NCF Nation: Jedd Fisch

DUKE

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Boone is up. Duke loses three-year starter Sean Renfree, who threw for 3,113 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. Anthony Boone is the next man up, and has plenty of game experience. But coming in for spot duty is vastly different from taking over the starting quarterback job. He has to get a jump on becoming the leader of this offense in the spring.

2. Receiver spots open. The Blue Devils lose the most prolific receiver in ACC history in Conner Vernon, plus the versatile and athletic Desmond Scott. Jamison Crowder is back, but Duke is going to need to find two more starters and several more to step up and help with depth.

3. Handling success. This is the first time since 1994 that Duke goes into a spring with 15 bowl practices already under its belt and a taste of success. That should presumably give the Blue Devils an advantage. But it is much harder maintaining, as many coach will tell you. How does this new success impact the mind-set in spring practice?

GEORGIA TECH

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:

1. Ted Roof takes over. What is the Georgia Tech defense going to look like with Ted Roof in charge? He has not really given out specifics about the type of scheme he wants to use as his base, so it will be interesting to see how he fits his personnel to what he likes to do best. The Jackets do return eight starters to a unit that improved in the second half of the season.

2. Vad Lee time. We saw glimpse of what Lee could do as he began to share quarterback duties with Tevin Washington last season. Now, the show is all his, so we get to see how he develops as a full-time starter.

3. So long, Orwin. The Jackets lose one of their most dynamic playmakers in Orwin Smith, who finished his career ranked among Georgia Tech’s all-time leaders in kickoff returns (76), kickoff return yards (1,624) and career all-purpose yards (4,278). Georgia Tech has to find somebody to replace that productivity.

MIAMI

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. D in Defense? The No. 1 spring priority has got to be improving a defense that was one of the worst in the nation in every NCAA statistical category (No. 112 rushing defense, No. 102 passing defense, No. 116 total defense, No. 82 scoring defense). If Miami is going to be a favorite to win the Coastal, it needs better play out of this group.

2. New OC. James Coley takes over as offensive coordinator, replacing Jedd Fisch. Coley served as offensive coordinator at Florida State before arriving at Miami, but did not call the plays. So he has much more responsibility here, and is charged with taking Stephen Morris from great to next-level great.

3. D-Line improvement. If Miami is going to be better on defense, it has to start up front, where the Hurricanes were extremely young and mostly ineffective for 2012. The Hurricanes had to deal with their share of injuries, but they also were not great at stopping the run or putting pressure on the passer -- with only 13 sacks all year. That is the lowest total since at least 2005, the first year NCAA stats began listing team sack totals.

NORTH CAROLINA

Spring start: March 6

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Bye bye, Gio. Life begins without All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard, who left school early for the NFL draft. The cupboard is not completely bare, though, as A.J. Blue and Romar Morris both return. Blue and Morris combined for 819 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns last season.

2. Replacing Williams, Reddick. North Carolina returns nine starters on defense. That is the good news. The bad news is the Tar Heels lose their two best players in linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, two first-team All-ACC selections. We'll see if Ethan Farmer at tackle and P.J. Clyburn at linebacker emerge to win the starting jobs.

3. Replacing Coop. The Tar Heels have a major hole to fill on their offensive line as they say goodbye to unanimous All-America guard Jonathan Cooper, a stalwart who made 47 career starts. Cooper was the unheralded leader of the offense, so filling his spot is a major priority this spring.

PITTSBURGH

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. QB situation. Tino Sunseri is gone, leaving Arizona transfer Tom Savage, redshirt freshman Chad Voytik and junior Trey Anderson to compete for the starting job. Inconsistent quarterback play has been a major issue for the Panthers, so upgrading this position is an absolute must.

2. Adjusting to DC. Pitt is going into the season with its fourth new coordinator in as many years, as Dave Huxtable left for NC State after only one year on the job. Secondary coach Matt House was promoted to coordinator, so at least there will be some familiarity. But he has to get to work on improving this unit's consistency.

3. Offensive line improvements. Is this the year we finally see a vastly improved Pitt offensive line? The Panthers have to replace center Ryan Turnley and guard Chris Jacobson, two key positions to watch during spring practice.

VIRGINIA

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. New coaches. How will the three most high-profile hires Mike London made mesh with the staff and returning players? How will the offense deal with a new scheme under Steve Fairchild? How will the defense deal with a new scheme under Jon Tenuta? How big will Tom O'Brien's role be with the offense? Inquiring minds want to know.

2. QB competition. Fairchild has already said he will open up the quarterback job to a "very spirited competition" this spring. The two front-runners figure to be Phillip Sims and David Watford, who both have game experience. But there will be no shortage of quarterbacks in Charlottesville this year, so there are no guarantees that either of them will win the job.

3. Replacing Greer. The Hoos have some big shoes to fill in the middle of their defense with the departure of linebacker Steve Greer, who ended his career with 376 tackles -- ranking No. 6 in school history. Kwontie Moore, one of nine true freshmen to play in 2012, backed up Greer last season. Will he win the starting job?

VIRGINIA TECH

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Logan Thomas. All eyes will be on Thomas as he heads into his senior season, especially with new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler in charge. How will the two work together, and what will Loeffler do to get Thomas to cut down on his mistakes and capitalize on the immense potential he has?

2. Rushing attack. Item No. 2 on the agenda for Loeffler is to figure out a way to jump start the Virginia Tech rushing game, which struggled in 2012. The offensive line was inconsistent, and so were the running backs. The Hokies could never really settle on a starter or a clear rotation in the backfield, either. Somebody has to emerge as THE guy.

3. Filling in for Exum. Virginia Tech took a serious hit to its defensive backfield last month when emerging cornerback Antone Exum tore his ACL in a pickup basketball game. The Hokies will look to several young players to try and fill his void, including Donovan Riley, Donaldven Manning and Davion Tookes. Fans will have to wait on highly touted cornerback Kendall Fuller, who joins in the summer.

Mixed day for Canes

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
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Miami coach Al Golden had to replace his offensive coordinator, Jedd Fisch, just weeks before signing day. Once again, he has had to put together a recruiting class with a highly publicized NCAA investigation looming.

All things considered, it hasn’t been a bad day for Miami, but it hasn’t been spectacular, either. It was mainly a back-and-forth against rival Florida State for some of the nation’s top prospects.

Stacy Coley, the No. 4 receiver in his class, gave the Canes a boost when he donned a “Swag” hat and announced his decision to come to the U. Coley had been thought to be leaning towards FSU, so it was somewhat of a surprise. The Noles beat Miami, though, on Miami native Matthew Thomas, the nation’s No. 1 outside linebacker, and defensive tackle Keith Bryant, the No. 135 overall prospect. Bryant had previously committed to Miami. On the flip side, Miami beat Florida State for running back Augustus Edwards, and that was a position of need for Miami.

