NCF Nation: B.J. Raji
The term big has followed Hankins from the moment he set (big) foot on Ohio State's campus. Even though Hankins has slimmed down significantly during his Buckeyes career -- he now checks in at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds -- the junior defensive tackle has a tough time escaping talk about his size. He's a big man with big-time skills.
Entering the 2012 season, he has big expectations placed on his ... very big shoulders.
"His ceiling's through the roof," Buckeyes defensive lineman John Simon told ESPN.com. "He's a playmaker for us, a big-time player. You're going to need two guys to take him up. With his ability and his size and how quick he moves for his size, he's a dual threat."
Hankins is flattered by the lofty draft projections from Kiper and others, saying, "it's a big deal to see how far I came from high school."
The NFL is certainly on his radar, although he told reporters last week in Columbus that he wants to win a national title with Ohio State as a senior in 2013.
Time will tell if Hankins' plans change, but he's well aware of the increased burden he'll bear for the Buckeyes this coming season.
"I think I'm ready," Hankins told ESPN.com "With the seniors we have on defense and with [Simon], I feel like I’ve reached a level of being a leader. The more that I play, people follow me. That's one way I lead."
Hankins couldn't have a better model than the man he lines up next to, Simon. The undisputed leader of Ohio State's defense returns for his third season as a starter, and undoubtedly his second as a captain after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors and third-team AP All-America honors in 2011.
Last fall, Simon and Hankins combined for 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Hankins led all Buckeyes defensive linemen and finished fourth on the team in tackles (67), and he and Simon were the only players to record double digits in TFLs. They combined for six tackles for loss in a win against Illinois, and Hankins racked up nine TFLs against Big Ten competition.
"He's a major help for me," Hankins said. "I'm just trying to take the characteristics he has and add them to myself so I can become a leader and be a model for the young guys. Become a true Buckeye."
Simon noted that going through a season of starting alongside Hankins helped them improve their communication skills. Hankins' ability to stay on the field -- he set a goal of 60 snaps per game in 2011 -- also helped.
"He's changed a lot of the habits, body-wise," Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of Hankins. "He's always been a heck of a football player, but his ability to become stronger, his ability to get his weight in a good position where he can play 60 snaps at 100 percent has been good to see."
Asked if he has a snaps-per-game goal for 2012, Hankins replied, "Until they take me out."
Hankins spent spring practice working with a new line coach, Mike Vrabel, who previously had coached Ohio State's linebackers. Although Vrabel played linebacker in the NFL, he starred as a defensive end for Ohio State, becoming the first player in Big Ten history to twice earn the league's defensive lineman of the year award (1995 and 1996). Hankins called it an "honor" to work with Vrabel and said Vrabel has talked to him a lot about one of Vrabel's former New England Patriots teammates, 325-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
"I watch him, I watch [Haloti] Ngata from Baltimore, I watch B.J. Raji and Ndamukong Suh," Hankins said. "I try to take some of their game and put it into my game."
All four men have met the big expectations that go along with their big frames.
This fall, Hankins hopes to do the same.
At 335 pounds, Hankins is one of the biggest men in the Big Ten. He's among the largest defensive players in the nation and easy to spot in the heart of Ohio State's defensive line.
But Hankins spent the offseason focused on a different number: 60.
Ohio State's defense averaged 60.7 plays per game in 2010. Hankins wanted to make he'd be on the field for all of them in 2011.
"Last year he probably averaged 15 snaps a game, maybe a few more later in the season, 20 snaps," Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell said. "The question was, a guy his size, can he play 60, 65 snaps in a game? He's done a very good job of showing us that he can."
Hankins not only has stayed on the field longer but made his presence known. The sophomore leads Ohio State's defensive linemen with 36 tackles, a total that ranks second on the team behind linebacker Andrew Sweat. He also ranks second in tackles for loss (6.5) and tied for second in sacks (2).
The big man also seems to be getting stronger with each game. He opened Big Ten play with six tackles and a sack against Nebraska, and followed it up Oct. 15 with arguably his best performance as a Buckeye, recording a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss, in a defense-driven 17-7 win at Illinois.
