ACC: DeVon Edwards

Duke Blue Devils season preview

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Duke Blue Devils, the defending Coastal Division champs.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Boone playing with a chip on his shoulder could be good for Duke's ACC Coastal Division title hopes.
Key returners: QB Anthony Boone (64 percent completions, 13 touchdowns), RB Josh Snead (670 yards, 2 touchdowns), WR Jamison Crowder (108 catches, 1,360 yards, 8 touchdowns), TE Braxton Deaver (46 catches, 600 yards, 4 touchdowns), LB David Helton (133 tackles), S Jeremy Cash (121 tackles), LB Kelby Brown (114 tackles), CB Breon Borders (4 interceptions)

Key losses: QB Brandon Connette (27 touchdowns), RB Jela Duncan (573 yards, 11 touchdowns), LG Dave Harding, CB Ross Cockrell (3 interceptions, 16 passes defended), DE Kenny Anunike (13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks), DE Justin Foxx (4 sacks)

Most important games: Sept. 27 at Miami, Nov. 1 at Pitt, Nov. 15 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 20 versus North Carolina

Projected win percentage: .645

Vegas over/under: 8.5 wins

Instant impact newcomers: As freshman backups in 2013, corners DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields combined for seven interceptions and broke up 20 passes. All three are projected starters this season. Redshirt freshman Quay Mann could see time in the secondary this season, too. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk has never seen game action but figures to play a big role taking over for departed quarterback Brandon Connette, who was a key figure in the red zone last year.

Biggest question mark: Can the defense take a step forward? The unit made big plays last season and there’s plenty of talent returning. But this was still a defense that ranked 12th overall in the ACC, allowing 418 yards per game, and a unit that coughed up 30 or more points five times -- including a combined 97 points in its final two games against FSU and Texas A&M. With turnover on the defensive line and youth in the secondary, Duke needs to prove it's ready to take the next step on that side of the ball.

Number to know: 174. That’s the number of times Crowder was targeted in 2013, by far the most among any ACC receiver (the next closest was Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who was targeted 134 times). Crowder’s targets accounted for a whopping 37 percent of all of Duke’s passing attempts. He is one of only three receivers nationally (and the lone representative from a Power Five conference) to have a chance at a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2014.

They said it: "The biggest danger is in changing who we've been. We are a good program because we have great habits. What we want to become is a great program with great habits. We're still a work in progress." -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe

Why Duke will win the Coastal

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
3:00
PM ET
The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.

Why Duke will win the Coastal

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Boone playing with a chip on his shoulder could be good for Duke's ACC Coastal Division title hopes.
1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. The program has had a steady climb under David Cutcliffe, most notably in the last two seasons, with a six-win campaign in 2012 preceding a 10-win, division-winning season last fall. Similar improvements this season, particularly on defense, will have Duke running away with the division, though one has to wonder how much higher this group has left to climb. Still, Cutcliffe has said that Duke is here to stay. And despite finishing second in the preseason media poll, the Blue Devils had the most first-place votes (33) of anyone, six more than the next-highest total, North Carolina at 27. They are good, and they know it. As does everyone else.

2) They have the skill players. Don't be surprised if Anthony Boone enters this season with a chip on his shoulder after seeing multiple preseason All-ACC teams list UNC's Marquise Williams ahead of him as the second-team quarterback. Boone took his Blue Devils into Chapel Hill last season and beat Williams and the Tar Heels, and Williams isn't even assured of starting this season. More importantly, Boone is throwing to one of the nation's most versatile receivers in Jamison Crowder, along with tight end Braxton Deaver and a talented stable of running backs who will be protected by an offensive line that brings back three key starters.

3) Their secondary is strong. The loss of All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell is not nearly as devastating as it probably could be, given the talent returning among the defensive backs. Safety Jeremy Cash is coming off a 121-tackle, four-interception season. DeVon Edwards is flexible in the back end and has a knack for making plays wherever he is on the field, including on kick returns. Breon Borders is looking to build off a freshman campaign that featured him picking off Jameis Winston twice in the ACC title game. Given the youth up front on the defensive line, this group will probably get tested more often, and it appears well-equipped to handle the workload.

Why Duke won't win the Coastal

1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. Yes, Duke's success could -- could -- be the reason for its downfall, if there is one. As stated above, this program is no longer a secret commodity. In fact, some Coastal teams are probably still irked by the fact that Duke finished ahead of them in football. It's silly, yes, but it also presents a whole new set of challenges for a program that had not experienced much recent success until the last two seasons. How well Duke can handle having the target on its back will go a long way toward determining its fate in the division race.

2) Brandon Connette's legs will be missed. Connette is the program's career leader in rushing touchdowns (31), and his running ability was crucial in the red zone, which helped his efficiency as a passer as well. With Connette having transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his sick mother, more will be on Boone's plate, as the new No. 2, Thomas Sirk, has yet to take a college snap. Cutcliffe is high on the redshirt sophomore, but asking him to do what Connette was able to accomplish might be a tall task this early.

3) The defensive line is an unknown. Tackle Jamal Bruce is the only returning starter up front, though the other three linemen joining him on the first team are upperclassmen who have seen extensive time before. And, to be fair, the line was hardly dominant last season, averaging less than two sacks per game. Having a pair of 100-tackle linebackers back in David Helton and Kelby Brown sure helps, as does that secondary, but the pass rush cannot afford to take a step back in 2014.
In three years at Duke, Jamison Crowder has blossomed into one of the ACC’s best receivers, while helping the Blue Devils’ offense become one of the most feared in the conference. As Crowder prepares for what could be his third straight 1,000-yard season, we caught up with the Duke senior for his thoughts on what awaits in 2014.

