ACC: Tom O\'Brien

Tony Creecy keeps a copy of the video for the times he longs for his mother's voice, his freshman year highlight tape from Southern (N.C.) High that shows him scoring his first varsity touchdown.

"I can hear her screaming from the top of her lungs," Creecy said. "She knows I love sports; she knows that's what I love to do. She was at every game I had. I don't think she ever missed a game."

Anita Creecy
Courtesy of Tony CreecyNC State tailback Tony Creecy's mother Anita died more than seven years ago after battling cancer.
More than seven years have passed since colon cancer stole Anita Creecy from this world at 44 years old, when her son was a high school rookie. Much has changed since then for Tony, who hits the home stretch of his NC State run this month. The Wolfpack are a victory away from extending that career to the winter as they aim for win No. 6 on Saturday against Georgia Tech.

Creecy plays for a new coach, who was hired before last season. His father has since remarried, to a woman and family to which Creecy has grown extremely close. And then there is Tristan, his nearly 2-year-old son who has been more of a game-changer than anything the redshirt senior has taken on over the years.

"This is a whole 'nother ballgame," Creecy said. "This is something I have to step up and take care of myself, and as a process, it's been amazing. My father and stepmother and [girlfriend's] parents have been a tremendous help throughout this process. There hasn't been a time where he's needed for anything or we've needed for anything."

Tristan's second birthday will be on Dec. 22. Told that this is an ideal date for gift-giving -- one present sufficing for both the birthday and the winter holidays -- Creecy laughed: "He's so spoiled. All the presents under the Christmas tree will be his."

An avid watch collector who counts a closet of shoes approaching 100, Creecy has no worries about his son's eventual fashion sense. He is at ease in other matters, too, given all that he learned from the limited time he had with his mother.

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Creecy remembers regularly visiting his mother's family in her hometown of Creswell, North Carolina, nearly three hours away. He and his older sister, Jeskell, admittedly grew bored with the trips as they got older, so Anita eventually went on her own, leaving father, son and daughter together over weekends. Tony would look back on those times as a blessing in disguise, as they prepared him for a situation that soon became permanent.

Anita waged a three-year war with cancer that she and her husband hid from their kids until about a week before she died. A self-proclaimed momma's boy, Tony was crushed. Anita's reputation in the community drew an outpouring of support upon her passing, with Tony estimating that 100 friends and family members came through their house in the days after her death to offer their condolences.

Tony has honored his mother's memory with a tattoo on his arm. It depicts two birds holding up a ribbon in the sky that reads: R.I.P. Anita Creecy. The sport management major received his undergraduate degree in May. He was one of 10 athletes given the first-team National Academic Momentum Award for 2013. The award, given by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS) Scholar-Baller Program, honors college athletes' academic impact on others.

At NC State, Tony met Jasmine, a UNC graduate, through a friend. She lives with Tristan a few minutes away from Tony as he finishes his college career.

On the field, the Wolfpack running back has been stellar, enduring a coaching change from Tom O'Brien to Dave Doeren and tallying 1,645 career yards from scrimmage with 14 touchdowns to date. He has started seven of nine games this season and is third on the team in rushing, with 234 yards.

"Tony is a great leader, not only by example, but vocally," Doeren said. "He's a hard worker, smart player, selfless, plays hard on special teams, gives great effort. I think he's an ultimate example of how you want guys to handle their role. Like any running back, he wants more carries, and if he didn't, you'd be concerned about him. But whatever he gets, I know he tries his hardest to do the best he can with it."

Creecy knows where that wherewithal comes from. He thinks it is what led him to Jasmine. And when Tristan is old enough, this will make it oh-so easy for his father to explain to him just how special his grandmother was.

"There's going to be so much to say I'm not even going to know where I'm going to really start, but what I am going to definitely start with is how amazing of a woman she was," Creecy said. "And I think that's why I met his mother, because she's the same exact way. She reminds me so much of my mother, it's kind of like a correlation. So I think that's why she was put in my life. She's an amazing woman. I'm going to say that your grandmother is so much like your mother, and that's going to be all I'm going to need to say, because his mother's so amazing."
Former NC State coach Tom O’Brien, now an assistant coach at Virginia, said on Friday that his relationship with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has “always been good,” despite the former NC State quarterback’s decision to transfer to Wisconsin for his final season of eligibility.

At the time, it was a controversial decision, and with Wilson heading to the Super Bowl, their relationship and Wilson’s decision to leave Raleigh has again come under the microscope.

[+] EnlargeTom O'Brien
Pete Emerson/UVa Media Relations Now an assistant at Virginia, former Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien says his relationship with Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State, is good.
“I have no problems,” O’Brien said on a teleconference. “It’s always been good. Maybe some people think it hasn’t been, but certainly I think it’s been fine. I texted him and asked him for tickets when he came to the Redskins and then texted him I was just kidding him. Stuff like that. We’re good.”

After earning his undergraduate degree, Wilson was free to transfer in April 2011 and play anywhere. O’Brien boiled his decision down to simple math, as Wilson had one year left to play and his backup, Mike Glennon, had also already graduated but had two seasons of eligibility remaining. There was a concern that had Wilson committed to playing baseball, and Glennon transferred, O’Brien wouldn’t have any quarterback.

So he released Wilson from his scholarship and named Glennon the starter.

