NCF Nation: Isaac Bennett

ACC predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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The big miss last week was pretty gigantic in retrospect. Neither one of us picked Florida State to beat Clemson. D'oh! We can admit when we are wrong, and we were very wrong. HD also missed on two other picks, going 3-3 for the week, while AA correctly called Georgia Tech and Wake Forest wins to go to 5-1.

AA has a two-game lead on HD, with an overall record of 55-10. There won't be any separation this week. Read on to find out more.

Wake Forest (4-3, 2-2) at No. 7 Miami (6-0, 2-0), noon, ESPNU. #WAKEvsMIA. Miami is not only on distraction alert thanks to the NCAA, it also is on lookahead alert with a potential top-10 showdown against in-state rival Florida State next weekend. Miami simply cannot afford to overlook Wake Forest, which has won two straight. Though Miami leads the series 7-3, all three Wake Forest wins have come in South Florida. One of the bigger matchups to watch features Michael Campanaro against a banged-up Miami secondary. Campanaro has been his usual productive self and also threw a touchdown pass against Maryland last week. Miami gets Duke Johnson back, good news for a team that will be without Phillip Dorsett.

AA picks: Miami 35, Wake Forest 17

HD’s pick: Miami 35, Wake Forest 21

Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2) at Virginia (2-5, 0-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #GTvsUVA. The Jackets looked unstoppable last week in a shutout win over Syracuse, while Virginia stopped itself from picking up its first ACC win, blowing a 22-point lead on Duke. The Jackets played nearly flawlessly, with zero penalties and just one turnover and might have turned a corner on offense. They have won three of the past four in the series. Given how low morale must be in Charlottesville, Georgia Tech has the edge.

AA picks: Georgia Tech 30, Virginia 17

HD’s pick: Georgia Tech 38, Virginia 17

Pitt (4-2) at Navy (3-3), 1 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Pitt beat Duke, which beat Navy pretty handily, so therefore Pitt should win this game. Right? Do not be surprised if the Midshipmen put a scare into the Panthers, who had to survive a closer game than anticipated last week against Old Dominion. Isaac Bennett had a career game with 240 yards rushing but all eyes will be on the Pitt defense and how it handles the Navy option. Pitt gets a similar test next week against Georgia Tech.

AA picks: Pitt 30, Navy 23

HD’s pick: Pitt 31, Navy 21

NC State (3-3, 0-3) at No. 2 Florida State (6-0, 4-0), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2. #NCSTvsFSU. Given past history, there are those who believe the Noles are on upset alert. Not so fast. The Wolfpack and Noles are vastly different teams today than they were a year ago. First and foremost, Florida State has a game-changer at quarterback who, quite frankly, seems too good to be true. NC State did a nice job getting pressure on Tajh Boyd in their matchup earlier this year, but Jameis Winston does a better job than any quarterback in the country at handling guys in his face. NC State does get Brandon Mitchell back, but the Wolfpack simply do not have the type of offense to stay in this game, averaging 12.3 points in three ACC games.

AA picks: Florida State 45, NC State 13

HD’s pick: Florida State 48, NC State 10

No. 9 Clemson (6-1, 4-1) at Maryland (5-2, 1-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN. #CLEMvsMD. The Tigers have to be careful not to let the Florida State loss beat them twice. Players seem to realize they are still in good position to get an at-large BCS berth if they can win out. Maryland might have provided tougher competition last month, but right now, the Terps are reeling thanks to their familiar foe -- injuries. Not only are Stefon Diggs and Deon Long out for the season, but quarterback C.J. Brown's status remains up in the air because of an undisclosed injury. The defense also has been hurt because of injuries too, leaving this team too depleted to pull the upset.

AA picks: Clemson 40, Maryland 17

HD’s pick: Clemson 38, Maryland 17

Boston College (3-3, 1-2) at North Carolina (1-5, 0-3), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. #BCvsUNC. The Eagles have done a terrific job running the ball, so you know the game plan going in will be to beat the Tar Heels with the power run game. North Carolina ranks No. 102 in the nation in rushing defense, and lost to Miami in part because it could not stop Dallas Crawford in the fourth quarter. You have to wonder how North Carolina picks itself up after such a devastating home defeat to Miami. The Tar Heels had some great moments, especially tight end Eric Ebron, but they have found ways to lose games all season.

AA picks: Boston College 27, North Carolina 24

HD’s pick: Boston College 21, UNC 17

Duke (5-2, 1-2) at No. 14 Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. #DUKEvsVT. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer had high praise for the way Duke coach David Cutcliffe has turned around the Blue Devils program, but Duke is still a long way from being in the upper echelon of the ACC. Last season, against a down Virginia Tech team, Duke could not hang on to a 20-0 first-quarter lead and lost. This Virginia Tech team is much better. The best matchup to watch in this one features Duke receiver Jamison Crowder against the supremely talented Virginia Tech secondary. Antone Exum is expected to make his long-awaited return. He faces a big test against Crowder.

AA picks: Virginia Tech 27, Duke 14

HD’s pick: Virginia Tech 34, Duke 21

ACC weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
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Well that was quite a weekend, huh? And after all of that ... the ACC still has three top-10 teams going into Week 9. But before we look ahead, let's take one last look back at the week that was in the conference.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRashad Greene and the Seminoles, who are ranked No. 2 in the first BCS standings, dominated Clemson, 51-14.
The good: The ACC has a clear national title contender, and that is what is needed most for this conference to establish itself as a legitimate force atop college football. Looking for someone to dethrone Alabama and the mighty SEC? You might need to look no further than Saturday night's game at Clemson, when Florida State punched the Tigers in the mouth early and dominated from start to finish, deflating a much-hyped game in a way that had not been seen in this sport since the Crimson Tide did the same to Notre Dame in last season's BCS title game. The ACC has not had so much as a one-loss conference champion since the Seminoles' 12-0 national title campaign in 1999, and it is extremely difficult to see an outfit as talented as the one that owned Death Valley this weekend dropping two contests, based on its schedule. One loss will be hard enough for any other conference foe to deliver, as Florida State checked in at No. 2 in the first BCS standings and now has every reason to believe it can compete for a national title. (Its quarterback could be pretty busy come awards time, too.)

The bad: No, this was not "pulling a Clemson." The Tigers simply got beat, badly, by a better team. And you can very well make the argument that they could and would beat every other ACC team outside of Florida State. But this was their moment, complete with a second visit from "College GameDay" and another prime-time showcase for a program with national title aspirations. Instead, this game was over shortly after it started, with Tajh Boyd not performing up to expectations and the highly touted, improved defense proving to be no match for the Seminoles' skill players. This has to be, in some ways, disheartening, considering this was Clemson's shot at home with a senior quarterback against a Seminoles team that had lost 11 NFL draft picks and will only get better moving forward. Clemson, currently ranked ninth, can still have a very strong season, so long as it doesn't reel from Saturday's rude awakening.

