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March 2, 2007

Spring Football Team Capsules: ACC

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The traditional powerhouses of the Atlantic Coast Conference could easily dismiss Wake Forest's championship football season of a year ago as once-in-a-blue-moon fluke. They might fully expect the Deacons, who in 2006 won their first ACC championship in 36 seasons, to fall back into mediocrity.

But that wouldn't be wise. Some of the most powerful programs were once among college football's also-rans. Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech need only to review their own histories.

Miami has won five national championships since 1983, but in a 12-year span from 1968-1979 the Hurricanes never posted more than six victories and endured nine losing seasons.

Florida State had managed four victories in three seasons and just two bowl victories in its history until Bobby Bowden arrived in 1976 and quickly transformed the Seminoles from dormant to dominant.

Virginia Tech has a current streak of 14 consecutive bowl appearances, but the Hokies enjoyed just three winning seasons in the '70s and endured four losing seasons in coach Frank Beamer's first six years in Blacksburg. The Hokies never won more than six games in that span.

While Virginia Tech had its fourth double-digit victory total in five seasons last year, Miami and Florida State struggled to 7-6 finishes.

However, if the Hurricanes and Seminoles settle their quarterback issues it's no stretch to assume they can immediately climb back among the nation's elite.

They just shouldn't be surprised if Wake Forest is still there, too.

ACC Atlantic Spring Capsules
Spring practice starting date: March 24
Spring game: April 28
Top returner: QB Matt Ryan: Ryan unquestionably is the best quarterback in the Atlantic Coast Conference. If he steps up his play this fall, Ryan just might rank among the top quarterbacks in the nation.
Player on the verge: WR Brandon Robinson: Robinson caught 36 passes for 490 yards and one touchdown in a reserve role last season. Now that Tony Gonzalez has completed his senior season, Robinson should move into the starting lineup and get into the end zone more often this fall.
Impact newcomer: TE Jordon McMichael: This redshirt freshman and former four-star prospect could thrive under new offensive coordinator Steve Logan, who utilized a pass-oriented offense during his stint as East Carolina's head coach.
The big question: How quickly can the Eagles adjust?: Boston College has a lineup full of upperclassmen and a coaching staff full of newcomers. The Eagles' chances of challenging for an Atlantic Coast Conference title could depend on how fast the players can adjust to new coach Jeff Jagodzinski, a former Boston College offensive coordinator.
Spring practice starting date: March 10
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: RB James Davis. He followed an excellent freshman season in '05 with a better one in '06. Although he faltered in the second half of the season, Davis rushed for 1,134 yards despite sharing time with freshman C.J. Spiller and earned All-ACC recognition. Given enough carries, he could contend for All-American honors.
Player on the verge: DE Ricky Sapp. The former five-star prospect spent his freshman year backing up All-American Gaines Adams. Despite the reserve role, Sapp still managed to post 19 tackles - six for losses - and four sacks. Increased playing time and increased weight (he has already added 22 pounds and hopes to put on another 10 before the season) will result in increased productivity.
Impact newcomer: QB Willy Korn. The record-setting high school passer could be starting before the end of September. Last year's starter Will Proctor completed his eligibility, and no other quarterbacks on the roster received significant playing time. Korn, a four-star recruit, was ranked the nation's No. 5 dual-threat quarterback prospect by Rivals.com.
The big question: Can Clemson succeed if the Tigers have to play a true freshman quarterback? There would be no surprise if the highly regarded Korn was the starter midway through the season because there isn't much more experience on the roster. Junior Cullen Harper threw just 20 passes (completing 14) last season, and junior Tribble Reese threw just three. Freshman Michael Wade was redshirted last season.
Spring practice starting date: March 16
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Greg Carr. The 6-foot-6 Carr is a major mismatch against smaller corners and that helped him earn second team All-ACC mention last year as he averaged 18.2 yards per catch on 34 receptions and scored 12 touchdowns. He closed strong, with at least one touchdown grab in each of the Seminoles' last three games.
