ACC: Brandon tate
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
As if doubling the win total from four to eight wasn't difficult enough, UNC coach Butch Davis has to now find a way to take the next step, and conquer a nine- or 10-win season.
Considering the Tar Heels return more starters (16) than they've lost (8), it's not an unreasonable goal, but UNC must keep pace in the Coastal with the quick improvement of both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. One thing this year's group has going in its favor is the intangible taste of near victory. Now they know what it feels like to lose a bowl game 31-30, and to Maryland 17-15, to Virginia 16-13 in overtime, and to Virginia Tech 20-17. If UNC keeps it together for four quarters this fall -- and stays healthy -- the results will be different.
T.J. Yates is an experienced quarterback, and the defense will be loaded. Davis hired three new assistant coaches, but the coordinators remain the same, and it's already been a seamless transition. There's really no reason why UNC shouldn't start the season 3-0 and have some momentum heading into a critical Coastal Division game at Georgia Tech. And three straight October home games will help build some confidence before a daunting road trip to Blacksburg. No doubt it's a favorable schedule, but there are plenty of issues that still need to be addressed.
1. Who is going to catch the ball? Not even Davis knows the answer to this one, and he might not find out until a few games into the season. Carolina lost six receivers from a year ago, including NFL draft picks Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster. In all, UNC lost players who accounted for 17 of 21 receiving touchdowns last year. There are high hopes for freshman Joshua Adams, who enrolled in January and has drawn praise from his teammates and coaches. Greg Little is the most experienced of the group, but it's wide open.
2. How quickly can the new-look offensive line come together? UNC has to replace three-year starters Garrett Reynolds, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, and Calvin Darity. Three-year starting left tackle Kyle Jolly is an all-conference candidate, and Lowell Dyer returns at center, but the other three positions are unsettled. If UNC's running game is going to improve -- and there is definitely room for improvement -- it's got to start up front.
3. Can Da'Norris Searcy replace Trimane Goddard at safety? It's practically the lone question for this defense, and the answer is yes. Goddard led the nation with seven interceptions last year, and he will be missed, but Searcy showed what he is capable of in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, when he made 10 of his 25 tackles. He was also used as a sixth defensive back against Notre Dame and had an important pass breakup on the Irish's final offensive possession. After spending most of the season on special teams and as a reserve safety, much more will be expected of him in '09.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Special teams are critical, especially in Blacksburg, and it's one of the Hokies' few weaknesses this year. They're in need of a kicker for the third time in three seasons, but Virginia Tech is hardly the only team in the ACC with big holes to fill. Here's how the ACC's special teams units ranked:
1. Miami -- Matt Bosher has already gotten plenty of ink in the blogosphere, but he's only one reason the Canes are No. 1 here. Bosher converted 18 of 20 field goal attempts and averaged 40.3 yards per punt. It's possible Jake Wieclaw could give Bosher some relief on kickoffs. If Travis Benjamin stays healthy, the return game will be in great shape. Benjamin led the team and the ACC in punt return yardage (173) and was ninth in the ACC in kick return yardage (477). Thearon Collier is also another return threat.
2. NC State -- The combination of kicker Josh Czajkowski and speedy return specialist T.J. Graham make the Wolfpack one of the best in the ACC. If they find a punter this summer, the unit will be complete. In his first season as starter, Czajkowski made 84.2 percent of his field goals (16 of 19), and he made 33 of 34 PATs to finish with 81 points and seventh place in the ACC in scoring. Graham's 1,028 yards in kickoff returns set the school record for a single season and already ranks fifth on the Wolfpack career list. They have to replace punter Bradley Pierson, though. Jeff Ruiz and Carl Ojala are both options.
3. Maryland -- The Terps have to replace kicker Obi Egekeze, but they've still got the ACC's top punter in Travis Baltz. He pinned Maryland opponents inside their own 20-yard line 24 times last year. Wide receiver Torrey Smith had a record-setting season as a kickoff returner, as he set the ACC single-season record for kickoff return yards with 1,089. There are high expectations for Nick Ferrara, who will be a true freshman, to replace Egekeze, but the job is wide open.
4. Virginia Tech -- Not only did the Hokies lose placekicker Dustin Keys, but they also lost punt returner Victor "Macho" Harris. The good news is that punter Brent Bowden returns, as does kickoff man Justin Myer, and snapper Collin Carroll. Matt Waldron and Myer enter summer camp as the favorites for the placekicking and kickoff duties, respectively. Incoming freshman Cody Journell might give them both a run for their money, though. Ryan Williams came out of spring practice as the starting punt returner, but Dyrell Roberts and Danny Coale are also options.
