ACC: Mario Pender

Group efforts in ACC backfields

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
9:41
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There's a certain order to the chaos at the line of scrimmage, and after a few hits, tailbacks begin to make some sense of it, Virginia's Kevin Parks said. It's usually a game of trial and error. A few hits, a few near-misses, and then it becomes clear.

In other words, ask most running backs what they need to break a big run, and the answer is simple: Just a few more touches.

"Once you get out there and the ball in your hands, it's natural," said Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on 227 carries last year, both tops among returning ACC tailbacks. "You're getting in the flow of the game. You're taking your hits and get stronger as the game goes on. Some guys are like that."

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Of course, some guys aren't. In fact, finding a true every-down back is a rarity these days, even at the NFL level. The position has become more specialized, and as that's happened, the need for a deep and diverse stable of backs has grown.

Even Parks, one of the league's true bell cows at tailback, doesn't figure to be the only show in town for Virginia. Sophomore Taquan Mizzell, one of the Cavaliers top recruits under coach Mike London, is right behind him on the depth chart, providing a dynamic change of pace for the offense.

The same is true at Louisville and UNC and Syracuse and Pitt (which has a pair 0f 700-yard backs returning) and nearly every other program in the conference. At Florida State, where Jimbo Fisher has given a tailback 25 carries in a game just four times during his tenure, Karlos Williams is the epitome of an every-down back, but even he's being challenged by freshman Dalvin Cook and sophomore Mario Pender -- neither of whom have taken a snap at the college level.

It's really a game of probabilities, Fisher said. Depth provides alternatives, and at a position where physical punishment comes with the territory, it's best for teams to be prepared with a contingency plan.

"A running back only has so many hits in him," Fisher said. "The durability, the freshness in the fourth quarter, developing depth on your team and if guys have certain skill sets you have to put them in position to have success like that. I think it helps your team grow."

Fisher certainly has the evidence to back up his theory. During the past two seasons, only Oregon and Ohio State have averaged more yards-per-carry (excepting sacks) than Florida State's 6.40 mark. Last season, the Seminoles averaged 6.33 yards-per-carry in the second halves of games, too — the fourth-best mark in the country and an improvement of more than 1.5 yards per touch from its first-half average.

Specialization and distribution have become paramount, even for programs that have traditionally relied on a lead ball carrier.

Rod McDowell racked up 189 carries for Clemson last year, but Dabo Swinney said that was more a factor of necessity than desire. With four running backs vying for carries on this year's depth chart and coordinator Chad Morris aiming to run at least 85 plays a game, the rushing attempts figure to be portioned out in smaller doses in 2014.

"It's really become a specialized position," said Swinney, who plans to have a backfield-by-committee approach this season. "You need different flavors. You don't want all vanilla ice cream. You need some strawberry, chocolate, blueberry."

Nationally, just 15 running backs averaged 20 carries per game last season, half the number to reach that average in 2007. But including QBs, there were 36 runners who averaged 6.5 yards-per-rush or better last season, nearly double the total from 2007.

There are still a few every-down ball-carriers, but they're the exception. Andre Williams accounted for 68 percent of Boston College's rushing attempts last season and ended the year as a Heisman finalist, but Parks was the only other ACC runner to carve out more than a 40 percent share in his backfield.

Duke Johnson certainly would've eclipsed that total at Miami, but he went down with an ankle injury in Miami's eighth game and was lost for the season. Johnson figures to return to a prominent role in 2014 -- perhaps the closest thing the ACC will have to a true bell cow -- but last year's injury showcased just how crucial it is to have depth. With a healthy Johnson, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 200 yards per game on the ground. Without him, the Hurricanes mustered just 3.6 yards per carry and less than 100 yards per game rushing.

Spreading the wealth even when there's a clear No. 1 on the depth chart helps build depth that might not have been there before, NC State coach Dave Doeren said. The Wolfpack figure to give at least three — and maybe four — tailbacks a share of the pie this year, and while Doeren said he'll play the hot hand on a series-by-series basis, the knowledge that each player will get his shot while not being guaranteed anything more has had a positive effect on practice.

"When you have two or three backs, they've got to maximize their carries and put themselves in a position to get more," he said.

The game of mix-and-match tailbacks doesn't always sit well with players who, like Parks, would love a chance to get into a rhythm and take a few hits, but it's a fact of life most have gotten used to.

"It's a hard thing when you get your mojo running and you get pulled," Parks said, "but at the end of the day, you've got to be a team player. If the coaches feel you're hitting on all cylinders, they'll keep you in."

