Starting QB roles still up for grabs around the ACC
With spring practices winding down, our ACC notebook tackles the big issues facing each team.
Spring practice has concluded for most ACC teams with some questions being answered and others awaiting a definitive conclusion when fall practice begins in August. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden decided to hand the No. 1 quarterback job to Cullen Harper over highly-touted freshman Willy Korn. But at Miami, Florida State, North Carolina and North Carolina State, there is still no decision on a starting quarterback.
Boston College Eagles
Coach Jeff Jagodzinski said he will continue to use Brian Toal as a specialist in short-yardage situations next season if the senior linebacker is one of "my best 11 guys." Toal is sitting out spring practice after undergoing surgery in March to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. There is a thought that Toal and BC would be better off if the 6-foot, 232-pounder concentrated only on defense. Toal was injured last season while playing offense. He also missed spring practice last year after sustaining a nerve injury in his neck during the 2005 season. Toal has scored a team-best 12 rushing touchdowns in BC's "First-and-Toal" offense during the past two seasons.
• New offensive coordinator Steve Logan hasn't coached in the college game since he was fired as East Carolina's head coach following the 2002 season. Logan had been a host of a sports talk show and working as an assistant in NFL Europe before Jagodzinski hired him as BC's offensive coordinator. Jagodzinski previously worked under Logan at East Carolina. Logan was credited with the development of NFL quarterbacks Jeff Blake and David Garrard with the Pirates. "I think Steve is one of the best teachers I've been around as far as making it really clear to kids what we're trying to get accomplished," Jagodzinski said. "I've been thrilled with him being back here."
Coach Tommy Bowden was concerned about his team's kickoff coverage before the NCAA decided to move kickoffs back to the 30-yard line. Bowden admits he chose to take the ball instead of kicking off after winning coin tosses last season because he was so worried his coverage team would allow a big runback. The Tigers finished next to last in the ACC in kickoff coverage. "I'm concerned about it because for the first time we weren't good in one segment for the whole season," Bowden said. "I worked on that live this spring for the first time ever. I hope to see improvement because with the ball being moved back to the 30, that means every one is coming out. Based on performance last year, that's not good for the Clemson Tigers."
• Clemson ended spring practice with junior Cullen Harper the starter at quarterback ahead of true freshman Willy Korn. No first-year freshman has played quarterback for the Tigers since 1994, but Korn probably will change that. "It was pretty evident early on that he's going to have a lot of skills and characteristics needed to compete for the job," Bowden said.
Duke Blue Devils
Former starter Zack Asack likely will return for fall practice, but don't expect him to unseat Thaddeus Lewis. Coach Ted Roof said that Lewis has solidified his hold on the No. 1 job during spring practice. "He's made huge strides from last year," Roof said. "Last year when he was thrown in the fire, he was going to the line of scrimmage making sure that he knew what he was supposed to do. Now, he focuses on a lot of the other things that you want a quarterback to do for your football team from a leadership standpoint. Now he knows what everybody else is supposed to be doing. So that's resulted in a lot more confidence and a lot quicker decision-making."
• Roof said junior Joe Surgan will remain the Blue Devils place-kicker despite a rough 2006 season in which he connected on only 3-of-10 field goals and 9-of-12 extra-point attempts. Roof said that Surgan usually kicked well in practice last season, but then had his mechanics break down during games. "I don't think Joe suffers from a lack of confidence," Roof said. "It's just when he got into games, his fundamentals broke down a little bit. We've made some strides to get those things squared away."
Florida State Seminoles
Coach Bobby Bowden said he "hated" to revamp his coaching staff, but is happy now that he did. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher got most of the attention among the new hires although offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who brings a no-nonsense, Marine-type mentality, might have a bigger impact on the team's personality. Asked if the offensive line needed a drill sergeant to improve its play, Bowden responded, "Our whole team needed it. It seemed like we had gotten softer. We needed to get that element back and I don't know anybody that brings it better than he does."
• Spring practice ended with no definitive starter at quarterback. In the spring game, Drew Weatherford completed 13-of-23 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown, but threw two interceptions. Xavier Lee also was intercepted twice while connecting on 13-of-26 for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Fisher didn't exactly give his quarterbacks a vote of confidence, saying he wasn't "totally disgusted" by the offense's performance.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Coach Chan Gailey said quarterback Taylor Bennett got off to a slow start in spring practice as he became comfortable with new offensive coordinator John Bond. But Bennett didn't struggle for long and finished by throwing five touchdown passes in the spring game on April 7. " He did a lot of great things on the field this spring," Gailey said.