5. Clemson -- The Tigers have to replace veteran starters Mark Buchholz and Jimmy Manners at the two kicking positions. Spencer Benton, a redshirt freshman, is the frontrunner to take over the placekicking duties, but he'll get some competition from Richard Jackson. Dawson Zimmerman, who started two games and punted in three last year, should be the starting punter. Zimmerman averaged 38.5 yards for his 12 punts last season. The return game is in good hands -- C.J. Spiller's. Jacoby Ford is also experienced as a return man, and has a punt return and a kickoff return of more than 90 yards for scores.
6. Georgia Tech -- This is the area where coach Paul Johnson wants to see the most improvement, and with good reason: The Yellow Jackets ranked 11th in the ACC in net punting, 10th in kickoff returns and ninth in punt returns last year. Junior Scott Blair did a respectable job last year, as he was the first Yellow Jacket to handle both kicking and punting duties in 25 years. He'll get some competition, though, at one or both positions from sophomore Chandler Anderson, the holder last season. Anderson, who missed spring practice after a bout with appendicitis, punted six times in '08 for an average of 41.7.
7. Boston College -- Steve Aponavicius returns for his senior year. He went 14-for-21 on field goals last season. Newcomer Nate Freese, who kicked a school-record 52-yard field goal in Ohio, will challenge Aponavicius. Ryan Quigley and Billy Flutie both return to their punting duties. Quigley serves as the main punter and averaged 39.6 yards per kick with nine pinned inside the 20-yard-line. Flutie was used in short situations and pinned opponents inside the 20 seven times. Unheralded veteran long-snapper Jack Geiser also returns.
8. Duke -- The Blue Devils return placekicker Nick Maggio and punter Kevin Jones. Jones punted 71 times last fall and 27 of those kicks pinned Duke's opponents inside their own 20-yard line, the most by any punter. He finished second in the ACC in punting, with 40.8 yards per kick as a sophomore. Maggio made 11 of 14 field goal attempts.
9. North Carolina -- This might be the Tar Heels' biggest concern, as they have to replace punter Terrence Brown, and placekicker Jay Wooten decided to transfer. Connor Barth was UNC's primary field goal kicker in 2008 and Wooten was used as the kickoff man. Reid Phillips is a walk-on who is now in the mix, and walk-on Grant Shallock, who handled the punting duties this spring, is another option. The staff is eager for the arrival of prized recruit C.J. Feagles. Another concern is the return game, which survived without Brandon Tate last year with the help of walk-on Trase Jones. He finished the season with five returns for 36 yards.
10. Florida State -- The Noles took a huge hit here with the graduation of Lou Groza Award winner Graham Gano. The good news? FSU returns its long-snapper, Zack Aronson, and holder, Shawn Powell. James Esco and Nathan O'Jibway handled the kicking duties this spring, but neither have attempted a field goal in a game during their careers. There are high hopes for freshman Dustin Hopkins. Powell, who started the first seven games of 2008 as punter, will replace Gano there.
11. Wake Forest -- Veteran Sam Swank only started seven games last year before being injured, and that allowed Shane Popham to get his feet wet. Popham said he's much more confident heading into this season and gained valuable experience last year. He could handle both duties a
gain like he did last year. Popham made 7 of 12 field goal attempts and averaged 39.2 yards on 54 punts, pinning opponents inside the 20 on 19 occasions.
12. Virginia -- After three season as head coach at Kansas State, Ron Prince returns to Charlottesville to coach special teams, and it won't be an easy gig. Senior Yannick Reyering's injury-marred career is over, so sophomore Chris Hinkebein, who handled the kickoff duties for five games while Reyering was slowed with an injury, is expected to contend for some of the placekicking responsibilities. Robert Randolph shared some time with Reyering last year and made 3 of 4 attempts. Junior Danny Aiken is a proven long-snapper, and sophomore Jimmy Howell was one of five true freshmen to see time last year. He averaged 39.0 yards on 64 punts.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
I think I might be underestimating North Carolina. Butch Davis has a good football team that's hungry to win, and it learned from last year's mistakes and realized a good season could have been a great season. Here's the thing, though: Everyone else in the Coastal Division is getting better, too, and it's a tough step to go from eight wins to 10. Davis has a methodical approach to what he's doing, though, and the staff and players have bought into it. Offensive coordinator John Shoop was nice enough to give me some time on Tuesday and go over the Tar Heels' offense a bit. Shoop, also the quarterbacks coach, is a good guy and a smart coach who can get pretty animated at practices. It was a pretty long interview, so I'll post it in two parts.
Where did you think the offense made the most progress this spring?
John Shoop: I think that we continued to get better at situation football. From the first to the second year we really made an emphasis on getting better at third downs. We went from one of the worst in the country to in the top third. We tried to really get better at red zone football. The one situation we didn't get as good as we needed to was the two-minute, so we worked really hard on the two-minute offense this spring as well. With T.J.'s [T.J. Yates] experience, we're continuing to get better at situation football.
