NCF Nation: Billy Napier
Given the recent spate of unsightly 7-6 seasons, Florida State seems to be in pretty fantastic shape. That, of course, is not the storyline that has taken shape since December. No, the convenient storyline has focused mainly on the coaching turnover that has left the Seminoles with six new assistants heading into the 2013 season.
What does the unusually large turnover say about coach Jimbo Fisher? What does it say about the program itself?
At this point, the storyline has become rote. Fisher already has his answers before the questions are asked, prepared to bat down the notion that this very strange offseason has been, well, strange.
“You know,” he says, “we were one of four teams in the entire country that did not lose a single assistant in my first two years here.”
Pretty astounding, when you consider just how frequently assistants change jobs year to year. But what is more astounding is hiring seven different assistants in a two-month span. One of those assistants, Billy Napier, lasted a handful of weeks before moving on to Alabama.
As Fisher tried to defend the staff turnover, he proved the point others have made. Coaching change is common in this profession, especially at winning programs. But the type of coaching change Florida State just experienced is as rare as scoring a safety on consecutive plays.
“We took the attrition of three years and put it in one,” Fisher says simply.
Was he surprised that he lost so many assistants?
“Not really. Last year was a big year,” Fisher begins. “You go back and look at all the major jobs. When’s the last time you saw four major SEC schools open?”
Not since 2004. His defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, got the head coaching job at Kentucky and took assistant D.J. Eliot with him. Another assistant, Dameyune Craig, left for a co-offensive coordinator job at Auburn. Counting Napier, four assistants left for the SEC.
“The NFL has nowhere else to draw coaches from,” he says. “And we had a lot of success. We’re graduating players. Guys aren’t getting in trouble. People want to know how you’re having success. We had to have a proven commodity.
“We’re the eighth-winningest team in the last three years. We were 30th the previous three years. We’ve jumped more than any team in the country. So people say, ‘Wait a minute.’ We all do research and look at who’s doing good and ask, ‘Why are they doing good? Are they doing something we’re not doing?’ People are saying, ‘Let’s get some of those guys and see why they’re having success and are able to change the culture and change a program.”
The other three coaches who left -- Eddie Gran (Cincinnati), Greg Hudson (Purdue) and James Coley (Miami) -- took coordinator jobs as well. Fisher points this out, too, and makes it clear he has never stood in the way of an assistant getting another job. After all, he allowed Stoops to interview at Kentucky in the middle of the season.
While all of the change may not look so great on the surface, the staff Fisher has assembled may in fact be better than the one he had his first two seasons with the Seminoles. When asked what he likes most about this staff, Fisher says, “No. 1, the experience. No. 2, their undaunting ability to work and put in hours. A lot of staffs you get recruiters or coaches. I think everybody on our staff can do both. We have a staff that’s very solid recruiting and very solid coaching. It’s hard to find nine guys capable that way.”
Perhaps that is a slight dig at his past staff. But there is no questioning the credentials of the men tasked with elevating Florida State from ACC champ into yearly national title contender. All of them have won conference titles; three have won national titles.
Fisher keeps a running list of potential candidates with him, so he knew exactly whom to call when all these jobs came open. How they arrived in Tallahassee plays like a game of Six Degrees of Jimbo Fisher.
- You have quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders, who crossed paths with Fisher when both were assistants in the SEC some years ago. He also coached new running backs coach Jay Graham at Tennessee in the 1990s. The two have known each other since Graham was 17.
- You have defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who come from the Nick Saban tree that also produced Fisher. Sunseri and Fisher were on the same staff at LSU in 2000.
- You have recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who never worked with Fisher but recruited against him when he was at Texas and Fisher was at LSU.
- Then you have special teams coordinator, linebackers coach Charles Kelly, who was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1993 when Fisher was there. Kelly also played against Fisher the past several seasons while working at Georgia Tech. When Kelly was with the Jackets, and Pruitt with the Tide, the two shared ideas.
“Florida State has always been one of the schools I’ve always wanted to work at,” Sanders said. “When I first got married and was first coaching, my wife asked me. I said this was one of the four schools in the country I’d love to work at some day. When the opportunity came along, I was excited to come to Tallahassee.”
He echoed what all the other assistants said during their only media availability this spring: the desire to win a national title. Indeed, the intensity during spring practice seemed to be turned up a notch. Both Sunseri and Pruitt are quite boisterous and have no qualms about getting up close and personal with their players -- face to face mask.
On one particular afternoon last month, Sunseri kept getting after defensive end Giorgio Newberry. At one point, Newberry just slung his big arm around Sunseri’s shoulder and chuckled.
“I give him a hug every once in a while,” Newberry said. “I love Coach Sal. I love how he coaches me. He doesn’t let us take plays off. We have to go hard every time, and we’ve got to do it his way. I like that. He’ll chew me out and I’ll be like, 'Yes sir' and I try to fix it.”
Graham is not as in-your-face, but he demands excellence. That was not so easy to get adjusted to for some of the backs.
“He wants you to be great, so he has very high expectations,” James Wilder Jr. said. “It was hard getting used to it at first. He wants everything perfect.”
Fisher has described the staff transition as seamless. He has veteran coaches that share his same philosophies and players who have embraced the changes. But the questions will linger on until kickoff in Pittsburgh on Sept. 2.
Perhaps even longer.
