NCF Nation: Matt Merletti

We’ve already taken a look at what the recruiting needs were for the Atlantic Division. Let’s shift our attention to the Coastal Division. Here’s a look at where each school’s biggest holes will be in 2012 or are anticipated to be in the near future:

DUKE


Offensive skill positions: After last year’s rare class that didn’t include either a quarterback or running back, both positions are needed in this group. Quarterback Thomas Sirk -- the MVP of the 57th annual Florida Athletic Coaches Association North-South All-Star Football Classic last December -- has already enrolled in school while Shaquille Powell -- a PARADE All-American running back from Las Vegas -- has committed to the program. In addition, with David Cutcliffe’s offense, wide receivers and tight ends also are a priority.

Kicker: Will Snyderwine, who earned first team All-America honors as a junior before struggling through a sub-par season in 2011, graduated, but Duke has a commitment from Ohio native Ross Martin, considered the No. 2 placekicking prospect in the country by ESPN.com.

Safety: With the transition to a 4-2-5 alignment that utilizes three safeties, this becomes an annual point of emphasis. The Blue Devils lose All-American Matt Daniels to graduation.

GEORGIA TECH


Defensive line: This is the most glaring need in the current class. The Yellow Jackets have to replace senior starters Logan Walls (DT) and Jason Peters (DE), but return Izaan Cross (DE) and solid backups T.J. Barnes (DT), Emmanuel Dieke (DE) and Euclid Cummings (DE). The Jackets are expected to sign about 18 players in this year’s class, and five of them should be defensive linemen.

Wide receiver:This is another glaring need after the departures of Stephen Hill, who decided to leave early for the NFL draft, and Tyler Melton. Darren Waller and Jeff Greene, who both played last season as true freshmen, have lots of potential, but the position still needs depth.


MIAMI

Defensive backs: There’s still a lot of depth with this group, and the return of Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque helps, but the Canes have to replace two starters in the secondary and have six commits in the current class to help do that.

Defensive line: The Canes have to replace Adewale Ojomo, Micanor Regis, Andrew Smith and Olivier Vernon from last year’s two-deep. The defensive end position was a particular focus in this class.

Receiver: This position lost a lot with the departures of Tommy Streeter, LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin. Allen Hurns is now the veteran of the group, along with redshirt senior Kendal Thompkins. There are five receivers currently committed in this class.

Quarterback: Beyond Stephen Morris, Miami has a lot of questions at the position and not a lot of experience. True freshmen Gray Crow and Preston Dewey are already on the roster, along with redshirt sophomore Ryan Williams.

NORTH CAROLINA

Defensive line: This is one of the biggest areas of concern after the departures of Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell.

Receivers: Larry Fedora’s offense will make good use of this group, but he needs to replace standout Dwight Jones.

Linebackers: This group was thin to begin with in 2011, and now the Heels need to replace outgoing senior Zach Brown. Kevin Reddick is now the main man.

Safety: UNC will have to replace two starters in Matt Merletti, Charles Brown and Jonathan Smith, so this position will have to be rebuilt for the future.

VIRGINIA

Defensive back: This should be the main priority in this class. The Cavaliers will lose four DBs, including two starting safeties in Rodney McCleod and Corey Mosley, and standout cornerback Chase Minnifield. They’ll also miss Dom Joseph, who came in for the nickel packages. Demetrious Nicholson, who started as a true freshman last year, is suddenly the veteran of the group.

Offensive line: The Hoos will have to replace their starting center and left guard. Redshirt freshman center Cody Wallace could get a promotion, and sophomore right guard Luke Bowanko started in the bowl game. They’ve got some big bodies waiting in the wings, but they’ll have some questions to answer here this spring.

Kickers: This position needs to be rebuilt, as the Cavaliers lose Robert Randolph, who finished sixth all time in scoring at UVa, kickoff specialist Chris Hinkebein, and four-year punter Jimmy Howell. The position is wide open heading into the spring.

VIRGINIA TECH

Running back: This one is a no-brainer, as the Hokies have lost four players here in the past two years. David Wilson and his backup, Josh Oglesby, were the latest to depart, and Tony Gregory just had ACL surgery and is out for the spring. The staff likes Michael Holmes, who redshirted last year, and J.C. Coleman enrolled last week.

Receiver: The Hokies will miss Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, and next year’s class has three seniors in Dyrell Roberts, D.J. Coles, and Marcus Davis. The future of the position is young, and the staff is still going after several uncommitted players pretty hard.

