NCF Nation: Mark D'Onofrio

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- We can all agree just about every team in the cluttered Coastal Division has a chance to win it.

Yet, it was still a surprise to see Miami selected as the media’s preseason choice to play in its first ACC championship game. Sure, the Canes have a shot just like the other five teams that earned first-place votes, but it is hard to see how they have the best shot to make it to Charlotte.

Duke is my choice to finish first. Here is why I believe the Blue Devils have more of an edge than Miami headed into the season.

1. Quarterback. Duke is one of three teams in the league to return its starting quarterback. Senior Anthony Boone showed tremendous growth through 2013, and has used his fourth-quarter performance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as an opportunity to grow and learn, too. Coach David Cutcliffe says Boone has taken on much more leadership, responsibility and accountability. He should, especially with Brandon Connette out of the mix.

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Miami, meanwhile, has no answers at quarterback -- not until Ryan Williams returns from a torn ACL. Kevin Olsen or Jake Heaps will have to pilot the Canes until then and there are major question marks around both. You don't need to read much into these comments from Johnson to wonder: Has Olsen matured? Can Heaps live up to the hype that trailed him out of high school? And even when Williams does return, he is no sure thing. He’s only taken a handful of snaps in mop-up duty at Miami and just two against Top 25 competition (garbage time in a blowout to Kansas State). Duke Johnson is one of the best players in the country, but Miami needs an effective quarterback to help him out. We don’t know yet whether he does.

2. Schedule. Miami plays one of the toughest schedules in the ACC. The Hurricanes get both Florida State and Louisville out of the Atlantic, and then have to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday night. No other bona fide Coastal contender has to face that trifecta. Miami will definitively be without Williams for the opener at Louisville, a team that destroyed the Canes in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville has a radically different look, but the Cards already are favored to win. Duke, meanwhile, avoids Florida State, Clemson Tigers and Louisville, playing Syracuse Orange and Wake Forest from the Atlantic. In addition, the Blue Devils get Virginia Tech and North Carolina at home. It seems pretty clear Duke has the schedule advantage.

3. Defense. The truth is, neither defense was stellar last season. Miami and Duke ranked toward the bottom in the ACC in just about every major defensive category. But no coordinator is under fire more than Mark D'Onofrio at Miami. There is a level of play people have come to expect from the Miami defense, and nobody has seen it in years. Al Golden has talked up his group headed into this season, but acknowledges the defensive line needs to transform itself into a dominating group. For Miami to make the jump to a championship, it needs a vastly improved group. I’m just not sure the Canes will field a dominating defense this year.

Certainly, Miami has the talent to make it to the title game. The Canes had early momentum last year before they fell back, mostly because Johnson was hurt. A healthy Johnson gives Miami an opportunity to win all its games. But remember, even when Johnson was healthy last season Miami was living on the edge, needing fourth-quarter comebacks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, North Carolina and Wake Forest.

The bottom line is this: There are far too many questions to overlook to believe in Miami as the preseason Coastal favorites.

Agree? Disagree? Vote in our poll and drop me a line in the mailbag with your thoughts. Best comments go up Friday.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Duke Johnson and Dallas Crawford sat in the same room together last week just like the good old days, when they both played running back for Miami.

Do they miss the camaraderie they once shared together in the same meeting room? Absolutely. But they also understand why they no longer play the same position. Crawford was moved to safety this spring in an effort to improve the Miami secondary. Despite having a running back shortage this spring -- Johnson is out as he rehabs a broken ankle -- coaches believe the move will be for the best when the season opens. The opportunity to get the best out of Johnson on offense, and the best out of Crawford on defense, was simply too enticing to pass up.

[+] EnlargeDallas Crawford
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsMiami is hoping Dallas Crawford's physical style carries over to his move to defense.
Crawford conceded he "had a feeling" he was going to be moved even last season, when he filled in for Johnson as the starting running back in the final six games and led the team with 12 touchdown runs. When pressed why he believed that, Crawford said he did not have a tangible reason. Perhaps it was because Miami needed more help in the secondary than at running back. Perhaps it was because Crawford was initially recruited to play safety.

Whatever gave him that feeling, Crawford was prepared when coach Al Golden asked him a few months ago to make the move. Since then, Johnson has watched his close friend attentively from the sidelines during each practice to date.

"He’s looking like Dallas from high school," Johnson says.

"We played against each other in high school," Crawford interjects.

So what type of hitter was Crawford in high school?

"A big hitter," Johnson says with a grin.

"I couldn’t catch him, though," Crawford says. "I caught him one time. And that was the last time."

It is now his job to catch runners like Johnson, and to deliver the big hits -- as opposed to taking the big hits. Though he does miss playing running back at times, Crawford says, "I like safety. I feel like I’m a natural-born safety." He studies or watches tape whenever he has free time, and that has helped him feel more comfortable. On Day 1 of spring ball, Crawford felt like he was "swimming in the playbook." Now, he has it down.

Much of that has to do with the extra time he has spent with defensive backs coach Paul Williams, who also happened to be his lead recruiter out of high school. Crawford did play safety his redshirt freshman season but was asked to move to running back the following year. He agreed because he wanted to get on the field. Now that he has come full circle, the playbook is not as foreign as it would have been had he come in with no experience on defense at all.

Still, Crawford needed to nail down the concepts. When he feels he has a learned a particular alignment, he and Williams watch the specific play on tape to reinforce it.

"He's made us tougher," Golden says. "He’s a very physical player. He’s learning fast. He’s got to be studying all the time because he’s not a guy making a lot of mental errors. He’s got urgency about him."

The end goal, of course, is for Crawford to emerge as a starter.

