NCF Nation: Luke Kuechly
We covered so much ground, I present a few highlights here today. Stay tuned for more from Addazio when the Eagles put the pads on next week.
Now that you have been in place for three months, do you have a better idea of what you want to run schematically when you open spring ball?
SA: What I know right now is work ethic. What I know right now is attitude. I still don’t know that I know who’s capable of what on the football field, so you’ve got to get the pads on. No matter what we do, where we head, the starting point is going to be a two-back, one-back, zone-power counter concept, a real strong pro-style running game, play-action pass, nakeds. That’s going to be a starting point, no matter what direction we ultimately head. You head into Week 1, and you find out if you can rock off the ball, you find out the strength of your backs, you find out about your quarterbacks, your receivers in terms of your play-action passes. Then we’ll be able to tell after the first six practices or so how quickly we’ll migrate more of those shotgun, spread principles and how they’ll come into this offense.
You inherit a team coming off a 2-10 season. How do you deal with going about trying to change the mentality of a program that hasn’t seen its best days the past few years, especially when you have been a part of successful programs at your past few stops?
So there’s a lot of pride here and I think a tremendous willingness and buy-in to getting back, realizing we’ve got to do a great job recruiting. We’re working like crazy on that right now. I want to have a legitimate bona fide great recruiting year next year. We’ve got to restock our team. We have to redevelop that winning culture, that winning attitude. We’ve got to come in here, and we’ve got to shock everything right now and that’s what it’s all about. You walk into our building and you walk into that lobby and you’re just a couple years removed from some very good football teams and very good successes. This is not an instantaneous one, now. We’ve got to build this and it’s going to take a little bit of time. This is not just come in and let’s just get going, and turn this and twist that and bam we’re right in it. We’ve got some situations at quarterback where we have more drop-back mentality guys here. We have a depth problem at running back, and at wide receiver, so it’s a combination of things. It’s going to take some time. I want to build this thing the right way, with a great foundation, and get BC back to where BC was.
You mentioned Indiana and some of the other places you’ve been. How would you categorize this in terms of the type of rebuilding process you have ahead?
SA: That’s a good question. There’s similarities -- in a different way -- to Florida when we got there. Because Florida wasn’t where Florida wanted to be at that point in time, but Florida had come off some pretty successful years. Not that far removed from the Spurrier era. So there was a lot of pride. There’s a lot of pride here, whereas at Indiana it was a little bit more removed from the Bill Mallory era. It was a little further removed and it wasn’t as long lasting. Then when I was at Notre Dame, it probably wasn’t all that different, either. We were trying to reignite, re-recruit, restock a program that had success at a high level at one point. There’s similarities in all of them. Our kids here want to win, know they can win, know where this was, know what needs to be done. It’s not like we’re coming in here saying we have to learn how to win. Guys were here when this program was winning. Matt Ryan’s not that far removed. Luke Kuechly just walked out of here. Anthony Castonzo, those guys are not that far removed and they’re always around. I just feel like a sense of, we just have to dig our feet in right now, fight back real hard, give ourselves some time to restock and rebuild. But it’s around the corner, so to speak.
Along those lines, I’m going to ask you the dreaded timetable question. How long will it take before you get back to a bowl and contend for championships?
SA: We’ve got a real goal in front of us right now. The first thing we want to do is look at it like this: We want to win the opener, and then we’ve got to get bowl eligible. Now, I think you’re always looking at building consistency and working toward championships. The first thing we have to do is we’ve got to get back to a bowl.
I never believe in saying, ‘We can’t do this.’ The power of a team is so big when you bring that chemistry together. But we want to get bowl eligible immediately. That’s realistic, as opposed to me saying it’s going to take one year to do this and two years to do that. You just don’t know that. But I want to get bowl eligible right away and our team wants that, our program wants that and that’s where we’re headed right now.
First-year starter Nick Clancy has done an admirable job replacing All-American linebacker Luke Kuechly in the heart of the Eagles' defense, leading the nation with 43 total tackles after a whopping 24-tackle day against Northwestern last week.
Through three games, Clancy is averaging 14.3 tackles per game. His predecessor averaged 15.2 tackles per game, leading the nation last season.
Once Kuechly left Boston College, Clancy saw an opportunity. A backup outside linebacker throughout his career, Clancy made the switch to the middle in the hopes he could win the starting job. Clancy felt playing in the middle would better suit his strengths, particularly being able to run sideline to sideline to make plays.
He immediately started watching film, studying the playbook and talking to Kuechly for advice.
