Breaking down the ACC Coastal
How will Paul Johnson's first year go at Georgia Tech? Will Virginia be able to replace Chris Long on defense? Is Virginia Tech rebuilding or reloading on defense? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.
|Duke Blue Devils|
1. Cutcliffe in charge: First-year coach David Cutcliffe challenged his team to lose weight, speed up, and look like a football team. They responded, lost over 400 pounds together, and played as fast as Cutcliffe demanded. "The line of scrimmage was where I wanted to see the biggest progress and both sides of the ball, the line of scrimmage started looking like major college football to me at the end of spring practice. They paid a hell of a price," Cutcliffe said.
2. Runnin' Re'quan: Re'quan Boyette established himself as Duke's starting running back, and will also be used outside to catch the ball. He's finally healthy after a nagging knee injury that limited him last year. In addition to Boyette, Tony Jackson -- a converted defensive back -- and Cliff Harris convinced Cutcliffe he has three players he can use on Saturdays.
3. Count on Tauiliili: Middle linebacker Michael Tauiliili, a starter last year, can be a legitimate playmaker on defense. He is the ACC's active leader with 294 career tackles and 33 tackles for loss. He recovered a fumbled punt in the spring game that landed his team on the 11-yard line.
1. Receivers: The No. 2 receiver behind Eron Riley is still uncertain. Raphael Chestnut, who started four of five games before he tore his ACL last season, was limited to noncontact drills this spring. Austin Kelly showed promise as a true freshman last year, and Sheldon Bell was among the top performers this spring.
2. Nothing for kicks: Cutcliffe called Duke's kicking game "atrocious." He had hoped to be further ahead in this department. Duke is still looking for a punter, a kicker and a snapper. Among those in the running to kick are Joe Surgan, Nick Maggio and Paul Asack.
"The only thing I'm set on is who our holder is, and I think he's unbelievable," Cutcliffe said. "I think he's great. Ryan Wood had a great spring."
3. Lasting effects: Cutcliffe is eager to see if the tone he set this spring carries into summer camp, and if the players will maintain their improved physiques. If so, how much of an impact can Cutcliffe make in one season at Duke, and will the progress be measured in wins and losses? The Blue Devils have lost at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons.
|Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets|
1. Top of the line: The Yellow Jackets could have one of the best defensive lines in the ACC, and will have the chance to showcase it under first-year coordinator Dave Wommack. Defensive end Michael Johnson is already listed as the No. 2 overall pick in Todd McShay's mock draft for 2009, and Vance Walker is No. 29. Derrick Morgan earned the other end position while Darryl Richard and Walker make for two 300-pound tackles.
2. Going away parties: Paul Johnson's offense wasn't for everyone. Quarterback Taylor Bennett transferred. Wide receiver James Johnson called it quits. Tight end Colin Peek now calls Alabama home. Reserve center Trey Dunmon? Gone to Georgia Southern. The latest departure was former quarterback/assistant coach Joe Hamilton, who was arrested last week on drug, alcohol and hit-and-run charges.
3. Offensive adjustment: Senior offensive tackle Andrew Gardner excelled in the pro-style offense of the former regime, and some questioned whether he would be able to adjust to Johnson's scheme. Gardner made it clear this spring he can. Gardner was a major factor in Georgia Tech's strong running game last season, and will have to be again in this run-based offense.
Fall questions1. Quarterback: Will sophomore Josh Nesbitt fully grasp the option in a timely manner? If he does, Nesbitt has the skills to be good. Problem is, he only practiced half the spring because of a nagging groin injury. If not, it's possible a true freshman will lead the Yellow Jackets. Both Jaybo Shaw and Tevin Washington will get consideration when they arrive this fall.
2. Special teams: It's not the ideal situation, but there's a chance sophomore Scott Blair, who only handled kickoffs last season, will kick and punt. Johnson also has to figure out who's going to snap the ball after the starting center graduated and his backup, Dunmon, transferred. Dan Boss, who played a lot at guard, is the most likely option.
3. Losing linebackers: Two starting linebackers are now in the NFL, and Georgia Tech finished the spring with two sophomores (Anthony Barnes and Brad Jefferson) and a redshirt freshman (Kyle Jackson) in starting roles there. Junior Shane Bowen, who started 10 games last year, was out all spring after shoulder surgery.
