ACC: Boston College Eagles
The ACC is at its spring midpoint. Miami, Boston College and Duke are done. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Louisville just got started. But for most of the league, the biggest storylines are still playing out.
With that in mind, here's a quick rundown of a few of the biggest issues worth monitoring in the ACC so far this spring:
The injured QBs: Any discussion of the conference's top quarterbacks for 2015 promises to include Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams, yet neither is taking snaps this spring. Watson tore his ACL late in the regular season, so his absence was no surprise. Instead, it's been his quick recovery that's been newsworthy. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Watson is already at 80 percent and should be ready to run summer drills with the rest of the Tigers' offense. Williams, on the other hand, is dealing with a hip injury, and his absence from spring practice was late-breaking news. Still, the QB situation appears far more established at North Carolina than it was a year ago, with Williams clearly the starter once healthy. Nevertheless, the Tigers and Tar Heels have used the spring to develop their backups, and, given that the reigning national champions needed three starters to get through the season, that might end up being a blessing.
The emerging QBs: There weren't many quarterback battles entering the spring, but the few places where jobs were up for grabs appear to have decisive front-runners. At Florida State, the task of replacing Jameis Winston won't be an easy one, but thus far senior Sean Maguire appears to have separated himself from the pack. Redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino likely will push the competition into the fall, but for now Maguire looks like the favorite. At Boston College, there might be even less drama, with Darius Wade the obvious front-runner. He wrapped up spring practice last weekend with a relatively forgettable performance, but coaches still love his arm and pocket presence, which could bring an added dimension to the Eagles' run-heavy offense. And at Duke, David Cutcliffe gave lip service to an open job, but it appears clear that Thomas Sirk is the heavy favorite. He has just 14 pass attempts to his credit, but he looked like the veteran presence Duke needed this spring, and it's unlikely he'll be unseated atop the depth chart by fall.
FSU's thin linebacking corps: The defense took a big step back for Florida State in 2014, and Charles Kelly's rebuilding job hasn't been made any easier this spring with the departure of four underclassmen for the NFL draft and a litany of injuries -- particularly among the linebackers. Terrance Smith is dealing with turf toe. Reggie Northrup tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl. Matthew Thomas is now out with a shoulder injury. E.J. Levenberry and Kain Daub decided to transfer. That has Kelly plugging in bodies wherever he can find them, and it likely means FSU won't get a real feel for how its defense will look until the fall. That's a big concern for a team that mustered just 17 sacks last season -- ranking 118th nationally.
Notable position swaps: Spring is always a time when we see teams tinker with personnel at some new positions. That's the case at Florida State, where Jalen Ramsey moves from safety to corner, a move that worked well for Lamarcus Joyner two years ago. Running back Ryan Green also moved to corner, giving FSU ample athleticism in the secondary. At NC State, Airius Moore moves from middle linebacker to the weak side, allowing the Wolfpack to showcase their two talented sophomore linebackers, along with Jerod Fernandez. Dane Rogers moved from end to tackle at Clemson in hopes of finding a steady replacement for Grady Jarrett. Dan Crimmins, BC's second-leading returning receiver, could develop into a more dynamic tight end for the Eagles.
More drama at Miami: Brad Kaaya remains an emerging star, but there are ample questions surrounding him at Miami. Stacy Coley remains something of a mystery after an awful 2014 campaign. The options at tight end were inconsistent at best. The revamped offensive line had its share of spring struggles. Tailback Joseph Yearby was suspended for the spring game, and Gus Edwards saw only limited action. Not surprisingly, the spring game ended with a solid defensive performance that included four interceptions.
Hokies' defensive injuries: Virginia Tech promises to have one of the ACC's top defenses in 2015, but it's tough to get much of a read on it this spring. Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller, Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall and Ken Ekanem -- all established starters -- are out with injuries. Virginia Tech is using the time to develop depth, but, particularly in the secondary, Bud Foster would love a chance to get things a bit more settled.
Hunt-Days returns for Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets' pass rush was a work-in-progress throughout much of last season, but the development of KeShun Freeman and the return of Jabari Hunt-Days this spring could make it an asset in 2015. Hunt-Days missed all of last season because of academic issues, but he's settling back in nicely this spring and could be a wrecking ball for a Tech defense that's looking to make some major strides.
So it wasn’t exactly springtime conditions in Boston this weekend, with yet another snowstorm in a year that’s been chock full of them, but that didn’t stop Boston College from putting a bow on spring practice with an intrasquad scrimmage that served as the team’s spring game.
Yes, it was snowing. And no, it wasn’t a traditional spring game, with Steve Addazio opting for more of a glorified practice day. And most significantly, it wasn’t exactly the offensive outburst that BC might have hoped for as it winds down the spring workouts.
"The passing game, in particular, remains a work in progress as the Eagles will start 2015 with a new offensive coordinator, Todd Fitch, after Ryan Day left to coach quarterbacks for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"One play in particular highlighted the difficulties the Eagles had in the air. Projected starting quarterback Darius Wade threw a 10-yard pass down the right side, but the ball bounced off Sherman Alston’s chest pad and into the arms of Isaac Yiadom, who raced the other way for what would have been a touchdown."
OK, so it wasn’t all good news. Still, Addazio said he was relatively pleased, and the bottom line is that regardless of how spring practice ended, the season figures to open with BC passing a good bit more than it has the past two seasons.
Wade’s place as the team’s starting quarterback isn’t set in stone just yet, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to assume he’ll be the man replacing Tyler Murphy as the Eagles’ offensive show-runner. But while he’ll be stepping into Murphy’s shoes, he’s definitely not stepping into the same game plan.
“Tyler was more of a speed-option guy. Darius is more of a traditional quarterback,” running back Jonathan Hilliman said. “This year, it should open things up with Darius’ arm. It should be really fun.”