Defensive line: This year’s class already includes at least five committed defensive linemen, and the Hokies will be particularly thin at noseguard. They had some players graduate early who didn’t play a lot, but at least provided depth.

Linebacker:The Hokies have four committed, and are still chasing another just to build the depth. The staff missed on some recruits at this position last year and would like to make up for it in this class.

UNC injury update

October, 22, 2011
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- UNC starting safety Matt Merletti injured his knee and will not return, according to an announcement here in the press box. Tre Boston is up next on the depth chart.

UNC secondary ready to reload

July, 21, 2011
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When North Carolina lined up against LSU in the season opener last year, the Tar Heels were without their entire starting secondary and top reserve safety, all of whom were held out of the game because of the NCAA investigation. The situation worsened in the first quarter when Mywan Jackson suffered a head injury. The Tar Heels turned to true freshman Tre Boston, and walk-on Pete Mangum was the nickel back.

[+] EnlargeMatt Merletti
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe Tar Heels' Matt Merletti is part of an experienced secondary that learned on the job last season.
Nothing but experience could have possibly prepared any of them for that game.

“It’s hard to learn all of the signals,” safety Matt Merletti said. “You can’t hear when you’re out there, especially in the Georgia Dome. You can’t hear anything. It’s all hand signals. It’s like sign language. That was one of the hardest parts, making sure everyone knew the play. The first touchdown they scored, we were running two different plays. It was hard to try and get everybody on the same page. That was just inexperience.”

That was then.

On paper, North Carolina’s secondary looks like a concern, as three starters from a year ago must be replaced. On the field, though, there is enough talent and experience returning that the Tar Heels should be able to reload in the secondary, not rebuild. Last year’s disaster has turned into beneficial experience for this year’s group, which has come a long way since the loss to LSU.

“That was a huge, huge growing experience for us,” Merletti said. “Before the LSU game, I had had one play on defense. It was my sophomore year back in 2008. A lot of us, Tre, Jabari (Price), Gene Robinson and myself, we were really thrown into the fire so to speak. Our coaches called it baptism by fire. It’s hard to do at first, but it really does help you in the long run and you develop as players much quicker on defense.”

Last season, Charles Brown, who would have been a starter, missed the entire season because of the NCAA investigation. He returns this fall and is a projected starter. Safety Jonathan Smith, who was the third safety two seasons ago and played about 22-25 snaps a game, also missed last season because of the NCAA investigation, but returns as a projected starter this season. Both spent all of last season on the scout team. Boston, who moved from corner to safety this past spring, and Price, who started the final four games of 2010 at cornerback, are now expected to show even more progress as full-time starters.

Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas said he doesn’t expect Brown or Smith to be rusty this fall.

“I think they’ll be fine,” he said. “They’ll get the speed of the game back. We do a lot of work good on good, so they’ll get the speed of the game back. I worry a little more if they’ve never played before, but they all have played. It’s just a matter of getting back in the flow and getting the speed of the game.”

Douglas said he wants more depth in the secondary, but the Tar Heels are in good shape with Merletti, who was the nickel back last season and will be the first safety in, Jackson, who has limited starting experience, and Robinson, who has played nickel, cornerback and safety. The staff has yet to determine what Robinson’s role will be this season, but he’s proven capable of three.

“The thing I think we’ve done is we’ve gotten bigger,” Douglas said. “I love KB (Kendric Burney) and those guys, but the corners we have now, we’re recruiting bigger kids. Our safeties are big, but by moving a corner to safety, I’m talking about Tre, you probably get a little more athletic. You worry about will he tackle? He proved in the spring, he faced up Ryan Houston several times in the spring, and I don’t expect we’ll play a back any bigger than him at 240. If he’ll stick his face in there against him, I imagine he’ll do it during the season.”

After last season’s surprise initiation, all of the rookie defensive backs should be better prepared to face the competition.

“It definitely made us confident,” Merletti said. “It doesn’t get any bigger than that. It was a good experience to have.”
Moving on to the safeties …

[+] EnlargeRay-Ray Armstrong
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireRay-Ray Armstrong is among the leaders of a strong Miami secondary.
1. Miami: Vaughn Telemaque and Ray-Ray Armstrong return, but JoJo Nicolas moved to corner. Even though Armstrong wasn’t a starter last year, he still ranked third on the team with 79 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.

2. Florida State: The Seminoles return both starters in Nick Moody and Terrance Parks. Moody had 79 tackles last season and Parks had 44 and six deflections. The group was strengthened with the addition of Lamarcus Joyner, who moved from cornerback and proved this spring he’s capable of being a safety.

