ACC Kickoff: Noting the Atlantic Division

Perhaps it was only fitting that Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher had the final say in the press conference room of this year’s ACC Football Kickoff.

Fisher has never been bashful when it comes to extolling the overall excellence of ACC football, and he reminded media in attendance once again to enjoy what they will be watching this fall.

“Us and Clemson have had great success,” Fisher noted. “We've been here six years, played in the (ACC Championship Game) four out of six years, they played the other two. We've won a national championship. They've played for one. We're playing at a very high level, two of the elite programs.”

But Fisher said the ACC is anything but a top-heavy league.

“We've had some success against Miami, but all those games have been nail-biters right down to one-possession games right to the end,” he noted. “Georgia Tech upset us last year and plays very good. Pitt, NC State …. North Carolina is an on-side kick away from having a chance to beat Clemson last year (for the ACC title). There's so many teams. Virginia Tech when Frank (Beamer) was there was one of the elite teams in college football for a long time. 

“This is a great league. I've coached in the other leagues. I know what they are. This is a great football. Great football players. You name me a league that has bigger stars than (FSU running back) Dalvin Cook, (Clemson quarterback) Deshaun Watson and (Miami quarterback) Brad Kaaya.

But again, it doesn’t stop there.

“There's other guys in our league that are great players,” Fisher continued. “We have other great players. Miami has other great players. Clemson has other great players, so does Georgia Tech, NC State. All across the board, everybody has them. James Conner, big running back at Pitt, we him back in the league, thank God (after his recovery from a knee injury and cancer). You're talking about the Player of the Year from two years ago. 

“We have star-studded players. This is a great league of football.”

“Now we have two quarterbacks that we believe in – both of them,” Clawson said. “We also have some other young guys in the program that we think have a great upside. We're letting those guys compete.”

Clawson emphasized that he wants one quarterback to emerge as the clear starter prior to the Demon Deacons’ opener versus Tulane on September 1.

“They're healthy. They both have very good skill sets,” Clawson said. “We do not want to be a two-quarterback system. However, just looking at last year when neither of them was able to stay healthy, it's hard to imagine we go through a year where we don't need both of them.

“Those guys will split reps through camp and we'll try to get reps for the younger guys. John Wolford is an outstanding athlete and a good quarterback, and Kendall is as well. It's a good problem. It's a very good problem … That’s how the cream will rise to the top.”

The frustration of last season did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Boston College head coach Steve Addazio.

The memories of last season’s 0-8 mark in ACC play – despite boasting one of the nation’s elite defensive units – seemed distant on Friday as Addazio took the podium to address media in attendance at the 2016 ACC Football Kickoff.

“Awfully excited to be here today,” a spirited Addazio said. “Awfully excited that the start of college football is going to be happening here. We're all in a buzz about it. You start to feel that thing heading into summer once the 4th of July is over. It's about football. That's the greatest thing there is. We're talking about the best sport in America.”

The Eagles led the nation in total defense in 2015, but injuries and inexperience on offense wound up telling the final story. Even with the continual week-to-week struggles, BC still came within 14 points of playing in a third consecutive bowl games. Five of the Eagles’ losses were by three or fewer points.

The good news, said Addazio, is that end results didn’t kill the spirit of his football team – nor its head coach – as it looks to make amends, starting with the Sept. 3 season opener against Georgia Tech in Dublin, Ireland.
“This is arguably one of the best teams I've ever been around in terms of our players' commitment to football, their attitude, their passion for the game, and their relentless work ethic throughout the spring and throughout the winter and throughout the summer,” Addazio said.

Linebacker Matt Milano – one of seven returning defensive starters – is more than ready for a fresh start. Several new assistant coaches are on board – including veteran defensive coordinator Jim Reid and defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni – but the Eagles’ hard-nosed overall approach won’t change.

“It's a new year, 2016.” Milano said. “I try not to think about last season. It's a new set of coaches, new set of players. I think we are just putting that behind us, learning from it, moving forward.”
That’s where Addazio’s positive attitude could be the biggest plus, and Milano said it is indeed contagious.

“The energy is definitely something that brings a lot to the table,” Milano said. “Every practice we try to go out there with that same intensity and replicate it on Saturdays. I think you can see that on Saturdays as it does roll over. It's definitely a big factor for us. Keeps us going, keeps us in the game. I think it's the one thing that makes us different from other defenses, is every play coming in with a lot of energy and a lot of passion.”