You came to Duke when the program was a perennial loser, and you’ve seen it grow exponentially since your arrival. Did you envision this type of success from the beginning?

Jamison Crowder: As any recruit going to a new place, you have second thoughts about certain things. But I had confidence in what Coach [David] Cutcliffe pitched at me. We had guys coming in and some young guys already here that had good talent. Coach Cut said in the next few years, we’d be a program on the rise, and that was the mindset I had coming in. Now, that’s what’s happening. My career has escalated as well as the program, and right now, I couldn’t have made a better choice.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Jamison Crowder is looking to help Duke win a second straight ACC Coastal Division title.
How do you think people’s perceptions of Duke have changed since you’ve been here? And what did losing those last two games against Florida State and Texas A&M last season mean for where the program is?

JC: People saw we were for real, but for a lot of people, we still have a lot to prove. And for ourselves. We had a team meeting yesterday, and one of the things we talked about, obviously our program is headed in the right direction, but at the end of the year, both years, we didn’t win bowl games. We made it to the ACC championship and that was a good marker, but we failed to win. I think everybody on the team has that determination to continue the success, but now, win the championship games and bowl games. From the outside, I think we still have a lot to prove. A lot of people still think last year was a fluke, but I think we’re going to be pretty good again this year.

You’re back, Anthony Boone is back, Braxton Deaver, Josh Snead, several key linemen — can this year’s offense be even better than last season?

JC: We’ve got a lot of experience coming back. We’ve lost a few linemen and one of our running backs, but we have a lot of playmakers coming back. We have a pretty good running back in Shaquille Powell that is going to come on the scene a lot this year. Coach Mo [Scottie Montgomery] is a guy that’s fired up and puts players in the right position to make plays. Expectations are high. Last year, we left a lot of plays on the field. That’s in the back of our minds. We don’t want to leave any plays behind.

Is it fair to compare expectations for QB Thomas Sirk to what Brandon Connette did last year? Can he handle that role?

JC: Sirk is — Brandon had a little more of a built frame, but Sirk is taller and I think he’ll come in a lot on the goal line to run the wildcat. Sirk is very athletic and he can come in and fill that role. One thing he has to work on is in the open field, but I think he can overall come in and do what Brandon did, if not better, on the goal line and in short-yardage situations.

You had a very young secondary last year, including a lot of playing time for freshmen. Have you seen that group improve over the spring and summer?

JC: Most definitely. Those guys have a good work ethic. I lift with Bryon Fields and Quay Mann. Those guys have been working. Last year, they were thrown in the fire. They handled it well. They gave up some big plays, but they made some big plays. For a freshman to come in, that’s a difficult task, and they did real well last year. And this year, you can see they’re more comfortable and bigger and stronger and faster.

What do you need to accomplish this year to convince people at the next level that you’re a legit prospect?

JC: I just have to have another good season. My status, as far as the league, is still unsure because of my size or because I’m not the fastest. So I just want to have another good season, not get complacent. You hear a lot of people telling you you’re going to make it, but those same people are the ones making the decision whether I’m playing on Sundays. Only thing I can work on is me, and I’m staying hungry and continuing to work. I want to go out and make plays, score touchdowns and definitely have a better year as a returner this year. Last year I had two returns [for touchdowns], but I feel like I left two or three on the field.

You mentioned special teams, and the ACC has some very talented return men, including your own teammate, DeVon Edwards. Do you compare your game to any of those guys? Is there anyone who you particularly like to watch play?

JC: Most definitely, DeVon. It’s fun to have teammates that make the game easier. I’ve realized that scoring on special teams takes a load off the offense. That one play is a whole possession. DeVon and me, we joke that I’m going to have more. Last year, we both had two. So this year I said I’m going to have more returns, and he says, ‘You’re crazy.’ But you’ve got to go out there and perform. Aside from my teammate, I like [North Carolina's] Ryan Switzer. I’ve watched a few highlights on YouTube, and I like his game.

What would a third straight 1,000-yard season mean for you?

JC: It’s great to get 1,000 yards in two years. But I want to be able to play at the next level, and the numbers hold some weight, but if you’re not performing at the highest level it doesn’t mean anything. The numbers are great, it shows I’m working, but I can do better and I know I’m going to have to do better to have a chance to play at the next level. And as long as we’re winning ballgames, that’s the main thing.

Is this the most talented Duke team since you’ve been here?

JC: Most definitely. We lost a few guys, but we have a lot of talent — raw talent. We’re getting better. We’re adding talent on talent. We’ve got a lot of confidence and talent that Duke hasn’t had in recent years. Now we’ve just got to get ready to play.
David Cutcliffe placed the call while he was on the treadmill. DeVon Edwards tried to play it cool when Cutcliffe offered him a scholarship, asking whether he could talk with his mom first.

But the truth is, Edwards knew all along what he would say. Five minutes later, Edwards accepted the only scholarship offer that came his way.

[+] EnlargeDeVon Edwards
Peter Casey/USA TODAY SportsDuke return man DeVon Edwards joined the track team to help improve his speed for the 2014 season.
Incredible now to believe only one school believed in him. Edwards is going into his sophomore season at Duke as one of the top kick returners in the country.

So how did he get virtually no interest in high school?

Edwards played at a relatively new school in Covington, Georgia, that opened in 2006. Nobody from that school had ever received a football scholarship to an FBS program. So the school itself was off the map. And so was Edwards, after a broken collarbone sidelined him for his junior season.

His high school coaches sent out game tape from his sophomore season, but nobody seemed interested. With no interest and no offers, Edwards began to face reality. He turned his focus to basketball, where he played on AAU teams and was an all-region selection for his school.

