NCF Nation: Andre Ellington

Diagnosing the ACC

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
10:30
AM ET
The ACC has to be thrilled with the first three weeks of the season: three top-25 teams, including two in the top 10, a 2-2 record against the SEC in early nonconference games and six unbeatens so far.

What could be ailing this conference? Take a closer look at the numbers, and you will find that offense is generally down across the league.

What’s ailing the ACC

Remember, the ACC set all sorts of single-season offensive records in 2012 -- scoring 40 or more points in a game (42 times), topping 500 yards of total offense in a game (38) and 100-yard receiving days (69), as well. And the league had its highest-scoring game in history between Georgia Tech and North Carolina (a 68-50 Yellow Jackets victory).

But so far, nine teams are below their total offense average from a year ago. That includes high-flying Clemson, which ranks "only" No. 35 in total offense so far. Miami (No. 91 overall) and North Carolina (No. 71 overall), expected to be two of the better offenses in the league, also have had problems with consistency. Virginia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest -- three of the worst teams in total offense a year ago -- are all statistically worse.

Having said that, part of the reason the numbers are lower from some of these schools is the opponents they have played. Miami, North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech all played SEC competition within the first two weeks of the season. Virginia played BYU and Oregon. Eight teams also have had byes within the first three weeks, so the body of work is not nearly as large. But it is still an interesting trend to note.

What’s the cure

Another reason for some of these struggles has been mediocre quarterback play. But there are a few factors to consider.

Of the nine teams whose offensive production has dipped, five have either new head coaches or new offensive coordinators (Syracuse, Miami, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College). In Miami, for example, Stephen Morris' completion percentage has dropped to 52 percent. Others, such as Virginia, Duke and Syracuse, have new starting quarterbacks.

Other programs have had to deal with personnel changes around them. North Carolina went into the season with a revamped offensive line and questions at running back following Giovani Bernard's departure to the NFL. Clemson has had to replace DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington.

As these players and coaches get more comfortable with one another, then some of these offenses should look better as the season goes on. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, for example, says he felt more in sync with offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler in a victory over East Carolina last week. That was his best game of the young season.

It's very early in the season to start drawing definitive conclusions, but there's no question there's room for improvement everywhere.
You want to find a good quarterback in the ACC? Plenty of places to look.

A solid receiver? Plenty of places to look.

A game-changing running back? Well, let's just say this is not a position of strength for the ACC headed into 2013.

Both 1,000-yard rushers from a year ago are gone. So are five of the top 10 rushers in the league. Now factor in recent developments from the offseason:

  • Virginia Tech back Michael Holmes was kicked out of school following his arrest after the spring game.
  • Pitt Rushel Shell decided to transfer, to hated rival West Virginia no less.
  • Maryland back Wes Brown has been suspended for the season after an offseason arrest.
  • Wake Forest leading rusher Josh Harris is not with the team while the Deacs wait for an answer from the NCAA on his eligibility.
  • NC State running back Shadrach Thornton was suspended one game after being charged with misdemeanor assault on a female following a June 6 arrest.
[+] EnlargeRushel Shell
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Running back Rushel Shell left Pitt for rival West Virginia.
Holmes and Brown were expected to be significant contributors this year; Shell and Harris were expected to start; Thornton led the Wolfpack in rushing last year.

So let us take stock of who remains. Essentially, the ACC has one big-time headliner in Duke Johnson at Miami, and several teams with talent and depth.

Take Florida State. The Noles have a great duo in James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman. Syracuse has a 1,000-yard rusher returning in Jerome Smith, plus more depth than nearly everyone in the league. Duke has its top six rushers back from a year ago.

Still, the league overall has improving to do in this important category. In 2012, the ACC had the fewest 1,000-yard rushers of the five biggest conferences. It also only had two teams ranked in the Top 30 in rushing offense (Georgia Tech and Florida State), tied with the SEC for fewest among the top five conferences.

But here is the big distinction between the two. The SEC only had one team ranked in the bottom 30 in rushing offense last season: Arkansas. The ACC had a whopping six -- Virginia, Duke, NC State, Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College -- the most among the power five.

Will fortunes improve this season? Let us take a look at one key statistic that could have some bearing. I broke down how many returning carries there are per team headed into 2013.

DUKE

  • Top returners: Jela Duncan, Josh Snead
  • Percent carries returning: 87 percent
  • What it means: Duke has perhaps the best opportunity of any team in the league to boost its rushing numbers this year, with its top six rushers back, a more mobile quarterback in Anthony Boone and four starters returning on the offensive line.
SYRACUSE

  • Top returners: Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley
  • Percent carries returning: 82 percent
  • What it means: Syracuse has had a 1,000-yard rusher in five straight seasons, and has pretty terrific depth going into the season. It is a pretty safe bet the Orange will make it six straight 1,000-yard rushers.
BOSTON COLLEGE

  • Top returners: Andre Williams, Dave Dudeck
  • Percent carries returning: 75 percent
  • What it means: Though the Eagles don’t have much in the way of depth, they do have experienced players returning in Williams and Dudeck. Given the way Steve Addazio likes to run the football, expect to see the Eagles much better than No. 115 in the nation in rushing.
VIRGINIA TECH

  • Top returners: Logan Thomas, J.C. Coleman
  • Percent returning carries: 70 percent
  • What it means: Even though this was a weak spot for the Hokies, they do return their top rushers even with Holmes gone. Thomas led the team in carries and rushing last season. Virginia Tech wants to change that this year.
GEORGIA TECH

