NCF Nation: Morgan Burnett

Georgia Tech freshman safety Isaiah Johnson had to earn his jersey number -- No. 1. It was previously worn by Morgan Burnett, who left early to begin his NFL career. As a freshman at Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, Ga., Johnson used to watch Burnett play at nearby North Clayton High School as a senior.

“I always looked up to him,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to follow his path.”

He’s literally off to a good start.

As the Jackets prepare to open the season Saturday against South Carolina State, Johnson is not only still wearing the jersey, he’s also expected to start it in. The coaches let him keep it after they saw his effort and improvement throughout the summer. He is listed as No. 1 on the depth chart at safety, and could be the first true freshman to start a season opener since Tyler Melton in 2008. Prior to Melton, the last true freshman to start the first game of the season was wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2004 and quarterback Reggie Ball in 2003.

Because he knew Burnett was leaving early for the NFL, Johnson chose to enroll early.

“I knew my chances of playing would be greater,” he said. “It’s always been my goal. That’s what I’ve been working towards.”

Johnson is one of five true freshmen listed on Georgia Tech’s depth chart, along with A-back B.J. Bostic, OLB Jeremiah Attaochu, CB Louis Young and DT Shawn Green.

The most difficult part of adapting to the college game, Johnson said, has been taking on blocks from his own offensive teammates.

“Georgia Tech is different,” he said. “Going against our offense, they throw a whole lot of chop blocks. Taking on the blocks has been a challenge for me, and trying to make a play off the blocks. At first I was running up wild, full speed. You have to learn how to slow it down, make sure I was doing my right assignment, not just running wild. It’s good to play fast, but it’s better to play fast and smart.”

It’s a good way to stay No. 1.
You can find all of the NFL combine tests results here, but I thought I'd point out a few highlights -- and some lowlights -- for some of the former ACC players who participated the past few days.

[+] EnlargeFord
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJacoby Ford had the fastest time in the 40-yard dash of any player at the combine.
C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford showcased their blazing speed, as Ford posted the fasted 40-yard dash time (4.28) and Spiller was second among running backs (4.37). Kam Chancellor had a ball bounce off his hands and Crezdon Butler appeared "stiff in space" according to our Scouts Inc. report. Former Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan didn't do anything to jeopardize his spot as a high first-round pick, but safety Morgan Burnett missed the 40-yard dash with a hamstring injury.

• Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. on Virginia CB Chris Cook:
Virginia CB Chris Cook turned some heads at the Senior Bowl, and he's doing the same in Indianapolis. At 6-2 and 212 pounds Cook posted an unofficial 4.43 seconds. That's an excellent size-speed combination for a safety and rare to see in a corner. Cook also recorded a jaw-dropping 11-0 broad jump.

• Muench on former Virginia Tech linebacker Cody Grimm:
Virginia Tech's Cody Grimm is an interesting prospect. Grimm appears instinctive and relentless on film, but he played outside linebacker in college and is just not big enough to line up there in the NFL. He measured just 5-10^ and 203 pounds and would be a better fit at safety, where he would have the potential to develop into an adequate reserve and special-teams contributor. Grimm's 4.54 time in the 40 is encouraging because the average time for safeties last year was 4.63 seconds and in 2008 was 4.55 seconds.

• What to make of Jonathan Dwyer? He was listed as one of the 10 most polarizing players in the combine by Bruce Feldman:
There were a bunch of fast backs in Indy; Dwyer was not one of them. His size is good (228 pounds) and he looks dynamic on film, but some skeptics will wonder if much of that is due to the frenetic nature of the triple option scheme he played in at Tech. He didn't test as a particularly explosive guy, and he looked shaky in the position drills and didn't seem comfortable as a receiver.

• Here's an excerpt from Todd McShay on former FSU safety Myron Rolle:
Purely from a football standpoint, Rolle has the tools of a potential third-round pick who could be developed into an adequate starter two or three years down the road. However, while NFL teams love the Rhodes scholar's intelligence and work ethic, there is a growing concern regarding his long-term dedication to football. Rolle is in a truly unique situation and has a lot of convincing to do between now and the draft.

• The Sporting News listed Miami's Jimmy Graham, Maryland's Bruce Campbell and Clemson's Jacoby Ford among its offensive combine winners. Russ Lande of TSN listed Derrick Morgan and Virginia Tech's Jason Worilds among the defensive winners, but it doesn't sound good for Duke's Vince Oghobaase.

• Campbell really turned some heads with his 40 time. Chad Reuter of NFLDraftScout.com wrote:
Campbell also has 36.5-inch arms and bench-pressed 225 pounds 34 times. Said one scout said, "He has the best body of anyone I've ever seen."

• Of course, the question is whether he can block. Said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, "If there's a star so far in the combine, it's him. What he's going to have to overcome is the tape."

• Reuter on Miami's Graham:
Miami (Fla.) tight end Jimmy Graham ran a 4.56, according to NFL.com. Graham played only one season of football for the Hurricanes, but his basketball background intrigues scouts and his blistering 40 time could lift Graham as high as the second round.

