ACC: Charles Kelly

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Having spent seven seasons at Georgia Tech, second-year Florida State assistant Charles Kelly is in the spotlight this week leading up to the ACC championship game.

The truth is, Kelly has been asked to sweat it out under the Florida State fan base’s intense, beaming light the last three months. The Seminoles’ contingency was keeping a close eye on Kelly, who took over the No. 1 scoring defense from the departed Jeremy Pruitt.

By the end of September, knee-jerk reactions led to premature calls for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher to replace Kelly. The Seminoles ended September ranked 78th in total defense and 66th in points allowed.

[+] EnlargeCharles Kelly
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsNew coordinator Charles Kelly and his defense took their lumps early, but they appear to be hitting their stride.
The numbers were ugly, no doubt, and it didn’t help Kelly’s cause that all offseason the defense harped that nothing would change in the switch from Pruitt to Kelly, who had been a defensive coordinator at the FBS level only on an interim basis. The youth on the Florida State defense was overlooked, too; Kelly was tasked with replacing five NFL players from the 2013 defense.

What the Florida State defense and Kelly were able to hang their hat on early in the season despite the struggles were second-half adjustments. In the Seminoles’ first four games this season against current bowl-eligible teams -- Clemson, NC State, Notre Dame and Louisville -- they allowed 72 first-half points (18 points per game). In the second half of those games, the defense allowed 44 points, an average of 11 points.

In eight of the last 10 games, Florida State has held its opponents to fewer yards in the second half than the first, and the Noles rank 15th nationally with 9.2 points allowed in the second half this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Colleague David Hale also points out Florida State’s defense is allowing touchdowns on only 14 percent of its second-half drives over its last 10 games.

The second-half surges are serving as a microcosm for the Seminoles’ season. In the month of November, the Seminoles rank 31st in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense.

“I think we’re getting a little more comfortable,” linebacker Terrance Smith said. “Everyone is flowing. We’re getting comfortable with Coach Kelly. It was a change from Pruitt.”

Smith and a large sampling of Florida State players all say there haven’t been any changes schematically the last few weeks. It’s just a matter of the Seminoles playing better and more consistently under the direction of Kelly, who has been lauded as a coach by all of his peers.

Smith will not play Saturday, a tough blow to a linebacker corps that Fisher feels is playing its best all season. He said the linebackers were the key to limiting Florida to 76 rushing yards below its average last weekend. The better linebacker play has helped steer the Florida State defense that looked rudderless in September.

The emergence of Jalen Ramsey at nickelback cannot be overlooked, either. The sophomore, who leads the defense in starts, was an elite safety as a freshman but was asked to fill the void Lamarcus Joyner left. At 6-foot-1 and 204 pounds, Ramsey is the ideal build for nickelback in Fisher’s defense.

There was a transition period early in the season, but Ramsey is now stating his case to be named as an All-American. Few defensive backs have had a better second half to the season than Ramsey, who is filling up the stat sheet with interceptions, tackles for loss, batted balls and blocked kicks.

But it’s what Ramsey takes away that Fisher points to.

“He can cover the slot, tight end, can blitz and be take up a big blocker to allow another one on one for our inside guys,” Fisher said. “His presence. It’s that kind of factor.”

All eyes will be on Kelly and his new-look defense Saturday, but recent indications suggest the defense is better equipped to handle the pressure than it has at any other point this season.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- This season is uncharted waters for college football. With the inaugural playoff looming and the first committee rankings being released Tuesday, nobody is quite entirely sure how to accurately size up each team’s résumé.

“But you got to fill the airwaves,” said Jimbo Fisher, coach of No. 2 Florida State, with a laugh. “You got to have something to talk about.”

Outside of whether the SEC will land two teams in the College Football Playoff, no topic has been as hotly discussed as whether Florida State, the preseason No. 1 and still undefeated, could survive a loss and still manage to earn a bid. The consensus is the Seminoles have little margin for error, but opinions differ on how slim Florida State's margin is.

Florida State’s body of work has been held up to the light and examined for flaws more than other team. It’s part of the double-edged sword that accompanies the title of reigning national champion and offseason favorite. While the Seminoles aren’t perfect, their record still remains without a blemish, and there is something to be said for that.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher has seen plenty of improvement in his team as the weeks pass.
“Culture is so important because you find excuses to win and you do things in big moments, and this team does and is able to do that,” he said.

That culture can’t be quantified in numbers or accurately measured by computations, though, and several of those metrics have not produced favorable results. The Seminoles are No. 21 in game control, which measures how dominant a team is in each game; Mississippi State (1) and Ole Miss (4) are both in the top five. The Seminoles also rank seventh in the Football Power Index, behind one-loss teams Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Ohio State. While the Seminoles have a 31 percent chance to finish undefeated, it’s more of a reflection of their remaining schedule in an ACC bereft of playoff contenders. It should be noted they have already defeated Oklahoma State in a neutral-site game, Clemson without Jameis Winston and No. 7 Notre Dame.

“I don’t listen to it. I don’t want to lose, either,” Fisher said. “This is a marathon. What you think of one team, what they thought a couple weeks ago they don’t think now and maybe [in] three weeks they won’t think what they think now. We’re trying to put them in [the playoff] now, but let things sort itself out.

“There’s a lot of ball to be played.”

Whether Florida State begins No. 1 in the committee’s rankings or somewhere below, Fisher likes where his team stands. It has not measured up to the 2013 team statistically, but Fisher harped all season that 2014 would be a different squad even if many of the players, including a Heisman Trophy winner, returned. He implored the public to throw away recent history when judging this team.

After the first four games, Fisher said he saw a team improving even if the rest of the country did not. Now, more than halfway through the season, he still sees a team poised to play its best football.

“I love our team. I really do. I like to coach it,” he said. “It competes hard, plays well, gets better every week. We’re continuing to get better and I think we’ll continue to grow but I like where we’re at.”

Seemingly the two biggest concerns for the Seminoles, who enter their final bye this weekend, are the defense and the running game. Last season, the defense ranked first nationally in scoring and third in total defense. This season, under new coordinator Charles Kelly, the unit ranks 34th and 52nd, respectively, albeit without several of the star players that highlighted the defense in 2013.