Player on the verge: RB Antone Smith. The former five-star recruit, ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 1 running back prospect in the country in 2005, rushed for 456 yards and five touchdowns last year as a backup to Lorenzo Booker. Booker is gone, so Smith will get many more carries. He may also benefit from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who figures to put more emphasis on the running game.
Impact newcomer: DT Paul Griffin. A junior college transfer, Griffin came out of last spring as the starter at nose guard, but suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the season. His return will be a big boost to the Seminoles' defense.
The big question: Drew Weatherford or Xavier Lee emerge as the starting quarterback and will either flourish in Fisher's offense? Weatherford passed for 2,154 yards and 12 touchdowns, but threw 11 interceptions. Lee passed for 885 yards and five touchdowns, but is a running threat. They're starting from scratch with Fisher, but both must play better than they did a year ago.
Spring practice starting date: March 26
Spring game: April 28
Top returner: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. As a redshirt freshman Heyward-Bey emerged as the Terps' top receiving threat with 45 catches for 694 yards and five touchdowns. He should again be among the conference's top receivers, although his production could dip if the quarterback play suffers.
Player on the verge: LB Alex Wujciak. A three-star prospect in 2006, Wujciak figures to step in and help bolster a run defense that ranked 96th in the nation last year.
Impact newcomer: P Travis Baltz. Although field position is vital, a punter's contribution is often overlooked. Baltz is one of the nation's top high school prospects and averaged 45.6 yards per kick at the U.S. Army Combine. He should at least maintain the productivity of Adam Podlesh, who last year was second in the ACC with a 42.9 punting average. Baltz can kick off and placekick, too.
The big question: Who will emerge as the Terps' starting quarterback? Either Jordan Steffy or Josh Portis will have to fill the void left by Sam Hollenbach. Portis hasn't played since his freshman year at Florida. Steffy completed 12 passes in his freshman season of 2004, redshirted in 2005 and did not complete any of his five passes last season.
Spring practice starting date: March 14
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Darrell Blackman. He had a solid season with 27 catches for 358 yards, but should make a bigger contribution in 2007. He's also dangerous on punt returns.
Player on the verge: DE Willie Young. The former three-star recruit posted 44 tackles - five for losses as a sophomore and is expected to be significantly more productive this season. New defensive line coach Keith Willis compares Young with former All-American defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, whom he coached at Boston College. Though 6-5 and 230 pounds, Young placed fourth in the high jump in his high school state track meet.
Impact newcomer: DT Gavin Smith. The 6-5, 280-pound former three-star recruit sat out a redshirt season last year. The Wolfpack is hopeful his presence will help improve a run defense which allowed 150.5 yards per game.
The big question: Who will emerge as the starting quarterback? Neither Marcus Stone nor Daniel Evans distinguished himself last year as each threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Justin Burke, who passed for 3,789 yards and 62 touchdowns as a high school senior, and Harrison Beck, a transfer from Nebraska who was rated the nation's No. 3 pro-style quarterback in 2005 by Rivals.com, will challenge for the starting job. NC State ranked 81st nationally in pass offense and 109th in passing efficiency during last season's 3-9 ordeal.
Spring practice starting date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: QB Riley Skinner: All he did as a redshirt freshman was lead Wake Forest to its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 35 years. Skinner's numbers might not jump out at you, but his leadership and poise helped the Demon Deacons continually win close games last year.
Player on the verge: RB Micah Andrews: Andrews has rushed for at least 142 yards in three separate games during his career, but he has never had an extended period as a featured back. Andrews' 2006 season ended in mid-September when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. If Andrews returns to full strength, you can add his name to the ACC's long list of outstanding running backs.
Impact newcomer: RB Josh Adams: This former three-star prospect gives the Deacons insurance if Andrews doesn't return to form. The redshirt freshman earned raves for his performance on the practice field last season.
The big question: How will the Deacons retool their defense?: Wake Forest won the ACC last year primarily because of an opportunistic defense loaded with upperclassmen. The Deacons now must fill the leadership void created by the departures of all-conference linebacker Jon Abbate and defensive back Josh Gattis.