The Canes also needed to reload at defensive tackle, but Golden missed out on defensive tackle Jay-nard Bostwick, who chose Florida. They also could have really used Bryant -- moreso than FSU.

On the positive, Golden kept Miami Northwestern cornerback Artie Burns at home, and beat Louisville for linebacker Jermaine Grace, the No. 138 overall prospect.

Golden told ESPNU that the NCAA investigation’s effect on this year’s class is “incalculable.”

“We’re not just fighting the opposition; we’re fighting the term sanctions all the time,” Golden said this morning. “It’s sanctions and the opposition versus us. It’s basically been a 2.5 year probation. I’m proud of our staff for continuing to battle and fight through it, and we’re proud of the recruits who believe in what we’re doing and want to move forward, and really want to be Miami Hurricanes in the end.”

There’s no question Miami added some “swag” to its class today, but it also missed out on some, too.

Al Golden just beat Jimbo Fisher at his best game -- recruiting.

Golden hired one of the country’s best recruiters -- and he plucked him right off of Fisher’s staff. Golden somehow managed to lure Florida State’s top remaining assistant, Miami native James Coley, in what was hands down the ACC’s best hire of the offseason.

Golden, who lost offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch last week to the Jacksonville Jaguars, was put in a tough spot, having to make such a critical hire just weeks before signing day. Not only did Golden dodge a bullet, but he fired it right back at Miami’s biggest rival. Miami has been beaten and overshadowed by Florida State’s recent success, but this is the kind of move that can tilt that scale back in favor of the Canes -- and quickly. Coley will also benefit tremendously from it, assuming Golden will allow him to call the plays -- something he didn’t do on Fisher’s staff.

As much as this move helps Miami, it hurts Florida State. And, to be quite honest, it looks bad for Fisher. Coley is a 1997 Florida State graduate. He just finished his fifth season at his alma mater. He worked with Fisher as a graduate assistant when they were at LSU. They’ve got history. The chance to call plays, though, and move back to his hometown easily explains what was probably a difficult decision.

Would calling the plays have changed Coley’s mind? Would he have stayed if Fisher would have relinquished that authority to him?

Coley wasn’t immediately available for comment, but it’s hard not to wonder.

The Noles have now lost six assistants since winning the ACC championship game, including their top two in former defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and now Coley. Because of the impact this will have in recruiting -- both for Miami and against Florida State -- Coley’s departure is arguably the program’s most significant loss. Staff turnover is nothing new, but now Fisher is the one in a bind with signing day rapidly approaching on Feb. 6. Fisher’s desire to continue to call the plays could complicate his hire of the next offensive coordinator. How many top-notch recruiters and coordinators are out there still looking for a job who will be willing to do everything but call the plays?

Miami, meanwhile, just got an outgoing recruiter who grew up next to the Orange Bowl, one who knows the high schools and area as well as his own living room. He also spent two years as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins under Nick Saban.

As the recruiting coordinator at Florida State in 2008 and 2009, Coley helped the Noles bring in back-to-back top-10 signing classes, which have helped restock FSU's talent pool. He was named the top recruiter in the ACC in 2010 by ESPN.com.

He still is one of the ACC’s best recruiters.

Only now, he’s bringing the talent home to Miami.
There is never a good time to lose a coach off your football team. Let's get that out of the way here at the top.

But Miami is losing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch at a particularly tough time for a host of reasons:
  • The Hurricanes' offense made major strides in 2012 and returns every starter but running back Mike James, ratcheting up expectations for a group with rising stars in Stephen Morris and ACC Rookie of the Year Duke Johnson.
  • Morris, in particular, grew immensely in his first year as a starter while learning under Fisch, setting the school single-season total offense record with 3,415 yards.
  • Time is ticking down to National Signing Day. Fisch has been a particularly strong recruiter for Miami, and now the Hurricanes have to hold on to key commits, particularly on offense.
  • Let's not forget NCAA sanctions are looming, too.

Of all the reasons listed, I think the biggest concern is the continuity on offense for 2013. During coach Al Golden's season wrap-up news conference last November, he fielded one question after another about the defense, clearly the weakest group on the team. He has been asked several times about defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio, and plans to shore up one of the worst defenses in America.

But on offense? There were no concerns before, but surely there are now as Miami now deals with the loss of two coaches -- Fisch and receiver coach George McDonald. After losing nobody off his staff a year ago, the Hurricanes have to make changes. Golden was widely praised for his hire of former FIU coach Mario Cristobal, who takes McDonald's spot on staff.

Replacing Fisch, though, is bigger. Coordinator changes can oftentimes impact players and schemes. You can bet Golden will find somebody with a similar philosophy as Fisch. In fact, many times coaches have their new coordinators adapt to the schemes already in place to lessen the impact these transitions have on players.

Particularly the quarterback. Morris and Fisch had a great working relationship, as Fisch also served as quarterbacks coach. And Morris got better as the year went on, exactly what you want to see out of your quarterback, throwing 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his final four games. Miami went 3-1 in those contests, with the lone loss a wild 41-40 setback to Virginia.

The final stats bear out the improvement. Morris was a major upgrade over Jacory Harris, as the Hurricanes scored more, had more yards of total offense and passed for more yards than a season ago. Miami was improved in those three major categories, and just about the same in rushing offense. Given Morris' return as a senior, a young and talented receiving corps and all the incredible talent we saw out of Johnson, there is reason for optimism.

That's why this is such an important hire for Golden to make. He's got to get this one right.
CHICAGO – Phillip Dorsett knew the ball was going to him when Miami trotted onto the field to start its game against Notre Dame on Saturday night.

Quarterback Stephen Morris saw something in the Irish defense during film study early in the week he thought his team could exploit. He went to offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and said point blank, “Yo, I think we should run this play right here. I don't think they'll be able to stop it.’”

That play call was an aggressive one to start the game.

Go deep to Mr. Reliable.

So Miami practiced the play all week. Felt good about it all week. Dorsett was ready for it. When the ball was snapped, he went deep. And the play unfolded the way Miami thought it would -- Dorsett got behind the defense and was wide open. Morris delivered the ball beautifully.

Behind him, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o silently thought, “Please don’t catch the ball.”

Dorsett dropped the ball.

Four plays later, Morris went back to Dorsett, in the corner of the end zone.

Dorsett dropped the ball.

Miami put together what appeared to be a perfect game plan. The Hurricanes caught Notre Dame flat-footed on that opening drive, with some pretty aggressive play calling. Miami clearly wanted to make a statement -- the Hurricanes were ready to take it to the Irish.

