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Aug. 1, 2011
By Bill Hass
PINEHURST, N.C. – What are the ingredients for a national championship in football?
That might seem like a strange question for the ACC, which hasn’t claimed a BCS title since Florida State won the crown in 1999. But ACC coaches haven’t given up on the idea by any means.
“The way I look at it, that’s got to be your goal,” said Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer. “And it is our goal. It all starts with trying to win your division, then winning the ACC (championship game), which we were fortunate to do last year, and if you do you’re going to be in a position to win the national championship or go to the Orange Bowl.’
Beamer, now in his 25th season as the Hokies’ head coach, spoke from experience at the ACC Football Kickoff recently. His team played for the BCS title in that 1999 game against the Seminoles when Virginia Tech was a member of the Big East. His program has been remarkably consistent since then.
“We’re the only team in the country that’s won at least 10 games for seven straight years,” he said. “We’re in the mix. What has happened is we haven’t quite fit together. When we were good defensively we were a little too young offensively. And then when we were good offensively last year we were a little bit too immature defensively.
“The year we played for the national championship we had Michael Vick as the quarterback, we were good defensively, we had Shayne Graham (as the kicker). That’s what you shoot for. It’s hard. Things have to fall right and you’ve got to be good and be a little bit lucky. We’re going to keep working for that, though.”
For many years the rest of the country looked to Florida State to carry the ACC banner and the Seminoles responded, playing in three straight BCS title games. Now some people are looking to Tallahassee again, with Florida State the strong favorite to win the ACC title this season.
“I think it’s huge,” coach Jimbo Fisher said of that prediction. “I think we embrace those expectations. Like I’ve said before, that’s the reason I wanted to be the head coach at Florida State and why (the players) wanted to come to Florida State, to be in those kind of situations.”
Fisher describes himself as process-oriented rather than strictly results-oriented. If his team develops the good habits he desires, then it will look around at the end of the season and see where it is.
“If we play well every Saturday,” he said, “with our talent level and our coaches’ talent level, I think we’ll have a chance to be successful against anybody we play. If we do that and can do it consistently, then we’ll be where the ACC and the country and everybody else wants us and we’ll win one of these (national titles).”
Following are quick hits from all the schools from the ACC Football Kickoff.
BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will loosen the reins on sophomore quarterback Chase Rettig, who won the starting job midway through last season.
“He finished up, he gained some valuable experience, he won some games,” said coach Frank Spaziani. “We certainly restricted a lot of things because of his inexperience. He’s had a good off-season, he’s had a good spring, he’s into the system. He’s (been) highly motivated since high school, he knows where he wants to go with this.
“He’s got the physical skills and we think we know how to coach him. Now he has to go do it in the second year and make progress. He wants to do it and we want him to do it and now we’re going to find out.”
Spaziani, incidentally, briefly toyed with the idea of shaving his Tom Selleck-style mustache but decided against it. Asked how long he has had it, Spaziani replied: “I’ll give you an idea without telling you how old I was. When I was in kindergarten the other kids laughed at me.”
CLEMSON: Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has developed a close relationship with new offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
“He’s exactly what I was looking for and it’s been a lot of fun to work with him,” Swinney said. “Heck, he moved in right next door to me, so that’s been a lot of fun having him as my neighbor as well.”
Swinney wants the Clemson offense to match the aggressiveness of the defense. Morris’ up-tempo style, which will run a lot of plays in every game, fits that notion.
“Our goal is to be the most explosive offense in the country,” Swinney said. “We’re still going to be a power football team, very run-oriented, that’s where it’s going to start. It is football, it’s not like we’re doing something that’s unknown. It’s the same cat; you’re just always trying to find a different way to skin it.”
DUKE: Will Snyderwine was selected as the preseason All-ACC kicker and coach David Cutcliffe is one of his biggest promoters.
“The first time I ever heard Will kick I knew we had something special,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t have to see him, you can hear it when he hits the ball. He’s an incredible athlete.
“I’m going to tell you what (else) Will Snyderwine can do. He’s the greatest onside kick artist I’ve ever been around. All we need is a football coach with enough guts to do it more. We did it six times and I’m telling you, it’s pretty interesting.”
Cutcliffe did a bit of foreshadowing of what things will be like this fall.
“You want to see some fun football?” he asked. “Come to Durham because we’re going to have fun playing football.”
FLORIDA STATE: Fisher believes making the ACC Championship Game last year, even though the Seminoles fell short, whetted the appetites of his players.
“I think after it was over they looked back and said, ‘man, we really could have won 11, 12, 13 games, we could have been to that threshold.’” Fisher said.
“I think it’s motivated them to pay more attention to details and believe in themselves and hopefully the word that steps into play, which I talk about all the time, hopefully (that experience will) give us confidence that we can do it.”
The Noles will be bigger this season without sacrificing any speed.
“We’re just as fast as we ever were,” Fisher said. “But we want to recruit bigger. It’s like little cars and collisions; after so many collisions they fall apart. Big cars can take more collisions, and I mean you wear on people, pound on people. Big people (who are in shape) stay healthy longer.”
GEORGIA TECH: Although the Yellow Jackets had their 2009 ACC Championship vacated because of NCAA infractions, it shouldn’t affect the players who remain from that team.
“They don’t think about it, they just moved on,” coach Paul Johnson said. “They know they played in a game. It’s part of life. Stuff you can’t control, you just have to move on. You can’t beat it to death, you just have to say ‘next’ and get ready for this year.”
