NCF Nation: Florida State Seminoles

BRADENTON, Fla. -- There were several ESPN Junior 300 members on hand at the IMG7v7 Southeast Regional Championship this weekend on the campus of IMG Academy. The event was headlined by prospects such as quarterbacks Dwayne Haskins and Jack Allison, wide receivers Sam Bruce, Trevon Diggs, Demetris Robertson, Eli Stove and Dionte Mullins, and defensive backs Jamel Cook, K.J. Sails and Tyreke Johnson. Bruce was one of several Miami commits in attendance and has been committed to the Hurricanes since last July. The 5-foot-8, 178-pound playmaker from Fort Lauderdale (Florida) St. Thomas Aquinas said his commitment to the Canes isn’t very solid. "I’m 60 percent committed right now,” Bruce said. "The other schools are kind of splitting up the remaining 40 percent. The big thing for me is that I want to major in communications and sports broadcasting so that's a really big thing for me with colleges.” The other schools Bruce is referring to, Florida and Florida State, are slated to get visits from the talented pass-catcher in the near future. "I’m definitely going to Florida State, Florida and Miami. I don’t know exact dates, but I know I’m going to Florida’s spring game,” he said. Trevon Diggs gets advice from older brother As Diggs' older brother and former Maryland standout, Stefon Diggs, prepares for the NFL draft, the younger Diggs has been taking his time with the recruiting process but plans to start to narrow things down in the near future. “I don’t have any leaders yet, but I plan on going back soon, though,” he said. "I plan on coming out with a list soon. Like maybe a top 10. I’ve only been to Florida, Maryland and Penn State really, but I’m planning to get to LSU, Auburn, FSU, Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Georgia over the summer.” Despite his brother’s success at Maryland, Diggs said his older brother hasn’t tried to push him to be a Terrapin. "He doesn’t really care if I go to Maryland or not really,” he said. "He just tells me to go wherever I feel like I want to play and wherever I feel like I will prosper and make it to the NFL, that’s where I should go.” Alabama offer a game-changer for Stove? The 63rd-ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, Eli Stove, had every offer he desired except one, and that offer came Friday. “Since they were my favorite team since I was a little baby, the offer from Alabama is a special thing for me,” Stove said. “My dad is a big Alabama fan and my mom is an Auburn fan so it’s 50-50 in my house. I’m looking forward to visiting Alabama and meeting up with the coaches.” While the Crimson Tide have officially entered the race for the electric playmaker, it’s the rival of Alabama that remains in the lead. “Auburn, Florida and Georgia are my top three,” Stove said. "I would say Auburn is my top school. Every time I go there, it’s just a good environment. I feel comfortable and could talk to the coaches for hours.” FSU commit Cook will make official visits Chalk up the recruitment of Florida State commitment Jamel Cook as one to keep an eye on. The 6-foot-5, 188-pound safety has said in the past that he intends to make visits, and reiterated that Saturday. “Alabama, West Virginia, Clemson and Miami are coming after me,” Cook said. “I’m going to take all my official visits. Alabama, Florida State, West Virginia, Miami and Louisville are schools I think I’ll officially visit.” Alabama and Miami appear to be the main competition for the Seminoles. The next big thing in Miami? In a tournament featuring a number of top junior and sophomore prospects from the region, it’s a junior high player who may be the one to watch long term. Eighth-grader and brother of Florida State freshman running back Dalvin Cook, James Cook, is considered the top incoming freshman in the Miami area and is slated to attend Miami Central High next year. The 5-9, 180-pound running back was offered by LSU in the seventh grade during an in home visit by the Tigers' staff. LSU, however, will face a true uphill battle when it’s time for Cook to get serious about recruiting. He grew up a big fan of Miami, and of course the Seminoles will be the program the Hurricanes will be locking horns with. News and notes: -- ESPN Junior 300 No. 27 and South Carolina verbal Brandon McIlwain took the field in Bradenton Saturday following an unofficial visit to Columbia the day before. The visit was not only a chance to spend more time with the Gamecocks' football staff for the budding two-sport star, but also the chance to speak with South Carolina head baseball coach Chad Holbrook. Holbrook welcomed McIlwain to the baseball program with open arms, as long as he has the time to do both sports to the best of his ability. McIlwain is 100 percent with his commitment to South Carolina. -- Look for Miami quarterback commit Jack Allison to be a targeted quarterback by regional schools this spring and early next season. As of today, the 6-6, 195-pound smooth passer with arm power remains 100 percent committed to the Hurricanes and says he has no plans to visit other schools.
NEW ORLEANS -- At 6-foot-7 and 314 pounds, Alabama defensive tackle commitment Raekwon Davis towered over the competition at Saturday's Opening Regional at Joe Brown Park in New Orleans. He also loomed large over his peers with his play. Davis, who is from Meridian (Mississippi) High School and ranks as the nation's No. 243 player, earned an invitation to The Opening finals, which will be held from July 5-10 at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Davis took a little while to get going during drills, but by the time the one-on-ones arrived, he performed admirably, winning repetitions at defensive tackle, defensive end and even offensive tackle.

