ACC: Gerald Christian

Virginia Tech’s tight ends have made a big difference for the Hokies’ offense so far this season, writes The Roanoke Times.

Bucky Hodges and Ryan Malleck have been excellent, and even without Kalvin Cline, the only tight end to catch a pass for the Hokies last season, the position has been a big plus through two games.

I noted the significant uptick in tight end targets earlier this week, too, in our stats column, but here are a few more tidbits worth passing along:
  • Virginia Tech’s tight ends have combined for 163 receiving yards so far this season -- the fifth-most by any team in the country.
  • The 23 targets for the Hokies’ tight ends ranks third nationally, trailing only Oregon State and Penn State. The Hokies have only targeted their wide receivers 27 times so far this year.
  • Among teams targeting tight ends at least 15 times so far this season, only Purdue and UAB’s position groups have caught a higher percentage of passes thrown their way.
  • Among ACC teams, only Louisville comes close to the Hokies in terms of targeting its tight ends. The Cardinals have thrown to tight ends 21 times. That makes sense since Louisville has a star tight end in Gerald Christian and is playing without its top receiver in Devante Parker.
  • Syracuse should have its tight end, Josh Parris, back in time for the Maryland game next week, writes The Post-Standard. That’s good news for the Orange, who targeted a tight end just twice in their opener.

Other tight end production around the ACC through two weeks:

Wake Forest -- 14 targets
Florida State -- 12
Miami -- 10
UNC -- 8
NC State -- 8
Duke -- 8
Clemson -- 8
Pitt -- 5
Virginia -- 4
Boston College -- 0
Georgia Tech -- 0

A few more links:
Miami and Louisville already are quite familiar with each other, but that familiarity will probably mean nothing heading into their opener on Labor Day.

Already, their matchup has quite a different feel than it did just one week ago after two major news stories broke this past weekend. Louisville receiver DeVante Parker will have surgery on his foot and is out six to eight weeks; Miami, meanwhile, named true freshman Brad Kaaya its starting quarterback.

That begs the question -- how will both offenses be impacted?

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesLouisville and Miami meet in the season opener, a rematch of the Russell Athletic Bowl, and Hurricanes tailback Duke Johnson will be among the many new faces who didn't play in the December game.
We already knew both units would look far different than the groups we saw the last time they played, a 36-9 Louisville romp in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville lost star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who torched the Canes for 447 yards passing. Miami gained a healthy Duke Johnson, who missed the bowl game with an ankle injury.

Johnson brings a new dynamic to the matchup at running back. But so does new Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who runs a completely different offense than the one Miami could not stop last season. Parker was set to be the focal point of that offense, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound freak of an athlete with the capability of having a 1,500-yard season.

Without him, Louisville does have other options. The Cards are fortunate to have one of the deeper receiver groups in the ACC. Eli Rogers, Kai De La Cruz, and Michaelee Harris all return. Tennessee transfer Matt Milton and sophomore James Quick are players to watch. So is tight end Gerald Christian, expected to have a bigger role in the offense.

But with a new starting quarterback in Will Gardner, there is little doubt Parker would have been a security blanket of sorts and the immediate go-to player among the receivers. The other players are solid, but Parker is the one with first-round NFL draft potential thanks to his size and speed (he runs a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash).

Miami gets the benefit of having a stronger Johnson back on the field. His impact on this team is undeniable. With him, Miami was ranked No. 7 in the nation last year. Without him, the Canes dropped four of their final six games. In the Russell Athletic Bowl, Johnson stood on the sideline and watched Miami running backs muster 73 total yards on the ground.

It is obviously huge that he is back. But with a true freshman under center, one has to assume the Cards' defense will be geared toward stopping Johnson and making Kaaya beat them. Kaaya has the skill players around him to help, but the pressure will rest squarely on him to make the right reads and the right decisions in the face of all the pressure.