Two years ago, Andre Williams led the nation in rushing attempts. Last year, Murphy had 49 more rushing attempts than he had completions. Georgia Tech is the only Power 5 team that has thrown the ball less in the past two seasons than Boston College.
Enter Wade, and regardless of Saturday’s offensive struggles, things figure to change a good bit in 2015. That should be good news for Hilliman, who faced, on average, more defenders in the box than any other ACC running back last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Darius’ arm is going to be able to spread the defense out a lot better, and it should open up a lot of running lanes for us,” Hilliman said. “It should be a productive year running the ball.”
Balance is the buzzword, but Saturday did show there’s still much work to be done. Wade doesn’t have many reps under his belt, and the receivers are also a work in progress — all of that to go with the new offensive coordinator.
But this is also the third serious offensive overhaul in as many years for BC. Addazio took a 2-10 team and earned a bowl berth and had a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2013. He took a transfer quarterback and a completely new group of skill players and won seven games in 2014. This year’s renovation job shouldn’t be as tough as either of those projects.
And, as the Herald noted, Saturday’s scrimmage did still offer some encouragement when it came to the ground game, which moved the ball well with a committee of running backs. And for all the change and turnover, all the talk of throwing more often this year, that’s still where BC’s bread is buttered.
“It’s become the cornerstone of how to win for us, is running the football,” Hilliman said. “We’re a physical team, big offensive linemen. That’s how we play. That’s Coach Addazio’s temperament. And I’ve taken ownership and we feel like we’re a big part in that running offense, and if we’re getting fed the ball, we’re going to make the plays.”
Much of the conversation in the ACC surrounds Florida State's quarterback situation -- past, present and future. While Sean Maguire impresses coaches and teammates with his performance this spring through the first few practices, his predecessor remains in the news and his potential successor is making headlines.
Former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the favorite to go No. 1 overall, is leaning toward spending the draft with his family in Alabama rather than travel to Chicago, his father told ESPN.com last week. MMQB.com caught up with Roger Goodell and posted a story Monday in which Goodell said he would respect Winston's desire to watch the draft with those close to him.
"I think that it’s something we respect when a player says, “I’d like to be with my family on that day.” It’s an important day for them also," Goodell to MMQB.com.
Many wondered if the NFL would pressure Winston into attending the draft, but unless something changes, both parties are fine with skipping out on Chicago.
Winston was the No. 1 quarterback nationally in the 2012 recruiting class, and four years later, Florida State is bringing in the top-ranked prep quarterback again. Malik Henry, who recently transferred to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, participated in a regional camp for Nike The Opening. Henry, No. 3 overall in the 2016 class, was named one of the regional camp's MVPs and received an invitation to The Opening, which is held in July in Beaverton, Oregon.
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer also leads the Elite 11, an elite passing camp for the top high school quarterbacks, and was on hand at the Atlanta regional to evaluate the quarterbacks. He told SB Nation Henry was "as dominant as any kid we had this year."
- A top Syracuse 2015 signee is still working to academically qualify for the fall. Also, Orange is making a return in the Orange's jersey.
- Boston College added a commitment from Brandon Barlow (subscription required).
- Former Miami linebacker Alex Figueroa is lucky to have a second chance, but he is not off to a good start. He posted an expletive-laced video last week in which he burned a Miami flag. Figueroa and former Miami teammate JaWand Blue were permanently dismissed from the university last summer after admitting to police they sexually assaulted an intoxicated Miami student. In November, they avoided jail time by being placed in a pre-trial diversion program, which prosecution sought after the victim did not want to relive the experience in court.
- Clemson was back on the practice field Monday after nearly two weeks off for the Tigers' spring break.
- Five priorities for Georgia Tech this spring as practice began Monday (subscription required).
- Here are a few notes gleaned from Bobby Petrino's news conference to open spring practice, which begins Tuesday.
- The Pitt defense is working to pick up new coach Pat Narduzzi's schemes and principles. It's going to be a process.
The race to replace Jameis Winston as Florida State's starting quarterback was always going to be crowded enough. But De'Andre Johnson has no problem adding to the confusion early on.
Johnson has drawn early praise from the Seminoles' coach Jimbo Fisher through the early part of spring practice. The early enrollee made a number of impressive plays during Saturday's scrimmage, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone.
From the Sentinel:
“I thought De’Andre Johnson had a really nice day today – does a lot of things very instinctively, man, I think that guy’s gonna be a really good player,” Fisher said after Saturday’s practice. “J.J. and John, they responded well.”
As Sonnone notes, it's always worth reading between the lines, especially when a player is mentioned unprovoked. But Johnson seems to be doing something right so far, and he may force us all to think beyond Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino and John Franklin if he keeps growing throughout the spring and summer.
Here are the rest of your Monday links:
- Andy Gallik impressed scouts at BC's pro day, Adam Kurkjian writes in the Boston Herald.
- Miami's second scrimmage was a sloppy affair, Matt Porter writes in the Palm Beach Post.
- Funny stuff from the NC State football Twitter feed.
- Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick shares some interesting thoughts on the future of college sports with CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd.
- Pitt's spring practices are getting more physical under Pat Narduzzi, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- Syracuse quarterback A.J. Long clarifies recent comments he made about redshirting, Nate Mink writes in the (Syracuse) Post-Standard.
It’s hard to knock Jonathan Hilliman's debut season at Boston College, one that included a whopping 13 rushing touchdowns -- the most by any true freshman in the ACC in 12 years. Still, his colleagues in the backfield have found a way to tease him just a bit.
"We joke about it in the running back room that I get all the garbage touchdowns," Hilliman said. "This year, I told them I would have to break them so there’d be no excuses."
Hilliman doesn’t need to make excuses regardless. His 860 rushing yards were the eighth-most in the ACC last season, and he wrapped up the season with arguably his best performance -- a 25-carry, 148-yard outburst against Penn State’s No. 3-ranked rushing defense in the Pinstripe Bowl. And no ACC running back took advantage of those "garbage" opportunities better. Hilliman scored on 53 percent of his rushes inside the 5-yard line.
