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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

All-ACC bowl team

January, 12, 2010
1/12/10
11:37
AM ET
Bowl season deserves more than just helmet stickers. It deserves its own team. Regardless of whether they won or lost, these ACC players had an impact this postseason. Here is your 2009 All-ACC bowl team:

[+] EnlargeRyan Williams
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIRyan Williams ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Offense and Special Teams

QB: E.J. Manuel, Florida State: The Gator Bowl MVP completed 17 of 24 passes for 189 yards, had 73 rushing yards on 14 carries and one touchdown with zero turnovers. He led the Noles to 415 total yards in their 33-21 win over No. 18 West Virginia.

RB: Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech: Williams ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Tennessee. He finished the season with 1,655 rushing yards and broke Kevin Jones' single-season school record (1,647).

RB: Jermaine Thomas, Florida State: He had 121 yards rushing on 25 carries and two touchdowns. He also had one catch for nine yards and posted his fourth 100-yard game of the season. He led FSU back from a 14-3 first quarter deficit against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

WR: Rich Gunnell, Boston College: Gunnell finished with six catches for 130 yards, breaking Pete Mitchell's school record for yards receiving with 2,659 in his career. His 61-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter closed the gap to 14-13 against USC in the Emerald Bowl.

WR: Greg Little, UNC: He finished with seven catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Pitt in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

WR: Jarrett Boykin, Virginia Tech: His 64-yard reception to the Tennessee 3 in the final seconds of the first half was a major turning point in the game. The Vols had already begun to head to the locker room, but officials determined there were still two seconds left on the clock. The play led to Matt Waldron’s 21-yard field goal and a 17-14 halftime lead. Boykin finished with four catches for 120 yards.

TE: Jimmy Graham, Miami: He had three catches for 30 receiving yards against Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl and became the seventh Hurricane to record at least 200 receiving yards this season. Graham closed out his only season with the Canes with 15 catches for 213 yards and five touchdowns.

OL: Ed Wang, Virginia Tech: In his final performance, Wang paved the way for a career-day for Williams, and helped the Hokies rack up 438 total yards of offense.

OL: Sergio Render, Virginia Tech: Like Wang, Render was impressive in his final performance as a Hokie, and helped Virginia Tech use a balanced offense and gave quarterback Tyrod Taylor the time he needed to make plays.

OL: Rodney Hudson, Florida State: The All-American returned to the lineup after missing two games with knee sprain and helped FSU rack up 415 total yards, 37 minutes time of possession and he did not allow a sack.

OL: Andrew Datko, Florida State: He teamed with Hudson on the left side (where two of three rushing touchdowns came) and kept a WVU team averaging 2.6 sacks per game without one.

OL: Dalton Freeman, Clemson: He graded out at 80 percent with seven knockdowns. Freeman was key to Clemson averaging 5.5 yards per rush and a Clemson bowl record 6.8 yards per play against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

K: Dustin Hopkins, Florida State: He tied a school bowl record converting 4 of 5 field goal attempts and scoring a season-high 15 points on a windy day. His 42-yarder at the end of the first half pulled FSU within 14-13.

P: Chandler Anderson, Georgia Tech: He had a career-high seven punts with an average of 49.1 yards and a long of 59 yards. Three of his punts were downed inside the 20 and only one was returned.

Spc: C.J. Spiller, Clemson: Spiller finished his career with 172 all-purpose yards (68 rushing, 57 receiving), giving him an ACC record 2,670 for the season and 7,588 for his career. He finished his career in second place in FBS history in all-purpose yards.

(Read full post)


Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


As an exercise and sports science major, North Carolina defensive end E.J. Wilson is well aware of the experimentation needed to advance science in sports, and his appreciation for it led him to be among the first to volunteer to try the Tar Heels’ latest cutting-edge technology.

Well, technically, he had to swallow it.

The bigger-than-an-Advil CorTemp pills are ingestible thermometers that helped the UNC coaches and athletic trainers monitor the players’ core body temperature this summer, and in turn schedule breaks accordingly. The experiment was designed to help the players avoid serious heat-related illnesses and help the staff distinguish the difference between heat problems and concussions.

Here’s how it works: Each athlete swallows one pill about four to five hours before practice or a game, and the pill makes its way through the small intestine and the digestive tract. (No worries, it’s like ma’s meatloaf, it only stays in your system for a day.) Eighteen players were monitored this summer, and almost every position and body type was tested.

Two trainers walked around with handheld monitors (Wilson described them as “big graphing calculators,” and every few minutes put it up to the players’ abdomens or backs and it reads their core body temperature. During the breaks the players were monitored every minute. The study was done twice during training camp and they’ll do it a few more times during the regular season.

“It was fascinating,” Wilson said. “As a little kid I watched "The Magic School Bus" a lot, and it was kind of like having a little Magic School Bus floating around in there. What they told me was I was hydrating well, but during practice I was drinking more water than Gatorade. As I was going through practice, it seemed like I was hydrated, but my muscles were getting dehydrated, so I had to drink a lot more Gatorade. It actually really helped. It made me feel a lot better during practice. It was actually a very successful experiment in my opinion.”

