Bill Hass on the ACC: ACC Football Teams Eager to Play Someone in Different Uniform
Sept. 3, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – After a month of preseason camp spent practicing and scrimmaging against teammates, every player in college football is ready to line up against someone wearing a different uniform.
You get the sense that coaches are tired of looking at each other, too, and are anxious to gaze across the sidelines at a staff in different colors.
Everyone gets their wish over the next five days. All 12 ACC teams play their first regular-season game, beginning with one tonight, nine more Saturday and wrapping up Monday night.
Here are some of the things on the coaches’ minds.
South Carolina at NC State, 7 p.m. today – While a terrible injury has cost the Wolfpack the services of one player, another returns from an equally terrible one.
In the first quarter of Tom O’Brien’s first game as head coach at State, tailback Toney Baker suffered a knee injury that tore the cartilage off the bone.
“He was told he would never play football again,” O’Brien said. “At least that was the initial prognosis.”
After missing the rest of 2007 and all of 2008, Baker has returned and won the starting job. O’Brien estimates that after making it every day through spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp, Baker is “90 percent back” to where he was to start 2007.
The Pack will be without linebacker Nate Irving, out for the season after suffering a broken leg and other injuries in a car accident this summer. Sophomore Dwayne Maddox, who got playing time when Irving missed some games last year, will start in that spot, backed up by redshirt freshman Terrell Manning.
“Certainly I don’t think we’ll get the production we got from Nate Irving,” O’Brien said, “but that means other guys on the defense have to pick it up and they have to handle their part and be very consistent for us in their play.”
Irving continues to help the Wolfpack linebackers with their reads and calls in practices.
Jacksonville State at Georgia Tech, 1 p.m. Saturday – The Yellow Jackets lost backup quarterback Jaybo Shaw to injury for some three weeks, but coach Paul Johnson is not as concerned as he would have been last season when he installed the triple-option attack.
“Our quarterback depth is better than it was a year ago,” Johnson said. “Last year we had a quarterback who had never run the system (starter John Nesbitt) and a true freshman out of high school (Shaw) and they were the only two scholarship quarterbacks that we had. This year we’ve got five.”
Tevin Washington, a redshirt freshman, moves up to the No. 2 spot while Shaw is out.
Northeastern at Boston College, 2 p.m. Saturday – The Eagles would love to borrow some of Georgia Tech’s quarterbacks. Long-time assistant Frank Spaziani begins his first season as a head coach with virtually no experience at the position.
“It’s evolving, it’s not resolving,” he said with a chuckle. “Right now we’ve got ourselves down to going out to practice and giving two guys most of the work, depending on how our health situation comes up. We’ll probably be playing two quarterbacks only because we don’t have one right now.”
The candidates are one redshirt freshman, Justin Tuggle, and two true freshmen, Dave Shinskie and Mike Marscovetra. Shinskie, back at practice after a rib injury, and Tuggle will probably be the first two called upon.
Baylor at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m. Saturday – While the Deacons wait for a young defense to mature, ball control by the offense will be important, said coach Jim Grobe. That means a running game with three veterans will be a key element.
Senior Kevin Harris, who had excellent games against Vanderbilt and Navy in the EagleBank Bowl to end the 2008 season, will start. But juniors Josh Adams, whom Grobe said had the best summer of all the tailbacks, and Brandon Pendergrass will also play.
“I think that what’s going to happen is somebody will step to the front and kind of be the guy,” Grobe said, “but I’m not sure who that’s going to be. I don’t think any of these guys has separated themselves and I don’t think we’ll learn that until we get a real game under our belts.”
Wake’s defense will be tested by Baylor’s sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin, an excellent runner who is improving as a passer. The Bears return nine starters on each side of the ball.
Middle Tennessee at Clemson, 6 p.m. Saturday – Fans in the ACC may not know a lot about the Blue Raiders, but they beat Virginia in 2007 and Maryland in 2008. Former Clemson assistant Rick Stockstill is the head coach and he has a number of former Tiger players and coaches on his staff, so the team should be well-prepared for the atmosphere in Death Valley.
Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, beginning his first full season as head coach after taking over in the middle of 2008, said defense will be the strength of his team. Of course, the Tigers also have multi-purpose threat C.J. Spiller, but much depends on new quarterback Kyle Parker, a redshirt freshman. The staff will not pare down the playbook for him.
“Kyle has really picked up things well,” Swinney said. “That’s one of the reasons he won the job. He had a really good grasp of things coming out of spring practice and has not made a lot of mistakes.”
The Citadel at North Carolina, 6 p.m. Saturday – The Tar Heels begin the season with an established tailback in Shaun Draughn, who moved over to offense in preseason camp last year. He produced 866 yards rushing and four total touchdowns.
“It was baptism under fire last year,” said coach Butch Davis. “I thought that Shaun increasingly got better as the season went along. He clearly today has a better grasp, a better understanding of the entire offense.”
Among the things that Draughn has picked up is pass protection and when to slip out on passing routes. Patience is also a factor.