"The reason we gave Dallas the opportunity to come over was for that," defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio said. "You look at Dallas Crawford, and when you start to count them up, he’s probably one of our best 22 players on the team. Let’s give him a chance to compete for that starting opportunity. You need to play four guys at safety at least, and he’s definitely created a competition. He’s got everybody’s attention."

Including his former partner in the backfield.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There is a sense of unusual quiet around the University of Miami campus these days. No ongoing investigations. No persistent distractions. No recruiting dilemmas. No speculation about Al Golden’s future with the program.

[+] EnlargeRyan Williams
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyFifth-year senior Ryan Williams has stepped up to secure the starting QB job.
Even an anticipated quarterback competition has failed to develop, snuffing out another potential controversy.

Miami has thus far gone through half its spring practices drama free. Business as usual has gone from dealing with a hovering NCAA cloud to just focusing on football business. That has not gone unnoticed, either.

When asked about the relative calm that has settled over his football program, Golden broke into a big smile and put his arms in the air, like he had won the biggest game of the season.

"It’s been just so much fun just coaching football," Golden said this week. "It’s almost like a foundation’s in place. They know what the standards are. They’re doing all the little things you need to do, so it’s been good. It’s been a lot of fun. Some guys have stepped up and that’s helped us improve our team. I’m excited about where we are."

The NCAA officially ended its investigation into Miami last October, finally allowing everybody to move forward. On the field, progress was being made as the Hurricanes jumped out to a 7-0 start and No. 7 ranking before ending the season with four losses in their final six games. Still, Miami finished 9-4 -- its best record since 2009. Just months after closure from the NCAA, Golden had to deal with a new wave of innuendo in early January -- this time linking him to the open job at his alma mater, Penn State.

Golden reiterated his commitment to Miami, and James Franklin was eventually hired in State College, Pa. Though Golden declined to discuss what happened with Penn State, he said once again he believes in what he, his staff and players are building at Miami.

He points to the recently completed Schwartz Center for Athletic Excellence, which includes a revamped locker room, weight room and academics wing with money being raised for more upgrades, this time to the practice fields. He also points to the success the staff had in signing its most recent recruiting class, ranked No. 10 in the ESPN Recruiting Nation class rankings.

But the hard work is far from over. Miami remains slightly below the scholarship limit because of the NCAA sanctions. Depth is not where the staff wants it to be, and neither is the play of the defense, which again ranked among the worst in the ACC. Golden took heat during the offseason for retaining defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio from a fan base looking for an easy scapegoat.

Reality says Miami simply did not have the talent on defense a season ago to be an elite unit. The group the Hurricanes will field in 2014 is more experienced and more talented, so improvement is expected. The cohesion Golden has seen so far during spring practice has validated his decision to keep the staff intact.

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Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald via Getty ImagesMiami coach Al Golden believes his team will play together and be more cohesive next season.
"We’re not where we want to be. We’re not," Golden said. "The players know that. We’re going to keep moving it forward. We haven’t had one cycle that’s been a normal recruiting cycle, so for all the things that we’re not right now, I’m not going to make excuses for what these guys have achieved during a very difficult time, almost an impossible time.

"After going through what we’ve gone through, I don’t think the answer is to start tearing it apart, starting all over, and, to be honest, I’m glad I made the decision I made. I look out there and there’s more continuity out there than if we had started over. We’re getting leadership, we’re getting guys playing with a lot of energy."

Offensively, the Hurricanes have to break in a new starting quarterback. Though most anticipated an intense competition between fifth-year senior Ryan Williams and redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen for the starting job, Williams has established himself as the front-runner with his performance this spring.

Williams has waited behind two quarterbacks for this opportunity, spending the past two seasons backing up Stephen Morris. He has a major edge in both experience and maturity. Golden says so far this spring, Williams is completing about 70 percent of his passes.

"Growing up as a Miami Hurricanes fan and waiting four years and getting my chance to play this year, I’m really excited about this season," Williams said.

He is not alone. A quiet calm has never created this much excitement in Coral Gables.

Breaking down the spring in the ACC Coastal division:

Duke

Spring practice over

What we learned:
  • Momentum rolls on. It's hard to believe the Blue Devils are already done with spring ball, but coach David Cutcliffe opted to open practice in February to capitalize on the momentum that was created last season. After the spring game ended Saturday, he praised the way his players handled the practices. There was a great deal of retention and not a lot of re-teaching, so coaches were able to get much more out of their players this spring.
  • Max McCaffrey emerges. Jamison Crowder had a spectacular 2013 season, but it was essentially him and then everybody else in the receiver group. That may not be the case this season. McCaffrey earned praise from coaches and teammates for the way he improved during the spring. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said McCaffrey made as many plays as anybody else on the offense this spring.
  • Stepping up on the line. The Blue Devils lost three starters on their defensive line -- both ends in Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx, and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento. But it appears as if the players behind them are ready to step up and make a seamless transition. Defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson each had two sacks in the spring game. Kyler Brown also made the switch from linebacker to defensive end and had a sack in the spring game as well.
Georgia Tech

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:
  • Justin Thomas takes over. After Vad Lee announced his transfer from Georgia Tech, the quarterback reigns fell to Thomas, who played in 10 games this season. The Jackets had their share of highs and lows under Lee, but what the staff is going to be looking for first and foremost is Thomas’ ability to hold on to the football. Georgia Tech had 24 giveaways and ranked No. 12 in the ACC in turnover margin.
  • Defensive line questions. The Jackets lose three starters on the defensive line, including All-ACC defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu -- who had 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Who will step up and fill that type of production? The most experienced backups returning are sophomores Tyler Stargel and Patrick Gamble. Also, Travin Henry will get a look at defensive end after playing wide receiver last season.
  • Offensive line questions. Georgia Tech also loses three starters on the offensive line -- tackles Ray Beno and Will Jackson and center Jay Finch. The trio combined to start 117 games in their careers, so there is no doubt this is going to be a much less experienced unit in 2014. The good news is All-ACC guard Shaq Mason returns to help anchor the new-look line.
Miami