It was only the latest advance in a long grant-funded concussion study at UNC. For the past decade, UNC has been doing research on concussions and mild-traumatic brain injuries. About 60 players have accelerometers in their helmets, little gadgets that measure G-forces and impact. Every hit is measured and recorded by a computer in a trunk on the sideline. The sensors also have the ability to measure body temperature, but they were looking for some confirmation that those devices were accurate, so they decided to try the CorTemp pills.

“We’re always looking at the practice schedule in terms of the different periods we have during practice, how to structure practice, when to do certain periods, and probably most importantly, when to take breaks,” said Scott Trulock, the head athletic trainer for football. “We’ve always had to guess what’s the ideal time period to take a break? This was a way we could put some science to that.”

Each pill cost about $40, but the project is funded through the grant that became possible because of Kevin Guskiewicz, chair of UNC’s department of exercise and sports science.

Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Trulock said a dangerous core body temperature would be around 104. An ideal body temperature from a competing standpoint would be 100 to 101 -- breaking a sweat but not exhausted and laboring. When the Tar Heels were done with their “flex and stretch” part of practice, the players were at their ideal temperature. As practice went on, they’d hover around 102 and 103, and that’s when they’d take a break. About seven or eight minutes into the break was when they got back down to the ideal temperature.

“It was an interesting study to see exactly how quickly core temperature went up, and how quickly it did go down,” said UNC coach Butch Davis. “We talked a little bit about did we need more breaks, did the breaks need to be longer? It was interesting to see that typically we would take a five-minute break and everyone would be able to take their helmets off, get in front of the fans, get out of the sun.

"If we were practicing in the afternoon, and it was 97 degrees was a five-minute break maybe as good as a three-minute break, or did instantly in three minutes the core temperature drop significantly enough a kid could’ve potentially gone back into practice or a game? So there’s still things they’re still studying on it, but I thought it was very interesting and I hope people do recognize our sports medicine program is on the cutting edge of things like that.”

Trulock said the experiment is likely to continue this fall.

“It’s like anything else with science, when you answer one question, you raise two more,” he said. “We got some valuable information to help us get an idea of what we’re looking for. It’s definitely a program we’re very proud of. Our goal is to make the game safer, and science is helpful in terms of helping us understand how [concussions] occur, when they occur, how to prevent them, and this tool has really helped us gather a lot of information and make us better able to make decisions on returning athletes and identifying [concussions] when they happen.”

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- During a group photo shoot for the players on Sunday at the ACC Football Kickoff, Clemson bandit end Ricky Sapp asked Virginia Tech tight end Greg Boone what it felt like to wear his ACC championship ring -- the third one. Boone's bling was impossible to miss.

"He said it felt good," Sapp said, almost wistfully.

Clemson, the team that at this time a year ago was expected to be a formidable opponent for Alabama and cruise through the ACC to make some noise on the national level, has officially switched places with the Hokies, who now bear the brunt of the league's expectations.

Clemson, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech -- quite frankly, nobody around here seems to care much who it is, just as long as somebody in the ACC is a legitimate national title contender. It's exactly what this conference needs to give its reputation a boost.

An NCAA-record 10 ACC teams were bowl eligible in a crazy, competitive and unpredictable 2008 season, and the conference took a step forward in polishing its image. There is still plenty of progress yet to be made, though, said ACC commissioner John Swofford, who added the ACC has "unlimited potential."

"I think if you really step back and take a look at the conferences a year ago, top to bottom, we may well have been the deepest conference in the country a year ago," Swofford said. "What we didn't have is a team or two involved in the national championship race down the stretch. I think that has a lot to do with how a conference is perceived competitively, maybe more than it should. But the fact of the matter is it does have a lot to do with that."

Swofford said that once teams are involved in the national championship race and win certain games outside the conference, "then I think that our league will receive the kind of respect it deserves."

The Hokies are the front-runners to win the Coastal Division title, and should be a preseason top-10 team, but it's not as if they're strangers to the top of the BCS standings. Boone remembers what was lost in 2007 when the Hokies were humiliated 48-7 at LSU. That season, the Tigers bumped Virginia Tech to No. 3 in the final BCS standings.

Can Virginia Tech be the team the conference can depend on?

"We have been that team," Boone said, "we just didn't win the games we should have."

Of course, Virginia Tech isn't the only team with the hope -- or the potential -- to make a splash on the national stage. In fact, the Hokies are going to have a difficult time getting through their conference schedule unscathed, let alone the lone nonconference schedule in the league that doesn't include an FCS team. It's the parity in the ACC, the players say, that makes title talk so difficult.

"I think that's why the ACC is so competitive -- because everybody wants to take that role and become that leader of the pack," said Miami offensive tackle Jason Fox. "I think we're really close. [The freshmen] have had a year under their belt, we have a great senior class, great senior leadership, and we've got two great coordinators. ... We're getting all the pieces together."

It's a rebuilding challenge both Miami and Florida State are facing simultaneously, and many say it's the resurrection of those two programs alone that can make the difference.