Those aren't the only situations -- second-and-long, cutting it in half, playing from the middle of the field, playing from the fringe, playing backed up. The analogy I make is it's like a golf course: There are guys who can hit the ball well, but then they go out and shoot a 90. Part of it deals with scoring. The guys in our offense, with more maturity we understand what it takes to score well. We were second in the ACC in scoring last year, but I think we can even be better. These guys feel like they left a lot out there, and we don't want to waste those opportunities.
That's gotta be a huge difference. I think I read where Butch said in the News & Observer that you can talk to them as much as you want, but until they get out there and learn it for themselves, it's a totally different ballgame.
JS: Right. Butch has always said we're drawing on experiences we've had together. Often times it seemed like the first two years it was like, 'When I was at Chicago, or, when I was at Carolina, this was what happened.' Now it's like, 'Hey do you remember that Maryland game? We've got to get that ball up-and-down when we're on the fringe.' That's really helped our guys to grow.
You mentioned T.J. How much of a concern is his durability?
JS: Endurance and durability, I tell our team all the time are the two most underrated qualities in a football player. You can't practice if you don't have endurance and durability, and you can't get better if you don't practice. T.J. is a tough son of a gun. He played the bulk of his freshman year, a bit of it with an injured shoulder and really stuck it out. Last year he broke his foot. You break your foot, you break your foot. The thing we love about T.J. is he came back from that and finished up strong in two games. Like all of us, you're greatest strength is your greatest weakness. When he injured his thumb, we were at a team function.
We had different stations where our team for summer conditioning had been broken up into different teams, and he was competing like heck. A piano player probably isn't going to go out and play volleyball or Frisbee golf worrying about his fingers. T.J., if you put him in a situation where you're keeping score, he's going to compete. I was there, coach Davis was there, it wasn't a situation where he was just out horsing around.
He's fine, he's throwing now, everything is great. People ask me about his durability, and I think every player has to have endurance and durability. It's an underrated quality. I talked to him about it a lot, but I also talk to our wideouts, our o-line, and our tailbacks. Is it a concern? Yeah, because it is for everybody.
Speaking of the wideouts, how long realistically do you think it's going to take before those guys aren't thinking as much as they're just playing?
JS: I hope not long. We're a concept driven team. Our formations may change, but our concepts are always the same. Dwight Jones, Joshua Adams, Todd Harrelson, Greg Little, Johnny White -- these guys understand the concepts. They can go out there on their own right now and practice the individual routes that make up the concept and they get it. I think really what they need to do is adjust, keep working with our quarterbacks.
The big part about playing wide receiver -- we'll get them running the right routes, that won't be the problem -- they need to develop a rapport with the guy throwing the ball. That's what Hakeem did so well, sometimes to a fault. Like I said, you're greatest strength is your greatest weakness. Well, Hakeem [Nicks] would get in the quarterback's ear -- 'I need the ball, I need the ball.' Well, you're covered and the other three guys are wide open. There's a fine line.
I think that these guys right now are all working their tails off to develop a rapport with the quarterbacks. That's more important to me, because you know, sometimes you have to throw to a guy and he's not really open. But you have to trust: Either he's going to come down with it, or the ball is going to be left on the ground. That's what Hakeem and Brandon [Tate] did for our quarterbacks, is, 'Don't worry, if I'm right with the guy, don't worry, I've got you.'
Jamal Womble looks like he's going to be a good third guy for you. Is he a player fans should keep an eye on? He's kind of a fireplug.
JS: I imagine that's a little bit what Natrone Means looked like in college. He's built low to the ground, and is a tough guy to tackle. The thing you always worry about that when guys are hard to tackle, is you worry about ball security. He's working his tail off on that. He takes a lot of hits because he doesn't go down so easy. If he can take care of the ball security and keep working his tail off this summer -- he could still shape his body a little bit. He knows that. Yeah, we're certainly encouraged by Jamal Womble. He's a tough guy to tackle.
Who are some other players who are newcomers Carolina fans might get to know a little better this fall?
JS: I think we had some good springs from some guys who may not show up in the box score. Mike Ingersoll at one of the tackle positions has really made some strides. He's up over 3.5 GPA-wise as well. You invest feelings in guys like that, who do everything right and work their tails off. He's a first-in, last-to-leave guy. He really sets a high standard for those guys. I think he's really going to compete for playing time at the tackle spot.
Another guy who is in the same category of you love him, you root for him, is Ed Barham at the tight end spot. All of our tight ends really were excited when they saw Rich [Quinn] go in the second round. That can serve as a real motivational tool. The way those guys practiced, and
Ed's got a chance to really help us. He may not always show up in the box score, but he's a strong blocker. He and Zack Pianalto are working their tails off to again develop a rapport with the quarterback. Those tight ends, they're not always wide open. You've just gotta stay between the defender and the ball.
Stay tuned for Part II.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
North Carolina junior Greg Little has been moved back and forth between running back and wide receiver during his career in Chapel Hill.