How will he handle that? Maybe even bigger -- how will he handle the spotlight, making his first start on the road in front of a nationally televised audience? Miami coaches have praised Kaaya for his unflappable demeanor, and say they have run him through pressure situations in practice.

But no practice simulation can prepare a freshman for the bright lights that await, especially as the Miami quarterback. Though Louisville lost some of its best players on defense and will be employing a new scheme, the Cards do return Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks), linebacker James Burgess (72 tackles) and top cover corner Charles Gaines to make life difficult for Kaaya.

It is plain to see the differences are everywhere. Kaaya and Parker just add to that theme, making this matchup perhaps the most difficult to predict heading into Week 1.
Two more preseason award watch lists were released Tuesday, which means we are still moving toward the college football season at what seems like a snail’s pace.

The Rimington Trophy, presented annually to the nation’s top center, already had a spring watch list but altered the original to include a few more names (because there were not enough already). Also released was the watch list for the John Mackey Award, which is given to the nation’s top tight end.

The lists will be pared down during the season before winners are announced in December.

The watch lists for the Maxwell Award and Bednarik Award were released Monday.

Below are the ACC and Notre Dame players to make the Mackey and Rimington watch lists and a little information on each.

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFlorida State's Nick O'Leary could be a frontrunner for the Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end.
John Mackey Award

Gerald Christian, Louisville: The Florida transfer was one of the Cardinals’ more productive pass catchers last season, and he figures to drastically improve on his 28 receptions from a season ago now that Bobby Petrino is orchestrating the Cards’ offense. (The ACC blog caught up with Christian for a Q&A on Monday.)

Braxton Deaver, Duke: One of the conference’s best tight ends in 2013, Deaver was one of the many bright spots for the Blue Devils’ offense. He caught 46 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns.

Ben Koyack, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have produced several elite tight ends, and the hope is Koyack will be the next in line. He was not utilized much early on in 2013 but will be counted on more this fall with Troy Niklas off to the NFL.

Nick O'Leary, Florida State: One of the country’s best tight ends, O'Leary should be one of Jameis Winston's favorite targets this fall. O'Leary had the opportunity to leave school after last season, and he could be rewarded with a second national championship and a Mackey Award this fall.

Clive Walford, Miami: Much like Notre Dame, the Hurricanes have a fine tradition at tight end, and Walford is coming off a very solid season. He will need to be a security blanket for the Canes’ quarterback, whoever that may be.

Reaction: The ACC is not loaded at tight end, but there are certainly more than a few players who could push for a spot on an All-America team by season’s end. O’Leary is likely the best of the bunch and had an outside opportunity of being a first-round pick if he had entered the NFL draft. If he can stay on the field -- he’s escaped serious injury twice now from motorcycle accidents -- he is poised for a standout senior campaign. Winston lost top targets Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to the NFL, and O’Leary figures to be Winston’s security blanket on third downs and in the red zone. Keep an eye on Deaver as a player who could continue making the cut as the list is pared down throughout the season.

[+] EnlargeAndy Gallik
Michael Tureski/Icon SMIVeteran Boston College center Andy Gallik is key to the Eagles being able to play their style.
Rimington Trophy

Andy Gallik, Boston College: A three-year starter, Gallik is the glue to a team predicated on playing smash-mouth football under former offensive line coach Steve Addazio. Gallik has started 25 straight games for the Eagles.

Artie Rowell, Pittsburgh: Rowell started all 13 games for the Panthers last season and was recognized for his performance in the bowl game against Bowling Green. James Conner set a Pitt record for rushing yards in a bowl game that night, due largely to Rowell.

Austin Barron, Florida State: Barron has starting experience, but he spent most of last season as a reserve to 2013 Rimington winner Bryan Stork. Barron has four experienced starters surrounding him on the offensive line, which should allow him to shine in his first year as the full-time starter.

Jake Smith, Louisville: Smith could end up playing right guard, where he started earlier in his career, but he is coming off a junior season in which he started at center.