That, in the end, was not only the story of their dismal 41-3 loss to No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday. It was the story of their dismal loss in Kansas State. In its two national spotlight games, against teams ranked in the top 25, Miami dropped the ball.

[+] EnlargePhillip Dorsett
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhPhillip Dorsett's drops short-circuited Miami's plan of attack against Notre Dame from the outset.
Afterward, the Miami locker room was virtually silent. Linebacker Denzel Perryman said this lost hurt worse than Kansas State.

“We prepared very well for this game,” Perryman said. “This game -- we took this one personal. We just lacked communication, lacked execution.”

That is not what you want to hear in Week 6. We were told going into this game Miami would be better prepared to handle a highly ranked team, on the road. The Hurricanes had grown up in their two come-from-behind wins. They could do this.

Clearly coach Al Golden was convinced his team could, and would, be better than they were in Manhattan, Kan.

“I thought we were ready to go, and I was as surprised as anybody that we had lost our poise a little bit in the early going,” he said.

A week earlier against NC State, Dorsett had seven catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns -- including the game-winning 62-yard score with 32 seconds left. Saturday, his two drops sent Miami spinning.

“I was in disbelief,” Dorsett said. “Obviously, that doesn't happen much to me. I got a little too excited, the ball got caught in the lights. I couldn't see it. I'm not a person to make excuses. I've got to come up with those.”

Blaming the loss on what happened on that opening series is not fair to Dorsett. There were plenty of other mistakes and missed opportunities that followed. Miami forced a punt on Notre Dame’s first possession, only to give the Irish a fresh set of downs on a roughing-the-kicker call.

Two plays later, Eddie Johnson got a personal foul for a late hit out of bounds. Notre Dame ended up scoring on the drive. Late in the second quarter, Miami started a drive at the Notre Dame 35, with a chance to close a 13-3 deficit.

Three-and-out.

Then came the dreadful third quarter, one Notre Dame dominated on the ground. The Irish pounded and pounded and Miami simply could not get a stop. The Irish scored 21 points in that quarter, as they held the ball for 11:24. They ran 21 plays and racked up 197 yards on the ground.

Miami? On three drives, it ran six plays and got two first downs.

“It was really lopsided in terms of them having the ball,” Morris said. “We didn't have much opportunities, and the times we did have opportunities, we were on the field and we were off. We can't win games like that.”

In its two games against ranked opponents, Miami was outscored 93-16. The Hurricanes gave up a combined 1,085 yards of total offense and mustered 562 of their own, with one total touchdown.

Miami had two opportunities to make a statement, and failed both times.

Golden has a young team, with young starters who are getting used to playing in atmospheres as big as the one Saturday night. That is completely understandable. But there has to be a point where we should expect Miami to be competitive in these games, and not completely and overwhelmingly overmatched.

Would the game have turned out differently had Dorsett made one of those catches on the opening drive? We will never know. But it is probably safe to say the confidence would have been higher than it was for the remainder of the game.

When Miami trailed against Georgia Tech and NC State, you never truly got the sense the players felt they were out of it. Miami could hang with them.

But Miami could not hang with Notre Dame, and did itself no favors with all its mistakes.

In the end, this game was just another squandered opportunity.
In the third quarter of Miami's come-from-behind overtime win at Georgia Tech on Sept. 22, Miami coach Al Golden said he saw something click in quarterback Stephen Morris.

“He just started throwing and not thinking as much, just trusting his technique and his footwork and his arm,” Golden said. “He just started throwing. Really if you look at the last 20 minutes of that game, it wasn’t like he got hot, he just started relaxing and hitting his receivers and trusting his reads and he’s carried it over into this game. I’m excited. I think he would tell you that if he could go back, he could go back and say the turning point was maybe Kansas State because he was trying to do too much as we got down and got behind. Now he’s just trusting the execution of the play to lead him to success.”

And the rest of the offense is following.

[+] EnlargeStephen Morris
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireStephen Morris will face his toughest test yet on Saturday against the Irish defense, which is allowing just nine points per game.
When Miami travels to Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday, where it will face No. 9-ranked Notre Dame and the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense, it will bring an offense that has racked up more than 400 total yards in each of the past three games. In his first season as the full-time starter, Morris is coming off an ACC-record setting performance of 566 passing yards in a win over NC State, but the Canes have yet to face a defense with a front seven as aggressive as the Irish's. If the young Canes are going to pull off another stunner, Morris will need another poised performance in the passing game to exploit an inexperienced Notre Dame secondary.

“Everyone on this offense is just clicking right now, and I think we’re moving great, and coach [Jedd] Fisch is doing a great job of calling a great game every single game,” Morris said. “We’re not worried about anything else. We’re not worried about who our opponent is or anything like that. We’re just trying to play our best game every game. The first couple of games we were just getting a good feel for each other, getting a good feel for this offense. I think this offense can be very explosive. We have great coaches. I’m very confident in all my receivers, my offensive line, my tight ends and my running backs. I’m confident that they’re going to make the play for me.”

The feeling should be mutual.

Morris enters Saturday’s game ranked first among ACC quarterbacks in passing yards per game (327.0) and in total offense (333.2). In the past two games, he has totaled 1,002 passing yards (436 at Georgia Tech; 566 vs. NC State). His 287 passing yards in the first half against NC State were more than his total in three of the first four games this season. With the defense struggling, the offensive success has been a major factor in the Canes’ 3-0 start to league play.

“Stephen’s development has been an incredible component in terms of our success,” Golden said. “So far, especially in the ACC, he’s grown up a lot. He’s throwing the ball more effectively right now and he’s hitting his vertical shots better than he was earlier in the year. He’s a leader. He’s creating with his feet now and keeping his eyes down the field, which is great because he’s making plays down the field.

“I just think the last two weeks he's done a good job,” Golden said. “We saw glimpses of it the previous three weeks, but we didn't see the consistency. After a couple errant throws in the first quarter of Georgia Tech, he settled in, started to relax, doing a great job throwing, not aiming right now. I think obviously the receivers have stepped up. There's some trust there. We're protecting him well. I think he's making good decisions with the football. Obviously from an athletic standpoint, he can create. He's fast. He's got good vision down the field. He's got a big-league arm.”

He’s also got a big-league defense coming after him on Saturday. Notre Dame has already forced 13 turnovers through four games this year after forcing 14 all of last season. No school in the FBS has allowed fewer touchdowns this season than Notre Dame (three). Notre Dame ranks third in the FBS in scoring defense in 2012 -- allowing just 9.00 points per game. The Irish defense has not allowed a touchdown over their last eight quarters.

Morris said he expects the Irish to make plays -- but he said the Canes will too.