The ugly: Syracuse went into Atlanta with a bit of momentum after registering its first ACC win, at NC State. Instead a Georgia Tech team that had lost three in a row smacked the Orange from start to finish, winning 56-0 for its second shutout of the season, marking the first time the Yellow Jackets had shut out two opponents in a season since defensive coordinator Ted Roof was a team captain in 1985. Terrel Hunt struggled in his third conference game, failing again to reach the 100-yard passing mark and this time getting pulled for Drew Allen. Defensive tackle John Raymon was lost for the season as well with a right knee injury. The Orange could use the bye to regroup before hosting Wake Forest on Nov. 2.

The walking wounded: It was bad enough that Maryland struggled throughout a 34-10 loss to Wake Forest. But the Terrapins also lost two of their top offensive weapons, with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering season-ending leg injuries. Diggs broke his fibula and Long broke his fibula and tibia. Maryland had started 4-0 before losing 63-0 at Florida State, barely beating Virginia and then getting routed by the Demon Deacons. It had already suffered a handful of defensive injuries before Saturday, and things won't get any easier this coming Saturday as it hosts No. 9 Clemson, which is coming off its first loss.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney, DeShawn Williams
AP Photo/Mike StewartCan Dabo Swinney's Clemson team bounce back from its big loss to Florida State?
The history: On the other end of that matchup in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wake Forest saw a new receiver etch his name to the top of the school record book. Michael Campanaro had 11 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown, becoming the Demon Deacons' career leader in receptions with 217, passing Desmond Clark. He is second in the ACC in both catches (55) and receiving yards (704) on the season, and he also threw a touchdown pass for good measure against the Terrapins.

The second-half charge: Duke finds itself on the cusp of bowl eligibility for the second straight year after overcoming a 22-point deficit at Virginia and pulling out a 35-22 win to improve to 5-2. The Blue Devils got a boost from both quarterbacks as Anthony Boone threw two touchdown passes and Brandon Connette ran one in for a score. Duke converted four fourth-down second-half plays as it scored the game's final 35 points and delivered the reeling Cavaliers another blow as they fell to 2-5 overall and 0-3 in conference play. Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage publicly backed coach Mike London last week, but questions will continue to mount if the Cavaliers continues to struggle.

The anomaly: Miami is No. 7 in the BCS standings after eking out a victory Thursday at one-win North Carolina. Stephen Morris struggled, throwing four interceptions, which marked the third straight game the Hurricanes had turned the ball over four times (Miami somehow won all three games). The Canes are 6-0 and host Wake Forest this weekend before traveling to Florida State on Nov. 2, but they lost Duke Johnson (head) and Phillip Dorsett (knee) to injuries in Chapel Hill. Johnson is expected to be fine, but Dorsett will miss four to six weeks with an MCL tear.

The ground boost: Pitt finally got the lift it needed from its rushing game, as Isaac Bennett carried the ball 30 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-24 win over Old Dominion. The Panthers improved from 105th to 91st nationally in rushing yards per game (141.67). For a program that had tallied just 8 and 23 yards rushing in its previous two games, the timing could not have been better.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
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There was a definite shake-up in the ACC hierarchy this weekend, as No. 5-ranked Florida State went to Death Valley and humbled No. 3-ranked Clemson 51-14 on Saturday night. The Seminoles, led by their unflappable 19-year-old quarterback, Jameis Winston, dominated the Tigers from start to finish. For the first time this season, the ACC has a new No. 1:

1. Florida State (6-0, 4-0 ACC, last week: 2): The defense was the storyline, as the Seminoles flustered veteran quarterback Tajh Boyd into what was easily the worst outing of his career. He threw two picks and just one touchdown and completed only 46 percent of his passes. Florida State converted two turnovers into touchdowns early and never looked back. The Noles host NC State this weekend, but this Florida State team is light years better than the one that was upset by the Wolfpack a season ago. There’s not even a hint of an upset brewing in Tallahassee.

2. Miami (6-0, 2-0, LW: 3): The Hurricanes didn’t look like a top-10 team on Thursday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., where they needed a game-winning touchdown from backup running back Dallas Crawford with 16 seconds left to beat a North Carolina team that has now sunk to 1-5. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris threw four interceptions and the Canes lost two of their top playmakers -- receiver Phillip Dorsett and running back Duke Johnson -- to injuries. Miami found a way to win, though, and only Wake Forest stands between the Canes and their showdown with the rival Noles in two weeks. Expect both to be undefeated for that game.

3. Clemson (6-1, 4-1, LW: 1) : If Clemson had lost to FSU in a close, hard-fought game, it wouldn’t have taken so much criticism, but because the Tigers lost so convincingly, it’s clear the gap between Florida State and Clemson was as wide as the lopsided score indicated. Clemson’s chances at a national title were devastated, along with Boyd’s Heisman Trophy hopes, all in four quarters. The spotlight has shifted to Florida State while the Tigers try to regroup on Saturday at Maryland.

4. Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0, LW: 4): The Hokies had a bye week to prepare for Duke on Saturday, but they have quietly continued to work their way up the conference standings this fall. Quarterback Logan Thomas has made significant strides and cut down on his interceptions, and the defense continues to look like one of the best in the country. The matchup in Miami should determine the Coastal division winner this fall, and if the Canes continue to turn it over at this disconcerting rate, it’s the Hokies’ title to lose.

5. Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2, LW: 11): The Yellow Jackets played as if they had something to prove on Saturday, ending a three-game losing streak with a complete pummeling of Syracuse. Georgia Tech scored seven rushing touchdowns in a 56-0 rout of the Orange. It was the program’s biggest margin of victory in an ACC game. The Jackets need to win three of their next five to become bowl eligible, and a road trip to struggling Virginia is up next.

6. Pittsburgh (4-2, 2-2, LW: 6): It wasn’t exactly a flawless performance in a 35-24 win against Old Dominion, but the Panthers took care of business, and their only two losses are to Florida State and Virginia Tech, two of the top teams in the ACC right now. The Panthers got what they needed from Isaac Bennett, who ran for a career-high 240 yards and three touchdowns. They’re going to have to sharpen their game, though, for back-to-back road trips to Navy and Georgia Tech.

7. Duke (5-2, 1-2, LW: 7): The Blue Devils didn’t quit on the road, and they’re just one win away from bowl eligibility for the second straight season under coach David Cutcliffe. Duke overcame a 22-0 deficit at Virginia to scrape its way back to a 35-22 win. It was a remarkable comeback by Duke and an utter meltdown by the Hoos. Duke has now won three straight heading into Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech.