And there's an advantage for them, too. All those hits may help a tailback get a feel for the game, but they're also a lot of wear and tear on players who are hoping to still have plenty of spring in their steps when it's time to play at the NFL level.

"It means they have more tread on the tires when they get to the NFL and can truly make money," Fisher said. "But you're still getting the most out of them while you're here."
During Florida State's national championship-winning season, its leader in takeaways (Nate Andrews), yards per carry (Karlos Williams) and yards per touch (Kermit Whitfield) combined to start just one game. In the current landscape of college football, talent at the top is crucial but depth is often what separates the best teams. With that in mind, we counted down the ACC’s best backups -- players who weren’t starters last season and aren't currently penciled in atop the depth chart, but who could make a major impact in 2014. While we ranked our top five, there are plenty of other contenders. This is a quick look at those who just missed the cut.

[+] EnlargeRyan Green
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsRyan Green's experience should give him a leg up in the battle to be Karlos Williams' backup.
Ryan Green (RB, Florida State): Really, any of Florida State’s backup running backs could be here. Green has terrific speed and is the lone runner down the depth chart with game experience, but Dalvin Cook and Mario Pender figure to see plenty of action this season and could also produce big numbers the way this year's starter, Karlos Williams, did as the No. 3 tailback in 2013.

Wayne Gallman (RB, Clemson): Like FSU, Clemson boasts a deep backfield that could feature significant contributions from a number of runners. Still, it’s Gallman, the redshirt freshman, who seems to get the biggest raves from coaches. He could certainly find himself in a starting role before too long.

Tyriq McCord (DE, Miami): Primarily working on third downs last season, McCord showed plenty of promise, racking up four sacks, three forced fumbles and two INTs, despite not starting a game. One of those forced fumbles came against Florida, perhaps Miami’s biggest win last season.

Thomas Sirk (QB, Duke): The backup quarterback at Duke was a vital position last year when Brandon Connette finished third in the ACC in rushing touchdowns. The equally athletic Sirk seems equipped to handle that role in 2014.

Shaquille Powell (RB, Duke): Josh Snead returns as the team’s leading rusher, but in an offense with plenty of explosive talent, Powell, who averaged 5.5 yards per rush as the No. 3 back last season, figures to carve out a niche and has really impressed teammates this offseason.

Ron Thompson (DE, Syracuse): The converted tight end has the potential to be a beast on the defensive line, he just doesn’t quite have a full-time job yet at Syracuse. In limited action last season, however, he had two sacks and 20 tackles, including 4.5 for a loss.

Quarterbacks: There aren’t many teams that have completely settled quarterback situations, which means that odds are, one or more of the current backups will end up making a big difference down the road in 2014. Mitch Trubisky at UNC, Kevin Sousa at Wake Forest, Tim Byerly at Georgia Tech and, of course, Deshaun Watson at Clemson all have potential to be impact players before the year is out.

No doubt there will be plenty of other back-ups to emerge as significant playmakers this year. So, who else should we have considered? Who might take a big step forward in 2014?
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 running game

Best of the best: Florida State

There's plenty of competition for the top spot, but we're giving the edge to FSU's revamped ground game in spite of the losses of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. While the Seminoles said goodbye to two of their top runners, they return a senior-laden offensive line that has opened holes to the tune of 5.6 yards-per-carry last season, as well as a dynamic (if inexperienced) group of ball carriers. At the top of the depth chart, Karlos Williams tallied 730 yards and 11 TDs last season in a limited role, and his size/speed combination makes him as tough to bring down as any runner in the country. Behind him, Ryan Green and Mario Pender offer speedy alternatives, while true freshman Dalvin Cook oozes potential and could emerge as FSU's No. 2 option. Jimbo Fisher has made a point of distributing carries in recent years, so expect all four to see plenty of work.

Next up: Miami

It's easy enough to make a case for Georgia Tech (300 rush yards per game last year), Louisville (veteran offensive line and deep backfield) or Pitt (two 700-yard tailbacks returning), but we'll give the slight edge to Miami because there may be no more dynamic or productive runner in the conference than Duke Johnson. True, Johnson is coming off a severe ankle injury that cost him the final five games of 2013, but he's back and feeling good already, and he promises to be the foundation of the Canes' offense. With a healthy Johnson in the backfield last season, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry -- which would've been good for 13th nationally and third in the ACC.