“It’s taught me that we’re a very explosive team, that we have the opportunity to score,” Morris said of the past two weeks. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of things to clean up. We can’t be complacent with whatever the score may be. We saw that in Georgia Tech and we saw that against NC State as well. We’ve got to continue to put points on the board, continue to have our foot on the pedal, and keep going.”

Only time will tell how far Morris and this offense can take them.
First-year Miami coach Al Golden had heard the critics loud and clear. The value of quarterback Jacory Harris was already determined in the minds of many Miami fans –- as the backup to Stephen Morris -- before summer camp even began.

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
Bob Donnan/US PresswireMiami's Jacory Harris has been more consistent this season, especially the past three games.
“I think there were a lot of naysayers out there with the notion that he wasn't going to change or improve,” Golden said. “And I don't think that's fair in college or with student-athletes.

“I think you've got to give them an opportunity to find the things that they do well and capitalize on them. From the beginning I was looking at his assets, his strengths, the number of games started, his football intelligence, maturity, his leadership. We coupled that with some good decision making, his ability to distribute the ball and obviously he's protecting the ball and getting us in the right place. So, very pleased with him so far.”

Miami fans should be, too.

Harris enters Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech ranked No. 8 in the country in passing efficiency. He has thrown 89 passes without an interception, a span of three straight games. As Harris has improved, so has the rest of the team, and the Hurricanes could keep their hopes of winning the Coastal Division alive on Saturday with a win against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, though, are looking to rebound from an upset loss to Virginia. Miami has won the past two games in this series and is the only ACC program to have defeated Paul Johnson’s Jackets in consecutive years. Harris is 33-of-43 with five touchdown passes in those games.

Part of Harris’ improvement can be attributed to the style and philosophy of first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch. Under his direction, Harris’ completion rate (67 percent), pass efficiency rating (170.77), yards per attempt (9.05) and longest pass (77 yards) this season are all career highs.

“Obviously Jedd's (Fisch) doing a great job,” Golden said. “[Harris is] trusting not only Jedd, but he's trusting his teammates, the guys around him and letting them do things with the ball.

“He got sacked a couple times the other day. He protected the ball very well. If he's going to get sacked, don't give up a sack/fumble. He threw it out of bounds other times and found his second receiver or his check down a bunch of times. He's doing a nice job. He's level-headed, consistent, and very mature and experienced. And he's playing the way we thought he would play.”

Still, don’t count out Georgia Tech just yet. The Jackets only have one conference loss, and historically, they rebound. Johnson is 3-0 in games following his first loss of the season at Georgia Tech, and winning those games by an average of 18 points.

“I feel like our guys are going to have a positive attitude,” Johnson said. “We’re disappointed that we lost, but the sky isn’t falling. The team is 6-1. Before you bury us let us play two more games. It seems like everyone wants to end the season and bury the team. Maybe they’re right, but let’s at least go play and see what happens.”
Luke Fickell & Al GoldenUS Presswire, Icon SMIOhio State's Luke Fickell, left, and Miami's Al Golden have had challenging starts to their new jobs.
As college football suffered through an offseason of scandal, two programs found themselves squarely in the crosshairs.

Ohio State made headlines for the wrong reasons throughout much of the spring and summer, especially during an eight-day stretch when coach Jim Tressel resigned and starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor left the program. The notoriety then shifted to Miami after a Yahoo! Sports investigation revealed damaging allegations by former booster Nevin Shapiro.

It brings us to Saturday night, when the Buckeyes and Hurricanes will meet on the field.

Some folks are calling it the Ineligi-Bowl.

Both teams are short-handed -- Ohio State more than Miami -- and both are dealing with change and intense scrutiny. Both are facing potential NCAA penalties and uncertain futures, but first-year coaches Luke Fickell and Al Golden are trying to keep the focus on the field.

Bloggers Heather Dinich (ACC) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten) break down a unique matchup at Sun Life Stadium.

Adam Rittenberg: HD, hope you had a better summer than the Canes or Buckeyes. Both programs have dealt with a lot of recent distractions. Miami dropped its opener to Maryland but regains the services of quarterback Jacory Harris and others from suspension. Ohio State still will be without three offensive starters and looked very shaky Saturday against Toledo. Before getting between the lines, let's look between the ears. How do you think these teams are approaching this game from a mental standpoint? Does one squad have an edge?

Heather Dinich: The only edge I see, Ritt, is the fact that Miami had a bye week to move on from its loss to Maryland, while that scare from Toledo is pretty fresh in the Buckeyes’ heads. Then again, it could have been just the wake-up call Ohio State needed. Plus, Miami has to be recharged a bit and excited about getting several of its players back from the opening-game suspension. Miami was without eight players against the Terps, and now five of those players return, including Harris. Most notably, the defense should get a boost up front from the return of linebacker Sean Spence, defensive end Adewale Ojomo, and defensive tackle Marcus Forston. The Canes were beat up front by Maryland, but the return of those guys should give them some more confidence heading into the Ohio State game. What about the Buckeyes? Two wins over teams they should beat. Are they ready for their first real test of the season?

AR: Ohio State's first real test actually came Saturday against Toledo, although few thought the Rockets would challenge the Buckeyes. Toledo found gaps in Ohio State's secondary and held the Buckeyes to just six points in the second half. Ohio State will have to play better in all three phases against Miami, especially in the kicking game, after the Canes recorded two returns for touchdowns last year in Columbus. The first road game always presents challenges, especially for an Ohio State team dealing with significant personnel losses on both sides of the ball. Line play is an area the Buckeyes must lean on Saturday night, as Ohio State has proven veterans on both sides like center Mike Brewster and defensive lineman John Simon. But with so many key players out, the Buckeyes will be challenged.

Speaking of getting key players back, what's your take on the short suspensions for Harris and the others? Ohio State fans are livid that the Tat-4 remains out, while Shapiro's pals are back on the field this week.

HD: Well, fortunately for the sport, there really is no precedent for this, so it seems like the only thing you can really compare in these two cases is the monetary value of their infractions. In Miami's cases, the harshest punishments (six games and four games), were reserved for violations that occurred when Olivier Vernon and Ray-Ray Armstrong were still recruits. Vernon has to repay more than $1,200; Armstrong (four games) and Dyron Dye (four games) were both less than $800. The one-game suspensions correlate to players whose violations all amounted to less than $500. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the Buckeyes are working on repaying between $1,000-2,500. I think it's safe to say the Buckeyes' violations were more costly in more ways than one, as they should be.

All that aside, though, there's only one thing that will matter Saturday, and that's who wins. Miami hasn't started out 0-2 since 1978. Who, in your opinion, needs this win more?

