NCF Nation: Demaryius Thomas

You asked, I answered. Readers (particularly @AsylumGodfather) were calling for more position rankings, so the receivers are up next. This could be the strongest position group in the conference, and one of the more difficult to rank, so I looked back on a few stats to help me separate them, including how some of these guys did against their best competition (i.e. Danny Coale versus FSU, wow). Here’s the final verdict of which teams in the ACC have the best combination of depth and talent:

1. Virginia Tech: With Jarrett Boykin and Coale returning, the Hokies’ passing game has a chance to flourish this fall. Boykin, Coale and Dyrell Roberts were the team’s top three receivers last year for the second straight season, combining for 113 catches, 1,882 yards and 11 touchdowns. Add to that Marcus Davis, D.J. Coles, E.L. Smiling -- it’s a bottomless cup of depth and talent.

2. Duke: Conner Vernon has 128 catches in his first two collegiate seasons and Donovan Varner ranked fourth in the ACC in pass receptions (60) and seventh in yardage (736). Their combined 274 receptions are the most of any active duo in the ACC. They are the top two returning leaders in catches per game, and Vernon is the ACC’s returning leader in receiving yards per game. The Blue Devils also have sophomore Brandon Braxton (14 catches), who could make a name for himself as the third option this year.

3. Florida State: Every Seminole who caught a pass last season returns. Bert Reed, Taiwan Easterling and Rodney Smith return with a combined 50 career starts. Reed ranks second among all returning ACC receivers with 141 career receptions. Willie Haulstead had 38 catches last season, Smith had 31, and there’s plenty of rising talent like Christian Green.

4. North Carolina: Like Florida State, North Carolina returns all of its receivers, including two who redshirted last season. Dwight Jones, who had 946 yards and 62 receptions, leads the group, but Erik Highsmith (25 catches, 348 yards and three touchdowns) must be accounted for as well. Defenses also can’t forget about Jheranie Boyd, who is a deep threat.

5. Miami: The Canes will miss the production of Leonard Hankerson, but they don’t have to if one or two of the other players show more consistency. Travis Benjamin has big-play capabilities and averaged 17.3 yards on his 43 catches last season. There is no shortage of other options with LaRon Byrd, Aldarius Johnson, Tommy Streeter, Allen Hurns and Kendal Thompkins. Which one will rise to the occasion?

6. Clemson: It was the DeAndre Hopkins show last season, and he should again highlight the Tigers’ passing game. As a true freshman, Hopkins had 52 catches, the most by a first-year player in school history. Jaron Brown returns with 10 career starts, and the Tigers also have Marquan Jones (21 catches) and Bryce McNeal (19).

7. Maryland: The Terps have to replace their top two receivers from a year ago in Torrey Smith and Adrian Cannon, and no clear frontrunners emerged this spring. Quintin McCree leads all returners with 16 catches, followed by Kevin Dorsey (15), Ronnie Tyler (13), Kerry Boykins (10), and Tony Logan.

8. Boston College: True freshman Bobby Swigert led the Eagles last year with 39 catches and four touchdowns in five starts. The Eagles are hoping to get a significant boost from the return of Colin Larmond Jr., who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but the young group should be better regardless because of the experience gained last season.

9. Virginia: The Cavaliers will miss Dontrelle Inman, who averaged 16 yards per catch on 51 receptions, but returning starter Kris Burd finished fifth in the ACC last season in pass receptions (58). The group will also get a boost from the return of Tim Smith, who missed almost all of last season with an injury, and Matt Snyder (30 catches) and Ray Keys (three catches).

10. NC State: NC State has to replace its top two receivers from a year ago, and T.J. Graham is the team’s leading returning receiver with 25 catches. Steven Howard, Jay Smith and Quintin Payton all have experience, and redshirt freshman Bryan Underwood, Tobias Palmer and Everett Proctor have also been competing for playing time.

11. Wake Forest: Chris Givens (35 catches, 13.7 average), Michael Campanaro (10 catches) and Danny Dembry are the lead candidates to start, but the Deacs are missing a spark like Kenny Moore (2007) and D.J. Boldin (2008) provided. There were too many dropped passes in the spring game, so this group has some work to do in summer camp.