“We’re very excited to welcome Randy on board,” coach Jimbo Fisher said in a prepared statement. “I’ve known him for a very long time. He’s been one of the best coaches in the country for a while now. He’s a tremendous running backs coach and also brings coordinator experience. He’s a great recruiter and a great person and will be a tremendous addition to our staff.
“Billy is one of the bright young coaches in the game. He’s coached some excellent tight ends. He’s a big-time recruiter who also has some coordinator experience. He has great understanding of the big picture of the game. We’re very excited to have him on staff as well.”
From the release:
Sanders comes to Florida State from the University of Kentucky where he served as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach since 2009. The Morristown, Tenn. Native has spent his entire coaching career in the SEC where he began as a volunteer assistant with the Volunteers in 1989. Sanders has served as the offensive coordinator at both Tennessee and Kentucky and has been a part of coaching staffs that have been to 21 bowl games in his coaching career, including the 1999 National Championship game at Tennessee where he served as the offensive coordinator for the Fiesta Bowl win that year.
“I am very excited to be at Florida State,” said Sanders. “I have been coaching since 1989, the same year I got married. Right around that time I had a discussion with my wife on where I would like to coach and there were four schools on my list and Florida State was one of those schools. That was one of the first things she reminded me of when the opportunity came along. I have always wanted to coach here.
“I am getting the opportunity to coach with a group of guys, for the most part, that I have known a lot of them and that I have a lot of respect for. I get to work with some of the best players in the country at a school that has some of college football’s greatest traditions. There’s not a whole lot not to like.”
Sanders joins another former offensive coordinator on Fisher’s staff with the addition of Napier. The Chatsworth, GA native spent last season as Colorado State’s Assistant Head Coach and quarterbacks coach after serving as Clemson’s offensive coordinator from 2009-10. In just one year working with the Rams’ quarterbacks, Napier helped bolster the CSU offense as the team ranked 17th in the nation in red zone scoring, cut the team’s sacks allowed by nearly four per game over the second half of the season and saw the running game improve by 65 yards per game over the second half of 2012 as well. While running the Clemson Tiger’s offense in 2009, Clemson established a school record for the most points scored in a season.
“When you get an opportunity to come to a program with the tradition and history of Florida State, you can’t pass that up,” said Napier. “Coaching for coach Fisher is really going to be a great opportunity for me to work with a great coach. The timing was right in terms of where this program is headed and it is a great opportunity. I am excited to be a part of the process of working with these players and continuing to build on the championships this group was a part of in 2012.”
Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- The progression of quarterback Chase Rettig. As a true freshman, Rettig replaced Dave Shinskie as starter against Notre Dame on Oct. 2. He’ll only get better with more experience, and there’s room for improvement, as he threw nine interceptions and six touchdowns. He completed 51.3 percent of his passes for 137.6 yards per game. Two of those picks came in the 20-13 loss to Nevada in the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl, but he’s expected to take an important step forward this offseason and will need to if BC is going to graduate from the nation’s 109th best offense.
- The offense under a new coordinator. Kevin Rogers replaced Gary Tranquill, who retired after the bowl game, and the Eagles will have to adjust to a new scheme and system, starting this spring. Rogers said he'll adapt his system to the personnel he has to work with, but considering he was hired on Monday, there hasn't been much time for him to evaluate film.
- The revamped offensive line. BC has to replace three starters up front, including left tackle Anthony Castonzo, right guard Thomas Claiborne and right tackle Rich Lapham. Emmett Cleary and center Mark Spinney are returning starters, and left guard Ian White started a few games at the end of the year. Bryan Davis, Claiborne’s backup at right guard, and John Wetzel, Castonzo’s backup, are frontrunners to earn starts.
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 9
What to watch:
- Quarterback Tajh Boyd. Prior to the arrival of two early enrollees, Boyd was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster, and his experience alone -- albeit limited -- makes it his job to lose. The staff wants him to become a little more accurate and consistent this spring. His education was accelerated at this time a year ago when former quarterback Kyle Parker spent the spring playing baseball, but that was under former offensive coordinator Billy Napier. He’s got a new coordinator -- and a new offense to learn.
- The new offensive scheme. First-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris brings an up-tempo style similar to that of Auburn’s, and the Tigers will have to learn it as quickly as he’ll want them to execute it. Morris has said Boyd is suited just right to lead it. Morris will want to stretch the field in every direction, depend on a strong running game and include long pass plays. He’s tasked with improving an offense that ranked No. 10 in the ACC in both scoring offense and total offense.
- Defense up the middle. It starts up front, where the Tigers have to replace defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins. Linebacker Brandon Maye, who played in the middle a lot, decided to transfer, and safety DeAndre McDaniel, who controlled the middle of the field in the secondary, has also graduated. The Tigers have the No. 1 inside linebacker and No. 1 outside linebacker in the country in this year’s recruiting class, but they won’t arrive until the summer. For now, Corico Hawkins returns as a starting middle linebacker, while Quandon Christian is likely to stay on the outside. Rennie Moore will replace Jenkins, but McDaniel’s spot is up for grabs.
Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Big holes on the offensive line. There’s depth, experience and incoming talent, but there are also big shoes to fill with the graduation of left guard Rodney Hudson and center Ryan McMahon. Right guard David Spurlock has been seen snapping on the sidelines at practices, indicating he could move to center, while recovering from concussions and going through rehab. McMahon’s backup was Jacob Stanley. Henry Orelus, Bryan Stork and Rhonne Sanderson all started at right guard for Spurlock when he was out. Junior college transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug, the No. 4 overall junior college prospect, could have an immediate impact at left guard.
- Backup quarterback battle. With EJ Manuel a lock as the starter, the attention turns to the No. 2 spot. Clint Trickett, a redshirt freshman and son of offensive line coach Rick Trickett, and Will Secord, a redshirt sophomore, are the top two candidates. Secord was named the most improved quarterback of the spring at this time a year ago. Neither of them have thrown a collegiate pass.
- Linebackers. The Seminoles will have to replace two starters in Kendall Smith and Mister Alexander. Nigel Bradham is the only returning starter. This spring will feature competition among Christian Jones, Telvin Smith, Vince Williams and Jeff Luc. It’s a more talented crop waiting in the wings, but inexperience is a factor. It’s a chance for Luc and Jones -- two of FSU’s top recruits in the 2010 class -- to remind everyone why they were rated the No. 1 inside linebacker and No. 2 outside linebacker, respectively, in the country.
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- New staff, new schemes. First-year coach Randy Edsall wants to be multiple, get vertical and take advantage of quarterback Danny O’Brien’s strengths. The departure of former defensive coordinator Don Brown to Connecticut was a surprise and a blow to the defense, which will now have to make a transition under a new coordinator who has yet to be hired.
- Competition at linebacker. Two starters have to be replaced in Alex Wujciak and Adrian Moten, who were also both leaders of the defense. Demetrius Hartsfield returns as a starter, but the new staff will have to figure out who else fits into what slots. Ben Pooler has had knee trouble, but he is expected to compete with Darin Drakeford and Ryan Donohue, who were both No. 2 at their respective positions in 2010.
- Special teams. Not only did the Terps lose a four-year starter in punter/placekicker Travis Baltz, they also have to replace their top kick returner and conference leader in all-purpose yards in receiver Torrey Smith, who left early for the NFL. Nick Ferrara handled kickoffs last year and was No. 2 behind Baltz at both kicker and punter, but he’s a placekicker first, and has to get back on track with consistency. He’ll be the only scholarship kicker on the roster until incoming freshman Nathaniel Renfro joins the team this summer. Dexter McDougle has returned kickoffs in the past, and Trenton Hughes is another option, but with a new staff, it could be a clean slate.
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Mike Glennon. The team is moving forward as if starter Russell Wilson won’t return, promoting Glennon to No. 1 on the depth chart. The offense will have a new look, as the plays will be suited to Glennon’s strengths. At 6-foot-7, he’s much taller than Wilson, a more prototypical drop-back passer with a strong arm. While the plays might look different to the fans, they’re the same ones Glennon has been practicing since the day he arrived on campus. He’s a smart, unflappable player scheduled to graduate this May, but we haven’t seen enough of him to know just how good he is.
- A new crop of receivers. NC State will have to replace three seniors in Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams and Darrell Davis. Spencer and Williams led the Pack in receiving last year, combining for nine touchdowns and over 1,600 yards. NC State will turn to Jay Smith, who had 10 catches in 12 games, Steven Howard, Quintin Payton, and T.J. Graham, who had four touchdowns and played in all 13 games. Payton played a little more toward the end of the year, and he’s a tall, big target (about 6-foot-4) and comparable to Williams. Bryan Underwood, who redshirted last year, could also contribute.
- Running back competition. James Washington had taken over the starting job at the end of 2010, but he’ll be pushed this spring by Dean Haynes and Mustafa Greene, who led the team in rushing in 2010 as a true freshman. They’ll also be under the direction of a new assistant coach, as Jason Swepson is now the head coach at Elon. It will be the first time Greene has been in a spring practice, and Washington, who was hurt last year, is finally healthy.
Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Progress of quarterback Tanner Price. The maturation of Price, who started nine games as a true freshman last year, will be crucial to the Deacs’ hopes of returning to the postseason. Price was forced to play earlier than expected and finished with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He completed 56.8 percent of his passes for 1,349 yards.
- A defense in transition. Coach Jim Grobe has said the staff is committed to making the transition to a 3-4 defense. The Deacons used that scheme to defend the triple option against Georgia Tech and Navy, and continued to experiment with it as the season progressed. This linebackers in this year’s recruiting class were brought in specifically with the 3-4 defense in mind.
- Redshirt offensive linemen. There were three true freshmen who redshirted last year who are expected to give four returning starters some legitimate competition -- Colin Summers, Dylan Heartsill and Daniel Blitch. The Deacs will also have to replace starting center Russell Nenon. Chance Raines was his backup last year.
“I appreciate the hard work and dedication coach Napier and coach Powell put forth for this program,” Swinney said in a prepared statement. “They have had a positive impact on the lives of many young men in the Clemson program and I will do whatever I can to help both of them as they advance in their respective careers. They have always represented this program well.
“This was a difficult decision, one that was not made hastily. But, we must make significant improvement on the offensive side of the ball. I have to do what I believe is best for the program going forward, and make sure we don’t experience another season like the one we just had.”
