NCF Nation: John Graves

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.

ACC and the NFL combine

February, 4, 2011
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The official list for the NFL combine has been released. A total of 48 players from the ACC have been invited to audition for the NFL from February 23 – March 1. When categorized by school, it's somewhat of a reality check to see how many of the best players in the conference are moving on, and which programs will take the biggest hit. It's impossible not to wonder how good North Carolina could have been had all of the following players remained eligible. The Tar Heels will send the most players to the combine with 11.

Here are the players who will represent the ACC:

BOSTON COLLEGE (3)
  • Anthony Castonzo
  • Rich Lapham
  • Mark Herzlich
CLEMSON (7)
  • Da'Quan Bowers
  • Marcus Gilchrist
  • Chris Hairston
  • Jamie Harper
  • Jarvis Jenkins
  • Byron Maxwell
  • DeAndre McDaniel
FLORIDA STATE (3)
GEORGIA TECH (3)
MARYLAND (3)
MIAMI (9)
NORTH CAROLINA (11)
NC STATE (2)
VIRGINIA (2)
  • Danny Aiken
  • Ras-I Dowling
VIRGINIA TECH (5)
This morning we looked at the main recruiting needs for the Atlantic Division. Here are the priorities for each team in the Coastal Division:

DUKE

Offensive line: The Blue Devils will have to replace one starter in center Bryan Morgan, and it’s still a relatively young group, but with several redshirt sophomores on the roster, the staff wants to load up two grades behind them to fully stock the position for the future.

Defensive line: This has always been Duke’s deficiency, which means it will always be a priority to catch up and build depth. The Blue Devils will have to replace two starters in Wesley Oglesby and Patrick Egboh. Noseguard Charlie Hatcher will be a redshirt senior.

Cornerback: Duke only loses one starter, cornerback Chris Rwabukamba, but it’s another position that has been weak and needs better athletes.

GEORGIA TECH

Offensive line: The early departure of Nick Claytor to the NFL didn’t help the depth, but there were still several young players who gained valuable experience and others who redshirted to help the depth. While no true freshman is likely to make an immediate impact, the staff is still looking to build the numbers up front.

Linebacker/defensive line: The Jackets need to find more athletes who are suited for Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme. Fast athletes who are versatile enough to play a hybrid role, with the ability to move in space, will be a priority in this class.

MIAMI

Quarterback: With Jacory Harris being a senior, A.J. Highsmith moving to defense, and Spencer Whipple struggling in what little time he has played, the position needs a boost. It didn’t help that Teddy Bridgewater reneged on his commitment.

Linebacker: This is a position former coach Randy Shannon had put an emphasis on building, and there are young players and depth, but it was also a veteran group in the 2010 two-deep, with mainly juniors and seniors.

Wide receiver: The upperclassmen did all of the work in 2010, with Leonard Hankerson leading the way. Travis Benjamin, Aldarius Johnson and Laron Byrd will all be seniors. An influx of young talent is needed.

Defensive end: The staff is looking to improve the depth here, get stronger up front, and build upon the success from 2010. Marcus Robinson, Adewale Ojomo, and Micanor Regis will all be seniors.

NORTH CAROLINA

Tailback: Injuries depleted this group in 2010, and Anthony Elzy, Johnny White and Shaun Draughn were both seniors. Ryan Houston was able to redshirt and will return as a fifth-year senior, but the Tar Heels need more dependable runners and a foundation for the future.

Defensive line: The Tar Heels have to prepare for some departures, especially on the interior, where all four players on the two-deep roster in 2010 were juniors.

Secondary: UNC will have to replace three starters in the secondary this spring, and three backups this year were juniors. Because of the NCAA investigation, this is a group in which backups had to develop quickly, so there are some experienced younger players, but the group still needs to reload.

Tight end: The loss of Zach Pianalto and his backup, Ed Barham, leaves the position thin.