In the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, though, the defense held the Irish to just 109 yards. They had eight sacks entering the game, but sacked Everett Golson three times.

The Seminoles have not run the ball effectively for much of the season, as the stable of running backs has struggled to replicate the productivity void left behind by 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman. Against FBS competition, the Seminoles have yet to top 171 yards rushing.

With Winston at quarterback and the passing game clicking, Fisher believes he just needs a rushing attack that can complement the aerial assault and pick up yards in the game’s tensest moments -- third downs, goal line and fourth quarters.

“We ran the ball very effectively when we had to run it in the second half, and I was proud of that, Fisher said. “… But we've got to get better. The balance as far as yards aren’t [there], but we’re making enough big plays in the passing game and we’re running enough to [keep defenses] honest. But we’re going to continue to run the football and we’ll keep working on that.”
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Odell Haggins has been Florida State’s defensive tackles coach since 1996, a total of 19 consecutive seasons. As far as stability goes on the defensive staff, it begins with Haggins. It ends there, too, as the remaining three assistants have been on staff a combined five seasons.

Charles Kelly is in his second year on staff but shifts from linebackers coach to the secondary while also adding the title of defensive coordinator, a position he’s never held for an entire season at the FBS level. In his stead coaching the linebackers is Bill Miller, who was hired away from Minnesota.

Early returns indicate Kelly, who received rave reviews when he was hired, has hit the ground running as the new leader of a defense that finished No. 1 in points per game during their 2013 championship run.

“He stays positive. He gets on you when you mess up but he explains it when you do,” cornerback Ronald Darby said. “If I’m going to do something, he asks why you did it, and if I explain why, he’s more understanding as a coach instead of ‘Shut up I don’t want to hear that!’ He’s a great coach.”

Despite switching defensive coordinators, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said not much has changed schematically. Kelly worked under 2013 coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and the players have said the changes have been minimal. The terminology and the scheme remain largely intact, which could foster an easier transition this season for a defense replacing its best player at every level of the unit.

Kelly said there will be small differences, though, simply because he and Pruitt are not clones of each other. Kelly said he will have his own identity, which is really just a mosaic of the knowledge he’s gained in his 23 seasons of coaching.

Over those 23 seasons, Kelly has coached nearly every position group, and that is not limited to just the defense. There are challenging aspects to that, but Kelly said a good coach is able to adapt to any position and it’s prepared him to coordinate the entire defense.

“I grew up wanting to be a coach, so if you can coach and communicate and teach, you should be able to coach any position,” Kelly said. “Coaching different positions, sometimes the personalities at positions are different, so it teaches you how to handle people differently.”

Kelly acknowledges the potential issues of adding a new coach in the mix, but he welcomes the addition of Miller, who began coaching in 1978 and has coached six first-round draft picks, including Ray Lewis.

“Change is good sometimes because it’s new blood, new ideas. It’s a different way of looking at things,” Kelly said. “When you’re the only one doing it, you get tunnel vision. When you trust people you work with, then you trust what they say.”

Helping facilitate a smooth transition for Miller is his familiarity with Fisher’s coaching philosophies. Fisher is a protégé of Nick Saban, and Miller was on Saban’s staff at Michigan State.

“There’s kind of an unwritten club of guys that worked for Nick Saban,” Miller said. “What helps me a lot is I’ve been in this defensive system before. Sal [Sunseri] and I were together at Michigan State, and having that kind of background and knowing what this system is all about has been a great aid to me.”

Fisher said E.J. Levenberry is working with the first team at linebacker, and the sophomore said during fall camp that Miller has helped him with his fundamentals.

Florida State held its first scrimmage this week, and throughout the defense the fundamentals were not lacking. Fisher was upbeat following the scrimmage, and defensive lineman Mario Edwards said the players are comfortable in the system. Any mistakes were attributed to tired legs, Edwards said.

“We know the defense,” Edwards said, “and we know where to be.”

ACC's lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
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NFL.com put together a list of the 14 hottest names among coordinators in college football, with two ACC coaches making the cut.

Of course, seeing Bud Foster and Chad Morris on the list is no surprise. They have established themselves as among the most consistently good coordinators in the country. What is perhaps more interesting is who isn’t on the list: Namely, no one from the defending national champion. In fact, ex-Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (now at Georgia) does make the cut, but that is as close as the Seminoles got to landing a name on the list.

Given that Jimbo Fisher doesn’t employ an offensive coordinator and is on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, it is probably not a surprise, but as our Travis Haney noted during a recent trip to a Texas coaching clinic, FSU’s Charles Kelly has made a really good early impression since taking over for Pruitt.

Pruitt, quite fairly, received a lot of credit for last year’s championship defense, so now there are concerns about what his loss will mean for Florida State. Those concerns, however, are probably a bit misplaced.

First off, remember the chaos that followed the 2012 season at FSU? Seven assistants left the staff for other jobs, including both coordinators. Mark Stoops had engineered a defense that ranked in the top three nationally in consecutive years and was widely regarded as one of the best assistants in the country. Fisher couldn’t possibly replace all that, right?

Even in the wake of Stoops’ departure, fans clamored for a big name -- Foster, perhaps, or someone with NFL experience -- but he hired an obscure secondary coach from Alabama with just three years of college coaching on his resume. But he knew Pruitt, knew what he was capable of doing, knew the system he wanted to run, and the hire proved a stroke of genius.

So now, it’s a lot easier to believe Fisher knew what he was doing when he promoted Kelly from linebackers coach to DC, and the transition promises to be much smoother this time. Pruitt’s biggest impact on the team last season was the scheme he put in place, but that doesn’t figure to change much under Kelly. The players already know what they are doing, there is no change in vocabulary and virtually no change in the Xs and Os. Moreover, Kelly is as well-liked and respected as any coach on the staff. He will do just fine.

