NCF Nation: C.J. Spiller

MIAMI -- With under 30 minutes until kickoff here, there are still a lot of empty seats, even in the lower bowl area. It's a sparse crowd, but the majority of fans here are Clemson's.

There are no lineup changes, no suspensions and no surprises on the Clemson depth chart tonight. The team is as healthy as it's been since early in the season. The only difference in tonight's game routine is that former running back C.J. Spiller sat next to coach Dabo Swinney on the bus ride to the stadium. In 2009, Spiller racked up more than 300 all-purpose yards here against Miami. We'll see if he can inspire another similar performance. The biggest question is how Clemson will look after a month off. We've seen two sides of this team -- the one that faltered down the stretch, and the one that beat Virginia Tech soundly in the ACC championship game. If Clemson can pick up where it left off, the Tigers could be Orange Bowl champs.

Clemson to retire No. 28 on Saturday

October, 10, 2010
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Clemson will retire No. 28 from its football roster in honor of C.J. Spiller during halftime against Maryland on Saturday, the school announced on Sunday.

Spiller, the ninth overall selection of the NFL draft, now plays for the Buffalo Bills, and since they're off this weekend, he'll be able to attend the ceremony and lead the team through its "Tiger Walk" on Saturday.

Spiller will be just the third Clemson football player to have his number retired. He joins Steve Fuller, who wore No. 4 (1975-78), and Banks McFadden, who wore No. 66 (1937-39).

Clemson looking to unleash 'New Storm'

September, 15, 2010
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Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t hesitate when asked recently if running backs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper were talented enough to be the program’s next “Thunder and Lightening” duo, following in the footsteps of former players C.J. Spiller and James Davis.

“Absolutely,” Swinney said. “No doubt.”

[+] EnlargeEllington
AP Photo/Richard ShiroAndre Ellington averaged 10.2 yards per carry in the season-opening win over North Texas.
Technically, though, Ellington and Harper refer to themselves as “the New Storm.”

But they still have to prove it, starting Saturday at Auburn.

“They have not really been challenged yet against an opponent that’s hit them for 60 minutes,” Swinney said. “Being able to sustain throughout the game, the physical play that we want, that’s the thing I’m looking for from them. … They’re going to have to prove their salt with durability.”

They’ll get their chance on Saturday, when Clemson will face a rushing defense that has allowed just 80 yards per game in two wins. In the 35-10 season-opening win over North Texas, Clemson averaged a whopping 9.8 yards per rush. On the first offensive play, Ellington took off for a 60-yard touchdown run. It took him 16 seconds into the season to score. Spiller scored 14 seconds into the 2009 season with a kickoff return against Middle Tennessee.

Clemson’s win over the Mean Green marked the first time since the 2007 Maryland game that Clemson had a pair of 100-yard rushers in the same game. That year, Davis had 129 and Spiller had 106 in the win over the Terps. Against North Texas, Ellington had 12 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns while Harper had nine carries for 101 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Ellington said he and Harper, who both averaged over 10 yards per carry in the season opener, have already earned the title of Clemson’s next great duo, “just by all of the hard work we put in.”

[+] EnlargeHarper
Jim Brown/US PresswireJamie Harper knows his workload will increase as Clemson's schedule gets more difficult.
“We’ve got more composure now, we’re more confident,” he said. “We know a lot more about what we’re doing out there, as opposed to watching another guy perform and then go off of what he’s doing. We’re in the driver’s seat, I guess you could say.”

They’re going to have to be, as both of their snaps will increase along with the competition. They both played sparingly against Presbyterian, with just 14 combined snaps. Swinney said their strength isn’t a question. Ellington is about 192 pounds, and Harper is up to 234 pounds after adding about eight pounds of lean muscle mass this summer.

“We’re asking a lot more out of their role, and to this point, they just have not played the amount of snaps they’re going to have to play,” Swinney said. “That’s the one thing I’m anxious to see -- can they sustain it all the way for four quarters or however long it takes to finish the game.”

Harper and Ellington now have 1,286 combined yards in 209 attempts for their careers, a 6.15 average. Davis and Spiller had 7,428 combined rushing yards in 1359 combined attempts for a 5.47 average.

Harper said he and Ellington can keep it up.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We just have to go out there and show [Swinney] along with the rest of the world. We’re definitely the next top tandem. C.J. and James Davis, they did a terrific job of setting the stage as far as tandems of running backs, especially at Clemson, and we’re just following those guys and trying to make ourselves be known just as well as they were.”

If they do, it could be the perfect storm for the Tigers’ offense.

ACC: What we learned in Week 1

September, 5, 2010
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Week 1 lessons have to be taken with a grain of salt, as scores against unheralded opponents can often be misleading. Taking these games at face value, here are a few things revealed in the ACC after this weekend.

New coaches made a difference. Mike London led Virginia to its first season-opening win since 2005, and he did it against his former team and alma mater, Richmond. The Spiders are a championship program to be respected (just ask Duke, which lost to Richmond last year), and was the biggest threat at an upset, but the Cavaliers ran the ball effectively and got what they needed despite scheme overhauls on both offense and defense. In Tallahassee, first-year coach Jimbo Fisher had his offense running with precision in a commanding route of Samford. He left no doubt who was the better team, unlike last year when the Seminoles escaped with a win over Jacksonville State. The Noles looked focused and prepared and ready to make a statement.

[+] EnlargeMark Herzlich
Elsa/Getty ImagesBoston College linebacker Mark Herzlich made his return to the field on Saturday.
North Carolina won’t back down. There were many reasons North Carolina could’ve folded against LSU -- including its 30-10 deficit heading into the fourth quarter, but the Tar Heels rallied together and with six seconds still remaining had a chance to win. There were young players and walk-ons seeing their first collegiate snaps, but there was enough leadership to keep the team together -- and in the game.