“He was the first person I sought out,” Clancy said in a phone interview this week. “We’ve had a lot of good 'Mike' linebackers here at Boston College, but none better than Luke Kuechly. I went back into the archives, watched old film of the way he played the game. Being good friends with Luke, I knew how well he prepared each week. Even though I’m older than him, I had a lot to learn by the way he prepared for the game each week. I tried to emulate him in that aspect of being a student of the game and not just a player, so that’s definitely something I picked up from him.”
Going into the season, Clancy’s career-high for tackles was seven, set against Wake Forest in 2009. But he has re-set that mark in each game this season. In the opener against Miami, Clancy had eight tackles. Then against Maine, he had 11.
Headed into Northwestern last week, Clancy had a feeling he could have a good game. He was traveling back to Illinois, close to his childhood home, and had plenty of friends and family in the stands. But he never thought he would end up having one of the biggest days in school history.
Clancy had 14 solo tackles and 10 assisted tackles, marking the second-most tackles in one game in school history, and the highest single-game tackle total since Frank Chamberlain matched the school record with a 25-tackle performance against Syracuse in 1999. He was honored as one of the ACC Players of the Week for his efforts.
“You don’t really think about, ‘OK, I’ve got all these tackles right now' because you’re so focused on what’s going on,” Clancy said. “It was just one of those things. I started running around, and next thing I know I was racking up tackles.
So when did he find out about his game?
“I think after the game my dad may have mentioned, ‘You may have had over 20 tackles,’” he said. “I didn’t believe him at first. I didn’t think it was a number that high until the next day when the box score came out and people were texting me and calling me. I had no idea. You’re so focused in the moment and the game when you’re on the field, you recognize you’re in on some plays, but you don’t necessarily think in your head this is No. 15, 16.”
Though Clancy had a big game, the Eagles' defense struggled to get Northwestern off the field. The Wildcats ran 100 plays in the game, giving Clancy more of an opportunity to make some tackles. But you have to marvel at the effort to get 24 tackles, when you consider Clancy was on the field for 98 of those plays.
“I was so fired up to play that game, it was pure adrenaline running through my veins,” he said. “I didn’t want to get off the field.”
Boston College clearly does not want him off the field, either.
1. Florida State: The Noles’ defensive line should be one of the deepest and best in the conference, if not the country, and they’ve got an outstanding quarterback in EJ Manuel. If the young offensive line can mature quickly and the running game improves from 2011, there’s no reason the Seminoles shouldn’t be contending for the ACC title.
2. Clemson: The Tigers could open the season without star receiver Sammy Watkins, who is awaiting his punishment after he was arrested on misdemeanor drug charges, but as long as he’s in the lineup and the offensive line is playing well, Clemson has enough talent to defend its 2011 ACC title.
3. Virginia Tech: It’s hard to forget how the Hokies fared against Clemson in two meetings last season, but they enter this season with the better defense. The question is how quickly the revamped offensive line can come together, and who will emerge as the next star running back.
4. NC State: This team is quietly preparing a championship-caliber roster. Quarterback Mike Glennon is still under the radar, and he’s got an experienced offensive line to work with. This is a team that could surprise some people.
5. Georgia Tech: The Jackets had a promising spring, but the defensive line has to replace two of three starters, and last season’s atrocious special teams still have a lot to prove. One thing is for sure: These guys will be able to run the ball on just about anyone.
6. Wake Forest: Much like the rest of its division, Wake Forest’s success will hinge in part on how quickly the new starters on the offensive line come together. The Demon Deacons have an experienced and much-improved quarterback in Tanner Price, and last year they made a statement that they’re not to be overlooked in the ACC race.
7. North Carolina: The two biggest questions for the Tar Heels are how quickly they can adapt to and execute a new system under first-year coach Larry Fedora, and where they will find their motivation now that the NCAA has banned them from the postseason. This spring revealed a positive outlook for the new offense, which should give quarterback Bryn Renner a chance to shine.
8. Virginia: The ACC’s 2011 Coach of the Year has quickly raised expectations, but they should be tempered because seven starters have to be replaced on defense. Michael Rocco is the undisputed starting quarterback -- unless Alabama transfer Phillip Sims has something to say about it.
9. Miami: With Stephen Morris out this spring with a back injury, quarterback transfer Ryan Williams had a chance to impress the coaches. The position is one of many questions still looming for the Canes, a young team still waiting for closure from an NCAA investigation.