  • Top returners: Zach Laskey, David Sims
  • Percent returning carries: 68 percent
  • What it means: Tevin Washington and Orwin Smith take nearly all the missing carries (176), meaning the Jackets have plenty of experienced players and depth to fill all their running back spots. Shouldn’t be a drop-off here.
NC STATE

  • Top returners: Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy
  • Percent carries returning: 63 percent
  • What it means: Once he returns from suspension, Thornton will carry the load with Creecy, the way they did last season. Given the emphasis Dave Doeren puts on the run in his offense -- Northern Illinois ranked No. 12 in rushing offense last season -- the Wolfpack should not be in the bottom 30 again.
CLEMSON

  • Top returners: Tajh Boyd, Rod McDowell
  • Percent returning carries: 62 percent
  • What it means: Interesting stat here, considering the Tigers lose 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington. He is one of the biggest losses this team has to replace on offense. Having Boyd run as much as he does certainly helps these numbers, but there’s no question Clemson has to find a way to replace Ellington’s production.
MIAMI

  • Top returners: Duke Johnson, Eduardo Clements
  • Percent returning carries: 59 percent
  • What it means: Miami loses Mike James, but that just means Johnson moves into a starting role and will get more carries. If he continues the work he did last season, Johnson should be the leading rusher in the ACC this season.
WAKE FOREST

  • Top returner: Deandre Martin
  • Percent returning carries: 57 percent
  • What it means: Wake Forest is still waiting to see whether Harris will be eligible this season. There are serious concerns about this position right now, as coach Jim Grobe has said he still hasn’t seen anybody step up and prove they can be an every-down back.
NORTH CAROLINA

  • Top returners: A.J. Blue, Romar Morris
  • Percent returning carries: 56 percent
  • What it means: The prevailing storyline in Chapel Hill has centered around replacing Giovani Bernard, the other 1,000-yard rusher in the ACC last season. Blue and Morris combined for 151 carries a year ago, so there might not be as big a drop-off in total production as some might anticipate. Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry.
MARYLAND

  • Top returners: Brandon Ross, Albert Reid
  • Percent returning carries: 48 percent
  • What it means: The Terps lost significant carries from Brown (90) and Justus Pickett (69). I also did not count Shawn Petty’s 58 carries, because he went back to defense. Overall, Maryland feels good about Ross and Reid being able to carry the load, but questions still remain about whether this group can be consistent.
FLORIDA STATE

  • Top returners: James Wilder Jr., Devonta Freeman
  • Percent Returning carries:45 percent
  • What it means: This one is the most misleading among all ACC teams, because the Noles do return two terrific talents and expect contributions from a third in Mario Pender. Those lost carries are from Lonnie Pryor and EJ Manuel, along with Chris Thompson (who was out for the second half of the season anyway). Florida State should continue to be an excellent running team.
VIRGINIA

  • Top returners: Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd
  • Percent carries returning: 44 percent
  • What it means: UVa lost carries from Clifton Richardson, Perry Jones and Phillip Sims, but the Hoos believe they will be better running the ball this season -- especially if Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell is as good as advertised. He could be a breakout star.
PITT

  • Top returners: Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett
  • Percent returning carries: 9 percent
  • What it means: I thought this number would be low with Shell and Ray Graham gone. But this is actually worse than anticipated. Pitt has little in the way of experienced players or depth at running back, and we are talking about a team that relies heavily on the run.

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson running back Roderick McDowell has a favorite word.

Blessing.

It is a blessing he is even able to play football, after being born with clubfoot, a congenital birth defect that impacts the way people walk and run.

It is a blessing he is still at Clemson, after he thought about quitting.

It is a blessing he is now getting an opportunity to start for the Tigers, poised to replace Andre Ellington as the next 1,000-yard rusher at the school.

Have there been frustrations? Yes. Rocky patches? Absolutely. Down moments? Without a doubt. But McDowell says he always kept his faith that everything would work out for him.

"My coaches always tell me a hungry dog fights and me having that fight in me, that’s what keeps me going," McDowell said. "I had plenty of opportunities to leave but I decided to stay. And look where I am now. God blessed me with the opportunity to be in a position where I can be a top running back at a top program. Having Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins and a great offensive line and stuff like that to keep me motivated and keep me pushing -- what more can I ask for?"

[+] EnlargeRoderick McDowell
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsClemson will be counting on Roderick McDowell to produce as the likely starting running back.
McDowell underwent numerous operations on his right foot and leg as a child to correct the birth defect. His right foot is smaller than his left, but that has never kept him from participating in sports. Though he was always small for his age, he was faster than every kid on the playground or the baseball field.

In seventh grade, he started playing football. Not surprisingly, he was faster than everybody on that field, too. McDowell quickly became one of the top prospects in the state and settled on Clemson, a choice that left others scratching their heads.

"When I first got here, everybody was like, 'Why do you want to come here? They have C.J. Spiller, they have Jamie Harper, they have Andre Ellington,'" McDowell said. "In my mind, I was like if you want to be the best you have to surround yourself with the best so that’s what I did. I got a chance to compete, and now I got a chance to be that top running back and carry on the legacy of being a 1,000-yard rusher."

There is no question running back is a position in the spotlight with Ellington gone. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris does not expect to rely exclusively on McDowell the way he did on Ellington the past several seasons. Instead, the Tigers are going to go with a running-back-by-committee approach, relying on McDowell, D.J. Howard, Zac Brooks and perhaps some incoming freshmen.