Napier released the following statement:
“It is unfortunate that my time at Clemson has come to an end under these circumstances. I want to thank Coach Tommy Bowden and Coach Dabo Swinney for the opportunity they gave me to work at Clemson. I was blessed and am thankful for the interaction I had with so many great people.
“Clemson University is truly a special place. My wife Ali and I are thankful for our time here. I wish the current coaching staff, the support staff, the athletic administration and most of all the Clemson players the best of luck in the future.”
One more ... Clemson had four third-down conversions in the first half. The Tigers had just four in the first two games combined entering tonight.
“For us, we thought that was a little weird, maybe a little unconventional at first,” said guard Thomas Austin. “But every day since then we’ve seen that sign. You start believing in yourself as a team. That’s one thing I respect about coach Swinney -- when we were 2-3, people were calling for his job, our coordinator’s, all that stuff, we didn’t pay attention to that. We banded together as a team. We could’ve done two things -- we could’ve given up, or we could continue to work hard. We continued to work hard. The players took ownership of what was going on.”
Following the loss to Maryland, Clemson reeled off six straight wins to earn a trip to Tampa this weekend, where it will face Georgia Tech for a chance at the program’s first ACC title since 1991.
After last weekend’s loss to rival South Carolina, the Tigers will have to finish the season in similar fashion to how they started it, though -- rebounding from a loss.
“Win or lose, the following week he's going to continue to preach to them about believing and never giving up,” Spiller said, “and that's the thing that I love about him.”
Clemson has now lost two straight regular-season games to Georgia Tech under Swinney. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a lack of confidence heading into Saturday’s title game.
“He got us more focused,” safety DeAndre McDaniel said of Swinney. “He got us bonding better as a team. I mean, we're practicing faster, a lot harder, and he's just a great coach. He speaks to us positively, and he's just keeping our head where we're supposed to be at. I don't think too many coaches is better than him at that.”
It’s a glowing endorsement for a man who had never been a coordinator before, let alone a head coach. The former receivers coach had just five days last year to regroup the team after Bowden’s midseason departure and prepare for a 5-1 Georgia Tech team. Clemson lost 21-17 to the Jackets in that game, but Swinney finished with a 4-3 record as interim head coach.
“The biggest thing is a lot of people relate to him,” said Parker. “He does a good job of making the players feel like he really cares about them, and in return we care about him. The biggest thing is he makes everyone feel included, and we’ll go out and play for him, and that shows on the field.”
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier said Swinney has had a trickle-down effect.
“The biggest thing that stands out to me, if you really look in his background, the guy has overcome a lot,” Napier said. “His attitude and his approach day in and day out is a very positive guy who has had to be very resilient in the past. So his leadership qualities and his ability to never give up and constantly believe that good things are coming -- I think it’s rubbed off on this team. Their play reflects his attitude.”
And that has been Swinney’s goal since the first day of spring practice.
“You know, I'm thankful for these players because somewhere along the line they've bought in, and they did believe,” Swinney said. “And when we were a 2-3 football team looking at a six-game stretch where we had to win to have a chance to win our division, I'm thankful that they chose to keep believing and not listen to so many other things.”
Swinney, though, got them to listen to him.
The ACC is not so hard to figure out this year. Clemson and Georgia Tech are the two best teams in the conference, and will meet again in the Dec. 5 ACC championship game. The Tigers clinched the Atlantic Division when Boston College lost to North Carolina, but they made sure there weren’t any doubts about it by defeating Virginia in their home season finale, 34-21. This refreshing matchup will give the ACC championship game a much-needed boost in both interest and attendance.
Duke will have to wait another year to try for a bowl. The Blue Devils still have a chance at a six-win season when they finish with Wake Forest on Saturday, but because NC Central is a provisional FCS team, Duke needed seven wins to become bowl eligible this season. That slipped away in the fourth quarter against Miami on Saturday, when Duke relinquished its lead and was outscored 21-0. It’s still a successful season for Duke, which earned one more win than it did a year ago, but it’s not the finish it was aiming for.
BC’s offense hasn’t made enough progress against better defenses. It’s not as if the Eagles haven’t faced tenacious defenses this season. They played Clemson and Virginia Tech before hosting North Carolina on Saturday. But BC lost all three of those games, never scoring more than 14 points in the process. We knew the Eagles had issues when they left Death Valley with just 54 yards of total offense in September, but the turnovers have only gotten worse. BC has racked up 13 turnovers in those three losses, and this time, the home-field advantage didn’t help.
Florida State isn’t ready for Florida. OK, so most of us realized this long before the Noles were almost embarrassed at home on Senior Day by a two-win Maryland team using its backup quarterback, but it’s a question I get asked every week since Florida State won four of its past five games and became bowl eligible. The gap between Florida State and Florida is as big as it is in the rankings right now. Backup FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel looked good in the win at Wake Forest, but he reminded us on Saturday with three interceptions that he’s still a rookie, and Florida’s defense will humble him in the Swamp.
It’s time to give Dabo Swinney some credit. After his quick promotion from receivers coach to head coach, many questioned whether Swinney was the right man for the job. After a 2-3 start to the season, those doubts grew louder. As far as job descriptions go, though, Swinney has accomplished one major task his predecessor did not: earning the school’s first trip to the ACC championship game. He made a good hire in first-year offensive coordinator Billy Napier, another move that was questioned this offseason, and he made one of the best hires of the offseason in defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. This staff has gotten better as the season progressed, and in turn has made the players better. For that, it’s time they get some credit.