But that doesn’t mean there is no room for worries for Florida State’s defense. It’s just that losing Pruitt probably shouldn’t be the primary concern. The biggest void is the leadership lost with the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith. That was a rare breed of leaders that had been through the battles and suffered the losses that taught tough lessons -- lessons they continually reminded their younger teammates about during last season’s championship run. Finding voices on defense that carry as much weight in the locker room this year won’t be easy.

“I think it’s feeling comfortable taking on the roles of the guys who have left, that you feel comfortable stepping up and taking that responsibility,” Fisher told me this month. “All of them play hard, but what you have to have is guys stepping up and taking on the leadership. There’s a responsibility of how you have to conduct yourself as a teammate to affect the other guys on the team. That’s where teams grow, and summer and fall camp is so important.”

Fisher reeled off a bunch of names on the offensive side of the ball who will fill that role -- Rashad Greene, Cameron Erving, Karlos Williams, Tre Jackson, Josue Matias and, of course, Jameis Winston -- but the candidates on defense weren’t quite so established.

Fisher said sophomore Jalen Ramsey has been perhaps the most vocal leader throughout the spring and early summer, and fellow defensive backs P.J. Williams and Tyler Hunter have shouldered some of the leadership burden, too. The rest of the unit, though, is still developing.

“Last year’s team wasn’t on a journey. They were on a mission,” Fisher said. “They understood what they really wanted. The trial-and-error they had, they learned from their mistakes over time.”

Terrance Smith learned under Telvin Smith last season, but he’s not nearly as vocal as his predecessor. Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman “are growing into the role,” Fisher said, but they haven’t proven they are as good at galvanizing a group around them as Jernigan did last year.

FSU has ample talent on defense, and it should again have an exceptional coordinator calling the shots, but it’s just really difficult to replace the battle scars and lessons learned that Joyner, Brooks, Smith and Co. used to such great effect in 2013.

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Russell A. Griffin in Sea Girt, N.J., sent this note into the mailbag: Hi, Andrea. In 2012, when FSU lost so many to the NFL draft, sports analysts we're saying that 2013 would be the year FSU would step back a bit and that 2014 would be its year. Clemson was the team to beat in 2013. I realize no one would have thought about how good Jameis [Winston] was going to be. The analysts said 2014 would be FSU's year to step up. With all that in mind, well, it’s 2014. If last year was the year to step back, imagine what this year should be like. Granted, 2014 is going to be tougher since the schedule is tougher. I know, it is always harder to repeat. I will be at the games against Oklahoma State and later at Louisville. Go Noles.

Griffin brings up a terrific point. Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but Florida State blew the doors off that notion. Are the Seminoles going to go unbeaten again? ACC reporter Andrea Adelson and Florida State reporter Jared Shanker debate the odds.

AA gives Florida State a 25 percent chance of going undefeated.

SportsNation

What are the chances Florida State goes unbeaten this year?

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    17%
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    21%
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    22%
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    28%
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    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,027)

Florida State is good enough to go undefeated. But being good enough to win all your games and actually winning all your games are two different matters entirely (see: Crimson Tide, Alabama). There are a few reasons why I think the Seminoles won’t run the table.

First, strength of schedule. Florida State trades in Nevada and Idaho (combined 5-19 last season) for Oklahoma State and Notre Dame (combined 19-7 a year ago). Not to mention trading Atlantic Division teams Maryland (7-6) for Louisville (12-1). Not only are the teams better, but there will be a cumulative effect of playing much tougher competition.

With the exception of the BC game, Florida State never had reason to play its starters for a full game during the regular season last fall. But that is not going to be the case in 2014. More playing time means more wear and tear on the starters, and more wear and tear on the starters means you need to rely on your backups to play many more meaningful minutes.

This leads to my second point. Florida State lacks depth on its offensive and defensive lines, and that could be a problem. The biggest concern should rest with the defensive front, where the Seminoles lost a ton of talent early to the NFL and was therefore low on players in the spring. Depth is vital, most especially late in games, when the big guys up front start to get gassed. What happens against high-tempo teams such as Oklahoma State and Louisville if the depth is lacking and the game is on the line?

Finally, what will Winston do for an encore with the spotlight shining even brighter than last season? Florida State needs a much more mature, much more focused Winston in 2014. He doesn’t have a Kelvin Benjamin to bail him out in the end zone. He has no 1,000-yard back returning. There are terrific players around him, and Winston has to learn how to trust them all from the outset while the media dissects every move he makes.

We saw what a focused Winston can do under that glare of the end of the BCS national championship game. But we also saw what do-it-all-myself Winston can do under that glare in the first three quarters of that game, too.

I still believe Florida State has as good a shot as any team in America to make the College Football Playoff. I just don’t think the Seminoles make it there unscathed.

Jared Shanker gives Florida State a 35 percent chance of going undefeated.

Florida State is looking to become the first team in college football history to go 15-0 and to win the inaugural College Football Playoff. The good news for the Seminoles is, unlike in previous seasons, going undefeated is not required to win the 2014 national championship.

The Noles, as a potentially unanimous preseason No. 1, will have the most leeway when it comes to suffering a loss and still being in the discussion for one of the four playoff seeds. Looking at the 2014 schedule, its roster and trying to account for the multitude of unknowns every season presents, it is hard to see Florida State going through another season undefeated.

As AA pointed out first, the schedule is tougher this fall. While Oklahoma State is rebuilding, coach Mike Gundy has that program in good enough shape that an upset of the defending champions in Week 1 would not be a total shock. The Fighting Irish are on the schedule, and whether it is Everett Golson or Malik Zaire taking snaps, both look capable of leading an offense and the Irish into a playoff berth. Bobby Petrino is tearing Louisville down and rebuilding it in his own image, but any Thursday night road game presents unique challenges.

Injuries are also the great unknown for every team, and Florida State remained relatively healthy throughout the 2013 season. Winston avoided significant injury last season, and with arguably the country’s best starting offensive line in front of him, he again could go the entire season without any major bumps. However, the nature of the position often leaves quarterbacks vulnerable, and there is no telling how FSU would fare if it is without Winston for any amount of time.

