ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
12:00
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Wishing everybody a great holiday weekend!
Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.

ACC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
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Well, this rule ought to make games more interesting.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
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Never forget.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
12:00
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Bo Pelini is the cat's meow.
RALEIGH, N.C. — It didn’t start as anything formal, just a few hungry players after NC State’s regular Saturday walk-through. The quarterbacks and receivers would show up in the morning, run through drills and practice routes, then head to breakfast.

Slowly, the weekly ritual evolved into an ideal bonding experience for a group that desperately needed to build a rapport on the fast track.

“We had a lot of extra time to go out and get some chemistry,” quarterback Jacoby Brissett said. “Any time we had an opportunity to sit and talk about the things we were learning — we got the time to get to know each other better away from the field, and that’s helped our chemistry on the field.”

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesNC State has a leader at quarterback in transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Whether pancakes and waffles actually make a difference in NC State’s passing game in 2014 remains to be seen, but as the Wolfpack wrapped up spring practice Saturday, it certainly appeared that Brissett, the new starting quarterback, and his young receivers were a well-oiled machine.

Brissett and the first-team offense rolled up 34 points, and the junior quarterback, who transferred from Florida last year, completed throws of 36, 60 and 72 yards. He was particularly effective on third down, converting 13 of 18 tries, often shuffling in the pocket to create more time and find receivers downfield.

Early enrollee Bo Hines led all receivers, grabbing 10 passes for 132 yards, including a nifty 40-yard run after a catch on Brissett’s 60-yard completion. His star is clearly on the rise, coach Dave Doeren said, and after just a few months on campus — and a dozen or so breakfasts with Brissett — he looks right at home.

“Bo Hines is a reliable player,” Doeren said. “He’s the same guy every day — in the right place, catches the ball well with people around him, made some one-handed catches and has the ability to catch it and run. … We’ve had 15 practices and I don’t think we’ve had one where he didn’t make a play.”

Sophomores Jumichael Ramos and Marquez Valdes-Scantling had four catches each. Bryan Underwood, the lone veteran of the ensemble, caught three passes for 112 yards and two scores.

“[Brissett] is giving us a chance,” Underwood said. “It’s a good start, leaving spring with how we did today.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the offensive fireworks came against an overmatched second-team defense that featured few veterans, and the road back from last year’s struggles — NC State finished 11th in the ACC in yards per attempt and had more interceptions than TD throws — will be a long one. Doeren was also quick to point out Brissett’s struggles running the ball — he was sacked five times behind a line missing three starters — and his one interception. But just as last year’s struggles in the spring game portended a woeful regular season, the hope is that this year’s success will be equally prophetic.

Whether this year’s results are also a sign of things to come likely depends largely on how much more Brissett and his receivers continue to bond during the summer. But Doeren is encouraged by where things stand, and a year after NC State dealt with a massive quarterback dilemma, it soothes a lot of nerves to simply know Brissett is in charge, and there's a ringleader for the remainder of the offseason.

“I can focus my attention on certain things, and it’s his job to stay hungry, keep the chip on his shoulder and know he has to do his job the right way,” Doeren said. “I don’t have to worry about who it is, but he still has to handle his end of the responsibility. He will, and he knows that.”
video

RALEIGH, N.C. -- If he’s being honest, the question makes Jacoby Brissett a bit uncomfortable. He hears it routinely -- from friends, from fans, from media eager to make him the headliner in NC State’s revitalization project -- and after three years waiting to be anointed the starter, he should be thrilled.

Still, every time someone asks Brissett what it feels like now that he’s the man -- the starting quarterback and offensive ring leader -- he feels compelled to downplay the significance of it all.

“I’m not big into that stuff,” Brissett said. “I’m like, ‘You don’t have to say that.’ I’m competing to remain the starter -- competing with myself, the guys around me, the other guys in the conference. You have a national championship quarterback in this conference, so I have a lot of catching up to do.”

It’s no surprise Brissett feels like he’s playing from behind. Three years ago, he got a taste of life as the starting quarterback at Florida. That door closed quickly though, and after a year on the bench in 2012, he transferred to NC State. NCAA rules forced Brissett to redshirt, so he spent last year again waiting on the sideline for his chance.