Possible sleeper: North Carolina

Against FBS foes last season, North Carolina mustered a mere 148 yards per game on the ground -- good for 11th in the ACC. But that doesn't mean the ground game won't be a strength for the Tar Heels in 2014. In the early going, UNC mustered a meager 2.8 yards-per-carry and six TDs in its first seven games of the year (in which the Heels finished 2-5). After the calendar flipped to November, however, North Carolina's ground game flourished, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 13 times, while helping the Heels to a 5-1 finish. Now, T.J. Logan is back to lead a particularly deep corps of runners, and Marquise Williams is as good a threat to run as any QB in the league. If the offensive line can hold up, North Carolina's ground game should be vastly improved in 2014.

Potential problem: Virginia Tech

The Hokies' backfield was a disaster last season. Set aside the work of now-departed QB Logan Thomas, and the running backs tallied a mere 3.98 yards-per-carry last season and managed just 11 third-down conversions. Against FBS teams, Tech managed just 2.88 yards-per-carry, the ninth-worst mark in the nation. The eight teams that were worse had a combined record of 18-79. Now the Hokies add a first-year starter at quarterback, and the situation looks even more dire.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Clemson

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Louisville

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Syracuse

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. spent the season trying to convince coach Jimbo Fisher to name Florida State’s two-back set after them. “Wild and Free” they proposed it be called, a nickname that offered ample cache but never really caught on in practice. They ran it a few times a game, and it worked well enough to keep at it, but Fisher was never quite so impressed that he embraced the moniker. Besides, he had plans to add a third element.

Karlos Williams rarely practiced in the two-back set all season until the ACC championship game in December. In fact, for the bulk of the season, Williams barely touched the football in the first half. But when Florida State clobbered Duke to assure a second straight conference title, Williams was a crucial cog.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesKarlos Williams made the move to running back this season and posted 730 yards on just 91 carries.
This was the plan for Williams. The move from safety to tailback in Week 2 was a renovation project for the former five-star recruit, but Fisher always had a grand design in mind. It just took some time for Williams to figure out the nuance of his new position.

“I’m just trying to catch on and learn as much as possible and learn very, very fast,” Williams said. “I do feel myself growing, getting better but it’s also a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Williams finished his inaugural season at tailback with a 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who punched in a touchdown once every 8.3 carries.

Still, Williams had a niche role. He had just 18 first-half touches all year. He had limited work in close games, with 70 of his 91 carries coming with FSU ahead by at least 15. He ran the ball 10 times or more in just three games, all blowouts.

For all of his 2013 success, Williams was a work in progress.

“People laugh at me because I’m very, very athletic, but I don’t have a lot of moves,” Williams said of his running style. “I’m a straight-line speed guy. So if I kind of stop, it’s kind of hard to start up again.”

Williams’ limitations weren’t often on display in 2013, but that figures to change going forward. If last season was about getting the offensive convert acquainted with his new job, 2014 will be a far more immersive experience.

Wilder has announced he’s headed to the NFL. While the school has yet to make Freeman’s decision official, he’s expected to follow suit. That leaves Williams as the lone veteran in Florida State’s backfield.

As the prognosticators look ahead to 2014, Florida State’s offense gets high marks for all its returning talent, led by quarterback Jameis Winston. But the turnover in the ground game will be immense.

Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing in each of the past three seasons. Wilder was as good a short-yardage back as Florida State has had in recent years. With that duo leading the charge, only two teams have averaged more yards per carry (not including sacks) against FBS foes since the start of 2012 than Florida State (6.31 yards per rush).

Now it will be up to Williams to prove he’s capable of a bigger workload, but he’ll have some help.

Ryan Green didn’t see much action in 2013, but he flashed some explosive talent. Six of his 33 carries went for 10 yards or more, but Green still needs to work on his blocking and his ability to hit holes when they open.

It’s possible Mario Pender could fill the void as well, but his first two years at Florida State have been a disaster. Pender has exceptional speed and enjoyed a nice spring in 2013, but he’s yet to see action in a game. A groin pull kept him on the sidelines as a true freshman in 2012 and academic issues forced him off the team in 2013. He’s back practicing with the Seminoles now, however, and Fisher said he hopes the academic and injury issues are in the past.

Perhaps the most exciting option for FSU, however, is Dalvin Cook, a five-star recruit who spurned Florida at the last moment and is expected to practice with the Seminoles this spring.

It’s a talented group, but it’s not an experienced one, and that’s what makes Williams so crucial to Florida State’s hopes in 2014. With fullback Chad Abram moving on, too, Williams’ 18 first-half carries represent the only significant snaps any member of FSU’s current backfield has in a close game.