12. Georgia Tech: Yes, Georgia Tech throws the ball, just not often enough or efficiently enough to be anywhere but last place on this list. Stephen Hill led the Jackets last year with 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns. He should show progress this fall now that there’s no pressure on him to be the next Demaryius Thomas. If he doesn’t show more consistency, the Jackets could turn to Daniel McKayhan, Tyler Melton or Jeremy Moore.
Georgia Tech enters Thursday night’s game at Virginia Tech with the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense.

There literally is nobody in the country better at running the ball right now -- which is why it’s all the more bizarre that in Paul Johnson’s run-based option offense, the lack of a dependable receiver has been one of the Jackets’ most glaring weaknesses.

While Georgia Tech tops the FBS in rushing, only one team -- Army -- has fared worse in the passing game out of 120 ranked teams.

“I know that in the passing game we’ve had a lot of chances we haven’t taken advantage of this year,” said A-back Roddy Jones. “We’ve had too many dropped passes. It’s just one of those things you just have to concentrate on and get better because those are catches guys make in practice all the time. We just have to do it on Saturdays. I think a lot of our problems would be alleviated just by catching the ball.”

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDemaryius Thomas led Georgia Tech with 46 receptions for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009. Through eight games, Stephen Hill leads the team in those categories with 12 catches for 165 yards and two TDs.
It’s not the lack of attempts that’s bothersome to Johnson, it’s the lack of production with the ones they have had. The Yellow Jackets have completed just 38 percent of their pass attempts this year. They’re averaging 84.7 yards per game. There’s plenty of blame to spread around, as the receivers have had “several” drops, the pass protection hasn’t always been good, and quarterback Joshua Nesbitt hasn’t always been on target.

“We need to be more efficient in the passing game, for sure,” said Johnson. “It’s just like any offense. I’m sure that teams that throw want to be more efficient in the running game. I don’t think we have to be balanced -- I’m not under any illusions that’s the case.”

He’s right.

Georgia Tech beat Virginia Tech last year and completed just one pass in the 28-23 win. Last year, though, receiver Demaryius Thomas was around to catch that lone 51-yard pass that set up a touchdown.

In 2008, Georgia Tech beat rival Georgia, 45-42, and only threw one complete pass. But again, Thomas was on the receiving end, this time for a 19-yard gain.

Thomas, one of four juniors who left for the NFL last year, might be missed the most.

“Anytime you lose the first receiver taken in the draft, that’s a huge loss,” Johnson said. “But I thought that we had guys that would be more consistent and step up. And I think we still might. I haven’t given up on them yet.”

The player who faced the highest expectations entering this season was sophomore Stephen Hill, who leads the team with two touchdown receptions and 12 receptions. He’s averaging 13.8 yards per catch, but many outside the program had hoped he would be the program’s next elite receiver. The comparisons to Thomas, though, proved too much too soon.

“You’re comparing a kid who probably should’ve been redshirted if we could have, and we’re throwing him out there and all of a sudden he gets compared to the first receiver taken in the draft,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of guys who are going to fall short of that comparison.”

Regardless of whether it’s Hill or a group effort, though, the passing game must improve if the Jackets are going to defend their ACC title.

“When we get in a situation where we’re having some success in the run, teams start bringing their DBs up a little faster -- especially when we’re on the perimeter -- trying to stop the pitch,” said Jones. “So when those guys start coming hard, we’ve got to be able to do play-action to kind of back them off a little bit.”

Aside from Hill’s 12 catches, nobody else on the roster has more than seven receptions this year. Jones said it doesn’t have to all be on Hill.

“It can definitely be by committee, especially with the play-action passes,” Jones said. “We have a very capable receiving corps and a group of A-backs who are talented as well. As long as every pass is completed, it doesn’t matter who it goes to.”

After all, it only takes one to win a game.
As talented as he might be, don’t confuse Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill for Demaryius “Bay-Bay” Thomas, the Jackets’ former wide receiver who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft.

“I’m not Bay Bay,” he said. “I’m not big like him. I’m a little bit faster than him. I just want to make a name for myself.”

There’s a very good possibility he’ll do that this fall.