When a 3-9 campaign marked by offensive struggles concluded in December, NC State coach Dave Doeren officially put an end to Brissett’s wait, tabbing him as the Wolfpack’s starter for 2014. But Doeren’s decision wasn’t about finally giving Brissett his chance. It was an acknowledgement of everything the quarterback had done while he was waiting for it.

“The way he plays is part of it,” Doeren said, “but the way he interacts and leads is a big part of it.”

I'm not big into that stuff. I'm like, 'You don't have to say that.' I'm competing to remain the starter -- competing with myself, the guys around me, the other guys in the conference. You have a national championship quarterback in this conference, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

-- NC State QB Jacoby Brissett on the hype about him being the starting QB
Brissett came to NC State just a month after Doeren arrived. He’d been frustrated by his back-up role at Florida, and he needed a fresh start. A highly touted recruit out of high school, Brissett was again a hot commodity, but NC State -- and Doeren -- felt right.

“I was actually looking at West Virginia, but every time I was there, the coach kept saying something about [former quarterback] Geno [Smith],” Brissett said. “I’m like, I’m not Geno. I won’t be Geno. I just wanted to be Jacoby, and I feel like this is a place I can be Jacoby.”

That comfort level didn’t manifest overnight, however.

With just two quarterbacks on the roster last spring, Brissett got plenty of early work with the first-team offense, wowing coaches and teammates, but he was reluctant to take a leadership role. No matter how well he performed, his script for 2013 was already written. It was someone else’s team, and he didn’t want to muddy the waters.

When spring ended, however, it was clear to Doeren that he’d found his quarterback of the future. He called Brissett into his office and gave his quarterback a clear mandate.

“The guys need to know it will become your offense by how you practice, how you act, how you are in the locker room,” Doeren told him. “You can’t just be a ghost.”

Brissett offered assurances that wouldn’t happen, but even Doeren was surprised by how thoroughly he grabbed the reins.

Over the summer, Brissett helped organize practices. In the weight room and film room, he was a fixture. Once the season began, Brissett took his role on the scout team seriously, often frustrating NC State’s first-team defense in the process. It was clear the Wolfpack had a budding star.

“The other quarterbacks didn’t really look anyone off,” NC State safety Hakim Jones said. “With Jacoby, you never know what to expect from him. He seemed a lot more advanced.”

Then there was the famed road trip to Tallahassee, which is everyone’s favorite evidence of Brissett’s command of the team.

NC State had a road date with Florida State last October, but because he was a first-year transfer, Brissett couldn’t travel with the team. So he hopped in his car, made the 600-mile drive alone, and arrived -- complete with speeding ticket in Tallahassee -- in time for the game. Teammates were shocked to see him, but the image of Brissett still rallying his troops after NC State fell behind 42-0 at halftime is what stuck.

“Since he cared and he’s not even playing, it let us know it’s a serious matter, and we had to step it up,” receiver Bryan Underwood said.

For all Brissett’s emotion from the sideline, NC State’s offense was a mess throughout much of last season. Starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, an athletic runner, broke his foot in the opener. His backup, Pete Thomas, was a pure pocket passer, and Doeren was forced to adjust his game plan on the fly. The result was an enigmatic approach, and the Wolfpack never fully gelled around either QB.

This season, things are different, Doeren said. Brissett isn’t the dual-threat nightmare Doeren had in Jordan Lynch at Northern Illinois, but he can make plays with his legs. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he’s a physical threat with an arm to match. NC State’s receiving corps is young, but Brissett has already established a standard he expects the group to meet. Even before Doeren made it official, the Wolfpack knew Brissett was in charge.

“His skill set is obviously good, and we all know that,” Underwood said. “But outside of throwing the ball and learning the plays, he’s that guy that we can say, he’s going to get us into shape.”

Underwood said he sees aspects of former Wolfpack QBs Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon -- both now starting in the NFL -- in Brissett, and that’s just the beginning of the praise for NC State’s new starter.

Fans get their first chance to see him in action Saturday when NC State holds its annual spring game, and the expectations are high. Brissett understands that, too. The wait was long, but it also served as the perfect preparation for what’s ahead.

“When you’re starting, it’s about making sure that everybody around knows why you’re quarterback,” Brissett said, “and make sure you’re being an example to look up to.”