The goal is to average more than 225 yards rushing on the ground per game.

"All those guys are going to have to pull their weight," Morris said.

McDowell is fine with that.

"Even though I’m a senior I’m not entitled to anything," McDowell said. "My mindset is I need D.J. and D.J. needs me. Me and D.J. go out there and compete our butts off. This offense is not based off a one-back system. Andre was successful because he had me and D.J. pushing him. There’s always a rotation so that’s how I feel about the competition this spring."

And how does he describe the waiting game he has played the past four years?

"A blessing," McDowell said. "People are thinking me waiting was a bad thing but look at me now. I’ve experienced a lot but I’m in a position that I can show people I’m still here. Roderick McDowell is going to carry the load. I’m going to make sure you all know who I am. So it’s been a blessing for me."

Clemson has returned to the national picture thanks to back-to-back 10-win seasons, a plucky coach, a headstrong quarterback and some pretty eye-popping records (both good and bad).

Indeed, the Tigers have accomplished feats over the last several seasons that have not been touched for 20-plus years. Yet there is one big goal out there, reached just once in the 117-year history of Clemson football.

Ask coach Dabo Swinney about where he has the Tigers headed, and inevitably he circles back to 1981, the lone national championship season in Clemson history. The one time the program has been ranked No. 1 in a season.

You know what Swinney wants? He wants that. And he is not going to tip-toe around the subject, either. Swinney is a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy, so it should come as no surprise that he has embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program headed into the 2013 season.

And his players have embraced the heightened expectations surrounding this program, too.

Swinney says, "We’ve done some great things. But our goal is to compete for the national championship. We want to be in the mix for the BCS bowl every year. We want to finish in the top 10 multiple times. That’s what we’re trying to do and I think the guys understand the margin for error is very small when you’re trying to be one of those great elite teams."

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsTajh Boyd returns for his senior season and aims to take a shot at the national title.
The small group of 10 seniors certainly understand, with quarterback Tajh Boyd leading the way. Boyd returned to Clemson for his final season because he understands what is at stake, not only for him, but for his team as well.

The Tigers have a shot at starting the season ranked in the preseason Top 10 for the first time since 2008, and only the third time since 1991. Boyd, of course, is a huge reason why, as he led a Clemson offense that set 101 different records during the course of 2012. His performance against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl was one of his best, as he showed grit, determination and an unceasing will to win in leading the Tigers' jaw-dropping fourth-quarter comeback win.

That victory has only increased expectations headed into this season, not only from outsiders but from insiders, too. Boyd said what he saw during the first spring practice last week only encourages him to believe 2013 could be something special.

"We have a lot of capabilities as a program," Boyd said. "So I’m very excited, very encouraged about what the team is going to look like this year and we just have to keep building off it."

There is plenty to build off, as Clemson has posted 10 or more wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1987-90 era. Mark consecutive top 25 finishes for the first time since that era as well, along with an ACC title in 2011 for the first time in 20 years. All wonderful steps, but Clemson has yet to take that final one.

This season provides the best opportunity to do so in years, as seven starters return on offense. This includes Boyd and Sammy Watkins, a more mature, grown-up receiver ready to take on a leadership role. The Tigers have some key players to replace on offense, including All-ACC running back Andre Ellington and All-ACC center Dalton Freeman, who started 49 games in his career.

But the biggest questions about this team surround the defense. Again. The Tigers were better last season under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, but they were not exactly at the top of the ACC class. Despite the improvements, Clemson ranked No. 7 in the ACC in total defense. And you can still hear the bad jokes about the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia.

Now the Tigers have to replace five starters, including the majority of their secondary. They also have to replace defensive end Malliciah Goodman. Only two of their top six tacklers return.

Two more potential roadblocks. First: the nonconference schedule is tough. Clemson has to open the regular season against Georgia -- also trying to get back to No. 1 -- and close it against in-state rival South Carolina. There are plenty who will say the Tigers should focus on being No. 1 in their own state before setting their sights on being No. 1 in the country.

Indeed, Clemson has not beaten South Carolina since 2008. Last season, in the game in Death Valley, the Tigers simply had no answer for Jadeveon Clowney. Nobody needs to tell Boyd that Mr. Clowney is back.

One more potential roadblock: the Tigers themselves. Clemson has had a history of falling flat in big games, or when expectations become supersized. How will this team handle the pressure as the season grows closer?

"They know how to win but more important they know how to prepare to win," Swinney said. "That’s the process they understand because of what they’ve been through for the last couple years. This is a group that wants to be great. Our job as coaches is to help them get there and correct them and discipline them and encourage them and teach them. That’s what we do, and it goes to your leadership on your team. There can’t be any satisfaction. I don’t think anybody here is satisfied with what we’ve accomplished."

Boyd echoes those sentiments, saying, "We want to be the No. 1 team."

How do the Tigers get there?

"We just have to continue to build, trying to focus on one game at a time," Boyd said. "Of course we believe we have the opportunity to put ourselves in that situation but it can’t happen if we don’t win the first game. We have to take it from the beginning to the end and continue to focus on every aspect of the game. We just have to continue to work."