8. Wake Forest (4-3, 2-2, LW: 10): The Deacs have hit their stride offensively, and receiver Michael Campanaro continues to be the face of the team. Wake’s defense, though, was a highlight in the its win over Maryland, and the team has helped keep its bowl hopes alive. Wake Forest will face a tough test this week, as it has to travel to undefeated Miami.

9. Maryland (5-2, 1-2, LW: 5): Not only do the Terps seem to have a quarterback controversy between starter C.J. Brown and backup Caleb Rowe, but they’ve also got injuries to two of their top receivers in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Brown was benched in the loss to Wake Forest and replaced by Rowe, but neither of them could overcome a gritty performance by the Deacs’ veteran defense. What once seemed like a guaranteed return to the postseason has now become a shrinking window with no margin for error.

10. Boston College (3-3, 1-2, LW: 9): The Eagles have lost three of their past four but have developed a reputation as one of the toughest teams in the ACC nonetheless. Two of those losses have come to Atlantic division leaders FSU and Clemson. The Eagles had a bye week to prepare for their road trip to North Carolina, and, considering how poorly UNC has played this season, the Eagles have a good shot at their second league win.

11. Syracuse (3-4, 1-2, LW: 8): It’s been an unpleasant introduction into the ACC for the Orange, to say the least. Georgia Tech put on a clinic against Cuse on Saturday, and the defense went into shutdown mode. Terrel Hunt has struggled, completing 43.1 percent of his passes against league opponents. The Orange have a much-needed bye week before facing Wake Forest on Nov. 2.

12. NC State (3-3, 0-3, LW: 12): Like BC, the Pack has lost three of its past four. The difference is that NC State is still winless in conference play under first-year coach Dave Doeren. Starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell is expected to return for Saturday’s game at Florida State, his first time playing since he broke a bone in his left foot in the season opener.

13. North Carolina (1-5, 0-3, LW: 13): The Tar Heels got their best defensive performance of the season on Thursday night against Miami, and tight end Eric Ebron put on quite an audition for the NFL scouts in attendance, but the Tar Heels couldn’t stop the run and are now off to their worst start since 2006. UNC has lost four straight and will try to rebound on Saturday at home against BC.

14. Virginia (2-5, 0-3, LW: 14): After squandering a 22-point lead at home against Duke on Saturday, Mike London’s career is seemingly hanging by a thread. Whether the Hoos can win another game is a legitimate question, and, despite the administration’s continued support for London, there doesn’t seem to be any way he could survive a 2-10 season.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 4

September, 19, 2013
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Here are a few things to keep an eye on in the ACC during Week 4.

[+] EnlargeBryan Underwood
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesNC State seems to have a knack for celebrating big upsets, including last year's win over then-No. 3 FSU.
1. Upset city? Raleigh, N.C., has been the site of a huge national upset in each of the past two years. NC State topped then-No. 7 Clemson 37-13 in 2011, then shocked No. 3 Florida State 17-16 last year. The Wolfpack will have the nation's eyes watching them tonight when they host the No. 3 Tigers.

2. A couple of big conference games. Yes, this week's college football schedule is quite underwhelming, but the ACC has a rather nice lineup. The conference has three league games and every team but Boston College is playing this week, plus it has an intriguing nonconference matchup between West Virginia and Maryland.

3. Lee tries to keep it going through the air. Georgia Tech started its four-game division stretch on a strong note at Duke, and it will try to gain some early separation in the race Saturday against North Carolina. Vad Lee threw four touchdown passes against the Blue Devils, and while matching that for a second straight week may be asking a lot, offensive fireworks figure to be the norm again in a rematch of a game the Yellow Jackets won last year by a 68-50 score.

4. Journell's rebound. Cody Journell missed two field goals and an extra point in Virginia Tech's five-point win at East Carolina. Credit the senior for owning his bad day afterward, vowing to never let it happen again. He had entered the contest 36-of-46 for his career, and he will look to get back on track Saturday against Marshall.

5. Option galore. Jim Grobe has said the option is here to stay at Wake Forest. Viewers will see plenty of it in Saturday's game either way, as the Demon Deacons travel to Army, looking to get back to .500 after two straight losses. The Black Knights are currently seventh in the nation in rushing, at 314 yards per game.

6. Hunt's chance to shine. Terrel Hunt took advantage of the extra snaps last week from Syracuse, completing 15 of 18 passes for 265 yards and three scores. He'll get his first career start this week against Tulane, looking to give the Orange a second straight win and get them back to .500 before they open their inaugural ACC slate a week later against Clemson.

7. FCS dark horses. Virginia hosts VMI, FSU hosts Bethune-Cookman and Miami hosts Savannah State. All three look like layups on the surface, but the FCS cannot be looked at as a complete afterthought given some of its early-season successes against the big boys of FBS. Let's not forget NC State's close call two weeks ago with Richmond, either.

8. Maryland CBs. Geno Smith isn't walking through that door for West Virginia, but the Terps will still have their work cut out for them against Ford Childress and the Mountaineers, as they are down starting corners Jeremiah Johnson and Dexter McDougle as they look to get to 4-0. Isaac Goins and Will Likely will get the starts.

9. Connette looks for first win. Brandon Connette's first start for Duke was so-so, as he went 15-for-28 for 122 yards as the Blue Devils struggled to move the ball against Georgia Tech. He returns home to face a Pitt team with an experienced secondary that is still looking to live up to big expectations after two games.

10. Pitt backfield looks to keep it up. The Panthers are going for ACC win No. 1, and they seem to finally have some semblance of a ground game after early-season questions. Converted end James Conner ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns against New Mexico, and Isaac Bennett tallied 101 yards and two scores himself. Duke gave up 344 yards on the ground last week against Georgia Tech, though the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense is nothing like Pitt's pro-style attack.

Five things: FSU-Pitt

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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The wait to get things started in 2013 was just a little bit longer for Pittsburgh and No. 11 Florida State, but they'll wrap up opening weekend with a prime-time showdown at Heinz Field Monday night (8 ET, ESPN). Here are five potential keys to the game:

Jameis Winston's debut: In all fairness, Pittsburgh fans get a first look at their new quarterback tonight, too, as Tom Savage makes his debut for the Panthers. But it's no discredit to Savage, who has earned ample praise from FSU's coaches and players this week, to say he's playing second fiddle to the freshman under center for the Seminoles. Winston was one of the most prized recruits in the nation two years ago, and the hype surrounding the multitalented quarterback has only built from there. He's a two-sport star, dominated FSU's spring game and beat out three other talented quarterbacks for the starting job. Now he gets to prove he's ready to live up to all the excitement.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesAfter months of hype, Florida State's Jameis Winston is set for his Monday night debut at Pittsburgh.
New look on defense: Florida State's defenders have spent the long offseason downright giddy about the changes new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought with him from Alabama. When FSU released its official depth chart last week, the personnel shifts were jaw-dropping. And yet Jimbo Fisher insists things won't be that different. Is he playing coy? It's hard to say much of anything about the new-look D until Pitt's offense takes the field, but based on the talk of fall camp, it certainly sounds like the Seminoles are planning to combat Pitt's massive offensive line with a dose of heft on defense, then bring the blitz early and often against Savage, who doesn't exactly bring much mobility to the table. If it's a transition that goes smoothly for FSU, it could mean fireworks. If there are hiccups, Savage is more than capable of exploiting them.