10. Maryland: The Terps had a good spring and were able to move forward with players who wanted to be there. It was a positive vibe, but coach Randy Edsall is still tangled in the shadow of last year’s two-win season. He’ll have to improve upon it without the services of former quarterback Danny O’Brien.
11. Boston College: Several offseason staff changes were embraced this spring, and quarterback Chase Rettig made strides under yet another offensive coordinator, Doug Martin. The Eagles have to find a way to win without two of their most valuable players in running back Montel Harris, who was dismissed from the team, and linebacker Luke Kuechly, who left early for the NFL.
12. Duke: The Blue Devils had a good spring and are still buying into the philosophies of coach David Cutcliffe. They’ve been on the verge of making the postseason before, but fans are looking for them to finally break through in Year 5 under Cutcliffe. Quarterback Sean Renfree can get them there if they minimize the turnovers and play better defense.
Michael Brockers, Quinton Coples, Stephon Gilmore, Stephen Hill, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Tannehill, Courtney Upshaw, Russell Wilson and Jerel Worthy talk about their playing days before NCAA football.
So, too, are the linebackers who will fill the void left by Luke Kuechly, the ACC's single-season (191) and career tackles (532) leader who left early for the NFL draft.
"If you talk to Luke, he'll be the first to say that we're a defense first, not just one guy," Sean Duggan said. "Losing a guy like him is a lot of tackles to make up, but we'll all chip in as a defense to get it done. Evenly as a unit we have to step up."
The lone loss during that stretch was a two-point squeaker at heavily favored rival Notre Dame.
"I was on a team where losing was unacceptable," said linebacker Steele Divitto, who played for national power Don Bosco (Ramsey, N.J.). "That's the same mindset we're starting to apply here. It's not good enough to just do your job -- you have to go that extra mile. All my life I haven't really lost many football games, maybe two or three prior to BC. I hate to lose, and I think there are a lot of guys that hate losing and will do whatever it takes this offseason and in the season to win all these games.
"It's almost a mentality thing. I played for a great coach in high school and play for a great coach now. Coach Spaz talks about winning all the time: in the weight room, in conditioning, in the film room. We have to apply that mentality to everything."
Divitto is looking to build off a 72-tackle campaign from last season, when he was third on the team. (He added 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception as well.) In place of a bowl trip for last season's 4-8 squad, Divitto flew to Phoenix, where he worked out and studied with draft prospects at Athletes' Performance.
In the shadow of Kuechly last season on the outside, Divitto is now among the most experienced linebackers returning, along with fellow junior Kevin Pierre-Louis, who was hobbled much of the spring but had 74 tackles, six tackles for loss and a fumble recovery last season.
A possible replacement to Kuechly in the middle could be Duggan, who started three games outside last season as a true freshman, recording 39 tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.
"Steele, he's gonna get better. He has a lot of experience now out there, played a lot of football he's going to have to up his production to make up for obviously Luke not being there," Spaziani said. "And Sean, he played a lot in a backup role, started a couple games for us. Now it's a new position for him in the middle, but he's a good football player. And he just needs reps and he needs more time, but we're happy to have him on the football team."
Duggan actually played briefly with Kuechly, the Nagurski and Butkus winner from a year ago, at St. Xavier (Cincinnati) High School.
"When I talked to Luke he said you've just got to relax out there and trust yourself," Duggan said of his conversations with Kuechly this spring. "You can't think too much out there because then you're slow, and at this level you can't afford to be slow against these guys. So trust yourself and the guys around you."
It’s only news, though, when those programs don’t bring in some of the nation’s most talented players.
Clemson, after all, just won its first ACC title for the first time since 1991. Florida State last year couldn’t beat Wake Forest. Which is why there is no reason for the Deacs or anyone else in the division to surrender just yet.
“They key for us is not how many stars they come in with, it’s how good they play when they’re juniors and seniors,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “At least that’s our key. For us it’s all about developing players. It’s a standard joke among coaches, ‘How’d your recruiting go? Well, we’ll know in a couple of years.’ Sometimes that’s good to laugh and giggle about, but absolutely at Wake Forest, we know when they’re juniors and seniors if we’ve done the right thing in recruiting.
“For us, I think we know where we are. We’re a development program. We’ve got to do a great job of coaching our kids in the offseason and the weight room and out on the practice field, so by the time they’re juniors and seniors, there are a lot of other teams in the league that look at them and say, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve taken that guy.’”
Guys like Alphonso Smith, Aaron Curry, Chris Givens and Joe Looney. At Boston College, guys like Montel Harris and Luke Kuechly.