BC linebacker Mark Herzlich is back. It was one of the most anticipated comebacks of the season, but in the weeks preceding the Eagles’ opener against Weber State, it was in doubt because of a stress fracture in his foot. Herzlich delivered, though, and he was in good enough shape to deliver a few hits, too, as he was in on five tackles.

The ACC avoided embarrassment. There were no losses to FCS teams, and no implosion in Atlanta -- two scenarios the ACC has encountered in recent years. Last year, Virginia lost to William & Mary at home, and two years ago Clemson was embarrassed by Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. This year, the ACC started out 9-1 with the only loss to LSU, the toughest competition of the weekend. Two games remain -- against Boise State and Navy -- but both are respectable bowl opponents.

There’s life after C.J. Spiller. Clemson running backs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper proved the Tigers’ offense can function without their former star. Each of them scored twice against North Texas, and both surpassed the 100-yard mark. It was the first time Clemson has had two players top 100 rushing yards in a game since James Davis and Spiller accomplished it against Maryland in 2007.

Why to watch in 2010

May, 6, 2010
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Congratulations, ACC fans. You came out in droves this spring to watch what amounted to intrasquad scrimmages, leading me to believe there will be a heightened interest in ACC football this fall. (And no, we’re not using Alabama as the standard here.)

Four programs –- Clemson Tigers (27,000), North Carolina Tar Heels (29,500), Florida State Seminoles (51,300) and Virginia Tech Hokies (41,000) –- each set attendance records at their respective spring games this year. The Miami Hurricanes had a sellout crowd of 10,000 at Traz Powell Stadium, which is about normal because of the smaller venue, and the North Carolina State Wolfpack had 25,372.

There are reasons to be excited about ACC football this year, but here are my top five:

1. BCS contenders. Virginia Tech has already been deemed a top-10 preseason team. Georgia Tech is coming off an Orange Bowl appearance. Miami came close to a BCS bid last year. All three teams finished 2009 among the top 15 in the BCS standings. Florida State could represent in the Orange Bowl with an ACC title, but so could more than half the league.

2. Heisman hopefuls. Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams and FSU quarterback Christian Ponder are the first two names that come to mind. Don’t forget, though, that Jacory Harris’ name entered the conversation last September after the Canes’ hot start, and fans can (and will) argue the legitimacy of Josh Nesbitt as a contender.

3. Beefed up schedules. Based on opponents’ overall records from 2009, ACC teams will face the most difficult schedules in the nation this fall. ACC opponents compiled a winning percentage of .604, making the ACC the only league where its opponents won at least 60 percent of their games. And they’re not all creampuffs. Ohio State, Pitt, Alabama, LSU, Boise State, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia and BYU are all on the list.

4. Championship changes. Bring on Charlotte! Last year’s matchup between Clemson and Georgia Tech was a step in the right direction. It was one of the best games of the conference season. Now that the game will be moved to what the folks in Greensboro refer to as the “geographical footprint” of the ACC, the overall atmosphere and attendance is expected to improve.

5. Coaching. There are subplots at almost every school, whether it’s a new coordinator, new head coach, or current coach starting to feel some heat. Will this be Ralph Friedgen’s last year? Not if he has anything to say about it. What can Dabo Swinney do without C.J. Spiller? How quickly can first-year defensive coordinator Mark Stoops improve FSU’s floundering defense? What can John Shoop do to catch the UNC offense up to the Tar Heels’ stellar D? How will Al Groh fit in at Georgia Tech with his 3-4 scheme? Can Mike London work a miracle and get Virginia to a bowl in his first year? The list goes on.
Now that spring is over and teams throughout the ACC have learned a little bit more about themselves, it’s time to re-evaluate the conference hierarchy heading into summer camp. The very top stayed the same as the pre-spring rankings, as did the bottom of the barrel, but there were some tweaks in between. Here’s a look at how the ACC shakes out heading into summer camp:

1. Virginia Tech: The Hokies were encouraged by the rookie performances on defense this spring, but coach Frank Beamer has said he’s still looking for the young players to get stronger this offseason and spend some significant time in the film room. Offensively, the Hokies will be as good as the revamped offensive line, and that’s still a work in progress.

2. Florida State: What separates the Seminoles right now is the fact they only have to replace one starter on offense, and veteran quarterback Christian Ponder will be protected by one of the best lines in the country. The defense is better suited for the personnel under coordinator Mark Stoops, but overall remains a question.

3. Miami: The Hurricanes’ depth at running back should make the offense more productive in the second year under coordinator Mark Whipple. The Canes’ defensive line was also a highlight of the spring under first-year assistant Rick Petri, but they need to replace three starters up front offensively.

4. Clemson: Defense was the strength this spring, but running backs Andre Ellington and James Harper should ease the loss of C.J. Spiller. With four starters returning, the offensive line should improve. The key to Clemson’s run at a second straight Atlantic Division title will be the return of quarterback Kyle Parker to football instead of baseball.

5. Georgia Tech: Yes, they’re the defending ACC champs, but the Jackets were hurt the most by the NFL draft and are making the biggest transition defensively. There were positive reviews about the addition and style of coordinator Al Groh, and if the Jackets can replace three starters on the offensive line, they’ve got the skill players to defend their title.

6. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have an NFL-caliber defense, but this spring revealed little about how much progress they made offensively. Quarterback play remains a concern, as Butch Davis must choose between inexperience and inconsistency.

7. Boston College: The quarterback competition continues, and nobody is sure just how effective linebacker Mark Herzlich will be upon his return. The Eagles do have one of the better offensive lines, though, and a schedule conducive to another appearance in the ACC title game.