Elite receivers: Pitt receiver Devin Street's 73 catches led the Big East last year. He was third in yards with 975. Pitt considers him a legitimate All-America candidate, but Florida State safety Karlos Williams wasn't quite so generous, telling reporters that Street was "productive" but not great. The bulletin-board material grew from there, with Pitt players questioning FSU's secondary in response, and it's all added up to a little more excitement for a matchup that already had plenty of cachet. But perhaps the more intriguing question involves Florida State's receiving corps, which lost three seniors for the season, leaving just four wideouts with previous game experience.

Run the football: For all the intrigue in this game, one thing is clear: Both sides know how to feed an offensive line. FSU's group checks in at an average of 310 pounds. Pitt tops even that, closer to 314. Both units will be looking to throw their weight around in the ground game Monday night in hopes of making things a bit more comfortable for their quarterbacks. Florida State is led by juniors James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman, both of whom topped 600 yards on the ground last year. Pitt's situation is a bit murkier. Junior Isaac Bennett and freshman James Conner both dealt with injuries in fall camp, and sophomore Malcolm Crockett could get plenty of playing time, too.

Big-game environment: The last game of the first week of the season might not be the marquee event, like Clemson-Georgia, but it sure doesn't lack for intrigue. From the two new quarterbacks to the trash talk between players, there's ample buildup. But it's also Pitt's initiation into the ACC, Florida State's first chance to defend its conference title, a national TV game in prime time, and a showdown the Panthers expect will result in a packed house at Heinz Field. So which team responds better to the energy and excitement? Will Winston be rattled by the rabid crowd? Will Pitt be energized by it? Florida State has played in its share of big games before, but plenty of pundits have already chalked this one up as a classic trap game for the favored Seminoles.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 1

August, 29, 2013
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The moment is finally here. The season kicks off tonight, as two ACC teams take the gridiron and mark the return of college football. Here is what to keep an eye on this entire weekend as all 14 teams get back in action.

1. Battle in the trenches in Columbia, S.C. North Carolina will have three new starters on its offensive line Thursday night against No. 6 South Carolina, including two redshirt freshmen. And the Tar Heels will be going up against preseason Heisman contender Jadeveon Clowney and the Gamecocks' lethal defensive line. Don't overlook fellow end Chaz Sutton, either.

2. Conference debuts. Pitt and Syracuse play their first games as ACC schools after exiting the former Big East, which the Orange won a four-way share of in 2012. Both schools have the chance to make big opening statements, as the Panthers host defending conference champion Florida State on Labor Day and Syracuse faces a Penn State squad looking to build off Bill O'Brien's successful first year with the program.

[+] EnlargeSteve Addazio
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesBoston College's Steve Addazio is one of the conference's new coaches this season.
3. Trio of first-year coaches. New BC coach Steve Addazio hosts Villanova, a familiar opponent from his Temple days. Dave Doeren and NC State host Louisiana Tech, which breaks in a new coach of its own in Skip Holtz after Sonny Dykes left for Cal following a 9-3 season. And Syracuse coach Scott Shafer debuts against Penn State in East Rutherford, N.J.

4. QB choices in Jersey and Raleigh. Two of those new coaches also will be unveiling their starting quarterback choices for the first time, as Shafer sends out either Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen and Doeren picks Pete Thomas or Brandon Mitchell. The Orange will be facing a Penn State team that carries the same surprise in its quarterback race between Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson.

5. ... Speaking of new starting QBs. Virginia's David Watford will make his first career start against BYU, Duke's Anthony Boone takes over the job from Sean Renfree against NC Central, and Florida State and Pitt will both start new signal-callers when they square off on Labor Day, with Jameis Winston running the Seminoles' offense and Tom Savage handling duties for the Panthers.

6. Pitt's running backs. Ray Graham is gone. Rushel Shell transferred to West Virginia. And Isaac Bennett and James Conner have dealt with injuries in camp. Coach Paul Chryst isn't sure how things will shake out Monday, but we likely will see Rachid Ibrahim and Malcolm Crockett get at least some action given the backfield situation.

7. FSU's defensive backs. Are too many bodies a good thing? Nick Waisome and Terrence Brooks started all 14 games last season for the nation's No. 1 pass defense. The crowd also includes preseason All-American Lamarcus Joyner, reigning ACC defensive rookie of the year Ronald Darby, former five-star prospect Karlos Williams and several other strong athletes. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has his work cut out for him, although probably not as much as new Pitt quarterback Tom Savage does.

8. Virginia Tech's backfield. Coach Frank Beamer wasn't kidding when he said the Hokies went from having too many running backs to not enough. Michael Holmes was kicked off the team in July, Joel Caleb was suspended this month for the opener against Alabama, Tony Gregory suffered a career-ending ACL tear and J.C. Coleman's status for Saturday is up in the air because of two ankle sprains. Redshirt freshmen Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus are the Hokies' next options after Coleman.

9. "Smoke." Taquan Mizzell has earned that nickname despite having never taken the college field. ESPN's No. 9 running back prospect from the class of 2013 has drawn plenty of buzz in Virginia's camp, and he will get a stiff first test against BYU's defense.

10. ACC vs. SEC. What, you really thought we'd forget this one? Three ACC teams face off against squads from the big, bad SEC, perhaps none with as steep a challenge as Virginia Tech's against Alabama. UNC kicks things off Thursday at South Carolina, and No. 8 Clemson hosts No. 5 Georgia on Saturday night in the headliner of Week 1. The ACC went 1-1 against the SEC in last year's weekend openers, with NC State falling to Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff the night before Clemson topped Auburn in the Georgia Dome.

Most to prove in the ACC

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Heading into the season, everyone has something to prove -- some more than others, of course. Here’s a look at which coaches, players and position groups have the most to prove in the ACC heading into Week 1:

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsQB Logan Thomas and the Virginia Tech offense will face a stiff test from Alabama in Week 1.
1. Virginia Tech’s offense. Hands down, no other group in the conference is facing more doubt, especially going up against Alabama’s defense in the season opener. The Hokies were No. 81 in the country in scoring offense last year at 25.08 points per game. Quarterback Logan Thomas returns and has made strides under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, but questions remain with a young supporting cast.