“Here’s the way I’ve always looked at the competition,” said BC coach Frank Spaziani. “As the competition gets better, everybody else better get better and move forward. There are a lot of other areas to it than just that.”
Just how much of a talent discrepancy is there within the division? Can BC compensate for a lack of stars with its hard-working, disciplined, blue-collar traits? Can Wake Forest continue to develop diamonds out of its “recruiting puddle?” NC State already beat a No. 7-ranked Clemson team, but can it win consistently? Will the hire of offensive coordinator Mike Locksley change Maryland recruiting?
Florida State and Clemson are ahead of the race, there’s no question about it. But until either one of them plays and wins with more consistency, it won’t be a two-team race in the ACC.
Boston College missed out on a bowl game in 2011, but Divitto took a trip of his own to continue learning. Thanks to his dad, Divitto flew to Athletes' Performance in Phoenix, Ariz., for two weeks of additional training.
“After my sessions, I’d take out my notebook and I’d jot down everything I learned, whether it was technique-wise, or eating habits, whatever it was,” Divitto said. “I figured if I was going out there, I really should try to get the most out of everything.”
One of the biggest questions Boston College has entering spring practices on Saturday is what the linebackers will look like without All-American Luke Kuechly, who left early for the NFL draft. (“It looks like Superman is back in his suit and Clark Kent is there now,” coach Frank Spaziani quipped. “That’s what it looks like. The cape is gone and we’ve got the guy in the suit with the glasses.”)
As BC fans know, though, the blue-collar working player can get it done, too, and that’s just the kind of player Divitto is. Sean Duggan and Nick Lifka will both be competing for Kuechly’s old position in the middle, but Divitto is versatile enough to play there, too. When former linebacker Mark Herzlich left, Divitto won the starting job at strongside linebacker, but he played in the shadow of Kuechly. Now he’s looking to establish himself as the team’s next leading linebacker.
Divitto spent his mornings in Arizona working on speed training and the evenings were for lifting. He was given a nutrition plan and had the opportunity to measure himself against some of college football’s top performers, as several NFL draft prospects were also there.
“Steele is exceptional about putting the extra effort in,” Spaziani said. “He’s taken ownership of his own future, which is something we all need to do, and he’s done a great job with it. He went out to train for a week, did it all on his own, out there by himself. He’s just highly motivated and has taken complete ownership of his future and he’s a team player. We’re excited to see his development. We’ll see this spring how far he’s advanced.”
Divitto was good to begin with. He finished third on the team in tackles last season with 72, and had 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception and five pass breakups. The trip to Arizona isn’t the first time he’s taken the initiative to get better. Last year he boxed during the offseason, and now he’s into Muay Thai, which is similar to kickboxing.
Divitto said it’s not about him; it’s about being the best player he can be for his teammates.
“I always believed that how hard you work throughout the offseason -- everything you do -- how you sleep how you eat, how you breathe, every rep you take in the weight room, every rep you take outside, all of that adds up to how you’re going to perform next season,” Divitto said. “I’ve lived my life just going off that hard work means everything. When you play a game, I feel like the outcome is already determined depending upon how much effort you put into it prior.”
If that’s the case, BC already has a winner.
1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Virtually every early outlook has the Trojans slated as the preseason No. 1 or No. 2 team, and rightfully so. Matt Barkley enters 2012 as the Heisman front-runner and USC will return to the familiar position of having the target on its back throughout the season.
2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Considering Notre Dame is the only current official, penned-in game that is absolutely going to happen for the Big 12 favorites next season, I'd imagine the Sooners would get up for that.
3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): A growing defense will keep Sparty plowing ahead in Year 6 of the Mark Dantonio era, which may just begin with MSU as the Big Ten favorite.
4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): A number of early polls suggest Michigan as the leading Big Ten contender, but I think some of its losses on defense will be tough to replace. Nonetheless, any team with Denard Robinson under center has a chance to make big things happen, as Notre Dame fans are all too aware of.
5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Who needs Andrew Luck when you have that much time in the pocket? Throw anyone under center behind that offensive line and he'll have all the time he needs to make something happen.
6. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes make the biggest jump from the last time we looked at the Irish's opponents. An experienced defense and a great recruiting year for Al Golden suggest this program is back on the rise, pending NCAA sanctions.