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NEW ORLEANS -- Many said the absolutely loaded 2014 recruiting class in Louisiana would never be matched. Somebody forgot to tell that to the players in 2016 class. The Bayou State is again stacked, and many of those national recruits will be on display at Saturday’s Nike Opening regional at Joe Brown Park. More than 20 players ranked in the ESPN Junior 300 will be in attendance, including nine of the top 20 players in Louisiana.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When an all-time program great leaves a school, his presence is felt far longer than the last time he played.

This spring at Florida State, it’s not just Jameis Winston’s name being consistently thrown into that conversation. Former receiver Rashad Greene is talked about at length despite leaving almost three months ago, and he’s spoken about in a manner that can be described as nothing short of reverential.

After four seasons starring at Florida State, finishing as the program’s most prolific receiver, Greene is pursuing an NFL career. His absence leaves a gaping hole at receiver in both leadership and production, but his successors said they’re using the lessons Greene passed along to make up for his departure.

[+] EnlargeTravis Rudolph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTravis Rudolph caught 38 passes as a freshman -- the same number as Rashad Greene three years earlier.

“We’re going to take what he told us and do what we have to do,” junior receiver Jesus Wilson said.

Wilson is the most experienced receiver on the roster. He’s started seven games; Greene started 43.

The Seminoles will rely on a group of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Wilson and Kermit Whitfield are the only juniors at the position, which is why Wilson acknowledged it is his time to take on a bigger role. The 5-foot-9, 181-pound receiver registered 42 catches as a sophomore. He caught only three passes as a freshman.

While Florida State lacks experience and a proven commodity at receiver with Greene graduating and Kelvin Benjamin bolting for the NFL following the 2013 national championship, the current group of Florida State receivers has the talent to potentially make up for it.

Redshirt sophomore Isaiah Jones, who was academically ineligible last season, was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class. Whitfield also was a highly-ranked recruit in that 2013 class. Sophomore Ermon Lane was the No. 2 receiver in the 2014 class, and Travis Rudolph was not far behind at No. 6. Two 2015 receivers are already enrolled and participating in in spring practices: top-rated athlete George Campbell and sixth-ranked receiver Da’Vante Phillips.

“Just working on our craft and that goes into learning the playbook,” said Rudolph, about the key to turning the promise into on-field production. “What can stop a guy from his highest potential is not learning the playbook.”

Rudolph said he doesn’t assume he will be the No. 1 receiver in the fall, but that it is what he’s working toward -- and he expects his teammates to be doing the same. Rudolph arrived in Tallahassee as one of the more polished high school players, so the expectation was for the 6-foot-2, 187-pound South Florida native to play early. After failing to record a catch in the season’s first three games, Rudolph finished the season with 555 yards. He capped his freshman campaign with six receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl.

“It went well, but not as well,” Rudolph said. “But I just got my feet wet and now I know how the system is and adjusted. … Now I’m at the point where everything is natural.”

Last season, Rudolph started six games and worked his way to becoming Winston’s No. 2 threat on the outside. Sean Maguire, the odds-on favorite to be the starting quarterback, worked with Rudolph with the second-string offense to start last fall and he said the difference between Rudolph then and now is “night and day.”

Then Maguire brought up the name from the past, inciting the hype and trying his best to curb it within the same breath.

“I’m not comparing anyone, but I slowly see him going toward Rashad, that route,” Maguire said. “... I was here when Rashad was a sophomore and this is going to be Travis’ sophomore year. They’re both great players, explosive, got that fifth gear to go get the ball and Travis is becoming a leader pretty much every day out there, too.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is not inviting the comparisons, but he isn’t squashing them, either. He said he will wait and see whether Rudolph is the next Greene.