VIRGINIA

Offensive line: With starting right guard B.J. Cabbell gone, starting center Anthony Mihota a senior, and starting left guard Austin Pasztor a senior, the staff has to prepare for some departures. Morgan Moses and Oday Aboushi are talented young players, but the rotation needs more of them.

Defensive line: End Zane Parr’s decision to leave early for the NFL draft hurt the position’s depth, and the Cavs will also have to replace John-Kevin Dolce at tackle. Three other players in the two-deep will be rising seniors, and with Virginia switching back to a 4-3 defense under Mike London, the Cavs have to rebuild up front.

Secondary: Cornerback is of particular concern, as Chase Minnifield will be a senior, and starter Mike Parker will graduate.

VIRGINIA TECH

Running back: The early departures of Ryan Williams and Darren Evans to the NFL left David Wilson as the only tailback with any significant experience. Overall, the Hokies have four tailbacks on their current roster.

Defensive line: The Hokies will have to replace redshirt senior starters Steven Friday and John Graves, and starting left end Chris Drager will be a redshirt senior this year.

Wide receiver/tight end: Starters Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale will be seniors, and tight end Andre Smith will graduate.

Secondary: Half the players on the two-deep roster against Stanford were either juniors or seniors, and the Hokies will have to replace rover Davon Morgan and cornerback Rashad Carmichael.
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Yes, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer plays favorites, and his 1995 team and national title runner-up squad are among them.

This year’s team could play its way onto his list of favorites with a victory against Stanford in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeVirginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer
Jeff Blake/US PresswireFrank Beamer is proud of the way the Hokies have rebounded from a rough start to the season.
“The reality of it, I said, I thought this was the most important game we have played beside [the national championship game and the Sugar Bowl the 1995 team played in],” Beamer said. “Those were two good football teams that you like a lot. But, I think this game comes in there as terms of being very, very important toward the history of Virginia Tech football.”

The last time Virginia Tech started out 0-2 was in 1995, when the Hokies went on to win the final nine games of the regular season and beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl to finish 10-2.

“That’s one of coach Beamer's favorite teams, and he always lets us know, because he is so proud of them, that it’s not over until it’s over,” said defensive tackle John Graves. “It’s a great message, and I think a lot of people really bought into it.”

This team is also comparable to the 1999 team in that they both won 11 in a row. Only three previous times in school history has Virginia Tech had a winning streak of 10 games or more. The current streak, 1999 and a 13-game streak that started in 1995 and carried over into 1996.

Has this been Beamer’s best coaching job?

Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring compared it to the 1995 season.

“He's had a lot of great coaching jobs, I think,” Stinespring said. “I've been privy to many of them. I go back to '95 when we started 0-2 that year, and how he handled that situation I thought was special. I think there was a -- there's not a procedure, there's not a book, there's not a manual that says, step one, in case of crisis. It's not like you get on the plane and all of a sudden an oxygen mask comes down and all those type things that you do from a step-by-step process. There's not one of those deals.”

Despite the start, the Hokies still have a chance to make their mark in school history. A 12-game winning streak would be the longest single-season winning streak in school history. Virginia Tech would have won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history.

“I think a lot of people doubted us because of the first two games; it was definitely two downers,” defensive end Chris Drager said. “Obviously we have come back and gone 11-0 after [the first two games]. We are on a momentum swing, but it does really come down to this game.”

Hokies say they're not done yet

December, 29, 2010
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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As Virginia Tech’s players and coaches stepped off the plane and onto the orange carpet rolled out onto the tarmac at the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Jet Center on Tuesday, they were greeted by Discover Orange Bowl officials handing out oranges, pins and handshakes.

It was a familiar scene for a program that has been here three of the past four years, but an unlikely destination for a team that began the season as cold as the city they left. Virginia Tech, which seemed doomed after losses to Boise State and -- gasp -- James Madison, has since evolved into the No. 13 team in the nation and gone on an improbable 11-game winning streak that included the program’s third ACC title in the past four years.