If nobody wanted him as a football player, maybe they would as a basketball player.

"It was a tough feeling, not knowing if you were going to get to play at the next level and then your friends were getting scholarships," Edwards recalled recently. "I figured I was not doing something right, maybe I was too small or too short or something. I had a high GPA, so I knew I could get into college but playing football was something I like doing and I was just starting to cope with the fact that I might not get a scholarship."

Enter Cutcliffe. He saw something in Edwards in those old game tapes. He asked for senior year game tape. At this point, the football season was over. But Edwards was playing basketball. Cutcliffe took a trip to see him during practice.

He was sold, and offered Edwards in December -- just two months before signing day.

"I guess God just told me I need to play football," Edwards said.

Edwards came into Duke with little fanfare. He was the only player in the class of 2012 without any stars or ranking from ESPN Recruiting. Edwards redshirted his first season, then went into fall camp last year hoping for playing time at cornerback. But he was moved to safety and admitted frustration over his undetermined role.

With the help of former star Duke CB Ross Cockrell, Edwards tried to look ahead, waiting for his shot. It came on defense and special teams around the same time.

Cutcliffe had always promised Edwards a chance to return kicks. It happened after Johnell Barnes broke his hand in late September. Edwards started at kick returner in the sixth game of the season, against Navy, and held on to the role the rest of the season. He also started the final seven games of the season at safety.

Edwards started to make a name for himself soon enough. He ended up returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and two interceptions for touchdowns. Three of those scores came against NC State (two INT returns and a 100-yard kickoff return).

"It didn’t hit me how well we played until the next morning when I was watching 'SportsCenter' and people kept talking about it and I was like, 'Wow, that was a big deal,'" Edwards said.

He ended the season ranked No. 3 in the nation in kickoff return average (30.2 yards per return) and was one of seven players to return multiple kickoffs for touchdowns. Edwards has worked on his speed this offseason in order to get better, and joined the track team for the outdoor season with several other football players. Edwards says he is a much better runner now than he was when spring football ended.

That will only help him build off his impressive first season. After all, he's no longer an unknown.

"I’m going to keep playing how I was playing and keep on working hard. I knew who I was when nobody else knew who I was," Edwards said.
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Next up: Special teams

Best of the best: Florida State

There is no shortage of ACC teams with playmakers on special teams, but in the end, the Seminoles' talent overwhelms. They bring back sophomore Kermit Whitfield after a historic rookie campaign that was the best in school history. He had a nation-best 36.4 yard kick return average (an ACC record) and a 100-yard touchdown return late in the fourth quarter of the national title game. On top of that, there's reigning Lou Groza Award winner and All-American Roberto Aguayo, whose redshirt freshman season saw him nail 21 of his 22 field goal attempts and all 94 of his extra point tries. His 157 points set a new national record for a kicker as well. FSU also brings back punter Cason Beatty, in addition to the more-than-capable Rashad Greene at punt returner, where the Seminoles have a number of precocious speedsters behind him.

Next up: Duke

North Carolina certainly has a strong argument in returning Ryan Switzer, but the nod here ultimately goes to rival Duke, which brings back all of the key pieces from a special teams unit that played no small role in helping the Blue Devils win the Coastal Division title. There's Jamison Crowder, one of the most versatile players in the country, who amassed 401 yards and two touchdowns last season on 25 punt returns. There's DeVon Edwards, who thrived all over the field as a redshirt freshman, returning 19 kickoffs for 574 yards and two sores. And there's kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday, both of whom put forth stellar efforts last season, with Martin connecting on 2 of 3 tries from 50 yards or longer and Monday pinning 21 punts inside the 20.

Possible sleeper: Georgia Tech

Jamal Golden is back after a one-year absence because of a shoulder injury. But don't count out the junior, as he was the only player in 2012 to rank in the top 10 nationally in both punt returns (14.6) and kick returns (28.4). His time away has given way to more film study, and if fully healthy, Golden's numbers figure to be right up there with the rest of the talented specialists returning in the ACC this season. Harrison Butker impressed as a true freshman last season, hitting 10 of 14 field goal attempts and missing just one extra point. Punter Ryan Rodwell, meanwhile, figures to be the main guy after redshirting in 2013.

Problem for a contender: Virginia Tech

Beamer Ball has undoubtedly taken a hit, most notably with the team's kicking woes (VT missed 11 field goals last season) and the dismissal of Cody Journell. Freshman Michael Santamaria may be the answer at starter, for better or worse. Kyshoen Jarrett is back after averaging 5.3 yards per punt return last season. So, too, is Demitri Knowles, who averaged 21.8 yards per kick return in 2013. Something needs to be done about coverage, as the Hokies surrendered three touchdown returns last season.
Duke lost All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell from its secondary, but the Blue Devils are poised to be even better this season thanks to a philosophical shift on the recruiting trail.

After the 2012 season ended, the Duke coaching staff sat down to discuss ways to make the program better. Defensive backs coach Derek Jones wanted to start recruiting a more complete and versatile player, capable of playing both cornerback and safety. That way it would be harder for opponents to find weaknesses in the secondary.

The change paid off immediately. Duke signed Breon Borders, Bryon Fields and Deondre Singleton in the class of 2013. All three came in after lettering in multiple sports in high school. Singleton was rated as both a cornerback and safety; Fields was listed as an athlete.

[+] EnlargeDeVon Edwards
Lance King/Getty ImagesDeVon Edwards started eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and had two interception returns for a touchdown against NC State.
All three played as true freshmen. Add into the mix DeVon Edwards, who switched from cornerback to safety as a redshirt freshman, and Duke had an unprecedented youth movement in the secondary.