"For the ACC to really be a top-tier conference, there needs to be some people fighting for that national championship and being top five," said FSU quarterback Christian Ponder. "But the problem is, the ACC is so competitive and the ACC is also known for great defenses, so it's hard to really get up there. But I think we're close. There's a bunch of good teams this year that are getting better, getting up to that top tier, so we'll see. Florida State has a lot of potential. Virginia Tech should be ranked high up there. There's a lot of potential in the conference."

The question is when that potential will be realized.

North Carolina coach Butch Davis has told his players that they should want to play "when the blimp is in the sky," meaning it's a nationally televised game that holds postseason consequences. UNC defensive end E.J. Wilson said the Tar Heels are building the program into a national contender, but in order for the league to be taken seriously, they've got to have some company.

"I do agree with that because you have the Pac-10, who has USC, which is competing for a national championship almost every year, then you have the SEC, and they have four or five teams every year that's competing for it," said Wilson. "So in order for us to get talked about in the same respect with those conferences and be mentioned in the same breath with those, we have to have a few teams -- not just one team -- consistently every year competing for the national championship. We need to get more teams that can actually be successfully on the national level and not just around here."

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

There are some teams in the ACC that are stacked at a particular position or positions -- meaning there's not just depth there, but depth and legitimate all-conference talent. Here's a quick look at who in the conference is simply loaded:

UNC front seven: All four starters return on the defensive line, and there is outstanding depth both there and in the secondary. On the line, tackle Cam Thompson is coming off his best season at UNC, tackle Marvin Austin and end E.J. Wilson both started the majority of games last season, and Robert Quinn had 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

Linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant both started every game last season, and the position is the deepest it's been in recent years. Carter led the team with 11 tackles for loss and Sturdivant led the nation with 87 solo tackles.

Georgia Tech running backs: Jonathan Dwyer, Roddy Jones, Anthony Allen, Marcus Wright -- so many players, only one football.

Georgia Tech secondary: Morgan Burnett, Rashaad Reid, Mario Butler, Dominique Reese, and Cooper Taylor all have experience, and the group also welcomes back Jerrard Tarrant from a suspension.

Virginia Tech running backs: Darren Evans and Ryan Williams are all the Hokies will need, but they've also got Josh Oglesby and Kenny Lewis Jr. as players they can count on.

Boston College secondary: The Eagles return DeLeon Gause, Wes Davis and Roderick Rollins, who have combined for 32 career starts. This should be the best group BC has had in a while.

Clemson defensive line: The Tigers return three starters across the front, and coach Dabo Swinney has said this unit could be the strength of the entire team. Ricky Sapp is the leader, senior Kevin Alexander is a returning starter, and there are really three starters returning for the two defensive end positions, including DaQuan Bowers, who started six games last year and finished with 47 tackles, the most among the linemen.

Miami wide receivers: Travis Benjamin, Aldarius Johnson, Thearon Collier, LaRon Byrd, Kendal Thompkins, Tommy Streeter ... the Hurricanes could field a team that consists entirely of receivers.

Florida State offensive line: The Noles are oozing with talent here. Tackle Andrew Datko, guard Rodney Hudson and center Ryan McMahon combined to start all but one game last season. What was the youngest offensive line in the FBS last season could be one of the best this year. For the first time since 2004, all five starters return.

Wake Forest offensive line: The Demon Deacons return eight offensive linemen with a total of 118 career starts among them. Jeff Griffin and Joe Birdsong are Wake's returning starters at tackle while Barrett McMillin and Joe Looney each started at guard in 2008. Russell Nenon, who started the season at guard, moved to center at midseason following an injury to Trey Bailey. Bailey returns after fully healing from a broken ankle. The Deacons also welcome back Chris DeGeare who missed the 2008 season while getting his academics in order.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

North Carolina defensive end E.J. Wilson, a redshirt junior, never forgot the first time he faced Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights came into Kenan Stadium for the 2006 season opener and left with a 21-16 win that propelled them to an 11-2 season. UNC crashed to 3-9.

This year, the tables appear to have turned. North Carolina beat Rutgers, 44-12, in front of a nationally televised audience last Thursday and sent the message that yes, more than just the uniforms have changed in Chapel Hill.

"One of the big things for the people in my class and who were true freshmen, it was all about redemption," Wilson said, "about showing the teams that used to beat up on us and overlook us that we're here now and we're here to stay."

Virginia Tech has been one of those teams. The Hokies have a 4-0 record against UNC since they joined the ACC, and are looking to make it 5-0 when they face the Tar Heels at 3:30 p.m. in Chapel Hill on Saturday. Virginia Tech was favored to win the Coastal Division, and North Carolina picked to finish second. After beating Rutgers for their first out-of-state road win in 20 tries, though, UNC asserted itself as equally if not more talented than the Hokies, who are still searching for playmakers on offense.

Whoever wins this game isn't guaranteed the Coastal Crown, but it will certainly make one of them the frontrunner for it.

"This is a very important game for us," Wilson said. "It's the first game in ACC play and as you know, Virginia Tech has pretty much dominated the ACC since they've been here. If we can get a victory over them, that would say a lot about the direction our program is headed in."

UNC coach Butch Davis said the hard work at practice going into the Rutgers game and the dividends it paid are just "scratching the surface."

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