NCF Nation: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – If you need to find Quayshawn Nealy this summer, head to the Georgia Tech College of Computing.

Then look for the big football player filing reports and shredding paper.

Nealy had some downtime while taking two classes and working out, so he decided to get a job. That is a bit unusual for athletes, who generally have a tough time finding any free time between all their responsibilities. Nealy is an even more exceptional case.

He has had a job three summers in a row, all while finding a way to get his assignments done and grow into one of the better linebackers in the ACC. Over the past several months, Nealy has worked every day as an office assistant for a few hours. But that is pretty light work compared to what he did the past two years.

After his redshirt freshman season, Nealy decided to get a job for the first time in his life. He worked as a parking attendant at the historic Fox Theatre, collecting money and handing out receipts. When asked whether that job got a thumbs up or thumbs down, Nealy laughed.

“Thumbs up, because I was getting money,” he said.

It is safe to say he enjoyed collecting parking fees and risking paper cuts better than the internship he had last year, working as a telephone operator in a large call center just outside Athens, Georgia. Every day, he and a group of teammates would carpool one hour to the office building, trying to sell HP products to third-party vendors.

Nealy dealt with a barrage of hang ups and a lot of nos. On top of that, he was in enemy territory. Lots and lots of Bulldogs around.

“It was a good experience, but it wasn’t for me,” Nealy said.

Despite the setbacks, Nealy did make a few sales. As a business management major, the experience is one he would never trade.

Neither is the chance to earn some extra spending money, either.
The preseason All-ACC team was released Wednesday, and naturally quarterback Jameis Winston led the way with the most votes. There were not too many surprises, beginning with Florida State players littered throughout the list of 26 names.

Here is the 2014 preseason All-ACC team, as voted on by the media at the ACC Kickoff:

 
 
 

Thoughts: While the ACC had the second-most NFL draft picks in May, there is significant talent returning to the conference for the 2014 season. Of the 26 players, 21 were named to one of the three All-ACC teams at the end of last season. That doesn’t include Parker, who will play his first season in the ACC this coming season. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the leading vote getter (although not a unanimous one), and Beasley, who received the second-most votes, are two of the three returning consensus All-Americans from the 2013 season.

Few conferences would be able to rival that offense with Winston throwing to 1,000-yard receivers Crowder and Greene and a 6-foot-3 target in Parker. O’Leary is one of the best tight ends in the country. There was a seemingly close battle at running back behind Duke Johnson, Williams got the nod over Virginia running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

Defensively, that is one talented line. Beasley received the second-most votes for the preseason player of the year, and Edwards was the No. 1 high school recruit in the 2012 class. Maddy and Jarrett are two of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Duke has the second-most players on the team, which speaks to the program David Cutcliffe is building in Durham. The Blue Devils were not picked to win the ACC Coastal despite winning it last season and returning quarterback Anthony Boone. There is a constituency out there that still doesn’t believe Duke is the real deal and is bound for a letdown, but the media believes there is talent throughout the roster; the Blue Devils have a player at receiver, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. Miami, which was picked to win the division, has two players on the list.

Even as Duke had four players, the Seminoles still had nine, only further signifying the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference, although the league is undoubtedly improving. That list does not include Ronald Darby or Jalen Ramsey, two players who will almost certainly be on an All-ACC team by the end of the season. It is no surprise Florida State was ranked as having the most talent on its 2014 roster two weeks ago in ESPN.com's future power rankings.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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The 2014 college football season is inching ever so closer, with ACC media days set to take place in less than two weeks.

The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:

BOSTON COLLEGE
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.

CLEMSON
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.

DUKE
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.

FLORIDA STATE
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.

GEORGIA TECH
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.

LOUISVILLE
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.

MIAMI
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.

NORTH CAROLINA
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.

NC STATE
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.

PITT
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.

SYRACUSE
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.

VIRGINIA
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.

VIRGINIA TECH
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT

WAKE FOREST
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.
Georgia Tech's Jamal Golden ended 2012 on a special teams tear, as the only player in the NCAA to rank in the top 10 nationally in kickoff returns and punt returns.

His hopes were high headed in 2013.

Then he hurt his shoulder in September and missed the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeJamal Golden
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIGeorgia Tech's Jamal Golden has been overlooked heading into 2014 but has worked hard to return to form after an injury-shortened 2013 season.
While he was out, Golden watched the ACC light it up nationally in the specialists department. Ryan Switzer ended up returning five punts for touchdowns at North Carolina, earning All-America honors.

Kermit Whitfield ended the season with the most famous kickoff return of the year against Auburn, helping Florida State win the national championship game.

Jamison Crowder, DeVon Edwards and Stacy Coley all ended up scoring on kick returns, making names for themselves as top return specialists.

You see why Golden has been overlooked in the return department headed into 2014. Switzer, Whitfield, Crowder and Edwards have all earned preseason All-America recognition based on their performances a year ago. Switzer and Crowder finished in the top 10 in the nation in punt returns; Whitfield, Edwards and Coley finished in the top 25 in the nation in kickoff returns.

Golden had eight total returns in his injury-shortened 2013, but he has worked extensively to get back into form headed into fall camp. Plus, watching what his counterparts did last season has added some extra juice to his training.

"Being the best is always a motivation," Golden said in a recent phone interview. "Ryan Switzer doing that, I praise him -- that’s a good job on his part. I’m just going to try to come back and do what I do best and help my team get the 'W' returning or on defense."

Golden is slated to start at safety for the Yellow Jackets and resume his role as both punt returner and kick returner. Doing both return jobs is pretty rare -- only Coley and NC State's Rashad Smith handled both duties regularly a season ago. With Golden out, Georgia Tech primarily relied on DeAndre Smelter to handle punt returns and Jemea Thomas and Lynn Griffin to handle kick returns.

