ACC: Pittsburgh Panthers
They're from the same family and play the same position and boast the same frame, but Dontez Ford and his cousin are very different receivers.
Ford, Pitt's 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt junior, has always thought of himself as a physical wideout, never shy to take on defensive backs and help someone else break off a long play. His cousin, current NFL free agent Toney Clemons, has used his 6-foot-2, 205-pound stature to blow by defenders at the college level with Colorado and get drafted by the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, in the seventh round in 2012.
With plenty of throws to be caught for the Panthers this spring, Ford has relied on Clemons more than usual lately, texting him regularly for tidbits on how to become a bigger threat in Pitt's passing game.
"He has a different style of play," Ford said. "I feel like he's a faster guy, and he has more of a finesse game, but I just feel like I want to bring that type of game into what I do. I've been talking to him a lot recently and just taking little tips and advice on how I can work on my craft and become a better receiver."
This is welcome news to a Panthers aerial attack that became overly reliant on Tyler Boyd last season. Defenses know what the junior sensation is capable of after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. They'll also no longer overlook James Conner in the backfield, not after his ACC player of the year campaign in 2014.
So it is up to Ford and the other receivers to help diversify Pitt's offense. Ford has done his part so far this spring, drawing rave reviews from his new coaching staff after a number of big plays and, thus far, earning the inside track to start opposite Boyd come fall.
"He started to get better toward the end of the year last year, stepping up and making some plays," receivers coach Kevin Sherman said. "My goal for him this spring was the same thing: Just keep mastering your craft, learn the game, because we're trying to teach the game to these guys conceptually, not just position-wise."
Opportunity knocked down the stretch of 2014, with senior starter Manasseh Garner missing three games because of a foot injury and Ford earning extended action in his place. The audition gave him a confidence boost heading into winter workouts and spring ball, where he is now being relied on more than ever.
If that sounds like a bit much for someone with just three catches and 50 yards to his name, well, consider that Ford is the Panthers' leading returning wideout in 2015 not named Boyd. Returning tight end J.P. Holtz's 21 catches last year marked the closest any Pitt pass-catcher came to Boyd's 78 grabs, which overwhelmed a stat sheet with hardly any room to spare.
Ford and the majority of his fellow wideouts are cognizant of the perception of them out there as the other guys, and they know the onus is on them to change it.
"The way I see it, it is what it is," he said. "People on the outside are going to say things like that as much as they want, but what happens on the field between us is what happens. As long as we can get out there and win games, then that's what's most important to us, and part of that is other receivers contributing for us to win games.
So I'm just going to go out there and work and try to contribute as much as I can. It'll take more pressure off of him, it'll put more pressure on defenses because we'll have multiple weapons out there."
A Pittsburgh-area product who redshirted as a safety at Syracuse in 2012 before transferring, Ford is playing under his third different position coach in as many years with the Panthers. And Sherman, who came from Purdue, has presented a blueprint right up the alley of a receiver who takes as much pride in laying into a cornerback as he does breaking off a big gain.
"I want to turn a 10-yard gain into an 80-yard touchdown," Sherman said. "I want these guys to understand their job is to be a blocker as well. We want these guys to take pride and be a complete football player, catching the ball and learning reverses and things like that. But I want them to be a complete football player, because I think that just helps our football team."
Will Be Making My College Choice April 3rd! @ Ocean Lakes High School 6pm... Anyone Can Come, No Charge Decision, Decisions, & Decisions.=— Levonta Taylor (@iamlevonta) March 24, 2015
We at the ACC blog would like to welcome Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer back to the sideline. Beamer, in his 29th season as the Hokies' coach, spent the December bowl game coaching from the press box following throat surgery.
The Daily Press writes Beamer's voice is still working its way back, but he still possessed the same fervor while talking about his team.
Here are a handful of links around the ACC for your morning:
- A search firm will present a list of candidates for the Pittsburgh athletic director position to the school's search committee in the coming weeks.
- Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson feels comfortable filling the shoes of departed leader Stephone Anthony.
- Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and son Tommy, who coached Clemson, will be part of a new travel show called "Bobby Bowden Goes to War." The documentary brings the Bowdens to Europe to highlight World War II stories.
- Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said he is confident the school will make a strong athletic director hire.
- With hardly any experience returning at A-back, it feels like the beginning of the Paul Johnson era in Atlanta all over again for the unit.
- Here are 10 Miami players that could become much bigger factors in 2015.
- Louisville is splitting first-team reps at quarterback as spring practice gets underway. The Cardinals have a major question mark at quarterback.
- The defense was a little ahead of the offense at NC State on Tuesday, due in part to numbers.
- Prized signee C.J. Stalker is looking to adjust quickly for Virginia.
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.
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.
The fallout from NCAA sanctions has already begun at Syracuse, as Daryl Gross has resigned from his post as athletic director and taken another job with the school, just 12 days after the NCAA released its penalties.
You can read more here about Wednesday's events, which include men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim's decision to step down in three years.
Gross' new job with Syracuse will be vice president and special assistant to the chancellor. Gross will also be an adjunct professor in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.