8. Maryland: Coach Ralph Friedgen was pleased with his spring practices, specifically the progress of the offensive line, which will be critical to Maryland's comeback this fall. The Terps have settled on quarterback Jamarr Robinson as their starter and have plenty of talent at running back and receiver to help him.

9. Wake Forest: Skylar Jones finished the spring atop the depth chart, but his main competitors -- Ted Stachitas and Brendan Cross -- were both injured. The Deacs will reveal a more run-based, option offense under their new quarterback. The interior defensive line remains a concern.

10. NC State: Coach Tom O’Brien just can’t seem to get through an offseason without a setback. The misdemeanor charges against four of his players -- including two starters from 2009 -- revealed poor decision-making from veterans.

11. Duke: Quarterback Sean Renfree is expected to be fully recovered from his torn ACL and be the starter this fall, but the Blue Devils’ running game is still in need of an upgrade and the defensive line remains a question.

12. Virginia: It’s still too early for first-year coach Mike London to put his stamp on the program, as he needs more recruiting classes to do that. This will be a transition year with a new staff, new philosophies and possibly a new quarterback.
You can find all of the NFL combine tests results here, but I thought I'd point out a few highlights -- and some lowlights -- for some of the former ACC players who participated the past few days.

[+] EnlargeFord
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJacoby Ford had the fastest time in the 40-yard dash of any player at the combine.
C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford showcased their blazing speed, as Ford posted the fasted 40-yard dash time (4.28) and Spiller was second among running backs (4.37). Kam Chancellor had a ball bounce off his hands and Crezdon Butler appeared "stiff in space" according to our Scouts Inc. report. Former Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan didn't do anything to jeopardize his spot as a high first-round pick, but safety Morgan Burnett missed the 40-yard dash with a hamstring injury.

• Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. on Virginia CB Chris Cook:
Virginia CB Chris Cook turned some heads at the Senior Bowl, and he's doing the same in Indianapolis. At 6-2 and 212 pounds Cook posted an unofficial 4.43 seconds. That's an excellent size-speed combination for a safety and rare to see in a corner. Cook also recorded a jaw-dropping 11-0 broad jump.

• Muench on former Virginia Tech linebacker Cody Grimm:
Virginia Tech's Cody Grimm is an interesting prospect. Grimm appears instinctive and relentless on film, but he played outside linebacker in college and is just not big enough to line up there in the NFL. He measured just 5-10^ and 203 pounds and would be a better fit at safety, where he would have the potential to develop into an adequate reserve and special-teams contributor. Grimm's 4.54 time in the 40 is encouraging because the average time for safeties last year was 4.63 seconds and in 2008 was 4.55 seconds.

• What to make of Jonathan Dwyer? He was listed as one of the 10 most polarizing players in the combine by Bruce Feldman:
There were a bunch of fast backs in Indy; Dwyer was not one of them. His size is good (228 pounds) and he looks dynamic on film, but some skeptics will wonder if much of that is due to the frenetic nature of the triple option scheme he played in at Tech. He didn't test as a particularly explosive guy, and he looked shaky in the position drills and didn't seem comfortable as a receiver.

• Here's an excerpt from Todd McShay on former FSU safety Myron Rolle:
Purely from a football standpoint, Rolle has the tools of a potential third-round pick who could be developed into an adequate starter two or three years down the road. However, while NFL teams love the Rhodes scholar's intelligence and work ethic, there is a growing concern regarding his long-term dedication to football. Rolle is in a truly unique situation and has a lot of convincing to do between now and the draft.

• The Sporting News listed Miami's Jimmy Graham, Maryland's Bruce Campbell and Clemson's Jacoby Ford among its offensive combine winners. Russ Lande of TSN listed Derrick Morgan and Virginia Tech's Jason Worilds among the defensive winners, but it doesn't sound good for Duke's Vince Oghobaase.

• Campbell really turned some heads with his 40 time. Chad Reuter of NFLDraftScout.com wrote:
Campbell also has 36.5-inch arms and bench-pressed 225 pounds 34 times. Said one scout said, "He has the best body of anyone I've ever seen."

• Of course, the question is whether he can block. Said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, "If there's a star so far in the combine, it's him. What he's going to have to overcome is the tape."

• Reuter on Miami's Graham:
Miami (Fla.) tight end Jimmy Graham ran a 4.56, according to NFL.com. Graham played only one season of football for the Hurricanes, but his basketball background intrigues scouts and his blistering 40 time could lift Graham as high as the second round.

What to watch in the ACC this spring

February, 15, 2010
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Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

BOSTON COLLEGE

Spring practice starts: March 18

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• How linebacker Mark Herzlich progresses. Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma cancer last May, has been going through winter conditioning with his teammates, and he plans on participating in spring drills. How quickly he regains his form will be worth watching, as he and sophomore Luke Kuechly could give the Eagles one of the most formidable linebacking corps.

• The quarterback battle. After one season, Dave Shinskie has the most experience on the roster, but he’ll get some competition from Josh Bordner and Chase Rettig, two early enrollees. There were times last season when Shinskie looked like the future of the position and there were others when he looked like any other freshman.

• Defensive linemen. For the second straight year, BC is looking for some stability up front. The Eagles have to replace left tackle Austin Giles and defensive end Jim Ramella. They return Kaleb Ramsey, Giles’ backup, and Brad Newman, Ramella’s reserve, but some young faces are likely to be seen in the rotation.

CLEMSON

Spring practice starts: March 7

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Life without C.J. Spiller officially begins. The backs behind him had a pretty good year, so there’s no need for full panic mode. Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington actually combined for a higher yards per carry average (6.1 to 5.6 yards). Clemson will also be looking to replace Spiller’s lost kickoff return yardage. The Tigers had a 13-yard advantage in average starting field position, as their start was their own 37-yard line compared to opponents’ 24-yard line. Ellington is a candidate in the return game.