But Parker is one of just two freshmen quarterbacks in the ACC in his first season as a full-time starter, and he has matured quickly enough to put the Tigers in contention to win the Atlantic Division in Saturday’s home finale against Virginia. By the end of October, Parker had faced three of the country’s top 15 teams, and his impressive performance in a 40-37 overtime win at then-No. 10 Miami was only the start of his measurable improvement.
The difference now, Parker said, is that he knows what to expect.
“Whenever you go out there and play a couple of games, you kind of have a feel, and kind of know the speed of the game,” said Parker, who has made 25 throws of at least 20 yards this year, and leads the Tigers in total offense with 192.1 yards per game. “You get used to seeing more looks from defenses, and that’s the biggest thing I’m more comfortable with.
“When I first went out there against Middle Tennessee State, I really didn’t know what was going on. I was just trying to figure it out along the way.”
He figured it out quickly enough to have a record-setting season.
When Clemson beat Miami, Parker became the first freshman quarterback to lead Clemson to a win over a top-10 team.
He broke three more records and tied another in the win over Florida State. Parker set the record for most wins in a season by a freshman quarterback. He now has seven, breaking the previous mark of five set by Rodney Williams in 1985. He also broke Charlie Whitehurst’s record for 10 touchdown passes in a season by a freshman with 16.
“The biggest thing with Kyle is he’s just grown in his understanding of how to prepare to be a winning quarterback at this level, and what you have to do on a weekly basis,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “He figured out early on, ‘You know what? I’m going to have to pay a little bit more attention to detail, get a little more focused, put a little more time into the film and study.’ Kyle’s kind of a cool customer, but he has really grown from a preparation standpoint.
“... Now he’s had some success and he’s had a lot of critical plays throughout the season. He’s really developed as a leader. These guys have a lot of confidence in Kyle. He’s earned that respect. These guys believe in him. They feel like they’ve got a chance with him to win every time they step on the field. Kyle has taken advantage of that and asserted himself as a leader. It’s been really good to see him grow in that regard.”
Parker enters Saturday’s game against Virginia averaging 184.8 passing yards per game, and has completed 54.1 percent of his passes (146-of-270) for 1,848 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“His launch point, where he’s got the ball loaded, has become more and more consistent,” offensive coordinator Billy Napier said. “That’s led to a more consistent motion. I think he has an uncanny release -- a really quick release. His arm strength is way up there. I think he’s worked real hard on his upper body mechanics, his posture, keeping his front shoulder down and open, and really stressing moving in the pocket with two hands on the ball, managing the pocket. That’s one of the things he’s really good at despite being -- he’d say 6-foot.”
Parker has also benefited from the improvement of players around him, namely the offensive line. None of the Tigers, though, allowed their 2-3 start to keep them down.
“The biggest thing is we didn’t quit,” Parker said. “There was a lot of negativity going around, and we didn’t give into that. We just kept playing hard and stayed confident and realized we could be a good team as long as we kept working hard and preparing.”
And on Saturday, it could pay off with the program’s first guaranteed appearance in the ACC title game.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- It was a fleeting thought that lasted approximately “a few hours.” That’s how long Clemson receiver Xavier Dye quit the team earlier this season.
It lasted until coach Dabo Swinney sat Dye down in his office and told him he needed to work harder, not walk away. The result was a hungrier Dye who has since added something to Clemson’s offense -- including a 43-yard touchdown reception in the Tigers’ 40-24 win over the Seminoles on Saturday -- instead of taking a piece way.
“I put a lot of hard work into this program, and they’ve been good to me,” Dye said. “I couldn’t just walk out and leave all the guys I’ve been working with, bleeding with and all that stuff. I was able to stick around, man-up, keep working hard and help the team out as much as I can.”
He’s not the only one.
Dye is a small example of the big picture here at Clemson. Unlike recent teams of the Tommy Bowden era, this team does not quit under Swinney. It didn’t fold after a 1-2 start in conference play that included an embarrassing loss to now last-place Maryland, and it didn’t concede anything to Florida State despite trailing 17-6 in the first quarter. Clemson fans have been conditioned to expect impending doom, but with each win over the past three weeks, the Tigers have taken steps to convince doubters they’re capable of more this year. The reward -- a trip to the ACC championship game in Tampa -- is now just two wins away. Clemson needs only to beat NC State and Virginia -- two teams that have combined for three conference wins -- in order to win the division.
|Sam Sharpe/US Presswire|
|Clemson's C.J. Spiller rolled up a school-record 312 all-purpose yards.|
“It’s a new group of coaches, it’s a new message,” said offensive coordinator Billy Napier, whose group has now scored at least 38 points in four straight games for the first time in the history of the program. “We recognize the fact that our preparation is going to impact how we play on Saturdays. It’s a new Clemson. It’s an overhaul. The message is different, and our players more than anything see the opportunity that’s been there in the past. They believe in the message that’s being given to them every week.”
It was the program’s biggest step towards winning the Atlantic Division, and it’s been a long time coming for a program in search of its first ACC title since 1991.
“Our fans deserve this win, our players deserve this win, and the administration deserves this win,” said Swinney. “Championship teams find a way to win games, and that’s what we’ve been teaching these guys. And they found a win to win, despite many obstacles. That team rose up in the fourth quarter and refused to lose.”