Of course, he was a true freshman, and there were flaws. Hilliman averaged just 1.8 yards after contact per rush last season -- good for 22nd in the ACC among runners with at least 75 carries, according to ESPN Stats and Information. He had just 16 carries that went for 10 yards or more -- accounting for the second-lowest rate of any ACC running back. He averaged just 4.2 yards per carry on first down, which ranked fourth on his own team.
If it seems like nitpicking, that’s OK. Hilliman wants to nitpick. That’s what this spring is all about.
"It’s become a lot easier to understand defenses, learning the game as opposed to last year, when I was just running off athletic ability," Hilliman said. "Being more explosive out of my cuts, running with a better pad level and accelerating through contact -- those are the things I’m focused on."
This offseason would be all about improvement for Hilliman regardless. That’s just his personality. But as Boston College begins a massive overhaul in both personnel and scheme on offense for the second straight season, Hilliman understands that he has become the foundation, and he needs to be strong if the Eagles are going to thrive in 2015.
Last season, BC’s offense was built around scrambling quarterback Tyler Murphy, and the Eagles found ample success with that approach, ending the season as the No. 15 rushing offense in the country. But Murphy is gone now, likely to be replaced with a more traditional pocket passer in Darius Wade. That completely changes the dynamics of how BC plans to move the ball.
"It changes a lot," Hilliman said. "It adds a different dimension, causes me to do a lot of different things and be the dominant part of the ground game this year."
It’s a scenario Hilliman called "fun." It has him catching more balls out of the backfield. It puts more of an onus on pass protection. Most importantly, it means defenses are going to have to respect the passing game a bit more, and that should open up a few more running lanes for the more refined sophomore.
In fact, while we’re nitpicking Hilliman’s numbers from last season, there is another telling stat: On average, defenses had 8.1 defenders in the box on Hilliman’s runs last season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That was more than the ACC’s leading rusher James Conner (7.8), and more than option backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days (7.3). Because Murphy’s arm wasn’t much of a downfield weapon, defenses stacked the box and made it tough for Hilliman to find those yards after contact.
This season, that should change.
"Darius' arm should open up a lot of running lanes for us," Hilliman said. "It should be a productive year running the ball."
For that premise to hold up, however, the offensive line needs to gel, too, and that’s another obstacle for Hilliman’s growth. BC is replacing four starters on the line, and the early results this spring have been a mixed bag.
"They’re all finding out how to work best with each other," Hilliman said. "Every now and then, we have some busted plays, but they’re doing a good job of rallying around each other and finishing. And this year, my mindset is that I’m going to have to sometimes make plays on my own."
If last season’s offense provided Hilliman with a number of gift-wrapped touchdowns, this season is his chance to return the favor. He understands his role is changing, expanding. The ground game remains the focal point, but the scheme and the personnel are all new.
That is both a challenge and an opportunity, and Hilliman is set on making the most of it.
"There are a lot of new faces in the huddle, and being a guy who’s been in that environment, I feel like I need to do a lot," he said. "I embrace that role, and it’s challenged me to play it. I’m excited."
Could an immediate reinforcement be on the way for Florida State's re-tooling offensive line? This weekend may go a long way toward determining that.
Former Notre Dame center Matt Hegarty is visiting Tallahassee on Friday through Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone reports. Hegarty confirmed his planned FSU visit to ESPN.com.
Hegarty started 11 of 13 games last year for the Fighting Irish, at center and at guard. He had told ESPN.com earlier this month that he planned to play football elsewhere upon receiving his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame this May. Hegarty will be immediately eligible to play wherever he ends up.
Hegarty had said that he was asked to switch positions, and Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that Hegarty would have had the opportunity to be the team's starting left guard. He is presumably looking to play center at his next stop, and that is one of several positions up for grabs on the Seminoles' offensive line, which lost four of five starters from last season.
Ryan Hoefield is currently the projected man in the middle of the Noles' line, though he struggled last season in limited action as a redshirt freshman.
As for who Hegarty or any other center would be snapping the ball to at FSU in 2015, well, that storyline figures to dominate the conversation throughout the spring and likely the summer.
Here are the rest of your Friday links:
- Grantland's Matt Hinton has an interesting article on all of the quarterback movement around the country, starting with former Clemson QB Chad Kelly, who is now at Ole Miss.
- Steve Addazio thinks Tyler Murphy is ready to take on the NFL as "an elite athlete," Mike Petraglia writes on WEEI.com.
- Former Georgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson is gaining notice after pro day, Ken Suguira writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Malik Rosier stepped up Thursday in Brad Kaaya's absence (illness), Matt Porter writes in the Palm Beach Post.
- UNC's Twitter feed had some fun with a pair of ESPN personalities on #tbt.
- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly thinks Jameis Winston was the best QB in college football.
- Pitt started slow in its first spring practice with pads, but it ended with emotion, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The Big Dance as we know it kicks off Thursday, marking the time of the year when Cinderellas from different regions of the country win us all over, bust our brackets and watch their NCAA tournament dreams become reality.
Naturally, we're turning our attention to the gridiron here, as we take a look at a few ACC players and teams capable of having Cinderella seasons themselves if things break right in 2015. You can even argue that Georgia Tech just had a Cinderella season, going 11-3 and winning the ACC Coastal division and the Capital One Orange Bowl, this after being picked as the preseason No. 5 team in its own division.
Kelby Brown: A sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA does not come easily. But Brown earned one after battling back from three ACL tears (2010, 2012, 2014) in his first five years at Duke. The most recent tear -- the first one to occur in his left knee -- came in August camp, ending a promising campaign before it even began. Brown was a preseason all-ACC selection for last season, this after a 2013 campaign that featured 114 tackles. The linebacker is also a two-time all-academic ACC performer (2011, 2013). His veteran presence and versatility in the heart of the Blue Devils' defense will be valuable in 2015, and who doesn't love a comeback?