From the football side of things, Gross was involved in a number of dramatic changes for the program, both good and bad. He fired head coach Paul Pasqualoni shortly after his arrival as AD in December 2004, oversaw the launch of the program's new practice facility and, most notably, saw the school transition from the Big East to the ACC, where it began play in the 2013-14 academic year.
Gross also hired three different head football coaches, to varying degrees of success: Greg Robinson, Doug Marrone and current coach Scott Shafer.
A small committee chaired by trustee and board athletic committee member Steve Ballentine will assist the school in its search for Gross' full-time replacement. Until then, Peter Sala will serve as interim AD, this after serving as associate AD for facilities and the managing director of the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse is not the lone ACC school searching for a full-time AD, as Pitt finds itself in the same predicament after firing Steve Pederson this past December. Randy Juhl remains Pitt's interim AD, and he is the head of an internal search committee as well.
Coincidentally, both schools left the Big East together for the ACC, announcing their intentions back in the fall of 2011.
If Syracuse is in a rush to make a quick hire, it can probably look at what Pitt has been able to accomplish in the past three-plus months without a full-time AD.
As colleague Jared Shanker wrote earlier this month, the Panthers' situation did not stop them from landing their top head-coaching target for football after Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin.
Additionally, Pitt announced Wednesday a future home-and-home agreement in football with Tennessee: The Panthers will travel to Knoxville on Sept. 11, 2021, before hosting the Volunteers on Sept. 10, 2022.
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.
Sam Werner at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a very interesting piece on the eve of Pat Narduzzi's first practice as Pitt's head coach. Werner dives into Narduzzi's Youngstown, Ohio, upbringing and his fiery emotions -- which isn't meant as a negative -- on the sideline.
Early on, Werner brings up an interesting point on how Narduzzi's sideline excitability will affect his ability as a head coach and whether Narduzzi will need to rein it in. That passion is what helped him climb the ladder from assistant at Rhode Island to architect of one of college football's stingiest defenses at budding power Michigan State.
"[B]eing a head coach requires an even more delicate balance. At one instant, Narduzzi must be calm and thoughtful to make rational decisions. At the next, he has to spark his players with the same sort of motivation he has used throughout his entire career," Werner writes.
Narduzzi told Werner he will have to "change a little bit probably" but that he has no intentions of losing his enthusiasm.
At the college level, head coaches are required to double as CEO and face of the program. That has proven to be a tough and unexpected requirement that some talented assistant coaches struggled with in the past. No one would ever question Narduzzi's coaching chops -- he was considered a home-run hire for Pitt -- but it will certainly be worth watching if and how his sideline demeanor changes as Pitt's head coach.
- Five questions heading into the spring season for Pittsburgh, and the first has to do with Narduzzi and the defense.
- This is a nice feature from Corey Clark on the longevity Florida State football and basketball play-by-play voice Gene Deckerhoff. The first time I spoke with Deckerhoff, a few questions turned into a 30-minute conversation. The last time I spoke with him, he was explaining how his interest in The Grammys was reignited because of his affection for the latest pop music. He's a big fan of Meghan Trainor's single "All About That Bass."
- Here is an in-depth timeline of events from the NCAA's case on Syracuse.
- Former Georgia Tech back Zach Laskey performed well at the school's pro day.
- It won't be answered this spring, but it will be worth watching who emerges from Virginia Tech's group of young, talented (and injury-riddled) running backs.
- Facility changes are coming to Clemson, and Dabo Swinney is starting to see his dreams put into action.
And it is not just from folks outside the program eager to see what new coach Pat Narduzzi can do. Players also want to see Narduzzi in action on the practice field so they can truly begin to get a gauge for what their new coach is all about.
Individual meetings are one thing. But what happens on the practice field goes a long way toward determining how a team feels about its coach.
Keeping Conner happy has to be a top priority, considering how much he means to the Pitt offense. Conner is another reason for the growing anticipation in town. So are his offensive teammates. Conner, the reigning ACC Player of the Year, and All-ACC receiver Tyler Boyd are the only returning 1,000-yard running back/receiver duo in the league. Quarterback Chad Voytik also returns.
For Conner, getting used to his new coaches has taken a little bit of time. Not only did he lose coach Paul Chryst, the only Power 5 coach to offer him a scholarship, he lost the coach who initially recruited him to Pitt (Scott Rudolph) and his position coach (John Settle).
It was a lot to digest in a relatively short period of time, but Conner believes he has handled it well. He also knows a thing or two about his new offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney.
“At Arkansas, they had two 1,000-yard rushers last season and he likes to run heavy, too, so I’m happy about that,” Conner said. “Like I always, if they choose to give me the ball, I’m going to run my hardest for them.”
Conner finished last season with 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. He has briefly thought about trying to get 2,000 yards this season, but his No. 1 goal is to get his team to an ACC championship.
“All those individual things, those are cool and nice and I feel honored and blessed and humbled and all that, but I want to go to a championship game,” Conner said. “I want to play for something big. I’ve never been to a state championship in high school. I want to play for a championship. I know the yards and touchdowns will come.”