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby. Stephen Morris is gone, but the Canes do have at least one experienced quarterback on the roster in Ryan Williams, a Memphis transfer who has served as Morris’ backup the last two seasons. As a true freshman with the Tigers, Williams started 10 games -- all the way back in 2010. Challenging Williams is redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who had a bit of a rocky first year in Miami, along with Gray Crow.
  • Defensive improvements. Perhaps more than what happens at quarterback, Miami must see improvements out of its defense this season. Embattled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio kept his job but the status quo cannot persist. Every single area of the defense must be upgraded. Ranking No. 13 in the ACC in total defense just can’t happen again.
  • Defensive improvements, Part II. To try and help the secondary, Miami already moved Dallas Crawford over to safety, where the Canes could use the help. But Miami must be stronger on the defensive front. The Canes only had 12 sacks in eight conference games. By comparison, BC led the way with 25 sacks in conference games. This is a big opportunity for guys like Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyriq McCord and Ufomba Kamalu to really step up.
North Carolina

Spring start: Started March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Marquise Williams took over as the starter when Bryn Renner was gone for the season and ended up helping the Tar Heels make a bowl game after a 1-5 start. But coach Larry Fedora said the competition is open this spring. Look for Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker to give Williams a major push.
  • Defensive line questions. Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson are both gone, leaving big holes in the North Carolina front. Martin ended up notching 21.5 tackles for loss to rank No. 3 in the ACC. So who are the next guys up? At end, Junior Gnonkonde and Jessie Rogers are the top two contenders, while Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown and Justin Thomason will compete for one of the tackle spots.
  • Replacing Ebron. Eric Ebron was dynamic at tight end for the Tar Heels last season, leading the team with 62 receptions for 973 yards, while adding three touchdowns. Will the Tar Heels be able to replace that type of production with just one player? Jack Tabb would be next in line among the tight ends, but this is a huge opportunity for the North Carolina receiving group as well. We saw plenty of promise out of young guys like Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer.
Pitt

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: No spring game. Last day of practice April 13

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Chad Voytik played really well in relief of an injured Tom Savage in the bowl game, but coach Paul Chryst said the competition to win the starting job is open headed into the spring. At this point, Voytik and Trey Anderson are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. So you can bet the biggest goal of all is to keep them both healthy.
  • Replacing Aaron Donald. One of the biggest surprises in all of college football this past season was the emergence and utter dominance of Donald at defensive tackle. Donald swept every major defensive award after notching 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Darryl Render is the next man up.
  • Complementary receiver. Devin Street is gone, leaving Tyler Boyd as the only standout receiver on the roster. Not only do the Panthers have to develop a consistent No. 2 receiver, they also have to develop some depth. Watch for Manasseh Garner, a former H-back who moved to receiver late last season when Street got hurt. He is more physical than Boyd, and has some extended playing experience.
Virginia

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. David Watford is not guaranteed to win his starting job back after last season, when he threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns are also in the mix and reps with the first team will be split. In fact, Lambert got the first-team reps when the Hoos opened spring ball last weekend.
  • Andrew Brown. The highly-touted freshman will have every opportunity to win a starting job at defensive tackle, and it all starts in spring ball. The No. 3-ranked player in the ESPN 300 comes in with tons of hype; now can he translate that into on-field success? He, Donte Wilkins and Chris Brathwaite will be competing to start next to David Dean.
  • Mr. McGee. Jake McGee was the best player the Hoos had among the group of tight ends and receivers a year ago, leading the team with 43 catches for 395 yards. This spring, McGee has now moved over to receiver so the Hoos can take advantage of his athletic ability. Plus, Virginia is lacking playmakers at the position, so we’ll see how much this move benefits both McGee and the offense.
Virginia Tech

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Quarterback. Mark Leal heads into the spring with a leg up in the quarterback competition but make no mistake, there is no set starter. He will get competition from freshmen Andrew Ford and Brenden Motley in the spring, with freshman Chris Durkin and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer arriving in summer. This competition will likely drag on into the fall.
  • Front seven. The Hokies are losing five terrific players up front, including ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, and linebacker Jack Tyler, who racked up 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. There is no doubt a major priority this spring is finding their replacements and building depth along the line and at linebacker. Who will step up as the leader of this group with Tyler gone?
  • Skill players. This has been an ongoing theme over the last two seasons and will continue to be a theme until the Hokies have consistently good players at running back and receiver. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is excited about the return of tight end Ryan Malleck, and his entire tight end group for that matter. A healthy Malleck and improvement from Kalvin Cline means the Hokies could simultaneously improve their run and pass game.
When Ted Roof returned to his alma mater this past January, he asked a graduate assistant to cut up 10-play highlight tapes of each returning defensive player. Georgia Tech's new defensive coordinator wanted to see the possibilities that lay ahead for the unit he was about to take over, and he figured whatever limitations they had would present themselves soon enough anyway.

"I think it's up to us as coaches to put kids in positions to be successful, and to ask them what they can do," Roof told ESPN.com. "For me, I will be able to see what they can't do, but I want to see what they can do, because we started this thing to try and put kids in the right positions with the right job descriptions and things of that nature."

What he saw was a collection of talent that has put the Yellow Jackets at No. 9 nationally in total defense and No. 8 in scoring defense. But the Ramblin' Wreck have plenty of company up there in the ACC, as evidenced by their No. 3 ranking within the conference in both of those categories.