[+] EnlargeVirginia Tech's Jarrett Boykin
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterVirginia Tech has won 11 straight games since falling to Boise State and James Madison to open the season.
It was a remarkable turnaround from an 0-2 start, but those within the program agree that despite everything the Hokies accomplished this season, the Orange Bowl game against No. 4 Stanford is the game that could truly define their season and etch their place in school history.

“I think this game right here -- I told the team, if we can win this one, I’ll be talking about this team for a long time,” said coach Frank Beamer. “It’s done some special things, but trying to beat a top 5 football team and end it that way, that is the way it needs to go.”

Virginia Tech’s record against elite competition can only go up.

The Hokies are 1-26 all-time against teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll and 1-2 in their past three Orange Bowl appearances. Those are facts that aren’t lost on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who said the weather in South Florida is nice, but this is a business trip -- not a vacation.

“They’re ranked very high and have a lot of great players,” Taylor said. “I’m just looking forward to going out there and showcasing our talent on this national stage. We had a chance early on in the year against Boise State, and I think this is a similar type game as far as the media and everything that’s going to be put on us.”

The difference between now and the Boise State game, though, is that Virginia Tech has since earned its ranking with the fourth-longest active winning streak in the FBS. Heading into the season, Beamer said, expectations for a national championship might have been a little unrealistic for a defense that had to replace seven starters.

“In reality, the expectations were high, and maybe were a little bit too young in the beginning,” he said. “But we have the same players we had before the Boise State game and after the James Madison game, they were still in our locker room, and we thought they were good before those two ball games, and it turned out to be that way. We needed to get a little better in some areas and grow up and mature in some areas, but we had the same players. The big thing we had was a lot of great character kids who really held us together, kept us together.”

Not only did they keep it together, the Hokies became the first team in the history of the FBS to follow an 0-2 start with 11 straight wins. The last time Virginia Tech won 11 in a row was in 1999 when it won 11 straight en route to an appearance in the national championship game against Florida State. This is only the third time in school history that the program has had a winning streak of 10 games or more.

Defensive tackle John Graves said it’s going to be an “emotional game” for him because he is a senior, and that it will mean more because of how the season started.

“A lot of teams could’ve folded after losing two games early in the season,” he said. “The way these guys hung in there and kept fighting, it’s a great story.”

And it’s not over yet.

Video: Virginia Tech DT John Graves

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
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Heather Dinich talks with Virginia Tech DT John Graves as the Hokies arrive for the Orange Bowl.
BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Following Virginia Tech’s 0-2 start to the season, there was some “finger pointing,” according to linebacker Bruce Taylor. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor said there were "a lot of people on the team going different ways.” Tight end Andre Smith said there was “a little bit of disconnect.”

So they decided to do something about it.

The seniors on the roster called a players-only meeting in the team auditorium on the eve of the season's third game against East Carolina game. Each senior stood up and talked about how much work they had put into their collegiate careers and how much the season meant to them.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wilson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireDavid Wilson is expected to take over the lead back role in Blacksburg.
“We just preached to the guys and talked about what was in our hearts that day,” said defensive tackle John Graves. “I think it took effect immediately. We had a lot of adversity in the ECU game and we overcame it. .. The guys that we have on this team, they just keep fighting and fighting, and you just have to respect that.”

The ability to rally has become this team’s identity. Not only did it climb out of an 0-2 start and back into the BCS Standings after an embarrassing FCS loss to James Madison, Virginia Tech has trailed by double digits in four games this season and won three of them, including Thursday night’s 28-21 win over Georgia Tech.

The Hokies were down 14-0 after one quarter, but with Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt sidelined with a broken arm, they pulled together for a comeback and sealed the win with David Wilson’s blazing 90-yard kickoff return. It turned into a wild, back-and-forth game that was a microcosm of the entire ACC -- impossible to predict. The one constant in the league this year, though -- at least since Sept. 11 -- has been Virginia Tech.