But Fisher had a plan when he pushed Williams to make the move to running back in September, and the benefits of that decision are just now becoming clear. For Williams, it’s now just a matter of proving he’s the right man for the job.

“It’s progressing,” he said. “Slowly but surely.”
Jimbo Fisher was still on the podium, gazing into the crystal trophy that comes with winning a national championship, when it was suggested that once the team returned to Tallahassee, it was back to work preparing for 2014.

First on the docket for FSU will be identifying which star players will be returning for next season. Running back James Wilder Jr. is entering the draft, according to a source, and more decisions will trickle in before the Jan. 15 deadline. Here are our best guesses at what’s to come — and who might step in for departing underclassmen.

Likely going

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU nose tackle Timmy Jernigan is a force inside, and how well the Tigers do against him could determine how well they run the ball.
DT Timmy Jernigan (junior)

Why he’d leave: Entering the season, Jernigan was Florida State’s top-rated underclassman by most draft experts, and that standing never changed. Jernigan was dominant all season, and his impact was never more noticeable than in the national title game. When he was on the field, Auburn found no running room between the tackles. When he was out of the game, the Tigers moved the ball with ease on the ground.

Next up: Nile Lawrence-Stample took a big step forward this season, gaining valuable playing time in the defensive line rotation. He started six games and finished with 15 tackles. Florida State has five current defensive tackle commitments, so it’s certainly possible one of the incoming freshmen could make a big impact early — as Jernigan did in 2011 — but Lawrence-Stample is the safest bet to step in full time.

WR Kelvin Benjamin (redshirt sophomore)

Why he’d leave: Benjamin was projected as a star from the moment he arrived on campus, but it took him a while to get acclimated. He enjoyed a breakthrough 2013 season, finishing with 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns, including the game-winner in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. Some of his game could still use some refinement — as evidenced by two big drops vs. Auburn — but his physical skills already peg him as a likely first-rounder.

Next up: Kermit Whitfield certainly projects as Florida State’s next big-play receiver after an electric season as a freshman, but he fits more in the slot. Replacing Benjamin’s size and physicality isn’t an easy task, but 6-4 freshman Isaiah Jones figures to have the best chance. He saw limited playing time this year, catching two balls for 31 yards.

Possibly going

RB Devonta Freeman (junior)

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
AP Photo/David J. PhillipDevonta Freeman became the first Seminoles tailback to gain 1,000 yards in a season since Warrick Dunn in 1996.
Why he'd leave: Freeman has been the steadying force for FSU’s running game for three years, and on Monday, he became the first Seminoles tailback to top 1,000 yards in 17 years. Wilder’s role was smaller this year as injuries hampered his production, but that could also have served as a reminder why it’s better to take the big hits with an NFL paycheck. Neither has a ton of early draft buzz which could convince them to return, but both could show out at the combine and work their way into the top three rounds.

Next up: Karlos Williams showed plenty of promise this season after moving from safety in Week 2, finishing with 748 rushing yards in reserve duty. He’s largely a straight-ahead runner, but his combination of size and speed makes him a weapon. FSU will still need to develop depth, likely with Mario Pender or Ryan Green, but could get a boost from four-star commit Dalvin Cook.

LT Cameron Erving (redshirt junior)

Why he’d leave: Erving has hovered near the top of the offensive tackle draft boards since the end of 2012, and in his second season since moving from the defensive line, he showed significant progress. Still, it’s a deep draft at the position, and there were moments — including against Auburn’s impressive defensive front Monday — when he showed some flaws.

Next up: Florida State brought in two potentially strong replacements last year in Ira Denson and Wilson Bell. Injuries hampered the progress for both during the season, however, which makes Erving’s decision potentially crucial for the stability of the line going into 2014.

Likely staying

G Tre Jackson and G Josue Matias (juniors)

Why they’d leave: Matias and Jackson might be among the top underclassmen at the position, but both could benefit from another year working with line coach Rick Trickett.

Next up: Florida State has struggled to recruit on the line the past few years, which makes depth — particularly on the interior — a significant concern. The Seminoles have a solid class coming in for 2014, but the loss of more than one of their underclassmen on the line would be a serious concern.

TE Nick O’Leary (junior)

Why he’d leave: O’Leary made huge strides this season, developing into one of Jameis Winston’s favorite targets and a legitimate red-zone threat. He’s an adept route-runner, a sure-handed receiver and his blocking game has developed nicely. But with Florida State's receiving corps in transition, O’Leary could be in a position to post huge numbers in 2014 if he sticks around.