[+] EnlargeShayon Green, Jeff Driskel
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesLB Shayon Green and Miami have made a habit of making big hits this year and the Hurricanes, like several other programs from the ACC, are ranked among the nation's top defenses.
Six ACC schools rank in the national top 25 of total defense. Six rank in the top 16 of scoring defense. Two of them square off Saturday, when Georgia Tech visits No. 14 Miami, which ranks a spot below the Yellow Jackets in the former category and a spot above them in the latter.

"We take a lot of pride," Hurricanes linebacker Denzel Perryman told ESPN.com. "Like the coaches tell us, like we say amongst ourselves, it's just the beginning of the season. It's game No. 5. We can't relax right here. So we've just got to keep doing what we're doing, which is just going out and executing and doing our job. We take a lot of pride in it though."

Miami has not played an FBS offense that currently ranks better than 70th. But the Hurricanes' one major win among their 4-0 start came when they forced five turnovers against then-No. 12 Florida. A unit that went through the growing pains of having 16 true freshmen play and six start at least one game in 2012 now finds itself in prime position to claim the early frontrunner status in the Coastal Division, as Miami has won its last four meetings with Georgia Tech.

But the roles are reversed this time around. Traditionally recognized for big playmakers at the skill positions -- and, in Georgia Tech's case, for the vaunted triple-option offense -- both schools have been modest offensively, ranking 38th (Miami) and 51st (Georgia Tech) nationally in yards per game.

The Yellow Jackets appeared to turn a corner defensively two weeks ago in their 28-20 home win over North Carolina, as they held the Tar Heels scoreless over the game's final 39-plus minutes. Despite a 17-10 home loss to intra-division rival Virginia Tech five days later, Georgia Tech held the Hokies to just a field goal over the game's final 41-plus minutes.

Roof said the UNC contest was a seeing-is-believing moment, as it allowed the new coordinator and his players to adjust to adversity on the fly and pull out a win.

"I think you gain some confidence and you gain some belief, and at the same time, correct the mistakes that got us into that position in the first place," Roof said. "But I was really proud of the effort."

Ironically enough, enhanced defensive play across the ACC may just be an unintended consequence of a conference that features seven senior starting quarterbacks from last year's 12-team version of the league.

"I just think it's the familiarity, in my opinion," Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu told ESPN.com. "A lot of us have been playing against each other for a while, like Virginia Tech and their quarterback, UNC and their quarterback. The guys that are senior quarterbacks, we kind of have a book on them, and you're kind of experienced, you play them a lot. There are a lot of senior quarterbacks in the conference this year. Tajh Boyd, another senior.

"So when I go into those games you kind of have almost a feel for them: You know how to rush the passer when you're rushing them. You know how to stay in your lane. Sometimes guys that can move and get out like Tajh Boyd, you know how they adjust to that. And basically just familiarity. For me, personally, I feel the same way for a lot of our players on our defense, that familiarity and experience with a lot of the senior offensive players in this league."

Ten different ACC defensive coordinators are in their first or second years with their schools. In some of those cases, such as Clemson's, Florida State's or Georgia Tech's, head coaches and personnel were already in place, and that has been evident through their defensive play this season. Other cases, such as Boston College's or North Carolina's, were part of wholesale staff changes. That, too, has been evident so far this season, with the Eagles and Tar Heels ranking 71st and 105th, respectively, in total defense.

Mark D'Onofrio, in his third season as Miami's defensive coordinator, is a seasoned veteran by ACC standards. While stressing that he cannot speak for everyone, he does see the impact of some of the new staffs and schemes starting to come along in the conference.

"Sometimes it just takes some of these programs where they have newer head coaches or newer coordinators, it just takes a few years sometimes to get your system going and get your people in," D'Onofrio told ESPN.com.

Whether better defenses are here to stay or simply current products of early scheduling will likely be answered deeper into conference play. The clearest picture may come Saturday, when Georgia Tech and Miami collide in a matchup that has averaged 51 total points per game over the Coastal Division hopefuls' last four meetings.

Roof will reserve judgment until the season ends, though he is happy to see the Yellow Jackets gain early recognition for their work on his side of the ball.

"I want our players to take pride at being great at something," Roof said. "I want them to take pride in how they work, pride in how they prepare and pride in defense at Georiga Tech. But I know this, all of it has to go together -- offense, defense, special teams. There are going to be weeks where we have to win 49-48, and I'm good with that. There are going to be weeks where we have to win 9-2, and I'm good with that, too. Bottom line is we have to do what we have to do to win football games. But at the same time, I want our kids to have pride playing defense at Georgia Tech."

Most to prove in the ACC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Maryland coach Randy Edsall: He’s won a total of six games in the past two seasons, and this fall, he has healthy quarterbacks to work with and more playmakers on offense, including one of the best in the country in receiver Stefon Diggs. Maryland also has a favorable schedule -- much more forgiving than the one it'll face next season as members of the Big Ten. There’s no reason Maryland fans shouldn't expect at least six wins.
Miami HurricanesAP Photo/Wilfredo LeeAl Golden could have left for many coaching jobs over the past two seasons but chose to remain.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- There is a tranquil fountain in Al Golden’s spacious office at Miami, a decorative waterfall that gives the illusion of peace.

It’s a futile attempt at serenity.

Since the story of the NCAA investigation broke in August 2011 -- eight months after he was hired -- Golden has been working tirelessly to navigate the program through one of the most highly-publicized and controversial NCAA investigations in the history of college football. He’s been doing it blindly; out of the loop, as lawyers and high-ranking university officials make the decisions. Even with his office door closed, there has been no escaping the residual effects the investigation has had on recruiting, on the field and in the media.