This spring, there was little choice.
Considering Carolina lost players who accounted for 17 of its 21 receiving touchdowns last year, Little took on a role of leadership this spring among the inexperienced wide receivers. Little, who moved from running back to receiver midway through last year, had just 11 catches in 2008. More is obviously expected of him this season, as he should be one of the starters this fall.
"I feel like it was a void we had to fill with Hakeem [Nicks] leaving and Brandon [Tate] and Brooks [Foster] graduating," Little said. "I feel like we had to come find some guys who could make plays like they did and I feel like we accomplished that. Just guys working hard and guys competing and me pushing the guys to not have as many mental mistakes, and if you're making mental mistakes, you're still making the play on the ball and finishing downfield.
"You have to practice what you preach," he said. "If I'm telling the guys to catch every ball, then I can't drop anything. I have to be more conscious of my actions and finish downfield and get to practice early and get extra catches in and meet with the quarterbacks on my off time -- anything to help better our receivers."
Little moved back to wide receiver prior to the Virginia game last year following the knee injury to Brandon Tate. He finished the season with 11 catches for 146 yards, including two receptions for 36 yards against West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. As a tailback, Little rushed for 339 yards and three touchdowns on 78 carries.
Little said he was more comfortable in the offense now that he's been moved back to his natural position.
"It's just that I've been all over the offensive skills positions," he said. "... I feel I can dominate that position (receiver) with size and speed and strength.
"Entering the third season I know what the offensive guard should be doing, even though I'm playing receiver," he said. "I know what the fullback should be doing. I have a full understanding of where everybody should be and how much time I need to get there."
The Tar Heels recently wrapped up spring practice, and several of the young receivers started to establish themselves. Dwight Jones caught a 46-yard pass from T.J. Yates and took it to the 1-yard line in the spring game. Freshman Joshua Adams, who enrolled in January, started with the second-team offense and caught three passes for 20 yards.
"He did some things I thought said that he could come in and play right away as a freshman," Little said. "You can get him the ball if need be."
Little said Rashad Mason also had a good spring.
"He always had the potential," Little said. "I knew once he finally sat down and studied his playbook, I knew he'd emerge and give us some quality minutes and plays."
Overall, Little said the group made significant strides they can build on in summer camp.
"I feel like the production we had during the spring was real good," he said. "I feel like if we come out and just work hard this summer, that we'll be able to be just as competitive as the receivers in the past were."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Coaches often emphasize it, but the casual football fan often underestimates it -- the importance of special teams. It was a phase of the game Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson agonized over last season and resolved to fix, starting this spring. It was also a priority of UNC coach Butch Davis this spring.
Considering the numerous specialists who have graduated, it's an area of concern for several teams across the conference this spring. The biggest names gone from a year ago are: FSU's Graham Gano and Michael Ray Garvin, UNC's Brandon Tate, Wake's Sam Swank, and Virginia Tech's Dustin Keys.
Here's a quick breakdown of the top specialists returning from a year ago:
Matt Bosher, Miami -- He is a frontrunner for this year's Lou Groza Award, as Bosher is the leading returning placekicker in the nation in field goal percentage. He made 18 of his 20 attempts last year and was a semifinalist for the award.
Josh Czajkowski, NC State -- He made 16 of 19 field goals last year (84.2 percent), his longest being 42 yards.
Travis Baltz, Maryland -- He led the ACC with a 41.1 yard average and had 24 land inside the 20-yard line with 18 result in a fair catch. Baltz ranked 43rd in the NCAA.
Bosher -- His double duty included a 40.3 yard average with 19 inside the 20, and he led the ACC with 24 that resulted in a fair catch.
Brent Bowden, Virginia Tech -- His longest was 57 yards, and he averaged 40.4 yards per punt. He'll be a senior this year.
Kevin Jones, Duke -- In his second season as a starter, Jones led all ACC punters in pinning opponents deep inside their own territory. At least 27 of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, and he ranked second in the conference in punting with a 40.8 average. Duke allowed only 5.7 yards per punt.
Torrey Smith, Maryland -- Smith set an ACC single-season record last year for kickoff return yardage, with 41 returns for a total of 1,089 yards. He broke the record during Maryland's bowl game when he returned one 99 yards for a touchdown against Nevada in the Humanitarian Bowl.
Travis Benjamin, Miami -- He was an exciting player to watch and led the ACC in punt returns with 11.3 yards per return. His longest was an ACC-best 44 yards. He averaged 22.5 yards on kickoff returns.
Bruce Carter, UNC -- The Tar Heels' third-leading returning tackler made a name for himself last year when he blocked an ACC-record four consecutive punts. The first three came against then-ranked No. 25 Connecticut and the fourth came against Miami.
T.J. Graham, NC State -- He came close to setting an ACC record in kickoff return yardage, as his 974 yards on 41 returns was the third-best single-season total in ACC history. He also ran one back 100 yards for a touchdown.