Next up: Kevin Haplea returns from a knee injury next year, but he’s more of a blocking tight end than a true replacement.

WR Rashad Greene (Jr./WR)

Why he’d leave: What more can Greene accomplish at Florida State? He’s been the team’s most reliable receiver for three consecutive seasons. He became the Seminoles’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin this year. He’s quick, a great route-runner, and he has good hands. He does everything well, and his quarterbacks have taken notice. The problem for Greene is that he lacks the obvious physical skills that make scouts drool, so his draft value might not reflect his on-field contributions.

Next up: It would be a surprise if Greene left, but it would also be a huge blow to Florida State’s offense. Winston was a star this season in part because of an exceptional group of receivers, but the group will get a major makeover in 2014. The Seminoles need Greene to help ease the transition.

Karlos Williams boosts FSU backfield

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For more than a year, Jimbo Fisher knew he had a weapon waiting in storage. He'd prodded Karlos Williams to make the switch to tailback, but he didn't insist. Selling a five-star recruit on a position change requires a soft touch.

Through eight practices, Williams' teammates knew he was something special, too. That was the entirety of Williams' prep work before he was unleashed against Nevada, sprinting untouched for 65 yards and a touchdown on his first carry. He certainly hadn't mastered the craft, but a toss sweep into daylight was the play he was born to run.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
AP Photo/Steve CannonKarlos Williams, who played safety in the opener, rushed for 110 yards against Nevada.
Deep down, Williams probably knew, too. By the end of spring practice, he was giving the move serious consideration, and when Fisher came to him once more after Florida State's opening-week win over Pittsburgh, he finally relented.

"It's been something they'd been talking about, and I'd been kind of interested in it," Williams said. "I just said, 'Coach, I'll do it.' "

The final push, however, wasn't about Williams' potential on offense, but rather Florida State's need for a safety net at running back.

In the 10 days from the end of fall camp until the post-game celebration in Pittsburgh, Fisher's backfield depth chart was slashed. Mario Pender was ruled academically ineligible, and while freshman Ryan Green flashed potential, he wasn't ready for a major role. When James Wilder Jr. fell shoulder first into the turf against Pitt, re-aggravating an injury that had nagged him throughout 2012, a move had to be made.

"James had a ding, and we didn't know if he'd be able to go or not," Williams said. "[The move] was another way to help the team."

Williams finished his first game at his new position with eight carries, 110 yards and a touchdown. His 65-yard run showcased his speed. His 11-yard rumble in the fourth quarter, with 10 Nevada defenders draped atop him for the final few feet, showcased his strength. He was, as Fisher had said so many times, a natural.

"I'm not trying to say I was rubbing a crystal ball," Fisher said. "That guy is a talented cat."

Wilder played, too. He carried six times for 45 yards and a touchdown, and his devastating lead block in the third quarter helped spring Devonta Freeman for a 60-yard run.

But after virtually every tackle and every fierce block, Wilder also massaged his shoulder and appeared visibly bothered by the injury.

"It was a couple times where it went numb," Wilder said. "It's something I have to expect for my running style. It's dinged up, but it's nothing too serious."

It's a message Fisher repeated, too. Asked after the game about Wilder's health, Fisher joked the tailback just needed "to rub some dirt on it." In other words, it's not an injury likely to improve with extended rest, but rather something Wilder will have to play through going forward.

"I'm the big back, I've got to suck it up and play," Wilder said. "It doesn't really bother me, and I just don't want to sit out. I want to go out there and compete every week."

For now, Wilder insists that won't be an issue. The shoulder soreness plagued him throughout last season, and he still finished with 635 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The problems this year are minor compared to the pain he endured a season ago, he said, and the numbness hasn't affected his play. The lone casualty thus far was his trademarked high-top haircut, which he trimmed after it brought him bad luck, he said.

For Florida State, however, Wilder's injury actually might have been something of a blessing. A healthy Wilder is a powerful weapon, but the slightly battered version might have been the necessary push to add another valuable asset.

Williams' debut was everything Fisher had hoped, but it certainly wasn't an end to the story. Nevada's defense capitulated to Florida State's ground game to the tune of 377 yards, and Williams was just one of the multitudes to reap the rewards. He still must master blocking schemes and pass protection, and his role on offense remains a bit nebulous as the Seminoles march toward the heart of the ACC schedule.