Pregame: Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
12:00
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No. 8 LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC) vs. No. 14 Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC)

Who to watch: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. The junior finished second in the ACC with 3,550 passing yards and led the league with 34 touchdown passes, but now faces one of his toughest challenges in LSU's exceptional defensive line. The last time Boyd faced a real quality defensive line, he was eaten up by South Carolina and ferocious defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Boyd completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and threw one touchdown to two interceptions. Boyd must take on a line that features ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and defensive tackle Bennie Logan, who combined for 13 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. Oh, and then there are defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Josh Downs, who added 13.5 more tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. If Boyd can escape the pressure, he could have a chance to make some plays on LSU's secondary. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boyd has completed 54.3 percent of his passes thrown 25 yards or longer, with 14 touchdowns to four interceptions. LSU's defense is allowing quarterbacks to complete just 21.2 percent of those passes, with two touchdowns to four interceptions, but it also allowed multiple receptions of 25 yards or more in the last two games of the season.

What to watch: Although Clemson has received the bulk of the offensive attention, LSU has been extremely successful with the ball in its past few games. The Bayou Bengals have always been able to run, averaging nearly 180 yards rushing per game, but passing with a purpose was rare for most of the season. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger didn't exactly get off to a great start in conference play, and he didn't register back-to-back 200-yard passing games until November. But he came through in the final four games, averaging 267.5 passing yards. He'll face a defense that ranks 75th in total defense, allowing 411 yards per game, including 250 passing. Clemson also has allowed 22 passing touchdowns and 7.4 yards per pass attempt. If LSU's offense is able to be as balanced as it has been, Clemson's defense could be in for another long bowl night.

Why watch: One of the nation's most high-powered offenses takes on one of the country's best defenses. Tigers vs. Tigers. Death Valley owners meet for the first time since 1996, when they played in what was then called the Peach Bowl. More had been expected from both teams after they won their respective conferences in 2011. LSU was a legitimate national championship contender before the season, while Clemson was a win away from trying to defend its ACC title. You'll see a ton of speed on the offensive side of the ball for Clemson, and just as much speed from LSU's defense. It's the perfect way to ring in the new year!

Prediction: LSU 31, Clemson 17. With Mettenberger's improved play, LSU now has a tougher offense for Clemson to battle. The fact that Clemson's defense is still struggling to stop anyone is a major concern. LSU will pound Clemson's defensive front with its tremendously strong running game, and that should help open up things for Mettenberger over the top. Clemson's offensive line had issues against South Carolina's defensive front a month ago, and now has to face one of the best lines in the country. LSU is going to make it very hard for Boyd to move around and use his talented set of receiving weapons, while keeping running back Andre Ellington in check.
Nobody has to tell Clemson coach Dabo Swinney what the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against LSU comes down to on Monday night in Atlanta.

The more physical team will win.

To that end, Swinney ratcheted up the physicality during bowl practices leading up to the game. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris told local reporters in South Carolina earlier this month, "Coach Swinney’s got his foot up our butts, basically, and he doesn’t plan on taking it out for about four days."

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"This is a game that's won and lost in the trenches for sure," Clemson coach Dabbo Swinney said of the LSU game. "No doubt about it."
Swinney's reaction was only natural, after watching his team lose the battle up front in the regular-season finale against South Carolina. Jadeveon Clowney owned Clemson, getting 4.5 of his team's six sacks. Tajh Boyd had no time to set his feet and throw, and the Tigers' offense completely stalled, gaining 165 yards over the final three quarters of the 27-17 loss.

Now the Tigers are facing a team just as physical in LSU, another huge test against an opponent from the SEC.

"This is a game that’s won and lost in the trenches for sure," Swinney told ESPN.com. "No doubt about it. This is a team that’s going to line up and just challenge you physically and come right at you. You can either match that or you can’t. Very few teams have been able to match that versus LSU. We’re going to have to play great up front. Our guys are going to have to play great and learn from the two games we’ve lost because we’ve had the lead in both our losses in the third quarter but we haven’t been able to quite finish in the fourth quarter. It’s a big challenge for us, as big of a challenge as we’ve had in a long time here at Clemson."

While Swinney called Clowney the best player in the country, the Tigers counter with one of the best defensive end duos in the country in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Clemson center Dalton Freeman said in a phone interview that LSU has better interior defensive linemen than South Carolina.

"They’ve got really good players in their front seven," Freeman said. "Their secondary is extremely athletic. They play a lot of man coverage with one safety over the top, a man free kind of look that gives you the one-on-one matchups. They feel so confident in their guys, and rightfully so, they can go out there and match one-on-one and put seven or eight in the box and force us to throw the ball. I think there is some similarities with South Carolina but again, this is a pretty stout LSU defense."

So what did Clemson learn from its game against South Carolina to apply against LSU?

"We just have to be physical back," Clemson running back Andre Ellington said. "We have to take on the challenge, to understand that football’s a physical game. Just going against a team like that is definitely not going to be easy. We just have to execute the game plan."

That game plan includes trying to keep LSU off balance. That means taking advantage of some one-on-one matchups on the outside, with Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. If they can hit a few big plays like that, then it will be a lot easier to run the ball and keep LSU guessing.

One of the bigger problems against the Gamecocks was that Clemson was forced to throw the ball in the second half. So that allowed South Carolina to come all out after Boyd.

"If we can continue to establish the run game and give ourselves a chance to operate our offensive scheme instead of having to go out there and throw the ball every time, we’ll be able to keep them off balance and generate some offense," Freeman said.

That all goes back to the challenge ahead of Clemson. To establish the run, you have to win the line of scrimmage. Bowl hopes are riding on that.
When folks talked about the Clemson offense this year, they gravitated toward one of three topics:
When folks talked about running backs in the ACC this year, they gravitated toward these guys:


Andre Ellington? Well, he was Andre Ellington: solid, productive and almost an afterthought, a player so good at what he does that perhaps that we all just took his season for granted. After all, just about everybody expected him to get to 1,000 yards for the second straight season.