Dyrell Roberts, Virginia Tech -- He finished fifth in the ACC in kickoff returns as a freshman, with an average of 24.8 yards.
C.J. Spiller, Clemson -- He racked up an ACC-high 1,170 all-purpose yards, helping the Tigers on both punt and kickoff returns.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A few quick notes from the makeshift UNC football offices this morning and my visit with coach Butch Davis ...
First, the stadium and the football offices are in the midst of the first phase of renovations. The offensive staff meeting was going on just to the right of the elevator on the fourth floor. It's an addition and a renovation of the existing facility. They're adding a fifth floor and the coaches' offices and meeting rooms on the fourth floor are being renovated. More office space is also being created for a lot of the football support staff.
After spring practices are over, they'll start renovating the first and second floor. (The offensive linemen were a bit cramped.) The facilities are about 12 years old. Davis said some of it is cosmetic -- new carpets, drapes, wallpaper, etc. He said he hopes it's completed by the start of summer camp. Phase two is on hold for a year.
Davis said spring practices have been going well, and things are much easier now that he's entering his third season.
"The first spring was get to know the players, find out who can play where, what you inherit, how much talent is there," Davis said. "Spring two was, there was some position competition, still some holes that needed to be filled and you had to wait until the incoming freshmen got there to say, 'Gosh, I hope this guy can come in and play here.'
"Now, after going to spring three, the same is true -- there's really good position competition, but now a lot of the potential candidates to do the rebuilding are here. ... I don't have to totally rely on some freshmen coming in in August. ... We think we can solve a lot of the problems in-house with the players that are already here."
Davis said he moved Greg Elleby, who has spent the majority of his career as a backup defensive tackle, to offensive guard.
"He's made just an unbelievable transition in a short, four or five practices," Davis said. "He's done a very good job. He's hungry and eager to play and so that's kind of helped us create a little bit of in-house depth."
Davis said the four major objectives they're spending significant time on this spring are:
• Replace the whole receiving corps
• Replace the right side of the offensive line
• Replace Trimane Goddard and Mark Paschal on defense
• On special teams, replace Brandon Tate, who did all of the punt and kickoff returns, and Terrence Brown, the punter.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Miami is on spring break, so you'd think the Canes wouldn't be in the news -- think again.
Miami and Notre Dame are flirting with the idea of playing each other again. Ah, the good old days of "Catholics vs. convicts." Hey, I didn't make it up.
UNC receiver Brandon Tate said he still expects to be drafted, despite the fact he's still rehabilitating his knee and couldn't work out for scouts on Tuesday.
The whole FSU/NCAA sanctions story has been written to death, but it's hard to ignore when the university president accidentally calls Samford a "dip____" school. Whoops. Apparently T.K. Wetherell got a little "wound up."
The injury to backup quarterback E.J. Manuel leaves Christian Ponder the only scholarship quarterback on FSU's roster this spring.
Here are a few questions facing the ACC this spring, and a few answers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
They're young. They're inexperienced. They're ... green.
In keeping with our St. Patrick's Day theme, here's a look at the "greenest" units on each team in the ACC:
BOSTON COLLEGE -- If Dominique Davis wins the starting quarterback job, he's got a whopping three full games of starting experience to fall back on, and that's three more games than Justin Tuggle, who is also competing for the job.
CLEMSON -- The Tigers will be youngest at quarterback, where either sophomore Willy Korn or redshirt freshman Kyle Parker will inherit the offense.
DUKE -- The Blue Devils have to replace three starters on their offensive line and returning sophomore Kyle Hill moved from guard to tackle.
GEORGIA TECH -- Having lost three of four starters on the defensive line, it's easily one of the greenest groups in the whole conference.
MARYLAND -- Maryland lost five starters from its defensive front seven, but defensive tackles Travis Ivey and Dion Armstrong ended the year as starters and linebacker Adrian Moten had three starts.
MIAMI -- The Canes are still young everywhere, but remember quarterback Jacory Harris has only started two games and his backups have no collegiate experience.
NC STATE -- The Wolfpack needs to replace both offensive guards in John Bedics and Meares Green, who combined for 43 starts.
VIRGINIA -- Outside linebacker Denzel Burrell is the only returning starting linebacker in the Cavaliers' 3-4 defense.
VIRGINIA TECH -- The Hokies have to replace two starting linebackers in Brett Warren and Purnell Sturdivant.
WAKE FOREST -- The Demon Deacons have to replace three starters at linebacker, including Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
North Carolina coach Butch Davis took a major step in bringing the program back to relevance last year after he led the Tar Heels to an 8-5 record, their most wins since 2001. He managed to double UNC's win total from 2007, and he did it without standout receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate and starting quarterback T.J. Yates, who were injured for most of the season.
Last season was proof that Davis can win even when short-handed, and considering he has to replace his top three receivers, that's exactly how he'll begin the 2009 season.