"This summer, I worked on my conditioning, eating right and just losing a few pounds," Hankins said. "It's helping me this year. That's been a major part."
Hankins shed about 15 pounds from his frame, which he calls "a good amount." While he remains as big or bigger than most offensive lineman he faces, Hankins feels lighter on his feet and generally more in shape.
"My first year, I would get tired after like one or two series," he said. "Right now, I feel like I can just play the whole game. Most of the time, I'm not really going to come out of the game.
"With my conditioning being where it's at right now, it's taken my game to another level."
Hankins showed some promise as a true freshman, appearing in all 13 games and recording 16 tackles, including a sack. Although he couldn't log many snaps, Ohio State only needed him to spell starters Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and veteran Dexter Larimore.
But the departures of Heyward and Larimore left Ohio State thin at tackle. The Buckeyes needed contributors to complement veteran John Simon up front.
"Coming into this year, I knew we were going to be pretty young," Hankins said. "I knew there were going to be roles and spots that needed to be filled. The coaches were going to be counting on me. The defense was going to be counting on me."
Hankins and Simon form a terrific defensive tackle tandem, combining for 14 tackles for loss and five sacks. They both stood out against Illinois, ranking as Ohio State's top two tacklers and accounting for six tackles for loss.
Ohio State will lean on the pair this week as it faces the Big Ten's top offense in No. 15 Wisconsin.
"It's awesome when you've got two big guys like that are getting after it and affecting quarterbacks and running backs," Buckeyes offensive tackle Mike Adams said.
Hankins, who hails from Detroit, has enjoyed watching former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh star for the NFL's Lions. Another pro defensive tackle Hankins likes to scout is Green Bay Packers standout B.J. Raji.
Like Hankins, Raji is a guy who can't avoid references to his size. He's listed at 337 pounds.
"He's kind of a guy like me, a two- or three-down player," Hankins said. "He's a big guy, but good with his feet."
Does Hankins see himself in Raji?
"I don't think I'm as big as him," he said.
Not anymore, at least.
"He didn't want to be as heavy as he was last year," Fickell said of Hankins. "He knew he was going to have to play more, and he was going to have to get his weight down in order to do that.
"He's well-conditioned for his size, and I've been impressed with his ability to play over 60 snaps a game."
Offensive linemen: Six players on the final two-deep roster for 2010 were either juniors or seniors, and the Eagles will have to find replacements for Anthony Castonzo, Rich Lapham and Thomas Claiborne. There were two juniors at center in 2011, and the recruiting overall at this position hasn’t been as strong in recent years.
Defensive linemen: The Eagles have been thin at the position to begin with since the departures of Ron Brace and B.J. Raji. The interior line should be a priority, as tackle Damik Scafe will graduate, and Kaleb Ramsey will be a senior. Defensive end Brad Newman will also graduate.
Quarterback: Prior to the early enrollees, Clemson only had one scholarship quarterback on the roster -- projected starter Tajh Boyd. The depth needs to be rebuilt after the loss of starter Kyle Parker and transfer of backup Willy Korn.
Running back: The early departure of Jamie Harper to the NFL left a hole in the Tigers’ lineup. It’s not completely empty, as Andre Ellington remains the best back on the roster and Roderick McDowell was a redshirt freshman backup to Harper.
Offensive lineman – The departures of Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon will leave gaping holes up front, and A.J. Ganguzza and Antwane Greenlee aren’t expected to return. Overall, the staff is looking for bigger, better players. With the exception of right guard, this was a veteran group.
Running back: Despite the current depth, the coaching staff still wanted to sign about three more running backs in this class.
Wide receiver: This would be the third priority for the staff. Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling will both be seniors, but the team has lacked some dynamic playmakers at the position.
Linebacker: The Noles lost two starters from last year’s Atlantic Division championship team, and there are several young players on the rise like Jeff Luc and Telvin Smith, but the staff wants more numbers at the position.
Safety: The Noles need an upgrade at this position.
Defensive line: This is a matter of mostly building depth and size and continuing to get better.
