ACC Kickoff: Noting the Coastal Division

NOTING VIRGINIA: Mendenhall High on Coaching Peers (July 21, 3:15 p.m.)

Bronco Mendenhall spent the previous 11 seasons at BYU, but Virginia’s new head coach isn’t a stranger to his Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division counterparts. He was impressed before he set foot in Charlottesville, and remains so as he prepares for the upcoming season.

“I think we're skilled,” Mendenhall said of the group that met the media during day one of the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte. “I think the Coastal Division is skilled. I had an existing relationship with (Duke’s) David Cutcliffe. On the AFC board of directors, he sits to my left and Pat Fitzgerald from Northwestern sits to my right, and we've developed a great relationship. I had tremendous respect for David already.”

But it doesn’t end there.

“I have coached against Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech twice,” said Mendenhall, who posted a 99-43 record at BYU. “(I) already knew about him. I had become friends with (Miami’s) Mark Richt through Nike in earlier days. I followed and had coaches coach with and against Larry Fedora at North Carolina. I had one matchup with (Virginia Tech first-year head coach) Justin Fuente at Memphis, but also when he was defensive coordinator at TCU.”

And Mendenhall has exchanged ideas with Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi, who was regarded as one of the nation’s top defensive assistant coaches at Michigan State before taking the helm for the Panthers last season.

“That only happens when you think someone else is skilled at what they're doing,” Mendenhall said. “I think we have a good division with good people as coaches, but also good coaches. And those sometimes are different. There are good people that aren't good coaches and there are good coaches that aren't good people. From what I've seen in my short time in the league, it looks like we have both. It's challenging, which is great.”

Mendenhall faces a challenge in reviving the fortunes of a Virginia program that has endured four straight losing seasons, but he believes great progress has already been made.

“I've brought the core principles, now I'm adapting and adjusting to the existing environment and what resources we have to make sure those things are highlighted to move forward,” he said. “What the players know and already decided before I arrived is they believe it's going to work just by simply looking at the number of wins and the track record of myself as a head coach. It's not a guarantee. But they already decided they trust this is going to happen. They were willing to give it a shot knowing they'd already experienced losing seven of the last eight years and they don't want that. Now they're seeing the antithesis of that or the opposite of that and they believe it's going to work.”

When it comes to pure inspiration – to say nothing of bolstering the fortunes of Pitt’s football team –  the return of running back James Conner can’t be understated.

The Panthers believe Conner, who first battled through a knee and then a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, is close to regaining the form that produced close to 1,800 rushing and 26 touchdowns two seasons ago.

“It's going to be awesome,” quarterback Nathan Peterman said. “Just seeing his work ethic while he still had cancer and was beating it, as well as fighting to be the best player he can still be while he's got cancer, to now where he's completely recovered, trying to get back in shape … It's been awesome to witness that. 

“I know it will be a special moment once he gets that first touch, and for all of us to get inspiration from him that first day, really throughout the summer with how great a competitor he is.”

Second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi was asked what he expected to see from Conner – and how soon.

“I guess that's the $100 million question,” Narduzzi said. “I expect nothing but his best performance. When you look at what James has done, what he's been, what he's been through, the size of that heart inside his chest cavity, you know, I think you're going to get his best effort.

“What is that? I don't know. I know when you look at him in strength and conditioning, our program this summer, he's measuring his body up to where it was. Based on our measurements, he's close to prime condition right now. I think he'd like to lose a few more pounds. But we've got him back to where we want to. We still got a couple more weeks to fine tune him.”

Patience will be important, Narduzzi said, no matter how much promise Conner displays early on.

“The important thing with James is just monitoring him through the whole process, making sure that we don't overdo it with him,” Narduzzi said. “That's going to be the job of our training staff, our strength staff, and obviously me as the head football coach.”

North Carolina football fans received a promising glimpse of Mitch Trubisky potential over the previous two seasons. Wide receiver Ryan Switzer believes they will see even better things this fall as the junior quarterback steps in on a full-time basis following the graduation of school record-setter and All-ACC second-teamer Marquise Williams.

“I feel like Marquise would even tell you that Mitch's arm talent is unique and very rare,” Switzer said. “I've been fortunate enough to catch passes from both of them. Not to diminish anything that Marquise did for our program, but Mitch is a very rare talent. Everything that he brings to the table, he's very composed, he's a very team-first kind of guy.

“I'm looking forward to seeing his talent displayed this year, especially with the guys that he has around him.”
That would include a receiving corps led by Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard and an potentially explosive running attack keyed by tailbacks Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan.

“I joke with Mitch all the time about how fortunate he is to step into the position that he is,” Switzer said. “I don't know of any other team that's returning what we're returning on offense. Like you said, not just the receivers, but we've got two veteran running backs. T.J. Logan behind Elijah Hood could start on virtually any team in the country. Returning four of our five offensive linemen is incredible.

“As receivers, it's our job to kind of make Mitch look good, which we don't really need to do too much of because of the talent that he has.”