“I had never played that many true freshmen, and when I did it, I was very nervous,” Jones says with a chuckle. “I went into the season without a lot of depth. We only had Ross Cockrell who had starting experience.

“First game of the season, I told Ross I’m going put [Borders and Fields] in at corner on the third series of the game. We’re not going to tell them. I’m just going to throw them out there. I put them out there, and they both performed with the same confidence they practiced with. Once they got out there and got their teeth cut, that meant something to them.”

Borders and Fields both played in all 14 games last season, taking the second- and third-most snaps among all Duke cornerbacks. Borders broke the school freshman record for interceptions with four. They are the new starting cornerbacks for 2014.

Edwards started eight games last season and against NC State became the second player in NCAA history to score on interception returns on back-to-back plays. He returns to the starting lineup along with Singleton and junior safety Jeremy Cash, expected to be a preseason All-ACC selection after racking up 121 tackles and four interceptions last season while playing the most snaps of any Blue Devil.

Duke has no seniors among its most experienced defensive backs, so this is a group that can build on the steps it began taking last year.

“We had some success last year but the biggest thing is not to be satisfied,” Fields said in a recent interview. “One of the things that makes us successful as a group is the way we compete with each other. When we go into workouts and practices, we’re competing, jawing back and forth during every drill. Even off the field, we compete and that all makes us closer. That trust level we built is what makes our ceiling so high. We have the skill level, but that’s not what separates us.”

The closeness was built once they arrived on campus. Nobody knew each other in high school, but they all quickly became friends, including players who ended up redshirting last season such as Quay Mann and Evrett Edwards. Mann also has moved positions, switching from cornerback to safety.

Evrett Edwards, meanwhile, was the highest-rated defensive back recruit in the 2013 class and impressed in the spring game in March, tying for the team lead with eight tackles while adding a sack.

“We’re together everywhere we go off the field,” DeVon Edwards said recently. “If you’re not with the whole group, you’re with one person in the group. So our bond is real strong even away from football and that puts trust in our relationships on the field, allows us to get on each other.”

Bonding as young players helped, too, because they shared similar experiences together.

“I’d say it was just a stroke of luck that we all got together,” Fields said. “We all have similar personalities, we’re all competitive and that can be attributed to recruiting. Even Coach Jones has that dog-eat-dog mentality and that’s been translated down to us. We have a desire to be the best we can be.”
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Next up: The secondary

Best of the best: Florida State

Where do we begin? FSU's defensive backs may be the best in the nation. Start with safety Jalen Ramsey, who started as a true freshman last season, earned freshman All-America honors and should step right into the role all-everything DB Lamarcus Joyner filled last season. Both Ramsey and corner P.J. Williams shined this spring, and they were recognized as such by sharing the team's Hinesman Award (spring standout), along with Jameis Winston. Ronald Darby has the potential to become a shutdown corner, Tyler Hunter has made a strong comeback from neck surgery that forced him out of the final 11 games of last season and Nate Andrews is looking to build off a standout rookie campaign that saw him lead the Seminoles in interceptions, with four.

Next up: Virginia Tech

If FSU's secondary is the best in the nation, Virginia Tech's probably isn't far behind. The Hokies return all four starters from a unit that ranked No. 8 nationally in passing defense last season. Corners Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson were thrust into immediate meaningful action in 2013 because of injuries and neither disappointed, tallying a combined 11 interceptions. Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner added two picks apiece, with Jarrett serving as the team's leading returning tackler this fall as well (71 in 2013). Injuries limited several key pieces of the secondary this spring, but if it's any consolation, that could prove valuable long-term for the next-in-line at DBU. It's how Fuller and Facyson were able to thrive so early, after all.

Possible sleeper: Duke

The departure of Ross Cockrell will be tough to fill, but the Blue Devils have a ton of talented and experience playmakers returning. And there could be more opportunities coming their way, thanks to the fact that they have a very green defensive line. Safety Jeremy Cash had four of the secondary's 16 interceptions last year (the team had 18 total), but his biggest impact may be up front, where he tallied 9.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, in addition to tallying 121 tackles in 2013. Corner DeVon Edwards came on strong down the stretch and finished with three picks, and safety Deondre Singleton added one pick and two forced fumbles as well. Corner Breon Borders, meanwhile, holds the distinction of picking off the Heisman winner Winston twice last season as a freshman, and he is looking to build off a four-interception rookie campaign.

Problem for a contender: Louisville

It's all on the corners now. Replacing safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor is a huge task for Todd Grantham in his first season as Louisville's defensive coordinator, and he at least benefits from a pair of returning starters at corner in Terrell Floyd and Charles Gaines. Still, there could be a pair of redshirt freshmen starting at safety (Charles Williams and Richard Benjamin), though Gerod Holliman and Michael Johnson might figure into the mix.

ACC mailblog

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
3:00
PM ET
Have a great weekend, everyone!

Dave in Baltimore writes: OK, the division realignment discussion is getting old at this point -- how many years has it been going on? We've all got our ideas of what we want to see, but let's talk about something that is maybe a little more plausible. I love the idea of entire conference ACC-SEC matchups every year. We've already got four built in, so it is a perfect match. Being a Virginia Tech fan, I would love to see VT play Tennessee a lot more often. I think you have to keep the core four matchups, but I wouldn't force the others because not every pair of teams has a natural "rival." There are several good options for VT in Tennessee (proximity), Texas A&M (very similar schools and the best road trip I've been on) and Alabama (we have played them 13 times in the past). One problem I see is that VT has a lot of B1G teams on the future schedule through 2023 (OSU, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, Purdue), many of which are also great games. I don't see them scheduling both SEC and B1G teams in the same year unless strength of schedule really becomes a factor. It stinks when you're looking forward to these games for a decade and then they get bought out and canceled. My OSU friends and I have been waiting 10 years for the OSU series!