1. Fabulous frosh: The early enrollees proved they can help out immediately. Players like Sean Spence, Arthur Brown, Jacory Harris, Cannon Smith, and Aldarius Johnson have already helped the Hurricanes. "Those guys coming in have brought something to the team, the mentality of winning and competing," coach Randy Shannon said. "It made you develop depth to where we were able to go for the first time -- I've been around here in a long time [with] a first and second team, both sides of the football."
2. Good move: Allen Bailey made the switch from linebacker to defensive end early this spring, and proved he has the potential to replace Calais Campbell, who left school early and was chosen in the second round of the NFL draft. Bailey saw most of his playing time on special teams last season, but is clearly capable of expanding his role.
3. Double back: Miami found a solid one-two punch in running backs Graig Cooper and Javarris James. James caught four passes for 60 yards and ran once -- a 25-yard burst -- in the Hurricanes' spring game. Cooper led the offense with eight carries for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
Fall questions1. A new QB era: Robert Marve was the most productive in the spring game, completing 10 of 22 passes for 93 yards. Shannon seemed just as impressed, though, with Harris and Smith.
"Those guys did a tremendous job of working the quick game, getting the ball out to the receivers and doing a lot of great things," Shannon said.
2. Teeing it up: Alex Uribe, punter Matt Bosher and freshman Jake Wieclaw are all still in the mix for kicking duties. Bosher punted in all 12 games last year and tacked on kickoff duties late in the season. Uribe, a walk-on who is the son of the team physician, John Uribe, had a 51-yard field-goal attempt blocked in the spring game.
3. New coaching faces: Not long after beating Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, Bill Young left his post at Kansas to become the Hurricanes' new defensive coordinator. How the defense adjusts to any changes he might make remains to be seen. The wide receivers are also under the direction of first-year assistant Aubrey Hill.
|North Carolina Tar Heels|
1. Little big man: The Tar Heels found their tailback in sophomore Greg Little, who started the final two games last season and played well, but solidified his role as the starter this spring. Little moved from receiver to tailback late last year and ran for 300 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, but coach Butch Davis still wasn't convinced. Now he is.
2. Solid backups: With quarterback T.J. Yates sidelined all spring to recover from shoulder surgery, Mike Paulus and Cameron Sexton earned the confidence of Davis. Paulus was the starter for the spring game and completed 11 of 16 passes for 159 yards. Sexton was 7-of-9 for 104 yards and one interception, but Davis said he looked "infinitely better" than he did a year ago.
3. Confidence in receivers: Davis said he left the spring with a competent group of receivers that includes some playmakers. Much is expected of starters Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate. Nicks set the single-season school record with 74 receptions for 958 yards and five touchdowns last season, and Tate, a senior, gained 19.2 yards per catch last year. Senior Brooks Foster, the second-leading receiver from a year ago, and redshirt freshman Rashad Mason add legitimate depth.
Fall questions1. Not-so-special teams: The Tar Heels are still trying to replace kicker Connor Barth and need a long snapper -- both graduated last year. Redshirt freshman Jay Wooten is the top option so far, but Casey Barth, Connor's brother, will be a walk-on this fall along with a few others. "We've got an awful lot of work in front of us to have a competent battery of special teams players," Davis said.
2. Quarterback rebound: Yates is expected to be healthy and on schedule, but he hasn't thrown in a real practice since before his surgery Dec. 17. How much did he miss and will there be any rust to shake off? "We would've loved to have seen how much he would have grown and developed to be able to see how much more he could move the meter during the springtime," Davis said.
3. Replacing Taylor: Because of the depth and experience at tackle, it was easier to find a replacement for Kentwan Balmer than it was defensive end Hilee Taylor. Defensive end E.J. Wilson has one end spot locked up, but with sophomore Darrius Massenburg out all spring with a wrist injury, the other end spot was in flux. Greg Elleby and Darius Powell have limited experience and will be joined by five defensive ends this fall who will all have a chance.
1. Backers back: With three of four starting linebackers back -- all seniors -- there is still hope for the Cavaliers' defense, even without Chris Long. Jon Copper, who led the team in tackles as a sophomore and a junior, will be inside with Antonio Appleby while senior Clint Sintim returns to his outside post. Together they helped UVA allow just nine rushing touchdowns, the fifth-fewest in the nation.