He got there quietly and with little fanfare, earning first-team All-ACC honors for the first time in his career while being an integral part of the Tigers offense.

What's more, he was able to start all 12 games for the first time in his career as well.

"I felt like I played pretty good," Ellington said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com. "I felt like I did some great things, but there were some things I felt like I didn’t do. The overall picture is we had a great season, we finished 10-2 and hopefully we can go into the bowl game and get our 11th victory."

One of the biggest goals Ellington set for himself this season was to try and stay healthy all year. He did hurt his hamstring against Duke on his first carry of the game, but he was able to play in every contest and ended the regular season with 1,031 yards. What helped him stay healthy and productive -- he worked hard on his body in the offseason. He also had fewer carries this year -- 201 compared to 223 last year.

"I just wanted to put that whole season together where I could finish out strong and stay healthy," Ellington said. "The guys behind me, they had a chance to play last year a little bit here and there. This year, they got more reps so they felt more comfortable with them in to get me a break here and there. I worked on my body throughout the year and it helped."

Ellington said he has not thought about what it will be like playing in his final game for the Tigers against LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31. Nor has he thought about where he could go Insider in the NFL draft. But when asked for his best memory during his time at Clemson, he did not point to a highlight or a moment on the field.

Rather, Ellington said, "I’d say my best memory is the day I got here. Just taking that step into another level in my life, meeting guys I never thought I’d get along with. I [kept] to myself in high school, so just getting guys from different places, becoming brothers. It’s a family with them now."

2012 ESPN.com ACC all-conference team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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Despite the abundance of hype surrounding the quarterback position heading into this season, there was one player who quickly distanced himself from the rest. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had a record-setting season and he was surrounded by several all-conference-caliber teammates. With five Tigers on the first-team offense, it’s no wonder Clemson was No. 6 in the country in scoring offense at 42.33 points per game. There was no running back in the ACC more electrifying than UNC’s Giovani Bernard, though, and to leave off his lead blockers in James Hurst and Jonathan Cooper would be unjust. Surprisingly, not one player from Florida State’s two-deep made the cut for first-team offense. There’s no question, though, the ACC champs dominated the defensive lineup with four first-team selections. Imagine a dream team made up of Clemson’s offense and Florida State’s defense.

Actually, the ACC’s dream team would look more like this, your 2012 ESPN.com ACC All-Conference team:

Offense First Team

QB -- Tajh Boyd, Clemson

RB -- Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

RB -- Andre Ellington, Clemson

WR -- DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson

WR -- Conner Vernon, Duke

TE -- Brandon Ford, Clemson

T -- James Hurst, North Carolina

T -- Oday Aboushi, Virginia

G -- Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

G -- Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech

C -- Dalton Freeman, Clemson

Defense first team

DE--Cornellius Carradine, Florida State

DE--Bjoern Werner, Florida State

DT--Joe Vellano, Maryland

DT--Sylvester Williams, North Carolina

LB--Nick Clancy, Boston College

LB--Steve Greer, Virginia

LB--Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

CB--Ross Cockrell, Duke

CB--Xavier Rhodes, Florida State

S--Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State

S--Earl Wolff, NC State

Specialists

PK--Dustin Hopkins, Florida State

P--Will Monday, Duke

SP--Giovani Bernard, North Carolina

Tajh Boyd headlines All-ACC team

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
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Clemson had the best offense in the ACC this season, so it comes as no surprise that the Tigers dominated the All-ACC first team released Monday.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd and five teammates won first-team honors on offense, the first time Clemson has ever place six players on the All-ACC first-team offense and the first time any team has done it since Florida State in 1995.

Florida State and North Carolina each placed five players on the all-conference team, determined by a vote of 46 members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association.

Boyd is joined on the first team by running back Andre Ellington, receiver DeAndre Hopkins, tackle Brandon Thomas, center Dalton Freeman and tight end Brandon Ford. Boyd led the ACC with 34 touchdown passes while Hopkins had league-bests of 16 total touchdown catches and an average of 104 yards receiving.

Nine teams had at least one first-team selection. There were no unanimous picks to the first team, but North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard was chosen as a first-teamer on 45 ballots. Bernard, who had an ACC-leading 1,228 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns, joins Boyd as repeat first-team selections.

Bernard, a punt returner who also was picked as the first-team specialist, was joined by guard Jonathan Cooper, linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.

Four Florida State defensive players -- ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Lamarcus Joyner -- join kicker Dustin Hopkins on the first team.

Boston College (receiver Alex Amidon and linebacker Nick Clancy), Virginia (offensive tackle Oday Aboushi and linebacker Steve Greer) and Duke (cornerback Ross Cockrell and punter Will Monday) were the only other schools with multiple first-team picks.

You also should note that Virginia Tech and Miami did not have a first-team selection for the first time since they joined the ACC in 2004. Defensive end James Gayle, linebacker Jack Tyler and cornerback Antone Exum made the second team for Virginia Tech; Miami's Duke Johnson made the second team as a running back and specialist.

The league coaches will announce their all-conference team next week.