ACC spring games preview

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
2:00
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Seven ACC teams will play their spring games this weekend, and eight will officially close spring practices in the coming days, as Pitt has opted to have a more fan-friendly event instead of an actual spring game on Sunday before closing practice on Tuesday.

For all of these teams -- including Florida State -- the quarterbacks will be among the most-watched players on the field. In Tallahassee, fans will get a chance to see the Heisman Trophy winner, returning starter Jameis Winston. At every other school, there is an ongoing storyline and competition with the quarterbacks. We’re giving you one additional thing to keep an eye on that might not be so obvious.

Check it out, and enjoy the games this weekend!

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. on Saturday (ESPNU) and on WatchESPN

Where: Death Valley

One thing to watch: The true freshman wide receivers. Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester were all highly touted recruits who enrolled early to help Clemson try to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant (a combined 2,292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013).

FLORIDA STATE

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN) and on WatchESPN

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium

One thing to watch: The wide receivers. They haven’t exactly earned high praise from coach Jimbo Fisher, who called the receivers out last week for not getting open and making catches. Rashad Greene is the most experienced option as the Noles try to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but the staff also needs to see more from players like Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield.

LOUISVILLE

When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday

Where: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium

One thing to watch: The safeties. Louisville lost Hakeem Smith, who started 51 straight games, and projected first-round draft pick Calvin Pryor. Jermaine Reve, Gerod Holliman and Chucky Williams are the leading candidates for those spots, but Reve is out for the spring with an injury. Reve and Holliman are the only players with game experience.

MIAMI

When: 6 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Sun Life Stadium

One thing to watch: Defense, defense, defense. It’s been an area of concern, but the defense showed signs of progress this spring. The Canes return eight starters and 16 players from the two-deep depth chart. Denzel Perryman is now playing middle linebacker, and Dallas Crawford moved to safety to give that position a boost. Those within the program have said repeatedly that the defense has made strides since last season, and overall it was a good spring for the defense. We’ll see if they can punctuate it in the spring game.

NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Kenan Stadium

One thing to watch: True freshman running back Elijah Hood. The four-star recruit was rated the nation's No. 9 running back in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com and No. 80 overall in the ESPN 300. The early enrollee has had such a good spring that he could see some immediate playing time, even though the Tar Heels are deep at the position.

NC STATE

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium

One thing to watch: More young wide receivers. NC State has to replace Quintin Payton and Rashard Smith, both starters from last year. The talent pool to choose from includes a host of sophomores and freshmen, including two early enrollees. The leading sophomore candidates are: Jumichael Ramos, who finished the last three games of 2013 strong; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who led the team in receiving at one point last year as a true freshman; and Bra'lon Cherry, who suffered a season-ending injury against Duke. Freshmen Bo Hines and Stephen Louis enrolled early, and redshirt freshman Gavin Locklear is also in the mix.

VIRGINIA

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Scott Stadium

One thing to watch: Improved wide receivers. This is a group coach Mike London has praised this spring, for both its height and athleticism, as the staff has moved toward a longer, leaner look. London recently singled out Miles Gooch, Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins -- all listed at 6-foot-3 -- as players who have excelled this spring. Unfortunately, fans won’t be able to see starter Jake McGee, the Hoos’ star tight end who moved to receiver this spring, as he’ll be sidelined with a hamstring injury.

PITT (No spring game)

When: From 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Pitt will host its “Pitt Football Field Pass”

Where: The UPMC Sports Performance Complex

One thing to watch: Instead of a game, Pitt will hold a public event that will include a kids’ clinic, an offensive strategy session with coordinator Joe Rudolph, a defensive strategy session with coordinator Matt House, a recruiting session with coordinator Dann Kabala and a strength and conditioning session with assistant coach Ross Kolodziej.

ACC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
I'll go with UConn tonight. You?

Reviewing the ACC pro days

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
2:30
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Pro days are now in the rearview mirror, with a month remaining between now and the NFL draft. With that, let's take a look back at some notable performances from ACC pro days this year.