Even a healthy Winston could see a decline in production this fall with new faces throughout his receiver corps. Rashad Greene returns, but no longer is Benjamin or Kenny Shaw around to redirect double teams. The revamped unit showed some flashes during the spring game, but there is reason to worry about whether the receivers will step up in the fall. Several talented freshmen enter the fold this summer, and while freshmen across the country are making earlier impacts than ever before, it is still premature to expect Ermon Lane, Ja’Von Harrison or Travis Rudolph to replicate Benjamin’s or Shaw’s numbers immediately.

What Florida State does have is as much talent as just about any team in the country. Only Alabama has recruited better the past few years, and the Noles are loaded with talent from top to bottom. However, a decent portion of that talent is inexperienced. Certainly those new faces could exceed their predecessors' production, but it will not happen overnight. Defensively, breaking in coordinator Charles Kelly could add to the early-season learning curve as that side of the ball adjusts to a handful of new starters and is without vocal leaders Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith.

The odds of going undefeated being at 35 percent are still the highest in the country potentially, but that is not where I would put my money if I was a betting man. I’m much more inclined to believe Florida State enters the playoff as a one-loss team.
Bill Burgess waited in his office at Jacksonville State for his assistant coaches to arrive. They trickled in one by one as they came off the road from their December and January recruiting trips, making the final push to fill out the Gamecocks' class.

[+] EnlargeCharles Kelly
Maury Neipris/Seminoles.comNew Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelly spent several years at Georgia Tech before coming to Florida State in 2013.
Every few weeks, Burgess would look around the facility and see Charles Kelly’s office empty. Kelly hadn’t returned. This was before cell phones, too. But there was never any angst as to why his star assistant was still on the road. Burgess knew Kelly’s track record, and his absence was usually welcomed. It meant Kelly was finalizing a commitment and would be coming back with good news.

“He’d supposed to be back in a certain day and he’d be a day late,” Burgess said. “With him, it was always, 'I got a chance to work a little bit longer.'

"... The thing that was obvious about Coach Kelly was he’d work. He put the hours in that are needed to be put in, and not everybody will do that. You got to have the people not looking at a clock all the time."

This was almost two decades ago, but Burgess’ name could easily have been substituted with any coach Kelly has worked under since 1990. Those who know Kelly well all say the same thing: Florida State could not have made a better hire at defensive coordinator than Kelly.

When Jeremy Pruitt left after one season as the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator for Georgia, it was the first time since 2008 that the defensive coordinator of the team with the No. 1 scoring defense left for another job. Kelly immediately stood out as the top in-house candidate, and coach Jimbo Fisher promoted Kelly from linebackers coach shortly after Pruitt departed. Fisher and several players said there are few, if any, changes from what the Noles ran under Pruitt to what they will run under Kelly.

The players already like what they have seen from their new leader. Sophomore defensive back Nate Andrews said Kelly finds a teaching moment every time he comes off the field.

“He teaches as you go along,” Andrews said. “If you mess up on the field, you come to the sideline [and] he’ll teach you, 'This is what you did wrong' or 'This is what you did right.'”

[Kelly] knows the game as good as anyone. He's going to recruit harder than anybody. He watches tape constantly. His work ethic is second to none.

Troy assistant head coach Shayne Wasden, who played with Kelly at Auburn and coached with him at Eufaula (Ala.) High School.
Kelly will also coach the secondary. He was a defensive back at Auburn and the position most of his former coaches believes suits him best. Defensive coordinator at a BCS school was the natural progression for Kelly, who has coached nearly every position on the field. Most importantly, he quickly adjusted to each new job title, whether it was running backs or linebackers.

“The good, outstanding coaches can coach any position and probably should be able to,” said former Central Phenix City (Ala.) High School coach Wayne Trawick, who hired Kelly as a junior varsity coach in 1990. “You can’t be a good DB coach without knowing routes and you can’t be a good linebackers coach if you can’t understand offensive blocking scheme. A good young coach won’t just study the position he’s coaching if he wants to move up … and he can coach any position.”

Al Groh and Kelly sat across from the hall from each other at Georgia Tech from 2010-12. It was a high-traffic area, Groh said, as he and Kelly alternated between each other’s offices exchanging ideas. It isn’t always easy for a head coach or coordinator to solicit suggestions from position coaches, but Groh said he made a special exception for Kelly, whose ideas were worth considering.

It wasn’t until Groh left Atlanta that he fully realized how much teaching was ingrained in Kelly. Groh, serving as a TV analyst at ESPN, was sitting in one of Kelly’s linebackers meetings a few days before a Florida State game. At Georgia Tech, Kelly’s role was coaching special teams and the secondary.

“He did an excellent job of coaching linebackers, like it was his all-time position,” Groh said.

Shayne Wasden, the head coach while Kelly was at Eufaula (Ala.) High School, might know Kelly best. They were teammates at Auburn and Wasden called Kelly shortly after being named head coach. He offered Kelly the defensive coordinator position, and rarely gave that side of the ball another thought. He never had to. He called Kelly a “grinder” and doubts anyone was going to outwork him on defense. Wasden knew there was not a better teacher for his defense, either, a vital aspect for a high school program.

Teaching is what Kelly does, even away from the football field. He was a math teacher and directed the alternate school at Eufaula, and he tutored students in math after practice, even the alternate students, who are usually kept apart from the general student body and are lightly taught during the day.

Teaching is an essential trait for Kelly, who is saddled with replacing some of the Seminoles' biggest stars. Lamarcus Joyner, Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith are all likely to be picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, and they were arguably the defense's three most vocal leaders.

“[Kelly] knows the game as good as anyone. He’s going to recruit harder than anybody. He watches tape constantly. His work ethic is second to none," said Wasden, now the assistant head coach at Troy. "He's done well everywhere he's been. They'll be really good on defense. I don’t know if [Florida State] could have hired a better [coach]."

Friday mailblog

January, 24, 2014
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Step into my office ...