• Kyle Parker’s batting average. No, really. How well Parker does this spring with the baseball team will help determine whether he remains Clemson’s quarterback or turns to the MLB draft. He didn’t have a great 2009 season, but he was still the fastest player to 25 home runs in school history. It remains to be seen this spring if he’ll become a high enough draft choice to give up college football.

• Secondary shuffling. It seems like eons ago since Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor weren’t the Tigers’ starting corners, as Butler started 40 straight games and Chancellor started 42. Butler finished his career second in school history in interception return yards. Now it’s time for a new duo. Will Marcus Gilchrist move to corner, which he’s capable of doing? Might Rashard Hall move to safety with DeAndre McDaniel?

DUKE

Spring practice starts: Feb. 14

Spring game: March 27

What to watch:

• Quarterback competition. Somebody has to take over for the graduated Thaddeus Lewis, but his backup – Sean Renfree – will miss the spring with a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder should be heavily in the mix to be the starter, pending Renfree’s recovery.

• Defensive line makeover. It’s wide open. Charlie Hatcher is entrenched at nose guard, but it’s really anyone’s game. The staff might move redshirt senior Wesley Oglesby, who played the majority of his career at defensive end, inside. Other options are defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento, a redshirt freshman, and Curtis Hazelton, who played sparingly last season.

• Johnny Williams’ move from wide receiver to cornerback. He had 31 catches in 2009 – the fourth-best on the team. Now they need his help in the defensive backfield. Duke will lose starter Leon Wright and his 10 career interceptions, and the pass defense, which allowed 215.75 yards per game, could use a boost.

FLORIDA STATE

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Christian Ponder’s return from shoulder surgery. Ponder is expected to practice this spring, though it could be on a limited basis, at least early. He’s ahead of schedule, but the coaches won’t subject him to any risks now. Yes, E.J. Manuel is talented and played well at the end of the season, but make no mistake – Ponder is FSU’s starter and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

• The defense under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. His secondary, in particular, will be interesting to watch, as will how quickly he can help the front seven generate a pass rush and plug the middle. Stoops has been a secondary coach, and the Noles lost three starters there. The fourth, Ochuko Jenije, could be pushed to retain his job.

• New faces, new opportunities. In addition to the fab freshmen who are coming in, FSU has a handful of unfamiliar players already on the roster who played sparingly or not at all. We'll see how they fit in this spring. RS-So DT Anthony McCloud and RS-So RB Debrale Smiley are both junior college transfers and former teammates. Physically, freshman linebacker Jeff Luc is already a man, but how quickly can he mature on the field? Two young wide receivers worth watching are Rodney Smith and Willie Haulstead.

GEORGIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• The defensive transformation. The Jackets will switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under first-year coordinator Al Groh. In addition to learning the new scheme, the staff has to figure out who goes where. Linebackers might play defensive end and vice versa, safeties might play outside linebacker. It’s anyone’s guess as to how this team lines up in the spring.

• The replacements. From Georgia Tech’s coaching staff to the new faces who will be tasked with filling in for the Fab Four -- Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett and Demaryius Thomas -- the Jackets will need some “Hello My Name Is” tags this spring.

• The offensive line. Three offensive linemen redshirted who could start, and Georgia Tech might need them to, especially if guard Joseph Gilbert decides to transfer to pursue his MBA. The Jackets lose two starters on the offensive line, and Gilbert, who graduates this spring, would be a third if he leaves. Center Sean Bedford and tackle Austin Barrick return as seniors.

MARYLAND

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• The quarterback competition. Chris Turner has graduated, leaving Jamarr Robinson the top option going into the spring, but he has limited experience. The staff liked what he did when Turner was injured, but Danny O’Brien, Miami (Ohio) transfer Clay Belton and C.J. Brown will all be given an opportunity. Look for O’Brien to start the spring at No. 2 on the depth chart.

• Cornerback: Cameron Chism is the only returning starter in the secondary, but right now the staff has fewer concerns about the safeties. Maryland will have to find some bodies at corner, and Dexter McDougle, who redshirted as a true freshman last year, is one option. Michael Carter and Trenton Hughes, who was the third corner last year, are also among a handful of candidates.

• The offensive line. Losing Bruce Campbell to the NFL hurt, but the Terps also lost starter Phil Costa. Justin Gilbert, a redshirt sophomore, could inherit Campbell’s job. And there’s always Mr. Versatility -- Paul Pinegar. He has helped the Terps at both tackle spots and left guard, and this spring he’ll likely be given a shot at center.

MIAMI

Spring practice starts: Feb. 23

Spring game: March 27 (tentative)

What to watch:

• Tight end/offensive line: Jimmy Graham is gone, and the Canes don’t return any tight ends with any experience other than Richard Gordon, who was injured the majority of last season. Miami signed four tight ends in this recruiting class, but none of them were early enrollees. Miami has to replace three starters up front, including both tackles and the center.

• How the two young quarterbacks perform: The health of Jacory Harris was precious last year, as he had nobody behind him with any experience after the transfers of Taylor Cook and Cannon Smith. The depth has improved a bit with A.J. Highsmith, who played sparingly last year, and Stephen Morris, one of the early enrollees.

• Upgrade on the d-line? Progress up front began with the hire of Rick Petri as defensive line coach, and it’s up to Petri to help the Canes become better pass rushers. Miami will depend upon its two mainstays -- Allen Bailey and Josh Holmes. The right end position was a group effort last year, and Miami has to replace Joe Joseph and Eric Moncur.

