NCF Nation: Jason Peters
Offensive skill positions: After last year’s rare class that didn’t include either a quarterback or running back, both positions are needed in this group. Quarterback Thomas Sirk -- the MVP of the 57th annual Florida Athletic Coaches Association North-South All-Star Football Classic last December -- has already enrolled in school while Shaquille Powell -- a PARADE All-American running back from Las Vegas -- has committed to the program. In addition, with David Cutcliffe’s offense, wide receivers and tight ends also are a priority.
Kicker: Will Snyderwine, who earned first team All-America honors as a junior before struggling through a sub-par season in 2011, graduated, but Duke has a commitment from Ohio native Ross Martin, considered the No. 2 placekicking prospect in the country by ESPN.com.
Safety: With the transition to a 4-2-5 alignment that utilizes three safeties, this becomes an annual point of emphasis. The Blue Devils lose All-American Matt Daniels to graduation.
Defensive line: This is the most glaring need in the current class. The Yellow Jackets have to replace senior starters Logan Walls (DT) and Jason Peters (DE), but return Izaan Cross (DE) and solid backups T.J. Barnes (DT), Emmanuel Dieke (DE) and Euclid Cummings (DE). The Jackets are expected to sign about 18 players in this year’s class, and five of them should be defensive linemen.
Wide receiver:This is another glaring need after the departures of Stephen Hill, who decided to leave early for the NFL draft, and Tyler Melton. Darren Waller and Jeff Greene, who both played last season as true freshmen, have lots of potential, but the position still needs depth.
Defensive backs: There’s still a lot of depth with this group, and the return of Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque helps, but the Canes have to replace two starters in the secondary and have six commits in the current class to help do that.
Defensive line: The Canes have to replace Adewale Ojomo, Micanor Regis, Andrew Smith and Olivier Vernon from last year’s two-deep. The defensive end position was a particular focus in this class.
Receiver: This position lost a lot with the departures of Tommy Streeter, LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin. Allen Hurns is now the veteran of the group, along with redshirt senior Kendal Thompkins. There are five receivers currently committed in this class.
Quarterback: Beyond Stephen Morris, Miami has a lot of questions at the position and not a lot of experience. True freshmen Gray Crow and Preston Dewey are already on the roster, along with redshirt sophomore Ryan Williams.
Defensive line: This is one of the biggest areas of concern after the departures of Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell.
Receivers: Larry Fedora’s offense will make good use of this group, but he needs to replace standout Dwight Jones.
Linebackers: This group was thin to begin with in 2011, and now the Heels need to replace outgoing senior Zach Brown. Kevin Reddick is now the main man.
Safety: UNC will have to replace two starters in Matt Merletti, Charles Brown and Jonathan Smith, so this position will have to be rebuilt for the future.
Defensive back: This should be the main priority in this class. The Cavaliers will lose four DBs, including two starting safeties in Rodney McCleod and Corey Mosley, and standout cornerback Chase Minnifield. They’ll also miss Dom Joseph, who came in for the nickel packages. Demetrious Nicholson, who started as a true freshman last year, is suddenly the veteran of the group.
Offensive line: The Hoos will have to replace their starting center and left guard. Redshirt freshman center Cody Wallace could get a promotion, and sophomore right guard Luke Bowanko started in the bowl game. They’ve got some big bodies waiting in the wings, but they’ll have some questions to answer here this spring.
Kickers: This position needs to be rebuilt, as the Cavaliers lose Robert Randolph, who finished sixth all time in scoring at UVa, kickoff specialist Chris Hinkebein, and four-year punter Jimmy Howell. The position is wide open heading into the spring.
Running back: This one is a no-brainer, as the Hokies have lost four players here in the past two years. David Wilson and his backup, Josh Oglesby, were the latest to depart, and Tony Gregory just had ACL surgery and is out for the spring. The staff likes Michael Holmes, who redshirted last year, and J.C. Coleman enrolled last week.
Receiver: The Hokies will miss Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, and next year’s class has three seniors in Dyrell Roberts, D.J. Coles, and Marcus Davis. The future of the position is young, and the staff is still going after several uncommitted players pretty hard.
Defensive line: This year’s class already includes at least five committed defensive linemen, and the Hokies will be particularly thin at noseguard. They had some players graduate early who didn’t play a lot, but at least provided depth.