“Michael would have graduated that year,” O’Brien said. “He could move on if he wanted to at the end of that year, so that was just all part of the decision-making process that had to happen. You could have one quarterback, you could have two quarterbacks, or you could have no quarterbacks.”

O’Brien said he wouldn’t have done anything differently had he been put in the same situation again.

“I’m not clairvoyant, I can’t tell the future,” he said. “The thing you do and you always do is you make decisions on the facts you have at that time. Certainly with the facts and the situation the way it was, we parted on great terms. Russell went his way, we had to make a decision what’s best for NC State, we made that decision and went forward. Actually the best news is, it worked out for both kids. Both had the opportunity, both got to compete against each other and play this year on the field. It’s a great opportunity. It was a great opportunity for Russell and it was a great opportunity for Michael. We were lucky to have those kids the four years we had them playing, five years. People ought to be happy about that.”
Brandon Mitchell stayed at home Saturday night. He spent his second bye weekend of the season watching Florida State's primetime showcase at Clemson. He had recorded the game, too, so he watched it again later. He noticed the speed of the Seminoles' defense, realized how tight the timing must be with his receivers and looked for hints, any hints, the unit was giving off that he could potentially exploit the next time he took the field.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Mitchell
James Guillory/USA TODAY SportsNC State signal-caller Brandon Mitchell, who has missed the last five games with injury, has completed all three of his passes this season.
Welcome back, Brandon.

NC State gets a familiar face under center this Saturday when it heads to Doak Campbell Stadium, as Mitchell will return after a five-game absence caused by a broken bone in his left foot. Recreating familiar scenes against Florida State may be a whole 'nother matter in light of the Seminoles' national statement against the Tigers this past weekend.

"We've got to go down there and play clean and play hard and take a shot at them and keep taking shots at them and hope that we can get a few takeaways and good field position and play well on special teams," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said during his weekly press conference. "If they don't play well, that'd be great. But I'm anticipating a great Florida State team. That's what we've seen from every game that we've got on tape, is them dominating people. We know we've got to play well.

"The good things is our players have played against them and played well against them, so we know if we do things right we have a chance of winning this football game."

The narrative was similar going into last season's contest in Raleigh, N.C., before then-No. 3 Florida State stumbled in the second half, blowing a 16-0 lead and falling 17-16 to see national title hopes go up in flames with half of a season left to play. The Wolfpack have beaten the last four ranked Seminoles teams they have faced, though only the first of those games, in 2005, was in Tallahassee, Fla.

"I think from last year we learned that if we play to our potential we can play up there with the top teams in the country," offensive lineman Joe Thuney said. "We remember it and I'm sure they do, too. But it is a new year this year and we've just got to focus on taking this game and just giving it our all."

NC State finished just 3-3 after topping Florida State last season, leading to coach Tom O'Brien's firing.

After a 3-1 start this season that included a noble effort against Clemson, the Wolfpack have dropped two in a row and find themselves in an 0-3 hole in ACC play, with the offense averaging just 12.3 points per league contest under quarterback Pete Thomas.

They know the challenge that awaits this weekend against a team ranked No. 2 in the initial BCS standings.

"They capitalize on every opportunity that they have," receiver Bryan Underwood said. "The first play of the game (Clemson) turned it over, the offense came on the field and a couple plays later they scored. They forced a bunch of three-and-outs, they were attacking the players and the quarterback and disrupting a lot of routes, made Tajh Boyd uncomfortable in the pocket. So what I learned from them is they played very, very fast like they always do. They're going to come out ready to go no matter if it's home or away."

Underwood was on the receiving end of the memorable fourth-and-goal play last season, catching a game-winning two-yard pass from Mike Glennon with 16 seconds left to clinch the upset.

The redshirt junior will have a new quarterback looking for him this time around with Mitchell making his return.

Mitchell was a perfect 3-for-3 for 93 yards and a touchdown and tallied 19 yards on five rushes before leaving his Wolfpack debut in the first quarter of a Week 1 win over Louisiana Tech. The redshirt senior and Arkansas transfer dressed for NC State's last contest against Syracuse but opted to let a bye week handle the final phase of his recovery.

"That's been the hardest part," Mitchell said of being so close to a return. "I could've played, but if I got out there I wouldn't have been myself, and me not being able to play to my highest ability wouldn't do any good for the team. I didn't want to go out there and put the team in jeopardy as far as the game or then also putting myself in jeopardy for the rest of the season."

ACC lunchtime links

October, 10, 2013
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Is tonight future-league member Louisville's toughest test of the season?

Opening camp: Coastal Division

August, 1, 2013
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Several more teams in the ACC begin practicing today, and by Aug. 6, the entire conference will have officially begun fall camp. Here’s a quick look at when each team in the Coastal Division is starting, and what to keep an eye on:

Duke

Opening camp: Aug. 5

What to watch: Quarterback Anthony Boone is entering his first season as a full-time starter, and Duke’s offense will look different as a result. Boone has a stronger arm than his predecessor, Sean Renfree, and he’s more mobile. The question is whether the Blue Devils can get their running game going around him, and if the defense can finally find a way to stop the run. The entire secondary has to be rebuilt, as Ross Cockrell is the only returning starter, and even he missed half the spring with an injury.