NORTH CAROLINA

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Quarterback T.J. Yates. It’s his job to lose, and the coaching staff still has confidence in him, but Bryn Renner is waiting in the wings, and Braden Hanson will also be given an opportunity. The staff is looking for the offense to improve its passing efficiency and cut down on turnovers.

• The offensive line. It was a patchwork effort in 2009, thanks to injuries and inexperience, and will be a major key in how much UNC improves offensively this year. The Heels have to replace two starters, and Jonathan Cooper is likely to move from guard to center, and right guard Alan Pelc will miss spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery.

• Defensive line tweaks. There aren’t many questions on a defense that should be one of the best in the country, but somebody has to replace Cam Thomas and defensive end E.J. Wilson. Tydreke Powell is the frontrunner to take over at defensive tackle and Quinton Coples at defensive end. Both were backups last year at their respective positions.

NC STATE

Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• Backup quarterback Mike Glennon. Russell Wilson is the starter, but he’s going to be playing baseball all spring. Keep an eye on his backup to see if Glennon can make it any more of a competition in Wilson’s absence.

• Chris Ward at punter. No, it’s not usually, the highlight of the spring, but in this case, it’s necessary. Ward is it -- he’s their only option right now, and it’s a position the Pack struggled with last year. Ward was expected to be the starter last season, but he was inconsistent. He’s definitely got the talent to be the guy.

• The recovery of linebacker Nate Irving. After being severely injured in a one-car crash last summer, Irving is hopeful he can go through spring drills. He has been lifting with the team and running with the sports medicine staff, but it’s still uncertain how limited his contact will be.

VIRGINIA

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Quarterback competition. Marc Verica is the only one with any experience, and first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor hasn’t been in Charlottesville long enough to evaluate any of the candidates. That’s what the spring is for, and true freshman Michael Strauss is the lone incoming quarterback on campus, so he’ll have a head start on the playbook. Of the four quarterbacks Virginia signed in this year’s class, Strauss is the only one listed as a true quarterback. The Cavs also have Ross Metheny, who redshirted last year, and Riko Smalls, who redshirted in ‘08 and was No. 2 on the depth chart when Verica was out with a concussion.

• Coaching transition. First-year coach Mike London has hired almost an entirely new staff, and they’ll bring changes in philosophy and scheme. London has said he wants to get the defense back to the traditional 4-3, and revert to the tradition of featuring the tight ends, offensive linemen and running backs.

• Running back. The Cavs will have the help up front, but they need to replace their four leading rushers in Mikell Simpson, Rashawn Jackson, Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell. The staff will look at true freshman Kevin Parks, but also have Torrey Mack and Dominique Wallace, who had just seemed to be coming on at Southern Miss when he was injured and missed the rest of the season.

VIRGINIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• Revamped defensive line. The Hokies have to replace three of four starters up front. The only defensive ends with significant playing time are Chris Drager, who the staff wanted to move back to tight end, and Steven Friday. Redshirt freshmen will be given a chance – Duan Perez-Means, Tyrel Wilson, James Gayle and J.R. Collins – but they’ve never played. Isaiah Hamlette is the only other end who’s played and that was a skinny minute. At defensive tackle, Antoine Hopkins will be the frontrunner to replace Cordarrow Thompson.

• Darren Evans’ comeback. Evans, the team’s leading rusher in 2008, is working his way back from a season-ending ACL injury, and one of the biggest questions in Blacksburg is how the staff will divide the carries in such a talented backfield that includes Ryan Williams. With two returning 1,000-yard rushers, will David Wilson decide to redshirt? The spring will help him in that decision.

• The evolution of Tyrod Taylor. He’s going to be a senior, and with so many questions on defense heading into the season, the offense will be leading the way. This should be a breakout year for Taylor, who by now should have mastered the offense and should consistently be a passing threat to compliment his running abilities.

WAKE FOREST

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• The quarterback competition. It’s the most glaring hole the Deacs have to fill this spring, as they’re tasked with replacing the winningest quarterback in school history, Riley Skinner, and his backup, Ryan McManus. Redshirt sophomores Ted Stachitas and Skylar Jones, and sophomore Brendan Cross, will compete with rookie Tanner Price for the top spot.

• Offensive line. The Deacs will take a huge hit here, as seven players in the two-deep depth chart were redshirt seniors, including all four tackles. Three starters have to be replaced.

• The interior defensive line. Nose guard Boo Robinson and John Russell have graduated, and Russell’s backup, Michael Lockett, was also a redshirt senior. The Deacs are in good shape at the ends, but will need some help inside.
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ACC's pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
2/10/10
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It’s early, but it’s never too early for pre-spring power rankings -- especially since Duke kicks off spring practice on Feb. 15. Now that the NFL departures have been announced and signing day is over, it’s time for the first look at how the ACC might stack up in 2010. Keep in mind that this can -- and most likely will -- change. The ACC is all-too familiar with star players getting hurt before the season begins, and there are other factors like position battles to be won and coaching changes to acclimate to that can impact this later. For now, though, here’s how the ACC looks heading into 2010:

1. Virginia Tech – The Hokies’ spot at the top is based on their historical ability to reload on defense, but they can fall quickly if significant progress isn’t made this spring and summer in replacing six starters. In an unusual twist, the offense is in a position to keep this team in contention early.

2. Florida State – Things are different under coach Jimbo Fisher, but this ranking is based on the assumption that the defense will be different -- and improved -- under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. The Noles will have a championship-caliber offense led by quarterback Christian Ponder, who will be playing behind a standout veteran offensive line.