AR: Yeah, I think the folks in Columbus are more upset that three players who took money at a charity function -- running back Jordan Hall and defensive backs Travis Howard and Corey Brown -- are serving longer suspensions than those who took benefits from Shapiro. But whatever. Both teams really need this win, but I'll make the case for Ohio State. Unlike Golden, who shouldn't have to worry about his job security (whether he wants to stay at Miami is another question), Fickell and his staff have no guarantees beyond this season. While coaches need the players to perform well in the Big Ten no matter what, this is the type of game that can build confidence or reduce it. Any road win boosts a team's morale, but beating Miami without so many key pieces would increase the Buckeyes' belief that they can continue to achieve their top goals despite all the turmoil. I certainly see the urgency for Miami, too.

Let's talk about Jacory Harris. I'll be kind and say he was very bad last year at The Shoe. If not for his interceptions, Miami could have made things very interesting. How do you think Harris fares against an Ohio State defense with a bunch of new starters, particularly in the secondary?

HD: Four turnovers was the reason Miami lost this game last year. I would be surprised if Jacory doesn't play better. I spent some time down at Miami this summer and could sense some genuine confidence in Harris from first-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and from Golden. They backed that up when they named him the starter after the loss to Maryland. I know Stephen Morris is the fan favorite, but Jacory's experience alone will help alleviate some of the mistakes and confusion that came in the loss to the Terps. This is Jacory's last season to go out a winner and redeem himself. I believe he is truly a more confident player, but how that translates in his first start since a dreadful performance in the Sun Bowl last year remains to be seen. He still has a lot to prove. Of the four ACC teams lining up against ranked opponents this weekend, though, I give the Canes the best chance to win. I'll save the score for Thursday's picks, but I'm sticking with the ACC in this one. I'll give you the last word, though, since I know you'll need it to defend the Buckeyes.

AR: Thank you, ma'am. Defending Ohio State after last week's performance isn't easy, but Toledo looks like a pretty solid team, and coach Tim Beckman definitely had the Rockets ready to play. Given the players missing on offense, Ohio State will have to win this game by playing TresselBall -- ironically without Tressel. It'll be all about defense, the run game, controlling field position on special teams and limiting mistakes. The Buckeyes need a much sharper defensive performance and I think they'll get one, especially against Harris, whom I don't trust at all to limit mistakes. The kick and punt coverage teams have to be sharper than they were last year and against Toledo. It will be tough for Fickell's crew, but there are enough leaders on that team who know how to win tough games. I'll also wait to reveal my score Thursday, but I'm going with the Scarlet and Gray.
In no way does the decision to start Miami quarterback Jacory Harris surprise me.

In talking to coach Al Golden and first-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch this offseason, it was clear that they liked what they saw. They have the only senior quarterback in the conference and have said repeatedly that he is better than he was a year ago.

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJacory Harris had a performance to forget in his last game against Notre Dame.
Now Harris has been given the chance to prove it.

The only problem with this decision is the timing of its announcement. Aside from the fact that it was unexpected (Golden said on his teleconference this week the quarterbacks would be given Thursday, Friday and Saturday to compete), it now gives Ohio State extra time to prepare knowing which quarterback it will face. If Golden wanted to get Harris the much-needed snaps with the first team, by all means he should do it -- behind closed doors. The earlier this decision was made the better, considering Harris' practice reps with the first team diminished because of the one-game NCAA suspension. The bye week will give Harris the time he needs to adequately prepare for his first start since ... I know, you don't want me to bring it up again, do you, Miami fans?

The last time Harris started a game -- against Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl -- he put on a clinic for what not to do. He completed 4 of 7 passes and threw three interceptions. As a senior, there's no question he wants to leave the program with better memories.

And there's no question Miami fans are ready for some.

As popular as Stephen Morris is with the fans, Harris earned the chance this offseason to redeem himself. There are certain advantages his experience will bring. Golden said "too many operational things" went wrong with Harris against Maryland, "confusion coming out of the huddle." Those are mistakes that aren't usually made with a veteran.

It's important to remember that Golden didn't take Harris out of the quarterback competition -- the NCAA did.

"It wasn't my choice that the quarterback competition ended two weeks ago, even before our second scrimmage," Golden said. "We had to completely go a different direction than we wanted to, had to remove Jacory from it prematurely. I wanted them to at least get a chance to compete and win [the job] on the field."

Morris has had his chance. Now it's Harris' turn. The only problem with that is that the Buckeyes now know it, too.
When it comes to veteran quarterbacks in the ACC, there is only one -- unless you’re counting true sophomores or second-year starters as old guys.

If Miami’s Jacory Harris wins the starting job this summer, he will be the only senior quarterback in the ACC this year. Despite his past experience, though, Harris is facing a lot of uncertainty in his future. Here are the three main questions facing Harris as he prepares for his final season as a Hurricane:

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJacory Harris threw for 1,793 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
1. Will he win the starting job, and will he keep it? Even if Harris wins the starting job this summer, there’s no guarantee he’ll finish the season at the top of the depth chart, especially if he continues to turn the ball over and make poor decisions. Harris will constantly be looking over his shoulder, as Stephen Morris will be pushing him at practice every day. The competition between the two will either make Harris better -- like it did when Robert Marve was still on the team -- or it could rattle his confidence.

2. How will he adapt to the new offense? First-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will run a pro-style offense, and Harris has had to spend the offseason learning new terminology and concepts. Fisch has already said they’re likely to hand the ball off a good amount, so the offensive line and running backs should help take some pressure off of Harris. As far as the balance between the run and pass, though, your guess is as good as mine. Fisch has said that he plans to do whatever it takes to win, whether that’s throw it 40 times or run it 40 times. Fisch has only called plays once before -- in 2009, as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator.

3. Will he stay healthy? In 2009, Harris had a thumb injury, though just how bad it was we’ll never know. Last year at Pittsburgh, Harris suffered a shoulder injury. There were conflicting reports about the exact injury, but The Miami Herald reported it was a bruised AC joint. And then, arguably the worst of his injuries was the concussion he suffered at Virginia, which sidelined him for three games. Like most quarterbacks, Harris isn’t the same when he’s injured, but the true extent of his injuries has been a mystery. How much more can he take?
Miami running back Lamar Miller rattled off his goals for this season without any hesitation:

  • Win every game.
  • Rush for more than 100 yards every game.
  • Win the ACC championship.
Lamar Miller
AP Photo/John BazemoreLamar Miller wants to be the Hurricanes' first 1000-yard rusher since 2002.
“That’s about it, really,” he said.

You’d think he was checking items off a grocery list instead of trying to become Miami’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Willis McGahee in 2002.