“The shock waves since have not stopped,” Golden said. “They may have gotten quiet externally for a little while, or they may have jumped to the next story and navigated the media away from it, but it’s always come back. I promise you it has always come back. We have not been able to get away from it.”

Not that Golden has tried to run away from it -- quite the contrary.

One of the most underrated coaching moves in college football in recent years was the one that never happened. Golden, who was blindsided by the investigation from Day 1, is now in the midst of his third spring at Miami. His tenure has been lowlighted by three recruiting classes under the cloud of the NCAA investigation, two postseason bans, including the program’s first chance at the ACC title game, and one shocking concession from the NCAA that it gathered tainted evidence through unethical conduct. There have been enough distractions, not to mention other job openings, during that span to fill Sun Life Stadium. Yet Golden has found even more reasons to stick around.

“We have the good fortune of going to work at a place that, when it’s right, is as good as anywhere you can imagine in college football,” Golden said. “That’s what our job is -- to get it right. Our job is not to complain about what hasn’t gone right, or what has gone wrong -- anybody can do that. Our job is to fix it. To do that, you have to have a vision, you have to have leadership, and in this particular case, you have to have courage and resiliency and a great staff, and an administration that is committed and student-athletes that want to be a part of it. I feel like we have all of that.”

The one thing it doesn’t have, though, is closure. Miami is still arm wrestling with the NCAA, but the case took a major step forward on February 19 when the university received its notice of allegations from the NCAA. Miami has reportedly been charged with a lack of institutional control, and the school’s hearing with the NCAA’s committee on infractions is scheduled for June 14.

“It’s been very trying to say the least, very difficult, to work and recruit and live under that cloud, if you will,” Golden said. “But I don’t think there’s anybody that enters this building today that doesn’t think that finish line is within sight now.”

It’s been a long time coming.

Heading into the 2011 season opener against Maryland, Golden -- in his first game as head coach at Miami -- learned that eight of his players would be suspended by the NCAA for at least one game, including quarterback Jacory Harris. Somehow, Miami still found a way to win six games that season and become bowl eligible. They self-imposed their first postseason ban. After losing 12 starters last year, including the leading rusher, leading receivers, starting quarterback, and three offensive linemen, the media picked Miami to finish fifth in the Coastal Division standings. Instead, it finished 7-5 with a chance to play for the ACC title. See: Postseason Ban II.

During the span of those two seasons, the Penn State job came open. Golden played for the Nittany Lions and was a tight end under the late Joe Paterno. The Boston College job came open, where he was the linebackers coach from 1997-99. But never once did Golden even hint at the whisper of an interest in those jobs.

“That just shows his character, knowing a lot of coaches probably would’ve bailed and went to wherever they were offered, but he didn’t,” running back Duke Johnson said. “He stayed with us and he sees the potential we have and the things we can do. If that means him staying here and going through what we have to go through, we’re here with him.”

Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio has seen, and helped, Golden pull programs out of the mud before.

With Golden at the helm, Temple played in a bowl game for the first time in 30 years. It was the first winning season the MAC program had seen since 1990. According to Temple, Golden also led the program through “the greatest academic turnaround in the NCAA APR Reform Era.”

D’Onofrio said their experiences at Temple have helped them at Miami.

“Certainly we had our share of tough moments to go through at Temple, to be honest with you,” D’Onofrio said. “We came in there, I think our first year we had 53 scholarship players. We had to slowly build that program back up. We had the greatest turnaround in college football on the field and off the field. There was a lot to dig in and do there. The last thing the people see are the wins, but the first few years there, they were tough. Those were tough days. We had a few 62-0 defeats in 2006.

“That’s just how we’re built, so to speak, and conditioned,” he said. “You go to work and coach who’s there, and whatever issues come up, you just go in there, don’t make any excuses and go to work. With Al, he sees the long-term vision of what can be done here. That was the reason to come here and take this job. It’s a job that has tremendous potential based on the football players you can get here. Miami has national appeal. From that standpoint, we felt confident that if we stayed the course, we could have success.”

On the field, they’re getting much closer.

Despite self-imposed sanctions that included scholarship reductions, Golden and his staff still landed the No. 15 recruiting class in the country for 2013. The Canes added a pair of top prospects after signing day in ESPN 150 tight end Derrick Griffin -- the No. 1 prospect at his position and a longtime Texas A&M commit -- and ESPN 300 RB Cornelius Edler.

Golden’s biggest recruit, though, was former Florida State assistant James Coley, one of the Noles’ top recruiters who left his alma mater to be the Canes’ offensive coordinator. Like Golden, the NCAA debacle did not scare Coley.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of energy here, positive energy, and that starts from the top -- from the president, to the AD, to the head coach,” Coley said. “For the last couple of years, they’ve been a real force, and they’ve fought through a lot, off the field and on the field. It’s good to see this team grow.

“There’s a lot of strength from the president, and from the athletic department,” he said. “I noticed it right away when I got here, what a strong school it is. I think if you’re anywhere else, where there’s not a lot of substance to a particular place, I think people bolt. But if the place is strong and it’s worth fighting for, you don’t leave.”

Golden never intended to.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Miami coach Al Golden can rattle off the names of just about every rookie who played defense for the Canes in 2012.

It’s not a quick conversation.

The Canes were the second-youngest team in the BCS behind Boston College, and a total of 21 freshmen played last year, including 16 true freshmen -- six of whom started at least one game on defense.

“There are so many,” Golden said. “There were so many young guys who had to play before they were really ready to play. Although there were some really tough moments on defense, everybody’s back, and everyone should be more mature and stronger and grown up. I expect them to really rise to the challenge now.”