As Golden has rounded himself back into shape following his shoulder injury, he had an opportunity to really strengthen his legs. Golden believes that added strength has allowed him to be even faster when returning kicks.

He also had an opportunity to study more film. Golden started breaking down the tendencies of his opponents, both on defense and special teams. Now he can identify how a punter will kick based on foot position. He has continued to watch film -- both as a safety and as a returner -- during the offseason. He also works on fielding kickoffs and punts with Ryan Rodwell and Harrison Butker. Fielding punts is a bit trickier because the ball is more unpredictable, and Golden says he is nearly back into his groove with a little more than a month to go before fall practice.

"I'm just ready for camp to start up," Golden said. "It's been a long time since Sept. 21. I've been counting down the months."

Any big plans for his return to the field?

"I’ll try to put on a show for you," Golden said.

Indeed, it could be another show-stopping year for special teams across the ACC.

Here is a look at the top ACC return specialists from a year ago, and where Golden would have ranked based on his 2012 stats:

Punt returns

Ryan Switzer, North Carolina, 20.9 ypr

Jamison Crowder, Duke, 16.0 ypr

Golden, 14.6 ypr

Kickoff returns

Kermit Whitfield, Florida State, 36.4 ypr

DeVon Edwards, Duke, 30.2 ypr

Golden, 28.4 ypr

Stacy Coley, Miami, 25.9 ypr
Late last week, the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas released its opening point spreads for 200 games in the upcoming season, and it was hardly a surprise that the casino’s oddsmakers have Florida State pegged as a favorite in all eight regular-season games in which they have set a line.

What did catch a few people by surprise is just how dominant Vegas expects the Seminoles, who have a few holes to fill on defense and at the offensive skill positions, to be in 2014. Florida State is initially favored by double digits in each game. Contests against The Citadel, Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia were not released.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsLas Vegas is expecting a second dominant season from Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles.
Vegas expects Florida State to blow out division rival Clemson again, favoring the Seminoles by 17 points over the Tigers on Sept. 20. Considering how last season’s game in Death Valley went, a 17-point loss in Tallahassee might not seem all that bad for a Clemson team that's rebuilding its offense.

Florida State was also a 17-point favorite against Oklahoma State in a neutral-site game, at Louisville and against rival Florida. They opened as a 24-point favorite against Notre Dame. The Seminoles are a 14.5-point favorite at Miami, which is looking for revenge after being trounced 41-14 last season.

Elsewhere in the ACC, Clemson is a nine-point road underdog to Georgia in a rematch of last season’s opener. Following the September game against Florida State, the Tigers are favored in each listed game until hosting South Carolina, which is a three-point road favorite. Vegas expects a close game between the Tigers and visiting North Carolina, listing Clemson as a four-point favorite in that Sept. 27 game.

Louisville is welcomed to the ACC with a Labor Day primetime game against Miami, and Vegas is calling that one a pick ’em.

The Golden Nugget is not confident that Virginia Tech will have a bounce-back season. Ohio State is an 18-point favorite for the Hokies’ Week 2 trip to Columbus, Ohio, and surprisingly, the Tar Heels are a double-digit home favorite against the Hokies. Virginia Tech is only a one-point favorite at home against Miami.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, Vegas expects a close one when they travel to Nebraska. Miami is a three-point underdog in their Sept. 20 game. Miami is a one-point favorite against North Carolina, which could be a division-defining game to begin November.

Other notable spreads:

  • North Carolina is a three-point road favorite over Duke and 20-point favorite over NC State.
  • Georgia Tech isn’t projected to break its losing streak to in-state rival Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are initially set as a 14-point underdog.
  • NC State is at least a 20-point underdog in the three games with a spread.
  • Syracuse is a 5.5-point underdog to Notre Dame at the Meadowlands.
  • Virginia has two interesting nonconference games and is a heavy underdog in both. UCLA is a 21.5-point road favorite and BYU, a team Virginia beat last season, is a 17-point home favorite.
Florida coach Will Muschamp made big headlines during Day 1 of the SEC meetings when he said he would rather not play FCS opponents anymore.

Alabama coach Nick Saban agreed, sparking renewed debate about the place of FCS games in major college football, especially when strength of schedule will mean more in the playoff era.

But during the ACC spring meetings last month, there was no such debate. The ACC remains firm in its desire to play FCS opponents. There are a few reasons why. First, scheduling nonconference games has become more challenging than ever. Sometimes, an FCS team is needed to fill out the schedule. Second, there are many FCS teams in the South that are in close geographic proximity to ACC teams, and they always benefit greatly when they are scheduled to play.

These are not the most appealing games. Sometimes, upsets happen, which is probably why Muschamp does not want to go the FCS route anymore. But from the ACC perspective, the FCS games are not going anywhere anytime soon.

All 14 ACC teams have FCS teams on the schedule for 2014. Seven are in the same state as their ACC opponent. Nearly all the rest are located in bordering states. Miami, for one, plays Florida A&M this season and also has played in-state Bethune-Cookman in the past.

"Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman are great games for us," Miami athletic director Blake James said during the ACC meetings. "Those are schools within the state, there’s a real benefit for them to be able to come down and have games in Miami where they have alumni. It’s a benefit for us. As of right now I would see us still scheduling Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman and those types of schools. Those are the ones we have historically played and those are relationships we’d like to be able to continue."

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, who also serves on the College Football Playoff committee, was asked how teams with FCS opponents on the schedule would be judged when it came time to make decisions. The Tigers, for example, have South Carolina State on the schedule this season and for 2016 and a game with Wofford set for 2015.

"You’re going to have to look at what FCS teams you play, if any, because there are some FCS teams that are more difficult to play than the lower-ranked Division I teams," Radakovich said. "It comes into the totality of the schedule."