With the win, the Hokies remained the only undefeated team in conference play. In order for anyone else in the Coastal Division to have a shot, Virginia Tech would have to lose two of its next three games. The Hokies have back-to-back road games looming at North Carolina and Miami before closing the season at home with rival Virginia.

And this Virginia Tech team doesn’t look like it’s going to fold anytime soon.

“It’s a completely different team from the standpoint of guys being together,” said Bruce Taylor, who had a career-high 14 tackles and had two sacks. “In the beginning of the season, there was a lot of finger pointing, guys wondering why we’re losing. Nobody had the answer, so we kind of got separated, but when we had that meeting after the 0-2 start, guys really came together and started playing as a team.”

It’s been the difference in their season.

While Tyrod Taylor has gotten a lot of the attention, Virginia Tech has benefited from three talented tailbacks and a group of wide receivers able to catch the ball in traffic and hang onto it. The defense, which had to replace seven starters heading into this season, has still made game-changing plays under longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster.

Senior Rashad Carmichael’s fourth-quarter interception of backup quarterback Tevin Washington in the end zone ended Georgia Tech’s final attempt at an upset. It also likely ended the Yellow Jackets' chances of defending the ACC title.

Virginia Tech got what it needed in all three phases of the game -- a collective effort that was missing in September.

“It’s huge, especially in comeback wins like this,” Smith said. “We don’t want to have individuals, or groups. When we’re all on the same page, that’s when you see cohesion. As a team we talked about it. It’s easy when things are going bad to fall apart. As seniors and older guys on the team, we knew we weren’t going to let that happen.”

And in one of the most important games of the season, they didn’t.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- There's a reversal of roles in Blacksburg this fall, where the expectations for Virginia Tech's offense are higher than that of the Hokies' traditionally stout, nationally ranked defense, which has to replace six starters.

"The offense can win games for Tech right now," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. "That's something the offense wants to hear, but it's nothing that our defense can't do. Our defense is just as strong as any other year. It's just that we have more experience and more talent on the offensive side of the ball."

More talent? Yep, he said it. That should motivate some of his defensive teammates if film of Boise State hasn't already.

If history repeats itself, Virginia Tech's defense should have no problem reloading under defensive coordinator Bud Foster, but the more interesting storyline could be the breakout season for this usually stagnant offense. Taylor is surrounded by two 1,000-yard rushers, a talented group of wide receivers and a smaller, more athletic offensive line. He said he has made strides in his passing game, his footwork in the pocket, and reading the defenses faster. With the duo of Darren Evans and Ryan Williams drawing the attention of defenses, Taylor said he is hoping that attention will open more doors in the passing game.

"Guys are going to stack the box expecting us to run, and we have to pass," Taylor said. "It's comfortable to know you've got those guys behind you."

It will take more than just a potent offense to defeat Boise State in the Labor Day season opener. The Hokies have been watching film of the Broncos regularly, and the defense has only the summer to work out the kinks.

"We really need to prepare," said defensive tackle John Graves. "We had a great offseason. Now we're about to really kick it up to another gear. We're looking to prepare the best we can to see what happens."
Each school brings two players to the annual ACC media days, which will be held July 25-26 in Greensboro, N.C., and the conference today announced the attendees.

Boston College:
Anthony Castonzo, offensive tackle, senior, Hawthorn Woods, Ill.
Mark Herzlich, linebacker, senior, Wayne, Pa.

Clemson:
Chris Hairston, offensive tackle, Senior, Winston-Salem, N.C.
DeAndre McDaniel, safety, senior, Tallahassee, Fla.

Duke:

Bryan Morgan, center, senior, Hoover, Ala.
Chris Rwabukamba, cornerback, senior, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Florida State:

Christian Ponder, quarterback, senior, Colleyville, Tex.
Everett Dawkins, defensive tackle, sophomore, Spartanburg, S.C.

Georgia Tech:

Roddy Jones, A-Back, junior, Stone Mountain, Ga.
Jason Peters, defensive end, junior, Baton Rouge, La.