Georgia Tech

Opening camp: Today

What to watch: Vad Lee takes over at quarterback, and expectations are already soaring. The defense will be under the direction of first-year coordinator Ted Roof, a familiar face to the program and the ACC. Coach Paul Johnson said it’s likely the Jackets will throw the ball more this fall, but how much depends on whether they can find some dependable receivers in a group that’s been depleted this offseason.

Miami

Opening camp: Aug. 3

What to watch: Defensive improvement will be the key to the Canes’ success this year, particularly up front where the group struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks last fall. Every starter returns on both the offensive and defensive lines, and so does 2012 ACC Rookie of the Year Duke Johnson and veteran quarterback Stephen Morris. Miami was chosen by the media as the preseason favorite to win the division this year, but the defense was one of the worst in the country last year, allowing 30.5 points per game. And of course, the NCAA is still snoozing.

North Carolina

Opening camp: Today

What to watch: The offensive line's cohesiveness and development will be critical, especially after lead blocker Jonathan Cooper left, who helped make former running back Giovani Bernard look so spectacular. Plenty of talent and experience returns, starting with James Hurst, who could be a first-round draft pick, and center Russell Bodine. Landon Turner and Kiaro Holts have playing experience, and Caleb Peterson is a redshirt freshman taking over for Cooper. Keep an eye on the competition at running back, where A.J. Blue is penciled in as the starter to take over for Bernard, and in the return game, where Bernard will also be missed.

Pittsburgh

Opening camp: Aug. 6

What to watch: Quarterback Tom Savage hasn’t officially been named the starter, so the competition with Chad Voytik continues. The running game took a hit when Rushel Shell decided to transfer, so also keep an eye on how Malcolm Crockett and Isaac Bennett fare. None of that will matter much, though, if the offensive line can’t get it together. The group was a major question mark after the spring, as new center Gabe Roberts struggled a bit with the shotgun snap, and depth and experience remain concerns. With nine starters returning on defense, including standout lineman Aaron Donald, the Panthers will have to rely on their defense until the offense catches up.

Virginia

Opening camp: Aug. 5

What to watch: This team will have an entirely new look this fall. The Cavaliers overhauled the staff, including adding two new coordinators and hiring former NC State coach Tom O’Brien. Mike London said he expects to name a starting quarterback by mid-August, but the field has narrowed to frontrunners David Watford and Greyson Lambert. Virginia needs to find some linebackers to help fill the voids after Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds left, and the running game has to show progress after ranking No. 96 in the country last year.

Virginia Tech

Opening camp: Aug. 5

What to watch: Offense, offense, offense. It’s the storyline in Blacksburg, as first-year offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler was hired to cure the Hokies’ woes and make quarterback Logan Thomas look like the first-round draft pick many projected him to be. Problem is, it’s not just Thomas who needs to get better. The offensive line remains a work in progress, the running game is a question after Michael Holmes' dismissal, and the receivers are still young. Thomas can’t do it all by himself, and it’s in his nature to try. That’s when the mistakes happen. This summer has to be about the entire supporting cast improving, because Alabama’s defense will be ready to exploit any and every weakness in the season opener.
Florida State was not the only program to introduce new assistants during the offseason. Though the Seminoles led the way with the most changes for a program with a returning head coach, 13 of the 14 league schools had staff changes. Only Maryland returns all its assistants from a year ago.

There were some pretty big hires for some of those positions. With that in mind, whom do you think was the best assistant coaching hire in the ACC? I have narrowed the list down to five.

SportsNation

Who is the best assistant coach hired in the ACC this offseason?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,537)

James Coley, offensive coordinator, Miami. This has to qualify as one of the assistant coaching coups in all of college football, as Miami coach Al Golden worked at warp speed to replace Jedd Fisch, stealing away one of the best recruiters in the South Florida area from arch rival Florida State. Coley has had the coordinator title with the Seminoles, but it was in name only as Jimbo Fisher still called the plays. This is a huge chance for him not only to help Miami on the field and in recruiting, but to show Florida State what it's missing.

Scot Loeffler, offensive coordinator, Virginia Tech. Loeffler did not exactly have a great season last year at Auburn, but nobody on that staff did. He was hired, in part, because of his past work in developing quarterbacks at previous stops. And we all know Logan Thomas has got to take the next step this season if the Hokies are going to get back atop the ACC. The results of the spring game weren't exactly ideal, but coaches have said Thomas has definitely made strides this spring.

Tom O'Brien, associate head coach/tight ends coach, Virginia. Coach Mike London made the decision to completely revamp his coaching staff this past offseason, and one coach he knew he wanted to hire immediately was O'Brien, recently fired at NC State. London previously worked under O'Brien; O'Brien spent 15 years working at UVa under former coach George Welsh. Adding a coach with as much experience and knowledge as O'Brien should definitely help a team looking for a turnaround in 2013.

Jeremy Pruitt, defensive coordinator, Florida State. This is what Florida State assistant Sal Sunseri had to say about Pruitt, with whom he worked last season at Alabama. "When I got to University of Alabama, I sat in the press box with that young man through that whole year and we won a national championship, and he was as good as anybody I’ve been in the press box. He knows what’s going on out there. He knew how to make adjustments." Pretty high praise from a veteran who has worked both in the NFL and college football.