• Back-up tailback Rashaun Grant played well in the spring game, gaining 64 yards on five carries. That created some optimism that Grant can give the Yellow Jackets a boost when Tashard Choice, the ACC's leading rusher, isn't in the game. Grant hasn't contributed much in either of the last two seasons after a promising freshman campaign.
• Gailey said the only starting spots that remain unaccounted for are at offensive tackle, tight end, outside linebacker and cornerback.
The Hurricanes avoided a major scare during the spring game when tailback Javarris James sustained a sprained knee and ankle. Coach Randy Shannon said neither injury was serious and that James has resumed running. Miami's impotent offense hardly can afford to lose James, who fell just 36 yards short of Clinton Portis' school freshman rushing record with 802 yards last season.
• James Bryant, who was expected to see plenty of time at fullback, has decided to transfer. Bryant played in 32 games and made one start or the Hurricanes, but the 6-3, 250-pound player spent as much time in the coaches' doghouse as he did on the field. In 2006, Bryant was suspended three times by former coach Larry Coker for a series of academic and on-field infractions.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Nobody in the ACC was unhappier to see spring practice end that coach Butch Davis. The Tar Heels ended practices with the spring game on April 14, but Davis said, "We're a long way from being even remotely settled as a football team and even identifying who the starters are going to be. We're a long way aways from being even close to the finished product." That includes the situation at quarterback where three players -- Cameron Sexton, T.J. Yates and B.J. Phillips -- are battling for the No. 1 job. Yates completed 10-of-15 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. Still, Davis said the quarterbacks, as well as the rest of his team, has a long way to go. "It's not the fault of the players," Davis said. "We knew there was going to be learning curves. Guys are going to struggle. I wish we had 15 more days of spring practice to go along with summer training camp and I'm not sure I would feel good then."
NC State Wolfpack
The Wolfpack will go into summer practice with no definitive starter at quarterback, coach Tom O'Brien said. Daniel Evans, the starter in nine games last season, battled this spring for the No. 1 job with Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck and redshirt freshman Justin Burke. Evans is seen as the likely starter, but O'Brien isn't giving anything away. "No, we don't have any frontrunners," said O'Brien, who was named N.C. State's coach in December. "We haven't decided on any position. We just have an organizational chart and we'll start August that way. All those [quarterbacks] showed different things in spring practice. They all did nice things, but no one has actually separated themself from the pack."
Tailback Cedric Peerman appears to have secured the starting job with a strong performance during spring practice. Peerman, a junior, ran for a team-high 37 yards on five attempts in the spring game and generally stood out over his two younger rivals for the job, Keith Payne and Raynard Horne. The 5-10, 205-pound Peerman played little in Virginia's backfield last season, carrying 46 times for 153 yards. But coach Al Groh said Peerman has taken a major step forward. "Cedric Peerman was one of our more outstanding players during spring practice," Groh said. "It's obvious that now going into his fourth year here, he not only knows what his job is, but he has a real good idea how to go about doing his job." Groh said Payne and Horne, a pair of redshirt freshmen, are "talented young players kind of finding their way." Pass protection has been a problem for both, Groh said.
• Jameel Sewell will be the Cavs' starting quarterback next season, but who will be No. 2? Groh said Marc Verica had the lead through most of spring practice, but Scott Deke caught up with a good performance in the spring game. Deke, a junior, completed 12-of-22 passes for 129 yards in the spring game and accounted for the only score with a 24-yard touchdown pass. Verica, a redshirt freshman, hit 9-of-21 passes for 94 yards. Groh said the battle for the No. 2 job will continue into fall practice where a determination will quickly be made.
Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies cancelled the final week of spring practice and the spring game following the murder of 32 students and faculty members on April 16. Coach Frank Beamer recalled it as the second spring game he's had to cancel during his 20 seasons in Blacksburg. Beamer said he had to cancel his first spring game as the Hokies' coach in 1987 because of bad weather. The spring game traditionally packs Lane Stadium's 66,000-plus seats. "We had four practices remaining," Beamer said. "There's no question in my mind that to cancel the spring game and cancel the practices was the right thing to do. There's no question it sets us back. But we'll make that up."
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Quarterback Riley Skinner, the ACC's Rookie of the Year, seems determined to show last season was no fluke. Skinner finished out spring practice by completing 12-of-14 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown during the spring game. Skinner completed 11 consecutive passes at one point.
• Senior defensive end Matt Robinson, who missed all of last season after breaking his kneecap in the final game of 2005, registered a pair of sacks in the spring game. Robinson led the Deacons in tackles for losses as a freshman and sophomore. He sat out 2003 after shoulder surgery and could be eligible for a sixth season of eligibility in 2008.
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.