Adelson writes: Every fan has to live with the idea that a terrific matchup scheduled way down the road could end up getting canceled. But let's not go there. It is true every athletic director has to balance nonconference scheduling -- creating a solid slate without killing their team. But it is not unheard of to have two challenging nonconference games on the slate, like a Tennessee and an Ohio State. Clemson has it this year with Georgia and South Carolina; Florida State has it with Oklahoma State and Florida. During the spring meetings, I asked Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock how he would approach scheduling in years the Hokies played Notre Dame, considering the Big Ten games already on the table. He replied, "In Blacksburg, if we have Michigan and Notre Dame on the schedule, I think our fans would be fine with that." Another option exists, if all ACC teams end up with a yearly game against the SEC. In the seasons Virginia Tech plays one of the tougher Big Ten opponents, or Notre Dame, perhaps the Hokies get paired up with Kentucky (still in geographic proximity). I know the matchup is not nearly as glamorous as Tennessee, Alabama or Texas A&M, but it does balance out the schedule a little more.

 




Justin in Ocala, Florida, writes: So, Andrea, I know you know my city is here in the heart of Gator country, and I have been hearing a lot of talk lately about UF having some serious interest in setting up a home and home with Clemson. Of course, this is just fan talk, but the local radio guys (former Gator greats) have all been saying they really like what Clemson brings to college football and would love to set up some crossovers. Granted, Clemson is in the deep South, which is clearly college football country, but with big-time SEC teams expressing interest in another ACC matchup (they already get FSU every year), do you think this is a good sign for the rise of the ACC? It would appear that the interest is there from the SEC (I consider UF a power player for the SEC) to get some real nontraditional but still power games set up. Since we all expect the ADs to take a wait-and-see approach on strength of schedule versus college playoff entrance, are there any real discussions to get these games set up? It seems that it would be a real recruiting coup for the ACC and SEC if they could get some inter-conference power games yearly, which could definitely help pull some of those California kids back East. By the way, how awesome would it be to see UF-Clemson square off in some night games in Death Valley and the Swamp?

Adelson writes: Yes, please! The ACC and SEC have been in discussions about setting up yearly matchups between their schools. I think we can all agree that would be a huge positive for the ACC. Clemson has not been shy about scheduling nonconference games against SEC teams outside of South Carolina. Note the recent home-and-home with Georgia and regular-season matchups against Auburn. Florida is the school that has been much more reluctant to schedule a tougher nonconference schedule, if only because the Gators are not in the habit of playing home-and-home contests. Miami was an exception to that, and the series has ended. However, the recent scheduling news that Florida will play Michigan in 2017 in Arlington, Texas, provides a glimmer of hope that perhaps scheduling philosophies are shifting. Florida already has its yearly ACC game, so it won't be required to add another. As opposed to a home-and-home, perhaps the Gators would agree to a one-off against a team at a neutral site, like Atlanta. That would be a win-win for everyone.

 




Michael in Atlanta writes: What players do you feel will step up for Miami this year on the defensive side?

Adelson writes: I am looking for a big year out of defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad. There is no doubt Miami needs to increase the pressure from the defensive line, and Muhammad is poised to take advantage after having a good spring. The coaches have raved about Tracy Howard and Artie Burns at cornerback, a position where Miami needs much more consistent play. Howard has taken on much more of a leadership role, which the coaches have been happy to see.

 




Colin in Orlando writes: Wow...... No Duke Johnson or Stacy Coley for best special teams players? Not even one of them? That is horrendous reporting. It shows a lack of detail and credibility. I am a Hurricane fan, but I am also a realist. We have no QB and the defense hasn't played together in years. That doesn't mean we still don't have some of the best talent in the nation. I would take Stacy Coley and Duke Johnson over Kermit (Whitfield) any day. He has one gear and one move (straight and fast), and yeah he is good at that, but come on man! I would take Duke and Coley over anyone on that list! To not even mention one of them is ludicrous.

Adelson writes: When I did the special teams position analysis video you are referring to, I geared it specifically toward the players who either led the NCAA or were among the best in the NCAA in returns. As in any of these videos, there is never truly enough time to go into detail on every player on every team. Are Johnson and Coley good returners? Absolutely. You can see where Coley ranks among ACC kickoff returners here. But neither player did what Whitfield or Ryan Switzer or even DeVon Edwards did last season, so that is why they were not included in the video discussion. That does not diminish their skills or talents. Looking forward to watching them both in a very stacked group of ACC specialists.
Athlon Sports became the latest publication to put out its preseason All-America team Monday, and not surprisingly there is major ACC representation across the board.

Perhaps most notably, Athlon has Jameis Winston as its first-team quarterback. Why is this notable? College football guru Phil Steele has Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota as his first-team All-America quarterback, ahead of Winston. Steele also has Mariota as his top Heisman candidate headed into the season, with Winston at No. 2. It certainly will be interesting to see how the competition between them plays out, especially since they are widely considered the top two quarterbacks in the country.

As for the other players featured on both All-America teams, Athlon and Steele only differ on a few ACC first-team players aside from Winston. Athlon has Florida State safety Jalen Ramsey on its first team, while Steele does not; Steele has Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman on his first team, while Athlon has him on its fourth team. Steele also listed Florida State's Kermit Whitfield as his first-team kick returner, while Athlon had him on the third team.