Maryland:

Torrey Smith, wide receiver-kickoff returner, junior, Colonial Beach, Va.
Alex Wujciak, linebacker, senior, West Caldwell, N.J.

Miami:

Matt Bosher, place-kicker/punter, senior, Jupiter, Fla.
Allen Bailey, defensive tackle/end, senior, Sapelo, Ga.

North Carolina:

T. J. Yates, quarterback, senior, Marietta, Ga.
Robert Quinn, defensive end, junior, Ladson, S.C. .

NC State:

Owen Spencer, wide receiver, senior, Leland, N.C.
Nate Irving, linebacker, senior, Wallace, N.C.

Virginia:

Marc Verica, quarterback, senior, Lansdowne, Pa.
Ras-I Dowling, cornerback, senior, Chesapeake, Va.

Virginia Tech:

Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, senior, Hampton, Va.
John Graves, defensive tackle, senior, Richmond, Va.

Wake Forest:

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.
Before the calendar even hit March, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster and his staff had already met with each of the players individually as part of their weekly academic meetings. Before spring practices began, Foster spoke to the defense as an entire group, so everyone got the same message: in Blacksburg: “Defense is king.”

After losing six starters from last year’s 10-3 team, there are plenty of young players on the roster this year who will be expected to uphold that tradition this fall.

“We make sure right up front, we want them to know we’ve got a tradition here, an expectation here, and those expectations aren’t going to change,” Foster said. “They’ve got to come up to our level, and the thing about us here, defense is king. As good as we’ve been, we also went through a stretch there where we won 10 or 11 games with 100th-ranked offense. I want them to know we’ve won games around here just by playing great defense, and that’s not going to change. It’s their responsibility to carry the torch, so to speak.”

[+] EnlargeRashad Carmichael
Bob Donnan/US PresswireVeterans like Rashad Carmichael will be counted on in 2010.
It’s not an easy task, as no other defense in the FBS has played more consistently than the Hokies. Virginia Tech finished nationally in the top 12 in total defense in each of the past six years, five times in the top 7. Over the past six seasons -- a span of 80 games -- Virginia Tech has allowed its opponents an average of just 268.33 yards per game. The next-best team in the country during that span? Alabama.

“We know what it takes,” Foster said. “We’ve been doing it a long time and we’ve had a lot of success. We’ve got the formula for success here, at least I think we’ve got it cornered a little bit. It’s just getting the kids to understand that’s what our expectations are, and you’ve got a certain responsibility to live up to those expectations, and understand this is what it’s going to take for you to be successful, for you to be on the field, your work ethic and how we want you to do certain things a certain way.”

The older players on the team, like boundary corner Rashad Carmichael, take seriously their role in ushering the younger players along.

“It goes back to recruiting and us guys on that defense trying to build a brotherhood more than anything,” Carmichael said. “That’s the kind of player I am. If you put it on the line for your brother, then the game will go a little bit easier. It just feels great when you can look to the left and the right and see guys who are ready. A lot of teams on this level don’t have that chemistry. It’s more of a family here. I’m confident.”

The defensive line, particularly the defensive tackles, is the biggest question mark. Virginia Tech has to replace three of four starters and talented backup tackle Demetrius Taylor. Veteran tackle John Graves returns as the lone starter, and he is expected to be the leader of the entire defense, not just the line. Antoine Hopkins should be the starter opposite Graves, but the staff needs to find quality depth on the interior.

Despite the loss of Cody Grimm, Foster said he is confident in his linebackers, a group that progressed as the year went along, but there will be some competition in the secondary, particularly at safety where Kam Chancellor was the anchor. Free safety is the position that does most of the communication and checks, so he’ll need a leader there. Foster will look at junior Eddie Whitley, and sophomore Antone Exum, a highly recruited player, among others.

Foster doesn’t have much time to prepare the younger players for their Labor Day matchup against Boise State, which will again have one of the most productive offenses in the country. Then again, it’s not like Foster hasn’t had to reload before.

