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Nov. 10, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – There’s nothing quite like the buildup to a Miami-Florida State football game, whether you are new to it or a veteran of it.
Al Golden, in his first season as coach of the Hurricanes, can feel something different in the air.
“There's no question there's a palpable difference just in everything surrounding this game,” Golden said. “It's certainly living up to everything we thought it would be coming here to Miami and we're excited about the challenge, the environment. Clearly, I know our guys are excited.”
One of those in particular is Miami middle linebacker Sean Spence. As a senior, he’s preparing for his fourth – and final – game against the Seminoles.
“It’s a very big buildup and you know it’s going to be a very intense game,” Spence said. “A lot of people are edgy waiting for it but you’ve just to take it one day at a time.
“Every game I play is fun but this one is special seeing that it’s Florida State and being that I watched the game since I was little and now I’m a part of it.”
Spence became a big part of it in his freshman season. He made his first career start and wound up with 10 tackles and an interception that he returned for a touchdown. That was the start of a stellar run by Spence at the position.
One of the things he has done extremely well is make tackles for loss, a statistic which includes sacks and dropping runners behind the line of scrimmage. He has 44 of those, making him the ACC’s active career leader and third in the NCAA. A dozen of those have come this season.
“I think there are good seasons, there are great seasons, then there are special seasons,” Golden said. “I think what he's doing right now is special. The way he prepares, the leadership he's provided, the type of work ethic that he is instilling in our team, our young people, he is clearly an incredible asset to our program and is having a wonderful year.”
There never was much doubt about where Spence, a Miami native who went to Northwestern High School, was going to college.
“I grew up on the ‘Canes,” he said, “and seeing all the guys who came through here, all the greats, I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
Although Spence isn’t the biggest middle linebacker around (he’s 6-1, 224), he said he makes up for that by using the techniques his coaches have taught him and by just “doing my job.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher mentioned Spence’s toughness and love for the game among his top assets. And one other thing that really can’t be coached.
“I think he’s very instinctive,” Fisher said. “I think as you watch them, all great linebackers are very instinctive. Whether he takes a block on (or) he slips a block, he runs, he pulls the pin and plays very hard. You can just see his great instincts and love for the game and he’s just a natural football player. I think that's the greatest thing he has going for him.”
The first thing that came to Golden’s mind about Spence was the same thing – instincts. Not to mention other abilities.
“He's got tremendous speed and change of direction,” Golden went on. “Then he's tough. He's really tough. He can take on a block or he can knock a ball carrier back in addition. He really has a complete package. He can make plays in space, make plays sideline to sideline.
“But I think the thing that he doesn't get enough credit for is his football intelligence, how hard he prepares, how well he executes the design of the defense. He brings the design of the defense to life. That's really the definition of a special player.”
There are only a handful of games left in Spence’s Miami career, although he wishes there could be some more.
“I like what coach Golden is doing with the program,” he said. “I like the things that he’s brought to the program and I feel we’re moving forward. I would love to have another year or two with coach Golden and our team but I’m a senior. I’m pretty happy for the guys who will get a chance to play for him in the future.”
In the meantime, Spence will give everything he has to help the Hurricanes finish this season with a flourish, starting with his final game against the Seminoles Saturday.
THE PLAIN TRUTH: Coaches sometimes will tiptoe around the importance of a single game, but Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson refreshingly minced no words about Thursday’s game against Virginia Tech.
“This is a do-or-die game for us Thursday night,” he said. “We realize if we lose this game we're out of the (Coastal Division) race, and if we win we stay alive for another week. It's a big game.
“This is my fourth year, and every year this game has had a lot riding on it. It'll be a huge challenge; Virginia Tech has got a good football team, and we're looking forward to having a chance to line up and play against them.”
DUKE’S GREAT SMALL PLAYER: Donovan Varner stands 5-9 and weighs 175 pounds – with all his pads on, perhaps – but you can’t overstate his value to Duke’s program.
Varner heads into the final games of his career as the ACC’s active leader in receptions with 187, which puts him 11th all-time. He could possibly land in the top five by the time he’s finished. Three more catches and he will surpass Clarkston Hines as the Blue Devils’ all-time leading receiver. (Note: Teammate Conner Vernon has 184 catches and could impact these rankings.)
“Well, the first thing is his durability,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of Varner. “He brings it every practice, every game. He is just a physical warrior as well as a great speed guy. You look for Donova in practice to create energy and excitement. He loves to compete. He's there every game catching balls, making conversions on third down. He's really quite a special young player.
“There've been a lot of great small players all through different eras of college football. He is very much one of the fine small players of this era of college football because he has been so consistent. As a true sophomore he led the ACC in receptions (65). He's continued to play well, particularly as we spread the ball around, have better players around him. He has still remained a big factor in our offense.”
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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