Looking at both teams, there is no denying there is major talent at Florida State once again. And there is no denying the ACC has the top special-teams players in the country. Athlon features Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo and North Carolina punt returner Ryan Switzer on its first team, while also giving nods to Whitfield, Duke's DeVon Edwards (fourth-team kick returner) and Jamison Crowder (second-team punt returner) and Virginia Tech's A.J. Hughes (fourth-team punter).

In all, the ACC has eight players on the Athlon first team, tied with the Pac-12 for the most in the country. Overall, 27 ACC players are listed on the Athlon All-America first-, second-, third- and fourth-teams -- more than any other league.
Tommy Tuberville has never been one to hold back. Whether you want to hear it or not, brutal honesty is all you are going to get.

So when Derek Jones asked his former coach for a bit of advice about whether to join the Dallas Cowboys for a minicamp tryout, Tuberville laid it down: Forget about playing in the NFL, he told him. You need to be a coach.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jones
Courtesy of Duke University PhotographyDerek Jones is beginning his seventh season as a Duke assistant, and is on a path to being a head coach someday.
Jones had never given coaching a thought. He figured after his playing career was over, he would become a lawyer. But Tuberville made a convincing argument: Jones was a team leader, a hard worker and knew how to sell the Ole Miss program to incoming recruits while he was still playing.

Tuberville presented him with an opportunity, offering him a graduate assistant job on his Ole Miss staff in 1998. Try it, Tuberville told him. If you hate it, at least you will be on your way toward law school.

Jones considered the possibilities. He realized what Tuberville said was right. He was a 5-foot-8 cornerback with some CFL experience, but would he really have a future in the NFL? Jones gave up on his NFL dream and accepted the job. Now, 16 years later, he is going into his seventh season as a Duke assistant.

But more than that, Jones is headed down a path that could lead him toward a head coaching job. Jones recently participated in the NCAA Champion Forum in Orlando, Florida, where minority assistants identified as potential head coaches participate in sessions designed to prepare them to take the next step in their careers.

"I get it now, and I really appreciate Coach Tuberville seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself," Jones said. "If he hadn’t given me that hard love and that advice, I may not have had a chance with Coach [David] Cutcliffe when he came to get in the door. Who knows where I would be now."

Indeed, one decision often becomes life-changing. Jones had a chance to work with Tuberville for one year before Cutcliffe took over at Ole Miss in 1999. Cutcliffe retained Jones, and they each left impressions on the other. Jones went on to become a full-time assistant at Murray State and spent time at Middle Tennessee, Tulsa and Memphis.

Jones' phone rang shortly after Cutcliffe became head coach at Duke in December 2007. Cutcliffe wanted Jones to join him with the Blue Devils.

“When he offered me the job, I had three other job offers on the table at some pretty big football-playing schools,” Jones said. “He said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘I know you’ve got some other things going on, and you can go to those places and you’ll probably be successful, but I think we have a chance to do something significant at Duke.’

“Going to place a like that, where the odds were against you, I knew I’d have a chance to make a difference not only in the lives of young men and on the football field, but also proving to myself that I’m actually good at this. It was more of a personal thing and believing in him. I saw what he was able to do at my alma mater. I knew if he could go into Ole Miss and do the things he’d done there, I knew there was a chance we could get it done at Duke.”

Cutcliffe sold his vision to incoming players, too, and has turned Duke into a division champion because everybody inside the program bought in. Jones has had opportunities to leave Duke, but he has stayed, largely because of Cutcliffe.

[+] EnlargeCutcliffe
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDerek Jones believed in David Cutcliffe's vision for Duke football.
“The ability to work under Coach Cutcliffe is good for my growth,” Jones said. “He’s as good as any coach I’ve been around at so many things. The more knowledge I can obtain from him, the better I’m going to be long term. I can’t think of many other situations outside of the situation we’ve been in that compares to anything.”

Jones has aspirations to become a head coach, which is why attending the Champion Forum was so important to him. Assistants go through mock interviews with current athletic directors, have opportunities to network and learn everything that goes into becoming a head coach -- because it goes way beyond coaching. Jones has never interviewed for a head coach job, but when that opportunity comes, he will be much better prepared.

“Now I have a background on what it takes for me,” he said. “I can start to work on the things I don’t have in my arsenal right now.”

Jones does have the coaching. As defensive backs coach, he helped cornerback Ross Cockrell earn first-team All-ACC honors in 2012 and 2013. Cockrell was picked by Buffalo in the fourth round of the NFL draft in May. Duke returns a young but very talented secondary in 2014, led by All-ACC second-team safety Jeremy Cash, DeVon Edwards, Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.

They remain his focus, thanks in large part to the brutal honesty of a coach who believed.

Video: ACC special teams analysis

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
2:00
PM ET

Andrea Adelson takes a look at special teams in the ACC, where some of the top players in the country are set to return for 2014.
David Cutcliffe earned plenty of praise for the job he did revitalizing Duke in 2012, but even the most optimistic Blue Devils fans had to be surprised by the leap their team took in 2013 — winning 10 games and playing for a conference title. So, how did they do it?

Obviously Cutcliffe’s efforts installing an offseason program, improving recruiting and installing his system have worked wonders in Durham, but dig into the numbers and there were a few key areas that proved crucial to Duke’s run in 2013 and could make the difference once again as the Blue Devils try to defend their Coastal Division title this fall.

Strong offensive line play

[+] Enlarge Laken Tomlinson
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIDespite some personnel losses, Duke's offensive line, led by the experience of Laken Tomlinson, can be successful again in 2014.
Last season: It’s no secret that strong play in the trenches can cover a lot of other blemishes, and Duke’s offensive line was exceptional in 2013. The Blue Devils mustered 29 dropbacks per sack, the 10th-best mark in the country and by far the best in the ACC (Miami was next at 23.5). Duke also averaged 4.6 yards per carry (up nearly a yard from 2012) and had 28 rushing TDs (10 more than the previous season).