“One of the (tendencies) for any young running back, and certainly for one who had not played on the collegiate level, is to rush things,” Davis said. “Sometimes you’re in such a rush to try to get to the intended hole that sometimes you don’t allow things to develop, you don’t let blocks set up, especially if you’re playing behind linemen and fullbacks who are pulling in front of you.”
William and Mary at Virginia, 6 p.m. Saturday – While the Cavaliers have yet to name a starting quarterback, coach Al Groh said there’s a very thin line separating Vic Hall, Jameel Sewell and Marc Verica. Verica was the starter most of 2008 while Sowell sat out the season, but Hall started the final game.
“They’ve all really progressed throughout the previous 26 days of camp and we feel very comfortable with any one of the three if they play in the game,” Groh said Wednesday. “We’re just going to watch practice and demeanor and confidence level and so forth through (Thursday) and make a decision on that. I think there’s a good possibility that more than one of them will play in most of the games this year. In that respect, it’s not that major a deal.”
Groh said it’s a “body of work” rather than one or two smaller things that will lead to the final decision.
Richmond at Duke, 7 p.m. Saturday – The Blue Devils face a tough opener against the 2008 FCS (formerly Division I-AA) champion. The Spiders have a host of redshirt seniors and juniors among their starters and are very physical in their offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
But the Blue Devils may have already survived their most difficult opponent this season, an epidemic of H1N1 virus, more commonly known as swine flu.
“I think it’s run its course,” said coach David Cutcliffe. “I think every institution, every elementary school, every college is going to be fighting this. I’m kind of knocking on wood when I say I hope we’re through the worst. We’ve had 30-some guys that have had it and we’re hoping we don’t have to face that again.
“We had a few coaches who got ill but were able to stay at work and stay through it, not very comfortably. Our poor trainer was right in the middle of it and he got hammered with it. Camp is hard; you throw the H1N1 in there and it kind of made it a little difficult for everybody. But I was amazed at how well everyone involved handled the adversity and dealt with it.”
Alabama vs. Virginia Tech, 8 p.m. Saturday in the Georgia Dome – Hokies coach Frank Beamer understands the excitement surrounding this nationally televised game against the nation’s fifth-ranked team.
“I told (the players) that I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” he said. “We sold all our tickets, they sold all their tickets, Atlanta is a great town. We’re fortunate there’s that much attention being paid towards it, but it’s one ball game. If we win it, it’s not going to make our season and if we lose it it’s not going to make our season. You treat it as the opening ball game and that’s the bottom line.”
Beamer said it’s not just Virginia Tech carrying the banner in a game of national interest. He said all ACC schools must do their part in nonconference games. Still, this one means a lot.
“Certainly with us playing an SEC team ranked No. 5 in the country and ranked No. 1 much of last year, it would be a big win for Virginia Tech,” he said. “It would be a big win for the ACC if we could get these guys.”
The Hokies have a huge hole to fill at tailback, where sophomore Darren Evans was lost for the season to a knee injury. Beamer said third-year sophomore Josh Oglesby, redshirt freshman Ryan Williams and true freshmen David Wilson will all play.
“They’re talented guys,” Beamer said. “The problem is two of them haven’t played at all and one of them has played very little in a game.”
Maryland at California, 10 p.m. Saturday – The Terps will wind up a long Saturday with the longest trip any ACC team will take this season (although Florida State at Brigham Young is close).
Coach Ralph Friedgen’s defense, under new coordinator Don Brown, will be tested by a Cal team that is ranked No. 12 and features one of the best runners in the country in Jahvid Best, who ran for 1,580 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry in 2008.
The Terps are young in depth. Friedgen said 28 players on the two-deep chart have yet to play in their first game. What they do have are some veterans like runners Da’Rel Scott and Dave Meggett, some potential big-play receivers in Adrian Cannon, Torrey Smith and Ronnie Tyler, and a solid quarterback in Chris Turner.
“He’s very comfortable, very poised,” Friedgen said of Turner. “I see him knowing the offense a whole lot better, being an asset to his teammates. He’s giving them tips almost like a coach on the field.”
Miami at Florida State, 8 p.m. Monday – College football gets the NFL treatment in this Monday night game between two old rivals squaring off in the first conference game of the ACC season.
Miami coach Randy Shannon is most concerned about his team protecting the ball on offense and playing fundamentally sound on defense.
“The keys to this game are turning the ball over, who has less turnovers, and also tackling,” Shannon said. “The biggest thing in the first game is if you can tackle, you can probably get off the field and if you turn the ball over it’s going to be a long night for you.”
This game has a familiar feel for Shannon. When he played linebacker for the Hurricanes from 1984-88, the Seminoles had head coach Bobby Bowden and assistants Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato on the sidelines. All are still there.
Bowden said he’s ready to really find out how good his team is.
“In spring training you scrimmage against each other and then in fall practice you scrimmage against each other,” he said. “You don’t even know what you’ve got.
“If your offense did good you wonder ‘is the defense any good?’ If the defense did good you say ‘well, gosh, I wonder if the offense is any good?’ The only way you find out is when you play somebody and I’ll be glad when we play somebody.”
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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