading rusher Re'quan Boyette (388 yards) and Justin Boyle, who played well before injuring his knee and undergoing surgery. Boyle will miss spring practice as he continues to rehab.

Florida State Seminoles
Ready to break out: Antone Smith, running back. FSU fans have been waiting for Smith to explode and 2007 figures to be the year. Smith beat out Booker for the starting job near the end of '06, but dislocated his right elbow and missed the rest of the season. He led the team with 5.2 yards per carry.

• The Seminoles began spring practice with Drew Weatherford as the starting quarterback, but offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said that Xavier Lee will get a fair shot at the job. "They are both starting over with a clean slate and they both are very intelligent guys," Fisher said. "Everybody says it's a quarterback controversy, but I say it's a quarterback luxury."

• Several key FSU defenders -- linebackers Marcus Ball and Derek Nicholson and defensive lineman Paul Griffin -- are not taking part in spring practice while recovering from knee injuries.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Ready to break out: Michael Johnson, defensive end. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound junior finished second on the Yellow Jackets with five sacks, despite starting only one game. His two sacks of Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach in the closing seconds last season clinched a 27-23 victory.

• The Yellow Jackets will have a new offensive coordinator next season in John Bond, who was hired from Northern Illinois after Patrick Nix left for Miami. Coach Chan Gailey said there won't be major alterations to the offense. "It will change in some respects," Gailey said. "The running game will be similar, but the passing game will be different. I think you'll see us stretch the field and be able to throw the ball over the middle because we'll have a quarterback [Taylor Bennett] that's 6-3 instead of 5-10 [Reggie Ball] and will be able to see."

Maryland Terrapins
Ready to break out: Darrius Heyward-Bey, receiver. Some would say that Heyward-Bey broke out last season when he led the Terps with 45 catches for 694 yards and five touchdowns. But anyone who watched the 6-foot-2, 206-pound speedster torch Miami last season for five catches, 175 yards and two long touchdowns knows he may just have scratched the surface of his Calvin Johnson-like potential.

• Coach Ralph Friedgen on his decision to start spring practice with quarterback Jordan Steffy, who was a seldom-used backup last season, inserted as No. 1 on the depth chart: "I think he's played very unselfishly, and the last half of [2006] he played very well in practice, but we just couldn't get him in games. I think he'll be ahead of Josh [Portis] right now just from being in meetings and taking the reps. I think [the quarterback job] is going his way right now, and then we'll see after that." The Terps began spring practice on March 27.

Miami Hurricanes
Ready to break out: Sam Shields, receiver. Shields started seven games last season and finished with 37 receptions, the most by a Miami true freshman since Reggie Wayne in 1997. The speedy 6-foot, 177-pounder saved his best for last by catching four passes for a career-high 101 yards and a 78-yard touchdown in the Hurricanes' victory against Nevada in the MPC Computers Bowl.

Darnell Jenkins, expected to compete for a starting receiver position, was excused from the final three weeks of spring practice to resolve an undisclosed family issue.

North Carolina Tar Heels
Ready to break out: Trimane Goddard, safety. Slated to be the Tar Heels' starting free safety in 2006, Goddard missed the entire season after breaking his left foot and undergoing surgery three days before Carolina's opener. He started six games in 2005 and led the team with three interceptions. North Carolina registered an ACC-low seven interceptions last year.

• What is coach Butch Davis looking for in a quarterback? "The quarterback has to make the offense go," Davis said. "We're not looking for a spectacular playmaker in the sense that he has to carry the football team. We want a guy that's efficient, smart and makes good decisions and doesn't make bad plays. That will reveal itself as the spring and summer rolls along." Sophomore Cam Sexton is competing for the job along with redshirt freshmen B.J. Phillips and T.J. Yates and walk-on senior Ben Johnson. Davis said he does not expect to make a decision on the start until the middle of fall practice.

• Guard Charlston Gray, a senior who was a full-time starter for two consecutive seasons, was kicked off the team because of repeated rules violations.

NC State Wolfpack
Ready to break out: DeMario Pressley, defensive tackle. With Tank Tyler gone, the senior will be counted on to clog up the running game. Pressley didn't have huge numbers in '06 (seven tackles for loss, two sacks) but he's started 23 consecutive games and is dependable.

• Coach Tom O'Brien faces his old team, Boston College, in the Wolfpack's second regular-season game on Sept. 8 in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "I'm glad it's the second game so all that talk doesn't go on for too long," O'Brien said. "We just have to go play it and get it over with. We'll both move on. I look forward to going back to Boston. It will be a great opportunity for my football team at NC State, the first conference game and going on the road for the first time. I look forward to how we'll react to the situation."

Virginia Cavaliers
Ready to break out: Keith Payne, tailback. Referring to the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Payne, coach Al Groh recently said, "There are not many that look like him." Groh promises to give Payne a long look as a possible replacement for Jason Snelling. At worst, Payne will likely split carries this season with Cedric Peerman behind an offensive line that returns every starter.

• The Cavaliers began spring practice on March 21 and starting quarterback Jameel Sewell, who underwent surgery on his throwing wrist in December, participated in some work. It's unlikely Sewell will do much this spring, meaning junior Scott Deke and redshirt freshman Mark Verica will get most of the reps. "We would have hoped, particularly with [Sewell] being on the top of the [depth] chart, that he could have thrown 300 or 400 passes in the spring," Groh said. "That's probably not going to be the case."

Virginia Tech Hokies
Ready to break out: Kenny Lewis, running back. With Branden Ore still around, there's no question which tailback will receive the majority of snaps for the Hokies. But Lewis, who played in the Cincinnati Reds' organization before returning to football last season, could give Virginia Tech a dynamic 1-2 punch. Last season, Lewis replaced an injured Ore against Wake Forest and carried 17 times for 74 yards (4.4 ypc) in a 27-6 win, then started the next week against rival Virginia and gained 79 yards on 19 carries in a 17-0 victory.

• Three returning starters -- defensive end Chris Ellis, defensive back Brandon Flowers and guard Sergio Render -- will miss spring practice while rehabbing from injuries. Quarterback Sean Glennon will miss some practice time after cutting a finger on his throwing hand. "It's nothing major," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Ready to break out: Josh Adams, running back. Coach Jim Grobe was tempted to burn Adams' red shirt last season when the Deacons' tailbacks were injured en masse. Considered one of the nation's top high school running backs in 2005, the 6-foot, 170-pound Adams figures to play plenty this season even if Micah Andrews returns fully healthy from a knee injury.

• Wake has questions at safety where starters Josh Gattis, a first-team All-ACC selection, and Patrick Ghee have graduated. Chip Vaughn figures to replace Ghee, although he will miss spring practice while recovering from ACL surgery. Running back-turned-defensive back De'Angelo Bryant may also get a look at safety.

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

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