What to watch in the ACC this spring

February, 15, 2010
2/15/10
10:00
AM ET
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

BOSTON COLLEGE

Spring practice starts: March 18

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• How linebacker Mark Herzlich progresses. Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma cancer last May, has been going through winter conditioning with his teammates, and he plans on participating in spring drills. How quickly he regains his form will be worth watching, as he and sophomore Luke Kuechly could give the Eagles one of the most formidable linebacking corps.

• The quarterback battle. After one season, Dave Shinskie has the most experience on the roster, but he’ll get some competition from Josh Bordner and Chase Rettig, two early enrollees. There were times last season when Shinskie looked like the future of the position and there were others when he looked like any other freshman.

• Defensive linemen. For the second straight year, BC is looking for some stability up front. The Eagles have to replace left tackle Austin Giles and defensive end Jim Ramella. They return Kaleb Ramsey, Giles’ backup, and Brad Newman, Ramella’s reserve, but some young faces are likely to be seen in the rotation.

CLEMSON

Spring practice starts: March 7

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Life without C.J. Spiller officially begins. The backs behind him had a pretty good year, so there’s no need for full panic mode. Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington actually combined for a higher yards per carry average (6.1 to 5.6 yards). Clemson will also be looking to replace Spiller’s lost kickoff return yardage. The Tigers had a 13-yard advantage in average starting field position, as their start was their own 37-yard line compared to opponents’ 24-yard line. Ellington is a candidate in the return game.

• Kyle Parker’s batting average. No, really. How well Parker does this spring with the baseball team will help determine whether he remains Clemson’s quarterback or turns to the MLB draft. He didn’t have a great 2009 season, but he was still the fastest player to 25 home runs in school history. It remains to be seen this spring if he’ll become a high enough draft choice to give up college football.

• Secondary shuffling. It seems like eons ago since Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor weren’t the Tigers’ starting corners, as Butler started 40 straight games and Chancellor started 42. Butler finished his career second in school history in interception return yards. Now it’s time for a new duo. Will Marcus Gilchrist move to corner, which he’s capable of doing? Might Rashard Hall move to safety with DeAndre McDaniel?

DUKE

Spring practice starts: Feb. 14

Spring game: March 27

What to watch:

• Quarterback competition. Somebody has to take over for the graduated Thaddeus Lewis, but his backup – Sean Renfree – will miss the spring with a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder should be heavily in the mix to be the starter, pending Renfree’s recovery.

• Defensive line makeover. It’s wide open. Charlie Hatcher is entrenched at nose guard, but it’s really anyone’s game. The staff might move redshirt senior Wesley Oglesby, who played the majority of his career at defensive end, inside. Other options are defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento, a redshirt freshman, and Curtis Hazelton, who played sparingly last season.

• Johnny Williams’ move from wide receiver to cornerback. He had 31 catches in 2009 – the fourth-best on the team. Now they need his help in the defensive backfield. Duke will lose starter Leon Wright and his 10 career interceptions, and the pass defense, which allowed 215.75 yards per game, could use a boost.

FLORIDA STATE

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Christian Ponder’s return from shoulder surgery. Ponder is expected to practice this spring, though it could be on a limited basis, at least early. He’s ahead of schedule, but the coaches won’t subject him to any risks now. Yes, E.J. Manuel is talented and played well at the end of the season, but make no mistake – Ponder is FSU’s starter and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.

• The defense under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. His secondary, in particular, will be interesting to watch, as will how quickly he can help the front seven generate a pass rush and plug the middle. Stoops has been a secondary coach, and the Noles lost three starters there. The fourth, Ochuko Jenije, could be pushed to retain his job.

• New faces, new opportunities. In addition to the fab freshmen who are coming in, FSU has a handful of unfamiliar players already on the roster who played sparingly or not at all. We'll see how they fit in this spring. RS-So DT Anthony McCloud and RS-So RB Debrale Smiley are both junior college transfers and former teammates. Physically, freshman linebacker Jeff Luc is already a man, but how quickly can he mature on the field? Two young wide receivers worth watching are Rodney Smith and Willie Haulstead.

GEORGIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• The defensive transformation. The Jackets will switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under first-year coordinator Al Groh. In addition to learning the new scheme, the staff has to figure out who goes where. Linebackers might play defensive end and vice versa, safeties might play outside linebacker. It’s anyone’s guess as to how this team lines up in the spring.

• The replacements. From Georgia Tech’s coaching staff to the new faces who will be tasked with filling in for the Fab Four -- Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett and Demaryius Thomas -- the Jackets will need some “Hello My Name Is” tags this spring.

• The offensive line. Three offensive linemen redshirted who could start, and Georgia Tech might need them to, especially if guard Joseph Gilbert decides to transfer to pursue his MBA. The Jackets lose two starters on the offensive line, and Gilbert, who graduates this spring, would be a third if he leaves. Center Sean Bedford and tackle Austin Barrick return as seniors.