7. BYU (Oct. 20, home): I said it before and I'll say it again: If Riley Nelson has a big year, watch out.
8. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): This contest scares me if I'm an Irish fan. First game back from what is sure to be an exhausting season-opening trip in Dublin, with a hungry in-state rival waiting for them and looking to build on momentum following a strong 2011 finish and weak 2012 opener (Eastern Kentucky).
9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Jim Grobe teams usually perform better than they should, but the Deacs must recover from a weak finish in 2011.
10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): No more Luke Kuechly means happier offenses everywhere. The Eagles just hope that means theirs, too, which will be in its first year under coordinator Doug Martin.
11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): The Midshipmen have a brutal start to the 2012 schedule, facing the Irish in Dublin before going to Happy Valley to face Penn State, but things get easier afterward. Can they put the awful luck of 2011 behind them and beat the beatable opponents?
12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): Paul Chryst seems like the right fit, but asking him to lift the Panthers out of their underachieving ways in Year 1 is a bit much.
1. Florida State:The Noles brought in the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, including the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 defensive tackle and the No. 1 quarterback. Not to mention the abundance of talent they return from last season’s nine-win team. Not only will FSU be better in 2012, but it will also be deeper and more talented.
2. Clemson: The Tigers have the No. 9-ranked class in the country, and they used it to fill some major needs up front. Clemson’s biggest obstacle this fall will be replacing three starters on both the offensive and defensive lines. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has enough skill players around him, though, that the Tigers can repeat as ACC champs.
3. Virginia Tech: The Hokies also have some big shoes to fill on the offensive line and running back thanks to the early departure of David Wilson to the NFL, but the staff lured in a top-25 recruiting class complete with some impressive running backs to rebuild the depth at the position. Virginia Tech’s best asset heading into 2012 will be one of the nation’s best defenses.
4. NC State: The Wolfpack can be a dark horse for the ACC title, especially if they stay healthy. Quarterback Mike Glennon should be one of the best in the league, four starters return on the offensive line, and this recruiting class gave the defensive line some old-school speed off the edge.
5. Virginia: Mike London quietly brought in one of the better recruiting classes in the ACC again, albeit with less fanfare than a year ago. If the Cavaliers can overcome the loss of seven starters on defense, they can again challenge for the Coastal Division title.
6. Miami: The outlook for the Canes has improved significantly with the nation’s No. 8 recruiting class, as many of those true freshmen will be given an opportunity for starting jobs or to at least work their way into the rotation and get meaningful reps. Still, there will be a learning curve, and quarterback Stephen Morris still has something to prove.
7. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets seem like an average team right now. There are no superstars, the recruiting class was ho-hum, and the program’s place in the eyes of the NCAA right now is in limbo. While they return a bulk of their starters from a year ago, other programs seem to be making more progress quicker.
8. Wake Forest: The Deacs brought in a typical, Jim Grobe-type recruiting class: not flashy but will help the program to bowl games with the staff’s ability to develop talent. They return starting quarterback Tanner Price, who was one of the most improved players in the ACC a year ago, but must replace four starters on the offensive line.
9. North Carolina: First-year coach Larry Fedora has the energy, but does he have enough time? Fedora said he wants to change everything at UNC from the personnel to the philosophy and the culture. He’ll switch schemes on offense and defense, but is the offseason enough time to do that and make Carolina a contender in the Coastal race?
10. Maryland: The Terps will be better, and they should go to a bowl game, but without knowing what’s going on at quarterback, they’re a little tricky to predict. Is C.J. Brown the guy, or will Danny O’Brien be the man under first-year coordinator Mike Locksley? This team could move up the rankings quickly this season.
11. Boston College: The Eagles had another blue-collar class that could have been a disaster with defections but was salvaged in the end. Replacing linebacker Luke Kuechly isn’t realistic, but BC welcomes back more than it loses, and that could add up to a surprise season in Chestnut Hill.
12. Duke: The Blue Devils brought in a better class than it was probably given credit, but until that starts translating into wins, Duke will maintain the dubious distinction of last in the ACC.
Linemen: The depth here continues to be a priority on both sides. The decision of defensive end Max Holloway to declare early for the NFL draft was an unexpected loss, and tackle Dillon Quinn will be a senior. Offensively, the Eagles will have to replace two veterans and leaders in center Mark Spinney and guard Nate Richman.
Linebackers: All-American Luke Kuechly’s decision to leave early for the NFL draft was expected, but the staff is looking for about two or three more linebackers in this class.
Receivers: This was a young group to begin with, as Alex Amidon and Bobby Swigert were both true sophomores, but the staff could use one or two more in this class.