Carla in Houston writes: Just curious: How do you think the ACC will be viewed going into next year? Will the committee be impressed by a team doing well in-conference, or is the ACC still thought to be weak? On one hand we have Florida State, THE national champion! Boy it feels good to say that! The Seminoles were unstoppable this year and have a Heisman winner to prove it. Not to forget Clemson, who finally seemed to break its big-game curse! But the rest of the conference worries me. Virginia Tech underperforming yet again? Miami face planting? Georgia Tech being unable to move the national radar for another year? We have Louisville coming in so that will be a plus, but even that might not be enough. I am worried the ACC will start being viewed as a Top heavy conference, where beating Florida State and Clemson is the *only* way a team can get respect. Thoughts?

HD: Carla, I think you nailed it. It IS a top-heavy conference right now, and expectations are even lower this year for Clemson with the departures of Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd. The ACC took a HUGE step forward last season with FSU winning the national title and going 2-0 in BCS bowls while the SEC went 0-2 in its BCS bowls. There was plenty to brag about, but in order to get more respect from the selection committee, it's going to have to go deeper. Look at how many teams the SEC and Pac-12 had ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25, and the ACC's 0-4 record overall against the Pac-12. Teams like Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have to improve so that the ACC's league schedule isn't dismissed as easy.

Colby Lanham in Clemson, SC writes: What do you think of the three-way quarterback battle between Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly, and Deshaun Watson? Do you think Stoudt has a legitimate shot and do you think Watson redshirts? Also, who emerges at running back? Perhaps C.J. Davidson, Tyshon Dye or Wayne Gallman?

HD: Stoudt should have the upper hand entering the beginning of the season because he has the most experience. He did well when he was put in the lineup last season. His 79.7 percent completion percentage was the best in the country among QBs with at least 50 passes. With Clemson playing at Georgia and at Florida State within the first three games of the season, you want an experienced QB. Still, coach Dabo Swinney has said that he's not afraid to play two QBs if necessary. Kelly can really run -- even better than Boyd -- and that is an important dimension in Chad Morris’ offense. Watson is a four-star recruit with a lot of talent, but that's a lot to ask of a true freshman. Look at all the records Boyd set and the 32 wins he had. But he redshirted his first season.

As far as running back is concerned, Dye was doing very well in the preseason this year until he had a back problem. Davidson got some opportunities in the bowl game and probably has the most breakaway speed among the running backs. Don’t count out Zac Brooks, who can catch the ball out of the backfield and that is important in the Morris offense. There is a lot of time between now and the Georgia game -- 15 spring practices and 29 more in August. Ask me again then.

Josh in Tallahassee writes: In a league where coaches are everything, how concerned should our Noles be with Kelly at DC? I feel like talent will make up for a lot of it but how much? Will there be a dropoff on defense?

HD: I don't think FSU fans should be too concerned. First, I think it was a smart move because of how much transition there has been at the coordinator position, with this being the Noles' third coordinator in as many years. Keeping a familiar face who knows the terminology, the system and the players will save a lot of offseason headaches and potential in-season growing pains. Also, it's important to remember that coach Jimbo Fisher wanted to hire a DC with a good working knowledge of the secondary to help scheme against spread offenses. Kelly was a DB in college and has extensive coaching experience at the position. Kelly's foundation also stems from knowledge of Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, which continues what Fisher was looking for all along when he hired Jeremy Pruitt. So, while the defensive staff came unraveled a bit with Pruitt's departure, I think Kelly was the best option to keep Fisher's philosophies tied together.

Christopher Evans in Melbourne, FL writes: Do you think, with the addition of Louisville to the Atlantic Division, the ACC might re-organize the two conferences for travel and strength of team purposes? I understand the roller coaster that is college football when it comes to the ups and downs of teams, but with Clemson, Louisville, and Florida State all in the Atlantic, would it be smart to make an adjustment, even if it has Clemson going Coastal and Georgia Tech going into the Atlantic Division? Atlantic:1) Florida State2) Louisville3) Miami or Virginia4) Syracuse5) Pittsburgh6) Boston College7) Georgia TechCoastal:1) Duke2) NC State3) North Carolina4) Virginia Tech5) Clemson6) Wake Forest7) Miami or Virginia

HD: First, if the ACC makes any changes to its divisions, it won't happen until 2015 at the earliest. Second, the ACC is considering the possibility of doing away with the divisions entirely, as the NCAA reconsiders its requirements for conferences to have title games. Scheduling and realignment continue to be on the agenda for next week's winter meetings, but I don't think they would change just because the Atlantic Division is top-heavy. It would be more to enhance the title game.

Charles Kelly to coach FSU defense

January, 22, 2014
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Florida State has promoted linebackers coach Charles Kelly to defensive coordinator, replacing Jeremy Pruitt, who was hired last week by Georgia for the same position, a source said Wednesday.

Defensive line coach Sal Sunseri has been promoted to associate head coach, the source confirmed.

To read the full story, click here.

Thomas getting comfortable at FSU

August, 13, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Like most freshmen a week into fall camp, Matthew Thomas looks uncomfortable.

His surroundings are new, his teammates are new and the playbook is new. For the first time, the game is moving fast enough that Thomas' five-star body struggles to keep pace.

"He's still young and trying to get the college feel and know that he can't just beat people with speed," senior Telvin Smith said. "But he's going to be a great linebacker."

Matthew Thomas
Courtesy of Florida StateIt's been a long trip for Matthew Thomas since picking Florida State on national signing day.
That much has never been in question for the nation's top linebacker recruit, but for a few chaotic weeks this spring, nothing else about Thomas' future seemed certain, and fans were looking for answers wherever they could.

On national signing day, Thomas' letter of intent slithered through a fax machine in Jimbo Fisher's office, securing Florida State the crown jewel of its 2013 recruiting class. Thomas would later claim that decision came under duress -- pressure from family, he said -- and by early May he was looking for a way out, telling the Miami Herald, that he planned to attend USC or Georgia instead.

The firestorm erupted, the will-he-or-won't-he debates raged. The footage of his signing day announcement was parsed like the Zapruder film, with his malaise practically inviting fans to read between the lines for a deeper meaning. He posted a photo on Instagram of himself wearing a USC ski cap, and Florida State fans assumed the worst.