2. Clemson’s secondary. This is one group that has remained a concern for coach Dabo Swinney through the summer, and rightfully so, especially with Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray coming to town on Saturday. Only Duke (29) and Maryland (24) gave up more passing touchdowns in the league last season than Clemson (23).

3. Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio. The Canes’ defense was one of the worst in the country in 2012, ranking No. 116 in total defense and No. 82 in scoring defense. And ranking No. 113 in the country in sacks was well below Miami’s standards. With all four starters returning on the defensive line and such high hopes for the Canes this fall, the pressure to show major improvement is on.

4. Florida State’s staff: Despite the loss of 11 players to the NFL draft, Florida State still abounds with talent, but there are six new assistants on staff tasked with developing it. All of these hires will eventually be a reflection on coach Jimbo Fisher. The Noles will start 2013 with a new defensive coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt, new running backs coach, new quarterbacks coach, new tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, new defensive ends coach and a new linebackers coach.

5. UNC’s offensive line: Two redshirt freshmen will be in the lineup when the Tar Heels open on Thursday night against South Carolina, which will have arguably the best defensive line in the SEC. While James Hurst has received plenty of preseason hype, he’s going to need some help, especially with so much inexperience around him. How UNC fares without Jonathan Cooper will help determine how it will do without Giovani Bernard, too.

6. Wake Forest running back Josh Harris: He has been plagued by injuries his whole career, and his durability has become a question both inside the program and out. Harris also struggled academically but received a waiver from the NCAA so he is eligible to play. The Deacs could use a big season from Harris to get their running game going.

7. Pitt’s running backs: It went downhill when Rushel Shell decided to transfer. Now, the lead candidate to replace him, Isaac Bennett, has spent most of the summer with an injured knee. Pitt is missing its top two rushers from last fall -- and now the next two in line are question marks heading into the season. The situation is in limbo as the Panthers get set to make their ACC debut against Florida State on Monday, as freshman James Conner was also injured. Malcolm Crockett, who had 12 carries last year, could be the solution.

8. Duke’s defense: This has been the Blue Devils’ Achilles' heel, and it has to improve if Duke is to make back-to-back bowl appearances. It’s a veteran group, and last year was the second season in the 4-2-5 scheme. Still, Duke ranked No. 107 in the country in scoring defense in 2012, No. 105 in total defense and No. 101 in rushing defense. The only way to go is up.

9. Virginia coach Mike London: One year after being named the ACC’s Coach of the Year and taking the team to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, London led the Cavaliers to a 4-8 finish last fall. London made sweeping changes to his staff, including the hires of new coordinators. There have been some critics who have questioned whether the program is still heading in the right direction, but those within the program insist it is. Now is the time to prove it.

10. Maryland coach Randy Edsall: He’s won a total of six games in the past two seasons, and this fall, he has healthy quarterbacks to work with and more playmakers on offense, including one of the best in the country in receiver Stefon Diggs. Maryland also has a favorable schedule -- much more forgiving than the one it'll face next season as members of the Big Ten. There’s no reason Maryland fans shouldn't expect at least six wins.
You want to find a good quarterback in the ACC? Plenty of places to look.

A solid receiver? Plenty of places to look.

A game-changing running back? Well, let's just say this is not a position of strength for the ACC headed into 2013.

Both 1,000-yard rushers from a year ago are gone. So are five of the top 10 rushers in the league. Now factor in recent developments from the offseason:

  • Virginia Tech back Michael Holmes was kicked out of school following his arrest after the spring game.
  • Pitt Rushel Shell decided to transfer, to hated rival West Virginia no less.
  • Maryland back Wes Brown has been suspended for the season after an offseason arrest.
  • Wake Forest leading rusher Josh Harris is not with the team while the Deacs wait for an answer from the NCAA on his eligibility.
  • NC State running back Shadrach Thornton was suspended one game after being charged with misdemeanor assault on a female following a June 6 arrest.
[+] EnlargeRushel Shell
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Running back Rushel Shell left Pitt for rival West Virginia.
Holmes and Brown were expected to be significant contributors this year; Shell and Harris were expected to start; Thornton led the Wolfpack in rushing last year.

So let us take stock of who remains. Essentially, the ACC has one big-time headliner in Duke Johnson at Miami, and several teams with talent and depth.

Take Florida State. The Noles have a great duo in James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman. Syracuse has a 1,000-yard rusher returning in Jerome Smith, plus more depth than nearly everyone in the league. Duke has its top six rushers back from a year ago.

Still, the league overall has improving to do in this important category. In 2012, the ACC had the fewest 1,000-yard rushers of the five biggest conferences. It also only had two teams ranked in the Top 30 in rushing offense (Georgia Tech and Florida State), tied with the SEC for fewest among the top five conferences.

But here is the big distinction between the two. The SEC only had one team ranked in the bottom 30 in rushing offense last season: Arkansas. The ACC had a whopping six -- Virginia, Duke, NC State, Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College -- the most among the power five.

Will fortunes improve this season? Let us take a look at one key statistic that could have some bearing. I broke down how many returning carries there are per team headed into 2013.

DUKE

  • Top returners: Jela Duncan, Josh Snead
  • Percent carries returning: 87 percent
  • What it means: Duke has perhaps the best opportunity of any team in the league to boost its rushing numbers this year, with its top six rushers back, a more mobile quarterback in Anthony Boone and four starters returning on the offensive line.
SYRACUSE

  • Top returners: Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley
  • Percent carries returning: 82 percent
  • What it means: Syracuse has had a 1,000-yard rusher in five straight seasons, and has pretty terrific depth going into the season. It is a pretty safe bet the Orange will make it six straight 1,000-yard rushers.
BOSTON COLLEGE

  • Top returners: Andre Williams, Dave Dudeck
  • Percent carries returning: 75 percent
  • What it means: Though the Eagles don’t have much in the way of depth, they do have experienced players returning in Williams and Dudeck. Given the way Steve Addazio likes to run the football, expect to see the Eagles much better than No. 115 in the nation in rushing.
VIRGINIA TECH

  • Top returners: Logan Thomas, J.C. Coleman
  • Percent returning carries: 70 percent
  • What it means: Even though this was a weak spot for the Hokies, they do return their top rushers even with Holmes gone. Thomas led the team in carries and rushing last season. Virginia Tech wants to change that this year.
GEORGIA TECH

  • Top returners: Zach Laskey, David Sims
  • Percent returning carries: 68 percent
  • What it means: Tevin Washington and Orwin Smith take nearly all the missing carries (176), meaning the Jackets have plenty of experienced players and depth to fill all their running back spots. Shouldn’t be a drop-off here.
NC STATE