Troy Flutie: Find someone who doesn't love Doug Flutie. (OK, outside of Miami.) That's what I thought. The 5-foot-10 former Boston College and NFL quarterback was a fan favorite, and he had a penchant for clutch moments. The 1984 Heisman Trophy winner's nephew, Troy, is now looking to follow in Doug's footsteps. Troy Flutie is a 6-foot, 182-pound redshirt freshman embroiled in a quarterback battle at BC, along with Darius Wade and Elijah Robinson. Wade is the favorite, but as we have seen before with competitions that involve a Flutie, that can often mean little.
Pitt: The Panthers are currently working under their fourth different head coach over the last six springs. And their name is hardly ever thrown around when talking about Coastal contenders, especially now with Georgia Tech returning plenty of players from its 11-win campaign. But first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi brings a defensive mindset to the program, and he has as good of a starting point on offense as anyone else in the league, with James Conner and Tyler Boyd back for their junior years. Who's to say Pitt can't compete for the Coastal crown next year, despite all of the turmoil of recent years?
Broderick Snoddy: Georgia Tech may have gone on an unexpected run to great heights last fall, but one of its best players was not around to join in on all of the fun. The A-back suffered a broken left leg in last November's win over Clemson, this after rushing for 283 yards and three touchdowns on just 28 carries, while adding 100 yards on three catches and averaging 22.4 yards on five kick returns. The jack-of-all-trades had been coming into his own for the Yellow Jackets late last season, but with so much turnover in the backfield entering 2015, Snoddy will have the chance to seize the moment in his fifth and final season, something that would be all the more rewarding after overcoming a nasty injury at one of the most inopportune times.
Virginia Tech: It's no secret that the program has dropped off a bit in recent years, going just 22-17 the past three seasons after eight straight seasons of 10 or more wins. Still, the Hokies were derailed by injuries last year like few others. And almost all of its offensive production came from talented freshmen who will only get better. Can they unseat Georgia Tech from the Coastal throne? It is hard for many to root against Frank Beamer, and a late-career surge would be quite the showing for a coach who has given so much to the game.
Jalen Ramsey is on the move again.
The junior standout at Florida State, who has started all 28 games of his career, is moving to cornerback this season. Ramsey began his career at cornerback and was the first true freshman to start at cornerback since Deion Sanders, but he then moved to free safety and then nickelback as a sophomore.
Regardless of where Ramsey plays, he is going to play a significant role in Florida State's defense again. Ramsey is one of the country's elite athletes -- he finished fourth nationally in the long jump last week -- and he will continue to cover, blitz and even do a little freelancing regardless of where he is on the field.
The question is whether the Seminoles will have the productivity around Ramsey on a defense that could be tasked with carrying much of the load, a contrast to the 2014 season. The offense is being overhauled, and while the defense did lose several key contributors and former five-star prospects, it does return a good deal of experience at every level. Florida State has to improve its pass rush, and the linebacker group will have to overcome depth issues.
As for Ramsey's future, the move back to cornerback would seemingly help his draft stock, whether he enters the NFL draft after this season or 2016. More cornerbacks (nine) have been drafted in the first round the last two years than any other defensive position. Corners are annually among the highest-paid defensive players, too. Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman have all signed lucrative contracts recently.
Other links around the ACC for your morning (assuming the afternoon and evening will be dedicated to the NCAA Tournament, which begins in earnest Thursday).
- I think the ACC blog could use a selfie stick (and a jet ski).
- Virginia Tech had its pro day, and father was there to once again coach his son.
- Miami received some good news and some bad news on the recruiting trail. Kc McDermott, already a member of the Canes, said he will not accept anything short of a conference championship. Miami has yet to win an ACC title since joining the league.
- Daryl Gross said it was his decision to leave his post as Syracuse athletic director. This NCAA tournament eve (in the traditional sense) will be remembered for a long time in central New York.
- Pitt and Tennessee announced a home-and-home series for 2021 and 2022. The first game will be played at Tennessee.
- An interesting interview with Boston College AD Brad Bates about his thoughts on the evolving collegiate model and BC's dissenting vote to recent legislation.
- Six takeaways from Georgia Tech's pro day includes notes on Shaq Mason and DeAndre Smelter. And Georgia Tech's Chaz Cheeks and Thomas O'Reilly are no longer listed on the roster.
From Florida State and Clemson to Miami and Boston College, offensive lines will be a big talking point for many ACC offenses this spring. But in Blacksburg, Virginia, Frank Beamer’s crew is actually feeling a bit optimistic.
As the Roanoke Times writes in its preview of the position, this marks the first time in the past four years that Virginia Tech has had the same O-line coach -- and recruiting, development and scheme philosophies -- which once again has the line firmly in the spotlight.
From the Times:
This group has been treading water for a few years, trying to dig out of a numbers deficiency and talent gap that's been been apparent whenever the Hokies played against even decent defensive lines.
It’s no secret that Virginia Tech hasn’t met expectations for the past three years, and while there have been plenty of areas that needed improvement, it’s hard to argue that the offensive line hasn’t been the most overwhelming problem.
For example, here are some crucial line-related numbers for Virginia Tech since 2012:
- 42nd among 65 Power 5 teams in sack rate (6.4 percent)
- tied for 62nd in yards per carry (4.27, not counting sacks)
- 60th in touchdowns per rush (3.3 percent)
- 60th in percentage of rushes going for a loss or no gain (21.5 percent)
- 54th in yards per play on first down (5.32)
- 60th in third- and fourth-and-short conversions (54.5 percent)
Those are all pretty atrocious results, which might explain why a line that figures to look quite a bit different in 2015 is also one that has a lot more enthusiasm surrounding it.