[+] EnlargeStephen Hill and Demaryius Thomas
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisStephen Hill (5) may follow Demaryius Thomas as the next great Georgia Tech receiver.
At 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, Hill has rare speed for a player his size, and he said he has put a lot of work into improving this offseason so he can be Georgia Tech’s next elite receiver. Hill played in all 13 games last year with one start, but he only had six catches for 137 yards and a touchdown. The Jackets will need some help compensating for the loss of Thomas, who accounted for 46 catches, 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns last fall.

Thomas’ success in the run-based spread option offense has only encouraged Hill.

“It really caught my attention a lot just seeing the things he did the year before,” Hill said. “That’s what really pulled me towards coming to Georgia Tech, because Coach Johnson knows how to put the ball in the playmakers’ hands. Bay Bay was that playmaker. … I actually thought to myself, I know I can do it. I have to get better, get stronger, get faster, get bigger, I’m just ready for the season.”

Hill came to Georgia Tech ranked the No. 92 receiver in the country by ESPN Recruiting, and he was one of the top long jumpers in the country at Miller Grove High School in Georgia. As a senior, he broke the state long jump record with 25 feet, 8 inches -- a jump that would have won the 2009 ACC outdoor championship by 2.75 inches and would have tied for ninth at the most recent Olympic games.

He showed outstanding potential as a rookie at Georgia Tech last year, and is poised for a breakout season. Hill said everyone on staff from his strength coach to Johnson has been encouraging him and warning him not to get caught up in the preseason expectations.

“My mental approach, last year I was playing off height,” he said. “Now it’s more business. I’m trying to make it to the next level. I’m reading coverages different. I’m trying to stay in the film room as much as I can and see what’s going on.”

“You have to be a follower before you can be a leader,” he said. “Bay Bay showed me a lot and talked to me about a lot of different things before he left.”

Including how to make a name for yourself in a run-based offense.

What to watch in the ACC this spring

February, 15, 2010
2/15/10
10:00
AM ET
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.
Tags:

ACC, Russell Wilson, Darren Evans, Marc Verica, Boo Robinson, Phil Costa, Jamarr Robinson, Mike Glennon, David Wilson, Jimmy Graham, Jamie Harper, Michael Carter, Sean Renfree, Mikell Simpson, Austin Barrick, E.J. Wilson, Jacory Harris, Joe Joseph, Skylar Jones, T.J. Yates, Sean Bedford, Jonathan Dwyer, John Russell, Nate Irving, Thaddeus Lewis, E.J. Manuel, Ryan Williams, C.J. Spiller, Eric Moncur, Bruce Campbell, Demaryius Thomas, Rashawn Jackson, Cannon Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan McManus, Chris Turner, Dave Shinskie, Cordarrow Thompson, Richard Gordon, Christian Ponder, Johnny Williams, Morgan Burnett, Riley Skinner, Derrick Morgan, Jameel Sewell, Allen Bailey, Mike London, Mark Herzlich, Taylor Cook, Leon Wright, Ted Stachitas, Jim Ramella, Jonathan Cooper, Mark Stoops, Cameron Chism, A.J. Highsmith, Braden Hanson, Bryn Renner, Paul Pinegar, Austin Giles, Kaleb Ramsey, CHris Chancellor, Andre Ellington, Luke Kuechly, Cam Thomas, Marcus Gilchrist, Chase Rettig, Michael Strauss, Tanner Price, Anthony McCloud, Debrale Smiley, Brendan Cross, Antoine Hopkins, Bill Lazor, Brad Newman, C.J. Brown, Charlie Hatcher, Chris Drager, Chris Hazelton, Chris Ward, Clay Belton, Crezdon Butler, Danny O\'Brien, DeAndrew McDaniel, Dexter McDougle, Dominique Wallace, Duan Perez-Means, Isaiah Hamlette, J.R. Collins, James Gayle, Joseph Gilbert, Josh Bordner, Josh Holmes, Justin Gilbert, Kevin Parks, Kyle Paker, Michael Lockett, Ochuko Jenije, Quinton Coples, Rahsard Hall, Rick Petri, Rodney Smith, Roko Smalls, Ross Metheny, Sean Schroeder, Stephen Morris, Sydney Sarmiento, Torrey Mack, Trenton Hughes, Tydreke Powell, Tyrel Wilson, Wesley Oglesby, Willie Haulstead

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.