But what's clear after Saturday's win over Nevada is that the tightrope Florida State might have walked with a battered backfield won't be quite so precarious now. Wilder is still pummeling defenders, bum shoulder and all, and Williams delivered evidence he's more than just a safety net.

"When he gets space, he can hit home runs and he's hard to tackle because he's a big, physical guy there, too," Fisher said. "Karlos will provide us with a very big piece to the puzzle in my opinion as the year goes on."

ACC's lunchtime links

August, 30, 2013
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North Carolina has some work to do on D.

ACC mailblog

July, 26, 2013
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AA here to answer your questions.

Kyle in Miami writes: What's up AA? I'm a Cane alum and was talking to my Florida alum friend. He states for UM to seriously be "back" they can't be concerned about beating teams like North Carolina. Instead they need to focus on the "real" programs in the ACC like Clemson, FSU, and Virginia Tech. You don't see Florida worrying about Vanderbilt or Mississippi State right?

Andrea Adelson: Florida should be worried about Vanderbilt, considering what James Franklin is doing up there. I understand what your buddy is trying to say. But for Miami to be "back," the Canes have to win all their games, and that includes North Carolina, Duke and anybody else they play in the ACC. Miami cannot afford to overlook anybody, especially when it seems pretty clear the best shot an ACC team has at playing for a national title is to go undefeated. Gotta win 'em all, Kyle.


Trenton Tovar in Nashville, Tenn., writes: On your article about receivers with the best TD to touches ratio, NC State receiver Bryan Underwood has a career ratio of 1:5. Not trying to say he is the best (he had a few too many drops last year), just thought he should get a mention.

Adelson: I did not include Underwood because I just featured all-purpose receivers, but here is his mention!


rtXC1 in Denison, Texas, writes: Hey AA! I know one of the headlines of CFB Media Days has been the new targeting rules. Coach (Will) Muschamp says he'd like an NFL-like punishment system, where the officials gather on Monday and decide if a one-game suspension is warranted, rather than ejections. To me, it seems more fair to take that approach as every player will serve the same amount of punishment (whereas some players currently might be ejected in the first quarter, rather than the third or fourth). Also, this takes away the need to review an ejection and the possibility of a penalty still standing after an overturned ejection, which is controversial. Any chance this gains steam for the 2014 season?

Adelson: I don't think we are ever going to get away from controversy surrounding this rule. Unlike the NFL, college is made up of various conferences so I still don't think you are going to get uniform decisions across the country. And as we have seen in recent days, the head of officials in these conferences have different opinions on what exactly should cause an ejection for "targeting." I think folks are going to take more of a wait-and-see approach this season to gauge how the rules changes impact games and then go from there. I just don't think there is a way to take subjectivity out of this discussion entirely, no matter the changes or punishment.


Scott in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., writes: What if UNC upsets South Carolina in the opener? Which team from the ACC has the best shot at an upset against the SEC in the first two weeks when the top half of the SEC, Florida, Bama, Georgia and S. Carolina take on the ACC?

Adelson: If North Carolina upsets South Carolina, the Tar Heels will jump into the Top 25 and John Swofford will do a jig. ACC credibility will be restored! Well, just for Thursday night. I think it is important for the ACC to at least split in the early going with those games against the SEC. The two with the best shot at a win are Clemson over Georgia, and Miami over Florida. I just don't think Virginia Tech is on the same level as Alabama, and it's going to be tough for North Carolina to take down South Carolina with so many key players gone.


Jordan in Cary, N.C., writes: What chance do you give Duke of upsetting a ranked team this year?

Adelson: Who says Duke will actually play a ranked team this year? Nobody on the schedule is projected to be in the preseason Top 25. Virginia Tech and Miami could conceivably be ranked at some point, but it's too early to place hypotheticals there.


Matt in Winston-Salem writes: A ton of ACC alumni here in the Triad are starting to get excited about the '13 season. I thought you made a great point, recently, about FSU's backs being snubbed by the Doak Walker committee. But with no 1,000-yard rushers since (Warrick) Dunn, how can we complain? Let's face it, RB recruits have seen enough, and are beginning the slow walk away from FSU. I'd like to know if you or Jimbo (Fisher) thinks there's some pressure for FSU to finally end this curse...not just for a rookie qb's sake, but for the future of the position in Tallahassee.

Adelson writes: I wouldn't say pressure. I just don't think Florida State at this point is going to be going with a workhorse back the way they had with Dunn. Fisher is perfectly fine with splitting the carries between Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., and I am sure we will see some Mario Pender this year as well. Pender, I am sure you recall, was a four-star back out of high school so I don't know that recruits are backing away from the Noles. Florida State clearly can produce NFL quality talent at any position.