FIRST-TEAM OFFENSE
  • QB-Tajh Boyd, Clemson
  • RB-Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
  • RB-Andre Ellington, Clemson
  • WR-DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson
  • WR-Alex Amidon, Boston College
  • OT-Oday Aboushi, Virginia
  • OT-Brandon Thomas, Clemson
  • OG-Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
  • OG-Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech
  • C-Dalton Freeman, Clemson
  • TE-Brandon Ford, Clemson
  • K-Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
  • Specialist- Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
FIRST-TEAM DEFENSE
  • DE-Bjoern Werner, Florida State
  • DE-Cornellius Carradine, Florida State
  • DT-Joe Vellano, Maryland
  • DT-Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
  • LB-Nick Clancy, Boston College
  • LB-Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
  • LB-Steve Greer, Virginia
  • CB-Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
  • CB-Ross Cockrell, Duke
  • S-Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
  • S-Earl Wolff, NC State
  • P-Will Monday, Duke

For the second-team and honorable mention selections, you can click here.

If you love offense, well, the ACC is the league to be this season.

No. 11 Clemson and NC State participated another wild shootout on Saturday, playing a game of scoring see-saw just like Georgia Tech and North Carolina did last weekend. In the end, the Tigers held on to their at-large BCS hopes, winning 62-48, avoiding an upset despite a defense that was plenty exposed despite its recent improvement.

The numbers are simply jaw dropping:
  • Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd accounted for eight touchdowns, setting a new ACC record. He threw for more than 400 yards and ran for more than 100 yards to set Clemson's single-game total offense record with 529 yards, passing Woody Dantzler (517 in 2001 against NC State).
  • Not to be outdone, NC State quarterback Mike Glennon found holes all over the Clemson secondary, throwing for 493 yards and five touchdowns.
  • NC State receiver Tobais Palmer accounted for 496 all-purpose yards -- second most EVER in college football history.
  • Running backs Shadrach Thornton and Andre Ellington each went over 100 yards; Palmer, Mario Carter, Sammy Watkins and Brandon Ford each went over 100 yards receiving.
  • Clemson ended up with over 700 yards of offense; NC State got nearly 600 yards, and both teams combined to run almost 200 plays on offense.

Whew.

This was a game of runs. Clemson (10-1, 7-1) jumped out to a 13-0 lead. Then NC State (6-5, 3-4) scored 24 straight. Then Clemson scored 42 straight. Then NC State ended the game on a 24-7 run. We all knew Clemson had some deficiencies in the secondary -- given inexperience and some major depth questions. Leave it to a quarterback as talented as Glennon to take advantage and find the openings.

But the Tigers have some talent of their own on offense, and simply had too many playmakers for the Wolfpack to stop.

Now Clemson closes the season against in-state rival South Carolina, which struggled in a win over FCS Wofford on Saturday. A win over the Gamecocks, and Clemson could very well find itself in the BCS again.
As far as Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is concerned, the season is just beginning for sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins.

Watkins was suspended for the first two games of the season and missed another game with a virus, and he has yet to truly have the kind of impact he did a year ago because of his inconsistent and sporadic playing time.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireOffensive coordinator Chad Morris predicts Clemson fans will see a lot more out of WR Sammy Watkins in the second half of the season.
Expect that to change in the second half of the season.

“He’s like a play-caller,” Morris said. “You’ve got to get into a rhythm. He’s been unable to get into a rhythm. He’s still extremely talented. He hasn’t changed. He hasn’t been in playing shape. That takes a little bit to get to that point. ... He was out. It was tough to get anything out of him. He tried to practice on Monday and Tuesday that week, and there was just no way. He gave us everything he had -- he’s such a great competitor -- but he couldn’t do it.

“He had a chance this past week to really work on his conditioning, and I think what you’re going to see is Sammy Watkins playing his best football when this team needs him the most,” Morris said, “and that’s the second half of this season.”

Watkins, who has 16 catches for 118 yards in three games, isn’t the only member of the offense Morris is expecting more from down the stretch. As a matter of experience and familiarity, Clemson has expanded its offensive playbook in the second season under Morris. Heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech, Clemson has scored at least 37 points in each of its last five games, just the second time the program has done that. Clemson ranks in the top 13 in the nation in passing (11th at 324.7), 13th in total offense (525.8) and 11th in scoring offense (41.3).

And yet even with the ACC's leading rusher, Andre Ellington, and leading receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, and one of the top quarterbacks in Tajh Boyd, Morris said the Tigers are still capable of much more.

“We’re still leaving a lot out there that could make us even more explosive,” Morris said. “... There’s so much more we can do right now to improve on. I’m excited to challenge these guys in the second half of the season and remind them of our downfall last year in the second half, when we went 3-3. That’s the challenge -- just play with a hunger from an offensive standpoint that you had when I got here."

When Morris took over, Clemson's offense had finished the 2010 season No. 86 in the country at 24 points per game. They've almost doubled that. Despite the offensive breakthrough in Morris' first season, though, the Tigers faltered in 2011 and lost three of their final five regular-season games. Morris said he hasn't hesitated to remind his players of that as they prepare for a Virginia Tech defense that shutout Duke for three quarters last weekend.

“That’s our challenge to them right now -- don’t be satisfied,” Morris said. “It’s not the first six games you’re remembered by, it will be the last six.”

What to watch in the ACC: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
10:15
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Time to take a look at what to watch in the ACC in Week 4. I think you probably already have a good idea of what is in store.