“We’re inexperienced, we’re going to be very inexperienced on the defensive side of the ball,” Foster said. “But at the same time, that’s not a bad thing. I think we’re going to have a good mix of guys who have played. We’ve got a good mix of guys who are leaders, and at the same time we have some young, hungry guys. Sometimes that can really be even better for you than maybe having a bunch of guys come back who think they’re going to be pretty good. I kind of like that challenge a little bit more sometimes. We’ve had some of our best years when people thought we weren’t going to be as good.”

Usually in their best years, though, defense was king.

Scouting Virginia Tech's defense

February, 11, 2010
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The Hokies' defense will be one of the biggest questions in the ACC this preseason, as Virginia Tech has to replace six starters. Still, expectations are high heading into 2010 that Virginia Tech will be one of the best teams in the country. Much of that confidence comes from defensive coordinator Bud Foster's proven ability to reload.

Can he do it again?

Bud Foster
AP Photo/Steve HelberBud Foster will have some new pieces to work with this season.
Here's a closer look at exactly what Virginia Tech's situation is on defense heading into spring practice, and how much work the Hokies have to do:

  • Overall, Virginia Tech needs to replace three of four starters up front, outside linebacker, cornerback and free safety.
  • The only defensive ends with any significant playing time are Chris Drager, who the staff wanted to move back to tight end, and Steven Friday. There are a few redshirt freshmen you might get to know: Duan Perez-Means, Tyrel Wilson, James Gayle and J.R. Collins. Of course, the only problem with redshirt freshmen is that they haven't played yet. Isaiah Hamlette is the only other defensive end who has played, but that was extremely sparingly. It's possible the staff could move tackle John Graves back to end, where he practiced last spring, or possibly look at moving other players.
  • At defensive tackle, Antoine Hopkins will be the front-runner to replace Cordarrow Thompson, and he has experience so that shouldn't be too much of a concern.
  • At outside linebacker, Cody Grimm and Cam Martin have to be replaced, leaving a wide open competition.
  • At cornerback, Jayron Hosley or Cris Hill will likely take over for Stephan Virgil. No worries there.
  • At free safety, Eddie Whitley was Kam Chancellor’s backup, and the staff is confident in him. Antone Exum will also be given an opportunity.
  • The good news? Virginia Tech returns cornerback Rashad Carmichael, rover Davon Morgan, Graves at defensive tackle, and Lyndell Gibson at inside linebacker.
It's a lot to ask for a team that faces Boise State's offense on Labor Day, but the Hokies wouldn't be so highly ranked this preseason if people didn't think they could do it.

All-ACC bowl team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

 
  Lee Coleman/Icon SMI
  A healthy Jason Worilds should be a big boost to Virginia Tech's defensive line.

Virginia Tech had goals last year, and a separated shoulder certainly wasn't going to get in the way of defensive end Jason Worilds. His gritty determination rubbed off on the entire team, but behind closed doors, Worilds was paying the price for each of his 18.5 tackles for loss.

He played the entire season with chronic dislocations in his left shoulder, and it popped out in three different games.

"He's like a brother to me," defensive tackle John Graves said. "We talked about it, and he told me that he was in pain. He's a warrior, though. No matter what anyone would say, he knew he had to do it for his team. He wanted to do it for his team. We just have the most respect for this guy to get hurt in the second game of the season and continue through the whole season with an injured shoulder."

"I just wanted to try to help my team," Worilds said. "We had goals. We came into the season, we wanted to win the ACC, go to the Orange Bowl again and avenge our loss from last year. I put so much into it that when the doctors told me I could still possibly play, I took that opportunity and ran with it."

Was it worth it?

"It was definitely worth it," he said.

Having Worilds back completely healthy when the Hokies are trying to make a run for the national title, though, could mean even more.

Worilds missed the spring because of his offseason shoulder surgery but said he was recently cleared and rehab is going well and his strength is coming back. Having Worilds at 100 percent will give the Hokies one of the ACC's most formidable defensive lines this fall, even with the graduation of defensive end Orion Martin.