Stacy Searels has a track record of success building lines. Wyatt Teller was a revelation in the second half of 2014. Depth, for the first time in years, is an asset. And, of course, this year might also represent the best cast of skill-position players surrounding the line in years.
In other words, while FSU is hoping Wilson Bell can emerge as a star and Miami is excited to have Kc McDermott back in the fold, there may not be any ACC team with more focus on the offensive line this spring. And if that unit really does take a big step forward, there’s reason to think that Virginia Tech can, at long last, return to that 10-win plateau that had once been the norm.
A few more links:
- It’s going to be a fresh start at cornerback for Florida State, writes Tomahawk Nation.
- The competition at quarterback is a boost for Wake Forest’s offense, writes the Winston-Salem Journal.
- The Orange have parted ways with senior receiver Quinta Funderburk, writes Syracuse.com.
- The first day of spring practice at Virginia was about getting back into the groove for the Hoos, writes the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
- A former NC State receiver is under investigation by the federal government on fraud charges, writes the Raleigh News & Observer.
Boston College fans who'd been eagerly anticipating the team's annual spring game are probably a bit disappointed with news that the team has nixed the exhibition in favor of an open scrimmage. Most fans, on the other hand, probably aren't sure what the difference is regardless.
For the second time in three years, the Eagles have opted against holding a traditional spring game, a decision coach Steve Addazio explained as a necessity to get his team ready:
"These adjustments are meant to best serve our team," Addazio said in a statement released by the school. "We understand that our fans have received this information on short notice, but we know that ultimately they are dedicated to support us as we strive to win as many games as possible this coming season."
While the move comes a bit late in the spring for BC, the Eagles are hardly the only team making changes to their spring calendar.
Repairs to Kenan Stadium meant North Carolina had two separate spring "events" -- including one in Charlotte, North Carolina -- rather than a traditional spring game.
Last year, it was Pittsburgh cutting the spring game from its schedule as former coach Paul Chryst suggested more practice time benefited a young team.
In the big picture, it's easy to wonder why any of it matters in the first place.
Yes, there are some fans who enjoy the game — which is usually a chance to get an early look at the team for free. And some schools pack out the stadium for these spring exhibitions, too. But the vast majority of programs could probably add up the costs and benefits and come to the same conclusion Addazio has this year: There's just not much reward for the investment.
On the plus side, spring games are good recruiting tools, as Syracuse.com notes in its story about the hefty number of recruits planning to be on campus for the Orange's spring game this season. And more and more, these exhibitions are broadcast -- either online or on TV -- to give schools even more of a wide net for recruiting.
But for the players already on the field, the spring game isn't much help. Because it's played under game-like conditions, there's limited opportunity for coaches to work on nuanced issues. Because the crowd is in the stands, coaches typically water down the playbook and stick to vanilla schemes. And because of injury concerns, plenty of stars never take the field in the first place -- limiting depth and setting up the game as a showcase for walk-ons as much as next year's key players.
With practice time limited by NCAA rules and coaches forced to limit hands-on contact with players once spring practice ends, Addazio's plan to maximize his opportunities to get his team better makes a lot more sense from a practical standpoint. And for the fans, the rare spring-game highlight probably doesn't make up for the often monotonous conditions that drain any drama from the exhibition.
Certainly there could be tweaks made to improve the spring games — whether it be playing other teams or adding some celebrity entertainment value — but really, these are relics that seem unnecessary at best and wastes of time and money at worst. So don't be too surprised if Addazio's plan becomes the norm at more than a few schools moving forward.
A few more links:
- Tomahawk Nation takes a look at Florida State's linebacking situation this spring, noting that Matthew Thomas could be a key for the Seminoles' defense.
- USA Today writes that Sean Maguire remains the frontrunner to replace Jameis Winston as FSU's starting QB.
- Clemson's Dabo Swinney was the target of some of John Oliver's NCAA-related ire on his show "Last Week Tonight," as Yahoo! notes.
- With Virginia set to open spring practice Tuesday, Demetrious Nicholson is making a long-awaited return to work, writes the Daily Progress.
- The Roanoke Times takes a deeper look at Virginia Tech's young receiving corps with an eye toward 2015.
Two ACC head coaches had to make offensive coordinator hires this offseason after their assistants left for new jobs.
Both ended up looking on their own staffs.
Dabo Swinney and Steve Addazio opted to promote from within in order to maintain continuity for their coaching staffs and players. Receivers coach Jeff Scott and running backs coach Tony Elliott will share coordinator duties at Clemson, replacing Chad Morris; Addazio moved receivers coach Todd Fitch to coordinator after Ryan Day left for the Eagles.
(Syracuse could also be included -- Tim Lester was kept on as offensive coordinator after being tabbed to fill the spot midway through last season).
The moves are interesting because they bucked what has been a growing trend among Power 5 conferences: throwing wads of cash at high-profile coordinators. Swinney has done that himself. Morris earned $1.3 million in his final year as Clemson offensive coordinator; Brent Venables is one of the highest paid defensive coordinators in the country as well at $1.35 million a year.
Given where the Clemson program stands right now, Swinney did not feel the need to find another high-profile coordinator. When he hired Morris in 2011, he needed somebody to get the offense headed in the right direction.
Though the Tigers are coming off their fourth straight double-digit win season, the biggest thing his offense needs is continuity -- especially with a young quarterback in Deshaun Watson ready to have a breakout year.
Scott and Elliott worked and learned under Morris. Their ascension was put into place years ago. That’s why it only took one day for Swinney to officially announce his decision last December.
"I’ve got two guys that are going to work great together. Both have the command of the offense and certainly leadership ability to lead the team," Swinney said. "I always think if you can promote from within when feasible, that’s the kind of culture I want to have. There was no thought at all. It was just a matter of when the time was going to be. These guys are both rock stars in this business.
"It gives us great chemistry and great continuity for years to come offensively."