Linebacker:The Hokies have four committed, and are still chasing another just to build the depth. The staff missed on some recruits at this position last year and would like to make up for it in this class.
Which one, though, will be the position of power in the ACC this fall?
Defensive ends:The ACC has earned a reputation as a defensive conference, and these players will do their best to uphold that tradition. Brandon Jenkins at Florida State and Quinton Coples at North Carolina should be two of the best in the country, but they’re hardly alone in their pass rushing abilities. Izaan Cross at Georgia Tech is a name ACC fans will know by the end of the season. He’s underrated and has a chance to finish the season with all-conference accolades. His teammate, Jason Peters, can do the same. Together they should help bring noticeable improvement to the Jackets’ defense this year.
North Carolina also has Donte Paige-Moss at the other end position, another player who has already caught the attention of NFL scouts. Adewale Ojomo and Olivier Vernon at Miami are two veteran standouts, and NC State’s Jeff Rieskamp and Virginia’s Cam Johnson are also among the best in the league. Andre Branch at Clemson should get more recognition this fall, especially with the early departure of Da’Quan Bowers, and Max Holloway at Boston College hasn’t reached his potential yet but began to make a name for himself last season.
There aren’t a lot of veteran quarterbacks in the ACC this year, but there are plenty of defensive ends ready to give the rookies a not-so-warm welcome.
“Clearly, the advantage is on the Virginia side,” said Groh, Virginia’s former coach for nine seasons. “I say that because one, I taught our defense that we are doing here to the head coach and to the secondary coach. They have all my play books and all my cut-ups. Those two coaches and the linebackers coach have sat through endless hours with me discussing defense, making game plans, and analyzing our performance. There is no dilemma or no secret analyzing how Al Groh thinks.”
There has, however, been a dilemma in executing his philosophy at Georgia Tech. Groh’s 3-4 defense hasn’t exactly been a road block to opponents. The scoring defense ranks No. 73 in the country, allowing 25.4 points per game. Part of that can be attributed to a learning curve of the new scheme, and also the fact that Groh hasn’t had time to recruit the personnel best suited for it. It’s too early to judge whether or not it will be a success for the Yellow Jackets, but the history on defense between Groh and first-year Virginia coach Mike London will make for an interesting subplot when Groh faces his former team and alma mater on Saturday.
Groh, a 1967 Virginia graduate, served as a Cavalier assistant coach from 1970-72. London spent six seasons coaching under Groh at Virginia as the defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and eventually the defensive coordinator.
“It's not personally awkward,” London said. “I've been coaching college ball for a long time now. And I know that he knows this is the reality of the profession of the business. It's the storyline -- If you say the fact that we were both here at the same time, but to me, I've told the players -- this is a game where the University of Virginia is playing Georgia Tech, and it's our second conference game. And that's the way that we're going to approach it, and that's the way we look at it.”
It won’t be the first time this season that Virginia will face a 3-4 defense. VMI used it a little bit, and London had the defense running it during the bye week to help the offense prepare for it.
“But nothing is like playing a 3-4 team from a guy that knows the 3-4 defense,” London said. “That will be a challenge for sure, but it won't be the first time that we've seen the 3-4.”
As an assistant coach at Virginia, London was immersed in the 3-4 scheme when he coached the defensive linemen. He did the same with the Houston Texans under Dom Capers. One of the first changes London made at Virginia, though, was switching back to a 4-3. It has shown signs of promise, allowing just 17.75 points per game, but missed tackles were a problem against Florida State.
“I think running the 3-4, if you have the personnel to play it, it can be pretty good for you,” London said. “And having traveled around a little bit in recruiting and when I got to Richmond, and we looked at the personnel that we had already there, and they were already suited to the 4-3. A lot of times your young defensive linemen that are out there like to play on an edge. To get some good defensive linemen, they like to be the three technique or nine technique -- just guys that are playing on the edge.”
Groh said his knowledge of Virginia’s personnel will help his preparation, but it will do little for his players.
“Well, it helps me, but I don’t think Jason Peters or Brad Jefferson or Mario Butler or those guys, have an intimate grasp of the skills of those players. What’s more important is if our players had personnel recollection or history with their players.”
Instead, the history on Saturday is between Groh and London.
Anthony Castonzo, offensive tackle, senior, Hawthorn Woods, Ill.
