NCF Nation: Carlton Jones
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
In addition to the newcomers to watch this spring, there will also be a few players who hinted at their potential last year, but could be on the verge of a breakout season in '09. Here are a few players who might emerge from the shadows this year in the ACC:
UNC safety Da'Norris Searcy -- He had 10 tackles against West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and is slated to be the starter in place of graduated All-American Trimane Goddard. Searcy spent some time at linebacker and on special teams last year. He finished the season with 25 tackles, including two sacks, three pass breakups and three passes defended.
NC State running back Toney Baker -- Remember him? Think back to '06. Baker had over 1,200 yards heading into his junior season and suffered a season-ending knee injury and missed the rest of the season. A second surgery kept him out for 2008. Baker was cleared to return last fall, is reportedly in amazing shape and "about to have a fit to get back on the field," according to sports information director Annabelle Myers. With Andre Brown gone, Baker's progress will be a huge key to the Pack's success.
Wake Forest running back Kevin Harris -- In just the third start of his career and his first since October 2006, Harris turned in one of the most memorable performances of the inaugural EagleBank Bowl. Harris rushed for a career-high 24 carries and 136 yards. It came as a complete surprise and sparked the start of much-needed improvement in the Deacs' running game. His senior season could be his best.
FSU running back Carlton "Ty" Jones -- He scored his first collegiate touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl and might even be better than fellow freshman Jermaine Thomas. Jones had four carries for a career-high 55 yards in the bowl game, and set a career-high for the longest rush for scrimmage with a 31-yard run. With the departure of Antone Smith, the Noles enter the spring looking for a dependable go-to back.
Georgia Tech's linebackers -- Both Brad Jefferson and Anthony Barnes played sparingly behind current NFL linebackers Philip Wheeler (Colts) and Gary Guyton (Patriots) as freshmen, and both started the opener last year. Jefferson and Barnes were both also injured in the season opener, missed a game or two, and were never really 100 percent last season. Both should be healthy this year, and could finally emerge from the shadows of their NFL predecessors.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Florida State running back Antone Smith is listed as 5-foot-9 on the Seminoles' depth chart, but he is a little more realistic about how he stacks up.
"Five-eight. And a half," he added quickly with a laugh. "That half counts.
"Everybody wants a big back these days, but I can do the same things a big back can do."
With little depth and no collegiate experience behind him, the Seminoles are going to need Smith to do just about everything in the running game, starting this Saturday in their season opener against Western Carolina. The one thing he can't afford to do, though, is get hurt -- something Smith has been unable to avoid for almost his entire career.
"He's sure gotta do it," coach Bobby Bowden said of Smith leading the running game. "We felt pretty good going into this year. We had Antone coming back for his senior year. We signed a couple of good freshmen backs. We had Marcus Sims back, although he can't play in the first four ball games, and then we brought in a junior college player, [Tavares] Pressley, who has got 20 games under his belt. We felt like he could give us immediate help, but he got hurt and is out for the year. We need to stay healthy there. If we don't, you could be looking at some freshmen there."
Those freshmen would be Carlton Jones and Jermaine Thomas, neither of whom made it through all of summer camp. Jones missed a few days with heat-related issues and Thomas had a few hang-ups with the NCAA Clearinghouse and missed a few days. Brandon Paul, a redshirt freshman, is also an option.
Florida State's running game has shown marginal improvement since 2005, when it ranked last in the conference at 94 rushing yards per game. The Noles were last again in 2006, at 94.1 rushing yards per game. Last season, the team finished eighth in the ACC with 127.5 yards per game, and much of that can be attributed to Smith, as he had the most productive season of his career. He accounted for 43 percent of the team's rushes in 2007 and finished with a career-high in starts (11), rushes (192), rushing yards (819) and receiving yards (203).
And that's while he was bothered by turf toe the whole season. He's also had a dislocated elbow, a bruised thigh, a nagging shoulder injury, a concussion ... "a lot of different things," he said.
Smith has looked impressive all summer, though, and said he is finally feeling 100 percent healthy again.
"It definitely hasn't been what I thought it would be coming out of high school," Smith said of his career. "I know it's a tough game and you have to be tough and injuries are part of the game, but I didn't expect to have all those small injures. Now I'm healthy.
"My goals are to stay healthy and be successful at everything, helping this team and doing the little things right and being the ultimate teammate. That's the biggest thing for me is to stay healthy. I'm going to see how far that takes me and what that does for me."
And that, in part, will determine how far the Seminoles go this season.