Thomas didn't speak to the media after his initial statements. His high school coaches pled ignorance. Fisher and Florida State's coaching staff scrambled to reopen the lines of communication, but the drama lasted for six weeks with few concrete answers.

When the dust settled, the saga ended just as it began, with Thomas reluctantly choosing Florida State. A few days later, Thomas added a photo of his new FSU student ID card on Instagram with the caption, "It is what it is."

"He didn't really want to sit out a year and due to the fact that he committed to Florida State on signing day, the downside was if he wanted to decommit, he'd lose eligibility," said Billy Thomas, Matthew's father and the most vocal member of his camp throughout the recruiting saga. "He wanted to go to school, and he wanted to play football. So as he thought about it, he was like, 'Well, I guess it's not that bad.'"

What happened between signing day and Thomas' enrollment might never be fully explained, but all parties agree on a basic storyline.

Thomas wavered in the waning days before signing day between a handful of top schools. His mother pushed hard for Florida State, wanting him to remain closer to home. During his announcement interview , he repeated again and again that his decision was about family.

By May, however, reality set in, and Thomas had second thoughts. Fisher agreed to a release, Thomas would have to sit out a year before he could play at another school, and Florida State had no intentions of saying goodbye gracefully.

"You were always worried, but I felt very confident about it because of our relationship," Fisher said. "It was just opening up the lines of communication."

Fisher and his staff kept in contact with Thomas. Fisher had endured his share of recruiting drama in his years as a coach, though he admits this situation -- three months after signing day -- was unique.

Florida State players called regularly, urging Thomas to follow through on his commitment, too. Several players had built a rapport with Thomas throughout his recruitment, and they offered reminders of why he'd wanted to play for the Seminoles in the first place.

As the clock ticked toward the start of summer enrollment and his options dwindled, Thomas eventually relented.

"Basically Jimbo told him, 'You're going to lose eligibility, and we want you as our five-star recruit,” Billy Thomas said. “‘You committed to us and we committed to you.' Once [Matthew] thought about it, he was like, 'OK, I think that might be the right fit for me.'"

Fisher doesn't allow freshmen to speak with the media, so Matthew's side of the story remains under wraps, but even within Florida State's locker room, it isn't discussed.

"It has never been mentioned with me," linebackers coach Charles Kelly said. "The one thing I don't do and Coach Fisher doesn't do -- the past is the past. We're looking forward. I've always had a good relationship with Matthew, and if you'd been watching him since he's gotten here, you'd have never known that stuff went on. You'd have had no idea."

It's not that his teammates weren't curious. They'd seen the reports and heard the rumors just like everyone else.

"At one point in time, you couldn't help but follow it," Smith said.

Smith didn't pry, but he felt a need to take Thomas under his wing and make sure the new freshman felt at home.

The two players found they had a lot in common, and Smith eagerly shared stories of his own anxious moments before arriving at Florida State.

"I let him know I was in the same position," Smith said. "I gave him that blanket and let him know everything was going to be alright."

Around the locker room, Thomas has been welcomed with open arms. A majority of players waver on their commitment at some point, Fisher said, so there was empathy for Thomas' plight.

It has helped, too, that Thomas hasn't lamented his situation. Instead, he's embraced the opportunity and has impressed coaches from the outset.

"Matthew's come in, he's worked really hard, just been a good teammate, been soaking up a lot in the meetings," Kelly said. "I couldn't ask Matthew to work any harder than what he has."

With just two veteran linebackers on the roster, Thomas is poised to see action early this year, and Fisher said he's already making a push for regular playing time.

"When you're in the middle linebacker where he's at and all the stuff that's happening, the multiplicity of things happening is much greater," Fisher said. "And he's really learning. He can run and play."

Thomas has acclimated well off the field, too.

The recruiting chaos was the elephant in the room in the early going, but those memories have faded. Thomas was quiet when he first arrived, but he's come out of his shell and found comfort in his surroundings.

"He's fitting in well, and he's starting to open up," Smith said. "He's starting to be Matthew Thomas."
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Over the past four months, Florida State won an ACC championship, a BCS game, reeled in another top-10 recruiting class and sent a handful of players into the NFL draft with first-round promise.

Given the recent spate of unsightly 7-6 seasons, Florida State seems to be in pretty fantastic shape. That, of course, is not the storyline that has taken shape since December. No, the convenient storyline has focused mainly on the coaching turnover that has left the Seminoles with six new assistants heading into the 2013 season.

What does the unusually large turnover say about coach Jimbo Fisher? What does it say about the program itself?

At this point, the storyline has become rote. Fisher already has his answers before the questions are asked, prepared to bat down the notion that this very strange offseason has been, well, strange.

He begins.

“You know,” he says, “we were one of four teams in the entire country that did not lose a single assistant in my first two years here.”

Pretty astounding, when you consider just how frequently assistants change jobs year to year. But what is more astounding is hiring seven different assistants in a two-month span. One of those assistants, Billy Napier, lasted a handful of weeks before moving on to Alabama.

As Fisher tried to defend the staff turnover, he proved the point others have made. Coaching change is common in this profession, especially at winning programs. But the type of coaching change Florida State just experienced is as rare as scoring a safety on consecutive plays.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFSU coach Jimbo Fisher says he wasn't surprised by the amount of staff turnover this offseason.
Among programs that did not have a head coaching change, only Marshall had to replace more assistants than Florida State this past offseason. Point this out to Fisher and he shrugs.

“We took the attrition of three years and put it in one,” Fisher says simply.

Was he surprised that he lost so many assistants?

“Not really. Last year was a big year,” Fisher begins. “You go back and look at all the major jobs. When’s the last time you saw four major SEC schools open?”

Not since 2004. His defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, got the head coaching job at Kentucky and took assistant D.J. Eliot with him. Another assistant, Dameyune Craig, left for a co-offensive coordinator job at Auburn. Counting Napier, four assistants left for the SEC.

Fisher continues.