Kicker/ Punter: Nick Ferrara has the ability to do both, but he also struggled at both in 2010. Travis Baltz was a four-year starter at punter who has to be replaced. The kicking game should be a top priority in this class, and a concern if Ferrara doesn’t become more consistent.
Wide receiver: The early departure of standout Torrey Smith to the NFL leaves quarterback Danny O'Brien without a favorite target. Seven of the nine receivers listed on the most current depth chart for 2010 were either juniors or seniors.
Running back: The Terps have to replace starter Da’Rel Scott, and Davin Meggett will be a senior. There is some talent behind Meggett in D.J. Adams, but the position could use more depth.
Secondary: Six of the top 10 players in the secondary were either juniors or seniors in 2010, including safety Antwine Perez, who will graduate. Kenny Tate and Cameron Chism will both be seniors, and the corner position is the biggest need.
Defensive end: Defensive coordinator Don Brown would like to bring in at least one player who can really bring some speed off the edge.
Kickers: The Wolfpack lost their starting punter and place-kicker, easily making kickers the biggest need in this recruiting class.
Defensive linemen: With the exception of sophomore Brian Slay, the entire 2010 line was comprised of juniors and seniors. The Pack have to replace two starters, and two returning starters, Jeff Rieskamp and J.R. Sweezy, will be seniors.
Linebackers: This was another veteran group for NC State, with five of the six players on the two-deep either juniors or seniors. Nate Irving’s graduation will be a big hit and Audie Cole will be a senior.
Quarterback: If Russell Wilson leaves early, the position will be even thinner, but backup Mike Glennon will be a junior, so the staff needs to build more depth.
Offensive linemen: The Deacs will have four redshirt juniors returning up front, and have to replace redshirt senior center Russell Nenon. The staff is looking to increase the depth and talent up front.
Linebackers: The position hasn’t been the same since the 2008 class (Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux). They were both drafted and two of the fastest players the program has ever seen. The staff needs to bring in more talent and speed here.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Around the ACC we go ...
- The Orlando Sentinel has a Q&A with Florida State athletic director Randy Spetman.
- Here are five offseason subplots for the Terps, according to Patrick Stevens of the Washington Times.
- Some of Georgia Tech's former players gave their take on their introduction to the NFL.
- Bill Belichick said the Boston College defense prepared Ron Brace for the NFL, but the Eagles' former defensive tackle is still a little overwhelmed. Meanwhile, former teammate B.J. Raji is expected to contribute immediately.
- Virginia fans can expect to see Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell running a little option this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Summer camp is supposed to be a time when players get excited about the fall, but for Maryland running back Morgan Green, it's usually" a jinx."
Former FSU linebacker/defensive back Kenny Ingram is hoping the NFL draft experts are wrong, or at least to prove them that way.
Sports Illustrated has since retracted its story on B.J. Raji testing positive for drugs, but the Boston Herald still wonders if Raji is a burden.
When it comes to his status with the NFL, former UNC receiver Hakeem Nicks is "clueless."
And a leftover for you ...
Georgia Tech found some answers this spring -- a few leaders were among them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Nothing like a few links for a mid-week pick-me-up ...
- So what if Ben Anderson has short legs? He benches 460 pounds, the most of any player at Georgia Tech. And he's aiming to take over for Darryl Richard.
- Apparently everyone but B.J. Raji has been told the former Eagles' defensive tackle failed a drug test from the NFL combine.
- Andrew Carter of the Orlando Sentinel has been breaking down the Noles by position, and today he looks at the receivers. The Noles end practice Wednesday.
- NC State picked up a commitment right out of Butch Davis' backyard.
- With spring ball halfway over, the Terps are tinkering with their depth chart.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
With the NFL departures announced, and signing day officially over, it's time for a re-ranking heading into spring football. Keep in mind things change during spring practice -- some players get hurt, some win position battles, but here's the first early peek at how the ACC might fare in 2009:
1. Virginia Tech -- The ACC and Orange Bowl champs return 16 starters, and there are high expectations for an offensive backfield that will contain shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and tailbacks Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. If the defense maintains its tradition without Victor "Macho" Harris, the Hokies could be a top 10 team.