Linemen: The Tigers will lose three starters on the defensive line and three more on the offensive line from the 2011 ACC championship team. Center Dalton Freeman is a returning starter, but he will be a senior. Six players on the final two-deep depth chart on the offensive line were either seniors or graduate students in 2011, and four on the defensive line two-deep must be replaced.
Running back: Andre Ellington is entering his senior year, and while Mike Bellamy is back in school and in the good graces of coach Dabo Swinney, the future of the position is uncertain. Rod McDowell played well in the bowl game, and D.J. Howard has been a backup.
Defensive backs: The Tigers could start three seniors in the secondary in 2012: Xavier Brewer, Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks.
Kickers: The Tigers will lose punter Dawson Zimmerman, opening up an opportunity for a true freshman to play immediately.
Pick and choose: The Noles have built up enough depth that they can now be selective. Instead of building a class heavy on offensive linemen, Florida State can now pick and choose the best at each position. The Noles need at least one running back, one or two quarterbacks, a few offensive tackles, a linebacker to help replace Nigel Bradham and a safety or two.
Kickers: The Noles have big shoes to fill with the graduation of punter Shawn Powell, and kicker Dustin Hopkins is entering his final season.
Running back: This is a position where a true freshman could see some playing time this year. Justus Pickett returns, along with Brandon Ross, who redshirted last year.
Quarterback: The Terps ended the 2011 season with only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in Danny O’Brien and C.J. Brown. Both will be juniors and nobody is behind them.
Cornerback. Maryland has to replace Trenton Hughes and Cameron Chism at cornerback, leaving Dexter McDougle the only one with any significant playing time.
Defensive line: The staff already has about six linemen committed and ends were a particular focus. Half of the linemen in the two-deep depth chart for the Belk Bowl were either juniors or seniors.
Secondary: This should be a strength for NC State in 2012, but the staff needs to prepare for the future here. Cornerback C.J. Wilson will be a senior, along with safeties Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop.
Quarterback: Mike Glennon is already listed as a graduate student, and his backup, Tyler Brosius, redshirted this past season. The position is thin and the future uncertain behind Glennon.
Offensive line: The Deacs will lose four starters up front, but coach Jim Grobe has only played one true freshman there in 11 years. He has several redshirt freshmen and sophomores who are expected to fill in, but the staff wants to continue to build the depth at the position.
Tight end: Wake Forest will graduate its top two tight ends and will turn to two redshirt sophomores in Neil Basford and Johnny Garcia who have yet to catch a pass. It’s possible this could be a spot where an exceptional freshman could see playing time.
Defensive backs: The Deacs have to replace starting free safety Josh Bush and starting strong safety Cyhl Quarles. Cornerback Kenny Okoro will be a redshirt senior.
1. Make quick, smooth coaching transitions. Coaching turnover has been at the heart of the ACC’s problems, and while there was only one head-coaching change this offseason -- at North Carolina -- there were several hires at the coordinator level. Maryland replaced both its offensive and defensive coordinators, Clemson hired a new defensive coordinator, and Boston College hired a new offensive coordinator. Those programs will need to adjust and adapt quickly to new schemes, terminology and philosophies this offseason, and unfortunately for all of them, it won’t be the first time.
3. Find new stars. The ACC will miss its 2011 Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year in Virginia Tech’s David Wilson and Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. Who will be the 2012 version of NC State’s David Amerson? Miami must replace eight starters from last year’s roster, and North Carolina once again produced some of the league’s top NFL-bound talent on defense in Quinton Coples and Zach Brown. Heading into 2012, the league seems to lack an identity, a face who represents the league and is a national household name. The offseason is the foundation for that development.
4. Forget the past and ignore the hype. The ACC had a miserable bowl season. Everyone always talks about how you're remembered for your last game. Yeah, well, the ACC needs to try to forget it, forget that talk about momentum or lack thereof and focus on the future. Get the young players excited and ready to play, and concentrate on fundamentals and execution. Teams like Florida State and Virginia Tech -- and to an extent Clemson -- also need to ignore the hype and pay no attention to where they're picked in the preseason polls. If this past season taught us anything, it's that where you start has no bearing on where you finish. Clemson was unranked. Florida State seemed untouchable. Everyone needs to get better.
1. ACC expansion. It was the morning after Florida State lost to Oklahoma and I was scrambling to wake up and get on a plane home when the ACC announced its decision to add Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the league. It was an historic moment for the conference, and it was a strong, stable move in a time of great uncertainty throughout college football. A lot of things happened this season, but none affected the entire conference like this one.