They’re going to have to if Miami is going return to the top of the Coastal Division standings. Miami’s defense was one of the worst in the country last season, as it finished 116th in total defense, 112th in rushing defense and No. 82 in scoring defense, allowing 30.5 points per game. Those within the program are hoping last year’s growing pains pay dividends in experience this fall, as 10 starters return to the defense, including all four starters on the defensive line.

There were games last year in which Miami rotated about 27 players.

“We had to make a commitment to do that so we have an opportunity to win games in the fourth quarter and not get tired out,” said defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. “In the long run, I think that will help us. I don’t see us having to be as deep this year, to be honest with you.”

There was also a significant increase in defensive plays last year. Some of that could be attributed to Miami’s offense scoring quickly, but it was also a product of Miami not getting off the field quick enough. The Canes were No. 82 in the country in third-down conversion defense. Miami was also one of the most penalized teams in the country (No. 107).

“We had more defensive penalties last year than any team I’ve ever been around as a defensive coordinator or a head coach,” Golden said. “A lot of that is just having too many young guys.”

That will change this year. Miami’s defensive line is expected to be a veteran group, led by junior defensive end Anthony Chickillo, senior defensive tackle Curtis Porter, junior tackle Olsen Pierre and senior defensive end Shayon Green. Golden said Pierre has developed physically, blocks well laterally and might be the most improved player of the group.

“We had so many guys that it was their first time playing,” Chickillo said. “College football is tough. We had a lot of guys making mental errors, not being in their gap when they were supposed to be there, blown coverages, too many things that really hurt us. Just not playing assignment football. It’s frustrating, but we’re going to be better for it in the future. So many guys got playing time and got to see what it’s like. Some young guys experienced success. We’re going to be better for it in the future.”

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Saint Augustine is a Catholic student center and church at the University of Miami where defensive end Anthony Chickillo’s parents were married when they were 19. Chickillo’s mother, Joan, worked in the Hecht Athletic Center, where Anthony now comes and goes as he pleases as a star defensive end for the Canes.

Anthony's father, Tony, and his grandfather, the late Nick Chickillo, both played for the Hurricanes, and almost every day he passes the dorms they lived in. Chickillo’s Miami roots don’t end there. Even his maternal grandfather played golf at Miami. The family room at their home in Tampa, Fla., is decorated with Miami’s history.

“I always knew I was going to come here,” Chickillo said. “It didn’t matter who was going to be the coach here. I got recruited by three different defensive coordinators, three different D-line coaches, two different head coaches. This was where I wanted to be. I truly am living my dream every day.”

Which is why it’s so important to him that Miami’s defense improve dramatically in 2013.

Last year, the Canes fell far from their rich history and tradition of putting pressure on quarterbacks, as Miami finished with just 13 sacks. As the school’s first third-generation Hurricane, Chickillo was all-too familiar with Miami’s reputation for its hard-hitting defensive lines.

“You’ve got to take pride in it,” he said. “We’ve just got to be better and we will be.”

And Chickillo, now a junior, said he plans on doing whatever he can to help the defense do that.

From the moment he stepped on campus, expectations have been high for Chickillo to be an immediate contributor. He was rated a four-star defensive end by ESPN.com and had offers from more than 50 schools as an Under Armour All-American. As a true freshman, Chickillo played in all 12 games and started the last nine. He finished third in the voting for the 2011 ACC defensive rookie of the year and finished tied for the team lead with five sacks.

Last year, he started all 12 games -- one of only three players on defense to do that. He finished eighth on the team with 45 tackles and third with 6.5 tackles for loss for a team-high minus-31 yards. He also led the team with 4.0 sacks for 24 yards lost.

Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said there was a lot of pressure put on Chickillo as a true freshman because he was such a highly touted recruit, but that he has evolved into a player capable of shouldering those expectations.

“Obviously we want to get pressure on the quarterback as a team, [but] we didn’t get enough sacks,” D’Onofrio said. “I don’t think that falls directly on him, nor should he feel that way. Sacks isn’t a defining stat for how good of a player you are. He’s been a guy who’s gotten better each year. He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He finished his freshman year at 238 pounds. I think today he weighed about 267. There’s a maturity there. He’ll continue to improve because he wants to. He’s got a really good work ethic, a high motor. He’ll continue to be a really good player for us.”

After all, it’s in his blood.

When Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman first came into the program, he was strong enough to bench press 17 reps of 225 pounds.

Now? His max is 425 pounds, and he can bang out 33 reps at 225 pounds.

If all goes well this fall, Perryman will finally be able to show his ACC opponents just how strong he is -- and durable. After an ankle injury derailed his season in 2012, Perryman has a modest goal for 2013:

“My goal is to play all 12 games,” he said. “Keep my ankle healthy and stay healthy.”

There are high expectations for Perryman, who will be one of the veterans on the team this year. He has shown improvement this spring both on and off the field, and he will be needed to continue that progress this fall as one of the quarterbacks of Miami’s defense.

“Denzel has tremendous ability,” said defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. “He’s got a good attitude, a good mindset. He’s learned how to work. He’s learned how to work off the field, in the weight room. His mental errors this spring are really, really down. He hasn’t made a whole lot, knock on wood. He’s playing fast, and that’s what a junior should do, a guy who’s played a lot of ball and started midway through his freshman year. Last year he got banged up, so it wasn’t quite the year he wanted. I think now he’s got a chance to reflect on it, he knows after two years this is how you do it, and that’s the benefit of playing those young guys. You watch them grow up, and I think he’s growing up.”

Perryman had no choice but to grow up quickly. He played in 12 games as a true freshman in 2011 and started five. Last season, he played in nine games and started six, mostly at middle linebacker. Despite missing three games with an ankle injury he suffered against Bethune-Cookman in Week 3, Perryman finished second on team with 64 total tackles and led with 45 solo stops. He also had six tackles for loss.