For what it’s worth, Greene had 38 catches as a freshman -- the same as Rudolph. Greene used that season to springboard to 232 more.

“There’s nothing that says he won’t [be like Greene],” Fisher said, “but until someone does that, I’m not going to say they’re going to do that, you know what I mean?”

Dominating Florida is always critical for Florida State, but another secret to the Seminoles' success is doing well in Virginia, and highly-coveted corner Levonta Taylor could be the Noles' next big get from the state.

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BUFORD, Ga. - Despite the cold and rainy weather conditions, more than 400 prospects from all over the Southeast made the trip to Buford High School for the Nike The Opening Regional Camp on Sunday.
[+] EnlargeMalik Henry
Miller Safrit/ESPNFlorida State quarterback pledge Malik Henry was among the prospects earning invitations to The Opening.
With less than ideal conditions for throwing the ball, several quarterbacks and wide receivers -- including Malik Henry, David Moore, Josh Imatorbhebehe, Freddie Swain, Tre Nixon and several other players -- had standout performances at the camp. Swain, the No. 214 prospect in the ESPN Junior 300, was one of the most impressive receivers and took home the wide receiver MVP as well as an invitation to The Opening. The 6-foot, 170-pound athlete from Citra (Florida) North Marion High School took advantage of his trip to Atlanta by visiting the University of Georgia on Saturday before attending the Nike camp. The visit turned out to be a success for the talented receiver. “I just got offered by Georgia yesterday on my visit,” Swain said. "It was a lot of fun and I got to meet with coach Richt. He just said to keep working hard and he’ll see me in the spring.”

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher walked into his opening news conference with far fewer microphones and notepads staring back. That’s because of the number of new faces glaring back at the sixth-year coach in his own football meetings.

At this meeting with reporters -- almost exclusively of the local variety -- on the first day of spring camp, there was no talk of complacency or repeats or dynasties. There were hardly any questions about that former polarizing quarterback (of course there would be some). Instead, the afternoon session’s buzzwords were rooted in education: coach, patience, teach.

There is an obvious contrast in the Florida panhandle this spring. The Seminoles will have lost more than 30 players to the NFL draft over the past three years -- chief among them Jameis Winston. The Seminoles had a 29-game winning streak -- chief reason for it being Winston -- snapped in last season's finale.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesWith high-profile departures and a young roster, expectations for Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles are more modest this year than last.

So, Florida State, we’ll take that black hat from you while you exit stage left into relative (and welcomed) obscurity for the time being. The 2015 college football spring prospectus is focused on Alabama, TCU and USC. The only quarterback we’re interested in right now is the one in Columbus, Ohio -- whichever one the Buckeyes choose (or maybe don’t choose).

“I guess I’ve been in [coaching] long enough to have been on both ends of it,” Fisher said of the preseason hype, which besieged FSU last spring. “They’re relatively similar from a coaching standpoint in that you’ve still got to go develop your team. I know y’all don’t look at it that way, but we do.

“… But it does feel different.”

The Seminoles have been freed of the “media hoopla,” as Fisher referred to it, that embroiled the 2014 season. Though there is the lingering question of whether they can withstand the constant cycling and remain at college football’s summit, most of the outside pressures have been lifted as the early belief is the 2015 Seminoles will step back. (Colleague Mark Schlabach has them No. 15 in his Way-Too-Early Top 25.) The offense is being overhauled and is auditioning for a quarterback. The defense is rallying from the loss of two former five-star linemen and its starting corners. The core of the 2014 team and a dozen of its members are all off to certain NFL futures.

Roberto Aguayo, one of the few draft-eligible players that elected to remain in school, said it feels like a new era has been ushered in around campus.

“We’re forced to have that chip on our shoulder. We had it last year but now it’s more realistic,” he said. “Obviously we don’t have a starting quarterback right now. … Jameis is a one-of-a-kind quarterback and now we don’t have him.”

Florida State is embracing the challenge, which all elite programs go through every few seasons. The better the recruiting, the quicker the roster churns over and the higher the demand placed on young players to make earlier impacts. Although Florida State has recruited better than any program outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that talent is still undergoing the required maturation. Dalvin Cook and Jalen Ramsey present the freshmen exception rather than the rule as most first-year players serve as understudies. With a young roster, Florida State’s staff is tasked with molding it so the newer Seminoles are ready to contribute come September.