BC is not necessarily in the business of doling out million dollar salaries to assistants, but Addazio also mentioned chemistry when he discussed why he decided to promote Fitch. "The chemistry level on the staff is as good as I’ve ever been around," Addazio said. "He’s just a great guy, a great coach and we’re all close. I wanted to make sure I had great chemistry on the staff."
His situation was different than the one Swinney faced, because Day left with just a few weeks to go before Signing Day. Plus, Addazio is heavily involved in the offensive meeting rooms and game-planning, so it was easier for him to put somebody in the coordinator spot who understands his scheme. Day worked with Addazio previously at Temple, so the two had a long working relationship.
Though the offensive scheme is not the same one that Fitch ran in previous stints as offensive coordinator at UConn, East Carolina, and USF, working with Addazio the past two years has him completely on the same page.
"Being here previously and learning the verbiage and how Coach wants things done, certainly I’m more comfortable than if he’d hired me off the street from another school," Fitch said. "It’s made the transition much simpler. It still is different -- some of the things I called or did are different. When you start calling plays, you’ve got to get your mind trained when you’re trying to get them out fast, but it’s been good.
"The players and I have been around each other for two years. We have a great staff, and those are the biggest transitions you have when you take a job."
This is actually the second time Fitch has been promoted from within for an offensive coordinator job. Skip Holtz hired him at UConn in 1994 as quarterbacks coach, then promoted him to offensive coordinator in 1996, a job he held for three seasons.
"Any head coach, not just Steve, when you hire an offensive or defensive coordinator -- especially on your side of the ball -- do you want to blow the thing up and start all over again with the way you call things and verbiage?" Fitch said. "So it makes it easier on everybody if you’re able to do what’s been done. Everybody has their own wrinkles, maybe some new runs or new passes, but as long as the players know how to communicate, everything is easier."
So here came another routine catch, this one against rival Notre Dame. Boston College receiver Bobby Swigert went to make a routine cut. His right knee buckled. The defender barely touched him. Swigert dropped to the field. Now, he started thinking. Too much thinking.
He knew he was hurt badly.
His knee swelled immediately. His entire leg started turning black and blue. “It felt,” he says, “like my knee was hanging there by the skin.”
Swigert soon learned he had shredded just about everything inside his knee: ACL, MCL, LCL, patella tendon and both menisci torn. Only the PCL was left intact.
The next morning, Swigert thought he should watch the tape. “It’s like you’re driving by a wreck on the side of the road. I had to see it,” he said. “I watched it in a room alone. It was absolutely disgusting. I was traumatized.”
That was Nov. 11, 2012.
Swigert has not played in a game since.
He dreams about football, though. Catching a touchdown pass in Death Valley. He had that one recently. Boston College travels to play Clemson on Oct. 17.
It could happen.
Swigert returned to full practice a few weeks ago -- his first in over two years. That is a major victory, considering what unfolded after he got hurt.
An already significant knee injury turned nearly catastrophic when doctors could not get a handle on a persistent staph infection that formed after his first surgery to repair the patella, MCL and LCL. Swigert was placed in a cast that went from his toes up to his hip, confined to a wheelchair.
Something inside the cast started to itch. He told his doctors. Initially, they thought the staph infection was contained to his tissues. They went in for more surgery. The staph infection returned. More surgery.
In between all this, Boston College made a coaching change. Steve Addazio came in with a new staff. Swigert got nervous that Addazio would cast him aside, to make room for players who could actually contribute.
Addazio never considered it, thanks in part to assistant Ryan Day, who helped recruit Swigert to BC during a previous stint. Shortly after Addazio was hired, he visited Swigert in the hospital. That gesture meant so much to Swigert’s grandmother, she wrote a letter to Addazio and the school expressing her gratitude.
“He barely knew Bobby, but he was there for him,” said Kerry Swigert, Bobby’s mom. “He told Bobby that he had had staph in his knee. He said, ‘I’ve been through this, you’ll get through this.’ We really respect Coach Addazio. He said, ‘You’re one of my kids.’ It’s always been like that with him.”
Once doctors felt the infection had cleared, they went in to repair his ACL. It was now summer 2013. After so many setbacks, Swigert felt good. This would be the last step.
He underwent surgery No. 7.
The staph infection returned.
“That was devastating,” he said. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to operate on you tomorrow. You’re going to be in the hospital for two weeks. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh is this ever going to end? What do I have to do to fight this off?’”
Doctors had no answers. They told him they had never seen a case like his before, little consolation to a football player desperate to get back on the field. Ultimately, they discovered the infection had been eating away his bone, and had to chip some away.
Twice during the entire ordeal, he needed a peripherally inserted central catheter in his arm to pump antibiotics around the clock. The smallest tasks -- going to class, showering, getting comfortable for bed -- became monumental efforts.
Four more operations followed the ACL repair, bringing the grand total to 11.
Yet never once, between the injury, the staph infections, the wheelchair, the crutches, the operations, the constant stream of antibiotics that dropped his weight from 200 pounds to 158, never once did he think about quitting.
He refused to let any of that be the end of him.
“The biggest thing is that football gives me a feeling that nothing else really does,” Swigert said. “It’s a thrill type thing when you’re on the field and when you score a touchdown in front of screaming fans. It’s something I’ve been striving to get back.”
Though Swigert has not been in any games, he has been an integral part of the team over the last two seasons. Swigert attended practices, team meetings and every single game -- home and away. He proved extremely helpful to receivers coach Todd Fitch in 2014, mentoring a rather young group of players.
“If there’s one person everybody in this building’s rooting for, it’s Bobby because everybody understands what he’s gone through,” said Fitch, recently promoted to offensive coordinator. “Hopefully, he continues to grow and rehab and we can see him on the field in the fall. That would be a fantastic story. One of the best I’ve ever been around.”
Swigert wears a brace on his knee at practice. He already has arthritis. His knee cracks all the time. Everything feels different. The first time he went to make a cut, he got nervous and did not give it his best effort. But every day brings a little more comfort.