Whether he actually accomplishes that feat depends heavily upon how the carries will be shared with Mike James, who is also too talented to keep off the field, but Miller is the top playmaker in the group. He led Miami with six rushing touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman and is poised for a breakout season. His 6.0 yards per carry average was the highest among rushers with at least 10 carries. He was also at his best against some of the best competition. Miller ran for 163 yards against Virginia Tech, a season-high for the team, and he ran for an average of 86.8 yards in ACC games -- third-best in the league.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said of reaching the 1,000-yard mark. “I’m just going to take it game by game, come out with a victory and help my team win games.”

With Miller and four starters returning on the offensive line, Miami’s offense has the potential to flourish in Year 1 under offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch (if, of course, they get some consistency at quarterback).

“Every day we’ve been competing, we’re bigger and stronger and in better conditioning,” Miller said. “Everyone has adjusted pretty well. [The coaching change] was a big move for some of the guys, but everybody overcame [it] and is working together to get better as a unit.”

If Miller’s performance in the spring game is any foreshadowing of what is to come, opposing ACC defenses should be concerned. Miller showcased his speed and explosiveness with touchdown runs of 70 and 64 yards. He finished the day with 10 carries for 166 yards. He is the fastest running back on the roster and the biggest home run threat.

Miller said that Storm Johnson's decision to transfer hasn’t affected the strength of the group nor has it affected the way he is mentally approaching this season. He is also well aware of the many Miami fans who are expecting big things from him this fall.

“The expectations are really high,” he said. “I just have to come out and do my assignment and just play my part.”

Miami fans are hoping to watch him do that 1,000 times over.
If you think Miami's quarterback competition is interesting now, it should only get better next season.

As to whether or not the 2012 starting quarterback is actually an upgrade? Well, that remains to be seen, but Miami took another step towards building the position's depth recently when it announced the addition of transfer quarterback Ryan Williams, who played for one season at the University of Memphis.

[+] EnlargeRyan Williams
AP Photo/Kerry SmithRyan Williams, competing to be the starting quarterback at Miami, showed effectiveness as Memphis' starter in 2010.
While Williams -- a record-setter who led nearby Miramar High to its first state title -- obviously wasn't an attractive prospect for the previous staff, Miami coach Al Golden and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch just got a steal in a 6-foot-6, 225-pound prototypical drop-back passer who fits in perfectly with what the Canes want to do offensively. The reason he left Memphis is because of the program's switch to a spread offense.

And the fact that Williams took the starting job from a former Hurricane, Cannon Smith, who suffered a concussion in the second game, is just too ironic to ignore. (Current Cane Jacory Harris suffered a concussion in the Virginia game last year, opening the door for Stephen Morris and leading to the current ongoing competition.) Williams started 10 games last year and completed 165 of 290 passes for 2,075 yards and 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He'll have a wee bit more talent to help him out at Miami.

If, of course, Williams actually wins the starting job.

Once Harris leaves, the Canes will have Morris, Michigan transfer Tate Forcier and Williams to choose from, along with whomever they land in the 2012 recruiting class -- and that is where Golden needs to make his biggest impact. While Morris and the transfers will have an opportunity to compete for the starting job, Miami still needs to land some stud quarterbacks in its next recruiting class -- a position Golden swung and missed on in 2011 due in large part because of the timing of his hire. So far, the Canes are off to a good start with two, including David Thompson, and ESPNU 150 watch list member Gray Crow.

Miami's depth is getting better, but the talent must improve, too, and while Williams will help the Canes in both areas, the 2012 recruiting class should help more.

Miami QBs embracing competition

March, 11, 2011
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CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, a genuinely good guy who unfortunately might be best known for his 39 career interceptions, learned an important stat about picks last season -- Dan Marino threw 50 of them in his career at Pitt.

“I did not know that,” Harris said with a smile. “I’m pretty sure I’m not going to throw 50 picks by the time I’m done. If anything, Dan Marino is going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback in the NFL. That goes to show that you can still be a great quarterback. You still have to cut down on mistakes, but Coach [Jedd] Fisch is someone who doesn’t even want to talk about interceptions. If you throw one, don’t even worry about it, go on to the next play. That’s something we’re not even allowed to talk about in the meeting rooms. I feel the same way: If you talk about them, you bring them back up. That’s how the game goes. You’ve got to make some mistakes sometimes in order to learn.”

[+] EnlargeJacory Harris
AP Photo/Alan DiazMiami quarterback Jacory Harris is learning to be a more vocal leader on and off the field.
All three quarterbacks at Miami have learned a major lesson this offseason -- things are different under first-year coach Al Golden, and the starting job is up for grabs. (Seriously.) There has been a genuine competition amongst Harris, Spencer Whipple and Stephen Morris since the 2010 season ended, as evidenced by the pre-spring depth chart. Whipple, previously the third-string quarterback, was No. 1. Harris was second, followed by Morris.

Harris is the most experienced of the three, and it’s also his last chance at redemption. As a senior, the embattled quarterback has been through it all -- starting as a true freshman, a concussion that sidelined him for the majority of the second half of the 2010 season and a turnover tendency that has made any other quarterback available the No. 1 choice of Miami fans. Last year, he internalized all of it and reached the lowest point of his career.

Now, with his teammates pushing him to be better, it’s hard to catch Harris without a smile -- no matter what the depth chart might say.

“It’s been a big learning experience,” he said. “Since the Virginia game, it’s taught me to look at things in a positive way. After that game and through the injury and finishing the season, I was kind of down, at the lowest point probably in my career. I felt like everything was going wrong. At the start of the new year, I made my goal to stay positive about everything, no matter what it is. To always smile, even when things are going wrong, and to find some light in everything.”

And to not look back.

Fisch said he told Harris he doesn’t want to judge him on past performances.

“What we’re going to work with Jacory on is understanding and mastering what we want him to do, not what he’s done in the past, not what he’s done in high school, not what he’s done in college,” Fisch said. “He has to understand the offense we’re asking him to run and he has to work under those parameters.”

Morris has a strong arm and the confidence to go with it, but he’s a baby-faced sophomore still in need of instruction and development. In six games last year, he threw seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.

“Me and Jacory are just good friends and we understand the competition on the field is solely on the field,” said Morris, who said he has been cleared for full participation since suffering an ankle injury during Sun Bowl practices. “Off the field, it’s back to being a family. I can’t lie: It has been rough at times. Obviously, for anybody who’s competing for a job, but you’ve just got to sit back and pray and realize we’re in this together. We’re going after the same job, and no matter who gets the starting job, I’ll be behind the person and whoever will be behind me.”

Right now, both Harris and Morris are behind Whipple, who was rewarded for finishing slightly ahead of the other two quarterbacks in the offseason ranking system.