It would not be accurate to say there is a quarterback “controversy” at Wake Forest, but the Demon Deacons head into preseason camp with a pair of signal-callers who logged significant playing time in 2015.

That is a blessing for head coach Dave Clawson, who was forced to start true freshman John Wolford upon taking the helm in Winston-Salem two years ago. Wolford is now set to return for his junior year, and sophomore Kendall Hinton returns after seeing significant game action last season.

Both fought through injuries last season, but combined to complete nearly 57 percent of their passes for 2,720 yards and 13 touchdowns. The pair will compete for this year’s starting job, but Clawson foresees that each will again see considerable game action, particularly if injuries become part of the equation again.

“A year ago we went into the season, and Kendall was a true freshman. John Wolford was doing a real good job as our starting quarterback,” Clawson said Friday. “Then John suffered a high ankle sprain against Syracuse (on September 12). Kendall ended up playing probably sooner than we wanted him to. He did a courageous job, was playing at a high level. Then he got hurt in the Florida State game.

“We had a situation with seven to eight games left in the season, and our top two quarterbacks, who were a true sophomore and a true freshman weren't healthy. It really became a juggling act all year.”

But last season’s experience – particularly the playing time Hinton earned as a true freshman – could pay dividends in 2016.

Current Clemson football faithful will carry memories of last season forever, but reigning ACC Player of the Year Deshaun Watson said it is important for the Tigers to have short memories as they prepare for 2015.

“Just really, it's simple,” the rising junior quarterback said Friday. “Each and every year is a different year. We have to start over. Last year's wins, touchdowns or stops aren’t going to do anything for us this year. We know we have a target on us and we have to go 10 times harder to get where we want to go this year than we did last year. We just got to take it one day at a time and make sure everybody is on the same page. Know and understand that nothing is going to be given to us, we have to go earn it.”

And Watson, who expects to earn his Clemson undergraduate degree in just 2 ½ years, has set goals beyond ACC Championships, another 14-win season or a return trip to the College Football Playoff. It goes beyond duplicating the eye-opening numbers he amassed last season, when he became the first player in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 in the same season.

“It's starting off with being a good citizen off the field, being a good student in the classroom, watching film, working out, taking care of your body, eating right, little things like that,” Watson said. “If you take care of the little things, the big things are going to take care of themselves.”

Watson reeled off the litany mainly for the benefit of media in attendance at this year’s ACC Kickoff. His teammates likely don’t need to be reminded.

“The standard is never going to change,” Watson said. “The best is the standard. Coach (Dabo) Swinney has been preaching that for the past eight years. This is no surprise for us. This is what we've been building for, especially for the guys that have been here from the start – guys like Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller.  All these guys been building up for this moment right here. 

“It's a privilege to be able to take the torch and run with it.”

Syracuse first-year head coach Dino Babers said it took one practice – the first one of last spring – for his new team to learn exactly what to expect from his new regime.

Babers, who compiled a 37-16 record over the previous four seasons at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, said those first-day workouts followed a familiar script, one that mirrored the debuts at each of his previous schools.

“This is the third time that I've seen a first day of spring ball practice underneath this system, and it always ends the exact same way: with a bunch of big guys over trash cans not saying much, shaking their heads,” Babers said. “When they get done with that, so that I can speak to them, I look them dead in the eye, I tell them, ‘That's the slowest practice we're ever going to have and we'll never be that slow again.’ 
“They're looking at me with doubt until you have the second practice, then the fifth, then the 10th, then the last practice. When you tell them, ‘We can't start two-a-days at the tempo that we ended with the 15th practice, you've got to develop and you have to acquire more speed through the summer, so that when two-a-days start, we're on the 30th practice, the 31st practice, when it comes to the speed part of it.’ ”

While Babers has yet to coach his first game with the Orange, he took a time on Friday to look farther down the road.

“The thing I'm really looking forward to at Syracuse University is that the second year,” Babers said. “(The second year) is always faster than the first year. The first year, it's like I'm watching reruns of Gilligan's Island. It's like I know what's going to happen next. It's kind of boring the first year. The second year is really cool. You get to the tempo and speed that you want.”

The first- to second-year improvement helped him win 12 games in his second season at Eastern Illinois and 10 games in his second season at Bowling Green. As a third-year head coach … well, the jury remains out but he’d love to stick around Syracuse long enough for a verdict.

“The best thing about this story is I've never had an opportunity to go to a third year,” Babers said. “So maybe that's undergraduate, graduate level, doctorate degree. I've never gone to a third year before. I really hope I get an opportunity to go for a third year at Syracuse because that would be new water for me.”