2. Florida State -- The defense took some hits -- the most notable being the loss of defensive end Everette Brown -- but should have enough experience to compensate for it. The offensive line should be one of the best in the conference and give returning quarterback Christian Ponder and tailback Jermaine Thomas plenty of help. The question is the depth at receiver after the loss of Preston Parker, Greg Carr, and probably Corey Surrency. FSU also loses Lou Groza award winner Graham Gano.
3. Georgia Tech -- Overall, this team will be experienced and deeper -- it will return every starter at the skill positions -- but the Yellow Jackets must reload on the defensive front and improve on the offensive line. There will be three new starters on the defensive line, and Tech lost two senior starters on the offensive line. There are 25 players on the roster, though, who have at least one career start.
4. Miami -- Coach Randy Shannon brought in yet another outstanding recruiting class, and playing so many true freshmen in 2008 should help this season. There shouldn't be any quarterback drama this season, and Jacory Harris should only improve under first-year coordinator Mark Whipple. Defensive coordinator is still a question mark, though.
5. North Carolina -- Never count out a Butch Davis-coached team, but the Tar Heels will be a question mark until a new batch of receivers proves otherwise. Brooks Foster, Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks accounted for 114 receptions in 2008, and all three have left for the NFL. Safety Trimane Goddard is arguably the biggest loss on defense.
6. NC State -- If the Pack stay healthy -- something they haven't been able to do for the past two seasons -- NC State could be the sleeper in the Atlantic Division. It has to replace tight end Anthony Hill and running back Andre Brown, though, and 2007 leading receiver Donald Bowens will miss spring practice because of knee surgery.
7. Clemson -- Speedy playmakers C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford are back, but they'll be under the direction of a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. Let's see how the Tigers do without any expectations for a change.
8. Maryland -- The Terps graduated 30 seniors and junior receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey left for the NFL. One of the biggest question marks is how they'll fare up front after the graduation of three starting offensive linemen, including All-ACC center Edwin Williams. The defense, which loses four starters from its front seven, will be led by first-year coordinator Don Brown.
9. Wake Forest -- The good news for the Deacs is the offensive line should better, and they return veteran quarterback Riley Skinner. The bad news is they'll sorely miss some of the best defensive players the program has had in recent years, along with kicker Sam Swank.
10. Virginia -- If quarterback Jameel Sewell makes a smooth transition back into the lineup and quickly learns the new offense, the Cavs could surprise some people this season. They'll have to replace all three starters at linebacker, though, and will miss starting receivers Kevin Ogletree and Maurice Covington, as well as leading rusher Cedric Peerman.
11. Boston College -- Consider this a rebuilding year for the Eagles. The loss of defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace will have an effect up front. With a new staff, a small recruiting class and a young starting quarterback, the only direction for BC to head is up.
12. Duke -- The Blue Devils have arguably one of the league's top quarterbacks in Thaddeus Lewis, but he won't have Eron Riley to throw it to this season. Duke also loses ACC-leading tackler Michael Tauiliili at linebacker. Still, the Blue Devils should take another step forward in their second season under David Cutcliffe.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
QB -- Russell Wilson, NC State
RB -- Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech
RB -- C.J. Spiller, Clemson
TE -- John Phillips, Virginia
OL -- Eugene Monroe, Virginia
OL -- Matt Tennant, Boston College
OL -- Andrew Gardner, Georgia Tech
OL -- Edwin Williams, Maryland
OL -- Rodney Hudson, Florida State
WR -- Hakeem Nicks, UNC
WR -- D.J. Boldin, Wake Forest
K -- Graham Gano, Florida State
LB -- Clint Sintim, Virginia
LB -- Michael Tauiliili, Duke
LB -- Mark Herzlich, Boston College
LB -- Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
DL -- Everette Brown, Florida State
DL -- Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech
DL -- B.J. Raji, Boston College
DB -- Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest
DB -- Victor Harris, Virginia Tech
S -- Trimane Goddard, North Carolina
S -- Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech
Travis Baltz, Maryland
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
TAMPA, Fla. -- If Virginia Tech continues to move the ball and control the clock like it did in its second possession, the Hokies will have the edge in this game. They were even able to run it up the middle a few times against burly tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace.