3. NC State: The Wolfpack has two of the best in Earl Wolff, the team’s leading tackler last season with 95, and Brandan Bishop, who had 56 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. Dontae Johnson (22 tackles), also returns.

4. Virginia Tech: Eddie Whitley is the lone returning starter, but he should be one of the best in the ACC. Antone Exum, who was the No. 2 free safety last season, moved to rover this spring. He played in every game last season and had five starts when Tech went to its nickel defense.

5. Virginia: The Cavaliers return veteran starters in Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley, who have combined for 41 career starts. Mosley had 52 tackles and two interceptions last season, and McLeod had 54 tackles and four pass breakups. Safety Dom Joseph (34 tackles) also returns.

6. Duke: The Blue Devils return both starters in Matt Daniels and Lee Butler. Daniels, a senior, has started 25 career games and is one of the top returning tacklers in the ACC. Butler had 58 tackles and nine passes defended last season.

7. Boston College: The Eagles return juniors Jim Noel, who had four interceptions in eight starts, and Okechukwu Okoroha, who started the final six games last fall. Noel, Okoroha, and Dominick LeGrande combined for 90 tackles last season.

8. Wake Forest: Both starters return in Daniel Mack and Cyhl Quarles. Mack had 45 tackles and two interceptions last season. Duran Lowe (30 tackles) could unseat Quarles, who is Wake’s leading returning tackler with 71 hits. Redshirt freshman Desmond Cooper is also competing for playing time.

9. Clemson: Rashard Hall has 19 career starts and made 62 tackles and two interceptions last season. Safety Jonathan Meeks (28 tackles, one start) also returns, along with Carlton Lewis.

10. Maryland: Just as Kenny Tate’s move to linebacker bumped the Terps up in the ranking in that category, his departure from safety drops them a few notches as they now don’t have any returning starters there. They do, however, have experience. Eric Franklin played in 11 games, with 23 tackles and three interceptions (tied for second on the team). Matt Robinson played in all 13 games and posted 29 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles. The Terps have plenty of depth with Austin Walker, Titus Till, Anthony Green and Desmond Haynes.

11. North Carolina: Matt Merletti had five starts and Jonathan Smith, who lettered in 2008 and 2009 but missed all of last season, are the projected starters. They will be pushed by junior Gene Robinson (four starts, 30 tackles, one interception) for playing time.

12. Georgia Tech: The Jackets had to replace both of their safeties in Mario Edwards and Jerrard Tarrant. Safety Fred Holton (11 tackles) and Isaiah Johnson (46 tackles, one interception) are the two most likely front-runners to start this fall.

ACC helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 25, 2010
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Tough call this week, but there are only five of these to give away. Had to take into consideration the competition (sorry, Virginia) and impressive performances by a rookie (sorry Christian Ponder). Here's a look at this week's top performers:

Virginia Tech’s defense: Lunch pails for everyone! After having to replace seven starters, Bud Foster’s group finally came together and they did it when it counted most -- on the road against an ACC opponent in a 19-0 win over BC. The Hokies earned their first shutout since 2006, and it was the first time the Eagles had been held scoreless at home since 1998. In the second half, BC only had 39 yards of total offense and didn’t cross midfield.

NC State: It’s impossible to single out one player or coach, as it was a group effort in a 45-28 win over Georgia Tech. NC State linebacker Nate Irving had a career-high 16 tackles, quarterback Russell Wilson threw for a career-high 368 yards and NC State is off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2002.

Miami linebacker Sean Spence: He had seven tackles in the first half of a 31-3 win against Pitt and finished with nine tackles for the game. He also had 2.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks. Spence entered the game tied for ninth averaging 2.0 tackles for loss per game.

UNC’s defense: Even though the defense was short-handed in a 17-13 win at Rutgers, UNC couldn’t have won this game without the players it did have on the field. Matt Merletti intercepted Tom Savage’s pass at the Tar Heels’ 6-yard line with less than three minutes remaining, and linebacker Bruce Carter set up 10 points with an interception and a blocked punt.

Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien. It was his first career start, and O’Brien led the Terps to a 42-28 win over FIU. He threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions. His performance should give coach Ralph Friedgen a second thought about who his starter will be even when Jamarr Robinson is healthy. O’Brien, who was the first freshman quarterback to start for Maryland since Latrez Harrison1999, and just the fifth in school history, threw touchdown passes of 9 and 68 yards. O’Brien led the Terps on four scoring drives and had an efficiency rating of 168.89, the sixth-highest mark by a freshman in the FBS this season (not including other games today).

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