Not that they didn’t try a few times.
The Tigers missed three extra points and two field goals. They scored four times in seven trips to the red zone. And they had two turnovers and seven penalties.
At halftime, with his team trailing, 17-14, Swinney asked his players, “Why the long faces?” He reminded them they had an entire half yet to play, and they responded to him.
C.J. Spiller looked Heisman worthy as he finished with a school-record 312 all-purpose yards, and the defense came up with four interceptions for 82 yards. The Tigers finished with a season-high 483 yards of total offense, and quarterback Kyle Parker tied a single-game freshman record with four touchdown passes.
“We did take a big step today,” said wide receiver Jacoby Ford said. “It just feels good to get over that hump. It’s something we haven’t been able to do the past few years. This is a team that really wanted it. We knew what was at hand. We just wanted to go out there and play to the best of our abilities and get the job done.
“It’s definitely not over until it’s over,” he said. “Our goal is to get to Tampa. We haven’t punched our ticket yet.”
This year, though, there seems to be less concern about the Tigers losing that ticket.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Florida State did a decent job in the first half of containing C.J. Spiller, but good luck finding a defense that can do it for four quarters -- especially one as troubled as Florida State's.
Kyle Parker found Spiller down the sideline for a 58-yard touchdown reception that put the Tigers ahead 21-17. Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier and coach Dabo Swinney promised this past summer they would get the ball to their playmakers this year, and they've delivered. Spiller and Jacoby Ford are the keys to this offense, and they're making use of both of those guys for big gains today.
Spiller is already in my top five Heisman list. The only question still hanging out there is how high he should be on it, and right now, he's stating his case to move up. The Tigers have to hang onto this lead for that to happen, though.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich
Raise your hand if you predicted William & Mary to beat Virginia last weekend. Mmhm. That’s what I thought. With the exception of the two FCS losses, and the losses to Baylor and South Carolina, I survived the first round of picks last weekend, correctly calling seven of 11 games. Let’s see if I can fare better this week:
Georgia Tech 21, Clemson 17: Both teams only had four days to prepare for this game, so each should have their share of moments, both good and bad. But the Yellow Jackets have more answers on offense right now, Paul Johnson has been calling plays much longer than Billy Napier and home-field advantage means something.
North Carolina 28, Connecticut 24: This is the pick I’m least sure of, but this is where I think UNC’s stellar defense will make the difference. UConn is 1-13 against ranked opponents, and quarterback Zach Frazer has struggled with the turnovers. Keep an eye on UConn defensive end Lindsey Witten, a veteran pass-rusher who will be making his way to T.J. Yates.
Army 21, Duke 20: Army will control the clock for most of the game with its triple option, and Duke’s miscues on special teams and its inability to run the football will be exposed. Army is trying to start 2-0 for the first time since the 1996, and first-year coach Rich Ellerson has implemented new offensive and defensive schemes that have those within the program believing they can win.
Virginia Tech 42, Marshall 7: The Hokies have won their home opener in 20 of 22 tries under coach Frank Beamer. Virginia Tech has won 30 straight nonconference home games and is 4-0 against Marshall at home. This is a perfect chance for the Hokies to regroup from their loss to Alabama.
Boston College 31, Kent State 10: If they did it last week, there’s no reason the Eagles can’t do it again and start off 2-0. It will help to have starting right tackle Rich Lapham back, as he missed last weekend’s game against Northeastern with an injury. That makes four of five starters back up front from a year ago, and the Eagles’ offensive line has an average height of 6-foot-6 and they weigh an average of 306 pounds -- a total of 1,530 pounds.
TCU 28, Virginia 10: This one could be embarrassing. No. 17-ranked TCU has earned its spot in college football’s national picture under respected coach Gary Patterson, as the Horned Frogs are 11-3 in their past 14 games against teams from leagues with automatic BCS bids. For Virginia’s offense to struggle the way it did against William & Mary doesn’t bode well against a team that has not allowed a touchdown in each of its past two season openers.
Florida State 41, Jacksonville State 14: Even with former LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux back in the lineup, the Noles should overwhelm Jacksonville State with their speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball. As long as FSU put the Miami game behind it, there should be no reason for an upset watch here.
Maryland 21, James Madison 17: This game, however, might be a different story. The Terps took the loss to Cal hard, and JMU is well-coached. The Dukes, ranked No. 6 in the FCS preseason poll, have yet to play a game and return 11 starters from a team that finished 12-2 last year and won the CAA with an 8-0 record. This one is worth keeping an eye on.
NC State 28, Murray State 3: This is a chance for the Wolfpack to correct their mistakes on offense and fine-tune the defense, though the Racers scored in seven different ways last week against Kentucky Wesleyan, including setting a new school record with two safeties in the first half. Still, Murray State was a 5-7 team in the Ohio Valley Conference last year, so there should be no excuses.
Wake Forest 21, Stanford 20: Jim Grobe said Stanford is an even better team than Baylor, but the Demon Deacons know their four turnovers contributed to their loss last weekend. If the Deacs cut down on their mistakes and don’t give up as many big plays on defense, they should be able to rebound.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich
Not a lot of these guys have national reputations, but somebody has to lure in the players to win these games. Here’s a quick look at the top closers in the ACC:
1. Randy Shannon, Miami: His resume speaks for itself when it comes to recruiting, as the Canes have brought in some of the country’s top talent under his direction, and he doesn’t have to leave his area code to get it. He does have to beat the likes of Florida, Florida State and dozens of other top programs who raid the state to get it, though.