Asked how he assessed this season’s team, Johnson answered with tongue partly in cheek.
“Take better care of the ball, that’s a start,” he said. “We need to be better in the kicking game, we need to be more efficient throwing the ball and we need to play better on defense. Other than that, we’re right where we want to be. If we get all those worked out we’ll have a pretty good team.”
MARYLAND: Randy Edsall, in his first year at the Terps’ helm, said he’s pleased with the direction the transition is going as far as the players are concerned. So how about the fans?
“Once people get a chance to meet you and they get a chance to see you, feel you, touch you, then they get a better idea of what we’re going to stand for and what we’re going to do,” he said. “I’m not worried about pleasing everybody. I’m just going to go and do the things that I think are right for our program and I think people appreciate the kind of program that we’re going to be running.
“You’re never going to win everybody over; I don’t think anybody does that. I’m not trying to win a popularity contest. I’m trying to develop young men and develop a program that will stand the test of time.”
Edsall said the coaches are molding this team around the players available.
“We’re going to be up-tempo,” he said. “We’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to be very multiple, we’re going to do the things we feel our personnel can do.”
MIAMI: Another first-year head coach is the Hurricanes’ Al Golden. And Miami’s first game of the season will pit his club against Edsall’s Terps on Labor Day night.
Like Edsall, Golden is navigating his way through the transition, but he knows exactly what he wants.
“We’ve made it real clear what we want our team to look like,” he said, “but the harder part is the buy-in part and from that standpoint I’m very appreciative of the senior class. They have a sense of urgency like no other transition I’ve been a part of, and this is my fourth.
“Seniors are generally the ones who spit you out, who don’t buy in, who quite often are skeptical. This group has pretty much said ‘here’s what we came here to do and we haven’t done it, we’re running out of time. Show us how to get there and we’ll do whatever you need us to do.’”
NORTH CAROLINA: One coach who wasn’t at Pinehurst was Everett Withers of North Carolina. Things changed drastically from Monday, when Butch Davis addressed the media as the Tar Heels coach, to Wednesday when he was dismissed. On Thursday, Withers was named interim coach for the 2011 season.
The Charlotte native, who played four years as a defensive back at Appalachian State, has a background of 24 years in coaching, including stops at Louisville, Minnesota and Texas and seven seasons in the NFL. For the last three seasons he has been the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at UNC, with impressive success.
In 2008, the Tar Heels ranked eighth in the country with 20 interceptions. In 2009, they ranked sixth in total defense. Last season, with constantly changing personnel, they ranked fourth in the ACC and 30th in the country in total defense.
UNC opens fall practice on Aug. 5, just eight days after his appointment.
“Obviously it’s going to be difficult with the timing of this,” Withers said at a press conference, “but I think we’ll be fine.”
NC STATE: After three years of hovering just below .500 under coach Tom O’Brien, the Wolfpack broke through with a 9-4 record in 2010 that included a bowl win.
“You have to get to that first year where you win, you go to a bowl game and you’re not just winning, you’re winning at the highest levels,” O’Brien said. “We went through some hard times the previous two years – the second year when we had 12 guys out for the year, the next year we look at 16 guys out and we’re playing all those walk-ons and young kids.
“(Now) the coaching staff isn’t dumb any more. We go back to being smart guys; we knew what we were doing.”
O’Brien said this year’s team has “a little different feel about them that goes back to how they finished the year last year.”
VIRGINIA: Coach Mike London expects improvement across the board in his second year. He said the players have adopted a philosophy of being more physically tough, an influx of freshmen has improved the level of talent and there’s an optimism and excitement in the program that is tangible.
One of the players he is counting on to help the Cavaliers improve is junior running back Perry Jones (646 yards plus 31 catches for 224 yards in 2010).
“Probably the heart and soul of the team,” London said. “Probably, pound for pound, one of the strongest guys on the team. You go to Charlottesville on a weekend and you’ll see Perry running with a weight vest on or running through tires or ropes – just a phenomenal work ethic. He’s a great team leader, a captain and a young man that I expect great things from.”
VIRGINIA TECH: The punting competition involves three players and will continue into fall camp.
“The only thing we know right now is that people will not return punts against us,” Beamer said with a smile, “because we don’t know where (the ball’s) going, they don’t know where it’s going. There’s not a chance in the world the (other) guys are going to return a punt.
“That’s going to be one of our priorities in fall practice is getting our punting situation squared away because we’ve got to work as a unit and get the timing and our protections. You’ve got to be able to punt the football; to me, that’s one of the critical teams in college football.”
WAKE FOREST: As a true freshman quarterback, Tanner Price had a rough season. He was playing from behind, sometimes far behind, in most games and he didn’t get much help from his offensive teammates, but coach Jim Grobe remains high on him.
“This is probably not fair to Tanner,” Grobe said, “but he’s got the Riley Skinner-type stuff that you look for in a quarterback. He doesn’t point fingers, he accepts responsibility. All the intangible things you look for in a quarterback he’s got, and he’s got a live arm. He’s a guy we can win a lot of games with.
“I can’t tell you how many times he hit receivers in the hands on third down to move the sticks and they dropped the ball, or we missed a block and took a sack that we shouldn’t have taken or a running back turned the ball over and we’re off the field.
“Tanner accepted the responsibility, he took all the bullets and took the pressure off the other 10 guys. If we want Tanner to play well, he needs 10 guys helping him and we didn’t get that much last year.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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