Until further notice, the totality of the ACC schedule will include an FCS opponent.
The biggest news to come from last week’s ACC league meetings was a decision on future conference scheduling. With expansion, there was a push to move to a nine-game conference slate, along with the potential to switch up the conference title game format. For now, however, things are going to stay more or less the same.

What has changed in terms of scheduling is a rule that will require all teams to play at least one nonconference game against a team from a Power 5 conference (Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC). While that won’t affect the four ACC teams with annual rivalry games against the SEC (FSU, Clemson, Louisville and Georgia Tech), it will force some others to up the ante on future scheduling.

[+] EnlargeACC logo
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe ACC has not performed well in regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 teams since 2009. The combined record of the 11 current ACC members who have been a part of the conference since then is 22-51.
(Note: For a more detailed look at scheduling of Power 5 nonconference foes in the next few years, BC Interruption has a detailed list.)

Rather than look ahead, however, we decided to take a look back at how the ACC has fared against Power 5 competition in recent years.

As colleague Andrea Adelson pointed out, the 2013 nonconference slate in the ACC was one of the toughest in the nation, and the 2014 schedule projects to be similarly daunting.
“The ACC played one of the most challenging nonconference schedules in the country a season ago, featuring games against Georgia, USC, Florida, Northwestern, Penn State, Alabama, South Carolina, BYU and Oregon.

This year, Oklahoma State, Georgia, Ohio State, Nebraska, UCLA, USC and Iowa are on the nonconference schedule, in addition to the standard SEC rivalry games for Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville.”

But while the ACC played a fair number of tough nonconference games, it didn’t exactly perform particularly well in them.

In fact, going back five years to the 2009 season, the numbers are pretty bleak.

The 11 current ACC members who have been a part of the conference since 2009 have played a total of 73 regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 teams. Their combined record is a dismal 22-51 (.301).

Here’s how bad it actually is:

• Three of those 22 wins actually came against Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville when those programs were not part of the ACC.

• Seven more wins came against Vandy, Kansas, Rutgers and Indiana — hardly traditional powers despite their conference affiliations.

• No ACC team has a winning record in nonconference, regular-season games against Power 5 teams during that span. The team that has performed the best during that stretch is North Carolina, which is 3-3.

• The most impressive nonconference, regular-season wins over Power 5 teams for the ACC in the last five years amounts to a short list: Clemson over Georgia (2013), Miami over Florida (2013), Clemson over Auburn (2011), FSU over Florida (2010), Miami over Oklahoma (2009) and Virginia Tech over Nebraska (2009).

The failures against Power 5 teams are league-wide, but the spread is a bit one-sided. Since 2009, there are a few teams that have distinctly avoiding playing nonconference, regular-season games against Power 5 teams. The full list is in a chart on the right.

What’s worse, four of those six games played by NC State and Virginia Tech came in 2009, meaning those two programs have each played just one regular-season, nonconference game against a Power 5 team in the last four years. (Virginia Tech played Alabama last season, while NC State played Tennessee in 2012.)

Of course, conference games are also played against Power 5 foes, and the ACC has won its share of bowl games against teams from major conferences as well. With that in mind, here are the league’s standings since 2009 based on all games against teams currently in a Power 5 conference (plus Notre Dame).



It’s probably no surprise that Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech -- the league’s power teams -- have performed the best.

Georgia Tech’s solid 31-24 record might be a nice feather in Paul Johnson’s cap, if not for the five straight losses to UGA.

Miami and North Carolina have played .500 football in big games the last five years, which puts them in the middle of the pack but, of course, is far below the expectations for two programs with the resources to perform much better.

The league’s newcomers -- Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville -- have won a few significant games, but the ACC obviously has higher hopes for all three schools moving forward.

(Note: Losing Maryland certainly isn't hurting the ACC with respect to these numbers. The Terps were a dismal 13-33 (.282) against all Power 5 teams in the last five years and just 1-5 in regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 foes.)

Overall, however, the win-loss records don’t exactly tell the story of the ACC as a rising power in the national landscape. In fact, the new scheduling strategy is effectively a carbon copy of the one installed by the SEC, but the difference between the performance of the two leagues in those games is actually quite stark.

In the last five years, the 12 continuous SEC programs are 41-24 (.631) in nonconference, regular-season games against Power 5 opponents, winning at more than double the rate of the ACC. While the ACC doesn’t have a single team that has won more than half of its games against Power 5, nonconference teams in the regular season, the SEC has three teams (Alabama, LSU and South Carolina) that are undefeated in such games.

The knock on the SEC, of course, is that its programs have widely shied away from top-notch competition outside the league. While ACC teams have played, on average, 6.6 regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 foes in the last five years, the SEC has averaged just 5.4.

But that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. Scheduling big-name opponents wasn’t really the problem in the first place. Winning more of those games is the big hurdle the conference needs to clear.
The dust has settled after the NFL draft, and it was another solid showing by the ACC. Overall, the league had 42 players selected, the second most in ACC history and the second most by any conference this year (trailing only the SEC’s 48).

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Elsa/Getty ImagesFormer Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was the first ACC player selected (No. 4 overall) in the NFL draft.
Four of the first 14 players selected in this year’s draft came from the ACC, led by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (No. 4 overall to the Buffalo Bills) and UNC tight end Eric Ebron (No. 10 to the Detroit Lions). Five ACC players were taken in the first round and 10 more were selected in the second and third rounds.

For the second straight year, Florida State led all ACC schools in players drafted. Seven Seminoles were selected throughout the weekend, starting with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in round 1 by the Carolina Panthers and ending with linebacker Telvin Smith in round 5 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the past two years, Florida State has had 18 players drafted by NFL teams.

Of course, it wasn’t just strength at the top for the ACC. All 14 programs had at least one player selected this year, including five apiece from Clemson and North Carolina and four from Boston College.

New addition Louisville, which officially enters the ACC next month, had four players selected this year, including three (Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Teddy Bridgewater) in the first round.