“It drove a lot of the players in the offseason,” said Whipple, whose father, former Miami offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, was not retained by the current staff. “Everyone wanted to work really hard and show the coaches what they had and where they stood in terms of the depth chart. Now it’s a whole new process going through spring ball and a whole new grading system. Some guys who were starters maybe aren’t starting now but maybe they learned lessons about hard work, so it worked out for everyone. Everyone understood what was going to happen.”

And there hasn’t been any animosity between them. Instead, it’s made them better. Harris said he “sensed” the change coming on the depth chart because he knows Golden wants to see more leadership qualities from him.

“I’ve always been a guy who just sits back and watches things, or tries to lead by example,” Harris said. “Sometimes leading by example isn’t always the right way to go. Sometimes you have to put your foot down and say stuff. With the ranking system, it kind of helped bring that out of me. It’s like, ‘Jacory, you’re not going to get put any higher than you are unless you open up your mouth and lead this team.’ It really helps. I appreciate everything.

“I’m real confident in everything I’m doing right now, even though we have a new playbook, new system, everything. It just feels like I’m in tune with everything. I study the playbook, watch film; I’m just going out there trying to help this team. I don’t want things to happen like in the past. I just want to make sure that we have a successful year.”

And a career filled with fewer mistakes than Marino.
Al Golden and Randy EdsallGetty ImagesAl Golden and Randy Edsall are the latest head coaches to take over ACC programs.
First-year Miami offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch introduced himself to the players the best way he knew how -- he recruited them. He brought them into his office one by one and asked them about their families, their hometowns, and their high school situations.

“I never got to recruit any of these players,” he said in an interview on signing day. “It will be different in the future. I’ll know the players. I’ll know their families and their situations. Here, I really don’t know anything. So I asked our players to really introduce themselves to me, more than me introducing myself to them. It’s been really nice to talk to these guys, find out about their backgrounds, what made them choose the U. I didn’t know any of those answers.”

Nor did he know the personnel.

It wasn’t until after signing day that Miami’s staff finally had a chance to look at 15-20 clips of each player on the roster and evaluate them. The Hurricanes aren’t the only program in transition this spring, as five teams will have either a new head coach, new coordinator, or both. Al Golden replaced Randy Shannon at Miami, Maryland hired Randy Edsall, Clemson and Boston College both hired new offensive coordinators, and Duke will have its third defensive coordinator in as many years. Two hires -- Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown, who was retained by Edsall, and North Carolina defensive line coach Brian Baker -- didn’t even last a month before they left for other jobs.

The biggest changes, though, will be at Maryland and Miami. With the hires of Golden and Edsall, the ACC has now had head-coaching changes at 10 of the 12 schools in the past five years. Wake Forest and Virginia Tech are the exceptions, as Jim Grobe and Frank Beamer, who are entering their 11th and 24th seasons, respectively, are easily the most tenured in the league. Four coaches will either be in their first or second seasons this year.

“You look at Butch Davis and Tom O’Brien, and their tenure is beginning to look long in our league,” said ACC commissioner John Swofford. “There’s a lot of freshness, a lot of new coaches who are still early in their tenures. Hopefully with longevity and stability, those programs will grow and develop.”

The instability in the coaching ranks hasn’t helped the ACC gain any solid footing in the national college football landscape. Just when it seemed as if former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen had the Terps heading in the right direction -- a nine-win season led by the league’s coach of the year and rookie of the year -- the change was made.

Maryland AD Kevin Anderson said the expectations for Friedgen’s successor would be consistent appearances in the Top 25 -- exactly where the Terps left off in the final Associated Press poll of 2010.

“I’ll put more pressure on myself than what anybody can put on me,” Edsall said. “I know Ralph, I’ve worked with Ralph. Those things are unfortunate, but I’m here to do a job and get Maryland to the highest level we can. My whole goal and approach is to win the ACC championship. That’s what I want to do, and that’s what we’ve been striving to do since I got here.”

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
AP Photo/Patrick CollardClemson will likely have growing pains next season with a new offensive coordinator and a first-year QB in Tajh Boyd.
With rapidly-improving Florida State in the same division, it won’t be easy. Clemson will have some catching up to do, too. First-year Clemson coordinator Chad Morris is not only tasked with installing a new offense and terminology, he’s also got to do it with a first-year starting quarterback in Tajh Boyd.

“It’s based on a very fast paced style of play,” Morris said. “It’s based basically on being a run, play-action oriented offense.”

Miami will have a pro-style offense, but the staff has yet to determine whether Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris will execute it. That decision could be made as early as the end of spring practices.

“We’re going to be multiple,” Fisch said. “We’re going to use a lot of personnel groupings and formations to our advantage. We’re going to be balanced in ways of trying to get the ball into all of our playmakers' hands. I’m not worried as much about run-pass ratio as I’m worried about are all of our players getting enough touches. Am I making sure I’m getting the ball in the hands of our guys who are dynamic? Our balance will come from the distribution of the football rather than the play call itself.”

Miami fans are less concerned with how the Canes win as they are how fast they can win. It takes time, though, to get acclimated to new philosophies, personalities and terminology. Both Edsall and Golden are also in new recruiting territories, and had to scramble to put their 2011 classes together. Golden came in at somewhat of an “awkward” time, as the program was still preparing for its bowl game under an interim head coach.

“It’s not like taking over something that was a smooth transition,” Golden said. “It was difficult.”

Apparently, staying in the ACC can be as difficult as joining.

Spring preview: Coastal Division

February, 15, 2011
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We've already looked at who and what to watch in the Atlantic Division this spring. Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program in the Coastal Division:

DUKE

Spring practice starts: Feb. 16

Spring game: March 26

What to watch:
  • Jim Knowles taking over as defensive coordinator. After coaching the safeties last season, Knowles was promoted in late January following the departure of Marion Hobby to coach Clemson’s defensive line. It’s not a complete overhaul on defense, but for the third time in as many seasons, a different person will be calling the plays. Knowles has also assumed the lead role with Duke’s practice scheduling and weekly preparation.
  • New faces at linebacker. Duke graduated its leading tackler from 2010, Abraham Kromah, and freshman All-American Kelby Brown is out while recovering from knee surgery. Those two slots will be wide open this spring and the competition will be among Austin Gamble, C.J. France, Tyree Glover and Kevin Rojas.
  • Offensive line shuffling. The Blue Devils return four starters up front, but they’ll be missing the glue of the line in Bryan Morgan, who graduated. Brian Moore, who has started the past two seasons at right guard, will make the transition to center. John Coleman and Laken Tomlinson are expected to compete for the right guard spot.
GEORGIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 28 (tentative)

