May 19, 2006

ACC looking to rebuild in the trenches

From Walter Jones to D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the ACC has had its share of standout offensive linemen.

But spring practice this year was a different story for the conference. Eight ACC teams gave up 30 or more sacks last year, and many ended spring drills searching for answers on the line.

Florida State, 109th in the country in rushing last year, will hope the arrival of junior college All-American Shannon Boatman, some shuffling of the line and a healthy year from its veterans will prevent another five-loss season.

Clemson needs all five of its returning starters on the line to block for a talented backfield and protect first-year starting quarterback Will Proctor N.C. State, Maryland and North Carolina will try to revive their offenses as a whole.

Even the former Big East teams are hurting in the trenches.

Boston College, normally one of the country's best schools for offensive linemen, spent the spring trying to replace second-round draft pick Jeremy Trueblood and long-time starter Patrick Ross.

Miami allowed a league-worst 36 sacks last year despite sending two linemen to the NFL in the third round of the draft, and Virginia Tech lost four senior linemen, including three starters.

Boston College (9-3, 5-3)
The most important thing: Replacing key linemen will be a challenge.
John Boyle of "Coming into spring practice, there were a lot of holes to fill and a lot of experience to replace. The offensive line, usually a reloadable position for BC, is still in the process of filling out after the departure of longtime starters Jeremy Trueblood at tackle and Patrick Ross at center. Replacing defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka is going to be tougher than it originally appeared."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Clarence Megwa
Boyle: "Megwa impressed at the spring game with his athleticism and growth. He led all receivers with seven catches for 95 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown catch. He helps a receiving corps that had a lot of questions after the departure of Larry Lester and Will Blackmon."
Clemson (8-4, 4-4)
The most important thing: Line, run game will carry the offense.
Cris Ard of "After ranking in the bottom half of the ACC in rushing from 2002-04, Clemson's ground attack finished fourth in the league in 2005. All five starters return to an offensive line that will block for some of the nation's top personnel at tailback in James Davis, Reggie Merriweather and incoming freshman C.J. Spiller. Depth was also developed in the spring - three redshirt freshmen will claim two-deep roles by September. The newfound production here also takes pressure off new starting quarterback Will Proctor. He steps in for the school's all-time leading passer, Charlie Whitehurst."
Player to watch: Wide receiver/kick returner Jacoby Ford
Ard: "Incoming freshmen Ricky Sapp and Spiller could fit this category perfectly, but Ford is already on campus. He's also the fastest scholarship football player in school history, having run a sub-4.2-second 40-yard dash for inside linebackers coach David Blackwell during the recruiting process. Ford already secured a spot on the two-deep depth chart at receiver, but his claim to fame in 2006 could be his explosiveness in the return game. He wowed college coaches from coast to coast while at Fork Union Military last season."
Duke (1-10, 0-8)
The most important thing: Top young defensive linemen return from injuries .
Randall Thomason of "Two of the more hyped defensive signees in recent Duke history never made it on the field last year. Defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase and defensive end Ayanga Okpokowuruk each missed the year with injuries. They returned to the practice field this spring and looked better as they regained stamina. With seniors Casey Camero and Eli Nichols back to anchor the unit, the mix of young talent could make the group respectable in the ACC. Patrick Bailey's move from linebacker to defensive end should also result in more heat on the quarterback."
Player to watch: Wide receiver Eron Riley
Thomason: "The 6-foot-3 sophomore emerged toward the end of last season out of necessity when injuries hit Duke's receivers. Riley finished his true freshman campaign with a flurry, catching 10 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns in Duke's final five games. Riley looked terrific this spring and has developed more consistent timing with sophomore quarterback Zack Asack. Those two will hook up for a few big plays in 2006."
Florida State (8-5, 5-3)
The most important thing: Working out offensive line problems.
Gene Williams of "Florida State entered the 2005 season with a thin and suspect offensive line. After season-ending injuries to three starters, the blocking up front went from mediocre to awful, which is a major reason why FSU lost four of its last five games. Improving the line was a major priority for the Seminoles in spring practice. So far, the early returns have been promising. More emphasis has been put on strength training, and the addition of JUCO All-American Shannon Boatman has given the Seminoles a boost at tackle. That should allow Cory Niblock to move back to his natural position at guard, where he started 11 games in 2004."