  • Top returners: Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy
  • Percent carries returning: 63 percent
  • What it means: Once he returns from suspension, Thornton will carry the load with Creecy, the way they did last season. Given the emphasis Dave Doeren puts on the run in his offense -- Northern Illinois ranked No. 12 in rushing offense last season -- the Wolfpack should not be in the bottom 30 again.
CLEMSON

  • Top returners: Tajh Boyd, Rod McDowell
  • Percent returning carries: 62 percent
  • What it means: Interesting stat here, considering the Tigers lose 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington. He is one of the biggest losses this team has to replace on offense. Having Boyd run as much as he does certainly helps these numbers, but there’s no question Clemson has to find a way to replace Ellington’s production.
MIAMI

  • Top returners: Duke Johnson, Eduardo Clements
  • Percent returning carries: 59 percent
  • What it means: Miami loses Mike James, but that just means Johnson moves into a starting role and will get more carries. If he continues the work he did last season, Johnson should be the leading rusher in the ACC this season.
WAKE FOREST

  • Top returner: Deandre Martin
  • Percent returning carries: 57 percent
  • What it means: Wake Forest is still waiting to see whether Harris will be eligible this season. There are serious concerns about this position right now, as coach Jim Grobe has said he still hasn’t seen anybody step up and prove they can be an every-down back.
NORTH CAROLINA

  • Top returners: A.J. Blue, Romar Morris
  • Percent returning carries: 56 percent
  • What it means: The prevailing storyline in Chapel Hill has centered around replacing Giovani Bernard, the other 1,000-yard rusher in the ACC last season. Blue and Morris combined for 151 carries a year ago, so there might not be as big a drop-off in total production as some might anticipate. Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry.
MARYLAND

  • Top returners: Brandon Ross, Albert Reid
  • Percent returning carries: 48 percent
  • What it means: The Terps lost significant carries from Brown (90) and Justus Pickett (69). I also did not count Shawn Petty’s 58 carries, because he went back to defense. Overall, Maryland feels good about Ross and Reid being able to carry the load, but questions still remain about whether this group can be consistent.
FLORIDA STATE

  • Top returners: James Wilder Jr., Devonta Freeman
  • Percent Returning carries:45 percent
  • What it means: This one is the most misleading among all ACC teams, because the Noles do return two terrific talents and expect contributions from a third in Mario Pender. Those lost carries are from Lonnie Pryor and EJ Manuel, along with Chris Thompson (who was out for the second half of the season anyway). Florida State should continue to be an excellent running team.
VIRGINIA

  • Top returners: Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd
  • Percent carries returning: 44 percent
  • What it means: UVa lost carries from Clifton Richardson, Perry Jones and Phillip Sims, but the Hoos believe they will be better running the ball this season -- especially if Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell is as good as advertised. He could be a breakout star.
PITT

  • Top returners: Isaac Bennett, Malcolm Crockett
  • Percent returning carries: 9 percent
  • What it means: I thought this number would be low with Shell and Ray Graham gone. But this is actually worse than anticipated. Pitt has little in the way of experienced players or depth at running back, and we are talking about a team that relies heavily on the run.

When Pitt running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, decided to transfer, it changed the face of Pitt’s offense this spring. With offensive linemen shuffling around, and an ongoing quarterback competition, Shell was one of the few answers the offense had. Now? Junior Isaac Bennett and sophomore Malcolm Crockett emerged as the front-runners to take his place, but both fumbled the ball in the spring game and still have something to prove. Bennett returns with the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 average). I spoke with him this spring about the competition at running back and the outlook for the offense. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

What is your new role like and how have you adjusted to it?

Isaac Bennett: To me, I haven’t taken a different approach. Every play, like coach says, just focus on what you have to do for a certain play and just go with the flow.

From what I’ve been told you had a terrific spring last year. How did things play out according to your expectations at this time last season?

IB: Ray [Graham] was hurt last spring, so I was with the first string. I didn’t know he’d come back and start, but all I could do was worry about focusing on what I can do, just taking it day by day and play by play, really not worrying too much about the other things, because everything will fall into place if you focus on the little things.

How much pride do you take in establishing the running game, considering how many questions there are surrounding it now? Do you feel any sense of, ‘We got it. Let’s prove we got it.’

IB: Oh yeah. The line, they’ve come a long way. We’re all coming together. Every team wants a good running game. We’ve got a backfield full of good players. We want to get that running game established so we can get the passing game established, vice versa.

Yeah, I would imagine that’s even more important with a new quarterback.

IB: Yeah, Tom [Savage], he’s been having a great spring. I’m eager to see what he’s going to do.

[+] EnlargeIsaac Bennett
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsOne of Pitt running back Isaac Bennett's goals this season is to eclipse 100 yards every game.
What about in terms of your own personal goals? Have you set anything number-wise?

IB: We all have our personal goals. You have to aim high. Mine would be at least 100 yards a game, at least.

How ready do you feel?

IB: I feel ready. The more repetition you get the more comfortable I feel. We’ve studied a lot, and the summer is coming up, so less class and more filmwork. I feel ready.

Do you guys have a greater sense of urgency because you know you’re opening with Florida State?

IB: Yes, and just from our previous record in the Big East, moving into a new conference, we want to show that we can hang with the best.

Well, I’ve been covering the ACC for a while and I can tell you upsets are possible. What are you looking forward to most about playing in a new conference this year?

IB: Just new teams, going different places. Something different.

What do the rest of the running backs look like and how much competition are you feeling, or do you feel like you’ve received an automatic promotion?

IB: Well, like Coach told me, straight up, everybody has a chance. He hasn’t given me the starting job. It’s whoever earns it. The whole running back group, we’re all really talented. We just have to keep pushing each other. At the end of the day, it’s about getting the win.

What went through your mind when you heard that Rushel was going to transfer? Did he talk to you about it at all?

IB: I really didn’t hear about it too much until after it happened. I kind of think he made a fast decision, but I just wish the best for him. That’s my friend. I look at him somewhat as a little brother. I know he’ll do well wherever he’s at.

Is this an opportunity in which you feel your patience has finally paid off?

IB: Just being out there on the field so people back home can see you out there. I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s not really small, but our group is small. You want to be a role model for kids. Back home, kids watch you. When you’re playing Division I, it’s a big deal, but you don’t really see it as a big deal until you go home and people want you to speak. Having them see me on the field, I want to give them hope you can move out, you can go far away from home.

What do you think you guys need to do to play consistently the way you did against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame last year?

IB: Just a mindset. We’ve got to go out and compete every time. You can’t go off the previous game. We have to stay focused on the game at hand.

How good do you think the offense can be? What do you think your potential is, and what do you need to do this summer to reach it?