“To me, that’s why it’s exciting to watch these new pups develop into football players,” Fisher said. “Sometimes it can be a frustrating thing, but at the same time it’s very fun. You have to remember to keep your patience because you see the talent. … I think we have to continue to make sure we’re dotting I’s and crossing T’s and making sure they know exactly what we want. Because if we do that, I think we have a chance to be another very, very good football team.”

It’s too early to size up the picture of the 2015 season after a single brush, but Fisher was chipper following the Seminoles’ first spring practice. Redshirt junior Sean Maguire started the quarterback competition with a leg up based on his experience, but he took control of his first practice with his voice as much as his arm, said Fisher, notorious for coaching his quarterbacks hard.

“It looked like he wanted that job and was in control of things,” Fisher said. “… I was very pleased with his demeanor and execution and decision-making.”

“… Again, it’s day one.”

In more than one way.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Gone is former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and his two most reliable receivers. Departed are four offensive linemen with more than 160 combined starts. Off to the NFL early are Florida State's two former five-star talents along the defensive line and its starters at cornerback.

So, heading into the 2015 season -- spring practice opens Wednesday for the Seminoles -- what's left in the Florida panhandle?

"We got some talent and some youth," sixth-year coach Jimbo Fisher said, "and I'm anxious to see them grow."

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher will be looking at a lot of new faces on offense this spring.

Talent and youth are in abundance at Florida State, as only Alabama has recruited better than the Seminoles since Fisher took over in 2010. Inexperience is too, though, especially on offense. No player with double-digit career starts will return on that side of the football.

When all of the 2015 class arrives, nearly the entire roster will be comprised of juniors, sophomores and freshmen as a significant chunk of the 2012 signing class is no longer enrolled at Florida State. Elevating through the system are players often ranked among the top 10 at their position in high school, but that prep prestige loses its shine after about a year pacing the sideline as a redshirt or reserve. Now the expectation is to turn promise into production.

Fisher said it's too early to get an accurate read on what this roster is capable of in the fall, having lost the core of a team that won 29 of its last 30 games. So the offseason focus was to develop this young group's intangibles because "you recruit talent," Fisher said.

"When you see them do it right, it's special," he said. "They need to do it more consistently and develop that and their attitude."

The Seminoles still have key pieces to build around. Offensively, sophomore left tackle Roderick Johnson could end up being a four-year starter. The same goes for secondary star Jalen Ramsey, who could be playing his final season in Tallahassee.

The roster was revitalized in January, too, with the addition of eight early enrollees. Among them are five-star signees George Campbell, Derwin James and Josh Sweat (who will miss the spring rehabbing an ACL tear). Five of the Seminoles' top seven signees are already on campus, and Fisher said the group has adjusted well. If previous years are any indication, much of the 2015 class should see the field as freshmen with several asked to play significant roles in the pursuit of a fourth consecutive conference championship.

"I'm very proud of a lot of the true freshmen," he said.

This week marks the beginning of a transition year at Florida State, which is expected at the college level every couple of seasons. Now it just comes after one of the best eras in school history and a lot more eyes on the Seminoles.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Everything is bigger in Texas, especially high school football. That lesson was taught to us once again at Sunday's The Opening regional at Lamar High School.


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Jameis Winston is set to become the No. 1 overall draft pick, but the quarterback group he leaves behind in the ACC does not lack star quality.

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.

[+] EnlargeKaaya
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBrad Kaaya is one of many underclassmen slated to start at quarterback in the ACC.
So it is easy to see why 2015 is setting up nicely to be the Year of the Quarterback in the ACC.

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:

It's never too early to break out the Magic 8-Ball and make some predictions for the spring. We'll see how much egg I have on my face when the season starts!

1. Florida State will not have an answer at quarterback. The last time Florida State had a quarterback competition, the spring ended without an announced decision in the race between Jameis Winston, Clint Trickett and Jacob Coker. Even after Trickett announced his decision to transfer, coach Jimbo Fisher maintained Winston and Coker would go into the fall competing for the starting job -- though it was generally assumed Winston would win it. So why should anything be different this spring, with Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino and De'Andre Johnson? Add freshman Deondre Francois into the mix in the summer and there’s little upside in Fisher making an announcement when spring practice ends in April.