Matt Skura, Duke: He played nearly every snap at center for the Blue Devils last season and was the linchpin of an offensive line that allowed just 17 sacks in 14 games.

Nick Martin, Notre Dame: The starter last year until a late-season knee injury cost him the final few games, Martin is poised for a solid senior season. The Irish were second in the country in 2013 in sacks allowed. Martin is the younger brother of Zack Martin, a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft.

Ryan Norton, Clemson: A starter in all 13 games for Clemson a season ago, Norton was the ACC Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week in his first start against Georgia in last year’s opener.

Shane McDermott, Miami: A third-team All-ACC selection in 2013, McDermott has played in all but four games since his redshirt freshman season at Miami.

Reaction: While more than half the centers in FBS are on this list, the ACC representatives all deserve to be on here for the most part. All have starting experience and in several cases have been commanding the offensive line for multiple seasons. Martin was hurt late in the season, but Irish coach Brian Kelly expects him to be ready for the season opener after missing spring practices. Barron has the least amount of starting experience and probably does not make the list if it were a little more exclusive, but he played admirably in Stork’s stead last season and could be recognized in the same manner as Stork by the end of the season.
Louisville tight end Gerald Christian is poised for a breakout season under new coach Bobby Petrino.

Just look at past history.

Petrino has utilized the tight end effectively in his offense at just about all his stops. During his first go-around at Louisville, Ronnie Ghent and Gary Barnidge became NFL players. At Arkansas, D.J. Williams won the Mackey Award in 2010 and ended up in the NFL, too. Christian has always been an effective pass catcher, and his size -- 6-foot-3, 244-pounds -- presents matchup problems for defenses.

Add him into the mix with a stellar receiving group, and Louisville has an opportunity to put up some big-time numbers this season. I recently had a chance to catch up with Christian about his role in the offense. His goal? One hundred receptions. Sounds lofty, but that is how excited he is about what Petrino brings to the offense. Here is a little more of what Christian had to say.

How much more will you be used in the Louisville pass game this year?

[+] EnlargeChristian
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsGerald Christian can't wait to play in Bobby Petrino's tight end-friendly offense.
A: Coach Petrino, he’s known for using his tight ends and he’s a great coach. I like how he takes his personnel and utilizes their strengths. He’s going to take me and put me in position to be one-on-one against a linebacker and one-on-one against a safety, where he targets me to have mismatches to exploit the defense. Last year, the offense was just learning plays, whereas Coach Petrino takes his playmakers and targets them more to make plays.

So you must be pumped for the opportunity.

A: I’m really excited. After spring ball and seeing the stuff he does and how he’s using me ... I’ve been given an opportunity to show what I can do. Now all I have to do is step up and make the plays. It will be fun for me.

This is your senior year after starting your career at Florida and then transferring to the Cardinals. What type of year can you have?

A: I was highly recruited out of high school, but I feel like my career hasn’t been what I wanted it to be. Last year, I had an opportunity to show what I could do but I still feel I could have been utilized more. This year, it’s my time to step up and show everything I can do. This year will be the year I make a name for myself.

Why did you leave Florida?

A: We had the coaching changes, and I didn’t feel stuff was working out for me. I wanted a new start. Out of high school, I was recruited by Urban Meyer, and Coach (Charlie) Strong, so when he was over here, going through the transfer process, I was comfortable with with Coach Strong and I wanted to come here. Sitting out -- it was tough. Going to the games every week and not being able to play was really hard. I wanted to be out there and help the team I’d been practicing with every day. But it motivated me and kept me focused. I worked hard every day and tried to take that year and make myself better.

So this is your fourth head coach since you started college, from Meyer to Will Muschamp to Strong to now Petrino. How have you dealt with all the changes?

A: That’s one thing when younger guys come in, I say you really can’t base your career off a coach because coaches come and go. At some point, you have to look out for you and be there for your team. It’s more you and your team than the coach. I didn’t know Coach Strong was going to leave. Sometimes, kids they get their relationships built up with the coaches, but this is a business and a coach will do what’s best for their family. I understand it. ... I feel like everything worked out for me.