Three ACC quarterbacks were selected, led by Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas (No. 120). Pitt’s Tom Savage (No. 135) and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (No. 213) were also taken.

Duke corner Ross Cockrell was taken with pick No. 109 by the Bills, becoming just the third Blue Devils player drafted since 2001. He was also the highest-selected Duke defensive player since Mike Junkin was taken fifth overall in 1987.

Miami had three players selected over the weekend (Brandon Linder, Pat O'Donnell and Seantrel Henderson), extending its streak of consecutive years with at least one player drafted to 41. Florida State and Virginia extended streaks of their own to 32 years.

Of the ACC underclassmen who declared for this year’s draft, four went undrafted. FSU running back James Wilder Jr. inked a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, Syracuse running back Jerome Smith signed with the Atlanta Falcons and NC State defensive lineman Carlos Gray signed with the Green Bay Packers.

Among other notable undrafted free agents in the league, former Miami quarterback Stephen Morris signed with Jacksonville, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner inked a deal with Denver, FSU receiver Kenny Shaw signed with Cleveland, Tar Heels offensive lineman James Hurst signed with the Ravens and former BC quarterback Chase Rettig signed with Green Bay.
The ACC spring meetings are this week, and the league’s championship game is again a hot topic of debate.

With the league expanding to 14 teams, there’s a push to reorganize the schedule and the title game, potentially moving to just a single division, with the teams with the two best records playing for a championship.

Of course, that plan first needs NCAA approval, but before the powers that be get their hooks into the debate, David Hale and Matt Fortuna are discussing the merits of a potential change.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroWould the ACC be better-served with its two best teams meeting in the title game, possibly for a second time in a season?
Fortuna says change is good: Having the two best teams square off in the ACC title game, regardless of division, would be beneficial for several reasons, the obvious one being that college football fans could get one more marquee game to look forward to every year. But look beyond that for a moment and look at the implications that could come from the ACC having the autonomy to determine how its teams qualify for its title game.

If the Atlantic-Coastal matchup requirement was lifted, this could open the door for much more flexibility within the conference as it relates to schedules, as schools might not then be forced to play everyone in their division every year, the way that they do now. They could, if they wished to, scrap divisions altogether. Regardless, an ease on those NCAA restrictions would give ACC players a much better opportunity to face everyone in their conference before they graduate.

As it stands now, if, say, Boston College wants to get payback for its loss at North Carolina this past fall, it will have to wait until 2020 to face the Tar Heels. And the Eagles will not return to Chapel Hill in the next 11 years. Look at league newcomer Louisville, which won't get its first game against Virginia Tech until 2020. So much for young Cardinals players hoping to face a legend in Hokies coach Frank Beamer.

This might be treading into a whole other conversation entirely, but why does the NCAA even have authority to determine how leagues govern their title games, anyway? As we've seen recently, particularly with the SEC sticking with its eight-game league slate, conferences are free to determine their respective league schedules however they wish. It's only right that they get to choose how to determine their league champion, too.

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Of course, the other obvious factor that could come from a new title-game format is league balance. Yes, these things are cyclical -- in every division, in every conference. Still, is newcomer Pitt that much better than newcomer Syracuse, which lost by a single point to the Panthers last year? Probably not, but Pitt is already being touted as a darkhorse ACC title contender next year. The Orange, playing in the same division as Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, might as well be chopped liver. And that's not fair to them, as they are making similar progress in a new league with a young coach but have to navigate a far more difficult path than Pitt to show tangible signs of progress.

The major potential drawback would be a better No. 2 team in the league possibly eliminating the league's regular-season champion from contention for the College Football Playoff. But as Nick Saban said after his third national title at Alabama, you shouldn't back your way into a championship.

As the ACC looks to build off the momentum from Florida State's national title, it would be wise to keep that in mind. Unfortunately, it's not exactly in the league's control.

Hale says the format should stay the same: If you’re making the case for NCAA overreach, I’m on board. I’d love to see the NCAA exert less control over conference decision-making, too. But we’re talking about title-game format, and on that point, the status quo is worth preserving.

Would allowing more flexibility in scheduling improve the regular season? If your idea of improvement is getting that big Boston College-North Carolina rematch, then yes, it might. But look back over the past three years in the ACC and the clear-cut choice for game of the year was Clemson-Florida State. That’s the game that put the ACC in the national spotlight for a week, the game that fans across the country couldn’t wait to see.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIDuke made a surprise trip to the ACC championship game in 2013 but was waylaid by FSU.
The reason Clemson-FSU was appointment viewing, however, was that it essentially determined which highly ranked team would get a shot at an ACC title and which one would spend the rest of the year playing catch-up. But what happens if the top two teams play in the league title game instead? All of a sudden, that Clemson-FSU matchup doesn’t mean nearly as much because there’s a good chance they’ll see each other again in December.

And no, you shouldn’t back into a championship, as the wise Nick Saban said. But after FSU completely dominated Clemson this past season, was there really a need for those two to face off again? And if Clemson managed to sneak by the Seminoles in the title game by a point or two, would that have proven the Tigers deserved the league title instead of FSU? And would it have been worth costing the ACC its shot at a national title?

But beyond the impact that changing the format would have on the league’s marquee regular-season games, the fact is — attendance in Charlotte aside -- the ACC benefits from diversity in its championship game. What Duke was able to do last year was good for both the conference and the Blue Devils’ program, a turning point in the development of a one-time cellar dweller. Competitive balance pushes all programs to up their game. If Clemson and FSU control the league every year, it only dampens enthusiasm everywhere else.

And really, that’s where the real changes need to come. It’s not that we need more of Clemson-FSU (or Louisville, which could certainly throw a monkey wrench into the status quo in the Atlantic). It’s that we need other teams, particularly in the Coastal, to step up their games.