2. Jimbo Fisher/Bobby Bowden, FSU: The head-coach-in waiting has an advantage over everyone else in that he’s essentially a head coach who can recruit when others can’t. He’s done a great job of building for the future and has become more proactive. Bowden is one of the few coaches in the ACC who have developed a national reputation as a closer. He's made a name for himself for getting those top-notch players at the last minute.
3. Billy Napier, offensive coordinator, Clemson: Napier used to be the recruiting coordinator before he assumed the play-calling duties, but he’s a major reason the Tigers have lured in the kind of talent capable of contending for the ACC title.
4. Butch Davis/John Blake, UNC: They're a tandem when it comes to recruiting, and they've already made a difference since arriving in Chapel Hill. In 2009 they brought in the No. 13-ranked class by ESPN.com, and within a week after he was hired, Davis brought in a player named Quan Sturdivant, and Marvin Austin committed on signing day.
TIE: 5. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest/Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech: The Deacs have started a pipeline into the talent-rich state of Florida, and hit the heart of it in Pahokee. Recruiting coordinator Ray McCartney and the staff have done a great job of finding smart players with good character who can still win. Beamer and his staff evaluate the same way Tommy Tuberville did at Auburn. Some are great players, but most are good players whom they develop into great players.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Each team has one area, one phase of the game, one position group -- something -- that will help determine how its season unfolds. Here's a look at the keys to the season for each team in the ACC:
BOSTON COLLEGE -- The Eagles need to find a dependable leader at quarterback, somebody capable of managing the game without losing it for them. The rest of the pieces are in place on offense for the Eagles to have a respectable season, but they need to find their identity.
CLEMSON -- Considering much of the same talent returns from the team that received so much hype a year ago, it's up to the new staff to do what their predecessors couldn't, and contend for the Atlantic Division title. How first-year offensive coordinator Billy Napier and coach Dabo Swinney fare on the sidelines will be key.
DUKE -- Pave the way for quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and Re'quan Boyette. The Blue Devils have two standout players on offense, but they need the supporting cast. It should be a receiver-by-committee effort to replace Eron Riley, and if three new starters on the offensive line can give Lewis and Boyette the timing they need, the Blue Devils should surprise some people.
FLORIDA STATE -- The offensive line should be the best in the conference and could be one of the best in the country, even though there's still not a senior in the lineup. With so many questions on defense, this unit will be the anchor and help the offense ease the burden of a defense in transition.
GEORGIA TECH -- If the Jackets make a seamless transition on the defensive line, where they lost three NFL-bound starters, there's no reason Georgia Tech shouldn't be atop the Coastal Division standings again. With 19 starters returning, the only pieces that are missing are up front.
MARYLAND -- The Terps will fare as well as their offensive line, and it's a group that has 27 career starts up front. They lost five of their top seven linemen from a year ago, and the success of veteran quarterback Chris Turner and running back Da'Rel Scott will hinge upon the blocking and protection they get up front.
MIAMI -- Starting off strong and keeping Jacory Harris unscathed in the process will keep the Canes in the running to win the Coastal Division. Following the transfer of both backup quarterbacks, Miami can't afford to lose Harris, nor can it afford to lose its first four games.
NORTH CAROLINA -- Finding receivers and a cohesiveness on the offensive line would make Carolina a complete team. The Heels have a championship-caliber defense to work with, but replacing their top four receivers from a year ago could take some time.
NC STATE -- Staying healthy has been one of the Pack's biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, and before the season even started they lost their best player in linebacker Nate Irving. Cornerback DeAndre Morgan will miss the opener with an ankle injury. NC State is a better football team, but nobody will know it if key players continue to go down.
VIRGINIA -- Find playmakers, starting with the old Mikell Simpson. It's cliche, yes, but the Cavaliers lost their top five pass catchers from a year ago, their leading rusher and their top three linebackers. Gregg Brandon's spread offense will only be as effective as the players who execute it, and if Simpson returns to his 2007 form, he could be an X factor for this team.
VIRGINIA TECH -- Keeping Tyrod Taylor healthy is the only way the Hokies will challenge for their fourth ACC title since joining the conference. None of his backups have any collegiate experience, and Taylor's backups were needed a year ago. While some fans might not exactly miss Sean Glennon, he did win them an ACC title.
WAKE FOREST -- Find stability on defense. The Deacs can survive without the likes of Alphonso Smith and Aaron Curry because they've still got solid veteran players. If everyone knows their role, plays assignment football and doesn't try to do too much, Wake will win with a group effort.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It's never too early to start making bowl predictions (or, in the ACC case it's never too late, as 11 teams were still bowl eligible in 2008 right up until the final week of the season). Today the bloggers are breaking down each team's chance to be bowl-bound, and the categories are "count on it," "possibly," and "forget about it." Will the ACC manage to get 10 teams bowl eligible again? Possibly. Take a look:
Bowl bound? Possibly.
Best case: Dave Shinskie looks like Chris Weinke, the entire team rallies around the absence and inspiration of linebacker Mark Herzlich, and once again the Eagles prove the doubters wrong.