Player to watch: Safety Myron Rolle
Williams: "Rarely does a highly touted recruit live up to the hype from Day One, but Rolle could be a rare exception. The 6-2, 220-pound safety immediately caught the attention of the Seminoles coaching staff and his new teammates during February mat drills by quickly catching on to the system and performing to the level of the upperclassmen by the end of the conditioning program. Any remaining skeptics were turned during spring practice when he excelled. In the spring game, he returned an interception for a touchdown. If he continues to improve, Rolle has a chance to be a rare true freshman starter for defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews."
Georgia Tech (7-5, 5-3)
The most important thing: Offense possesses breakout potential.
Brandon Helwig of "Georgia Tech has been regarded as more of a defensive team in Chan Gailey's four seasons in Atlanta. However with questions in the secondary, where the Jackets return just one starter, it could be up to the offense to carry the team. Gailey has given play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Patrick Nix, who also will tweak some things in the playbook. Nix will have plenty of weapons at his disposal with All-American wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Reggie Ball back for his senior season."
Player to watch: Running back Jamaal Evans
Helwig: "Tashard Choice is the leading candidate to replace P.J. Daniels as the No. 1 tailback this season, but don't be surprised if true freshman Evans pushes for carries. Evans, who graduated from high school in December, caught everyone's eye during spring drills. At 5-8, 191 pounds, he's not the biggest back, but he's a shifty runner that showed great ability to avoid tackles and gain positive yards."
Maryland (5-6, 3-5)
The most important thing: Passing game is a work in progress.
Keith Cavanaugh of "The quarterbacks and receivers still have a lot of work to do before the season starts. The receiving corps, which includes one senior among true freshmen and sophomores, is still getting on the same page. The group of five young receivers is Maryland's best, biggest and fastest in recent years. However, they need to become better route runners and learn how to finish plays. Senior quarterback Sam Hollenbach's turnover problems continued with three interceptions in the spring game. He has to continue to improve and cut down on the miscues for the offense to hum again under coach Ralph Friedgen, who will be offensive coordinator following the resignation of Charlie Taaffe."
Player to watch: Nose tackle Robert Armstrong
Cavanaugh: "Armstrong, who played as a backup as a freshman and sophomore, is back with the team after missing last season following back surgery. He made it through the spring and gained a starting position, allowing senior Conrad Bolston - the Terrapins' top defensive lineman - to return to his natural position, defensive tackle."
Miami (9-3, 6-2)
The most important thing: Defense figures to take the lead again.
Gary Ferman of "This year's Miami defense might be even better than last year's despite the losses of linebacker Roger McIntosh and cornerback Kelly Jennings. They are at least eight-deep at defensive line and two-deep at every linebacker position. The safeties, Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips, are the best in the country. It will be difficult to consistently run against this group and fatigue isn't likely to become a factor."
Player to watch: Tight end Richard Gordon
Ferman: "Gordon is a freakish athlete who could get a lot of playing time as a true freshman due to a talent shortage at fullback. Gordon, who enrolled in January, could see time as an H-back or in two tight end sets. With Greg Olsen certain to attract the defense's attention, Gordon could be matched one-on-one against linebackers, giving quarterback Kyle Wright a 6-4, 260-pound target in the middle of the field with the ability to turn short passes into big plays."
North Carolina (5-6, 4-4)
The most important thing: Frank Cignetti spices up the offense.
Ryan Bartow of "Cignetti, who led Fresno State's offense to back-to-back top six national rankings in scoring, brings enthusiasm and creativity to a unit that was stagnant a year ago. The Tar Heels ranked 102nd in total offense last season and have nowhere to go but up. Cignetti preaches balance, stressing a downhill, between-the-tackles running game and a spread passing attack. He installed more than half of the playbook in the spring. North Carolina hopes he can rebuild the offense in year one, just like coordinator Marvin Sanders did with the defense last season."
Player to watch: Wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate
Bartow: "North Carolina is going to try anything it can to get the ball into Tate's hands a season after he averaged 25.8 yards on kickoff returns. The dynamic 6-1, 185-pound burner could see touches via receiver screens, go-routes, reverses, tosses or quick hitches - as was the case in the spring."
North Carolina State (7-5, 3-5)
The most important thing: Running game provides backbone.