As FSU and Clemson showed last year, what separates the ACC and SEC right now isn’t strength at the top, it’s the depth of quality. While the SEC opens every season with six or seven teams in competition for a conference title, the entire reason we’re having this discussion about the ACC’s championship game is because, too often, the same two teams (in the same division) are the prohibitive favorites.

Sure, Syracuse has a long road to the top this year. But until last year, only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech had won the Coastal during the championship-game era, then suddenly Duke emerged. (The Atlantic has had four different champs.) In nine years of title games, North Carolina has yet to make an appearance. Miami has yet to make an appearance. In two of Georgia Tech’s three trips, it backed in with mediocre teams.

The solution to the ACC’s problems isn’t jury-rigging its title game. It’s ensuring that its other flagship programs are competing for the title game on an annual basis.

The ACC opens its spring meetings today with critical decisions to be made about its future. And we are not just talking about scheduling.

Divisional structure, potential changes to the championship game and more discussion about a possible ACC Network are all on the table as league athletic directors, coaches and administrators gather in Amelia Island, Florida, for the next four days.

Each topic is carefully interlaced and fraught with its own complicated issues. No decision about one can be made without impacting another. Just as an example: Any new information on a possible ACC Network could end up determining whether the league stays with an eight-game or moves to a nine-game conference schedule. Then that decision could ultimately determine what the ACC does with its division and championship game format.

“It’s like dumping out a Lego set and trying to piece it all together and do it right,” Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said. “And it’s not as simple as red goes with red, yellow goes with yellow. It’s a little more complex. But all these things are such good, challenging things to look at. It’s exciting, the discussions are really exciting right now because there are so many creative things that can happen out of all this.”

[+] EnlargeAtlantic Coast Conference logo
Rich Barnes/CSM/AP ImagesThe Atlantic Coast Conference begins spring meetings on Monday that will last through Thursday.
As it stands today, there is no clear consensus among athletic directors on what will best position the league moving forward into the College Football Playoff era. Because of that, nobody inside the league knows whether a vote on future scheduling will even happen when the meetings conclude Thursday. Considering the ACC is the last conference to determine what its future conference schedule will be, what happens here will be watched much more closely.

While there does seem to be more movement toward a nine-game schedule among the athletic directors than there was last year, the league does not yet have a simple majority in favor of adding another conference game.

There also is very little traction for changing the division format or championship game setup -- even though the ACC petitioned the NCAA to be granted the flexibility to determine its title game participants.

In interviews ESPN.com conducted with all 14 athletic directors leading up to the meetings, none were in favor of rearranging divisions. Nine were opposed to getting rid of divisions entirely, four remain undecided and one had no preference. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, in the undecided camp, wants an answer on league scheduling before moving forward to the division and championship game discussion.

He agrees, however, with the decision to petition the NCAA to change title game legislation.

“Depending upon where the conversation goes with the eight versus nine games, I think that the lineup, whether it is 1-14, whether it’s two seven-team divisions, whether the divisions are the same as they currently are, I think will be a totally separate discussion,” Radakovich said. “But first, we have to make that other decision on the eight or nine games.”

Getting rid of divisions altogether would relieve some of the headaches that go along with the current eight-game scheduling model, which features only one rotating crossover opponent. That has drawn criticism from both coaches and athletic directors who do not want to go as long as eight years between games against conference opponents.

Without divisions, teams could rotate through a cycle that would allow student-athletes to play every conference team at least once in their careers. But it could also mean getting rid of permanent crossover rivalries like Miami-Florida State, North Carolina-NC State and Duke-Wake Forest. And it could also mean chaos when it comes to determining who will play in the championship game.

[+] EnlargeMike Bobinski
AP Photo/David TulisGeorgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski is satisfied with the current division setup in the ACC.
“You open up Pandora’s box,” Miami athletic director Blake James said. “At the end of the day you have two divisions that have shown over nine years they’re very equitable. The Atlantic has won five, the Coastal has won four. That’s the best way to determine who’s in the championship game.”

Only two athletic directors are in favor of the top two teams in the league playing in the title game, while five remain undecided on the format. If the goal of the pending NCAA legislation is ultimately for the ACC to try to get its two top teams in the championship game to improve its stature and bump up strength of schedule, there are perils that go along with that, too.

“What’s the best way to make sure we have a team in that four-team playoff?” Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski said. “Obviously, multiple teams would be awesome, but if you really want them playing each other in that last week of the season, I’m not sure that’s the best setup for having teams advance into that playoff. It’s served us reasonably well.

“I would tell you that I’m OK with the flexibility and the possibility to rethink it in different ways, but I’m not sold sitting here today that we need to do it differently.”

Over the past several months, the ACC has sent so many scheduling and championship game models to athletic directors to study, there are literally too many to count. Newer athletic directors like Brad Bates at Boston College and Whit Babcock at Virginia Tech remain undecided about what is best not only for their programs but the ACC in general.

Therein lies some more of the complexities. How do all these athletic directors put aside self interests to vote for what is in the best interest of the league?

“You can make compelling arguments for a lot of different models,” Bates said. “Different institutions are going to look at the different models in ways that best impact each of us selfishly, but at the same time, we have to look at everything holistically and see how it best impacts the league. And I think that’s probably where the discussion rests right now.”

More discussion will follow over the next few days. But will it be enough to change minds?

“It’s not a real simple solution,” Babcock said. “That’s why there wasn’t anywhere near a unanimous thought process during our winter meetings, so it got pushed off. I’m not sure it will be any easier to solve in May than it was in January.”


Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn't want to do it.

When he met with former quarterback Chad Kelly on the Monday following Clemson's spring game, Swinney said his original plan was to suspend Kelly -- not dismiss him from the team entirely -- but the meeting "just didn’t go well."

"There’s just certain things you can’t tolerate, and that’s just the bottom line," Swinney said. "It wasn’t a good meeting. It was a simple decision that was made. He moved on and we moved on."