Ted Roof, defensive coordinator, Georgia Tech. Roof has wandered around a bit of late but he now returns to his alma mater intent on improving a defense that showed gains in the second half of last season. Last season at Penn State, his defense ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (19.1 ppg), first in sacks (34), first in red-zone defense and third in turnover margin. Before that, he won a national championship at Auburn, which his defense held high-scoring Oregon to 19 points -- 28 below the Ducks' average.

My vote goes to Coley. What say you?

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 11, 2013
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Around the ACC we go ...
Virginia’s Orange-Blue spring game is on Saturday at Scott Stadium, and there will be plenty worth watching, as the Hoos have two new coordinators in Jon Tenuta and Steve Fairchild. The game starts at 1 p.m. ET and will be on ESPN3.

[+] EnlargeJake McGee
AP Photo/Steve HelberVirginia TE Jake McGee says the Cavs are handling all the new faces and the new offense with ease.
One player to watch will be tight end Jake McGee, who should have a bigger role in the new offense this year. He played in all 12 games and started three last fall, finishing with five touchdown receptions. Only Heath Miller (2002 & 2003), Bruce McGonnigal (1989) and Ed Carrington (1965) own more tight end touchdowns in a season at UVa.

McGee really made a name for himself last year against Penn State. He had four catches for 99 yards, including the game-winning touchdown with 1:28 left. He made two catches on the game-winning drive -- a 44-yard, one-handed reception on a 3rd-and-16, the second was the touchdown on third-and-goal from the 6-yard line.

Not a bad introduction.

What’s in store for 2013? Here are the highlights of our conversation:

What are Virginia fans going to see from you in the spring game on Saturday?

Jake McGee: Hopefully they’ll see a team that has been working hard to get the new offense going and see guys who are really ready to take a step forward from last season’s let-down a little bit and get back on track.

What happened last season?

JM: I don’t think we can really pinpoint it on one thing, it’s just one of those things that didn’t work out well and you have to remember how it feels but move on and head to a better season coming up.

After the season, Mike London made a bunch of staff changes. How much of a difference has that made this spring?

JM: It’s always new when you have different faces around you, but so far the attitude has been a really strong commitment to getting us better, and the new coaches have really helped get installed some good principles for the offense and the team as a whole.

I talked to coach London, and he told me Steve Fairchild definitely wants to get the tight ends more involved. How do you see your role changing this year?

JM: Well, first it starts with myself. I have to get to the level where they’re comfortable with me doing everything that a tight end does and being able to help the team in all aspects. I’m sure once that happens, there will be more and more on my plate to make plays and really help this offense grow.

How much has the playbook changed?

JM: There’s a different playbook, but the principles are the same, so there’s different terminology, and some different stuff, but the majority of it is the same base concepts so it hasn’t been too difficult.

What’s it been like working with Tom O’Brien this spring?

JM: It’s been great so far. He’s a guy who stays on you, really pushes for the best out of you, and when a guy like that who has all of that experience and success comes into your room, you listen and want to hear everything he say.

Yeah, how much more of an impact do his words have when it feels like five minutes ago he was a head coach?

JM: It’s definitely an honor to have a guy like that coaching you, so you want to do the best you can and you want to take everything he has to share with you and really become the best you can because he’s been doing it for so long and had a lot of success.

Offensively, as a group, what do you think the main priorities are between now and when you kickoff?

JM: It’s really just getting crisp with everything and learning the new offense so there’s no transition period from the first game. We want to be clicking when that first game comes instead of taking a few games to get in.

Who are some of the other tight ends who have stepped up this spring that Virginia fans might get to know better this fall?

JM: A big face they’ll see is Zach Swanson with me. He’s moved back from fullback, and he’s looking great. I think that will be a really good one-two punch with us and then Rob Burns.

What have you guys been saying in the locker room about your schedule? It’s pretty tough.

JM: It’s always good to have a challenge like that. It really gives us no time to go slow or not put 100 percent effort in because the first game is against a top team in the country, followed by more top teams. There’s really no time to be lazy or take time off because once the season starts, you’re right into the thick of it.

What was last season like for you? It seemed like a bit of a coming out party. I was at the Penn State game, and I think that’s kind of when I got to know you.

JM: Yeah, it was fun. I’ve always been a guy who loves being on the field. It was fun to get going and make plays because that’s something I’ve always done really at any level I’ve played. It was nice to contribute to the team. I kept wanting to get more, so this spring I need to get as strong as possible to make even more plays this fall.

What are you working on in particular?

JM: Just strength and really understanding the position because I’m still sort of new to it, but just becoming as good as possible in all aspects to really have an impact season.

How much better do you think you guys can be as a team this year?

JM: I think we have a chance to be a really strong team this year. If things come together, I think we have enough talent on both sides of the ball for good things to happen.

Competition is on for UVa QBs

March, 18, 2013
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Virginia released its depth chart today and -- surprise -- quarterback Phillip Sims is listed third behind David Watford and Greyson Lambert.

[+] EnlargePhillip Sims
AP Photo/Steve HelberDespite starting four games for the Cavaliers last season, Phillip Sims is still having to compete for the role of UVa's starting quarterback.
That lineup carries about as much weight as a snowflake right now.

Why? Because first-year offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, and first-year assistant Tom O’Brien, the associate head coach for the offense -- not to mention coach Mike London -- have yet to see any of these quarterbacks throw the ball in the new system. Sims, a former transfer from Alabama, was a fan favorite last year, but there is nothing concrete about the spring depth chart. It’s a blank slate for each of them, as practices begin today in Charlottesville.