1. Top-10 clash. By now, you probably already know the matchup between No. 10 Clemson and No. 4 Florida State is only the ninth meeting featuring two ACC teams ranked in the top 10. So yes, it is a big game, one of the biggest games in league history, even. I have been asked this question several times during the week: What is the best possible outcome for the ACC? Clearly one team has to win and one has to lose. But in the best-case scenario, this game is competitive, thrilling and pretty clean, and goes down to the wire. To me, that validates having two teams ranked in the top 10 and keeps the loser somewhere in the top-15 range.

2. Offense vs. defense. This is your classic matchup of terrific offense against terrific defense. So which unit gets the edge? We find out Saturday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Florida State is one of two teams that has yet to allow a touchdown this season (TCU is the other) and has forced 22 three-and-outs in 42 opponent drives. Clemson, meanwhile, is averaging 39.7 points per game this season. The Tigers have 17 plays that gained 25 yards or more this season, tied for the most in the nation.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireAndre Ellington and Clemson can give the ACC a lift by knocking off SEC power LSU.
3. Andre Ellington vs. FSU run D. One of the matchups that has not been given too much attention this week is between Clemson running back Andre Ellington and the Florida State run defense. While much of the media focus has been on Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, Ellington is an absolute player to watch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ellington has gained more yards after contact (199) than Florida State has allowed in total rushing yards (101) this season. As for the FSU defense, the Noles have forced their opponents into no gain or negative yardage on 40 of 85 rushes (47.1 percent), the highest percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Ellington has failed to gain yards on just four of his 53 rushes this season (7.5 percent) and has been hit in the backfield on just seven runs.

4. Bounce-back week. Now on to some of the other matchups. This could be called "bounce-back week in the ACC" for a few of the other teams in the league: Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia -- teams that all lost last week. I left out Maryland because the Terps play No. 8 West Virginia and face the biggest challenge of all these teams. Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina all are expected to win. Virginia? The Hoos are a double-digit underdog at No. 17 TCU.

5. Logan Thomas. Speaking of Virginia Tech, which Logan Thomas will we see Saturday against Bowling Green? Thomas played poorly against Pitt last week, throwing three interceptions. The mistakes were absolute killers, as Pitt used the turnovers to pull the upset. One of the big problems for Thomas and the Hokies has been an inability to run the ball. That, combined with ineffective quarterback play, has left this team stagnant on offense. We'll see what the Hokies try to do to jump-start both Thomas and the run game this weekend.

6. Can Georgia Tech beat Miami? The Hurricanes have won three straight in the series, but all signs are pointing to Georgia Tech this season. Last week against Virginia, the Jackets scored seven rushing touchdowns -- tied for the most under coach Paul Johnson. This is a pretty confident group on offense going into the game. The bigger question for Tech is how to slow down Miami freshman sensation Duke Johnson, who scored three different ways against Bethune-Cookman. Tech has not faced anybody nearly as good as Johnson in its first three games this season, and the Jackets have had problems slowing down some of the speed and athleticism Miami has presented in the past.

7. Does Maryland have a chance? There is always a chance in any game, but the Terps are going to have their work cut out for them. I got to watch Geno Smith play last year when West Virginia was in the Big East, and the only time I saw him flustered was when he faced heavy pressure. Maryland does have a good defense that can apply pressure, but there are two problems: 1. Smith is better this season and 2. He gets rid of the ball so fast. Maryland's only chance in this game is with a studly defensive performance, but I just don't think the Terps have the players to slow down Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.

8. Does Virginia have a chance? Late news Wednesday night -- TCU will be without running back Waymon James for the rest of the season. The Horned Frogs have depth concerns at that position, but the bigger problem for Virginia will be slowing down Casey Pachall and the passing game. Virginia is so green in the secondary, the advantage might go in TCU's favor.

9. Will the real North Carolina please stand up? Are the Tar Heels the team that trailed Louisville 36-7 at halftime last week or the one that outscored the Cardinals 27-3 in the second half and nearly won? Coach Larry Fedora sure would love to find out against East Carolina on Saturday. This is a game that should have plenty of juice in-state. East Carolina sold out its ticket allotment for the game.

10. Could be a good day for the state of North Carolina. Wake Forest plays Army, NC State plays the Citadel and Duke plays Memphis in games almost everybody expects to go the ACC's way. The hope for these teams is that there is no look-ahead factor with conference games set for next week: Duke travels to play Wake, and NC State will be at Miami.

ACC Heisman Watch: Week 3

September, 11, 2012
9/11/12
10:30
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Clemson could own this Heisman Watch list, really. Between quarterback Tajh Boyd, receivers Sammy Watkins and Nuke Hopkins, and running back Andre Ellington, you could make a case for any of those guys. In fact, Andrea Adelson and I BOTH put Hopkins at No. 5 on our Heisman Watch lists for ESPN.com this week, and we didn't realize it until after the fact. They’re not the only ones in the ACC, though, with a real chance at being in the conversation.

Here’s a look at your top three Heisman contenders heading into Week 3:

1. Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. He was 11-for-13 for 161 yards and three touchdowns -- in one quarter! Manuel hasn’t been sacked once this season, but he also hasn’t played an FBS team yet. He hasn’t even had to play a full four quarters yet through two games. He’s 8-2 as a starter against ACC opponents heading into Saturday’s game against Wake Forest. If the Noles can maintain their position in the top 10, Manuel is the league’s best hope at a Heisman dark horse this year. Unless, of course, they lose next week to ...

2. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. The Tigers have arguably been the ACC’s best team against the best competition, but it’s still early. Boyd, though, has been impressive through his first two games. Against Ball State, he was 19-for-23 for 229 yards passing and three touchdowns. He now has 41 career touchdown passes, which ties him with Woodrow Dantzler for third place on the career passing touchdowns list.