Narduzzi has been preparing his players for that very moment. One of the biggest changes he instituted has been an early morning conditioning session called The Fourth Quarter Program. Twice a week, players had to be at the indoor practice facility at 5:30 a.m. For Conner, that meant waking up at 4:30 a.m. to take a bus to make it there on time.
The workouts have been a grind, but they serve a larger purpose. Last season, Pitt lost five games by five points or less. In three of them, they blew a fourth-quarter lead. In that mix was an embarrassing loss to Houston in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl that featured a blown 25-point fourth-quarter lead. Instead of ending the season on a positive note, Pitt finished 6-7.
“All our troubles in the past were finish strong, so that’s what we’re preaching now,” Conner said. “We were a couple games away last year from having a really good record, but we didn’t finish so that’s what that program is all about.”
Conner believes the conditioning program will have a payoff in 2015.
“Realizing all the hard work we put in, all the summer conditioning and winter conditioning workouts, getting up early, all the sacrifices we made, the hard work we put in -- why not finish strong?” Conner said. “Why throw away all that hard work?”
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:
1. Though Jameis Winston no longer plays for Florida State, there remains an incredible amount of interest around him. I found this item from Peter King quite interesting. Winston took it upon himself to set up a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, to tell his own story and figure out what awaits him in the NFL. Goodell agreed to meet with him, and they spent time together last Thursday in the NFL offices in New York. Winston also met with several other league officials while he was there. One league official told King: "He went out of his way to make a good impression, and to show that he understood what was going to be expected of him in the NFL." No matter what you think about him, Winston made a great decision to be proactive.
2. Athlon Sports has ranked the pre-spring top 15 players in the ACC. Hard to argue with No. 1 choice James Conner, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. What should have Pitt fans standing up to take note is seeing receiver Tyler Boyd ranked at No. 4. Pitt joins Florida State as the only schools with two players ranked in the top 5. While the ranking is not surprising, it shows the type of potential the Pitt offense has headed into the year. Pitt has to get used to a new staff and scheme, but with the 1,000-yard rushing and receiving duo returning, the Panthers cannot be counted out in the Coastal. Where have I heard that one before ...
3. Louisville is holding its pro day Wednesday. A year after his own pro day sent his stock dropping, at least former Cards quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has a sense of humor about it all:
Thank God for pro days lol— Teddy Bridgewater (@teddyb_h2o) March 11, 2015
Now on to some more links:
- Clemson wants to go faster on offense in 2015.
- Florida State is making cuts to its athletic budget to make room for cost of attendance, estimated to cost the school $2 million per year.
- How will the Noles replace their experienced starters on the offensive line and at tight end?
- Louisville now has seven commitments for 2016.
- Miami has the third toughest strength of schedule in the country for 2015, according to one metric.
- Matt Hayes of The Sporting News says the Heisman should be awarded after the entire season is played.
- Former Syracuse quarterback Perry Patterson says he was paid for his work at the YMCA, violating NCAA rules.
- Not exactly a highly scientific survey over here.
Off a thoroughly impressive performance at the NFL combine, Beasley turned heads once again at Clemson's Pro Day on Thursday. Though he did not run or lift, Beasley showed the record 72 team reps that he can also play linebacker, too. Beasley did not look out of place doing linebacker drills with two more established Tigers -- Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
Though he starred at defensive end at Clemson, Beasley projects as an outside linebacker on the next level because of his size and pass rush ability.
Beasley told reporters afterward, "I came out here with the right mind set and I wanted to show these teams that I can play in space and drop back as a linebacker," Beasley said.
There was an all-star group in attendance to watch Beasley and his former teammates. New England coach Bill Belichick, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and Buffalo coach Rex Ryan were all there. All 32 NFL teams were represented.
latest mock draft, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Beasley going No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons. Kiper writes:
Beasley isn't just an athletic freak because he's been a one-man production line at Clemson, with 44.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He can flat out create disruption and get to the quarterback, and that's exactly what Atlanta needs.
Beasley is one of nine ACC players Kiper has in the first round:
1. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
8. Beasley, Atlanta
14. DeVante Parker, Miami
19. Ereck Flowers, Cleveland
21. Eli Harold, Cincinnati
23. Eddie Goldman, Detroit
27. Kevin Johnson, Dallas
28. Cameron Erving, Denver
29. T.J. Clemmings, Indianapolis
Elsewhere around the ACC:
- Clemson's defense doesn't want to take a backseat to anybody.
- Former Duke standout Laken Tomlinson wants to be a neurosurgeon when his playing career is over.
- A murder allegation has divided a town and sidelined the career of Brian Bell, who had his scholarship from Florida State pulled before signing day.
- Florida State running back Ryan Green is moving to cornerback.
- New York Times reporter Juliet Macur details the devastating story of former North Carolina offensive lineman Ryan Hoffman, now homeless. He blames too many hits to the head during his football career.
- Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigham is looking forward to his chance at redemption, after he says he wasted his junior year.
- Virginia will convert backup quarterback Brendan Marshall to tight end.
- Good news for Virginia Tech: Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson had their medical hardship waivers approved.
- Bonus link! I am very disappointed to live in Orlando right now.