Seeing Petrino walk through that door must have eased your mind a little when Strong left.

A: I was really excited, just seeing all the tight ends he’s put in the NFL, just knowing his history. Then when he got here and seeing how he utilized me, it seemed like he was happy with me, so I’m happy with him. He’s making me work harder and bust my butt.

Aside from yourself, you have got many skill position players back, including receivers DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers. How good can this offense be, even with Teddy Bridgewater gone?

A: I think the offense is going to be real good, honestly. I think we’re going to shock a lot of people. We have a lot of depth, we have a lot of veterans. The only thing that’s different is the quarterback position but we have a young guy, Will Gardner, who played under Teddy and he’s picking it up fast. Our offensive line came back, our running backs, we have veteran receivers, and we’re all helping him through his process, too. It’s not like he’s a new quarterback with a young group of receivers. Everybody around him is a veteran so we’ve taken him under our wing. He’ll be ready.
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.

Up today: Wide receivers

Best of the best: Louisville

The move to the ACC figures to be one littered with transitional speed bumps, but coach Bobby Petrino does enter the league with an unmatched group of receivers. Senior DeVante Parker is arguably the conference’s top receiver and could be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. He hauled in 55 passes in 2013, but with leading receiver Damian Copeland bypassing sixth year of eligibility, Parker’s numbers figure to increase. He could break the 1,000-yard barrier in 2014. The Cardinals return four of their top five leading receivers from last season when factoring in tight end Gerald Christian. Eli Rogers was effective as the No. 3 receiver last season, and at 5-foot-10, he provides an ideal complement to the 6-3 Parker.

Next: Miami

The Hurricanes have one of the conference’s emerging stars at any position in sophomore Stacy Coley. As a freshman, Coley caught seven touchdown passes, which led Miami. The 6-1, 185-pound receiver was one of Miami’s prized recruits from the 2013 class, as he was the fourth-ranked receiver in the country. Similar to Louisville, the Hurricanes lose their leading receiver from a season ago but return five of their top six from 2013. Clive Walford is one of the better tight ends, and the Hurricanes are hoping Beau Sandland lives up to his junior-college billing. In his first season, Sandland rarely made an impact, but he was ranked 15th nationally among juco recruits in 2013.

Sleeper: North Carolina

Marquise Williams helped turn around the Tar Heels’ season in 2013 and will likely be the starter entering the season, but he no longer has the luxury of throwing it up to tight end Eric Ebron, a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft. However, the Heels do return several talented playmakers who could cause headaches for conference defensive coordinators. Junior Quinshad Davis is an underrated receiver, tallying 48 catches for 730 yards last season. He also had a team-high 10 touchdowns. Behind Davis is Ryan Switzer, who mostly made a name for himself as a returner. But it’s important to note that Switzer hauled in 32 passes. Bug Howard and T.J. Thorpe also return, which means the Heels bring back four of their top five receivers.

Problem for a contender: Clemson

There will be no replacing a talent like Sammy Watkins no matter how well the Tigers have recruited the position. Watkins was considered the best player in the draft by some teams and was brilliant in the Orange Bowl. Clemson is also breaking in a new quarterback, which means it could take some time for the passing game to develop the type of consistency it will need to break through a defensive secondary of Florida State’s caliber. Second-leading receiver Martavis Bryant is also off to the NFL. As mentioned earlier, however, the Tigers have recruited extremely well at the position and it would not be a total shock if by season’s end this turned into one of the conference’s best groups. Charone Peake was a five-star recruit in 2011, but last fall he tore a knee ligament after two games. Germone Hopper, Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester, Artavis Scott, Trevion Thompson and Mike Williams were all blue-chip recruits, too.

Louisville spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
8:30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Louisville Cardinals:

Will Gardner emerges at QB. Teddy Bridgewater leaves behind big shoes to fill, and now it falls to Gardner to pick up where he left off. Gardner emerged as the starter this spring, and new coach Bobby Petrino praised him for not only gaining the respect of his teammates but picking up the complex offense and growing each day during practice.