IB: We can go as far as we want to go. There are a lot of great players. Every position is filled with great players, three deep. We’re just ready to get out there and compete. As far as the summer goes, everybody just has to have the mentality to get better every day. I think everybody has the mentality to get better every day. Somebody might want to slip up every once in a while -- we’re all human -- so you just have to encourage your teammates to push through it.
With half of the conference playing spring games this weekend, here’s a look at what to watch if you’re keeping an eye on the ACC as spring ball comes to a close:

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • Quarterbacks of the future. You know Tajh Boyd is good. Expect Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly to take most of the snaps. Boyd played just four snaps in the last scrimmage. Let's see his backups.
  • The tight ends. Clemson tight ends Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford have been the first team All-ACC tight ends the past two years. Clemson tight ends have 118 receptions and 21 touchdowns the past two years, perhaps the most underrated area in Chad Morris’ offense. So who moves in there this year? Sam Cooper is the most experienced, but freshman Jordan Leggett has been impressive this spring.
  • How much better is the defense? All eyes will be on Brent Venables' group to see how much progress it has made this spring. If the D gets better, it could be a special season in Death Valley.
FLORIDA STATE

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. It's been one of the hottest topics this spring in the ACC and arguably the biggest position battle in the conference. Check out Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston as they all battle to replace starter EJ Manuel.
  • The defensive line. The competition is on to replace Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Mario Edwards Jr. is ready to jump in, along with Giorgio Newberry.
  • Don't forget the kicker. It's big at FSU. The Noles have to replace Dustin Hopkins, the ACC's all-time leading scorer and the NCAA's all-time kick scorer. It's your chance to see Roberto Aguayo, who was one of the nation's top kickers coming out of high school.
MARYLAND

When: 7 p.m. on Friday in Byrd Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The running backs. Both Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have had strong springs and will be competing for playing time come the fall.
  • The receivers. This group should be a strong point for the team this year, as Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Nigel King are a talented trio.
  • New faces on defense. The Terps have to replace six starters on defense, including some of their best leaders in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis.
DUKE

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3) in Wallace Wade Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Booooooone. Anthony Boone takes over at quarterback, and there have been rave reviews about him from within the program all spring. He's got a strong arm and is mobile.
  • New faces at safety. Some big names are gone, as Duke has to replace graduates Jordon Byas and Walt Canty, and Brandon Braxton, who moved back to receiver. Jeremy Cash, eligible now after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last fall, headlines the group that includes sophomore Dwayne Norman (60 tackles in 2012 as true freshman) and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
  • Front and center: There is one hole to fill on the offensive line and Matt Skura takes over at center for Brian Moore.
MIAMI

When: 3 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN3)

Gates open: 12:30 p.m.

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Defensive improvement. Is there any? The Canes were one of the worst in the country last year, but they return every starter up front.
  • The No. 2 QB. Who is it? Gray Crow started the last scrimmage as the backup to Stephen Morris and completed 8 of 13 passes for 73 yards, with a touchdown and interception. Ryan Williams, who entered the spring as the expected No. 2, completed only six of his 12 passes with a touchdown and an interception. The coaches will be watching these guys closely on Saturday, so should you.
  • Running back Dallas Crawford. You know Duke Johnson. It's time to get to know this guy. Those within the program have said Crawford has had a great spring and could be a rising star this fall. He scored two touchdowns in a scrimmage in Naples earlier this month.
NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPN3)

Admission: Free

Parking: $5/vehicle

What to watch:
  • Gio's replacement(s). A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been working to ease the loss of leading rusher Giovani Bernard. Can they be as effective as he was, how much progress have they made and who will replace Bernard in the return game?
  • The O-line. Former guard Jonathan Cooper should be a first-round draft pick later this month, and it won't matter how good Blue and Morris are if they can't find anyone to help block for them. A total of three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
  • Replacing big names on D. Cooper and Bernard aren't the only big names that will be missing. The defense is going to miss tackle Sylvester Williams, who could be another first-round draft pick, and linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 8.5 for loss). How does the D look without them?
PITTSBURGH

When: 7 p.m. ET on Friday at Bethel Park High School (ESPN3)

Gates open: 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Fifth-year senior Tom Savage has taken most of the reps with the first team, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik appears to be the backup, but coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter.
  • The running backs. Earlier this month, it was announced that Rushel Shell has decided to transfer. Since then, the bulk of the carries have gone to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. How they fare will go a long way in determining how Pitt fares in its first season in the ACC.
  • The offensive line. It's been problematic for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and Pitt now has to break in two new starters in Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty.
Some of you might remember the contender-pretender series we did recently.

We thought Pitt was a contender. Until now.

Running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, has decided to transfer, the school confirmed on Tuesday.

“Rushel and I met on Tuesday morning and he informed me of his final decision to transfer," coach Paul Chryst said in a prepared statement. "I wish him only the best moving forward. Out of respect for Rushel, his family and his privacy, this will be my final comment on the matter.”

This is a huge loss to the program as it enters its first season in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Expectations were high for Shell heading into this season, as he entered this spring as the leading candidate to replace Ray Graham, one of the most productive running backs in school history. As a true freshman, Shell was the team’s second-leading rusher with 641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries (4.5 avg.). He ran for 157 yards in a 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech.

Shell’s decision to transfer isn’t much of a surprise, as there were multiple reports that he had been considering it. Last week, Pittsburgh announced that Shell was taking some time away from football to “work through some challenges,” according to Chryst. His decision to transfer leaves the position lacking experience.

The bulk of the carries will now go to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. Bennett has the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 avg.). Crockett had 50 yards on 12 carries (4.2 avg.) as a redshirt freshman last season, and Brown’s contributions came on special teams.

Chryst said Bennett and Crockett both have their strengths.

“They’re different,” he said, according to the team's practice report. “They both have similarities. They both run hard. They like the game. Malcolm … can continue to learn to tempo his runs. Sometimes he has just one speed. They seem to have different styles.

“All that matters is playing their strengths,” Chryst said. “There are guys who are strong in a lot of areas. You can play to each player’s strength.”

Crockett said he has been waiting for this opportunity.

“When a man goes down, the next one has to step up,” he said, according to the team's practice report. “It’s something I’ve been preparing for. I know my time will come. It’s here, so every rep, every second I’m just going hard to the fullest. Eventually, I’m going to try to start.”

Crockett and Bennett are already having fun with their new roles. Crockett said he’s the faster of the two and would win a race against Bennett.

“Let him believe what he wants to believe,” Bennett said with a laugh. “He’s fast, not faster than me.”

One of them is going to have to make their move into the starting lineup -- quickly.
Pitt running back Rushel Shell, who was expected to be the Panthers' starting running back this fall, is taking time away from football, according to a statement released today from coach Paul Chryst.

“Like many college freshmen, Rushel is working through some challenges right now," Chryst said. "As it is for all members of our team, my most important concern is his personal well-being. Rushel and his family have our full support. We are giving him time away from football to work through this situation, but he very much remains a part of our family on a daily basis. We want to be sensitive and respectful of Rushel, and I would ask others to do the same.”