So did more than half the ACC this spring, to a new era of quarterbacks.

Cole Stoudt’s tenure began swiftly at Clemson, ending what was one of the most intriguing quarterback competitions in the ACC and capping a spring that was filled with quarterback news throughout the conference.

[+] EnlargeKevin Olsen
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKevin Olsen became Miami's first-string quarterback when Ryan Williams tore his ACL.
At Miami, quarterback Ryan Williams tore his ACL, leaving Kevin Olsen the undisputed starter heading into summer camp.

At Duke, Brandon Connette announced his decision to transfer to the West Coast, leaving Anthony Boone in an unfamiliar role of being the lone leader.

Boston College named Florida transfer Tyler Murphy its starter, Syracuse reaffirmed Terrel Hunt as its starter, Justin Thomas is the main man at Georgia Tech, Will Gardner took the lead at Louisville and Chad Voytik became the obvious choice at Pitt.

What began as a position up for grabs in the ACC is largely no longer a mystery, as many schools determined their starting quarterback this spring, or at least had separation occur -- if not by performance, then by default. While most of the quarterbacks throughout the league are still unproven (six schools don’t have any starting experience returning to the position, and four schools brought in transfers to help), many enter summer camp at least sure of where they stand on the depth chart.

"I had my meeting with the coaches before all that happened, and I felt comfortable with where I was," said Stoudt, who will make his first career start in the season opener at Georgia. "They said I was going to be the guy and everything. I know there were some things that happened, but I'm happy with the situation, and I'm happy I'm the guy going into fall camp, so it's exciting."

Nine of the 14 schools in the ACC will introduce a first-year starting quarterback this fall. Of the 11 teams that entered spring with quarterback competitions, eight found answers -- or at least had an obvious front-runner emerge.

At Miami, Williams had distanced himself from Olsen through his decision-making and accuracy, but the torn ACL meant an instant promotion for Olsen. Still, coach Al Golden said his confidence in the position remains high.

"I think we're not going to change what we do," Golden said. "We need to do a really good job of establishing the running game, keeping it simple, doing what we do best. Getting into more third-and-manageables. We were in way too many third-and-longs last year to possess the ball and convert. Clearly the two young men we have here on campus right now can do it. The two coming in will also have an opportunity to compete."

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsVirginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is still looking for a starting quarterback to emerge.
The only three schools that didn’t come close to naming a starter this spring were Virginia Tech, Virginia and Wake Forest. It's not a stretch to say that the Hokies' hopes of returning to the ACC title game hinge on having a dependable quarterback emerge, and as one of the premier programs in the Coastal Division, it will continue to be one of the most-watched storylines of the summer. Those within the program have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and true freshman Chris Durkin. The staff has made it perfectly clear they won’t name a starter until those two are added to the competition this summer.

"The big question really is the quarterback," coach Frank Beamer said. "I think Mark Leal, Brenden Motley and Andrew Ford all have had their moments. Some of it's good; some of it's not as good as you like. I think Michael Brewer coming in, Chris Durkin coming in, will enter into the competition there. We'll see how that ends up. But that's certainly the critical question for our football team right now."

The critical question for the rest of the conference becomes how these new starters will perform when it counts. Now that most of them have earned their starting jobs, there's pressure to keep them.

"I've said that if we were to play tomorrow, [Will Gardner] would run out there as our starter," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "… There will certainly be competition for it in the fall. He’ll have a chance to go out each day and prove that he's either the better quarterback, or someone passes him by."

More often than not, the ACC's new quarterbacks were able to prove it this spring.

Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman is ready for a vote -- again.

After years of flip-flopping between an eight- and nine-game league schedule, the topic is once again up for debate as the ACC athletic directors, coaches and administrators prepare for their annual spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla., in two weeks. Given the SEC’s recent decision to stick with eight league games, all eyes have now focused on the ACC to see whether the league will come to any decision about its future schedules.

There’s no guarantee they will vote on anything, but many would like a resolution to a discussion that has dragged on for years.

“I think voting on the future conference football schedule is extremely important,” Wellman said. “I don’t know how much longer we can delay it.”

[+] EnlargeTom Jurich
Timothy D. Easley/AP PhotoLouisville AD Tom Jurich could be the swing vote as to whether the ACC goes to an eight- or nine-game schedule, but right now his response is "I really don't care either way."
It could be a close one.

ESPN.com recently interviewed every athletic director in the ACC about scheduling preference, and there was no overwhelming majority. Half of the athletic directors -- including a surprising vote from Georgia Tech -- were in favor of a nine-game conference schedule. Three schools -- Boston College, Virginia Tech and North Carolina -- didn’t give a specific preference, and three schools -- Duke, Clemson and Florida State -- would prefer to stay at eight games. Louisville AD Tom Jurich, who is just happy to be a member of the ACC, might be the swing vote.

“I really don’t care either way,” Jurich said. “It doesn’t matter to me. Eight, nine, seven, 10 -- I don’t care. If they want us to play nine plus the game with Kentucky, I’ll do that too.”

Unlike the league’s winter meetings, the ACC coaches attend and will weigh in. They remain in favor of playing eight conference games, but the athletic directors have the final say. In May 2012, they approved a nine-game schedule despite opposition from the coaches only to revert to eight games after announcing a partnership with Notre Dame.

Unlike the last time a nine-game schedule was approved, the athletic directors are now tasked with putting together schedules that best position their programs for access to the new College Football Playoff. They also have to weigh in the five-game rotation with Notre Dame, and four schools -- Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Florida State -- already have built-in SEC rivalries. A few athletic directors, including North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham, have indicated they would vote in favor of whatever schedule format is most likely to lend itself to an ACC channel. A nine-game format would increase the ACC’s league schedule from 56 to 63 games.