Virginia Tech put together an impressive 10-play, 61-yard drive that ate 4:49 off the clock. It looked like an effective offense. The five-yard scoring play didn't look like a called run, but Tyrod Taylor saw an opening and took it. The Hokies defense is playing with a purpose, and putting pressure on Dominique Davis. The Eagles are struggling to get anywhere and have just 25 yards on the ground.
Here's a stat for you: Virginia Tech's touchdown was the first offensive first-quarter touchdown in ACC championship history.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Rematch is the wrong word for this game, considering it's a different season and Virginia Tech and Boston College are completely different teams than they were a year ago. Here are a few things to keep an eye on in Saturday's ACC championship game:
1. Special teams and non-offensive touchdowns. Virginia Tech's last three touchdowns against the Eagles have all come from interception returns, and the Hokies have blocked seven kicks during their series with Boston College. The Eagles have scored eight non-offensive touchdowns this season, including receiver Rich Gunnell's punt return for a touchdown in the Eagles' 28-23 regular-season win on Oct. 18.
2. Virginia Tech's young receivers. Boston College defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani said the Hokies look different from the team they played on Oct. 18 and that's because he said they're not as one-dimensional. The Hokies can thank their rookie receivers for that. Danny Coale caught a career-best five passes last weekend against Virginia and Jarrett Boykin had six. They'll go against a defense that leads the nation in interceptions with 25.
3. Spaziani vs. Bud Foster. This will be a defensive struggle from the start. The Eagles will do their best to try and contain shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor and stop the run, and the Hokies will look to rattle rookie quarterback Dominique Davis, who will be making his second career start. Foster's name was in the news more this season because he interviewed for the head job at Clemson, but Spaziani has been equally invaluable on the Eagles' sideline.
4. Attendance. There are various reasons why Raymond James Stadium is unlikely to be filled on Saturday, starting with the troubled economy, but regardless of why there might be empty seats, it will be hard not to notice. ACC officials went to great lengths to make sure Tampa provided a better atmosphere than Jacksonville did, but only kickoff will tell if their efforts paid off.
5. The battles up front. With an offensive line that averages 6-foot-5, the Eagles are unusually tall up front -- the tallest in the ACC -- while the Hokies have been rather inconsistent. BC defensive tackles Ron Brace and B.J. Raji have combined for 54 tackles. Raji leads the team with 11 tackles for a loss of 62 yards and seven sacks. Virginia Tech has been dependent upon the run, while the Eagles have held each of their past five opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster was impossible to miss.
Following a key sack last Saturday that helped Virginia Tech beat rival Virginia and advance to the ACC championship game, Foster sprinted down the sideline, almost knocking over wide-eyed running backs coach Billy Hite along the way.
"That's definitely coach Foster," defensive end Jason Worilds said. "He wears his emotions on his sleeves and he's not going to hide how he feels. And what you saw was exactly how he felt."
Foster's defense reflects his passion, and Saturday's ACC championship game will reflect the strength of the entire league this season -- defense. Both Virginia Tech and Boston College boast two of the nation's top 10 defenses, while their offenses rank no better than 94th out of 119 FBS teams.
They will meet for the second straight season in the title game in large part because of their defenses' big-play capabilities. In a game that features two teams with relatively anonymous offensive playmakers, two names that have gotten a lot of attention this season are the defensive coordinators.
Foster and Boston College defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani are two of the best in the ACC, and both have had to overcome obstacles to get to Tampa. The Eagles lost starting defensive end Alex Albright and linebacker Brian Toal to season-ending injuries, and the Hokies had to replace seven starters on defense. Yet both of their units have been relied upon to win games for them this season and will be again on Saturday.
"Defensively, they haven't changed much over the years," said Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski. "They're very solid. I mentioned this when we played them the last time, that Bud Foster is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. His defenses are always in the top 10, regardless of who he's got playing. He does a great job with their scheme."