Trubisky completed 81 percent of his passes last season (40-of-47) last season and has shown a knack for producing under pressure. Twice in his first two seasons, he was forced into the game in the heat of battle when Williams was forced to the sidelines for a single play. He responded by throwing a game-winning touchdown pass at Virginia as a freshman and a first-quarter touchdown pass on fourth down in a win at NC State last November. 

“I can't say enough good things about Mitch Trubisky,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “In society today, it's not about be patient and work your way into a position. It's more of a sense of entitlement for most people nowadays that you should be given something because of something you did in the past.

“That's not the approach that Mitch Trubisky or his family took when he came to the University of North Carolina. He knew he was going to have to compete and he competed. He competed every single day. He didn't win the job early on, but it was not a sense of frustration for him. It was just, ‘I need to work harder.’ “
And Fedora said Trubisky has done just that.

“He knew his time was coming.” Fedora said. “His time is here. I think he's excited about it. There's no doubt in my mind he's prepared because of the reps he's had, meaningful reps in games, and also there was a spring where he was the number one quarterback the entire spring.

He's gotten reps. He feels good about where he's at. Nothing is going to rattle him. I mean, I expect him to perform pretty well.”

A head coaching transition can be tough for veteran college football players to handle, particularly when they have grown used to playing for a legend. But Virginia Tech first-year head coach Justin Fuente appears to be developing a positive rapport as he takes the reins following the retirement of Frank Beamer.

“Coach Fuente has been awesome,” said senior fullback Sam Rogers. “Something he said right away that stuck with me – he wasn't going to tear anything down that Coach Beamer started. He was starting with the foundation. It's awesome to play for a guy who has that mentality. He's bringing a whole new level of enthusiasm and tempo to him. It's awesome to have him around. Can't wait to keep playing for him … honestly, it has been a smooth process. Picking up the offense, obviously (was) a new adjustment. But football is football. You're going to have similar schemes no matter what you do.”
Redshirt senior defensive end Ken Ekanem initially expressed reservations about playing under a new coach after four seasons in the Virginia Tech program under Beamer, who the NCAA Division I’s leader in career wins before stepping down. But Fuente – whose Memphis teams won 19 games over the previous two seasons – quickly set his mind at ease.

“We had meetings with Coach Fuente, each one of us on the team,” Ekanem reported. “He emphasized what he's going to implement at Virginia Tech, how he's going to continue Coach Beamer's legacy, stuff like that. That got me very excited. We got into winter workouts, stuff like that. You could tell there was a big difference in the tempo of everything. Everything is done with a sense of urgency. That got me really excited about going into spring ball. Spring ball was very up-tempo as well. I'm excited to see what our new offense can do.”
Earlier this month, Fuente invited the Hokie seniors to his home for dinner.

“That was a great time,” Ekanem said. “We got to bond as seniors, bond with his family, three lovely daughters. Good time with them. They gave us a tour of the house.”

As Fuente puts his own stamp on the Virginia Tech program, he vows to remain mindful of tradition. That commitment has already been displayed by Fuente’s decision to retain veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster and other members of the previous staff.

“With Bud Foster staying, it was pretty big for myself and other defensive players,” Ekanem said. “Bud Foster was my recruiter. He did a great job recruiting me. I'm just happy that he was able to stay. Also Coach (Charles) Wiles stays as the defensive line coach. Fortunate and blessed to have my position coach and recruiter and defensive coordinator.”

Fuente said his approach is based on a genuine appreciation for Virginia Tech’s football history and potential for continued success.

“I believe in paying great respect to the things that have happened in the past,” Fuente said. “There's no reason for us to do anything other than that. We should celebrate Coach Beamer and his accomplishments. There may never be another person in Virginia Tech history that means as much to that school at Coach Beamer, and we should celebrate that.

We also have an obligation to build on what he has done. I have an obligation to do that in the best way I know possible. That does not mean doing it exactly the way he did it. That means paying great tribute to the way he did things and understanding there was a fantastic foundation there of core values, and let's build on it through our own core values.”

The offseason injury to his left Achilles heel initially seemed certain to sideline redshirt senior quarterback Thomas Sirk for at least part of Duke’s 2016 football season. But the progress reports for Sirk’s return have grown more optimistic in recent weeks, and Sirk told reporters on Thursday that he hopes to be ready for the Blue Devils’ opener against North Carolina Central on September 3.

“I started the rehab process immediately after having surgery,” Sirk said. “I continued to progress every week, every day really. Right now I'm just listening and focusing on what my trainers say. I have a great support group around me with the doctors and with my trainers. No better place I'd rather be than Duke University when something like this happens.

“As I continue to do more exercises, running, dropping back, shuffling, I just continue to listen to what they tell me to do. We'll see where I'm at when the fall camp starts.’

Sirk led Duke in rushing last season with 803 yards in addition for throwing for over 2,600 yards and 16 touchdowns in 12 starts, so his absence would definitely be felt. But this is the second time the Florida native has dealt with an Achilles injury during his time at Duke, and he is believes that what once seemed the worst of misfortunes can wind up being a blessing.