3. Clemson receiver Nuke Hopkins. Sorry, Sammy, but you’re going to have to play your way back onto the list. Hopkins caught six passes for 105 yards with three touchdowns in the first half against Ball State. With his three touchdown receptions, Hopkins tied a school record for receiving touchdowns -- and he did it in one half. Hopkins also now has three consecutive games of at least 100 receiving yards, which ties a school record.

Watch out for:

Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. The Hokies’ offense has been less than spectacular, but you have to remember the overhaul of personnel around him. Thomas didn’t look like a Heisman contender in Week 1 against Georgia Tech, and the Hokies got off to a slow start against Austin Peay.

North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard. He had an undisclosed injury and didn’t play in last week’s loss to Wake Forest. There is no update on his status for Saturday’s game at Louisville.

Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins, who has been suspended for the first two games, is expected to make his debut this weekend against Furman.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 2

September, 9, 2012
9/09/12
10:00
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What did we learn in the ACC in Week 2?

1. The Clemson offense is rolling. Clemson has now rolled up more than 500 yards in total offense in back-to-back games to open the season, the first time that has happened since at least 1980. Clemson scored 45 points in the first half on Saturday, its highest first-half output since scoring 49 against Wake Forest in 1981. Tajh Boyd and DeAndre Hopkins have been playing pitch and catch like they are in their backyard -- they connected for three touchdowns against Ball State. The rebuilt offensive line looks way, way ahead of schedule. Andre Ellington has proved his worth. Now imagine what happens when Sammy Watkins returns this week.

[+] EnlargeClemson's Andre Ellington and Tajh Boyd
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREAndre Ellington (23) and Tajh Boyd (10) have the Clemson offense humming.
2. Watch out for Wake. If there is one thing folks in the ACC have come to realize, it is that Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe continually does more with less. After a lackluster win over Liberty last week, not many people gave Wake a chance to beat North Carolina, which racked up 62 points in a win over Elon in Week 1. Wake Forest went into the game as double-digit underdogs at home. But Tanner Price and Michael Campanaro carved up the North Carolina secondary, and the Tar Heels failed to capitalize on several red zone chances. Consider Wake lost another offensive lineman and nose guard Nikita Whitlock in the game and still won. What does this say about North Carolina? Well, it's a reminder once again not to put too much stock into eye-popping stats against FCS teams.

3. Not quite ready for prime time. Duke and Miami each posted impressive-looking wins in Week 1. The Blue Devils made plays in all three phases in a convincing win over FIU; Miami showed moxie in a comeback win over Boston College. But they came crashing right back to Earth in Week 2, as they suffered major road losses that did nothing to improve their image. Miami was essentially out of the game at No. 21 Kansas State after the first quarter; and Duke was essentially out of the game at No. 25 Stanford after the first quarter. While they were both road underdogs, there is no excuse for each team giving up 50 points and never being competitive. These were the only two nonconference losses for the ACC on the weekend.

4. Maryland is 2-0. I repeat: Maryland is 2-0. Give yourself a helmet sticker if you had Maryland equaling its win total from a year ago after TWO GAMES. What is astounding, aside from the fact that Maryland is playing in the neighborhood of 14 freshmen, is this team has committed eight turnovers in two games and is still undefeated. The Terps survived a furious Temple comeback to win for the first time on the road since November 2010. All of a sudden, next week's game against UConn in the "Edsall Bowl" looks winnable, and Maryland could be sitting at 3-0 in what would be the most improbable storyline in the early ACC season.

5. What do we really know about Virginia, NC State and Florida State? Virginia and NC State won ugly on Saturday without any help at all from their running games. NC State had 54 yards on the ground in a 10-7 win over UConn that even had Wolfpack fans grumbling about a lack of offense; and Virginia averaged 1.3 yards on the ground to barely beat a Penn State team that lost to Ohio at home in Week 1. Both have left much to be desired through two weeks. As for Florida State, the Seminoles have beaten up on two FCS opponents and haven't been tested. Their highly talked about game against Savannah State was called at 55-0 because of bad weather. Jimbo Fisher pulled his starters after a quarter. Virginia and Florida State each play ACC games in Week 3, so we should definitely know more about them at this time next week.

No. 12 Clemson rolls over Ball State

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
4:12
PM ET

The Clemson offense picked up right where it left off last week against Auburn, rolling to a 52-27 win against Ball State.

There were a few records in this game:
  • DeAndre Hopkins, who had a statement game against Auburn, tied the Clemson record for touchdown receptions in a game with three. Rod Gardner had three at UNC in 2000. Hopkins ended the game against Ball State with six catches for 105 yards -- his third straight 100-yard game to tie another school record. He now has 224 yards receiving and four touchdowns in two games to make sure Clemson had zero problems without Sammy Watkins.
  • Kicker Spencer Benton made a 61-yard field goal as the first half expired -- the longest field goal in school and ACC history.
Tajh Boyd played about a quarter and a half, and ended up going 19-of-23 for 229 yards and three touchdowns. Andre Ellington added two scores and had 41 total yards, and the starters essentially played about a half.

No. 12 Clemson ended up running 84 plays on offense, just a shade under the 87 it ran last week against Auburn. The Tigers also have posted over 500 yards of offense in back-to-back games for the first time since at least 1980. They get Furman next week before a huge showdown at Florida State on Sept. 22.

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