Commentary

ACC ready to hit the ground running

Originally Published: August 19, 2009
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

As Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder and linebacker Dekoda Watson left the lobby of the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., where the ACC's media days were held last month, they each had a rolled-up, life-size poster of Clemson running back C.J. Spiller tucked under their arms.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
Dale Zanine/US PresswireJonathan Dwyer rumbled for 1,395 yards in 2008.

Spiller's Heisman campaign began this summer. Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer's push for the Heisman will begin when he steps on the field.

"Where's your poster?" one reporter asked Dwyer, the reigning ACC Player of the Year and leading returning rusher.

"I don't know," Dwyer said with a shrug and a smile.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson says Dwyer doesn't need a Heisman campaign -- he's a living, breathing, running advertisement for it.

"If there's a lot of guys out there better than him," Johnson said, "it has to be a short list."

The list of ACC running backs who will be trying keep up with Dwyer, though, runs long.

The ACC returns two running backs who each rushed for at least 1,100 yards the previous year in Dwyer and Maryland junior Da'Rel Scott. Virginia Tech sophomore Darren Evans also ran for more than 1,100 yards in 2008, but he will miss the season with a torn ACL he suffered during a non-contact drill at summer camp. Still, seven of the top 10 rushers from a year ago return, including seven of the top nine runners in the league. For years the ACC has been known as a defensive conference, but the stacked backfields throughout the league will start to shift that trend from the ground up.

"I don't know who's scheduling these games or who's recruiting these players, but they need to stop, because it's making us look really bad on defense," said Wake Forest defensive tackle John Russell, who has the misfortune of lining up against both Spiller and Dwyer this fall. "I mean at practice, I'm sitting there on our team alone with Josh Adams, Brandon Pendergass and Kevin Harris -- three very experienced backs. And we've got Mike Rinfrette who's been playing fullback for us for four years, and he's the lead blocker for these guys and other teams, you've got C.J. Spiller and Jonathan Dwyer … it's scary, it really is. That's the only word to describe it."

Truth be told, Dwyer is in awe of Spiller's accomplishments and vice versa. The difference this year will be in their supporting casts. Without James Davis, Spiller is expected to be the workhorse, while Dwyer might actually get fewer carries because he's in such a crowded backfield.

"We've got the speed guys in Embry Peeples and Marcus Wright, then you've got Anthony Allen, who's a combo back, just like myself, and Richard Watson as well," Dwyer said. "Then you've got your big-time blocker Luke Cox, and he's a receiver-type guy who can run the ball. Then you've got Roddy Jones, who's your all-around back as well. That's what separates us, the different styles of running backs you have. You've got speed guys, power guys and a mixture of everything all together."

[+] EnlargeSpiller
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireWith James Davis gone, C.J. Spiller is expected to assume more of the workload for Clemson in 2009.

Dwyer led the conference with 107.3 rushing yards per game and finished 21st nationally with 1,395 yards on just 200 carries -- an astounding 7 yards per carry. That's why it came as little surprise last month when Dwyer was voted by the media as the ACC's Preseason Player of the Year.

"There are a lot of great players in the league, but if you had to look from a stats standpoint, who would you vote instead of Jon? Preseason, anyway," said Johnson. "What that's going to do is put the target on his back and he's going to have to live up to the hype. Certainly he's got the ability to do that."

So do a few others.

In addition to Dwyer and Scott, the ACC will also welcome back Boston College sophomore Montel Harris, UNC junior Shaun Draughn, Miami junior Graig Cooper, Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt and Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Combined, they accounted for 7,831 yards rushing last year.

"Their offenses are a little different, that's what you have to prepare for," said NC State coach Tom O'Brien, who has a veteran backfield with Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene. "Certainly I think any defensive coordinator sitting there will tell you the first thing they're going to do is try to take away the running game and make somebody one-dimensional. That's where the chess match comes in, and not allowing them to put eight guys in the box or nine guys or whatever they have to do to stop the running game."

Considering the conference has two 1,000-yard rushers returning, the potential to finish the season with five or six isn't unimaginable. Much of it depends on how the coaches will divvy up the carries.

At Virginia Tech, the Hokies are stacked enough in the backfield that running backs coach Billy Hite can still turn to Josh Oglesby, who had 38 carries for 88 yards last fall, and talented freshmen David Wilson and Ryan Williams.

"He just amazes me," Hite said of Wilson, adding that Williams was good enough to play last year.

Miami coach Randy Shannon is looking for a 1,000-yard rusher this season and could find the answer in Cooper -- that is, of course, if Javarris James doesn't steal the show. North Carolina coach Butch Davis thinks he has one in Draughn, but Ryan Houston will get some carries, too. And Boston College's Harris was only 100 yards shy of that feat as a true freshman last year. Together with Josh Haden, the duo combined for 1,379 rushing yards.

"Gosh, Boston College had two dadgum freshmen beat us," said FSU coach Bobby Bowden, whose young running backs, Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones, should be a strength of the Noles' offense. "They beat us last year with two freshmen. We couldn't tackle them. We could not tackle 'em. I guess we've got some pretty good runners. I don't know everybody, but I know Spiller and Dwyer. … Dwyer broke two big ones against us, boy."

So what's going to separate one ACC backfield from another? Spiller said it's a matter of who can jell most consistently with the offensive line -- a trouble spot for the Tigers last year.

"That's really the difference-maker," Spiller said. "As a running back you have to build that chemistry throughout the game with your offensive line, how the blocking is going. It's going to come down to who can be more consistent, who can play longer throughout the game."

Shannon agreed.

"You know what it's going to come down to, honestly?" he said. "Everybody has a lot of running backs, but you've got to have people up front who are healthy and can move people out of the way and get these guys opportunities to get in the open field and make somebody miss. There are a lot of running backs in this conference -- a lot of running backs. Now it's going to come down to whose offensive linemen can get it done."

And whose defenses can slow them.

"They're both great players, it's going to be tough," Russell said. "Playing down at Clemson, it's going to be tough for us to stop C.J., and you really don't want him to get going, because then the crowd becomes a big factor. Same thing at Georgia Tech, they love handing Jonathan Dwyer the ball 30 times a game, so hopefully his cleats don't become too familiar with my back, because man, they're just going to run all over the place."

And they won't be the only ones.

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at espn.hd@hotmail.com.