Mark Herzlich, linebacker, senior, Wayne, Pa.
Chris Hairston, offensive tackle, Senior, Winston-Salem, N.C.
DeAndre McDaniel, safety, senior, Tallahassee, Fla.
Bryan Morgan, center, senior, Hoover, Ala.
Chris Rwabukamba, cornerback, senior, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Christian Ponder, quarterback, senior, Colleyville, Tex.
Everett Dawkins, defensive tackle, sophomore, Spartanburg, S.C.
Roddy Jones, A-Back, junior, Stone Mountain, Ga.
Jason Peters, defensive end, junior, Baton Rouge, La.
Torrey Smith, wide receiver-kickoff returner, junior, Colonial Beach, Va.
Alex Wujciak, linebacker, senior, West Caldwell, N.J.
Matt Bosher, place-kicker/punter, senior, Jupiter, Fla.
Allen Bailey, defensive tackle/end, senior, Sapelo, Ga.
T. J. Yates, quarterback, senior, Marietta, Ga.
Robert Quinn, defensive end, junior, Ladson, S.C. .
Owen Spencer, wide receiver, senior, Leland, N.C.
Nate Irving, linebacker, senior, Wallace, N.C.
Marc Verica, quarterback, senior, Lansdowne, Pa.
Ras-I Dowling, cornerback, senior, Chesapeake, Va.
Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, senior, Hampton, Va.
John Graves, defensive tackle, senior, Richmond, Va.
Josh Adams, running back, senior, Cary, N.C.
Russell Nenon, center, senior, Memphis, Tenn.
A few observations:
- It will be nice to have BC linebacker Mark Herzlich and NC State linebacker Nate Irving back and talking about football again. Get ready for a lot of injured-linebackers-return stories.
- Nine of the players are linemen, as over half of the conference has some studs up front. Hopefully a lot of folks will take some time to talk to Duke center Bryan Morgan, an unheralded guy who is super-smart, much improved and downright interesting.
- No Nesbitt? No problem. I like the guy, really I do, but he's one of the quietest players in the league. I've asked him dozens of questions every which way and every time it seems like the last thing in the world he wants to do is an interview. Jones and Peters will represent the Jackets well and say all the right things.
- No Clemson quarterback? No kidding.
- Who doesn't want to talk to Miami's kicker?
- Oh c'mon, leave Yates alone. I feel like his big sister. Yeesh.
- Best interview not on the list: Georgia Tech's Anthony Allen.
- Speaking of ... Man, is Bobby Bowden gonna be missed at this thing. Prime time entertainment at that table.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
At 6-foot-7, 325 pounds, and from the football-rich state of Alabama, massive Georgia Tech redshirt freshman T.J. Barnes wowed a lot of college coaches during his recruiting process as a potential offensive tackle or guard -- two positions he had absolutely no interest in playing anymore. Alabama and Louisville were among his suitors, as was Auburn, where his father, Terry Jones, was a defensive lineman and his cousins, Fred Baxter and Randy Hart both played.
"All my offers were for offense," Barnes said. "Nobody really believed I could play defense except for Auburn and Georgia Tech."
Georgia Tech had no doubt he'd have a future as a defensive tackle.
"That's all I wanted to do," Barnes said, "play defense."
That and make a name for himself somewhere other than Auburn, where expectations to continue the family legacy would be high.
This spring, Barnes will get his chance to do both.
Georgia Tech only lost six starters from last year's nine-win team that tied with Virginia Tech for the Coastal Division title, but three of them were on the defensive line and had combined for 87 career starts. That leaves the door wide open for Barnes -- and several other young players -- to win starting jobs this spring and summer. The unit lacks both depth and experience, and is easily the Yellow Jackets' biggest question mark heading into the fall, as junior defensive end Derrick Morgan is the only player returning with any starting experience.
"Coach (Giff) Smith instills in us we have to be the best group on the team," said Morgan, who cracked the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2007. "That's what we strive for. I know we're losing four seniors, but we're not looking at it as a lack of talent. We have talent. We don't want to lower our expectations coming into next year just because we're losing four seniors. We're setting the bar high."
Morgan has set the standard high for himself. He was second on the team and eighth in the ACC with seven sacks last year. He had 9.5 tackles for loss and was tied for second nationally in fumble recoveries with four. He led all of Tech's linemen with 51 tackles, but soaked up his teammates' knowledge on a daily basis.