Georgia Tech WR Thomas going pro

January, 8, 2010
1/08/10
2:09
PM ET
Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has decided to forgo his senior season for the NFL, he said Friday. Thomas said he was projected by the NFL's draft advisory board to be a second-round pick, and that it was an extremely difficult decision.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
"I'm leaving," Thomas said. "It was tough, man. Basically it was so tough, I didn't want to leave coach [Paul] Johnson. I'm going to miss Coach."

Thomas said he feels like he can go to the NFL combine "and do a good 40-time and maybe jump up into the first round, late first round, something like that."

Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He led the ACC in receiving yards as well as yards per catch (25.1). Following Georgia Tech's win over Clemson in the ACC title game, Thomas told ESPN.com he was staying. When asked why he said that, Thomas said "he just didn't want to talk about it then."

Thomas said he hadn't talked to any of his teammates since the Orange Bowl loss, and that the decisions of the other talented juniors on Georgia Tech's roster had no influence on his decision.

"I guess everybody was OK with it," he said. "It was just my decision. Coach told me he wanted the best for me."

Thomas said he has not hired an agent yet.

Greetings from Land Shark Stadium

January, 5, 2010
1/05/10
6:28
PM ET
MIAMI, Fla. -- This has to be a bummer for Miami.

Here comes Georgia Tech, into the Hurricanes' home stadium, where Miami won 33-17 on Sept. 17, 2009, in what would be the Yellow Jackets' only conference loss of the season. But in the end, it was Georgia Tech that was the most consistent team in the ACC and Georgia Tech that deserves to be here on the ACC's biggest stage.

The parking lots are already crowded, and just from a quick walk from the bus to the media gate, there seemed to be an overwhelming number of Iowa fans. It's not a big advantage that Georgia Tech has played in this stadium once already this season, but there is something to be said about some familiarity on a day that's sure to produce a few extra nerves.

I've already mentioned the fact that Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt is 9 yards shy of the 1,000-yard rushing mark. The ACC single-season rushing record by a quarterback is 1,061 yards by Clemson's Woodrow Dantzler in 2001. There are also a few other individual and team records that could be set tonight in the FedEx Orange Bowl:

  • Georgia Tech is on track to break the ACC single-season record for rushing yards per game. The Jackets are averaging 307.2 rushing yards per game, and the ACC record is held by Wake Forest, which averaged 304 in 1971.
  • At 11-1, Tech is one win away from tying the ACC record for wins in a season. Only three teams in conference history have won 12 games: FSU (12-0) in 1999, Clemson (12-0) in 1981, and FSU (12-1) in 1993.
  • Junior Demaryius Thomas averages 25.1 yards per catch, which would be the highest in ACC history. The record, with a minimum of 25 receptions, is 22.3 yards by NC State's Owen Spencer in 2008. The record with a minimum of 35 receptions is 22 yards by Virginia's Herman Moore in 1990. Thomas has 46 catches entering this game.
This should be a great game, and you can join me and the other bloggers in ESPN.com's Virtual Pressbox tonight to talk about it. See you there, and here in the blogosphere.
Georgia Tech and Iowa will meet for the first time in Tuesday night’s FedEx Orange Bowl -- a game that features two top 10 teams and two conference coaches of the year. Something’s gotta give in the matchup of the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense (Georgia Tech) against a disciplined defense that holds opponents to just 122 rushing yards per game. There’s more to it than that, though. Here are three keys for each team:

Three keys for Georgia Tech:

1. Stop the run and make Iowa one-dimensional. Georgia Tech wants to make quarterback Ricky Stanzi beat them with his arm, but in order to do that, the Jackets will have to contain Iowa’s running back tandem of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher. Robinson leads the team by averaging 77.5 yards per game, while Wegher averages 48. Wegher has scored seven touchdowns and Robinson five. Georgia Tech’s past two opponents haven’t had to throw the ball much because they’ve been able to run it with ease.