Boston College (March 12)
Big name: RB Andre Williams. Representatives from 29 NFL teams were on hand to see the nation's top running back from last season. Williams says he improved on his combine 40-yard-dash time of 4.56. Also of note: Nate Freese, who went 20 of 20 last season on field goal tries, did not disappoint in front of his future employers, hitting a 60-yard try.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Michael ConroyClemson WR Sammy Watkins in all likelihood will be the first ACC player drafted in May.
Clemson (March 6)
Big name: WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins stood on his 40 time of 4.43 from the combine but was there to help out quarterback Tajh Boyd, doing little to change the general consensus that he is the top receiver in this year's draft. Boyd said scouts told him his performance was much better than his showings at the combine and Senior Bowl, as he connected on short, intermediate and deep routes with familiar receivers in familiar environs.

Duke (March 26)
Big name: CB Ross Cockrell. Cockrell improved on his combine results, with Duke saying that his 40 time was sub-4.4, which is better than what he ran in Indianapolis (4.56).

Florida State (March 17)
Big name: Where to begin? DL Timmy Jernigan slightly improved his combine 40-time from 5.06 to 5.03. S Terrence Brooks, LB Telvin Smith, DB Lamarcus Joyner and LB Christian Jones all drew a crowd, but they declined to run the 40 in front of reps from all 32 NFL teams, content to sit on their combine performances.

Georgia Tech (March 28)
Big name: LB Jeremiah Attaochu. Attaochu ran drills at both linebacker and defensive lineman, recovering nicely from a hamstring injury in the Senior Bowl that forced him out of the combine. He said his 40 time was in the 4.5s. DB Jemea Thomas also impressed, reportedly running a 4.38 40.

Louisville (March 17)
Big name: QB Teddy Bridgewater. With scouts from 29 teams watching, Bridgewater was off target with several of his throws. He ran an unofficial 4.78 40 time, but the potential No. 1 pick misfired on at least 10 passes, leaving some questions lingering heading into the draft.

Miami (April 3)
Big name: OT Seantrel Henderson. This is the name that is going to stick out, as Henderson did not finish his workouts. His agent later told reporters that it was due to dehydration. With 30 NFL teams represented, quarterback Stephen Morris took a strong step forward, reportedly completed almost all of his 67 throws.

North Carolina (March 25)
Big name: TE Eric Ebron. Ebron stood on his 40 time from the combine of 4.60, but his pro day was marred by several dropped passes, though the always upbeat tight end was not stressed about the drops when speaking to reporters afterward.

NC State (March 25)
Big name: CB Dontae Johnson. Johnson showed his versatility, as he can play corner or safety, and he said he felt better than he did at the combine, where he ran a 40 time of 4.45 and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical.

Pittsburgh (March 3)
Big name: DT Aaron Donald. College football's best defensive player rested on his combine numbers in the 40 (4.68) and bench press (35 times), but teammates Tom Savage and Devin Street helped themselves. Savage impressed during a scripted 100-throw workout while Street said he ran a sub-4.5 40.

Syracuse
Big name: LB Marquis Spruill. Spruill recovered nicely from a combine snub, weighing in at 231 pounds, nine pounds heavier than his playing weight. He did not disclose numbers. Running back Jerome Smith, meanwhile, said he ran in the 4.5-4.6 range, which would be an improvement over his combine time of 4.84.

Virginia (March 17)
Big name: OT Morgan Moses. A considerably different-looking Moses showed up at 311 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter from his playing days with the Cavaliers. After clocking in at 5.35 in the 40 at the combine, he unofficially ran between 4.9 and 5.06 at his pro day, though he pulled a hamstring during one of the runs, forcing him to miss the remainder of his drills.

Virginia Tech (March 19)
Big name: QB Logan Thomas. Thomas remains a fascinating prospect to keep an eye on in the NFL, and he threw well in front of NFL scouts at pro day. Corner Antone Exum impressed as well, running 40 times of 4.53 and 4.55.

Wake Forest (March 17)
Big name: WR Michael Campanaro. After seeing his final year end prematurely because of a shoulder injury, Campanaro, the only Demon Deacon to have garnered a combine invite, again impressed in receiver drills, making his case to become a potential mid-round pick. Nose guard Nikita Whitlock, meanwhile, saw himself lining up as a fullback for the first time in his career. Weather conditions were less than ideal for the NFL hopefuls.
The theme throughout this spring across the ACC has been turnover and uncertainty at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesWith Anthony Boone (and Brandon Connette), Duke has plenty of experience at the QB position in 2014.
But what about those schools that return a good amount of starting experience? Duke returns more career starts than any team in the ACC, just ahead of Florida State. Quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have combined to start 16 games for the Blue Devils, while Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has 14 starts for the Noles.