“The NFL has nowhere else to draw coaches from,” he says. “And we had a lot of success. We’re graduating players. Guys aren’t getting in trouble. People want to know how you’re having success. We had to have a proven commodity.

“We’re the eighth-winningest team in the last three years. We were 30th the previous three years. We’ve jumped more than any team in the country. So people say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all do research and look at who’s doing good and ask, ‘Why are they doing good? Are they doing something we’re not doing?’ People are saying, ‘Let’s get some of those guys and see why they’re having success and are able to change the culture and change a program.”

The other three coaches who left -- Eddie Gran (Cincinnati), Greg Hudson (Purdue) and James Coley (Miami) -- took coordinator jobs as well. Fisher points this out, too, and makes it clear he has never stood in the way of an assistant getting another job. After all, he allowed Stoops to interview at Kentucky in the middle of the season.

While all of the change may not look so great on the surface, the staff Fisher has assembled may in fact be better than the one he had his first two seasons with the Seminoles. When asked what he likes most about this staff, Fisher says, “No. 1, the experience. No. 2, their undaunting ability to work and put in hours. A lot of staffs you get recruiters or coaches. I think everybody on our staff can do both. We have a staff that’s very solid recruiting and very solid coaching. It’s hard to find nine guys capable that way.”

Perhaps that is a slight dig at his past staff. But there is no questioning the credentials of the men tasked with elevating Florida State from ACC champ into yearly national title contender. All of them have won conference titles; three have won national titles.

Fisher keeps a running list of potential candidates with him, so he knew exactly whom to call when all these jobs came open. How they arrived in Tallahassee plays like a game of Six Degrees of Jimbo Fisher.

  • You have quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, who crossed paths with Fisher when both were assistants in the SEC some years ago. He also coached new running backs coach Jay Graham at Tennessee in the 1990s. The two have known each other since Graham was 17.
  • You have defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who come from the Nick Saban tree that also produced Fisher. Sunseri and Fisher were on the same staff at LSU in 2000.
  • You have recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who never worked with Fisher but recruited against him when he was at Texas and Fisher was at LSU.
  • Then you have special teams coordinator, linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1993 when Fisher was there. Kelly also played against Fisher the past several seasons while working at Georgia Tech. When Kelly was with the Jackets, and Pruitt with the Tide, the two shared ideas.

“Florida State has always been one of the schools I’ve always wanted to work at,” Sanders said. “When I first got married and was first coaching, my wife asked me. I said this was one of the four schools in the country I’d love to work at some day. When the opportunity came along, I was excited to come to Tallahassee.”

He echoed what all the other assistants said during their only media availability this spring: the desire to win a national title. Indeed, the intensity during spring practice seemed to be turned up a notch. Both Sunseri and Pruitt are quite boisterous and have no qualms about getting up close and personal with their players -- face to face mask.

On one particular afternoon last month, Sunseri kept getting after defensive end Giorgio Newberry. At one point, Newberry just slung his big arm around Sunseri’s shoulder and chuckled.

“I give him a hug every once in a while,” Newberry said. “I love Coach Sal. I love how he coaches me. He doesn’t let us take plays off. We have to go hard every time, and we’ve got to do it his way. I like that. He’ll chew me out and I’ll be like, 'Yes sir' and I try to fix it.”

Graham is not as in-your-face, but he demands excellence. That was not so easy to get adjusted to for some of the backs.

“He wants you to be great, so he has very high expectations,” James Wilder Jr. said. “It was hard getting used to it at first. He wants everything perfect.”

Fisher has described the staff transition as seamless. He has veteran coaches that share his same philosophies and players who have embraced the changes. But the questions will linger on until kickoff in Pittsburgh on Sept. 2.

Perhaps even longer.

2012 report cards: Georgia Tech

January, 23, 2013
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GEORGIA TECH

OFFENSE: The Yellow Jackets’ offense did what it always does under coach Paul Johnson -- executed one of the nation’s best ground games, this year ranking fourth in the country in rushing offense. Led by veteran quarterback Tevin Washington, Georgia Tech led the ACC with 311.2 rushing yards per game -- 105 yards more than the second-place team, Florida State. Georgia Tech also led the ACC in time of possession (32:58). Georgia Tech finished with 5,911 yards for the season, breaking the single-season school record. Grade: A

DEFENSE: This was the team’s Achilles’ Heel throughout the first half of the season, but the firing of Al Groh midseason turned out to be a good move, as the team made significant improvements in the second half of the season under interim coordinator Charles Kelly. Even more impressive was the fact that Georgia Tech played the USC game without its leading tackler -- junior safety Isaiah Johnson, who was injured -- and played the majority of the Sun Bowl without one of its top defenders – linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu. In the first six games of the season, Tech allowed 13.3 points in the fourth quarter and in overtime, compared to just 3.9 points in the fourth quarter the final eight games of the season. The Yellow Jackets did not allow a fourth-quarter point in each of the final four games (vs. Duke, Georgia, FSU and USC). They shutout both FSU and USC in the second half of those games. Grade: C

OVERALL: What began as a disaster ended as something the team could both be proud of and build upon. Georgia Tech began the season a dreadful 2-4 heading into the bye week, but an improbable appearance in the ACC championship game and Sun Bowl win over USC helped distance the program from its miserable start. At the time, the decision to fire Al Groh midseason seemed questionable, but how the staff handled it internally was key to the team’s resurgence in the second half of the season. Instead of letting it snowball into a complete disaster, Georgia Tech pulled it together and won four of its final six regular-season games. The bowl win was Johnson’s first as head coach of the Jackets. Grade: C+

More grades

ACC's lunchtime links

January, 15, 2013
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Tick, tock, Logan Thomas ...

ACC weekend wrap

January, 14, 2013
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A few items of interest for you from around the league this past weekend:

CLEMSON

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney presented the first Brian Dawkins Clemson Lifetime Achievement Award to -- surprise -- Brian Dawkins at the team’s banquet on Saturday evening.

From the release:
Dawkins recently retired from the NFL after 16 years with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Denver Broncos. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and played 224 games overall. He was a three-time All-ACC selection at Clemson between 1992-95 and was an AP All-American as a senior in 1995 when he led the ACC in interceptions.