Even with that starting experience, though, Perryman was still a young player figuring out the playbook.

“There were times when we were out there, and they’re trying to signal in the defense, and I call the front, and I call the wrong stunt, and Anthony Chickillo or other d-linemen correct me,” Perryman said. “They’ll turn around and say, ‘That’s not right, we’ve gotta run this stunt.’”

Not this spring. Perryman and his teammates have put more effort into studying. They’ve spent time outside their dorm rooms going over plays, watching film, and it’s paid off for the entire defense.

“Everyone is studying and watching film a lot more,” he said. “The plays are starting to become second-nature to guys. Everyone is pushing each other to get better.”

If Perryman can be as strong in his knowledge of the game as he is in the weight room -- and stay healthy all season -- the Canes could have one of the best linebackers in the ACC.

Q&A with Temple coach Matt Rhule, Part II

December, 19, 2012
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Here is the second part of our conversation with new Temple coach Matt Rhule. To read Part I, click here.

You touched on this a little bit, but Temple's a program that's obviously had to fight for everything it's gotten. You were there from pretty close to the beginning. Just to see the program now in the Big East -- surprising everyone this year just by winning its first two games in the Big East and becoming a competitive team there -- what goes through your mind? How satisfying is it to see the place really take it to another level?

Matt Rhule: That's a great question. Every once in a while you get almost -- I was back on campus today and I thought of when my wife, son and I first got to Temple, and where we were and where the program was when they only had 60-something scholarships at the time, and we were dealing with all kinds of things. Back-to-back 60-point losses my first year, 1-11. And my last three years there we were bowl-eligible all three years, two bowl games, first bowl win in 32 years. So to see all that happening and to be able to leave Temple last year for the Giants after, when we finally won a bowl game, makes it come full circle. And then further to see them out there competing in the Big East this year was so gratifying, not just on behalf of myself but really on behalf of all the coaches that I worked with. The head coaches had done such a great job. There were so many assistant coaches that really did a tremendous job in their time, guys like Andrew Dees, who's with the Buffalo Bills, Mark D'Onofrio, who's at the University of Miami -- just great assistant coaches who were from the very beginning. Jethro Franklin with the Miami Dolphins. Great coaches who dug in there in their first couple years there, made things happen, and the kids who bought in and fought all the way through. So it's really gratifying. I can tell you when we were watching the South Florida game there were tears in my wife's eyes and I. We were so happy that they won that game, and now that's our opportunity to be out there too.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ruhle
AP Photo/Matt RourkeMatt Rhule, with Temple AD Bill Bradshaw, said the Owls' success in 2012 was "so gratifying" to see.
Obviously it's a fan base that's maybe a little fragile right now just from the sense that they've seen two good coaches move on. How do you reaffirm to them that you're in this for the long haul, that you're here and you're ready to take this program to the next level?

MR: I think you assure people by telling them why you want to be there, you know what I mean? Every coach that would've gotten up there today would've said, "This is where I want to be." But I think when you tell them why and people hear that it's a genuine reason, then it maybe makes them feel more secure. For me, I want to be there because I spent five years there and I had chances to leave and I didn't. The only time I ever left was for the chance to go to the National Football League. I want to be there because my wife works there, and as we moved to New Jersey she continued to work there. I want to be here because my son grew up here, his friends are all here, his school is here. At the end of the day you don't want to be somewhere just because it's a good place. You want to be here because it's your home, and for five years we built our home. We raised our family here. So when the chance came to come back, we moved into an empty house that we kept. We kept it because we always wanted to be there. So that's all I can tell people. I think if they know me and know the reasons why, they'll hopefully know that it's genuine.

What is the plan now with the NFL season going on for you?

MR: I'm going to just have to balance my duties as an assistant with the Giants and with my head-coaching duties here. Obviously right now it's a dead period, so there's a significant amount of time for coaches to be back from on the road. Right now the focus when I'm coaching the Giants is obviously the day-to-day operations with the Giants and winning games with them. And when that time is there, when I have time, when I make time, I'll work on the current roster, look at the staff and eventually recruiting. So it's just one of those opportunities where I'm going to have to do both, and I get to do both at the same time.

What have your colleagues' and players' reactions been like back in East Rutherford?

MR: They were great. They were great. Coach [Tom] Coughlin was tremendously supportive. The assistant coaches were tremendously supportive. And I know they all kind of knew I was going through the process and really pulling for me at the time. And all the players are such tremendous men on that team. The offensive line now is going to treat me like a head coach and make sure that I get heat a little bit about sitting in the front or things like that, but they're great guys. I'm happy to have coached them. I'm happy to be around them and I'm honored that I get to finish the year out with them.

Miami run defense faces another test

October, 18, 2012
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The same ol' question is asked of Miami coach Al Golden every week.

So, ahem, coach: about your defense ...

This week is no exception, of course, not with No. 14 Florida State coming to town. The mismatch on paper appears obvious: Miami has one of the worst run defenses in the country; Florida State has one of the best run offenses in the country.

Miami has only held one opponent under 200 yards rushing all season. That was Boston College in the opener, a team that ranks as one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation. Overall, the Hurricanes rank No. 118 in the nation, giving up an average of 253.7 yards per game on the ground.

[+] EnlargeChris Thompson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesThe Seminoles' rushing offense, lead by Chris Thompson, is ranked No. 16 in the country, averaging 233 yards per game.
The Hurricanes have been looking for solutions every week. They have made more depth chart changes going into this week, moving middle linebacker Denzel Perryman to the outside, while Jimmy Gaines moves to the middle. Miami has started different defensive lineups in every game this season, a clear illustration of defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio trying to find the right combination to shore up his group.