2. Catching up: They might not know who will be throwing to them, but Virginia found a few players who can catch the ball this spring. Senior tight end John Phillips looked capable of helping offset the loss of Jonathan Stupar and Tom Santi, and receiver Kevin Ogletree finally returned after knee injury. Groh was also impressed with Kris Burd. "There were a lot of players who didn't get significant minutes last year who really progressed quite a bit," Groh said.
3. Peerman back: After missing the second half of the season with a torn ligament and broken bone in his right foot, Cedric Peerman was finally cleared to practice this spring. While Peerman was out, Mikell Simpson ran for 570 yards and eight touchdowns. If they stay healthy, this will be the first time in four seasons Groh won't have to replace his leading rusher.
Fall questions1. Quarterback: Former starter Jameel Sewell won't be around because of academic issues, and Peter Lalich has the most game experience, but Al Groh is still waiting to name his starter. Lalich played in eight of 13 games last year, compared with fifth-year senior Scott Deke, who has played one game in the past four seasons, and sophomore Marc Verica, who hasn't played yet.
2. Long gone: Not only is Chris Long gone, but so is everyone else on the defensive line. Senior Alex Field and sophomore Sean Gottschalk are the two most experienced defensive ends -- where Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald must be replaced. Junior Jason Fuller is the only other player on the roster with any experience there, playing in five games over the past two seasons.
3. Kicker: Virginia has only one scholarship kicker on its roster -- redshirt freshman Chris Hinkebein -- and he struggled with his accuracy and consistency this spring. The Cavaliers' punter will like be either John Thornton or incoming freshman Jimmy Howell.
|Virginia Tech Hokies|
1. Reloading on defense: The Hokies lost seven starters from the nation's No. 3 scoring defense a year ago, but are still oozing with talent, despite their youth. Linebacker Brett Warren played well in Vince Hall's absence last season and continued to make strides this spring at middle linebacker. Linebacker Purnell Sturdivant, rover Dorian Porch and defensive end Jason Worilds also had impressive springs. Tackle Cordarrow Thompson lost about 30 pounds, which will help him stay on the depth chart.
2. Falling in line: With four starters returning, Virginia Tech's offensive line looked better and deeper this spring. Ed Wang moved to left tackle to fill the void left by Duane Brown, but that still left four players who started at least eight games in 2007 and all but Sergio Render who has played a different position during his career. The lone question mark was at right tackle, where Blake DeChristopher got the edge over Richard Graham heading into fall camp.
3. Serious about a scholarship: Brandon Dillard, a walk-on, was one of the Hokies' biggest playmakers in the spring game but still hasn't earned a scholarship. He took off for 49 yards on a reverse, and caught a 25-yard touchdown pass. Dillard said after the game he's staying on campus for both summer sessions because he wants to be ready to play, and there's certainly a spot on the depth chart for a hungry receiver.
Fall questions1. Up for grabs: Frank Beamer ended the spring with about eight receivers to choose from, and knowing he needed to whittle down the list. After losing the top four receivers from last season, the position remains wide open. Dillard, Danny Coale, Zach Luckett and former quarterback Ike Whitaker were among the front-runners this spring.
2. Need another corner: There appears to be a three-way tie for the starting job opposite Victor Harris. Rashad Carmichael was Harris' backup last season, and Cris Hill used last year to redshirt. Junior Stephan Virgil was the No. 2 boundary corner behind Brandon Flowers last year.
3. Who will run?: Branden Ore was booted from the team, Jahre Cheeseman broke his left fibula in mid-April and Kenny Lewis Jr. tore the labrum in his left shoulder and was expected to miss four to six months. Dustin Pickle, Darren Evans and Josh Oglesby all showed promise this spring, but Beamer still needs to name his three-deep. He's also waiting for the arrival of freshman Ryan Williams.
Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL HEADLINES
- Florida State, Alabama remain 1-2 in AP poll
- ACC rules Winston's ref bump 'insignificant'
- FSU's Fisher: Doesn't matter how team wins
- Sooners' Perine (427 yards) bests Gordon