This is the fourth time in two seasons these teams have met. Virginia Tech beat the Matt Ryan-led Eagles 30-16 to win the ACC title. Spaziani said it's at the point where they're too familiar with the Hokies. They've got too much game film to study.
"I'd rather just play them once," Spaziani said. "When we play them once a year and we're fortunate enough to beat them, we're happy. Playing them twice is like double jeapordy."
Especially since the Eagles have already won once. Boston College won this year's regular-season game 28-23 on Oct. 18.
"We know what to expect," said Boston College receiver Brandon Robinson, who caught four passes for 97 yards in that game. "They're going to play a lot of man, a lot of switch, and their defense thrives on turnovers. That's one thing we've got to keep to a minimum."
That's one thing they didn't do in October. The Eagles were able to overcome five turnovers, four of which came from former starting quarterback Chris Crane. Backup quarterback Dominique Davis will start his second game of his career on Saturday in place of Crane, who broke his collarbone against Wake Forest.
"He's going to come to play," said Worilds. "He's a big-time athlete. For him to come in there and start after Chris Crane went down and lead his team to a W is very impressive."
Offensively, Virginia Tech has been dependent upon the running game this season because of so many inexperienced wide receivers. The Hokies are expecting a long day against a rushing defense that has held each of its past five opponents to under 100 yards rushing. That's attributed in large part -- literally -- to BC's two 300-plus pound tackles, B.J. Raji and Ron Brace.
"They are hard to move out of there," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "You just better plan to work all day against those guys, because it's not easy."
Boston College has won both regular-season games against the Hokies, but is still searching for the program's first outright league championship.
"There's huge motivation," said safety Paul Anderson. "We definitely don't want t lose to them again, especially in a game like this. We want that ring this year."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
- If Boston College is going to win the ACC title, it's going to have to do it with its backup quarterback. So far, Dominique Davis hasn't flinched. He joked that he might have to change his last name to Logan, though, since he's spending so much time with BC's offensive coordinator.
- B.J. Raji and Mark Herzlich are going to present some problems for Virginia Tech.
- There is at least one reason for the Hokies' slow ticket sales -- some fans would rather spend the money on going to a bowl game. Makes sense, but doesn't bode well for the atmosphere Saturday in Raymond James.
- Virginia coach Al Groh is sticking around for his ninth season, despite some rumblings that he might not.
- It looks like the EagleBank Bowl might have solved its problem, and Wake Forest is the answer. That means Maryland's most likely destination will be the Humanitarian Bowl.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Sorry for the slow start today -- late night, early morning, long flight. I'm back in Maryland for another game that will have implications on the conference standings. Since the next stop is College Park, Md., let's start there with what to watch this week in the ACC:
1. Maryland's run defense against UNC tailbacks Ryan Houston and Shaun Draughn: After allowing Virginia Tech tailback Darren Evans a school-record 253 rushing yards last week, Maryland tweaked its defensive line. The Tar Heels, though, are coming off one of their better performances in the running game and finally have everyone healthy and blocking for them.
2. North Carolina's pass defense against Maryland quarterback Chris Turner: Turner has been his most productive against ranked teams, and without a consistent running game, he has had to be. The Tar Heels are tied with Boston College for the national lead in interceptions with 18.
3. The ever-changing ACC standings: Maryland can still win the Atlantic Division if it wins out, and now that Virginia Tech lost, North Carolina can do the same. Miami needs UNC to lose, and Wake Forest needs the Terps to lose.
4. Wake's turnover happy defense against NC State quarterback Russell Wilson: The Demon Deacons win games in large part by creating turnovers, and that's something Wilson just doesn't do often. The Deacs' ability to fluster him and contain him will be key to their chances of winning.
5. Boston College's front seven against Florida State's running game: The Seminoles have depended more on their running game this season than in recent years and have gotten a surprisingly good effort from their young offensive linemen. A large task is looming, though, in defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace.
6. Florida State's ability to force Chris Crane into mistakes: The Seminoles have been getting a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, and the Eagles have struggled the most when Crane has turned the ball over.