The Tar Heels will be starting from scratch at wide receiver as they return to spring practice today, but lost in the shuffle of how much work they have to do in the passing game is how much potential they have in the running game and on defense. Those two factors should help carry the Heels until some of the younger receivers develop.
Nobody in the ACC returns more starters on defense (nine) than North Carolina, and the Tar Heels made a habit of scoring non-offensive touchdowns in 2008 with six. Six of the starting front seven return, including defensive ends E.J. Wilson and Robert Quinn, defensive tackles Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas, and linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter. Carter made a name for himself last season when he blocked four consecutive punts during a two-game span, and he was one of four players who returned an interception for a touchdown last year. UNC held its opponents to just 21.15 points per game last year.
Only six starters return on offense, but three of them -- tackle Kyle Jolly, guard Alan Pelc and center Lowell Dyer -- are on the offensive line. UNC's running game wasn't particularly impressive last year, nor was it consistent, but it should be better this year. Tailbacks Shaun Draughn, who didn't start until the seventh game at Virginia, and Ryan Houston, who was used mainly in short-yardage situations, return along with fullback Bobby Rome, a strong blocker.
While there's no question Davis faces a challenge in taking the program one step further this season and doing it with rookie wide receivers, overall UNC returns far more than it lost from 2008.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Considering all of the players Virginia Tech lost to injuries, graduation, the NFL, or whatever reason heading into the 2008 season, many agreed that coach Frank Beamer had done one of the best coaching jobs of his career last season.
As we head into the 2009 season, which coaches face the biggest challenges and why? Some face more pressure because the expectations for their program are higher, others have to completely rebuild or adjust to staff changes. Some are tasked with all of the above.
Here's a look at which coaches have their work cut out for them, starting with the most difficult job in the ACC:
1. Miami coach Randy Shannon -- Shannon has three strikes against him before his team even steps on the field for the first time: His schedule is treacherous, he coaches at Miami, where the expectations are automatically higher and fans grow impatient with losing quickly, and he is entering his third season, when a real difference is expected to be made. He also has to get his players quickly acclimated to two new coordinators -- again. Shannon's team is still young, but aside from Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, nobody has more starters returning to work with. While that's a good thing for the '09 Canes, a lack of interest from NFL scouts proves Shannon had to turn around the recruiting.
2. Virginia coach Al Groh -- Change needed to be made, so he made it. Now it's time to see if the win-at-all-costs (a.k.a. fire your son) plan worked. It's not going to be easy. Groh has only five starters returning on offense and six on defense. He'll get Jameel Sewell back, but Sewell will have to shake off the rust and learn a new offense, not to mention find some capable receivers to throw it to. Groh lost all of his starting linebackers. After a five-win season and no bowl game, the pressure is on in Charlottesville.
3. North Carolina coach Butch Davis -- He set the bar much higher last year, turning a four-win season into an eight-win season and a bowl appearance. As Davis heads into his third season, a realistic expectation should be winning the Coastal Division title. That will be hard to do, though, without Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, not to mention leading tackler Mark Paschal and safety Trimane Goddard.
4. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney -- He'll be in his first full season as head coach at Clemson, where the fan base is anxiously awaiting its first ACC title in more than a decade. Swinney will have a new defensive coordinator, and one of the youngest offensive coordinators in the country in Billy Napier, who will turn 30 next month. He will also have a new quarterback, and needs to replace several talented playmakers in Aaron Kelly, safety Michael Hamlin, and tailback James Davis. The good news for Swinney is that he's not facing the same off-the-chart expectations his predecessor did last season heading into the Alabama game. (Beamer gets that privilege this year.)
5. Boston College coach Frank Spaziani -- The first-time head coach inherited a program that went to back-to-back ACC title games and has gotten used to proving people wrong. But the Eagles need to find an answer at quarterback, and will be under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, along with an almost entirely new staff. The good news is that their offensive line should be just as good, if not better, and they only lost four starters from one of the nation's best defenses. Two of them, though, were up front.
6. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe -- Ever since Grobe won the ACC title and transformed the program into a contender, Demon Deacons fans have quietly grown a little more spoiled each year. The Demon Deacons only have four defensive starters returning, the fewest in the ACC, and the players they lost were game-changers. In order for the Deacs to be in the hunt for the Atlantic Division this year, the offense is going to have to lead the way for a change. Grobe will also be looking for a backup quarterback this spring, and his options don't include anyone with game experience.
7. NC State coach Tom O'Brien -- Anyone actually paying attention should give O'Brien a pass for the past two injury-laden seasons. We're not talking about one player here, it's more like half his roster. The staff often joked they had a better team in their training room. Still, it will be O'Brien's third season and expectations will be higher, especially now that everyone has seen what quarterback Russell Wilson is capable of. Let's see what O'Brien can do with everyone healthy and better depth expected at the quarterback position.
8. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen -- He is the only coach that lost more starters (13) than he returns (11). The Terps were hit the hardest by graduation and lost five starters on offense, but there is still plenty of talent on the roster. Quarterback Chris Turner is a veteran, and all of the running backs return. The difference in College Park, though, is that Friedgen is facing more moderate expectations -- another winning season, another average bowl game -- par for the course.
9. Florida State coach(es) Bobby Bowden/Jimbo Fisher -- The firepower on offense is gone, and so is Lou Groza award winner Graham Gano and kickoff return man Michael Ray Garvin, who finished second nationally with a 30.1 average. Only five starters return on defense, and the Noles lost their leading tackler in linebacker Derek Nicholson. And this is Florida State, which, like Miami, has its own reputation to live up to. Plus, Bowden has his own goal of reaching 400 wins and another national championship before he calls it quits. No pressure. The difference here, though, is that FSU can recruit a higher-caliber athlete than some of the other schools, so the Noles can reload at many positions. And they will.
As for the rest of the league ... Johnson and Beamer have their rosters stocked, and Duke coach David Cutcliffe certainly gets more time than two years to recruit and build his program.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Speaking of replacing receivers ... North Carolina has some issues. The Tar Heels bumped back the start of their spring practices from Monday to Wednesday (it doesn't affect the date of their spring game). Obviously coach Butch Davis will need to find a few guys who can catch the ball this spring, but the bulk of the competition at the position is expected to come during summer camp. The players who are on campus now, though -- like freshman Joshua Adams -- will obviously have a head start.
UNC only lost eight starters from its 2008 bowl team, but five of them were on offense, including the top three receivers. Last year's group of Brandon Tate, Brooks Foster and Hakeem Nicks accounted for 114 receptions, 1,932 yards and 17 of the 21 receiving touchdowns. The Tar Heels return just 18.1 percent of their receiving yards from 2008. The only other ACC school with a smaller returning percentage is Virginia, with 17.6 percent (the Cavaliers lost Kevin Ogletree, Cedric Peerman, John Phillips, Maurice Covington and Cary Koch).
Here's a look at who will be in the mix in Chapel Hill this spring to try to account for that lost yardage:
Joshua Adams -- ESPN.com has Adams rated as the No. 36 wide receiver in the class of 2009, although he committed to UNC on signing day with the class of 2008. At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, Adams played both receiver and defensive back in high school. He is from Cheshire, Conn., but played his first three years at Cambridge (Mass.) Rindge & Latin before transferring to Cheshire for his final season. He had 56 catches for 1,131 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.
Todd Harrelson, rs. Fr. -- He was considered to be the No. 60 receiver in the class of 2008, and has the potential for that fun YAC (yards after catch) stat. Our experts say he's got the ability to turn a short catch into a long gain. Harrelson is from Chesapeake, Va., where he caught 46 receptions for 892 yards and 13 touchdowns while leading Oscar Smith High to a 13-1 record as a senior.
Dwight Jones, soph. -- He was an outstanding recruit three years ago, and it's his second year in the program. Jones signed with UNC in the class of 2007, but failed to qualify and went to Hargrave Military Academy in 2007-08. He played sparingly last year, and is still waiting for his first collegiate catch, but is a big, physical receiver who can create some mismatches.
Rashad Mason, rs. soph. -- He redshirted in 2007, and didn't make any catches last year. Mason finished his senior season with 26 catches for 610 yards and 13 touchdowns at Pearl-Cohn High School in Tennessee.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
With Miami kicking off spring practice on Feb. 24, it's never too early to start thinking about spring football in the ACC. There are plenty of story lines heading into the 2009 season -- like backup quarterbacks and new coordinators.
Here are a few things to watch for each team in the ACC this spring:
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 25
What to watch
- Replacing 325-pound defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace will be a large challenge -- literally. Damik Scafe could be a starter, but beyond him it's anybody's guess.
- Quarterback Dominique Davis only has three games of experience over everyone else, so it's definitely not a given that it's his job to lose. Davis was thrown into the fire at the end of 2008, but former coach Jeff Jagodzinski and former offensive coordinator Steve Logan liked freshman Justin Tuggle, who redshirted this past season. Whether the new staff is as high on Tuggle remains to be seen.
- Including former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who was promoted to head coach, the Eagles will have six coaches in new positions this spring. With two new coordinators, a new offensive line coach, tight ends coach and a linebackers coach, this spring will be a chance for a few introductions.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
With the NFL departures announced, and signing day officially over, it's time for a re-ranking heading into spring football. Keep in mind things change during spring practice -- some players get hurt, some win position battles, but here's the first early peek at how the ACC might fare in 2009:
1. Virginia Tech -- The ACC and Orange Bowl champs return 16 starters, and there are high expectations for an offensive backfield that will contain shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. If the defense maintains its tradition without Victor "Macho" Harris, the Hokies could be a top 10 team.