Matt Carter of "N.C. State won five of its final six games when it turned the offense over to quarterback Marcus Stone and relied on the ground game. The freshman duo of Toney Baker and Andre Brown combined for 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns on 253 carries last year. Both played well in the spring game, with Baker carrying nine times for 114 yards and a touchdown and Brown adding 10 rushes for 58 yards."
Player to watch: Running back Jamelle Eugene
Carter: "Baker and Brown will need to be in top form this fall because redshirt freshman Jamelle Eugene showed during the spring game he's a good running back himself. Eugene rushed 16 times for 105 yards and a score. Eugene, unlike Baker and Brown, was an unheralded recruit out of Naples, Fla. Originally the Wolfpack envisioned him playing defensive back, but Eugene quickly impressed at tailback. He is almost certain to receive playing time in the fall."
Virginia (7-5, 3-5)
The most important thing: Defense promises more aggressive approach.
Chris Wallace of "In recent years, Virginia fans have been critical of a 3-4 defensive scheme designed to react rather than attack. That style led to little success against talented opposition. But with new defensive coordinator Mike London running the show, the Cavaliers will play a more aggressive style of defense in 2006. That is easier said than done, but the reason Virginia will have that luxury is because of its cornerbacks. Marcus Hamilton is as good as any corner in the ACC, and Chris Cook, Vic Hall and Mike Brown should also be solid. Additionally, the Cavaliers could get back Philip Brown, a highly touted recruit who missed last season due to academics."
Player to watch: Defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald
Wallace: "Amazingly, Fitzgerald has missed two full seasons of football after redshirting at Virginia last year and missing his senior year of high school with a leg injury. But the 6-3, 261-pounder was impressive this spring and showed a knack for being able to get to the quarterback, as well as holding his own against the run. Fitzgerald will play more this fall than expected before spring workouts began, and he could develop into a star."
Virginia Tech (11-2, 7-1)
The most important thing: Offensive line will have to grow up in a hurry.
Mark Kime of "The Hokies' 2006 season will hinge on the growth and maturity of its offensive line. Tech lost four seniors - including three starters - along the line. Jimmy Martin and Will Montgomery were both selected in the NFL draft in April. While the cupboard is not empty, there is little experience in the group. While the projected starting five up front all saw playing time in 2005, only tackle Duane Brown was a consistent contributor. Tech has weapons at tailback and enough talented receivers, but without protection for the Hokies' young quarterbacks, it could be a rough start to the season. In 2006, the schedule gets more and more difficult throughout the year."
Player to watch: Defensive back Victor Harris
Kime: While many feel Tech wasted a redshirt on rising sophomore Victor Harris in a season where he saw only spot duty at cornerback and on special teams, this season promises to be much different for the former top recruit from Virginia. Harris has already supplanted Roland Minor opposite Brandon Flowers for the starting spot this spring, despite playing the first half of the spring at running back where the Hokies needed bodies to carry the football. Harris is already being billed as the next great defensive back to come out of Blacksburg, and he's expected to deliver this fall."
Wake Forest (4-7, 3-5)
The most important thing: Defense expected to bounce back.
Stryker Strickland of "There wasn't a lot to be impressed with defensively last season. The Demon Deacons struggled against the run and the pass, turnovers didn't fall their way, and leadership was vacant. One of defensive coordinator Dean Hood's goals this spring was to establish a new attitude and find some leadership with several returning starters. Junior linebacker Jon Abbate and sophomore defensive back Alphonso Smith had outstanding springs and showed there is much to anticipate for next season. Jim Grobe's team looked rejuvenated and hungry to get things turned around. That will be key if the team is to improve its record and advance into bowl season, getting Wake Forest back on track."
Player to watch: Running back Kevin Harris
Strickland: "The 6-1, 230-pound redshirt freshman surprised all spectators - including the coaching staff - in the spring. Harris hasn't seen much action while backing up ACC Offensive Player of the Year Chris Barclay and Deacon standout Micah Andrews, but now that Barclay is gone, there is a need for a reliable second running back. Don't be surprised if Harris challenges Andrews for the No. 1 spot. Speed and a great work ethic could take Harris to new heights as he shows signs of being the next great Wake Forest running back."

What We Learned from Spring Practice Series
Big Ten: Growing pains for Big Ten, Notre Dame Big 12: Rest of the conference now chasing Texas
Big East: Several teams facing QB questions ACC: Looking to rebuild in the trenches
Pac-10: Plenty of backfield talent left in Pac-10 SEC: New faces all around the SEC

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