2014 outlook: Last season’s success shouldn’t have been a shocker. Duke returned the third-most experienced line in the country for 2013 (113 career starts), which translated to a unit that gelled quickly. Now, Duke must replace its two most veteran starters in Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, but the Blue Devils still have plenty of experience on the line. Still, Duke’s line isn’t exactly green. Laken Tomlinson (39 career starts), Matt Skura and Takoby Cofield are all seniors, while Lucas Patrick and Sam Marshall are juniors with ample game experience. With another year in Cutcliffe’s strength and conditioning program, the 2014 line could be every bit as good as 2013's.

A workhorse on offense

Last season: No receiver in the country was more relied upon more than Duke’s Jamison Crowder. Blue Devils QBs threw the ball 472 times in 2013, with Crowder the target on a whopping 174 of them (37 percent). Crowder hauled in 62 percent of the balls thrown his way and was exceptional on both short passes and as a deep threat. Most importantly, however, he was consistently good. The only game in which Crowder finished with fewer than five catches was the win over Virginia Tech.

2014 outlook: The case can be made that Crowder won’t be a secret in his senior campaign, but ACC defenses had to have known what was in store last fall, too. In the past two seasons, with three different starting QBs throwing to him, Crowder has racked up 184 catches, 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be among the best in the country -- and an ideal security blanket on offense -- once again in 2014.

Dynamic QB play

Last season: Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette combined for nearly 4,000 yards of offense (551 rushing, 3,472 passing) with 45 total touchdowns. As a point of comparison, Heisman winner Jameis Winston had 4,276 yards of offense and 44 total touchdowns. And thanks to the threat Connette posed with his legs, Duke was among the most successful teams in the country in the red zone, scoring TDs on 40 of 58 trips and 27 percent of its red-zone rushing attempts.

2014 outlook: Boone has another year of experience under his belt and is the ACC’s second-most veteran QB, but Connette’s transfer to Fresno State is a big blow. Only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch had more rushing TDs among quarterbacks last year than Connette, and they did so with nearly three times as many attempts. No player in the country with at least 30 red-zone rushing attempts scored at a higher rate than Connette in 2013 (42 percent), and while the Blue Devils are high on Thomas Sirk as Boone’s new backup, those are some enormous shoes to fill.

A playmaking defense

Last season: The easy knock on Duke last season was its defense. After all, twice Duke topped 48 points and still lost (Pitt, Texas A&M). Overall, the Blue Devils’ D ranked 82nd nationally, and it allowed nearly 8 yards per play in four losses. But the great equalizer were the big plays. Duke’s D recorded 26 takeaways (tied for 26th nationally) and 18 interceptions (tied for 13th nationally). The capacity for big plays helped offset too many bad ones defensively.

2014 outlook: The Blue Devils could be in for some rough patches on D again this fall. The secondary features four sophomores likely to see extensive playing time, while the defensive front gets a significant makeover from last season. Still, 14 of the 18 INTs from last season return, and DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields have the talent to blossom quickly.

Scoring on D, special teams

Last season: Thanks to Edwards and Crowder, Duke scored six non-offensive touchdowns last season, tied for the eighth-most nationally. The 16 teams that had at least six non-offensive touchdowns were a combined 130-66 (.653) in 2013, with eight of them winning at least 10 games (including both teams that played for the national title).

2014 outlook: Big plays on D and special teams can be maddeningly inconsistent. When they happen, they can be game-changers, but they’re notoriously tough to predict. Still, Duke returns athleticism in the return game and in the secondary, which should open up options, and if the Blue Devils’ offense can force opponents into shootouts, the D will have its chances to take a few more INTs to the house.
Florida State is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as ACC champions in 2014. But that doesn't mean the rest of the league is going to step aside for the Seminoles.

So which team has the best chance to unseat them from their throne? Let's look at some of the top contenders:

SportsNation

Who has the best chance to unseat Florida State as ACC champion in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,309)

Clemson: Skeptical fans will ask how the Tigers will take down Florida State considering: 1. They have lost to the Noles the last two years; 2. They play in Tallahassee in 2014; 3. They do not have Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Roderick McDowell, just to name four. Well, the truth is Clemson is not going anywhere anytime soon. Florida State had a lot of questions last season about replacing 11 NFL draft picks -- including its starting quarterback. But thanks to recruiting, the Seminoles were even better. Now, this is not to say Clemson will be even better in 2014 than it was a year ago, but it is to say the Tigers are not going to go back to winning seven games. They have kept pace with Florida State on the recruiting trail, have outstanding candidates to step in at quarterback, should be better at running back and will have one of the strongest defensive lines in the ACC. Boyd and Watkins might be gone, but Clemson is here to stay.

Duke: The Blue Devils, you say? Well, yes, they are a big-time dark horse, especially because the gap between the two programs was exposed for the world to see in the ACC championship game last December. Still, Duke will be one of the favorites to repeat as Coastal champions for several reasons. First, the Blue Devils return eight starters on offense, including All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder, starting quarterback Anthony Boone and backup Brandon Connette. Second, they have some excellent players back on defense, including linebacker Kelby Brown and safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards. Third, their schedule should make them favorites as they avoid playing Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame. Given the progress that has been made, this team could easily win 10 games again.

Louisville: The Cards are a bit of a wild card for a host of reasons. Not only do they have to replace potential No. 1 draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, their front seven has to be rebuilt and they have a new coach and new schemes to get used to in a short period of time. The schedule is much more challenging in 2014, too, with games against Florida State, Clemson, Notre Dame and Miami. The program is a step behind Florida State and Clemson, but Bobby Petrino sure knows how to coach. He won 10 or more games in the SEC West. Twice. Their chances are remote, but they should still be one of the top-tier ACC teams this year.