7. Clemson wide receiver Aaron Kelly: He needs just 10 receptions to become the ACC's career leader and should get a few steps closer to that against the Blue Devils.
8. Wake Forest kicker Sam Swank: It's possible that Swank, one of the nation's most prolific kickers, could make his comeback this week. Reports out of Winston-Salem are that Swank finally kicked a football in practice this week.
9. NC State linebacker Nate Irving: The Wolfpack's top playmaker on defense is getting better every week. He missed three full games with the ankle injury he incurred against ECU and then re-injured it after just 16 snaps against FSU. Irving played a total of 37 snaps leading up to the Duke game. He played 82 snaps against and had 10 tackles and caused a fumble. Not bad for a "rusty" Irving.
10. Duke linebacker Michael Tauiliili: In order for the Blue Devils to have a chance in Death Valley, the ACC's leading tackler is going to have to play a huge role in slowing down the Tigers' top playmakers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles are expecting a similar defense from the one they saw in their loss to Wake Forest, but the Noles are more confident in their offensive line and running game this time around. Coach Bobby Bowden said tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace are probably the best they'll play to date, and his task will be to "mix the running game in there." Bowden said BC has a different defensive alignment than Wake, but the zone is similar. "We have to execute," Bowden said. "A team like that gives you things. You can have a little hook out there but you better not miss it. We must protect the passer and then execute and then get a running game going where they can't just tee off on the passer."
WAKE FOREST: Placekicker Sam Swank likely won't play again, and coach Jim Grobe is still trying to further integrate the I-formation with the spread offense, so the defense will once again be heavily relied upon this weekend at NC State. In the first half of the season, Wake was spending three-fourths of its practices on throwing the ball, blitz pickup, reads for the quarterbacks and route concepts for the receivers. Now, Grobe said, they're "probably 50/50 or 60/40 run-pass, which I think has helped us on Saturday, because we have the ability to do more than one thing." Running back Josh Adams, who has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle, is likely to return on Saturday.
MARYLAND: After allowing the Hokies a school-record rushing performance last week, the Terps made some changes to their defensive line in order to give their rushing defense a boost, and it starts inside. Travis Ivey will start at defensive tackle in place of Jeremy Navarre, who has been moved to defensive end, and redshirt freshman Dion Armstrong will start at nose tackle in place of Olugbemi Otulaja, who has started every game this season. Navarre, who started every game at defensive tackle, leads all ACC defensive linemen with 5.3 tackles per game. Mack Frost, who started five games at end this season but hasn't completely healed from knee surgery last year, is his backup.
VIRGINIA TECH: Things have been coming together for the Hokies on offense and special teams lately. Overshadowed by the record-setting success of tailback Darren Evans, true freshman Dyrell Roberts has also shown big-play capabilities for the Hokies. The former tailback turned receiver has found his niche as a return man. Roberts has 10 catches for 158 yards, but is averaging 26.9 yards per return -- ninth-best in the country. He has had returns of 55 and 54 yards in the past two games. Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring has also said he'd like to continue to use the "Wild Turkey" formation, with 280-pound tight end Greg Boone rushing out of the shotgun formation, but wants to make sure he only confuses defenses, and not his own players.
MIAMI: The Hurricanes spent their bye week focusing on special teams, but a consistent key to beating the Hokies has been a high-scoring game. Miami is 11-2 against Virginia Tech when it has scored 20 or more points against the Hokies. The Hurricanes lead the ACC in scoring offense with 30.4 points per game in ACC games. The Hurricanes could be without injured left tackle Jason Fox, though, and that could obviously hurt. Starting in his place would be senior Reggie Youngblood. Fox has started 22 straight games, and he and Xavier Shannon are the only two players on offense who have started every game this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Boston College at North Carolina
You know this one will be a low-scoring, defensive struggle. BC ranks in the top 25 in the nation in nine different categories and boast the best pass-efficiency defense and red zone defense in the country. The defensive front seven is one of the best in the league, with B.J. Raji, Ron Brace and Mark Herzlich leading the way.