He reasoned the move for Perryman was just to give Miami more speed on the perimeter, particularly since so many teams play four- and five-receiver sets these days. Miami is sure to see that out of Florida State, which likes to spread the ball as much as it likes to run the ball.

What helps is having Perryman and Gaines healthy again. That has allowed the Hurricanes to be much more productive at the linebacker position in recent weeks. But more work must be done.

"We are light years from where we want to be," Golden said. "We are making progress. ... But we are a long way away from being the type of team that gets the number of sacks that we are looking for and gets the takeaways that we are looking for. But I am pleased with their progress and obviously we are playing 20 freshmen or sophomores over there so I am encouraged they are growing and developing."

Youth definitely plays a role, and so do injuries. But Golden makes a good point. Miami has not been effective at getting into the backfield. If you take away the seven sacks the Hurricanes have made, they only have 27 tackles for loss in seven games. That means Miami is averaging less than four tackles behind the line. Last year, Miami had 73 total tackles for loss, with 23 sacks.

There were some signs of improvement last week against North Carolina. The Tar Heels only scored 18 points and Miami had its chances to win in the second half. That was far better than the week before, a 41-3 blowout to Notre Dame. Florida State has various offensive playmakers Miami will have to slow down, starting with running back Chris Thompson. The Seminoles are averaging 233 yards rushing and have scored 23 touchdowns on the ground -- both No. 2 in the ACC behind Georgia Tech.

D'Onofrio hopes a renewed dedication during practice will help his defense continue to grow.

"You play how you practice,” D’Onofrio told reporters in Miami this week. "There’s no magic pill. You just can’t come up there and be a playmaker on game day without putting the money in the bank. That’s in the film room and that’s on their own and that’s where we’re at. I think our guys are starting to realize that."

Miami must refocus on ACC play

October, 9, 2012
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Lost in the doom and gloom of another miserable nonconference loss for the Miami Hurricanes? They still have a very real shot at winning the ACC Coastal and playing for a conference championship.

That is about the only positive to take away from a tough weekend in Chicago. And in the end, that is bigger in the grand scheme of the season than the way the Canes failed to compete against Kansas State and Notre Dame.

Forget about being outscored 93-16 in those games. Miami must focus on this critical ACC stretch to come, starting Saturday at home against North Carolina.

“We're just going to put this behind us,” linebacker Denzel Perryman said after the loss to the Irish. “We've got a big stretch of ACC games. We have to put this behind us and move forward.”

[+] EnlargeDenzel Perryman
AP Photo/ David DurochikWhy has Miami struggled on defense? Linebacker Denzel Perryman said the Hurricanes' woes are from a lack of focus.
When asked how, Perryman said, “The game’s over. There’s nothing we can do about it. Just put it behind us.”

One look at the Coastal shows Miami is in a good spot. The Hurricanes are in first place with Duke -- the only two teams in the division undefeated in ACC play. North Carolina looked terrific in a win over Virginia Tech and is going to cause major problems for a Miami defense that has not stopped one FBS team this season. But the Tar Heels are ineligible for postseason play.

Behind Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech all have major problems to address. The Hurricanes already have a win over the Jackets, so at least there is an edge there.

Still, a look on the bright side is also accompanied by a stark reality. Miami has won its three ACC games in shootout style. Its defense is a mess. Perryman lamented a continuing lack of execution after the loss to the Irish. He was asked why that problem persists now that half the season is over, and he gave a remarkably candid answer, calling out teammates for having “brain farts” on the field.

“I don't know. I don't know what's going on in their head mentally,” Perryman said. “All it comes down to -- just guys doing their job.”

Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio has taken his share of heat for the poor defensive performance this season, but he is working with a group that is extremely young, raw and not as talented as Hurricane defenses of the past. There is only so much you can do when your players are unable to execute, tackle properly or take the wrong angles in pursuit.

Coach Al Golden knows he has a young group, and cannot afford to be overly critical. He doesn’t want to lose his players, not with so much still at stake.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys that are going to grow up some day, and that’s a tough task,” Golden said. “We are not going to get negative. We are not going to go that route. There’s too many kids in that room that have bright futures and that really played hard. We just didn’t play well enough.”

We have seen this offense play well enough to win ACC games, in spite of its porous defense. It was disappointing to see a group that racked up 1,260 yards of offense in two games, muster just a field goal against Notre Dame. There were no quick touchdown strikes, no breakaway runs. In fact, Miami’s longest run of the day belonged to Eduardo Clements, who ran 17 yards on the second-to-last play of the game.

Duke Johnson had 11 touches on offense, for 60 yards. Stephen Morris was held to 201 yards passing. Miami was hamstrung by its own mistakes, including a litany of dropped passes -- two on the opening drive by Phillip Dorsett. Miami also had a touchdown called back on a holding call, missed a field goal and only converted four of 12 third-down attempts.

Compounding the problem was an inability to sustain drives, and the defense’s failure to stop Notre Dame. Miami had the ball for 20:52 -- and only 3:36 in the decisive third quarter.

Perhaps more than any other player on the roster, Dorsett has to find a way to put Saturday behind him. His two drops on the first series were tough to watch, and even tougher to live through. “I was already humble, but this humbles you even more,” he said afterward, a young player big enough to face the tough questions after a disappointing performance.

Dorsett showed an inordinate amount of maturity after the loss. It was a teachable moment for an impressionable bunch, one that has to be put aside the way the loss at Kansas State was pushed away. Miami reeled off three straight wins after that defeat. The Hurricanes can only hope another winning streak like that follows.

If it does, Miami could very well end up with a division championship.

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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