Former starters Vance Walker, Michael Johnson and Darryl Richard often shared different pass rush techniques and how to see blocks. Morgan said he's still learning from the trio as they audition for NFL scouts, and give him advice on going through the NFL combine and handling his post-collegiate career. They've also added to the growing list of voices telling him he has to be a leader this season.
"I'll probably have a bigger leadership role amongst my teammates," said Morgan, a junior who recently turned 20 years old. "I'm ready for that. A couple of coaches have said I have to step up and become one of the leaders of our team, and I have no problem doing that."
He'll be anchoring a group that includes defensive end Robert Hall and defensive tackle Ben Anderson, both who played significant snaps last year. Defensive end Jason Peters returns, along with defensive end Anthony Egbuniwe, who played sparingly last season after transferring from Tulsa. Defensive end Emmanuel Dieke (D-A-K) enrolled early and has impressed the staff, and defensive end Antonio Wilson is a redshirt freshman who didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. There's no shortage of bodies at end, but experience and the interior line is another matter.
"Anytime you lose guys that have played as much football as they have, there's an adjustment," Smith said, "but I think we've done a good job of keeping talent coming in. Although it will be a little bit inexperienced, I think it's a great challenge. It's like I told them last year, all the eyes were on us for one reason, now all the eyes are on us again for a different reason. I think they're excited about the challenge and I think people will be surprised when they see the caliber of players we have at Georgia Tech."
Morgan said he's heard all off-season about what the Yellow Jackets don't have coming back on the defensive line.
"I kind of expected that," Morgan said. "We're just going to take that with a grain of salt, work hard, and use it as motivation, which is kind of an advantage. Teams are going to probably underestimate our d-line and not take as much time to game-plan for us like they did last year. We're going to have to go out there and prove ourselves, which is no problem for us."
Like Barnes, Morgan, too, has something to prove. He said he wants to silence come critics who don't think he can be as effective as he was last year without the veteran lineup beside him.
"God-willing that's what I'm aiming for, that's what I'm working for," he said of a breakout season. "I know there are going to be skeptics who say, well, can he do the same thing he did last year without the three veterans? I want to go out there and prove I can do everything I did last year and more."
There's no doubt the Yellow Jackets will need him to.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
I got a chance to speak with Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who earned the ACC Coach of the Year award after a nine-win season that included a road win over rival Georgia. Here are the highlights of our recent phone interview:
Heather Dinich: What is the focus on recruiting for you guys at this point? Are there any specific positions you're going after?
Paul Johnson: I don't know that there is anything specific. We're going to take several linemen, offense and defense. We're almost finished. We've got about six or seven spots. We're looking at juniors now for next year.
HD: What's the deal with the scholarships now, because I know you played this season below the limit?
|Kelly Kline/Icon SMI|
|Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets will face LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.|
PJ: I think we can sign 25 and get back close to the 85. We'll catch up.
HD: Can you help me explain to fans how much tougher it is to play under that limit?
PJ: It's unbelievable. Jonathan Dwyer, his backup, Lucas Cox, was a starter at another position. And then we had a freshman walk-on that was the next guy up. So when he gets the wind knocked out of him or needs a blow or whatever, you have to change two or three guys or just make him stay in. There were some positions we had no flexibility. We were down to walk-ons as backups. From a planning standpoint, being able to rest guys and all that, it created some problems.
HD: What's the ideal offensive lineman you look for in terms of athleticism and size?
PJ: It's not that much different than anybody else. The biggest difference is we're not looking for the real big slow guy that can't move. Our guys need to be athletic. Sometimes in a passing offense you can take tall guys with long arms that really can't move. We're just looking for good players. The guys that will be good in our offense will be good in others, too.
HD: As you're hitting the recruiting trail, are you getting a lot of questions about your offense from players and their parents?
PJ: No, not now that we've been here for a year. We've got most of all our offensive guys committed, really. We had two receivers committed really early. We've got three quarterbacks, we may even take another one. We've got three running backs committed.
HD: Where do you see the next step being in terms of progress for next year?
PJ: We'll try to be more consistent and continue to get better. I think we got better as the year went along. We still laid an egg a time or two and we have to be more consistent. With a young team that's always a problem. As we get more depth and keep working at it, hopefully we can challenge for the conference championship every year. That's the goal.