Gerald Christian could be a force. Petrino likes to use the tight end in his scheme, meaning this could be a breakout year for Christian, a Florida transfer who did not get many opportunities under the old coaching staff. Christian has good hands, and made big strides in the spring. He could be an invaluable part of the offense and top the 28 receptions he had a season ago.

Sheldon Rankins emerges up front. Rankins has been a backup defensive tackle for most of his career, but he has seized the opportunity this spring with a starting job on the line. Now playing end and some nose guard, Rankins had one of the best springs of anybody on defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Rankins was dominant. Louisville will need that dominance from him after losing three starters up front.

Three questions for the fall:

Safety. Not only did the Cardinals lost the top safety duo in its conference from last season, they do not have much depth at the position, either. They did sign former Washington player James Sample to help shore up the position, but beyond the top three players on the depth chart, this remains an area of concern. Especially since former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons has to sit out a year when he arrives on campus.

Offensive line. Along the same lines, there also are depth concerns along the offensive line. Four starters return, with a combined 112 career starts. But beyond that group, there are far too many unknowns. Louisville may end up relying on several true freshmen just for depth.

Jump up in play. Perhaps the biggest question is -- how will Louisville fare now that it is in a more difficult conference, facing the most difficult schedule in school history? Plenty of talented players return, but Louisville does not have time to get adjusted, not when it opens the season up against Miami on national television.

One way-too-early prediction:

Louisville will win at least eight games. The Cardinals do have a hard schedule and play in the toughest division in the ACC. But they should win at least three nonconference games and be in position to win every ACC game despite losing players like Bridgewater. Charlie Strong left behind a strong foundation. Petrino has dealt with a tougher conference, and knows what it takes to win.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The scene unfolds in roughly the same fashion each time one of his teammates is asked about the real Nick O’Leary.

First, there’s the subtle smirk. There’s a story there, some amusing anecdote that springs to mind immediately. The smirk evolves into a wry grin, followed by a shake of the head when the teammate remembers that O’Leary only lets the curtain be pulled back so far. Then the answer arrives, bland and boring, as if O’Leary had scripted it himself.

Nick’s cool.

Nick’s funny.

Nick’s just a normal guy.

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMIFSU tight end Nick O'Leary might be quiet off the field, but his play speak volumes about how hard he's worked to get better and better this season.
Nothing to see here, folks. Just the typical grandson of a world famous golfer who arrived as the most significant recruit at his position Florida State has ever signed, who blossomed into a star and served as his quarterback’s favorite red-zone target on an offense absolutely bursting with weapons.

If that’s a story worth telling, it won’t be O’Leary gushing details.

“He’s not in to being out there,” said QB Sean Maguire, O’Leary’s roommate. “That’s just his personality.”

Among strangers, O’Leary’s personality might best be compared to a bouncer at a biker bar. He’s a brooding behemoth, masked in a scraggly red beard and hair spiked with sweat. He’s not much of a talker, but he’s a mammoth presence.

What’s best known is O’Leary’s pedigree. He’s the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, a tidbit offered with all the subtlety of a jackhammer by virtually every broadcaster who’s called one of his games. O’Leary says he doesn’t mind the constant reminders, but he’s not interested in living off grandpa’s reflected spotlight.

A better window into O’Leary’s psyche is the motorcycle accident, when he did battle with a Lexus and won. The daredevil act was caught on a bus’ security camera and is replayed routinely as further evidence of O’Leary’s toughness. And he is tough.

On the field, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound O’Leary means business -- like the game against Clemson when he hauled in a short pass from Jameis Winston, steamrolled the Tigers’ safety, then rumbled another 15 yards to set up a touchdown.