“Having torn my right one in 2013, I kind of knew what to expect from the injury,” Sirk said. “I knew what the process is going to be composed of. Immediately I accepted there's nothing you can do about the injury. I had to move forward. I listened to my trainers and what they told me. They told me we could overcome this one as I did my right one. I've taken that mindset and had a positive attitude from the very beginning.

“That's one thing you can control, is control your attitude. That's what I've did. Every week I've gotten better and seen improvement.”

Whenever Sirk does make it back onto the field, head coach David Cutcliffe does not foresee his role or style of play changing.

“I've talked to our physical therapist, our doctors, our trainers,” Cutcliffe said. “Thomas is going to play and be true to the way he plays. The goal is to get him 100 percent ready to do that. As we evaluate August, we're not trying to see if he's ready to play in his first game August 8th, that's not the goal. The goal is to see if we can get him to the point for September 3rd to play like Thomas Sirk plays to be successful.

“It's their job as a medical staff –  and they'll do a great job of it –  to guide him, to bring him along. I'm going to trust the process as a coach and we'll see what happens.”

It might be an understatement to say that Georgia Tech opens the 2016 football season in unique fashion. 

Not only will the Yellow Jackets kick off the season with a conference game against Boston College, they’ll do so in Dublin, Ireland. Fans watching back home will need to set alarms to make sure they don’t miss the 7:30 a.m. start on Saturday, September 3.

“Definitely it will be a different experience,” said senior quarterback Justin Thomas during Thursday’s ACC Kickoff media session in Charlotte.  “I've never been anywhere out of the country, so it will be different, just seeing how people live, how they do things over there. But our main goal is to go there to win. Everything outside of that, it will be great to see and great to do, but without winning, it won't be the same.”
Head coach Paul Johnson wants his team to treat the game as a normal season opener, but he knows that might be asking the next to impossible.

“I think we've got 80 guys out of the 110 or so that will travel that have never been out of the country,” Johnson said. “It's going to be an experience for them to do that. But the bottom line is, it's a conference game, conference opener. We're going over there with a mindset to try to win the football game. That's number one.”

And Georgia Tech’s time away from home won’t be extensive.

“Right now, we plan to leave on Wednesday night after practice,” Johnson said. “We'll get in there Thursday morning. Maybe we'll get to tour a little bit on Friday, let them see some things. Then we're right back after the game because we play the next Saturday.

“It's going to be a really quick trip.”

The Yellow Jackets hope the trip to Dublin will be the first step in a turnaround from 2015, which saw Georgia Tech struggle through a 3-9 season after being chosen to win the ACC Coastal Division in preseason. Injuries and inexperience played a big part in that, but Johnson offered no excuses on Thursday.

“I think we have to get back to the level of play that we've become accustomed to over the last few years,” Johnson said. “We weren't near as good offensively a year ago as we had been. We weren't good enough in other areas to carry the team. Offensively we've kind of been in a spot for most of the last eight years that we could kind of push through and control the ball, stay on the field, do those things.

“I think there's a lot of reasons why (Tech struggled last season), but nobody wants to hear the labor pains, they just want to see the baby. We've just got to do better.”

Now that he is back at his alma mater, Mark Richt plans on making it a lengthy stay. At the same time, Miami’s first-year head coach plans on making it his final professional stop.

Richt, who compiled an impressive 85-40 (.680) SEC record and a 145-551 (.739) overall mark in 15 seasons as the head coach at Georgia, is a former quarterback and an offensive coach by trade. His first Hurricane pupil – rising junior Brad Kaaya –   has learned a lot in the short time he and Richt have spent together.

“It's hard to pinpoint one thing,” said Kaaya, who has thrown for 6,436 yards and 42 touchdowns in two collegiate seasons. “I'd say one thing that Coach Richt has brought is a lot of blitz pickup stuff. I'm starting to understand blitzes more. I did have a general knowledge of blitzes last year, but it's improved more this year in terms of our run game and pass game, knowing how to identify fronts and (make) adjustments that Coach Richt has really helped me out with.”

The learning process hasn’t always been easy.

“I’ve played in three different offenses since I got here,” Kaaya said. “Last year I was in shotgun a lot more. This year we're going to mix it up a lot, a lot of under center. The verbiage, the terms and stuff like that at first were hard to get down … Certain signals, trying not to mix stuff up from previous years has been a challenge. So far I think I've grasped it pretty well.”
With Kaaya heading a list of 17 returning starters, the Hurricanes are expected to be immediate ACC and Coastal Division contenders under Richt’s watch. Long-term success, he says, will lie in the ability to recruit in an area he already knows very well.

“If you take the tri-county area – Palm Beach, Broward and Dade County – there's 150 Division I scholarship players coming out every year,” Richt noted. “If I average 20 a year, if I got all 20 out of that area, there's another hundred going all over America. There's a lot of good ones, too. You can't get them all.”

But Richt plans to land his share, and it starts with building relationships.
“I think the big thing is to make sure that the coaches, the high school coaches, know that they're welcome in our place, that we want to recruit their guys, we want the local guys to stay home, and we want to be honest with everybody and do our recruiting in a way that everybody appreciates it,” Richt said.