2. Clemson goes 8-0 for the first time in 11 years. With a 59-38 victory over North Carolina, Clemson started 8-0 for just the fourth time in school history. That week, the Tigers were ranked No. 5 in the country in the BCS standings, and had a legitimate shot at playing for the national title.
3. NC State’s comeback over Maryland. It was the biggest comeback in school history and the second-biggest comeback in the ACC. NC State overcame a 27-point deficit to beat Maryland 56-41 and keep its bowl hopes alive. NC State trailed 41-14 with six minutes left in the third quarter before scoring six consecutive times. The Pack had 35 fourth-quarter points.
5. David Amerson’s record-setting Belk Bowl. The defensive back's two interceptions in the victory over Louisville broke the ACC’s single-season record and moved him into a tie for second place in FBS history for single-season interceptions with 13. He returned one 65 yards for a touchdown, and the other sealed the win on fourth down at the goal line.
6. Frank Beamer gets win No. 200 at Virginia Tech. A 17-10 victory over East Carolina on Sept. 10 gave Beamer his 200th win as head coach at his alma mater. Only nine other FBS coaches have won that many games at one school.
7. Sammy Watkins’ record-setting season. The true freshman was one of the nation’s most spectacular players, and he finished the season with school records for receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. His reception total was second best in school history, and his 2,288 all-purpose yards were the second best in ACC history. His most memorable performance came against Maryland, when he racked up 345 total yards.
8. Logan Thomas’ game-winning touchdown run against Miami. It was one of the most memorable games of the season, and Thomas provided the highlight. With 56 seconds remaining in the game, Thomas ran 19 yards for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 to help Virginia Tech beat Miami 38-35 on Oct. 8. He scored more touchdowns in that game (three) than he threw incompletions (two).
9. Virginia becomes bowl-eligible for first time since 2007. With a 31-13 win over Maryland on Nov. 5, the Cavaliers exceeded expectations in just the second season under coach Mike London. Virginia was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division, but a four-game winning streak proved otherwise.
10. Two BCS bowl teams for first time. Had Virginia Tech or Clemson been able to do anything with these opportunities, this would have been much higher on the list. It almost didn’t make the cut, but you can’t ignore it -- especially considering how shocking Virginia Tech’s selection was and what kind of national news it generated. For better or for worse, most college football fans aren’t going to forget the year the ACC had two BCS bids.
Just missed the cut, in no particular order:
• FSU almost blanks Florida with 21-7 win
• Record crowd at the ACC title game
• Beating Auburn and Ohio State in Week 3
• Dwayne Allen wins Mackey Award
• Wake Forest defensive back Merrill Noel tied for national lead in passes defended
• North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard becomes the nation’s leading freshman runner
• Florida State's Shawn Powell leads the nation in punting average
• Wake Forest upsets Florida State
• Georgia Tech’s big day against Kansas
• Maryland’s Labor Day uniforms
1. Florida State: I know, I know, you’ve heard this one before. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that nine starters return to one of the nation’s best defenses. Quarterback EJ Manuel will be back, and the Noles again have some of the nation’s best recruits.
2. Clemson: Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins were record-setters in their first seasons as starters. There’s plenty of incoming talent, and the Tigers should contend for the Atlantic Division again if the defense improves.
3. Virginia Tech: This staff knows how to develop players, and that quality will again be critical as the Hokies have to rebuild their offensive line and will lose their top playmaker in David Wilson. Quarterback Logan Thomas could be the best in the ACC, though, if the supporting cast emerges.
4. NC State: Consider the Pack the darkhorse candidate for the 2012 race. If NC State can stay healthy, it should have two of the league’s top players in quarterback Mike Glennon and cornerback David Amerson.
5. Georgia Tech: The majority of the Jackets’ roster returns, and it should be better after growing pains in 2011. With an experienced offensive line, and the bulk of playmakers returning, Georgia Tech should again be a contender in the Coastal Division.
6. Virginia: If the Cavaliers were playing for the division title in just the second season under coach Mike London, there’s no reason to doubt them in his third. There were some important lessons learned down the stretch, and it was a strong season for UVa to build on.
7. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons were a field goal away from winning the Atlantic Division title in 2011, and quarterback Tanner Price is good enough to put them in position to do it again.
8. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have another transition to go through with first-year coach Larry Fedora, and the defense will have to fill some big shoes. Offensively, though, there is enough in place that UNC can surprise some people in the Coastal Division race.