Miami: While it is true the in-state rivals are lagging behind the Seminoles, the Hurricanes have made some major strides on the recruiting trail and have talent all over the roster. If Duke Johnson had not gotten hurt last season, perhaps Miami would have stayed in the game. The Canes have a receiving group that can challenge the Florida State secondary. A healthy Johnson is a game-changer. And they meet in Miami this year in mid-November. Still, there are questions at quarterback and on defense that make Miami a long shot to unseat the Seminoles.

Other: Is it North Carolina? Virginia Tech? Anybody else? Now it's time for you to weigh in with our handy dandy poll.

ACC wins big at awards show

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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It was a big night for the ACC at the Home Depot College Football Awards show.

Five different players picked up awards on Thursday night, putting an exclamation point on some of the most outstanding seasons in college football for 2013. Here is a look at the winners:

Roberto Aguayo, Florida State. Aguayo took home the Lou Groza Award as the top kicker in the nation, becoming the third Seminoles player to win the award. Aguayo made 19 of 20 field goal attempts for the Seminoles and all 90 extra point attempts.

Aaron Donald, Pitt. Donald cemented his standing as the top defensive player in college football with two more awards: the Outland Trophy as the nation’s most outstanding interior lineman and the Chuck Bednarik Award as defensive player of the year. Earlier in the week, Donald also picked up the Lombardi and Nagurski Trophy. Donald becomes the first Panthers player to win four major awards in one season.

Bryan Stork, Florida State. Stork won the Rimington Award as the top center in college football. Stork is the first Rimington Trophy winner from Florida State and first winner from the ACC.

Andre Williams, Boston College. Williams became the first player in Boston College history to win the Doak Walker Award as the top running back in the nation. He ran for 2,102 yards and 17 touchdowns, becoming the first player to hit the 2,000-yard mark since Donald Brown in 2008. Williams will join Jameis Winston in New York this weekend as the second Heisman finalist in BC history.

Jameis Winston, Florida State. Winston took home the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and the Davey O'Brien Award as the top quarterback in the nation. Winston, also a Heisman Trophy finalist, set FBS freshman records for passing yards with 3,820 and touchdown passes with 38, and said afterward he was "overwhelmed" with his honors.

Also on Thursday night, the Walter Camp All-America team was announced. Williams, Donald, Aguayo, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, and Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner made the first team. Winston, Stork, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, Florida State offensive tackle Cameron Erving, Virginia safety Anthony Harris, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller and Duke kick returner DeVon Edwards made the second team.

Five things: Florida State vs. Duke

December, 7, 2013
12/07/13
7:00
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It’s certainly not the matchup most fans expected way back in August, but Florida State and Duke will face off Saturday night in the ACC championship game. At stake for Duke is history, its first trip to a BCS bowl game and its first conference title since 1961. For Florida State, however, there’s even more on the line. With a win, the Seminoles are all but guaranteed a shot to play for a national championship. The pundits heavily favor Florida State, but there’s still plenty to watch for when the Seminoles and Blue Devils kick off in Charlotte.

1. Big game or business as usual? For Florida State, ACC championship game weekend is old hat. The Seminoles were here just last year, after all, and this marks their third trip in Jimbo Fisher’s four years as coach. Fisher even began tweaking the team’s travel schedule earlier this season to prep for the distractions this weekend would bring. For Duke, however, its division title comes as a mammoth surprise, and none of these players had played in a game of this magnitude. Experience is clearly on Florida State’s side, but Duke has managed to live up to big moments all season, and while players might be new to a conference championship game, David Cutcliffe is not. He’ll have the Blue Devils prepared.

2. History as a guide: The numbers are ugly for the Blue Devils: In 18 previous meetings with Florida State, they’ve gone 0-18, lost by an average of 34 points, and never finished a game within two scores of a win. Yes, Duke already has had a history-making season, so perhaps a little more history is in the works. But if that’s the case, Florida State will need to buy into the conventional wisdom and come out slow, while Duke will need to forget everything that has come before.

3. Winston vs. Duke’s DBs: Jameis Winston looks poised to win a Heisman Trophy, and he has been spectacular all season. He’ll be a focus for Duke, but the Blue Devils’ secondary has shown a propensity for big plays. After allowing 10 pass touchdowns in its first two ACC games of the year, Duke’s secondary has allowed only six more in its next six games, while racking up 12 interceptions. Ross Cockrell and DeVon Edwards have led the charge, but they’ve not faced a challenge as immense as Winston. Florida State has four receivers ranked in the ACC’s top 11 in yards per catch, and Winston loves going for the big play.

4. Crowder vs. FSU pass defense: Asked earlier this week about the danger presented by Duke’s Jamison Crowder, the ACC’s leading receiver, FSU safety Terrence Brooks smiled. The Seminoles’ secondary isn’t afraid of anyone, he said, and it will take more than one weapon to beat them. It might sound a bit overconfident, but Brooks has the numbers to back up his boasts. Florida State ranks No. 1 in the nation in pass defense, and its 23 interceptions are tops in the country.

5. Ground gains: Florida State’s backfield rotation is running wild, averaging 9 yards per rush with nine touchdowns in its last three games. Devonta Freeman is now just 148 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 yards, and he has been stellar in two previous games against Duke. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils will want to establish the run, too, but might face a tough obstacle in doing so. Florida State’s first-team defense hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season, and on first down, the Seminoles are allowing just 3.2 yards per carry -- the sixth-best rate in the country.

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