2. Save the best for last. Iowa is a fourth-quarter team, and no matter what happens in the first three quarters, it’s not over ‘til it’s over with the Hawkeyes. Georgia Tech will have to play defense through the fourth quarter, as Iowa is 4-1 this season when trailing after three periods. Iowa has won four games by a total of eight points. The Hawkeyes trailed in 10 of 12 games, with the largest deficit being 14 points in the second half against both Indiana and Ohio State. Iowa trailed by 10 points in wins over Northern Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin. Iowa trailed Indiana by 10 points in the fourth period before winning 42-24.

3. Josh Nesbitt stays status quo. Nesbitt is the catalyst of the offense, and he’s put Georgia Tech in position to win every game this year. The Jackets will need him to keep it up, manage the offense based on what Iowa’s defense is doing and not force anything. He should finish this season with over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards passing, and odds are he’ll have to make use of both skills to win this one.

Three keys for Iowa

1. Win the turnover battle and sustain drives. Iowa can help its defense out if quarterback Ricky Stanzi shakes off the rust quickly and makes smart decisions with minimal mistakes. He’s thrown 14 interceptions this year. The longer the Hawkeyes can keep Paul Johnson’s offense off the field, the better chance they have of winning. Georgia Tech has had 18 touchdown drives of 10 plays or more this year.

2. Contain defensive end Derrick Morgan. He is a strong pass rusher and can line up in different places, which means that left tackle Bryan Bulaga isn’t going to be the only Hawkeye tasked with holding Morgan back. It will be a group effort, as Morgan leads the ACC and ranks sixth nationally with 12.5 sacks. He also has 18 tackles for loss, and could be playing his last collegiate game.

3. Limit the big plays. Even if Iowa is able to contain the triple option, the Hawkeyes can’t afford to fall asleep defending the run. Georgia Tech -- thanks in large part to receiver Demaryius Thomas and quarterback Josh Nesbitt -- has produced 67 plays of 20 yards or more, 38 plays of 30 yards or more, and 16 plays of 50 yards or longer.

FedEx Orange Bowl preview

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
9:00
AM ET
Here's a quick breakdown of Tuesday night's matchup between Georgia Tech (11-2) and Iowa (10-2):

WHO TO WATCH: Georgia Tech’s defensive front seven. Much has been made about the matchup between Georgia Tech’s offense against Iowa’s defense, and deservedly so, but if the Jackets don’t get Iowa off the field, it could be a long night. Paul Johnson has said he wants to stop the run and make Iowa one-dimensional. In their only two losses of the season – against Miami and Georgia – the best defense against the Jackets was simply keeping Georgia Tech’s offense off the field. Georgia Tech isn’t a catch-up team. They’re much better when they’re controlling the clock, and Georgia Tech’s defense will have to help.

WHAT TO WATCH: The turnover battle. Georgia Tech had three costly fumbles in its loss to LSU last year in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Jackets have cut down on their fumbles this year and have a plus-seven turnover margin, while Iowa has a plus-six. They key, though, is Iowa’s 19 interceptions. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi will return from an ankle injury that kept him out of the final two regular-season games, and while Stanzi has the uncanny ability to morph into one of the best quarterbacks in the country in the fourth quarter, he also has a tendency to give the ball away. Stanzi has 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions this year. Still, Georgia Tech’s secondary has been somewhat accommodating at times this year.

WHY WATCH: Because it’s been a long, long time since Georgia Tech was in a bowl game that meant this much (since 1967), and because the Jackets have the chance to cap off the ACC’s first winning bowl season since 2005. It could also be the final collegiate game for a handful of impressive Georgia Tech juniors, namely Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Dwyer and Derrick Morgan. This game also features two coaches who were named Coach of the Year in their respective conferences in Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

PREDICTION: Georgia Tech will punt. Iowa’s defense is good enough to at least force them to do that. (The Jackets enter this game having not punted in 22 straight possessions – since the Nov. 14 game at Duke). The Yellow Jackets will have a tough time stringing together any 11-minute drives in this game (see: Virginia). But in the end, Paul Johnson will make the necessary adjustments on the fly, and simply put – regardless of how the defense plays – Georgia Tech will find a way to score more points. The Yellow Jackets will redeem themselves from last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl loss with a 28-24 win over the Hawkeyes.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
3:18
PM ET
There were a lot of outstanding players in the ACC this year, but the following players rose above the rest and made ESPN.com’s All-ACC team:

Offense

QB -- Christian Ponder, Florida State

RB -- Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech

RB -- Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech

WR -- Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech

WR -- Donovan Varner, Duke

TE -- George Bryan, NC State

TE -- Michael Palmer, Clemson

OL -- Jason Fox, Miami

OL -- Anthony Castonzo, Boston College

OL -- Rodney Hudson, Florida State

OL – Sergio Render, Virginia Tech

OL -- Cord Howard, Georgia Tech

K -- Matt Bosher, Miami

Spc -- C.J. Spiller, Clemson

Defense

DL -- Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech

DL -- Robert Quinn, North Carolina

DL -- Nate Collins, Virginia

DL -- Ricky Sapp, Clemson

LB -- Cody Grimm, Virginia Tech

LB -- Luke Kuechly, Boston College

LB -- Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina

LB -- Alex Wujciak, Maryland

CB -- Kendric Burney, North Carolina

CB -- Brandon Harris, Miami

S -- DeAndre McDaniel, Clemson

S -- Deunta Williams, North Carolina

P -- Brent Bowden, Virginia Tech

ACC power rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
9:01
AM ET
Georgia Tech has been declared ACC champs, following suit with the power rankings for the past seven weeks, and deservedly so. The Jackets are the best team in the conference. The only team that has been able to stop the Jackets’ offense this season was Miami, and Georgia Tech should head into the Orange Bowl with confidence after winning the school’s first ACC title since 1990 in Paul Johnson’s second season.

For the first time all season (and probably in the past two), there was no change in the rankings:

1. Georgia Tech (11-2, 7-1 ACC; LW: No. 1) – The Yellow Jackets have had rapid success in just two seasons under Johnson, and if receiver Demaryius Thomas stays true to his word and decides to return instead of entering the NFL draft, this program could be headed for an even brighter future. First, though, the Jackets must fare better in their bowl than they did last year.

2. Virginia Tech (9-3, 6-2; LW: No. 2) – Saturday’s championships revealed that the Hokies went 2-1 against their nonconference opponents who played for their respective league titles. Virginia Tech beat East Carolina and Nebraska (which should’ve beat Texas), and lost to Alabama. The Hokies deserved their spot in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and have a great shot against Tennessee.

3. Clemson (8-5, 6-2; LW: No. 3) –The Tigers need more than just C.J. Spiller, and Georgia Tech exposed that on Saturday in Tampa. Clemson’s defense couldn’t stop the spread option, and it turned into a shootout, but Georgia Tech is one team you don’t want to get into a shootout with. It was, as one reader pointed out, Spiller vs. Georgia Tech.

4. Miami (9-3, 5-3; LW: No. 4) – The Hurricanes are a better team than they were at this time last year, when Jacory Harris was again thrust into the starting role on a big stage. Harris has improved, and so have the players around him, so Miami fans should expect a more inspired bowl performance.

5. North Carolina (8-4, 4-4; LW: No. 5) – The Tar Heels are in a sense staying home for the holidays by playing in Charlotte’s Meineke Car Care Bowl for the second straight year, but considering how much the team struggled in the first half of the season, any bowl game should be considered a success. Besides, maybe this year they’ll win.

6. Boston College (8-4, 5-3; LW: No. 6) – The Eagles get the consolation prize of heading to San Francisco for the Emerald Bowl, but this is another team that should take pride in what it has accomplished this year given the trying circumstances and obstacles. On paper, BC and USC look quite similar this year. The Trojans have taken a step back, but it will still be a great challenge for the Eagles.

7. Florida State (6-6, 4-4; LW: No. 7) – It’s been a sad state of affairs in Tallahassee, with the underplayed, poorly announced retirement of legendary coach Bobby Bowden, and Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett is hoping for a more celebratory sendoff for Bowden in his bowl. The move was unfair to both Miami and Boston College, who were still available with better records.

8. Wake Forest (5-7, 3-5; LW: No. 8) – The Demon Deacons are lucky there has been so much added drama going on with the bowl selection process and coaching changes throughout the conference that their poor finish this year was overshadowed.