Michael Lee Jr in Blacksburg, S.C., writes: With the bowls announced, you mean to tell me Clemson-Carolina, FSU-Florida, GT-Georgia could happen a second time in a single year? The question becomes will the results be different or the same?

Adelson: No, Michael, that in all likelihood would not happen. The new bowl arrangements will allow for greater flexibility in matchups and the league office will have input. So you can bet both the SEC and ACC will want to avoid rematches if at all possible.
It is pretty clear college football guru Phil Steele things Florida State is mighty talented, considering he has the Noles sitting at No. 3 Insider in his preseason rankings.

Here is a glimpse at how talented he thinks this team is headed into 2013: He has Florida State ranked among his Top 15 teams in the nation at: running back Insider, receiver Insider and defensive line Insider. That means Florida State is featured in three of the four position rankings Steele has unveiled on ESPN.com so far.

Of those three groups, he has receiver rated highest of all, which surprises me quite frankly. Florida State has talent, yes, but there is no true national headliner among them. Steele admits as much, writing, "Although there are not a lot of household names in this group, the Noles could have some by the end of the year, including Kelvin Benjamin, who is 6-foot-5, 242 pounds."

No doubt Benjamin is a freak of an athlete, but he has got to be more consistent this season to really strike some fear into the heart of the opposition. Greg Dent is suspended indefinitely following his arrest this week, but Florida State has plenty of talent to make up for his loss. This is pretty high billing for a group that has a bunch of players that still need to prove themselves. We'll see if the Noles receivers can live up to these expectations.

One more ACC team to note in the receiver rankings: Maryland at No. 15, thanks to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long.

As for the other rankings, Steele has Florida State ranked No. 12 at running back and No. 8 at defensive line. Interestingly enough, he has the Florida State running back group ranked ahead of Miami, which checks in at No. 13. I understand the reason for that. Florida State returns two very solid backs in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., and they add Mario Pender.

Miami counters with ACC Freshman of the Year Duke Johnson and Eduardo Clements, along with spring surprise Dallas Crawford. The Canes get the nod in the headliner category with Johnson; but Florida State has more depth.

There is one ACC team ranked ahead of Florida State on the defensive line -- No. 7 Virginia Tech. No arguments here on that ranking. The Hokies should have a pretty solid front, with seven of their top eight linemen back from a year ago, including end James Gayle. Clemson also made into the rankings at No. 15. Vic Beasley is on course to have a huge season.

Under-the-radar players to watch

March, 14, 2013
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With spring practice less than a week away, the fervor surrounding some of the most-hyped storylines of 2013 has already been raging for months. The three-way battle at quarterback, the return of Bobby Hart to the limelight, Lamarcus Joyner's move to cornerback -- Jimbo Fisher already has plenty to keep his eye on.

But while those stories will continue to headline Florida State's preparations for the 2013 season, there are a handful of other intriguing players to watch this spring. They might not be in the running for a starting job, but they should offer plenty of reasons to watch as they look to impress a new group of coaches and find their own niche for the upcoming season.

Mario Pender (RB/RFr.)

When it comes to sheer intrigue, the entirety of Florida State's returning redshirts could probably make the list -- with Jameis Winston probably atop it. But while there will be genuine interest in Justin Shanks' weight or Marvin Bracy's speed, it's Pender who likely leads the pack in non-QB buzz from fans. The highly touted tailback missed all of 2012 with a groin injury and is just now getting back into full swing. His workouts during fourth-quarter drills earned raves from Fisher, who compared his burst and home-run ability to Chris Thompson -- only Pender is a bit bigger and stronger. Does that mean a job awaits this fall? Not exactly, but he'll definitely have his coaches' attention.