9. Boston College: The Eagles’ strong finish to 2011 left a lot of optimism within the program, and despite the loss of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the defense should still be strong. The return of running back Montel Harris will certainly help, but again the team must adjust to another offensive coordinator.
10. Miami: The biggest thing Miami has in its favor right now is a strong recruiting class. With eight starters leaving early for the NFL draft and the departures of the Class of 2008 -- plus possible NCAA sanctions looming -- there’s a lot of uncertainty in the program now.
11. Maryland: Look at it this way: It can’t get much worse. The hire of Mike Locksley as offensive coordinator will help, especially in recruiting, but how much, how fast? And has the dust finally settled, or will there be more changes?
12. Duke: Somebody has to be last, and until Duke proves otherwise, it’s status quo in Durham. Duke suffered from many of the same problems last year that it did in 2010.
1. USC (Nov. 24, away): Matt Barkley's return makes the Trojans a trendy preseason national title pick and Barkley a likely preseason Heisman frontrunner. They host the Irish in the regular-season finale, and how sweet it would be for Notre Dame should they knock their rivals off with the highest stakes on the line.
2. Oklahoma (Oct. 27, away): Like the Trojans, the Sooners return their prized quarterback (Landry Jones) and will, at the very least, enter 2012 as the Big 12 favorite.
3. Michigan State (Sept. 15, away): Kirk Cousins and Keshawn Martin are gone, but the Spartans return four offensive linemen and plenty of production on the defensive side of the ball as they go for a third-straight 11-win season.
4. Michigan (Sept. 22, home): Denard Robinson and several key skill players likely return, but the Wolverines lose a lot on each line and will rely on several young players to fill the void.
5. Stanford (Oct. 13, home): Perhaps the biggest mystery entering 2012. We just don't know how much this team will drop off following the likely loss of Andrew Luck. Time will tell.
6. BYU (Oct. 20, home): Another wild card. Much will depend on the growth of dual-threat QB Riley Nelson and the Cougars' offense.
7. Purdue (Sept. 8, home): The Boilermakers finished 2011 with back-to-back wins for the first time this season and have a bit of momentum under Danny Hope. Some see them as a darkhorse Leaders Division contender in 2012.
8. Miami (Oct. 6, Chicago): The Hurricanes will likely be led by a defense that returns eight starters for Al Golden's second year.
9. Wake Forest (Nov. 17, home): Quarterback Tanner Price is back, but the Demon Deacons must eliminate the mistakes that cost them five of their final six games and two assistants their jobs.
10. Boston College (Nov. 10, away): The Eagles got better as the season went on and hope new offensive coordinator Doug Martin can bring the unit up to speed with the defense, which loses Luke Kuechly.
11. Navy (Sept. 1, Dublin): Can Trey Miller build off 2011, when he was forced in midseason for the injured Kriss Proctor?
12. Pitt (Nov. 3, home): New coach Paul Chryst will have his work cut out for him on a team with quarterback, protection and, at least in the past calendar year, coaching issues.
Akron linebacker Brian Wagner will enroll at Arizona this week and will be immediately eligible due to an NCAA rule that allows athletes pursuing graduate degrees not offered at the former school to play right away.
Wagner, 22, averaged 13.36 tackles per game in 2011, and considering top tackler Luke Kuechly of Boston College is off to the NFL, Wagner will be the top returning tackler in FBS football.
Wagner, who earned first-team All-MAC honors, is taking advantage of the same transfer rule that was used by Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.
Why is this a big get for Arizona? Because its top two tacklers, Derek Earls and Paul Vassallo, are graduating, and the Wildcats' top two returning linebackers -- sophomores Hank Hobson and Rob Hankins -- combined for four starts and 18 tackles last season, in large part due to the Wildcats using a base nickel formation much of the season. But when you toss in 2010 starter Jake Fischer, who is coming back from an ACL injury, you have four experienced guys for three spots.
And, yes, you can essentially pencil Wagner, 6-foot, 235 pounds, into the starting lineup.
From the Tucson Citizen:
He played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at Akron. Exactly where he fits into Arizona’s scheme is to be determined, Wagner said, with the Cats presumably running a 3-3-5, no matter who coach Rich Rodriguez eventually brings in as defensive coordinator.
As for that defensive coordinator, nothing yet -- I found this to be an interesting narrative on back-and-forth with West Virginia DC Jeff Casteel. Speculation that Penn State also might be a player with Casteel raised one of my eyebrows, though Casteel's 3-3-5 doesn't sound like a Penn State defense.