“I am in favor of getting a separate channel, and however we have to do that, I’m willing to consider,” Cunningham said. “I’m flexible because I think a channel is very important to us.”

Miami athletic director Blake James was less willing to bend.

“I’m a believer that the nine-game schedule would be a win for the conference, and I believe it would be a win for the University of Miami,” he said. “That’s where I’m at with it.”

FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox said the Seminoles’ built-in rivalry with Florida isn’t going to change. The bigger concern is keeping Clemson and Miami on the schedule every year -- a puzzle that could get tougher in a nine-game format.

“Also in the room, Miami and Clemson want the same,” Wilcox said. “It’ll be difficult. This is why you see that we haven’t; it’s a stalemate.”

I think the issue is, if we collectively agree that we're going to schedule up, we don't have to come up with a hard rule we have to go to nine games or everybody has to schedule one game against an SEC school. It's just a matter of getting everybody to agree to that.

-- FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox
Because of the built-in regular-season finale against rival South Carolina, Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich remains convinced sticking with eight games is the right thing for his program. He also pointed out that, under a nine-game format, there would be years when the Tigers can’t play seven home games, an economic loss for both the university and the region. Instead of adding another league game, Radakovich suggested other schools beef up their nonconference schedules.

“If they don’t have that rival at the end of the year, then they need to schedule a College Football Playoff equity conference game on a home-and-home basis,” he said. “If they don’t have that rival, they need to schedule two, but they can do that based on when Notre Dame rolls on and off their schedule.”

Wilcox agreed.

“I think the issue is, if we collectively agree that we’re going to schedule up, we don’t have to come up with a hard rule we have to go to nine games or everybody has to schedule one game against an SEC school,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting everybody to agree to that.”

Good luck -- especially when Georgia Tech is one of the schools in favor of nine games.

Yellow Jackets athletic director Mike Bobinski said the years in which they have to play both Notre Dame and Georgia will be “a handful for sure,” but if a nine-game schedule is best for the conference, that’s what he’s in favor of.

“We’ve got a big conference now, and our collective destiny is important,” Bobinski said. “All of us will rise as the fortunes of our league rise from a football performance perspective, and while nine games will be problematic for us in some ways … I just think that, for the good of the brand of ACC football, to me a nine-game schedule feels better.”

One of the biggest criticisms of the current format is the crossover opponent scheduling. ACC teams will play all of their rotating crossover opponents twice during a 12-year rotation, but not consecutively. FSU played Pitt in the season opener last year but won’t be back until 2025 or later. As thrilled as Louisville is to be joining the ACC, the Cardinals don’t get to see Virginia Tech before 2025. Virginia and Clemson won’t see each other again until 2020.

“My position is the nine conference games would be preferable mainly because of the opportunity to clearly play more of our peers in the conference and expose our institutions to each other,” Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said. “It’s one game a year, but that initial game does help our conference in terms of the overall branding and building of relationships and rivalries among all of the institutions.”

Both sides have valid points. Now it’s time to put it to a vote -- again.

David M. Hale and Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.
Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.
Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich grew up in Alliquipa, Pa., with a blue-collar background from the Western part of the state -- what he described as an area heavy with labor unions. He wonders how student-athletes who unionize are going to pay their union dues.

Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, meanwhile, lives in one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which limits public employees from unionizing -- and would make it far more difficult for the football team to unionize, too.

[+] EnlargeTom Jurich
Timothy D. Easley/AP PhotoLouisville AD Tom Jurich thinks that if athletes are going to be paid, it must be all athletes.
Suddenly, these two distinctly different perspectives are relevant to college athletics.

On Wednesday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize. It’s a monumental decision that can change the face of college athletics, and one that opens a Pandora’s Box of questions, problems and possibilities. For now, the ruling is confined to private schools -- five of which reside in the ACC (Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse and Wake Forest). While the immediate impact is of a narrow scope, the long-term effects of the ruling could give players the right to collectively bargain with schools in the same way professional athletes bargain for benefits.

Prior to Wednesday’s decision, ESPN.com interviewed every athletic director in the ACC about various national issues facing college athletics, including the possibility of player unionization and what it could mean not only to the sport of football, but to the entire structure of the NCAA. All but two of them spoke on the record about the topic of unionization.

All of them raised poignant questions that nobody seems to have an answer for right now -- including if schools would have to set salary guidelines that differ for a first-team quarterback and a third-team quarterback, and how Title IX factors into the decision. Many of them agreed that the student-athletes need more of a voice in college athletics, but this isn’t the way to go about getting it. None of them pretended to be experts on the topic, and like many observers throughout the country, are simply trying to grasp the breadth of the possible implications.

If you start to tinker with the student-university relationship and make [athletes] employees, it will have a huge impact across the entire university, not just the small percentage of those who participate in sports.

-- North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham
This week’s decision, though, is likely to prompt an even closer look at the issue.

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham pointed out the effect it could have on the entire university -- not just athletic programs.

“It will change the face of the university,” Cunningham said. “Student-athletes aren’t the only ones who are receiving scholarships and performing work on the campus. You’ve got graduate assistants doing research; you have all kinds of student involvement in different capacities at the university. If you start to tinker with the student-university relationship and make those people employees, it will have a huge impact across the entire university, not just the small percentage of those who participate in sports.”

Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski called player unionization “an incredibly scary thing,” but added that he understands why it’s come to this.

“We kind of backed ourselves into this corner by wanting to control every waking moment and have our kids here year-round, and have access to them all the time,” he said. “That sounds great, and coaches love control and I get that. I know why they feel that way and I appreciate that, but the other side is now this feeling that we own these young people, and their every thought and decision is something that has to be run through us, and I don’t care for that. Some of the backlash we’re seeing now is a result of that frustration that’s built up over that sense of lack of control of your own destiny. It’s a pretty human reaction, so I don’t begrudge people, and all that’s going on right now, I get why it’s happening.”