“The great thing about the fresh start is for all of those guys concerned because now there are fresh eyes on the whole quarterback situation,” London said. “… With this new scheme and system, and the accountability we’re placing on the players, there are basically three fresh eyes between Larry Lewis, Fairchild and O’Brien. I would say even the fourth one would be Jon Tenuta, since he’ll be going against these guys, to evaluate those quarterbacks on who could best run the system, who can best make the decisions that are necessary.”

Watford played as a true freshman in 2011 but redshirted last year. Sims started four games last year in place of Michael Rocco, who has since transferred. Sims finished with nine touchdowns and four interceptions, having completed 56.2 percent of his passes for 1,263 yards. Lambert and Matt Johns are both redshirt freshmen.

“Phillip has an advantage of having played this season, David has the advantage of having played and watched what has gone on, and Grayson and Matt Johns are just soaking everything up,” London said. “Now the challenge will be who can best pick up the system and who can do the things that are required for our offense to be successful. I think the evaluation of that is more critical than the who right now. Who can handle what Steven and the offensive coaches are going to be asking of the quarterbacks?”

The bigger question is if London can find one quarterback who can do it instead of two. Rotating signal callers has become an unpopular trend in Charlottesville, but in London’s defense, a true star has yet to emerge. Virginia’s quarterback competition has been an ongoing storyline during London’s tenure as head coach, and the saga will continue this spring -- starting with today’s depth chart.

“I think Phillip is a competitor,” London said. “He wants to compete. I know he has a strong arm, and he likes to throw the ball deep. He likes to throw those deep, intermediate routes. Like every player, particularly a quarterback, it’s a timing game and you have to work on your timing -- when to throw, when to pull it down. Different things like that. I think that if you think about it, having come from Alabama, and coming to us, and now with Steve Fairchild, it will be basically his third system in the last three years that he’s played. Being able to adapt to that is going to be critical, as it will be for David, who sat and watched a system. With Phillip and everyone else, the learning curve is going to be important with these 15 short practices we have in the spring.”
DUKE

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Boone is up. Duke loses three-year starter Sean Renfree, who threw for 3,113 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Anthony Boone is the next man up, and has plenty of game experience. But coming in for spot duty is vastly different from taking over the starting quarterback job. He has to get a jump on becoming the leader of this offense in the spring.

2. Receiver spots open. The Blue Devils lose the most prolific receiver in ACC history in Conner Vernon, plus the versatile and athletic Desmond Scott. Jamison Crowder is back, but Duke is going to need to find two more starters and several more to step up and help with depth.

3. Handling success. This is the first time since 1994 that Duke goes into a spring with 15 bowl practices already under its belt and a taste of success. That should presumably give the Blue Devils an advantage. But it is much harder maintaining, as many coach will tell you. How does this new success impact the mind-set in spring practice?

GEORGIA TECH

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:

1. Ted Roof takes over. What is the Georgia Tech defense going to look like with Ted Roof in charge? He has not really given out specifics about the type of scheme he wants to use as his base, so it will be interesting to see how he fits his personnel to what he likes to do best. The Jackets do return eight starters to a unit that improved in the second half of the season.

2. Vad Lee time. We saw glimpse of what Lee could do as he began to share quarterback duties with Tevin Washington last season. Now, the show is all his, so we get to see how he develops as a full-time starter.

3. So long, Orwin. The Jackets lose one of their most dynamic playmakers in Orwin Smith, who finished his career ranked among Georgia Tech’s all-time leaders in kickoff returns (76), kickoff return yards (1,624) and career all-purpose yards (4,278). Georgia Tech has to find somebody to replace that productivity.

MIAMI

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. D in Defense? The No. 1 spring priority has got to be improving a defense that was one of the worst in the nation in every NCAA statistical category (No. 112 rushing defense, No. 102 passing defense, No. 116 total defense, No. 82 scoring defense). If Miami is going to be a favorite to win the Coastal, it needs better play out of this group.

2. New OC. James Coley takes over as offensive coordinator, replacing Jedd Fisch. Coley served as offensive coordinator at Florida State before arriving at Miami, but did not call the plays. So he has much more responsibility here, and is charged with taking Stephen Morris from great to next-level great.

3. D-Line improvement. If Miami is going to be better on defense, it has to start up front, where the Hurricanes were extremely young and mostly ineffective for 2012. The Hurricanes had to deal with their share of injuries, but they also were not great at stopping the run or putting pressure on the passer -- with only 13 sacks all year. That is the lowest total since at least 2005, the first year NCAA stats began listing team sack totals.

NORTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 6

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Bye bye, Gio. Life begins without All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard, who left school early for the NFL draft. The cupboard is not completely bare, though, as A.J. Blue and Romar Morris both return. Blue and Morris combined for 819 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season.

2. Replacing Williams, Reddick. North Carolina returns nine starters on defense. That is the good news. The bad news is the Tar Heels lose their two best players in linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, two first-team All-ACC selections. We'll see if Ethan Farmer at tackle and P.J. Clyburn at linebacker emerge to win the starting jobs.