That should give both teams and edge when it comes to defending their respective division crowns. How much of an edge? Depends on the viewpoint. Relying on returning quarterback data alone to predict how a team will do often fails to look at the big picture.

Go back to last season. Duke and Florida State went into 2013 having to replace veterans at quarterback — EJ Manuel had 31 career starts for the Noles, while Sean Renfree had 35 career starts for the Blue Devils. Questions about experience at quarterback followed both teams into the season. Indeed, Clemson was picked to finish ahead of Florida State thanks in large part to returning starter Tajh Boyd, going into his third season behind center.

Those questions, however, were quickly answered as both Duke and Florida State went on to play for the ACC championship. Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina -- all picked to finish ahead of Duke -- returned multi-year starters at quarterback but that was not enough to win the division. Boyd did not help Clemson win an ACC title, but the Tigers did make a BCS game and won 11 contests. Tanner Price, one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the ACC last season, could not help Wake Forest get back to a bowl game.

Still, returning a starting quarterback is almost always preferable. Not every redshirt freshman is going to win the Heisman the way Winston did in Year 1 as a starter. Boone, who had his share of ups and downs early last season as he transitioned to a starting role, has now been on both sides.

“You’re obviously going to have some growing pains with quarterbacks who haven’t played many snaps, young quarterbacks going into their first year as a starter,” Boone said recently. “I just feel like that’s something we’re capable of avoiding, that’s something that should be to our advantage, having the knowledge of different teams in our league, just knowing tendencies of what team plays what kind of defense, just having that knowledge going into next year. I feel like it’s good to if you have one, but we have two who have been there. It’s a good feeling. It lets our offensive coordinator be at ease because we have the ability to fix a lot of play calls that have been called, if something happens. I feel that knowledge is a huge winning edge for us, compared to guys who may not know the system as well.”

Returning career starts at quarterback:

Duke: 16
Florida State: 14
Virginia: 12
Syracuse 10
Miami: 10*
Boston College: 6*
North Carolina: 5
NC State: 3*
Clemson: 0
Georgia Tech: 0
Louisville: 0
Pittsburgh: 0
Virginia Tech: 0
Wake Forest: 0

*-QBs at these schools made their starts while playing for other programs.


Change in W-L record for teams that returned starting quarterbacks in 2013.

Boston College: +5
Miami: +2
Louisville: +1
Virginia Tech: +1
North Carolina: -1
Clemson: No change
Wake Forest: -1


Change in W-L record for teams that started first-time quarterbacks in 2013.

Duke: +4
Florida State: +2
Pitt: +1
Georgia Tech: No change
Syracuse: -1
Virginia: -2
NC State: -4
RALEIGH, N.C. -- In most places, it would speak volumes that Kalen McCain and Germaine Pratt, both just a few weeks into their college careers, were running with the second-team defense Saturday during NC State’s first scrimmage of the spring.

Indeed, both freshmen safeties have impressed teammates so far. McCain is instinctive, according to senior Jarvis Byrd, looking like a ball hawk in coverage. In that scrimmage, McCain picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown, but at just 175 pounds, he needs to add some bulk. Pratt, on the other hand, is a charging bull in the secondary. At 6-foot-3, nearly 200 pounds, he plays like a linebacker -- a throwback to his high school days when he spent significant time in the box, playing the run -- and still needs refinement in coverage. But when he hits, he hits hard.

[+] EnlargeGermain Pratt
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comJust months ago, Germaine Pratt was a three-star prospect. Now he's pushing for a big role in NC State's secondary.
It’s a promising start for both players, but for the Wolfpack, their spot on the depth chart is a matter of necessity.

“They’re running with the twos because they have to,” safety Hakim Jones said. “We only have four safeties.”