Louisville AD Tom Jurich applauded the athletes for standing up for themselves, but questioned the logistics.

“It’s not just going to be football players,” he said. “I’m a firm believer: If you’re going to pay athletes, you’re going to pay all the athletes. If you’re going to unionize, you unionize all the athletes. To me, there’s no difference between field hockey and football. Until that’s answered, I don’t even pay attention to it.”

Florida State AD Stan Wilcox said student-athletes should be negotiating for educational benefits, like an undergraduate degree plus a graduate degree, or time to make up credit hours to receive a degree. He cautioned what becoming an employee of the university could entail.

“I don’t think student-athletes really want to go down that road,” he said. “You become an at-will employee that can be hired and fired at any time. Your argument is that it gets you benefits, but you kind of have that now. If you become an employee, every employee has to pay X amount of dollars into a health care program. I don’t know if they’ve thought the whole thing through, as to what it really means to be an employee of the university.”

After Wednesday’s decision, everyone involved in college athletics will be thinking it through now.

ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale contributed to this report.
In the picture he keeps in his locker, Georgia Tech safety Jamal Golden is standing next to his mother, Cynthia, the two of them smiling. It’s a reminder of a promise he made to her before she died unexpectedly after a stroke during his freshman year.

“I pray before every game,” he said. “I try to talk to her before every game. I go out there and I give it my all, just for her. I told her before I came to school that I’m going to make something of myself while I’m at school, that ‘I’m not going to let you down.’ I’m sticking to that promise. I’m going to do what I have to do to make her proud.”

[+] EnlargeJamal Golden
Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia Tech return specialist/DB Jamal Golden expects to be at full strength in 2014.
Odds are, he already has.

After an emotionally draining freshman year in 2011, Golden emerged as one of the nation’s top kick and punt returners in 2012. Even though he didn’t play one snap on offense, Golden finished that season with 952 all-purpose yards. As a true sophomore, he was the only player to rank in the top 10 nationally in both punt return average (sixth/14.59) and kick return average (10th/28.35). The future looked bright, but just as he was beginning to heal emotionally, his career was derailed three games into the 2013 season by a shoulder injury.

Now, after having been granted a fifth year of eligibility and a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA earlier this month, Golden is finally healthy again and practicing this week, giving Georgia Tech a much-needed boost to the return game and a veteran in the secondary. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, there is still plenty of time for the charismatic redshirt junior to accomplish his goals of becoming a more complete player -- a consistent difference-maker in the secondary, not just the return game -- and fulfilling a promise.

“I think he’s going to come out here playing with passion, playing with a purpose,” defensive backs coach Joe Speed said. “He’s got a tattoo of his mom on his shoulder. It’s a daily reminder for him that not only is he doing it for his Georgia Tech family, but also his mom and his dad.”

Cynthia and Henry Golden were married 33 years before she died on Jan. 23, 2012. Jamal said it was the first time he had ever seen his father cry.

“They thought she was going to be OK,” Jamal said. “Then the next thing we knew she went into a coma and never woke up from it.”

As a family, Henry, Jamal and his brother, Twoine, agreed to stop Cynthia’s life support.

“I just couldn’t take seeing her suffer like that,” Jamal said. “She was pretty much already gone. The only thing that was keeping her heart pumping was the ventilator system. We decided together as brothers to let her go. I know she’s still watching, though.”

Golden said about half of the football team attended his mother’s funeral in nearby Wetumpka, Ala., and it took “a lot of encouragement” from his dad and brother to get him through the rest of the school year. The business administration major missed about a week and a half of classes, which added to the stress.

“Jamal is part of our family,” Speed said. “Same thing with his parents. So when he lost his mom, we lost a member of our family as well. We wanted to make sure he knew we were here for him.”

With their support, Golden started 2013 strong with 12 tackles, a forced fumble and 151 yards on returns through the first three games. He suffered a season-ending injury, though, in Week 3 when he collided with former UNC tight end Eric Ebron on the third play of the game. His shoulder popped out, and in spite of repeated attempts to reset it, Golden was sidelined for good in the third quarter.

Since then, he has been going through rehab, training, studying film and has gotten stronger.

I want to be one of the main leaders on the defense, especially being on the back end, getting everyone lined up so we can play as a team.

-- Georgia Tech DB Jamal Golden
“I feel like by the end of spring practice, I’ll be back where I left off,” he said. “My expectation is to get my team the ball as much as I can, not only by me getting interceptions or fumble recoveries, but helping my teammates get in the right positions to get turnovers, too. I want to be one of the main leaders on the defense, especially being on the back end, getting everyone lined up so we can play as a team.”

And a family.

Golden talks about his mom openly and with ease now, including at Christmas, when he shares stories with special teams coach Dave Walkosky about the favorite meals she used to make.

“I love him dearly,” Walkosky said. “He’s very humble. He’s a very unselfish player, and he’ll do whatever the team needs him to do. He makes decisions that are right for the play, for the game, for the team, and that’s priceless when you’re talking about a guy who’s going to touch the ball and make decisions. He seems to always make the right decision, and we put a lot of confidence in him.”

No decision, though, was more difficult than the one he made with his brother, Twoine.

“It makes you grow up quick,” Speed said. “It recalibrates your priorities and you realize the true meaning of life and what’s important. I think a lightbulb has gone on for him, knowing what’s important and knowing to take advantage of each opportunity every day. I see his daily work ethic. He makes sure he goes to class, does everything in the classroom, he watches film on his own. He’ll grab coaches to get any knowledge he can, and he knows that’s going to be the difference in the game. He’s got some physical talent, but being a student of the game, that’s what’s helping him out. Just having that maturity level go up, that’s going to help him.”

It will also help the Yellow Jackets this fall, and that’s a promise.

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