3. North Carolina – This defense is scary good. It should be one of the best in the country. But visions of last year’s offense should still be dancing in John Shoop’s head. The Tar Heels aren’t far from where they need to be, though, and this defense can take them places, even with an average offense. All T.J. Yates has to do is manage the offense without turning it over, but the players around him need to improve, too.

4. Miami – If Miami is going to take the next step under coach Randy Shannon, it has to protect quarterback Jacory Harris better and improve the running game. That will be difficult after losing three starters on the offensive line and having very little returning experience at tight end. The Canes will also be under the direction of new defensive line and running backs coaches, and have one of the most difficult schedules in the conference -- again.

5. Boston College – The Eagles were in contention for the Atlantic Division until November last year, and they can do the same again if they work out some trouble spots at quarterback and build the depth at running back. The linebacker corps can be one of the best in the ACC.

6. Georgia Tech – There are too many questions to give the defending ACC champs too much credit just yet. Having lost their leading rusher, receiver and top two defenders, the Jackets have some work to do. They also have to adjust to a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Al Groh. Odds are the offense makes a seamless transition with Anthony Allen at B-back.

7. Clemson – Some of the most accomplished players in school history have graduated, leaving this season a true test for coach Dabo Swinney. The recruiting has gone well under his direction, and there is still plenty of talent left on the roster, but the Tigers could be without quarterback Kyle Parker if he chooses baseball, and they will have to find a way to replace the production of C.J. Spiller.

8. NC State – The young secondary will still be an issue, and the Pack will be without their starting quarterback, Russell Wilson, all spring because of his baseball obligations. The defense should improve with the return of Nate Irving, but it’s still unclear how much he’ll be able to do this spring.

9. Maryland – There’s only one way for this 2-10 team to go, and that’s up. The pressure should be on in College Park to get back to a bowl game, but the Terps have questions up front on both sides of the ball, and there should be a quarterback competition this spring.

10. Wake Forest – The Deacs are in the lower half for one big reason -- they have to replace the winningest quarterback in school history, and right now, that job is wide open.

11. Duke – The big question holding Duke back right now is the graduation of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and the fact his backup, Sean Renfree, will miss this spring with a torn ACL. The Blue Devils also have questions on the defensive line and need to improve their running game.

12. Virginia – Progress isn’t only measured in wins and losses, and first-year coach Mike London will make progress, but until he is able to put together a few of his own recruiting classes, Cavs fans will need some patience. First, though, they need a quarterback.
Out with the old, in with the newcomers who hope to make a similar splash as their predecessors. With these five former players, it won’t be easy. Here’s a look at the ACC’s biggest shoes to fill heading into spring practices:

Clemson running back C.J. Spiller – He became the first player in college football history with 3,000 yards rushing, 2,000 yards in kickoff returns, 1,000 yards receiving and 500 in punt return yards. He left his name all over the school record books, as he established over 30 game, season and career records. He was a major reason the Tigers made their first appearance in the ACC title game.

Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner – He made a name for himself his freshman year by taking the Deacons to their first ACC championship since 1970 and earning ACC rookie of the year honors. Four years and three bowl games later, Skinner ended his career as the top quarterback in Wake Forest history.

Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan – His early departure to the NFL leaves a gaping hole up front. In 2009, Morgan had 18.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. His career totals include 29.5 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks, six fumbles recovered and five pass breakups.

Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas Thomas had 46 of Georgia Tech’s 78 receptions. His 1,154 receiving yards this season were the second most in Georgia Tech history, trailing only Calvin Johnson (1,202 yards in 2006). Thomas had eight of Tech’s 11 touchdown receptions and averaged a remarkable 25.1 yards per reception.

Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis – Lewis finished his career with 48 school records, including career total offense (9,987 yards), passing yards (10,065), pass completions (877), pass attempts (1,510), touchdown passes (67), 300-yard passing games (11) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.68:1). In 2009, he completed 274 of 449 attempts (61 percent) for 3,330 yards with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Recruiting rewind: Clemson

February, 4, 2010
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The recruiting trail was a different experience for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who was much more involved in the entire process this year, having completed his first full season as head coach. One thing that didn’t change was that Swinney helped bring in one of the ACC’s top three classes. It's the fifth straight year that Clemson has finished in the Scouts Inc. top 20.

There isn’t a C.J. Spiller or Da’Quan Bowers highlighting the group, but there are two players from the ESPNU 150 who will add some speed and athleticism to the roster. Four-star wide receiver Martavis Bryant and four-star athlete Garry Peters both have the ability to contribute immediately. Swinney said this class began on Feb. 23, 2008, when Bryant of Anderson, S.C., was the first commitment. Bryant was the first in the class to sign and fax his letter of intent on Wednesday (7:15 a.m.). Swinney said Bryant will wear No. 1 next season.

Bryant and Peters are two of six four-star newcomers in the class of 23. Clemson signed six defensive backs, four offensive linemen, three wide receivers, two defensive tackles, two defensive ends, two tight ends, two running backs and two linebackers.

“It’s an outstanding group of guys,” Swinney said. “We hit every need. ... We really feel like we hit every critical need we had. We’ve come a long way in a year. ... I’m excited about that, and what we’ve been able to do as a staff. We’ve overhauled our recruiting process here and after one year, I’m real pleased with the results.”

Clemson signed seven players from the state of Georgia, the most the program has recruited from that state since 2002. One player who could see the field early is linebacker Justin Parker.

“He’s probably a guy who physically and mentally has a chance to help us early, but it’s a really hard thing to predict,” Swinney said. “We signed three really good wideouts, and I’d be shocked if somebody there isn’t making a contribution, same thing with tight end. We signed four offensive lineman, obviously one guy may step it up there. Our defensive end prospects will have an opportunity to compete, and probably somebody in the secondary. But just singling somebody out would be hard to do.”