"It's like he literally has to learn how to cut and balance," Addazio said. "Every day it's a new day on his knee. Because it was so inactive so long, it takes a while. Every structure has to groove itself back in. ... It's a process and hopefully we'll have him on the field for the first game next year."
Coaches are being cautious with what he can do, and will not truly know until late August what role he will have on the team. Right now, all that matters is practice. He missed sweating alongside his teammates. He is fulfilled, but more is yet to come.
Swigert went home to Ohio recently for spring break. Kerry turned to him and said, as only a mother could, “You can brag if you want.”
He is waiting on that.
Ten starters return, making the group heavy on experience. Five rank among the Top 25 players at any position this spring, making the group deeper than a year ago.
Put Deshaun Watson, Justin Thomas, Brad Kaaya, Marquise Williams and Jacoby Brissett up against the top five quarterbacks in any other Power 5 league, and the ACC looks better than just about everybody.
No surprise, especially when you consider recent history. The ACC seems to go in three-year cycles when it comes to its quarterback breadth and depth. In 2012, the ACC had one 4,000-yard passer and six 3,000-yard passers, including Tajh Boyd, EJ Manuel and Mike Glennon. All three players ended up getting drafted -- Manuel went in the first round.
Rewind three years before that, and the ACC had standouts Christian Ponder, Russell Wilson, Kyle Parker, Tyrod Taylor and Josh Nesbitt.
Since 2005, the ACC has had 13 quarterbacks drafted, including three in the first round. Winston is poised to become the fourth.
Why this has gone in three-year cycles is more coincidental than anything. The stage has been set for a quarterback revival this year because the ACC was extremely young at quarterback last year: Ten schools were forced to replace starters.
It is rare to see so much turnover at the most high-profile position on the field at so many schools at once. Even in the year that preceded 2012, only half the schools in the league had to replace their starting quarterbacks.
So there were many opportunities. Now add in another unique situation: Mostly underclassmen filled the open positions. Of the 10 first-year starters, only three were juniors or seniors. All happened to be transfers -- Tyler Murphy at Boston College, Brissett and Michael Brewer at Virginia Tech.
Several schools were forced to turn to true freshmen. Two succeeded immediately: Kaaya -- the ACC rookie of the year -- and Watson, who showed flashes of brilliance when he was healthy enough to play.
In all, five true freshmen ended up starting at least one game in the ACC -- more than any other Power 5 conference. Though Kaaya and Watson are the only two definitive starters returning, Reggie Bonnafon at Louisville and John Wolford at Wake Forest will have an opportunity to earn starting jobs back. The other, AJ Long at Syracuse, plans to redshirt now that starter Terrel Hunt is healthy.
To put the freshman numbers into further context, last year also was the first time in league history two true freshmen started on opening day -- Kaaya and Wolford ended up starting every single game for their respective teams last season.
So the growing pains from 2014 have led to what should be a big moment for the ACC in 2015. All five top-tier quarterbacks -- Watson, Kaaya, Thomas, Brissett and Williams -- already have way-too-early Heisman odds posted.
Others have an opportunity for big years as well. Pitt coaches are excited about the potential for Chad Voytik; the same goes for Duke coaches and Thomas Sirk. Florida State has been able to develop quarterbacks at will under coach Jimbo Fisher, so whoever earns the starting job there will have an opportunity to join in the top-notch quarterback club. Bobby Petrino has not been a wall flower at developing his quarterbacks, either.
When it comes down to it, Boston College is the only school that has no quarterbacks with any career starts.
So experience is nearly everywhere. So are good players.
All that is setting up to lead to a quarterback bonanza in 2015.
A look back at strong quarterback play across the ACC:
In a poll of ACC football coaches, 12 of the 13 who responded said they favored or would consider expanding eligibility to allow players to play five years — eliminating the redshirt completely — and every coach expressed significant reservations about potentially redshirting all freshmen.
The debate has become a talking point after the Big Ten opened discussions on the subject of improving academics for freshmen by taking them off the field to focus more on the classroom, but every coach polled said they’d seen no firm correlation between grades and playing time, and many suggested redshirting freshmen can actually have a detrimental effect on their overall college experience.
Indeed, most coaches suggest the athletes with the greatest deficiencies in the classroom are also the ones who would be hurt the most by taking away their on-field experience, while the ones with the best time-management skills away from coaches are typically flourishing academically already.
“The kids that are mature and make good decisions, a redshirt year can be good for them,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “But the at-risk student is better off if he’s playing right away and engaged with the team all the time.”
While the specifics of freshman eligibility have not yet been a topic discussed among ACC coaches formally, Doeren said he was hopeful those conversations would begin soon, so that the concerns shared by the coaches can be addressed.
ACC commissioner John Swofford appeared open to restricted eligibility when asked by the Louisville Courier-Journal last month, though he conceded the logistics would be challenging.
“It's not a new topic,” Swofford told the paper. “It's been talked about in our league, as well as others, periodically. I'm old enough to have played in that system, and it was a good one. I think it's very educationally sound, and I think we should think about and consider anything that's educationally sound. Whether we get back to that, I don't know. I don't know if it fits the times in today's world. We haven't taken any votes in our league in regard to it in recent years.”
While the ACC does not specifically track league-wide academic performance of freshmen compared with older student-athletes, the conference does have the highest academic rating overall among Power 5 leagues, according to U.S. News and World Report, and 11 of the 14 institutions had an APR better than the FBS average. It's noteworthy, too, that of the 65 members of the league's academic All-ACC team, 12 were true freshmen.
On the NCAA level, eligibility restrictions for the most at-risk athletes are already set to go into effect beginning in 2016. Students who fail to meet core course requirements, GPA and ACT or SAT scores will be forced to redshirt or grayshirt their first year.