Worst case: Dave Shinskie's fastball is better than his spiral, the defense fails to plug the holes at linebacker and up front, and the Eagles struggle to get more than four wins in a transition year.
Prediction: At-large bowl
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: The offensive line paves the way for a 1,000-yard rusher and protects the new quarterback for a 1,000-yard receiver, and the Tigers shine when there are no expectations en route to the Atlantic Division title.
Worst case: Quarterbacks Kyle Parker and Willy Korn never quite get into a rhythm because they're sharing time, the offensive line isn't quite as good as people think it will be, and Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Billy Napier are outcoached en route to a mediocre season.
Prediction: Meineke Car Care Bowl
Bowl bound? Forget about it.
Best case: Smart coaching plus the talent of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and veteran tailback Re'quan Boyette earn the Blue Devils two conference upsets and they surprise Kansas on the road for a perfect nonconference slate.
Worst case: Duke's defense looks like it did against Georgia Tech last year, no receivers step up to replace Eron Riley, the offense line can't protect their little sisters, and the Blue Devils remain status quo from 2008.
Prediction: Christmas in Durham.
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: Florida State wins its appeal against the NCAA, the Noles find more talent at receiver than anyone knew they had, and the defense reloads as the program skyrockets back into the national picture with an ACC title.
Worst case: Florida State loses its appeal, and Bobby Bowden announces his retirement after a subpar season in which off-field distractions kept the Noles out of the hunt for the Atlantic Division.
Prediction: Chick-fil-A Bowl
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: Jonathan Dwyer wins the Heisman Trophy, the defensive line somehow finds a way to be even better than it was last year, and a home win over Georgia pales in comparison to an Orange Bowl win.
Worst case: The Jackets lose by a painful three points to Virginia Tech, lose in overtime to UNC, and Georgia studies the LSU film well enough to make it look like a regular-season rerun of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Prediction: Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl
Bowl bound? Possibly.
Best case: The offensive line lives up to last year's expectations, Chris Turner is as steady as a metronome, and Don Brown's defense has ACC opponents' heads spinning for a nine-win season.
Worst case: The offensive line looks like Clemson's did last year, Turner throws four picks against Middle Tennessee at home, and Maryland's front seven allows Darren Evans another career day.
Prediction: Eagle Bank Bowl
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: The Canes shock the country with a 4-0 start, Jacory Harris and Mark Whipple are hailed as the saviors of the offense, and Miami skyrockets into the top 10 ranking with an unforgettable upset of Oklahoma.
Worst case: Randy Shannon starts polishing his résumé after an 0-4 start.
Prediction: Champs Sports Bowl
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: Quarterback T.J. Yates survives the entire season without so much as a scratch, the young receivers find a rhythm with him just in time for a road trip to Georgia Tech, and the Tar Heels knock off Miami and Virginia Tech to win the Coastal Division title.
Worst case: Yates goes down against Connecticut, and the Tar Heels are forced to muddle through six weeks without a proven backup.
Prediction: Emerald Bowl
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: The Pack starts off strong instead of making a desperate push at the end, the defense welcomes back linebacker Nate Irving, and quarterback Russell Wilson scurries his way to the Atlantic Division title.
Worst case: The Pack starts off 2-2 and the defense can't get the pieces together in the secondary or at linebacker, and NC State is forced to win its final five games to become bowl eligible.
Prediction: Konica Minolta Gator Bowl
Bowl bound? Forget about it.
Best case: Gregg Brandon's offense looks like Urban Meyer's, Mikell Simpson looks like he did in 2007, and the linebackers make a seamless transition en rout
e to helping Al Groh looking like a coaching genius in a year of serious transition.
Worst case: 2009 looks exactly like 2008, with embarrassing nonconference losses, three points against Duke, and a four-game losing streak to end a second straight bowless season.
Prediction: Home for the holidays.
Bowl bound? Count on it.
Best case: The Hokies' offense comes alive under for the first time in four seasons, and Virginia Tech sets the tone for a national championship with a win over Alabama.
Worst case: For the fourth straight year, the Hokies are ranked 99th or worse in total offense, the Alabama game resembles last year's Clemson debacle, and Georgia Tech gets the nod in the Coastal Division race.
Prediction: FedEx Orange Bowl
Bowl bound? Possibly
Best case: Behind an improved offensive line, quarterback Riley Skinner and a trio of talented running backs carry the team while the defense finds new playmakers, and the Demon Deacons knock off Florida State (again) for a surprise run at the Atlantic Division.
Worst case: The Demon Deacons bookend the season with losses to Baylor and Duke, and struggle to replace the NFL-caliber talent that departed on defense in between.
Prediction: GMAC Bowl
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Since we're in the middle of ACC spring meetings, why not start there ...
The topic of conference realignment isn't on the agenda for the ACC spring meetings, but that hasn't stopped one Florida State booster from pushing the idea.
Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver said he would like to see the ACC title game in Charlotte because it's "too hard for people to get to Florida for a weekend game." Unless, of course, those fans are already in Florida.
On Monday, Tony Barnhart looked at the Atlantic Division. Today he reviews the Coastal Division.
And one leftover for you ... Clemson's two new coordinators have a passion for recruiting, and more coordinators are getting involved in the process. Billy Napier would like to be out even more.