(Read full post)

Week 12 injury reports

November, 16, 2012
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Here are the ACC injury reports for Week 12 from the schools that emailed them:

CLEMSON

Probable
Out for the season
DUKE

Probable
Doubtful
Out
Out for the season
FLORIDA STATE

Out
Out for the season
MARYLAND

Out for the season
Questionable
Probable
MIAMI

Out
Surgery/Out for the season:
NC STATE

Out for season
Out for game

ACC injury report: Week 9

October, 26, 2012
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Here are the ACC injury reports for Week 9 from the schools that emailed them:

DUKE

Probable
Questionable
Doubtful


Out
Out for season


FLORIDA STATE


Out


Out for season
MARYLAND

Probable
Questionable
Out
Out for season

NORTH CAROLINA

Out
NORTH CAROLINA STATE

Out for season

ACC injury report: Week 7

October, 12, 2012
10/12/12
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Here are the ACC injury reports for Week 7 from the schools that emailed them:

DUKE

Probable
Questionable
Doubtful
Out
FLORIDA STATE

Out
Out for season
MARYLAND

Out for season
Out
Probable
MIAMI

Probable
Out
Surgery/Out for season
NORTH CAROLINA

Out
VIRGINIA

Out
Questionable
Probable
Out for season
VIRGINIA TECH

Out for season
Out
Doubtful

Week 6 injury reports

October, 5, 2012
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Here are the ACC injury reports from the schools that emailed them:

CLEMSON

WILL PLAY

WR Sammy Watkins (virus)

C Dalton Freeman (thumb)

PROBABLE

OG Kalon Davis (hamstring)

OUT

WR Martavis Bryant (groin)

RB D.J. Howard (shoulder)

OUT FOR SEASON

DB Martin Jenkins (hernia)

CB Tony McNeal (torn ACL)

LB Justin Parker (groin)

DUKE

PROBABLE

LB David Helton (leg)

QUESTIONABLE

CB Lee Butler (lower body)

QB Sean Renfree (arm)

DT Jamal Wallace (lower body)

OUT

CB Jared Boyd (leg)

S Brandon Braxton (upper body)

LB Kelby Brown (leg)

NG Jamal Bruce (foot)

TE Braxton Deaver (leg)

DE Justin Foxx (hand)

S Chris Tavarez (leg)

OUT FOR SEASON

TE Jack Farrell (leg)

WR Blair Holliday

DE Allen Jackson (shoulder)

S Corbin McCarthy (shoulder)

S Taylor Sowell (leg)

FLORIDA STATE

OUT

DB Justin Bright (head)

LB Ukeme Eligwe (hand)

OL Garrett Faircloth (hip)

OL Daniel Foose (back)

DT Moses McCray (head)

DT Derrick Mitchell (back)

OL Trey Pettis (head)

OUT FOR THE SEASON

DB Colin Blake (shoulder)

DE Chris Casher (knee)

TE Dan Hicks (knee)

DE Brandon Jenkins (foot)

DT Jacobbi McDaniel (ankle)

RB Mario Pender (sports hernia)

MARYLAND

PROBABLE

WR Kerry Boykins (hamstring)

LB Kenneth Tate (knee)

DL Joe Vellano (foot)

QUESTIONABLE

DB Matt Robinson (groin)

OUT

PK/P Nick Ferrara (hip)

OUT FOR SEASON

QB C.J. Brown (knee)

DL Andre Monroe (knee)

MIAMI

OUT

DL Curtis Porter (upper extremity)

DB Rayshawn Jenkins (upper extremity)

DL Olsen Pierre (upper extremity)

OL Ben Jones (lower extremity)

OUT FOR THE SEASON

WR Malcolm Lewis (lower extremity)

LB Ramon Buchanan (lower extremity)

LS Sean McNally (lower extremity)

NORTH CAROLINA

OUT

RB Connor Gonet

OL T.J. Leifheit

LB Darius Lipford

RB Travis Riley

PK Miller Snyder

WR T.J. Thorpe

NC STATE

OUT

OT Rob Crisp (lower back)

OG Andrew Wallace (foot)

RB James Washington (ankle)

OUT FOR THE SEASON

OG Zach Allen (foot)

DT Jacob Kahut (knee)

LB Michael Peek (knee)

VIRGINIA

PROBABLE

OT Oday Aboushi (upper extremity)

DT Will Hill (medical)

S Brandon Phelps (upper extremity)

DOUBTFUL

WR Tim Smith (lower extremity)

OUT

DE Billy Schautz (lower extremity)

DT Buddy Ruff (medical)

S Darius Lee (lower extremity)

OUT FOR THE SEASON

S Pablo Alvarez

LB Adam Caplinger

DT Marco Jones

S David Marrs

WR Mario Nixon

VIRGINIA TECH

PROBABLE

DT Luther Maddy (ankle)

WR Christian Reeves (hamstring)

G David Wang (ankle)

DOUBTFUL

RB Tony Gregory (knee)

OUT

WR Joshua Stanford (knee)

OUT FOR SEASON

OT Nick Acree (knee)

WR D.J. Coles (knee)

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