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSean Maguire will try to take the reins in Tallahassee as Florida State's starting quarterback.
2. Same story in Louisville. The Cards go into the spring with an open competition between Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson and Kyle Bolin. That does not even take into consideration Will Gardner, who is rehabbing his third major knee injury. Bonnafon has the experience edge, but Ferguson just sat out the 2014 season because of NCAA transfer rules. Coach Bobby Petrino may want to give him more than 15 spring practices to truly compete and win the starting job. If Gardner is healthy in the fall, perhaps he gets a chance to rejoin the mix as well after starting seven games last season. There is no slam dunk decision here given the ups and downs we saw from Gardner, Bonnafon and Bolin a year ago and the inexperience Ferguson has headed into 2015.

3. The Miami defensive line will be better. The Hurricanes have had no significant pass rush since Al Golden arrived in Miami, but that will change this year. Miami has made big strides toward upgrading its tackle and end positions, and coaches feel good about the depth they have been able to develop because they were able to redshirt players last year for the first time under Golden. Miami is noticeably much bigger up front, which cannot be understated. Coaches are high on guys like Michael Wyche, Ufomba Kamalu, Trent Harris and Chad Thomas. Quan Muhammad is back at rush end and has had a good camp. The expectation is for this group to bump up the sack totals compared to the past several years.

4. Watch for Andrew Brown. The highly touted defensive tackle enrolled early last year at Virginia, but injuries cut his spring and freshman season short. Now, coach Mike London says Brown is in better shape and ready to take on a starting role. If he can make an impact the way Quin Blanding did last year, the Virginia defense should be in good shape.

5. The Clemson defense will remain elite. Despite losing the bulk of their defense, the Tigers should remain one of the best groups in the ACC and a top-10 defense nationally for a few reasons. First, the new players stepping into starting roles have game experience. Guys like Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins have played in big games before. Linebacker Ben Boulware has terrific upside. And the secondary is on track to be one of the strongest groups in the league behind potential All-American Mackensie Alexander.

6. Don’t be surprised if Marshawn Williams redshirts. The Virginia Tech running back was having an outstanding freshman season before a torn ACL sidelined him in mid-November. He is out for spring, and his status for the start of fall practice remains up in the air. Each player recovers differently from ACL injuries, so there’s no telling how Williams will come back. But if J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds and Joel Caleb can handle the back duties adequately, there’s no sense rushing Williams back.

7. Florida State will win 10 games, but it will be a “down” year. It’s all about perspective. The Seminoles will keep their streak of 10-win seasons going despite breaking in new starters at virtually every position. The schedule is forgiving enough for another double-digit victory total, though. But they won’t be in the national championship conversation. Whether that should be considered a “down” year is up to your interpretation. Wait for 2016 to arrive. Florida State should be back in the hunt then.

8. Georgia Tech will make history in July. For the first time, Georgia Tech will be picked as the preseason Coastal Division champions. The Jackets return enough talent and were impressive enough in 2014 to make believers out of the usually skeptical voters. Since the ACC split into divisions in 2005, Georgia Tech has finished atop the Coastal five times but has never been picked to win. That changes in 2015.

9. No ACC team in the playoff. I’m probably not going out on a limb with this one, but this would mark the first time in three years the league won’t have a chance to compete for a national championship. Florida State will be young, with a new starting quarterback, four new offensive linemen and new starters at tight end, receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle and in the secondary. Clemson and Georgia Tech play tough schedules and have questions of their own to answer. Louisville also is rebuilding on defense and has uncertainty at quarterback, receiver and offensive line.

10. Dabo Swinney joins Twitter! Can Swinney really let Steve Spurrier get the best of him on Twitter? Now that the HBC is all aboard, time for the Clemson head man to join up too. If their verbal jabs are any indication, the potential of their back-and-forth tweets is nothing short of epic.
While Big Ten and other NCAA officials discuss rules limiting eligibility for first-year players in football and men’s basketball, ACC football coaches are nearly unanimous in wanting to move in the opposite direction.

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.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDavid Cutcliffe coaches at a school known for stellar academics, and he doesn't see a need to restrict freshman eligibility.
“My case study is watching young people, and the people who do redshirt that had been stars really struggle with their identity and happiness,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who has 33 years of experience coaching in the SEC and ACC.

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.”

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonNorth Carolina's Larry Fedora and other coaches would certainly want to ease the 85-scholarship limit if freshmen weren't eligible.
Instead, coaches pointed to two distinct areas that could address academic concerns without eliminating eligibility.