3. Replacing Coop. The Tar Heels have a major hole to fill on their offensive line as they say goodbye to unanimous All-America guard Jonathan Cooper, a stalwart who made 47 career starts. Cooper was the unheralded leader of the offense, so filling his spot is a major priority this spring.

PITTSBURGH

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. QB situation. Tino Sunseri is gone, leaving Arizona transfer Tom Savage, redshirt freshman Chad Voytik and junior Trey Anderson to compete for the starting job. Inconsistent quarterback play has been a major issue for the Panthers, so upgrading this position is an absolute must.

2. Adjusting to DC. Pitt is going into the season with its fourth new coordinator in as many years, as Dave Huxtable left for NC State after only one year on the job. Secondary coach Matt House was promoted to coordinator, so at least there will be some familiarity. But he has to get to work on improving this unit's consistency.

3. Offensive line improvements. Is this the year we finally see a vastly improved Pitt offensive line? The Panthers have to replace center Ryan Turnley and guard Chris Jacobson, two key positions to watch during spring practice.

VIRGINIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. New coaches. How will the three most high-profile hires Mike London made mesh with the staff and returning players? How will the offense deal with a new scheme under Steve Fairchild? How will the defense deal with a new scheme under Jon Tenuta? How big will Tom O'Brien's role be with the offense? Inquiring minds want to know.

2. QB competition. Fairchild has already said he will open up the quarterback job to a "very spirited competition" this spring. The two front-runners figure to be Phillip Sims and David Watford, who both have game experience. But there will be no shortage of quarterbacks in Charlottesville this year, so there are no guarantees that either of them will win the job.

3. Replacing Greer. The Hoos have some big shoes to fill in the middle of their defense with the departure of linebacker Steve Greer, who ended his career with 376 tackles -- ranking No. 6 in school history. Kwontie Moore, one of nine true freshmen to play in 2012, backed up Greer last season. Will he win the starting job?

VIRGINIA TECH

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Logan Thomas. All eyes will be on Thomas as he heads into his senior season, especially with new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler in charge. How will the two work together, and what will Loeffler do to get Thomas to cut down on his mistakes and capitalize on the immense potential he has?

2. Rushing attack. Item No. 2 on the agenda for Loeffler is to figure out a way to jump start the Virginia Tech rushing game, which struggled in 2012. The offensive line was inconsistent, and so were the running backs. The Hokies could never really settle on a starter or a clear rotation in the backfield, either. Somebody has to emerge as THE guy.

3. Filling in for Exum. Virginia Tech took a serious hit to its defensive backfield last month when emerging cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game. The Hokies will look to several young players to try and fill his void, including Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes. Fans will have to wait on highly touted cornerback Kendall Fuller, who joins in the summer.

When you start talking spring football every year, you start talking change.

New coaches.

New players.

New starting quarterbacks.

New teams.

Wait, what?

Yes indeed, life is about to change for the soon-to-be supersized ACC, as Pitt and Syracuse begin spring practice this year with an eye toward Year 1 as new league members. While changes come in many forms, there is no denying that this year more than most, the ACC will see radical changes across the board.

Not only will the league grow to 14 teams, three new coaching staffs are taking charge (Boston College, NC State, Syracuse); nine teams have either a new offensive or defensive coordinator; and 13 teams have at least one new assistant on staff. You know it is an offseason of change when two of the two most stable programs in the league -- Florida State and Virginia Tech -- have undergone staff overhauls.

Jimbo Fisher lost assistants for the first time under his watch, having to replace six in all, including a yet-to-be-hired offensive coordinator and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Perhaps the most galling loss of all came at the hands of longtime rival Miami, which hired away James Coley to serve as offensive coordinator.

As if that wasn't enough, Florida State must also begin the process of replacing departed stars EJ Manuel, Bjoern Werner, Xavier Rhodes and Tank Carradine this spring.

The Noles, however, are in a better spot than the Hokies, coming off their worst season in two decades.

After offensive ineptitude hampered his team for a majority of the season, Frank Beamer changed out his offensive coaching staff, hiring Scot Loeffler as offensive coordinator in place of Bryan Stinespring. This all adds to the prevailing theme in Blacksburg this spring: How will Loeffler get the most out of quarterback Logan Thomas?

Virginia also has made major staff changes. Coach Mike London made the boldest moves in the league this offseason following a 4-8 season, hiring former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild as offensive coordinator, former NC State coach Tom O'Brien as associate head coach/tight ends, and Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinator. Fairchild, O'Brien and Tenuta bring 115 years of coaching experience to the staff, so you have to believe the pressure is on to turn things around immediately.

Pressure is there for the new faces in the league, too. Boston College coach Steve Addazio has to find a way to turn around a 2-10 team in a hurry. NC State coach Dave Doeren has to know that 7-5 seasons with upsets over Florida State are not good enough in Raleigh, so he's got to find a way to improve with only 11 starters returning. And Syracuse coach Scott Shafer has to find a way to build upon the momentum Syracuse created in its final Big East season, in a division with Florida State and Clemson.

Doeren and Shafer have to meet their goals with a new starting quarterback. Each lost excellent leaders in Mike Glennon and Ryan Nassib, both expected to be drafted in April. Both competitions are wide-open going into the spring, as are the competitions at Florida State, Pittsburgh, Duke and Virginia.