ACC recruiting rewind

February, 2, 2010
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You would think that with how well the ACC has fared in recruiting the past four years, it would have eventually made a bigger push on the national landscape during the season. Miami has had three top-10 classes, and Florida State has had two. Overall, the trend in the ACC has been that Florida State, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina have led the conference on the recruiting front. Three of those teams have appeared in ESPN.com's final Top 25 ranking in each of the past four years (UNC has been there three of the past four.) Only the Hokies, though, have had it translate into postseason success -- so far. There was a common thread, though, amongst the other programs -- a coaching change or, in Florida State's case, coaching questions.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Paul Abell/US PresswireAldarius Johnson was one of 12 ESPNU 150 players in Miami's No. 1-rated 2008 class.
It was impossible to predict, though, that players like former Miami quarterback Robert Marve would transfer, or that former FSU linebacker Marcus Ball would have off-field troubles and ask for his release.

Here's a reminder at how highly ranked several teams in the ACC have repeatedly finished since 2006, according to ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. rankings. You can click on the year to go to the full ranking. I mentioned a few of the top players in each class who were facing high expectations at the time, or players who weren't facing many expectations and have since proved otherwise (see: Virginia Tech).

2006

No. 6 FSU (Myron Rolle)
No. 13 Clemson (C.J. Spiller, Jamie Cumbie, Ricky Sapp)
No. 17 Miami (Kylan Robinson)
No. 23 Maryland (Pha'Terrell Washington, Drew Gloster)
No. 24 Virginia Tech (Rashad Carmichael, Nekos Brown, Kam Chancellor)
No. 25 UNC (Aleric Mullins, Johnny White)

2007

No. 9 Miami (Robert Marve, Allen Bailey)
No. 11 UNC (Quan Sturdivant, Marvin Austin)
No. 14 Georgia Tech (Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Josh Nesbitt)
No. 15 Virginia Tech (Tyrod Taylor, Blake DeChristopher, Barquell Rivers)
No. 18 Clemson (Willy Korn, Scotty Cooper, Marcus Gilchrist)
No. 25 Florida State (Brandon Paul, Markish Jones)

2008

No. 1 Miami (Sean Spence, Jacory Harris, Aldarius Johnson)
No. 2 Clemson (DaQuan Bowers, Kyle Parker, Jamie Harper)
No. 12 FSU (Zebrie Sanders, E.J. Manuel, Nigel Carr)
No. 15 Virginia Tech (Ryan Williams)
No. 20 NC State (Mike Glennon, Brandon Barnes)

2009

No. 7 Miami (Ray Ray Armstrong, Mike James)
No. 8 FSU (Greg Reid, Jacobbi McDaniel)
No. 13 UNC (Bryn Renner, Donavan Tate, Jheranie Boyd)
No. 18 Virginia Tech (Jayron Hosley, David Wilson, Logan Thomas)
No. 19 Clemson (Tajh Boyd, Bryce McNeal)
1. What I like about the Paul Hornung Award, a new award announced Wednesday by the Louisville Sports Commission, is that it fills a niche. The Hornung, named for the 1956 Heisman winner, will go to the most versatile player in the nation. Guys like C.J. Spiller last season, or Jeremy Maclin of Missouri in 2007, have become more important in the age of the spread. They have a better chance to win this award than they do the Heisman or the position-specific awards.

2. Oregon State football under head coach Mike Riley has become known for slow starts and fast finishes. The Beavers can't afford a slow start next fall. Oregon State probably will open with TCU at Cowboys Stadium and also will play at Boise State. Keep in mind that Pac-10 teams play only three nonconference games. The Beavers get two of those games against BCS bowl teams on the road. That should keep them focused on their offseason workouts.

3. Joe and Sue Paterno are big supporters of public television. In the past, WPSU in State College has auctioned off the Penn State head coach's autographed khakis, his white socks, sneakers and game-worn neckties. What's left? His glasses, of course. Paterno is putting up an autographed pair of dark-framed, thick specs to the highest bidder. Online bids begin Feb. 1. After that, what's left? Joe's VHS machine? Last I heard, he still watches football video on tape.

ACC's top 10 moments of 2009

January, 13, 2010
1/13/10
2:20
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There were some moments we'd like to forget -- like NC State linebacker Nate Irving's season-ending car crash, Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans' season-ending knee injury last summer, and Duke's widespread case of the swine flu. There were others we'll treasure for many years to come, like Bobby Bowden's final farewell in the Gator Bowl, and the overwhelming support from the ACC schools during Mark Herzlich's battle with cancer. And who could forget Cavman falling off his horse? For better or for worse, they were moments that defined the 2009 ACC season. There were many to choose from, but I've come up with a list of the top 10 moments of 2009.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Douglas Jones/US PresswireBobby Bowden spiked one last bowl win for the Seminoles.
I have a terrible memory, so if you have something from the 2009 season that you don't see here and you'd like to share, drop it in my mailbag, and I'll post them in Friday's mailblog. The toughest call was deciding between Georgia Tech's marathon win over FSU, or FSU's Thursday night comeback over UNC. Decisions, decisions ...

Here are the top 10 moments that won't be forgotten from 2009:

10. Thaddeus Lewis vs. NC State. The senior quarterback completed an astounding 40 of 50 pass attempts for 459 yards and five touchdowns in the 49-28 win over the Pack. He also added one rushing touchdown as the Blue Devils snapped a 20-game road losing streak in ACC play. It was the most points Duke had scored in a conference game since 1994 and started a three-game winning streak in ACC play.