ACC Coastal Spring Capsules
Spring practice starting date: March 26
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: QB Thaddeus Lewis. Lewis had a strong freshman year, passing for 2,134 yards and 11 touchdowns and keeping the Blue Devils competitive in losses to Wake Forest, Miami and North Carolina. He passed for at least 284 yards in each of those games, but also threw four interceptions against Miami.
Player on the verge: CB Leon Wright. He had a respectable freshman season with 17 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble and is expected to make a bigger contribution in 2007.
Impact newcomer: TE Danny Parker. A true freshman, Parker was rated a three-star recruit by Rivals.com. He has good size and speed and can cause coverage mismatches.
The big question: Will there be much-needed improvement in the kicking game? Duke was last in the ACC in punting with a dreadful 30.4-yard average and last in field goals with 36.4 percent success rate (4 of 11). The Blue Devils might have beaten North Carolina and Wake Forest if their kicking game had been merely bad rather than horrendous.
Spring practice starting date: March 1
Spring game: No Spring Game
Top returner: RB Tashard Choice. The transfer from Oklahoma was an All-ACC second team selection last season. Choice is primed for another big year. He broke the 100-yard mark in the last seven games of '06 and led the conference with 1,473 yards. He also had 12 touchdowns.
Player on the verge: QB Taylor Bennett. He stepped in when Reggie Ball was declared ineligible for the Gator Bowl and passed for three touchdowns and 326 yards - Georgia Tech's highest yardage output since 2001. Not bad for a first start. Bennett is working with a new offensive coordinator, but he showed he can be an effective passer.
Impact newcomer: LB Anthony Barnes. Rated a three-star recruit in 2006 by Rivals.com, Barnes sat out a redshirt season but is a strong contender to gain a starting job at outside linebacker.
The big question: Can the Yellow Jackets come close to replacing Calvin Johnson's productivity? Johnson's departure to the NFL leaves a gaping hole at receiver. James Johnson, who caught 39 passes and scored seven touchdowns, returns, but no other receiver is proven. Sophomore Greg Smith, who had seven catches last year, will vie with redshirt Corey Earls, Demaryius Thomas and others for a starting job.
Spring practice starting date: March 6
Spring game: April 7
Top returner: DE Calais Campbell. The 6-8, 265-pounder had a breakout season as a sophomore with 10 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and 49 overall stops. He also forced a fumble and broke up three passes for good measure while becoming the only Miami defender to earn first team All-ACC honors. Though Miami struggled as a team last season the defense was still solid, ranking seventh nationally.
Player on the verge: WR Sam Shields. He had a solid freshman season with 33 catches for 400 yards and three touchdowns in 2006. He could be more productive this season, and may challenge Lance Leggett as the Hurricanes' top receiving threat this season.
Impact newcomer: RB Graig Cooper. A five-star recruit who averaged 12.5 yards per carry last season at Milford Prep, Cooper could share running duties with Javarris James. At the very least he could be the Hurricanes' next dangerous kick returner. Cooper rushed for 2,123 yards in 2005 as a senior at Melrose High School in Memphis.
The big question: Promoted to head coach, will Randy Shannon be able to restore the Hurricanes' attitude and aptitude? Last season the Hurricanes' swagger was accompanied by a stagger which was evident when they stomped on the Cardinal logo at Louisville and then were subjected to a 31-7 beatdown. Shannon was part of Miami national championship teams as a player and head coach, and hopes to lead the Hurricanes back to prominence after last year's 7-6 finish.
Spring practice starting date: March 19
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: WR Hakeem Nicks. He had a strong freshman season with 39 catches for 660 yards and four touchdowns. He should be even better with a year's experience.
Player on the verge: CB Jermaine Strong. Strong had a solid year as a redshirt freshman with 18 tackles, five passes broken up and a forced fumble. He may be ready to take the next step from good to exceptional.
Impact newcomer: DT Marvin Austin. Ranked the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle prospect, the 6-3, 295-pound Austin should make his presence felt immediately. Not only does he have immense talent, he is going into a program that's thin at defensive tackle and needs him to play immediately. Austin had 14 tackles for losses and 17 sacks as a high school senior.
The big question: How will the players adjust to the new coaching staff? Coach Butch Davis, who was extremely successful at Miami, will demand more from the Tar Heels. It will be interesting to see how much they can deliver.
Spring practice starting date: March 21
Spring game: April 14
Top returner: DE Chris Long. He earned second-team All-ACC acclaim after recording 57 tackles -- 9 for losses -- and 4 sacks in 2006 as the leader of the nation's 17th-ranked defense. In 2007 he'll be looking to be even better, and the Cavs will be, too.
Player on the verge: CB Chris Cook. Cook flourished after taking over a fulltime starting role as a sophomore. He had 58 tackles, an interception and broke up five passes. A solid starter in '06, he'll contend for postseason honors in '07.
Impact newcomer: TB Keith Payne. A powerful redshirt freshman, he drew raves for his performance on the scout team last season. Payne rushed for 2,059 yards and 26 touchdowns as a high school senior and will get a chance to show what he can do on the collegiate level. He'll benefit from running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.
The big question: Will Virginia's offense be good enough for the Cavaliers to be a factor in the ACC race? Last season they averaged only 15.1 points per game and ranked 110th nationally in scoring. All five offensive line starters return, but quarterback Jameel Sewell is coming off wrist surgery.
Spring practice starting date: March 28
Spring game: April 21
Top returner: RB Branden Ore: Although he struggled with injuries for much of the season, Ore still rushed for 1,137 yards and delivered back-to-back 200-yard efforts in victories over Southern Mississippi and Clemson. If he stays healthy this fall, Ore could contend for All-America honors.
Player on the verge: DE Jason Adjepong: He recorded two quarterback hurries in the first two games of his college career last fall before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. The former four-star prospect's quick start as a freshman indicates he might have a bright future.
Impact newcomer: OT Aaron Brown: This former four-star prospect could move directly into the starting lineup at right tackle as a redshirt freshman. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 7 offensive tackle in the 2006 recruiting class.
The big question: Who's playing quarterback?: Sean Glennon's poor performance in a Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Georgia may cause Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer to consider other candidates.

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