2. Florida State -- The defense took some hits -- the most notable being the loss of defensive end Everette Brown -- but should have enough experience to compensate for it. The offensive line should be one of the best in the conference and give returning quarterback Christian Ponder and tailback Jermaine Thomas plenty of help. The question is the depth at receiver after the loss of Preston Parker, Greg Carr, and probably Corey Surrency. FSU also loses Lou Groza award winner Graham Gano.
3. Georgia Tech -- Overall, this team will be experienced and deeper -- it will return every starter at the skill positions -- but the Yellow Jackets must reload on the defensive front and improve on the offensive line. There will be three new starters on the defensive line, and Tech lost two senior starters on the offensive line. There are 25 players on the roster, though, who have at least one career start.
4. Miami -- Coach Randy Shannon brought in yet another outstanding recruiting class, and playing so many true freshmen in 2008 should help this season. There shouldn't be any quarterback drama this season, and Jacory Harris should only improve under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple. Defensive coordinator is still a question mark, though.
5. North Carolina -- Never count out a Butch Davis-coached team, but the Tar Heels will be a question mark until a new batch of receivers proves otherwise. Brooks Foster, Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks accounted for 114 receptions in 2008, and all three have left for the NFL. Safety Trimane Goddard is arguably the biggest loss on defense.
6. NC State -- If the Pack stay healthy -- something they haven't been able to do for the past two seasons -- NC State could be the sleeper in the Atlantic Division. It has to replace tight end Anthony Hill and running back Andre Brown, though, and 2007 leading receiver Donald Bowens will miss spring practice because of knee surgery.
7. Clemson -- Speedy playmakers C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford are back, but they'll be under the direction of a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. Let's see how the Tigers do without any expectations for a change.
8. Maryland -- The Terps graduated 30 seniors and junior receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey left for the NFL. One of the biggest question marks is how they'll fare up front after the graduation of three starting offensive linemen, including All-ACC center Edwin Williams. The defense, which loses four starters from its front seven, will be led by first-year coordinator Don Brown.
9. Wake Forest -- The good news for the Deacs is the offensive line should better, and they return veteran quarterback Riley Skinner. The bad news is they'll sorely miss some of the best defensive players the program has had in recent years, along with kicker Sam Swank.
10. Virginia -- If quarterback Jameel Sewell makes a smooth transition back into the lineup and quickly learns the new offense, the Cavs could surprise some people this season. They'll have to replace all three starters at linebacker, though, and will miss starting receivers Kevin Ogletree and Maurice Covington, as well as leading rusher Cedric Peerman.
11. Boston College -- Consider this a rebuilding year for the Eagles. The loss of defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace will have an effect up front. With a new staff, a small recruiting class and a young starting quarterback, the only direction for BC to head is up.
12. Duke -- The Blue Devils have arguably one of the league's top quarterbacks in Thaddeus Lewis, but he won't have Eron Riley to throw it to this season. Duke also loses ACC-leading tackler Michael Tauiliili at linebacker. Still, the Blue Devils should take another step forward in their second season under David Cutcliffe.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
The official invitation list for the NFL scouting combine is out, and there are plenty of ACC players who will participate in the four-day job interview in Indianapolis from Feb. 18-24. Just because a player didn't make the list doesn't mean he won't be drafted, but here are the ACC players by school who were invited to the combine:
Kevin Akins, cornerback/linebacker
Ron Brace, defensive tackle
B.J. Raji, defensive tackle
Chris Clemons, safety
James Davis, running back
Michael Hamlin, safety
Cullen Harper, quarterback
Aaron Kelly, receiver
Dorell Scott, defensive tackle
Everette Brown, defensive end
Graham Gano, punter/placekicker
Andrew Gardner, offensive tackle
Michael Johnson, defensive end
Darryl Richard, defensive tackle
Vance Walker, defensive tackle
Jahi Word-Daniels, cornerback
Kevin Barnes, cornerback
Moise Fokou, outside linebacker
Dan Gronkowski, tight end
Darrius Heyward-Bey, wide receiver
Jaimie Thomas, offensive guard
Edwin Williams, center
Bruce Johnson, cornerback
Brooks Foster, wide receiver
Hakeem Nicks, wide recevier
Richard Quinn, tight end
Garrett Reynolds, offensive tackle
Brandon Tate, wide receiver
Andre Brown, running back
Anthony Hill, tight end
Eugene Monroe, offensive tackle
Kevin Ogletree, wide receiver
Cedric Peerman, tailback
John Phillips, tight end
Clint Sintim, linebacker
Victor "Macho" Harris, cornerback
Orion Martin, defensive end
Stanley Arnoux, linebacker
Aaron Curry, linebacker
Alphonso Smith, cornerback
Sam Swank, punter/placekicker
Chip Vaughn, safety
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State