9. C.J. Spiller's kickoff return for a touchdown at Miami. It came with just 46 seconds left in the half and gave Clemson a 14-10 halftime lead. Miami had all the momentum at that point, but a questionable decision to kick to Spiller with under a minute remaining changed that. There were 12 lead changes and two ties in the game, but Clemson earned its first road win over a top-10 team in more than eight years.

8. Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder tackles a safety. Revenge is sweet, unless it costs you the rest of your season. After throwing his fourth interception of the game, Ponder charged head-on at DeAndre McDaniel and separated his right shoulder in the hit. It was a collision that had many thinking the Noles' bowl hopes ended there.

7. Ryan Williams' fumble against North Carolina. He was at his own 24-yard line with 2:02 left in the game when he fumbled. It helped lead to UNC's nationally televised upset of then-No. 14 Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium. Williams was so distraught by it that he didn't go to class the following day.

6. Tyrod Taylor's nine-second scramble in the final minute against Nebraska. The play kept alive an 80-yard completion to Danny Coale, which was followed by Taylor's 11-yard touchdown pass to Dyrell Roberts three plays later with 21 seconds remaining. The impressive finish gave the Hokies a 16-15 win over No. 19 Nebraska.

5. Georgia Tech fans storming the field after beating Virginia Tech at home, 28-23. It was the Jackets' first home win against a top-five ranked team in more than 40 years.

4. The Tallahassee marathon. Georgia Tech and FSU combined for 1,071 total yards of offense and a total elapsed game time of 4:44 that ended in a 49-44 win for Georgia Tech. That game featured one of the more memorable plays of the season, as Josh Nesbitt ripped an apparent fumble recovery away from Florida State's Nigel Carr to preserve the win.

3. Paul Johnson's fourth-down call in overtime against Wake Forest. The Jackets had a fourth-and-1 from the 5-yard line and had been 0-for-4 that night on their previous fourth-down conversion attempts. The Coastal Division title was on the line. Didn't matter. One play later Josh Nesbitt was in the end zone.

2. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden throwing down the spear in the final game of his career. You saw it. ‘Nuff said.

1. Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich announces on ESPN's "College GameDay" that he is cancer free. On Oct. 3, Herzlich was an inspiration to his team yet again, and the Eagles went on to defeat FSU, 28-21. The win gave BC back-to-back Atlantic Division wins and put them in contention to win the division, but more importantly, the ACC's best defender from 2008 said he'll be back in 2010.

Final 2009 ACC power rankings

January, 13, 2010
1/13/10
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Keep in mind that this is not a preseason ranking. The fact that Georgia Tech just lost four of its best players to the NFL draft has nothing to do with this. We’ll save that one for later. Here is the final power ranking for the 2009 season:

1. Georgia Tech (11-3, 7-1) – Despite the loss to Iowa in the FedEx Orange Bowl, this is still the team that beat the best the ACC had to offer. The Jackets’ win over Virginia Tech and their two wins over Clemson are what earned them the top spot. They are still the defending ACC champs, a title Iowa couldn’t take away.

2. Virginia Tech (10-3, 6-2) – The Hokies put together a complete performance in their convincing win over Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and earned their sixth straight 10-win season. They head into 2010 on a five-game winning streak and with a much improved offense.

3. Clemson (9-5, 6-2) – The Tigers made a habit out of regrouping this year. First, after their 2-3 start to the season, and then heading into the Music City Bowl after back-to-back losses to rival South Carolina and Georgia Tech. The Tigers sent C.J. Spiller off with a win over Kentucky.

4. Miami (9-4, 5-3) – The Hurricanes took another step forward under coach Randy Shannon, winning nine games, but remained status quo in the postseason. The Canes ran into a more physical Wisconsin team in the Champs Sports Bowl, and lost their chance at entering 2010 with a top 15 ranking.

5. Florida State (7-6, 4-4) – The Noles earned respect for their surprising upset of West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, and proved they can make the plays on defense if they want to. In one game, the Bobby Bowden era ended, and the Jimbo Fisher era officially began.

6. Boston College (8-5, 5-3) – The Eagles put up a respectable performance against USC in the Emerald Bowl and were in a position to win the game. One glaring weakness remained all season, and that was freshman mistakes at quarterback, where Dave Shinskie is bound to improve with time.

7. North Carolina (8-5, 4-4) – The Tar Heels left much to be desired in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, losing again in the same city to another Big East team. This time Pitt took advantage of UNC’s mistakes, and the Heels couldn’t get their ground game going again.

8. Wake Forest (5-7, 3-5) – The Deacs should be remembered as the ACC’s unluckiest team in 2009, as they were only a few points away from an entirely different season. The win over Stanford, in retrospect, was among the best the conference had to offer in its nonconference schedule.

9. Duke (5-7, 3-5) – The Blue Devils again made progress under coach David Cutcliffe, clinging to bowl hopes for the majority of the season, but they faded down the stretch with a four-game losing streak. If Duke couldn’t make the postseason with quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, it will be difficult to do it without him.

10. NC State (5-7, 2-6) – Tom O’Brien’s career at NC State has been a series of one unfortunate event after another. There is no questioning his ability as a coach -- his resume speaks for itself. But once again, the Pack couldn’t overcome significant injuries, and the devastating news that their offensive coordinator, Dana Bible, had been diagnosed with cancer. They could, however, overcome UNC. Again.

11. Virginia (3-9, 2-6) – The Cavaliers ended the season they way they started -- in disappointment. Six straight losses, including in the season finale to rival Virginia, cost Al Groh his job. The last time the Cavaliers lost nine games in a season was in 1982.

12. Maryland (2-10, 1-7) – There wasn’t a bowl game, but coach Ralph Friedgen escaped a dreadful 2-10 season with his job instead. The one thing the Terps could celebrate this season was their still-baffling 24-21 win over ACC-runner up Clemson.

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