9. Duke (5-7, 3-5; LW: No. 9) – For the second straight year under coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils created some positive buzz and made improvements, but once again, it fizzled at the end of the season. The next step will be to build on that progress each week during the season, but they’ll have to do it without graduated star quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.

10. NC State (5-7, 2-6; LW: No. 10) – Tailback Toney Baker has been granted a sixth year of eligibility, but he’s not sure if he’ll use it yet. Baker is considering his options with the NFL draft, but the Pack could definitely use him back.

11. Virginia (3-9, 2-6; LW: No. 11) – The Cavaliers have reportedly shown immediate interest in Richmond coach Mike London as soon as his season ended, but nothing has been confirmed yet. The sooner the Cavaliers announce a new coach, though, the more success they’ll have keeping their recruiting class intact.

12. Maryland (2-10, 1-7; LW: No. 12) – Ralph Friedgen isn’t going anywhere, but entire staffs don’t usually survive a 2-10 season, nor should they. There has been too much mediocrity in College Park for some changes not to be made. The question still remains what moves Friedgen will make, if any, to improve his program.

FedEx Orange Bowl

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
10:55
PM ET
Georgia Tech (11-2) vs. Iowa (10-2)

Jan 5., 8 p.m., (FOX)

Georgia Tech take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Georgia Tech has been an inspired team since its embarrassing 38-3 loss to LSU last year in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it enters the Orange Bowl determined not to suffer the same fate. In a matchup of two of the country’s top 10 teams, the Yellow Jackets’ offense will be unlike anything Iowa has seen this year. But the Hawkeyes are a disciplined defense that has what it takes to the stop the triple option -- dependable interior linemen. This game will feature two of the country’s top defensive linemen in Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan and defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn.

On paper, it’s a very intriguing matchup. Georgia Tech has the No. 2 rushing offense in the country, and the No. 11 scoring offense at 35.31 points per game. Iowa is 10th in the country in scoring defense at 15.5 points per game.

The players Iowa will need to stop, though, are B-back Jonathan Dwyer, quarterback Josh Nesbitt, and receiver Demaryius Thomas. All of them have big-play potential and showed it in Saturday’s win over Clemson en route to the program’s first ACC title since 1990. Thomas had his fourth reception of 70 yards or more, and his ninth of at least 50 yards. Statistically, Nesbitt and Dwyer are the second-best rushing tandem in ACC history.


Iowa take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Nothing came easily for Iowa this season, even the team's BCS at-large berth.

Hawkeyes fans had to sweat it out Sunday night and hope bowl selection committees prioritized what had happened on the field ahead of outside factors in their final decisions. Because between the lines, Iowa was a heck of a football team this fall. And it gets one final chance to silence its critics against ACC champion Georgia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Kirk Ferentz's team will get a big boost for the bowl as quarterback Ricky Stanzi returns from a severe right ankle sprain. Stanzi drives fans nuts with interceptions, but he's a tremendous clutch player and instills confidence in everyone around him. Stanzi and big-play wideouts Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos face a Georgia Tech defense that can be gashed.

The big question Jan. 5 will be how Iowa's fundamentally sound defense handles Jonathan Dwyer, Josh Nesbitt and Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, which ranks second nationally in rushing (307.2 ypg) and 11th in scoring (35.3 ppg). Iowa boasts an excellent defensive front seven, led by linebacker Pat Angerer and ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns. Those defenders need to be at their best against the Ramblin' Wreck.

Iowa returns to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2003, when it got crushed by USC. The Hawkeyes never have faced Georgia Tech.

TAMPA, Fla. – As Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas headed out of Raymond James Stadium to the team bus following the Jackets’ 39-34 win over Clemson in the Dr. Pepper ACC championship game, he answered one final very important question.

Yes, Thomas said with a huge grin, he’s coming back.

Apparently, the NFL can wait for at least one of the Jackets’ most talented juniors.

Really?

“I’m coming back,” Thomas repeated.

On Saturday, Georgia Tech gave him a reason to.