"This summer I think we just need to pick up where we left off last year," Worilds said. "I think we left of at a great point as far as playing together, knowing our assignments, playing with great technique and just playing as intently as we have in the past. Going into the summer if we pick up on that and continue to improve, we have a chance to be one of the best d-lines in the country."

Worilds will be joines by Graves and Cordarrow Thompson, who both started every game last year. The Hokies have to find somebody to replace standout defensive end Orion Martin, but Nekos Brown is quietly taking care of that. Brown, the Defensive MVP of spring practices despite missing two workouts a week to attend classes, has been in the rotation at defensive end each of the past two seasons.

"Nekos is in the best shape of his life," said Graves, who worked out at the end spot this spring to help the coaches evaluate some of the younger tackles but starts the fall as the No. 1 nose tackle. "This man, you're talking about a work horse. When we get done with our lift, this man goes out and runs some extra. He's ready for the season. He's excited. That's a great combination right there."

So is the combination of Graves, Thompson and Worilds. Worilds was in on a tackle for loss in 11 straight games and finished with eight sacks even though he didn't play in the Orange Bowl. Even he admitted he was a little surprised - especially considering the pain he was in during most of the season. It kept him from working out and practicing like he wanted to, which is why he said even he has room for improvement this fall.

"Actually I went back and watched film and there were a lot of plays I didn't make," he said. "I was tired, I wasn't focused on that play. I just have to go back and fine-tune my game, really critique the little things and take it one day at a time in trying to get better at those little things."

That's the goal for the entire unit this summer.

"We have the potential to be great, but we have to do the things that are necessary to be great," Graves said. "That comes with working hard and doing the extra things, and I think our guys are doing a great job of it right now."

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 9, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Duke coach David Cutcliffe has been shaped by his past, which includes growing up in one of the country's most segregated cities. 

Ouch. Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said he couldn't wait to get off the field on Wednesday for the Noles' final spring practice:

Asked what positives he could take away from spring drills, Andrew said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat:

"That it's over with," Andrews said. "I'm tired of seeing some of that trash out there. And today we just couldn't get off the field enough. Last year we were the No. 1 team in the country in third-down defense. Today we were No. 119."

Clemson receiver Marquan Jones has had an inconsistent spring, so it looks like Xavier Dye will finish the spring as No. 2 behind Jacoby Ford.

There was a purpose to moving Virginia Tech defensive tackle John Graves to defensive end.

Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett is living up to the expectations the coaching staff has for him being a leader. That's the good news. The bad news? Two players will miss the rest of the spring with injuries.

GT/VT halftime report

September, 13, 2008
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Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

  

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- There is a battle between quarterbacks going on here, but it's not between Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon. No, that decision appears to have been made -- Glennon didn't play a snap in the first half and his streak of nine straight starts was broken.

The duel here is between Taylor and Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt. Both of them have proved what their coaches have been trying to tell us all along: They can run and throw. But their ability to scramble is what has kept this game close. Neither has thrown the ball more than nine times, and that's exactly what Virginia Tech needs because of its poor pass protection. Running back Darren Evans is also separating himself from a pack that includes Dustin Pickle and Kenny Lewis.

Georgia Tech didn't throw it once in the third quarter, but they're still figuring out the timing of this offense and it's shown again with two fumbles lost. While they continue to learn it, Nesbitt will continue to throw it. He found Roddy Jones wide open for a 41-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.

The Yellow Jackets fumbled and lost the ball three times at Boston College last week, but the Eagles weren't able to do anything with it. Virginia Tech is being a little more aggressive.

They're also getting back to the fundamentals of Beamerball, as defensive tackle John Graves has now blocked a kick in all three games.

These teams are so evenly matched statistically at the half, it seems like whoever makes the fewer mistakes and has the better quarterback will win this game. I'm watching Sean Glennon warm up now and wondering if that's the most he'll see of the field.

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