Extending eligibility restrictions to all freshmen would be a knee-jerk reaction, however, Cutcliffe said.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish other than getting better grades out of it, and that’s just not going to happen,” he said.
What it clearly would accomplish, however, is a huge strain on the remaining rosters for all teams.
Until 1972, freshmen were ineligible for competition. But at that time there were no scholarship limits in place, and programs could easily field a team without the newcomers. Moreover, seasons were shorter, with the majority of programs playing just 11 games until the early 2000s. This past season, Oregon and Ohio State played 15 games — one shy of an NFL season — and if freshmen hadn’t been eligible to play, they might have been limited to a roster of just 60 scholarship athletes.
“That’s basically an NFL roster, but we don’t get to pick up anybody off waivers, have free agency, make trades,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I’m not sure how that would work, and I don’t think they have any intention of giving us more scholarships.”
First, schools need to do a better job of developing programs to ensure a smoother transition for incoming freshmen to the rigors of college life. As Doeren suggested, time management and study skills differentiate students who succeed from the ones who fall behind, and instilling those in freshmen upon arrival in the summer is crucial.
Virginia’s Mike London said he shared some of the Big Ten’s concerns regarding academic performance and would be open to further discussion of potential solutions, but he said those answers should start with an in-house focus on supporting students in the classroom.
“We all know the biggest transition is from high school to college,” London said. “It’s important to me that the structures you have in place — academic advising, mentoring, tutoring — that’s as critical as anything else, and if you’re successful there, you allow the student-athletes — particularly the freshmen — to come in and have success.”
Moreover, Fedora said he’d like to see schools raise their admissions standards for athletes to weed out those who would be most likely to struggle with academics.
“Raise your standards,” Fedora said. “Don’t just let anybody in. If they’re not academically ready, then don’t let them in.”
All but one coach polled suggested five years of eligibility on the field would allow coaches more wiggle room in developing their freshmen.
“I would make everybody eligible, and then your team will be a lot healthier,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “There would never be a situation where a kid would feel like he’s letting his teammates down. The communication would improve. Health and safety would improve, and I bet our graduation rates and the number of student-athletes leaving with postgraduate degrees would increase sharply, too.”
It’s a plan that was reiterated again and again by ACC coaches concerned with player safety, academics and, of course, winning.
The bottom line among all coaches, however, is that more discussion of these issues is required, and that input from the coaches dealing with student-athletes on a daily basis should be weighed as strongly as any broad statistics being used to tout academic struggles for freshmen.
“A lot of things we do, we change before they’re truly broken,” Cutcliffe said. “I hope they listen to reason. I’d hate to see [eligibility restrictions] happen.”
1. Florida State starting quarterback
When Jameis Winston committed to the Seminoles, it was assumed the No. 1 high school quarterback would transition into the starting role after a redshirt year once EJ Manuel departed. There is not an obvious answer for who will follow Winston, however. Sean Maguire filled in admirably against Clemson under tough circumstances and against the top defense in 2014, but he still has much to prove. J.J. Cosentino was an ESPN 300 recruit and certainly has the build (6-foot-4, 234 pounds), but he redshirted as a freshman. De'Andre Johnson enrolled in January and could be a dark horse, but fellow freshman Deondre Francois, who will arrive in the summer, has the higher prep pedigree. John Franklin III could get some looks in the spring, but he spent most of last season at receiver.
You might have better odds hitting the superfecta at Churchill Downs two months from now than accurately pegging who the Cardinals will start in the season opener. Will Gardner, who took the majority of snaps in 2014, is recovering from a torn ACL. Reggie Bonnafon collected a handful of starts as a true freshman, but he could not wrestle the starting gig from Gardner long term. Kyle Bolin showed promise against Kentucky in the regular-season finale but struggled in the bowl game against Georgia. Tyler Ferguson has followed Bobby Petrino around recently, so the transfer should have the offense down. Making it tougher on the three spring participants is the lack of experienced receivers. That will be another interesting position battle.
3. Georgia Tech's running backs
The Yellow Jackets are losing seven of their top nine leading rushers at running back, so aside from Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech's crowded backfield will have several new faces. Broderick Snoddy is the most experienced but is recovering from a devastating leg injury suffered in November. Snoddy has lightning speed and is a home-run threat with the ball in his hands. Dennis Andrews had only 16 carries in 2014, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. The name to watch is C.J. Leggett, who redshirted as a freshman last season but was highly rated coming out of high school.
4. Boston College's starting offensive line
Former offensive line coach Steve Addazio had the luxury of coaching five seniors along the line at certain points in 2014. The obvious flip side is that now he has to completely retool the offensive line, and the spring is the ideal time to start working on that chemistry. Guard Harris Williams returns from injury, but there are a number of question marks around him. Dave Bowen could be a solid bet to start at one of the tackle spots. Senior Frank Taylor could step in at center. Aside from Williams, though, nothing looks to be set in stone.
5. Clemson backup quarterback.
The Tigers probably have the conference's best quarterback, but Deshaun Watson has struggled to stay healthy since enrolling at Clemson. He suffered three significant injuries his first season, the last a torn ACL that will cost him spring practice. A year ago, the Tigers still had Cole Stoudt, who had started a handful of games. If Watson is not ready for the opener or has to miss any time in 2015, the Tigers' season could be in jeopardy. Nick Schuessler is a redshirt junior but a former walk-on who has thrown only 10 career passes. Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel are true freshmen who enrolled in January.
6. Miami running back
Duke Johnson, whose career will be celebrated at Miami for quite some time, is off to the NFL. Miami has a strong stable of running backs it can rely on to replace Johnson, but it remains to be seen who will get the majority of the carries. Joseph Yearby was one of the country's top running backs in the 2014 class and ran for more than 500 yards as a freshman. However, Gus Edwards could leave the spring with the starting gig. Edwards is a bigger back but is capable of running away from defenders. Mark Walton is enrolling in the coming months, and he was one of the top high school players in Florida last fall.