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.”
The conference returns a number of experienced and talented quarterbacks, but for two of the ACC's top teams, there is an open competition at the position. Those competitions will define the spring for Florida State and Louisville and could define all of 2015. Those position battles highlight the conference's most intense competitions this spring.

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.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill Gardner passed for 1,669 yards with 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions in eight games for Louisville last season, but missed five games overall, including the final three.
2. Louisville starting quarterback
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.
Games are won in the fall. But the foundations for great plays, and great seasons, are often built behind the scenes in the spring and summer months. With spring ball already underway at a few ACC stops, we're taking a look at some of the players who have plenty to prove on the field in the coming weeks and months.

Sean Maguire. The race to replace Jameis Winston will draw no shortage of attention in Tallahassee. And the man currently at the top of the pecking order, at least experience-wise, is Maguire, a redshirt junior. Starting in place of the suspended Winston in FSU's biggest game of the year, at home in September against Clemson, Maguire had an up-and-down performance: 21-of-39 passing for 304 yards with one touchdown and two picks in an overtime win. Still, that's more than anyone else on the roster can show right now, and it's up to Maguire to fend off highly-touted challengers J.J. Cosentino (redshirt freshman) and De'Andre Johnson (freshman).

[+] EnlargeTallahassee, FL - September 20, 2014 - Doak Campbell Stadium: Sean Maguire (10) of the Florida State University Seminoles during a regular season game (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesStarting in place of a suspended Jameis Winston, Sean Maguire led the Seminoles to an overtime win against Clemson last season.
Stacy Coley. Remember this guy? Let's refresh your memory: As a freshman in 2013, Coley burst onto the scene for Miami, catching 33 passes for 591 yards and seven touchdowns, while also returning a punt and a kickoff for a score. (And rushing for one more, too.) Then he had a sophomore slump in 2014: Just 23 catches for 184 yards, with no scores. A shoulder injury was partly to blame, but the dropoff was still perplexing. If Coley can regain his rookie form and connect with reigning ACC rookie of the year Brad Kaaya, that could certainly open things up for the Hurricanes' offense moving forward.

Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell. Mizzell has been stellar and versatile through two seasons at Virginia, leading all ACC running backs last season with 39 catches. Still, more is expected of a former ballyhooed recruit than 280 rushing yards, which Mizzell totaled last year. And as Mizzell enters his junior year in a crucial season for the Cavalier program, he needs to make the leap from good to great, especially with Kevin Parks now out of the picture.

Jabari Hunt-Days. Hunt-Days missed the 2014 season because of an academic issue, a big setback for a player who had notched seven stops behind the line of scrimmage as a sophomore in 2013 -- after earning several freshman All-America honors the year before. He's a fifth-year senior now, and the defensive lineman could be the big playmaker who brings Georgia Tech's defense up a level in 2015. (His brother, Synjyn Days, certainly set a nice example in 2014 with a strong senior year for the Yellow Jackets.)

Josh Harvey-Clemons. Spots are open for the taking in Louisville's secondary, and few may be in better position to take advantage than Harvey-Clemons, the former ESPN four-star prospect. The safety was dismissed from Georgia last winter following multiple violations of team rules and reunited with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with the Cardinals. Despite missing two games in 2013, Harvey-Clemons led the SEC with three fumble recoveries, adding 5.5 tackles for loss and one pick. The talent is obviously there. Now eligible, Harvey-Clemons must perform for the Cards.

Al-Quadin Muhammad. Now a redshirt sophomore at Miami, Muhammad is back with the Hurrricanes after a semester-long university-issued suspension last fall. The former ESPN four-star prospect said he never contemplated transferring, and coaches and teammates have stuck by the lineman. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has changed his jersey number from No. 98 to No. 8, and he certainly possesses the physical tools necessary to make an impact up front on the Canes' defense, for whom he tallied a pair of sacks as a true freshman when he last took the field, in 2013.