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Starting quarterback competition. Tevin Washington enters the spring at No. 1 on the depth chart, and it's his job to lose, as he has the most experience after taking over for injured starter Joshua Nesbitt in 2010. Synjyn Days will give him legitimate competition this spring, though, and it will increase this summer with the addition of standout recruit Vad Lee to the roster. For now, though, it’s between Washington and Days, as David Sims is expected to move to B-back.
  • Offensive line reshuffling. Georgia Tech will have to replace three starters in all-conference center Sean Bedford, right tackle Austin Barrick and left tackle Nick Claytor, who decided to leave early for the NFL draft. Phil Smith, Barrick’s backup last year, is the only one with any experience at tackle. The staff will likely have to move a player or two from guard to tackle, and only it knows who those candidates might be right now.
  • Revamped secondary. Jerrard Tarrant's decision to leave school early and enter the NFL draft left the Jackets without any returning starters in the secondary. Junior cornerback Rod Sweeting, sophomore cornerback Louis Young, redshirt freshman cornerback Ryan Ayers and sophomore safety Fred Holton are front-runners, but they all have a lot to prove this spring. Holton and Young played sparingly as true freshmen and combined for 21 tackles. Sweeting played in all 13 games and had one fumble recovery and eight passes defended, including one interception. Senior cornerback Michael Peterson may help, and safety Jemea Thomas played as a true freshman in 2009 but redshirted last year. There’s some talent, but the inexperience makes it a question mark.
MIAMI

Spring practice starts: March 5

Spring game: April 9 or 16

What to watch:
  • New staff, new schemes. Defensively, first-year coordinator Mark D’Onofrio will work with two other assistants who were with him and first-year coach Al Golden at Temple, so there is familiarity there. Linebackers coach Michael Barrow has to learn D’Onofrio’s system, but the players tend to pick it up faster if the majority of the staff is already acclimated to it. Offensively, everyone will be working together for the first time. Jedd Fisch wants to run a pure pro-style offense based on matchups, and the good news is that several of the assistants, because of their respective backgrounds, are already schooled in at least a version of it.
  • Quarterback battle. Golden has said he would like to name a starter by the end of the spring, making these practices critical auditions for both Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris. Harris has both flourished and flopped as a starter for the Canes, and his injury last year gave Morris the opportunity he needed to win the people’s choice award. Has a new era of quarterback begun, or will Harris finally have the breakout season Miami fans have waited for in his final year as a Cane?
  • Corner competition. Following the departures of Ryan Hill, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Brandon Harris, Brandon McGee is the only corner remaining on the roster with any significant experience. He played in 11 games, started one, and had 15 tackles. Redshirt freshman Devont’a Davis, sophomore Kacey Rodgers, and redshirt sophomore Jamal Reid will also compete for playing time. There are also several incoming freshmen who could be immediate contributors.
NORTH CAROLINA

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 9

What to watch:
  • The rookie quarterbacks. There’s no guarantee that Bryn Renner will be the Tar Heels’ starter in 2011, but he enters the spring slightly ahead of the race, as he was No. 2 on the depth chart last season and was pushing T.J. Yates for the starting job at this time a year ago. The staff would also like to see what true freshman Marquise Williams, who enrolled in January, has to offer. Braden Hanson and A.J. Blue will also compete for playing time. Blue was injured two years ago and redshirted last season.
  • Running backs race. The Tar Heels graduated three key players from 2010: Johnny White, Anthony Elzy and Shaun Draughn. Ryan Houston is back for his fifth year after redshirting last year and is the most experienced of the returnees. Giovani Bernard was a true freshman last year and had been expected to get some playing time, but he tore his ACL on the third day of training camp. It’s not clear yet how much he’ll be able to participate this spring. Hunter Furr played sparingly last year and true freshman Travis Riley, who enrolled in January, are also in the mix.
  • Another strong defensive line. If Quinton Coples was an all-conference selection as a defensive tackle, he could be scary good at his natural position, defensive end. Coples played there as a freshman and sophomore, but switched to tackle out of necessity last season. The defensive line should once again be the strength of the team, but it will be reconfigured again, as Coples’ move will leave a defensive tackle spot up for grabs. Junior college transfer Sylvester Williams, who enrolled in January, could fill that role.
VIRGINIA

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • The search for a new starting quarterback. With Marc Verica graduated, the lead contenders to replace him are the ones who saw the field last year -- Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny. Neither of them started, but Rocco played in six games and Metheny five. Nobody has thrown the ball more than Rocco’s 25 times. The staff will also look at Michael Strauss, who redshirted last year, Miles Gooch, and David Watford, who enrolled in January.
  • Competition at running back. With leading rusher Keith Payne graduated, the question becomes what can Kevin Parks do after redshirting last year? There’s a lot of depth at the running back position, but Parks, the No. 56 running back in his class by ESPN.com and national prep record-setter out of the state of North Carolina, came to Charlottesville facing high expectations. With Payne gone, this could open the door for him to meet them, but returning starter Perry Jones will also be competing for carries.
  • Development of the receivers. In January, Jared Green Tweeted that he had decided to transfer after finishing his degree in Charlottesville this spring, according to a school spokesman. His departure, coupled with the graduation of Dontrelle Inman, leaves the Cavaliers without two of their top wideouts from 2010. With Tim Smith coming off an injury, the development of other receivers will be critical -- especially with a new starting quarterback.
VIRGINIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 23

What to watch:
  • Quarterback Logan Thomas. The Tyrod Taylor era is over, and Thomas is the front-runner to succeed the winningest quarterback in school history. Ju-Ju Clayton is the only other quarterback on the roster who’s ever taken a snap, and he’ll push Thomas this spring. It’s Thomas’ job to lose, but the staff is looking for him to improve his accuracy. He played quarterback in only his final two high school seasons and was projected as a tight end. He’s still raw and learning the position, but physically, he’s a clone of Cam Newton. If he develops some poise in the pocket, look out.
  • Competition on the defensive line. The Hokies have to replace starters John Graves (defensive tackle) and Steven Friday (defensive end), who both graduated. They’ve got Antoine Hopkins and Chris Drager back, but it’s possible Drager could move back to tight end after starting 10 games at defensive end last year. Tackle Kwamaine Battle, who started the first two games before he tore his ACL and Hopkins took over, is another front-runner. Hopkins’ younger brother, Derrick, will also be in the mix, along with James Gayle and J.R. Collins. Redshirt freshman defensive end Zack McCray, the cousin of Logan Thomas, has also impressed the staff so far.
  • Tight end auditions. The graduation of Andre Smith leaves the Hokies with only one returning tight end who’s caught a pass in a game, Randall Dunn (one). Redshirt freshman Eric Martin was the second tight end when the Hokies used two-tight end sets, but he missed three games mid-season with an injury.

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