“I got the idea to present an award like this from last year’s experience with the Bobby Dodd Award,” said Swinney, who won the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year Award in 2011. “The Dodd Award takes into account performance on the field, but also qualities like leadership, community service and others.

“Brian Dawkins epitomizes everything you strive to be on and off the field when it comes to being a Clemson football player. He is the ultimate professional and has represented this university with distinction in every way. He has set a standard of excellence in every way."

Swinney said that the award would be presented annually to a former Clemson player who had been out of school for at least 10 years. A committee will make a selection each November. The player will be honored at the banquet in January and at a football game the following fall.
FLORIDA STATE/GEORGIA TECH

Florida State has hired former Georgia Tech interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly as its linebackers coach and special teams coordinator. On Saturday, Georgia Tech responded with the following statements:
Charles Kelly: “I would like to thank Paul Johnson and Chan Gailey for giving me the opportunity to coach at Georgia Tech. I would also like to thank all the current and former Georgia Tech players for the effort they gave, on and off the field.

“My family and I will always have fond memories of the past seven years and we appreciate the support of the Georgia Tech administration, alumni and fans.

“I have a great deal of respect for Paul Johnson and I am very appreciative of his understanding of this great opportunity for me and my family.”

Paul Johnson: “I want to thank Charles for all that he has done for Georgia Tech football, especially in my five years at Tech. Charles is a hard-worker, a good football coach, and I’m certain he’ll be successful for years to come. I wish the best for him, Kristy and the kids.”
MIAMI
  • The NCAA's investigation is reportedly nearing an end, according to The Associated Press. The program could find out its punishment by May or June. Maybe. Possibly. It still needs the notice of allegations, but it sounds like some key officials are set to meet today.
  • At 11 a.m. today, Miami juniors Seantrel Henderson, Brandon Linder and Curtis Porter will announce their intentions on whether they will declare for the 2013 NFL draft or return for their senior seasons.
VIRGINIA

Virginia hired Larry Lewis as the its special teams coordinator and running backs coach. Lewis replaces Jeff Banks, who joined the UVa staff on Jan. 1 before resigning last week to coach in the SEC.

From the release:
Lewis has 32 years of collegiate coaching experience, including an eight-year stint as the head coach at Idaho State. Lewis first started coaching special teams when he was an assistant on Mike Price’s Weber State staff in 1981 and became one of the first college coaches to hold the title of special teams coordinator when he took on that role for Price’s Washington State teams in the 1990s.

“Larry Lewis has probably been coaching special teams for as long as anyone in college football and we’re really fortunate to have him join our staff,” coach Mike London said. “On the offensive side of the ball, he has worked for some very successful and innovative coaches out west and coached two of the nation’s top running backs over the past two seasons. Larry is high energy and our players are going to enjoy his style. It is ironic that Jeff Banks played for Larry at Washington State. I guess you could say we’ve gone from the pupil to the teacher.”

Lewis comes to Virginia after working for Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault at Nevada in 2012. Ault announced his retirement in late December. Lewis served as the Wolfpack’s special teams coordinator and running backs coach. Nevada averaged 271 rushing yards per game last season, the seventh-best average among FBS programs.
Ted Roof is back.

He’s back at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and the former Duke coach is back in the ACC, once again as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeTed Roof
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsTed Roof returns to Georgia Tech to be its defensive coordinator.
The question is, how long will he stay?

Roof is one of the nice guys in the business, but he’s moved around as much as major-league pitcher Edwin Jackson. Journeyman Jackson played for seven teams in his first 10 seasons. This will be Roof’s fourth stop since 2008, as he spent last year at Penn State, 2010 at Auburn, and 2008 at Minnesota. Will Roof give Georgia Tech’s defense any stability? Because it’s in desperate need of some.

Paul Johnson fired Dave Wommack after the 2009 season, he fired Al Groh midway through last season, and interim coordinator Charles Kelly is expected to be hired at Florida State, according to a source. Roof’s ties to Georgia Tech would indicate The Flats would make a good permanent home -- he was a linebacker for the Jackets under Bill Curry from 1982-1985. He is in the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame. He came back in 1998 as linebackers coach under George O’Leary and was defensive coordinator for three years.

He’s done this before.

And he’s left before.

It wasn’t since Roof’s tenure as head coach at Duke (2004-2007) that he stuck around anywhere for a while. Georgia Tech would benefit if it could find some consistency at the coordinator position.

Georgia Tech’s defense began to make significant strides in the second half of the season under Kelly, and with eight starters returning, Roof will inherit a solid, experienced group coming off an impressive win over USC in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. The Yellow Jackets closed the season by shutting out Florida State in the second half of the ACC Championship game and holding USC to just seven points.

Georgia Tech has hired one of its own to build off of that performance. The question is whether or not Roof will really call it home again.

GT won't see Matt Barkley in Sun Bowl

December, 27, 2012
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Georgia Tech will not have to face USC quarterback Matt Barkley in the Hyundai Sun Bowl on Monday.

Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said Thursday that Barkley is out with a shoulder injury, and freshman Max Wittek will get the start. Wittek started in place of Barkley in the regular-season finale against Notre Dame, throwing for 186 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to the Irish.

It was never really certain whether Barkley would be able to play in the bowl game, though Kiffin seemed to hold out some hope when he said his star quarterback would be re-evaluated in El Paso. Facing a team without a preseason Heisman candidate is at least some good news for a Jackets defense that has been inconsistent this season, though it still must find a way to slow down receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

Interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly told The Atlanta Journal Constitution this month that he would not game plan any differently despite the Trojans' quarterback uncertainty.

Of Wittek, he told the newspaper, "He made some unbelievable throws in the Notre Dame game. He’s got a really, really strong arm, can throw the ball downfield, probably as far as anybody we’ve seen distance-wise. And then when you have good people around you -- you’ve got good running backs, you’ve got good receivers, you’ve got a good offensive line, that usually makes your quarterback even better."

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