Of these schools, there is perhaps most excitement at Pitt over a new starter, now that the Panthers have said goodbye to the streaky and often-maddening Tino Sunseri. Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik figure to be the top two candidates.

But even a school such as Clemson has to deal with change. Yes, the Tigers do return their All-American quarterback Tajh Boyd, coach Dabo Swinney and both coordinators -- holding onto hot commodity Chad Morris for one more season. But they also lose leading receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who declared himself eligible for the NFL draft. And just as important, they have to replace center Dalton Freeman, who made 49 starts in his Tigers career.

So you see, change is everywhere, both big and small. Spring is our first introduction to a new-look ACC come the fall.
Pete Thomas packed his bags and moved across the country for the opportunity to play quarterback at NC State, deciding to leave Colorado State behind after his coach was fired.

The draw at NC State? Tom O'Brien and Dana Bible, two coaches who run a pro-style scheme that best suits what Thomas can do. He knew he had to sit out 2012, but with Mike Glennon playing his final season, Thomas would be able to compete for a shot to start in 2013.

Perfect timing. Until the end of November.

What do they say about the best-laid plans?

[+] EnlargePete Thomas
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsQB Pete Thomas, who started his college career at Colorado State with coach Steve Fairchild, left, is now competing for the starting job at NC State.
O'Brien was fired. Bible did not return. De ja vu hit Thomas, going through his second coaching change in three years. Now all of a sudden the coach he came to play for was gone, and Thomas had to swallow hard and find a way to stay positive.

"Obviously, when I decided to come here, I was hoping to play for Coach O’Brien and committed here to play for Coach O’Brien and their staff," Thomas told ESPN.com in a recent phone interview. "A lot of guys have a lot of respect for them and like them, but it didn’t work out that way. Everybody loves the new staff, and we’re all excited to finally get on the field with them."

Thomas and Manny Stocker, who served as the backup last season, appear to be the early front-runners headed into spring practice. But along with the staff change comes a scheme change. Where Thomas fits perfectly into a pro-style offense, new coach Dave Doeren is more known for his spread offense and mobile quarterbacks.

When asked how he would fit into this particular scheme, Thomas brushed off any concerns.

"Coach (Matt) Canada’s offense and Coach Doeren, they’ve shown they can do multiple things," Thomas said. "At Indiana, they threw the ball a lot, at NIU they had running quarterbacks, at Wisconsin, they had a drop-back passer. They adapt to what their players can do, and they’re going to continue to do that through the spring and the fall."

Thomas was one of the highest rated quarterbacks coming out of high school in California, and decided on Colorado State because he liked then-coach Steve Fairchild and thought he would have the chance to play right away. He did, starting as an 18-year-old true freshman. Though there were ups and downs, Thomas threw for 2,662 yards and broke the school single-season record with a .647 completion percentage.

His sophomore season was tougher. Colorado State went 3-9; Thomas missed the final three games of the season because of an injury. Fairchild was fired at the end of the season. Thomas said that was the overriding factor in his decision to transfer.

Sitting out last season was difficult. But at the same time, he had a chance to take a step back and work on his own game, and learn from Glennon. Because Thomas was thrown right into the lineup as a young player, he had to learn on the job. His mistakes were there for everyone to see. Sitting out made him a little bit wiser.

"I liked playing early," Thomas said. "I got a lot of experience on the field, but you can gain a lot from redshirting and sitting out the year and developing. I also got to grow physically, something I never really got to do playing right away."

It has not been lost on Thomas that Fairchild is now in the ACC, too, as an assistant at Virginia. Years after their lives went in different directions, both will now attempt to start over, thousands of miles away from Colorado.

Q&A with UVa OC Steve Fairchild

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
5:00
PM ET
Two weeks ago, Virginia announced the hire of Steve Fairchild as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Last year, Fairchild was the senior offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers after spending four seasons as the head coach at Colorado State. He inherits an offense that was No. 93 in the country in scoring last year at 22.75 points per game. I caught up with Fairchild recently to help introduce him to UVa and ACC fans.

Here are the highlights of our conversation:

What are you looking forward to about this job? Why was it the right fit for you?

[+] EnlargeSteve Fairchild
Troy Babbitt/USA TODAY SportsSteve Fairchild, who was Colorado State's head coach in 2011, will take over as the Virginia Cavaliers' offensive coordinator this season.
Steve Fairchild: I spent most of my career coaching quarterbacks and as an offensive coordinator, so I was looking to do that again. I was also very impressed with this university and the ACC, so it piqued my interest. As the process started to unfold, getting to know Mike London was probably the thing that sold me most on it. It just seemed like the right fit.

Tell me just a little bit about your offensive philosophy. What can ACC fans expect from you?

SF: We’d like to try to install a pro-style offense here. Obviously as we get to know our players better as we go through spring football, we’ll adapt to whatever we’re doing, to what our players do best, and obviously to try to identify our playmakers. But we’d like to start with a pro-style offense, be balanced, have a physical mentality running the football, try to create some big plays and spread the field with the passing game.

I know you were with the San Diego Chargers, but you also have collegiate experience. Without trying to put you on the spot, is there one you prefer more, colleges or the pros?

SF: There’s plusses and minuses for both. I’ve gone back and forth a little bit. This was more about the job description and the people. I’ve worked with Larry Lewis, who’s on the staff here now. I’ve known Tom O’Brien for a while. And then getting to know Mike London. I feel very good about the people, very good about the job description. It felt like the right fit.