Everett Golson. Golson struggled down the stretch in 2014 for Notre Dame, with all 22 of his turnovers coming in the final nine regular-season games, leading to Malik Zaire starting the Irish's bowl against LSU. Both quarterbacks played in the win, but Golson -- who had begun his college career with a 16-1 as a starter -- will have no shortage of suitors elsewhere if he chooses to leave Notre Dame. In order to do that, though, he must first graduate, something he has said he is on track to accomplish this spring. If Golson wins the job back soon, does that mean he likely stays? If the starting job remains unclear as he gets his diploma, does he take his chances elsewhere? Stay tuned.
Spring football is off and running at several ACC schools, with many more set to kick things off in the coming days and weeks. There is no shortage of storylines throughout the league, but here are the questions that stand out above all else:

1. Does the ACC have an embarrassment of quarterback riches? It's not every day a league can withstand losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the pros (more on FSU later), but the ACC has a ton of talent coming back under center in 2015. Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all return players who started at quarterback in 2014. Thomas Sirk is the frontrunner at Duke, and he saw extended time last year as a change-of-pace quarterback, too. Then there's Clemson and North Carolina, whose talented signal-callers from last fall will miss this spring, giving others a chance to prove themselves and build depth. Which brings us to …

2. What about the No. 2 quarterbacks? Deshaun Watson may be way ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, as Dabo Swinney said Friday, and we all know what the sophomore is capable of when he is healthy. But this spring will see others get a chance at Clemson, as last year's No. 3 signal-caller, Nick Schuessler, leads a trio of quarterbacks that includes early enrollees Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel. At North Carolina, meanwhile, the Tar Heels will have to go through spring drills without starter Marquise Williams, who is sidelined with a hip injury. That means Mitch Trubisky, who split time with Williams in the early part of the 2014 season, will run the first team this spring.

3. How does FSU replace Jameis? More quarterback talk, you say? Why of course! Florida State lost just one game in two years with Jameis Winston as its starter, so replacing him is no easy task. Sean Maguire is back after an uneven performance in his lone start last year, but he will have to battle it out with redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino, a former ESPN four-star prospect, and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson, another four-star prospect.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPat Narduzzi spent the past eight seasons as Michigan State's defensive coordinator.
4. What does Narduzzi bring to Pitt? There is just one new head coach in the ACC this time around. And, once again, he resides in the Steel City. Pat Narduzzi is the fourth different head coach to open a spring in Pittsburgh since 2010, but he walks into a pretty good situation. The Panthers boast junior studs in James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense, and Narduzzi's defensive roots should prove valuable to a Panthers unit that struggled down the stretch last season.

5. How will BC's offensive makeover look? Few coaches have had as much early success at new stops as Steve Addazio has had at Boston College, taking a two-win team from 2012 to consecutive 7-6 seasons. In 2013, he rode Heisman finalist running back Andre Williams to a strong finish. In 2014, he relied on dual-threat transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy. This season Addazio promoted receivers coach Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator after Ryan Day left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he is looking for a more balanced attack. This could be more challenging considering he'll be without a senior signal-caller for the first time.

6. Will early enrollees make an impact? We already mentioned Johnson at FSU, but five-star safety Derwin James could have an easier path to the field, given the Seminoles' openings in the secondary. So, too, could five-star receiver George Campbell. Similar circumstances at North Carolina could allow four-star linebacker Andre Smith to start early, especially on a Tar Heels defense that had a staff makeover and is in need of a massive turnaround from 2014.

7. Can Clemson's defense again be dominant? The Tigers boasted the nation's No. 1 defense last season, but they said goodbye to plenty of talent. Coordinator Brent Venables will have his work cut for him, but bringing back Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Ben Boulware, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse is certainly a good starting point for a team that appears to be the early league frontrunner in 2015.

8. Will Louisville keep it going defensively? The Cardinals' defense was one of the bigger surprise of 2014, Bobby Petrino's first year back with the program. But all of those playmakers came from the past regime, and Petrino will be counting on transfers with troubled pasts to pitch in this year: former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, former Georgia corner Shaq Wiggins and former TCU linebacker Devonte Fields.

9. Can Miami take advantage of the talent at its disposal? Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Stacy Coley give the Hurricanes a great starting point this spring. But Miami likely has to figure out its retooling offensive line in order to take advantage of its weapons. Questions on how this team went 6-7 last year continue to mount, and now will be as good of a time as any for the Canes to get things going and change the conversation.

10. Will Notre Dame get a quarterback answer? The Irish's inaugural year of quasi-ACC membership helped bring us arguably the game of the year, at Florida State. This year the Irish, who return 19 starters, will face six ACC teams, including contests against potential division frontrunners Clemson and Georgia Tech. But who is directing the offense under center will likely be determined this spring, as Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will battle it out after splitting reps in Notre Dame's bowl win over LSU. There is also always the chance that Golson, who said he graduates this spring, could transfer and play his fifth season elsewhere this fall.

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