NC State senior running back Matthew Dayes was just 105 yards shy of a 1,000-yard rushing season when a knee injury against Clemson ended his season last Halloween.
Dayes confirmed Friday that it was a crushing blow – not in terms of personal goals but in terms of what it cost the Wolfpack as a whole.

“The main thing, I was more hurt for the senior offensive linemen,” Dayes said. “They wanted a thousand-yard running back. I wanted to get that for them. Not being able to get that, that hurt me mostly out of anything.”

But the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native is healed up and set for his final go-around as a collegian.

“My strength staff and my training staff, they did an awesome job of getting me to where I'm at right now,” Dayes said. “I'm forever thankful to them for that. I'm 100 percent right now and I'm ready to go.”

That is more than good news for NC State. In addition to piling up the rushing yards, Dayes led the FBS and the ACC with 12 rushing times before his injury. He still earned the team’s Ted Brown Award, which goes annually to the Wolfpack’s Most Valuable Offensive Back, and he was an honorable mention All-ACC selection.

Head coach Dave Doeren said Dayes’ injury and a series of other mishaps that wrecked NC State’s backfield in 2015 illustrate that a team can never be “too deep” at those positions.  
“The health of our running back group is going to be very important,” Doeren said. “We went into last season, I think last year at this time that was the question I got, ‘What are you going to do with all your backs?’ “

That was before Shadrach Thornton was dismissed from the team and Dayes’ injury wound up being just one of three suffered by Wolfpack running backs.

“We were down to our fifth-string tailback in the bowl game,” Doeren recalled. “We were lucky to have Nyheim (Hines) and Jaylen Samuels playing other positions that we could move into the back field.

“Our health in that position is key number one. All these guys are going to be 100 percent and full go for fall camp. Hopefully all the treatment and all the training and all the recovery has got them ready to play the game. That's the one thing you don't do in rehab, you don't run anybody over, you don't get tackled or take on a blitzing linebacker. All the running backs have to kind of play some football now and get themselves ready for the game.”

But even if NC State keeps its backfield healthy and lightens Dayes’ workload, expect him to remain among the ACC’s elite as long as he is healthy.

“Matthew Dayes is first and foremost as talented a running back as I've been around when it comes to all the things that a back can do, from running inside, running outside, having vision, having finishing speed, to catching the ball, running routes, playing in space.” Doeren said. “He can do a lot of things.”

The second day of the 2016 Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff showcased the Atlantic Division, and the Louisville Cardinals were first to the podium in the Charlotte Westin’s Grand Ballroom.

Louisville returns 17 starters from last season’s 8-5 squad that won six of its final seven games, and head coach Bobby Petrino believes the Cardinals have one of their deeper teams of recent years. At the same time, he knows that his team competes in arguably the toughest division in college football.

“We know it's a tough road,” Petrino said. “We've got to go through Clemson and Florida State just in our division, two teams that have been to the national championship game, and one that's wearing a ring. We know it's a great challenge, but one that we're certainly looking forward to with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement.”

Barring injury or other unforeseen developments, Louisville’s two representatives at this year’s Kickoff – sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson and senior linebacker Keith Kelsey – appear etched in stone as starters. But Petrino said competition for playing time at most spots will be keen.

“We went into spring ball with a team that worked extremely hard and has a lot of confidence,” Petrino said. “I feel like we have the depth you need to compete, and we've got experience at almost every position coming back. What the depth will do is allow us to get better in practice. We'll go out on the practice field and guys will have to work hard to maintain their spot on the depth chart or work hard to take somebody's spot on the depth chart.”

According to Petrino, setting the depth chart isn’t something that really falls under the category of a “coach’s decision.”
“I always try to tell our players that they're the ones that set the depth chart, not the coaches,” Petrino said. “How you go out and practice, what you really tell your teammates, because your teammates know who the starters are, who should be playing. This will be a very, very competitive fall for us here to see who is going to open the season as the starters.”

Jackson admitted to a few growing pains as he settles into his starting quarterback’s leadership role – and not everything has been related to practices or game days.

“I've been having a lot of training on my interviews,” he laughingly told reporters on Friday. “How am I doing? I'm doing good, all right? It's been fun. It's been a fun experience. At first I was like, ‘Media Day? I don't want to do this, Coach.’ But  I'm growing, so I have to do what I have to do – responsibility.”