You’re a Colorado State grad, too, right?

SF: My wife and I both.

How familiar are you with recruiting around the ACC area?

SF: I’ve recruited, I just haven’t been in the ACC, so I’m sure I’ll be brought up to task on that. I’ve recruited out this way, in terms of area, so I don’t think it will be a big adjustment.

Virginia’s quarterbacks have been a big storyline there for I feel like as long as I’ve been covering the ACC. How familiar are you with Phillip Sims and David Watford, and what’s that situation look like going into the spring, or is it too early to even ask you about that?

SF: It’s probably a little early to ask. I’ve looked at a little tape. I didn’t want to look at too much and get any preconceived ideas, but we’ll open up the quarterback job to a very spirited competition here as we go into spring football. We’ve got four guys on the roster that we all think have a chance, so we’ll see where it goes.

You talked a bit about your offensive philosophy. How much do you have to change? How big of an adjustment is this going to be for Virginia this offseason?

SF: I don’t know because I’m not totally familiar with what when on here last year in terms of scheme and terminology. I’ve got a basis for where we’re going to start, and that’s what we’re doing this next month, is create our system with Tom O’Brien and all of the other coaches on offense. There are a lot of talented guys there. We’ll see. It will be an adjustment, no doubt, because it’s different than what they’ve done, but hopefully not too big of a learning curve.

Do you have any goals for this spring as far as what percentage of the playbook you want to install?

SF: No, I don’t have any idea on how much we’ll get installed. We’ll make a determination each day if we can go forward and how much. I just like to establish in the spring the way we practice, the way we go about the game, protect the football, the tempo we play at. Usually the first two or three practices are establishing those things.
The ACC's most bitter rivalries begin now, in the living rooms of recruits in their home states. Florida State vs. Miami. Virginia vs. Virginia Tech. North Carolina vs. NC State.

SportsNation

Which ACC schools have the best in-state recruiting rivalry?

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    21%
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    71%
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    8%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,586)

Who wins now determines who wins later. Which ACC recruiting rivalry is the best?

Noles vs. Canes: Miami coach Al Golden added a whole new twist to the program's rivalry with Florida State when he hired former FSU assistant James Coley as his offensive coordinator. Coley, once one of the Noles' top recruiters, is now recruiting against his alma mater, and he's doing it from his hometown.

He's got some catching up to do, if in-state recruits are a priority.

As of right now, Florida State has 18 commitments, including 14 from within the state of Florida. Miami has 14 commitments, but only three of them are from in-state. FSU has the No. 10 class in the country, and Miami is ranked No. 23. Both are fortunate to be in a hotbed of recruiting -- there is enough talent in the state for both Golden and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, but they will often cross paths as they compete for the same players.

Commonweath Cup: Virginia and Virginia Tech are also competing for talent within their home state. So far, the Hokies are winning, as 14 of 22 players in their class are from Virginia. More importantly, three of them -- safety Holland Fisher, athlete Cequan Jefferson, and offensive guard Braxton Pfaff, are elite prospects in the ESPN 150 or ESPN 300. Virginia Tech has the No. 16 class in the country and UVa is No. 33. Of Virginia's 20 commits, nine are from in the state.

The 'flagship' schools: North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, who is heading into his second season, is one step ahead of rival NC State, which recently hired Dave Doeren to replace Tom O'Brien. Doeren and his staff, a midwestern-based group, had some homework to do in ACC country. His first class is comprised of 24 commits, including 10 from within the state. On paper, Fedora has a more talented class, with four ESPN 300 players and one from the ESPN 150. Eight of his 18 commits are from North Carolina.

Which ACC rivals have the best in-state recruiting rivalry? Cast your votes now.
Virginia coach Mike London did not waste any time filling his offensive coordinator vacancy, hiring former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild for the position on Wednesday.

Fairchild replaces Bill Lazor, who resigned Tuesday for a job with the Philadelphia Eagles. In addition to serving as offensive coordinator, Fairchild also will coach the quarterbacks.

"Steve Fairchild brings a wealth of experience to Virginia and when you look at the offenses of the teams he has coached, you see high achievement," London said in a statement. "Throughout his career you find Steve was a part of coaching staffs that have had tremendous offensive success and we are really fortunate to have him join our staff. Larry Lewis spoke very highly of Steve as they worked together at Colorado State."

Fairchild served as the senior offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers in 2012, following four years as Colorado State head coach. Lewis, recently hired as UVa running backs coach/special teams coordinator, worked with Fairchild at Colorado State for four years.

In addition, Fairchild has 16 years of experience as an offensive coordinator.

"I am very excited to join the football program at the University of Virginia," Fairchild said in a statement. "I can't wait to get started. I'm excited about the type of football team we can have and anxious to get to Charlottesville and get to work."

Fairchild received a two-year contract worth $450,000 annually.

London has now surrounded himself with two former head coaches (Fairchild, Tom O'Brien) and a third long-time assistant (Jon Tenuta) as part of this major staff shakeup. Combined, Fairchild, O'Brien and Tenuta bring a whopping 115 years coaching experience to the UVa sideline.

It will be interesting to see whether all that veteran leadership will help the Hoos bounce back from a disappointing 4-8 season -- a campaign that led to all of these staff changes.

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