After only two seasons under coach Paul Johnson – a dramatic coaching change that brought with it an entirely new offense and a new defense – Georgia Tech (11-2, 7-1 ACC) won the program’s first outright conference championship since 1990, when the Jackets last won the national title. That next step might not be so far away, considering Johnson has advanced his team to the Orange Bowl in just two seasons and currently sits at No. 10 in the BCS standings.

“Well, I think it’s a goal, certainly,” Johnson said. “… It’s hard to get there, but it’s certainly the goal when we start every year. That’s what you’re shooting for, is to win the first one and the last one and all of them in between.”

With stumbles against only Miami and Georgia this year, Georgia Tech came awfully close to doing that. The Jackets proved on Saturday, though, that they’re the best team the ACC has to offer in 2009. In what was undoubtedly the most entertaining ACC championship game to date, Georgia Tech used a 13-play, 86-yard drive that ate up 4:45 late in the fourth quarter to come from behind and win.

Because of its remarkable offensive success all season, Georgia Tech is one of the few teams that is able to invoke fear into opposing fans and confidence in its own no matter the situation. So with 6:05 still left on the clock, trailing 34-33, and starting from its own 14-yard line, Georgia Tech knew it could still win. A standard quarterback sneak extended the eventual scoring drive on fourth-and-1, par for the course under Johnson.

“We usually are in four-down territory,” Johnson said with a smirk. “If you watch our games, nobody punts.”

Tonight, nobody did.

Georgia Tech racked up 469 total yards, a championship game record. They moved the ball at will on Clemson’s defense, which was holding opponents to 19.5 points and 304.5 total yards. The most devastating drive to the Tigers, though, was Georgia Tech’s last.

“It makes you sick,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s just sickening. You know, again, at some point we’re going to grow up and be a championship team again.”

Georgia Tech b-back Jonathan Dwyer capped the Jackets’ final drive with a 15-yard touchdown run, and defensive end Derrick Morgan smothered Clemson’s chances at a comeback with a sack on Kyle Parker on the Tigers’ final fourth down. That’s when the oranges began to pelt the field.

The motivation to win the title game, Morgan said, began even before Johnson arrived.

“I think it goes back all the way to our ’07 class,” said Morgan. “We came in here with the mentality that we’re going to win a championship and try to take this program to the next level … We’ve been working hard here since coach Johnson got here – the winter workouts, coaches’ runs, off-season conditioning, all that stuff. A lot of hard work and time went into the season, and it’s paying dividends.”

It could pay off even more, if more juniors like Morgan decide to stick around with Thomas. That’s unlikely, though, as Morgan and Dwyer are potential first-round draft picks.

There are only six scholarship seniors on this roster. Three juniors were elected captains of the team.

What might the future hold for this young, BCS bowl-bound team?

“Hopefully the national championship next year,” said A-back Roddy Jones. “We want to come back and keep getting better. We just want to keep improving, and wherever that takes us, that’s where we’re going to go.”

For now, it’s the Orange Bowl, which means there’s a new standard at Georgia Tech under Johnson.

Redemption for Tech's Thomas

December, 5, 2009
12/05/09
10:39
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Georgia Tech receiver Demaryius Thomas has redeemed himself from last weekend's costly drop against Georgia. Consider that play officially behind him, and it was good to see because we all knew Thomas was better than that drop, and he just reminded everyone.

Thomas caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nesbitt to give the Jackets a 30-20 lead. It was Thomas' first catch of the night. Not every Georgia Tech drive has to take five minutes. This one only lasted 1:23, and that's the trick to defending it. That was Thomas' fourth reception of 70 yards or more this year. He now has 1,147 receiving yards this year, the second-highest single-season total in Georgia Tech history.
TAMPA, Fla. -- For the second straight week, a Georgia Tech receiver dropped a key ball that could've prolonged a scoring drive. One week after Demaryius Thomas dropped a fourth-down ball against Georgia on the Jackets' final chance of the game, Roddy Jones just dropped a key pass here in the ACC championship game.

These guys don't get many opportunities to catch the ball, so when they do, they have to hang onto it. Usually, they do. I've been watching Thomas, and he's done a great job of blocking so far in this game. Instead of the chance at the touchdown, though, the Jackets had to settle for a career-long 48-yard field goal by Scott Blair, and trail, 7-3.

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