There have been several reports that Shell is considering transferring, but hasn't formally requested the paperwork to do so.

Expectations are high for Shell heading into this season, as Pitt is looking for a replacement for Ray Graham, one of the most productive running backs in school history. Graham finished his four-year career with 3,271 rushing yards, second only to Tony Dorsett.

Shell entered this spring as the leading candidate to step in for Graham, but Chryst has been looking for more consistency from him. Shell was less productive in the final five games of the season than he was through the first seven. As a true freshman, Shell was the team’s second-leading rusher with 641 yards and four touchdowns on 141 carries (4.5 avg.). In a 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech, he ran for 157 yards.

His commitment to the team will be critical for Pitt's offensive success this fall, but there are others waiting for their shot.

Junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown all have some experience, but Bennett has the most career production with 378 yards and five touchdowns on 87 carries (4.3 avg.). Crockett had 50 yards on 12 carries (4.2 avg.) as a redshirt freshman last season, and Brown’s contributions came on special teams.
What's gotten into Pitt the past two weeks?

The Panthers rolled Saturday to their second straight runaway win, taking care of business against Gardner-Webb in a 55-10 home victory.

Yes, these were the Runnin' Bulldogs, an FCS team that Pitt was supposed to do this to. But the Panthers deserve credit for not letting their foot off the gas a week after their upset win over Virginia Tech, especially with a bye date coming up. They held Gardner-Webb to just 127 total yards of offense, the road team's only score coming off a 65-yard fumble return late in the third quarter.

Tino Sunseri turned in another strong performance, building off his efforts against the Hokies by completing 18-of-24 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw an interception and was sacked just once. Two weeks ago, many were calling for Sunseri to lose his job, but he has answered defiantly since.

Mike Shanahan led Pitt's receivers with five catches for 144 yards and two scores.

Ray Graham looked like his old self early, rushing for a 78-yard touchdown late in the first quarter to break a scoreless tie. He finished the afternoon with 94 yards on eight carries and 23 yards on three catches, but he coughed up the ball deep in opponent territory in the third quarter, leading to Gardner-Webb's only score. Isaac Bennett and Rushel Shell contributed to a solid ground attack that averaged 6.2 yards per carry, with Bennett rushing for 52 yards and two scores on just six carries.

Again, the opponent will temper the excitement of Saturday's domination. But after a two-touchdown season-opening home loss to an FCS school and an embarrassing primetime performance at Cincinnati, Paul Chryst's squad really could not have bounced back any better, winning its past two games by a combined score of 90-27.

The Panthers will get Syracuse next in an Oct. 5 Friday night contest that will mark the schools' final meeting with each other as Big East members.
Pitt running back Ray Graham is "unlikely to play" in the season opener against Youngstown State on Sept. 1, sources told Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com.

Graham is coming off a torn ACL in his right knee, and practice reports out of Pittsburgh have been less than encouraging. There were some signs of progress Wednesday when Graham got his first bit of contact during the fall.

“Definitely, we wanted to go out there and get that feeling," Graham said, according to the team's practice report. "I definitely wanted to go out there and do some live periods before Sept. 1 because I wanted to see how it actually felt, just to run around. I guess it’s more of a boost of confidence thing and I think that helped out. I feel more confident after that. It was only one series and it was only one drive, but still it felt better to go out there and just run around a little bit.”

Added coach Paul Chryst: "I think for being live he was on the ground once. I think you just keep trying to take baby steps to help him come along."

Graham is only 10 months removed from surgery. He did take a hard hit to his knee during practice Monday, but Graham said that was fine.

Still, he was asked Monday about the prospect of missing the opener. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Graham said, “I missed too many games (last year), but as far as being smart and knowing what is best for my leg, instead of going out there and being selfish about it, at the end of the day, I don’t think it would be a disappointment.”

Pitt plays at Cincinnati on a short week following Youngstown State. If there is any good news, it is that Isaac Bennett picked up from his strong spring and has had another outstanding set of practices. If Graham cannot play, Bennett would get the start.

Pitt turns to ... Sunseri?

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
4:00
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Pitt coach Paul Chryst has not definitively declared Tino Sunseri as his starting quarterback headed into fall practice.

Does he need to?

Chryst said last week that Sunseri had separated himself from Mark Myers and Trey Anderson, which seemingly points in the direction of Sunseri winning the starting job. True freshman Chad Voytik enrolls this summer, so there is a chance that he could come in and blow everybody away with his amazing talent and grasp of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
Charles LeClaire/US PresswirePittsburgh coach Paul Chryst has hinted that Tino Sunseri will be his starting quarterback in the fall.
But right now, it appears Sunseri will go into his third straight season as the starter.

That is hard to believe for many, considering the lackluster results along the way. It is no secret that Sunseri has struggled with the deep ball, and clearly cannot run a spread offense. He should never be asked to do that again. I truly believe Sunseri should be given a pass for what happened last season, and I think the longer time goes on, perhaps more Pitt fans feel the same way. Todd Graham deserves the blame for what happened last season.

The point is that Chryst must believe Sunseri truly gives his team the best chance to win, given his experience and current understanding of the new offense. While the passing game was nothing to write home about -- Sunseri went 13-of-27 for 147 yards with a touchdown and interception in the spring game -- you wonder how much of an ask is going to be made of the quarterbacks with the potential for such a strong running game.

Perhaps the quarterback for Pitt this season will be more of a game manager. Sunseri has been good at times throughout his career. Look back to the USF, UConn and Louisville games for recent examples. Give him time in the pocket, and he does not implode. I can guarantee the offensive line will be miles better this season.

The short passing game works for him, along with play action. Does he need to make 80-yard throws every game? Obviously a home run ball is nice every once in a while, but there have been quarterbacks without the greatest command of the deep ball that have fared just fine.

With the development of Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis, along with the return of Ray Graham and the arrival of Rushel Shell, Pitt has the perfect opportunity this season to just ground and pound, and let Sunseri throw it as a change of pace. Obviously, any great team wants to have balance with their running and passing attack. Obviously, teams will want to stack the box to force Pitt to throw. Sunseri has to learn how to beat the blitzes and make the clutch throws with games on the line.

But Ray Graham was so good last season, teams loaded the box and still couldn't stop him. The potential exists for the same to happen again this season with so much talent in the backfield. Pitt needs its ground game to work for Sunseri to work.

"(The run game) has a chance to be good," Chryst said after spring ball wrapped. "But it all starts with the line. The line made some improvements this spring. Ray's working, we need to get him back healthy and Rushel, we all know what he is ... There's also a lot of quesitons, but that will be a good problem if we have a bunch of running backs."

Especially if it takes pressure off Sunseri.

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