This is the landscape in Raleigh for the nine early enrollees at NC State -- seven scholarship freshmen, along with long snapper Robert Brunstetter and preferred walk-on Ty Linton, a former North Carolina commitment who has played professional baseball for the past four years. There is opportunity at every turn, the result of a disproportionately young roster, but it is also a trial by fire.

“You go through this whole recruiting process and it seems like it should take a long time, but then you get here and it’s fast,” said Bo Hines, one of two freshman wide receivers enrolled for the spring. “Everything is moving.”

By coach Dave Doeren’s math, 71 percent of NC State’s roster this year will be freshmen or sophomores. Many saw action last year as the Wolfpack struggled to fill out a depth chart amid myriad injuries en route to a disastrous 3-9 season in which they didn’t win a game in conference play. The new arrivals, meanwhile, are getting a healthy dose of snaps on the practice field with an eye toward playing time this fall.

It’s a challenge, Doeren admits, but it’s also an investment in the viability of a crucial freshmen class this fall.

“[Many of] those guys are playing with the ones at times out there,” Doeren said. “Just imagine the learning curve for them in August when the other freshmen are coming in. It helps a lot.”

And this spring isn’t simply a chance for the freshmen to dip their toes in the pool and test the waters of life in the ACC. It’s a blank slate, with a chance for them to etch their names into permanent jobs when the Wolfpack open the 2014 season.

“Since Day 1, since we went into the first meeting, [Doeren] said nobody had a guaranteed spot,” Pratt said. “I’m pushing hard to earn my spot.”

Perhaps as important, Doeren said, is the veterans are now pushing harder to keep their spots.

With such a thin roster a year ago, Doeren had little choice but to hand playing time over to unproven players. The results were mixed. Some blossomed, like receiver Jumichael Ramos, who caught 11 passes and scored three times in the final three games of his freshman campaign last year. Some struggled, including a defensive line that featured a trio of freshmen and sophomores who earned regular playing time, but finished 103rd nationally in run defense. Others, like receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (12 catches for 174 yards in his first two games, 10 catches for 107 the rest of the way) did a little of both.

[Many of] those guys are playing with the ones at times out there. Just imagine the learning curve for them in August when the other freshmen are coming in. It helps a lot.

-- NC State coach Dave Doeren on early enrollees
All of that was to be expected, Doeren said. What concerned the second-year coach was that, after winning playing time by default in 2013, complacency could set in this season. The nine new faces this spring can go a long way toward alleviating those concerns.

“The freshmen are coming to me, asking how to run a route and what the concepts are or just asking how we felt when we came in as freshmen and what we did to play,” Ramos said. “I do feel older. I don’t feel like a freshman anymore.”

Still, Doeren is aware of the reality. Most of the time, it’s 18-year old freshmen asking 19-year old veterans for advice, and that’s not an ideal recipe for success. That makes NC State’s real veterans -- the handful of juniors and seniors like Byrd and Jones -- an immensely valuable asset this spring.

It’s a role they’ve been happy to take on, receiver Bryan Underwood said. Last year, he was a mentor for Ramos and Valdes-Scantling. Now, he’s finding more room under his wing for the new arrivals.

Jones busies himself each night hosting his new protégés in the secondary, too. Pratt and McCain are fixtures in his room, the playbook spread open throughout the evening.

“We came to them with open arms and just -- welcome to the team,” Jones said.

That’s exactly what Doeren was hoping for, but it’s hardly the end of his concerns.

Pratt and Hines and the rest of the new arrivals are still wide-eyed and overmatched more often than not. It’s a learning experience, and for now at least, most of the lessons will be tough ones.

But that’s the other advantage of this big class of early enrollees for NC State. Even after the toughest workouts, the miserable have plenty of company.

“Having those guys around,” Hines said, “we’re all going through the same thing.”

ACC's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
PM ET
Want to know why you’re not famous? It might be that you were born in the wrong spot, according to this incredibly fascinating New York Times piece about how geography relates to fame. This completely explains why Delaware boasts Judge Reinhold, Delino Deshields and me.

ACC's lunch links

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
12:00
PM ET
Want to feel old? Happy 30th anniversary for “The Breakfast Club.”

ACC's lunchtime links

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
12:00
PM ET
Stanford this fall (again). Harvard this spring (again). Brains and brawn.

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