UNC's defense has assumed the role Wake Forest had last year and leads the ACC with five nonoffensive touchdowns (three interception returns, one punt return and one blocked punt recovery in the end zone). Last week was the first time in six games that UNC didn't grab an interception. Would you believe that neither of UNC's past two opponents have been able to muster more than 90 yards on the ground?
Butch Davis is 6-0 against the Eagles as a head coach, but BC has been one of the nation's best road teams over the past six seasons at 24-10. The Eagles are one win away from their 10th straight bowl appearance.
Wake Forest at Miami
The Deacs are unranked for the first time this season and will be playing their second straight ACC road game. Last week's 26-0 loss to Maryland marked the first time Wake Forest had been shut out by an ACC opponent since 1996. Sam Swank is listed as questionable for this game, and so is the WF offense, especially since the offensive line took another big hit.
Redshirt sophomore Trey Bailey, who had a tough task this season in replacing Steve Justice, suffered a broken right ankle against Maryland and underwent surgery on Sunday. Bailey is expected to be out six weeks and miss the remainder of the regular season. It is possible he could return if the Deacons are invited to a bowl game.
He was replaced at center by guard Russell Nenon. True freshman Joe Looney took Nenon's spot at left guard. Should Looney start against Miami, he would be the first true freshman to start for Wake since Chris DeGeare earned a start at right guard against NC State on Oct. 22, 2005.
The offensive line has been at the root of Wake's problems this season, and the loss of Bailey obviously won't help this weekend against an aggressive Miami defense.
Duke at Vanderbilt
Duke coach David Cutcliffe should be familiar with his next opponent from his time in the SEC, and is well-aware of the success Bobby Johnson has had this season. Like many teams in the SEC, though, Johnson has been winning with defense. Vandy ranks 118th in the nation in total offense with 249 yards per game, but the Commodores lead the SEC in sacks. Still, they're close to their first bowl game for the first time since 1982, and will have extra motivation in trying to rebound from the loss to Georgia.
Virginia Tech at Florida State
While the Hokies are still trying to find their offense, Florida State is running the ball an average of 18 times more per game and is 3-0 since its loss to Wake Forest. And the Noles success on third downs -- both converting them and stopping them -- has been significant. In their past two games, Florida State has converted 62 percent of its third downs. They're on a streak of 28 consecutive drives without a three-and-out. FSU leads the nation in stopping teams on third downs.
Meanwhile, the Hokies are 110th in the nation in total offense. They're even worse (114th) in passing offense. Coach Frank Beamer insists that it's not just one person (Tyrod Taylor), rather it's missed assignments on the offensive line or blown routes by receivers. The Hokies do have the fifth-best rushing defense in the ACC, though, and that will obviously be a factor against Antone Smith and FSU's run-based offense. Virginia Tech is holding its opponents to an average of 122.6 yards, while the Seminoles are averaging 216.
Virginia at Georgia Tech
The battle to watch in this game will be defensive end Michael Johnson against left tackle Eugene Monroe, and there will be plenty of scouts in the press box to see it firsthand. Both have first-round draft potential. Considering that matchup, it's no surprise this game will feature the ACC's leader in sacks (Georgia Tech), against the league's co-leader in fewest sacks allowed (Virginia).
Also, the Cavaliers have averaged 27.3 points and 377.3 total yards per game during its three-game winning streak, but Georgia Tech has the stingiest scoring defense in the ACC (11.6 points per game).
NC State at Maryland
NC State coach Tom O'Brien has deemed that the fickle Terps have everything they need to be a "championship-caliber football team," and Maryland enters its homecoming game in a four-way tie for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack, though, are aiming to be the spoiler. In last week's shutout of Wake Forest, though, the Terps finally put it together in all three phases of the game, and a breakout performance by receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was a huge difference in the offense. Another difference has been the offensive line, which has allowed just two sacks in the past four games.
NC State has also made improvements in recent weeks. The Pack hasn't turned the ball over once in the past two games, the first time that has happened since 2002. It's a much different offense when quarterback Russell Wilson and tight end Anthony Hill are healthy and in the lineup.