In his third year as FSU’s starting tight end, he’s made enormous strides in his blocking. He’s racked up more yards and touchdowns in 11 games in 2013 than he had in his previous two seasons combined. He’s picked up a first down on 65 percent of his targets this year, tied for the best rate among tight ends in the country.

“He’s like a silent assassin,” Jimbo Fisher said.

But what about those sly grins from teammates? Surely they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. There must be something more there, some depth of character that rarely shines through the surly public persona, right?

“He’s a simple guy, and he enjoys simple things,” said Jack Daniels, O’Leary’s high school coach. “He loves football. He loves to be outdoors. He loves to be around his friends. There’s just not much more to him.”

O’Leary joined Daniels’ team at Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach midway through his high school career. He’d transferred from a much smaller school, looking to showcase his skills against stiffer competition.

Daniels remembers the day he met O’Leary -- this big kid from a famous family, carrying himself with a self-assured swagger that could easily rub you the wrong way if you didn’t really know him.

“He struck me as being pretty cocky,” Daniels said.

But the coach soon understood that it wasn’t arrogance. It was determination. No one wanted success more than O’Leary. The kid could’ve had anything he wanted by virtue of his grandfather’s fame, but O’Leary didn’t want anything he hadn’t worked for. Practice was a constant competition.

“We pushed each other,” said Gerald Christian, O’Leary’s teammate at Dwyer, who now plays at Louisville. “We’d go all practice without a drop.”

Still, the drops happened. Daniels remembers a game O’Leary dropped three passes in a row. The next morning -- a Saturday --O’Leary was back at the school, out on the practice field, catching balls. He had to get better.

That’s what made life so tough at Florida State. In high school, he could flub a play then get another shot on the next snap. At FSU, his mistakes lingered.

In last year’s win over Miami, O’Leary caught the first pass of the game, attempted to hurdle a defender, and fumbled the ball away. He didn’t catch another pass for two weeks.

“The most disappointing thing for him,” Daniels said. “All he wanted was another chance to make up for the fumble.”

O’Leary learned from the mistakes though. He’s been as sure-handed as anyone on Florida State’s roster this year. He’s caught a team-leading 79 percent of his targets, and he hasn’t fumbled once. Mistakes happen, but O’Leary never backs down.

“When a fight breaks out in practice, if it’s his fight, I’ll run over and help him,” center Bryan Stork said. “If it’s mine, he’ll run over and help me. It’s good to have him on my side. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

But really, O’Leary’s not a fighter. He just wants people to think he is. He was born into privilege, so he’s developed a hard shell, a tough-as-nails, country-boy air so no one can accuse him of being soft.

Beneath the hardscrabble exterior, though, there’s a gentle side. Maybe.

“Nick is like a little teddy bear,” Kelvin Benjamin said. “Everybody thinks Nick’s mean because he’s got that ‘Duck Dynasty’ beard going. You get to know him, and he’s a very cool cat.”

Getting to know O’Leary isn’t easy though. He’s not particularly interested in letting the rest of the world into the sanctuary he’s created, but he knows the spotlight is getting brighter.

“I guess it comes with winning,” he said.

With each win, O’Leary’s legend grows. He set the school’s all-time record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end two weeks ago. Winston slathers him with praise often. The quarterback also let slip that O’Leary booted a 53-yard field goal in practice last week. There’s really nothing O’Leary can’t do.

Well, almost nothing. He’s still not much of a talker.

Quizzed on his improvement this season, O’Leary suggested his rapport with new tight ends coach Tim Brewster has been a key.

“It was tough at the beginning,” he said, “but once we got to know each other and know how people like to be treated and all that, we grew a great relationship where we can talk about anything.”

Suddenly O’Leary realizes he’s said too much. His relationship with his coach is for insiders, not for the masses.

So he found common ground with his outspoken coach?

“Yeah,” O’Leary says.

And the relationship has been rewarding?

“We’re good,” he says.

And now that he’s having so much success, perhaps those broadcasters won’t need to mention his grandfather?

“I don’t care,” O’Leary said. “I don’t listen to the game.”

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