MARYLAND

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• The quarterback competition. Chris Turner has graduated, leaving Jamarr Robinson the top option going into the spring, but he has limited experience. The staff liked what he did when Turner was injured, but Danny O’Brien, Miami (Ohio) transfer Clay Belton and C.J. Brown will all be given an opportunity. Look for O’Brien to start the spring at No. 2 on the depth chart.

• Cornerback: Cameron Chism is the only returning starter in the secondary, but right now the staff has fewer concerns about the safeties. Maryland will have to find some bodies at corner, and Dexter McDougle, who redshirted as a true freshman last year, is one option. Michael Carter and Trenton Hughes, who was the third corner last year, are also among a handful of candidates.

• The offensive line. Losing Bruce Campbell to the NFL hurt, but the Terps also lost starter Phil Costa. Justin Gilbert, a redshirt sophomore, could inherit Campbell’s job. And there’s always Mr. Versatility -- Paul Pinegar. He has helped the Terps at both tackle spots and left guard, and this spring he’ll likely be given a shot at center.

MIAMI

Spring practice starts: Feb. 23

Spring game: March 27 (tentative)

What to watch:

• Tight end/offensive line: Jimmy Graham is gone, and the Canes don’t return any tight ends with any experience other than Richard Gordon, who was injured the majority of last season. Miami signed four tight ends in this recruiting class, but none of them were early enrollees. Miami has to replace three starters up front, including both tackles and the center.

• How the two young quarterbacks perform: The health of Jacory Harris was precious last year, as he had nobody behind him with any experience after the transfers of Taylor Cook and Cannon Smith. The depth has improved a bit with A.J. Highsmith, who played sparingly last year, and Stephen Morris, one of the early enrollees.

• Upgrade on the d-line? Progress up front began with the hire of Rick Petri as defensive line coach, and it’s up to Petri to help the Canes become better pass rushers. Miami will depend upon its two mainstays -- Allen Bailey and Josh Holmes. The right end position was a group effort last year, and Miami has to replace Joe Joseph and Eric Moncur.

NORTH CAROLINA

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Quarterback T.J. Yates. It’s his job to lose, and the coaching staff still has confidence in him, but Bryn Renner is waiting in the wings, and Braden Hanson will also be given an opportunity. The staff is looking for the offense to improve its passing efficiency and cut down on turnovers.

• The offensive line. It was a patchwork effort in 2009, thanks to injuries and inexperience, and will be a major key in how much UNC improves offensively this year. The Heels have to replace two starters, and Jonathan Cooper is likely to move from guard to center, and right guard Alan Pelc will miss spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery.

• Defensive line tweaks. There aren’t many questions on a defense that should be one of the best in the country, but somebody has to replace Cam Thomas and defensive end E.J. Wilson. Tydreke Powell is the frontrunner to take over at defensive tackle and Quinton Coples at defensive end. Both were backups last year at their respective positions.

NC STATE

Spring practice starts: March 9

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• Backup quarterback Mike Glennon. Russell Wilson is the starter, but he’s going to be playing baseball all spring. Keep an eye on his backup to see if Glennon can make it any more of a competition in Wilson’s absence.

• Chris Ward at punter. No, it’s not usually, the highlight of the spring, but in this case, it’s necessary. Ward is it -- he’s their only option right now, and it’s a position the Pack struggled with last year. Ward was expected to be the starter last season, but he was inconsistent. He’s definitely got the talent to be the guy.

• The recovery of linebacker Nate Irving. After being severely injured in a one-car crash last summer, Irving is hopeful he can go through spring drills. He has been lifting with the team and running with the sports medicine staff, but it’s still uncertain how limited his contact will be.

VIRGINIA

Spring practice starts: March 15

Spring game: April 10

What to watch:

• Quarterback competition. Marc Verica is the only one with any experience, and first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor hasn’t been in Charlottesville long enough to evaluate any of the candidates. That’s what the spring is for, and true freshman Michael Strauss is the lone incoming quarterback on campus, so he’ll have a head start on the playbook. Of the four quarterbacks Virginia signed in this year’s class, Strauss is the only one listed as a true quarterback. The Cavs also have Ross Metheny, who redshirted last year, and Riko Smalls, who redshirted in ‘08 and was No. 2 on the depth chart when Verica was out with a concussion.

• Coaching transition. First-year coach Mike London has hired almost an entirely new staff, and they’ll bring changes in philosophy and scheme. London has said he wants to get the defense back to the traditional 4-3, and revert to the tradition of featuring the tight ends, offensive linemen and running backs.

• Running back. The Cavs will have the help up front, but they need to replace their four leading rushers in Mikell Simpson, Rashawn Jackson, Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell. The staff will look at true freshman Kevin Parks, but also have Torrey Mack and Dominique Wallace, who had just seemed to be coming on at Southern Miss when he was injured and missed the rest of the season.

VIRGINIA TECH

Spring practice starts: March 31

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

• Revamped defensive line. The Hokies have to replace three of four starters up front. The only defensive ends with significant playing time are Chris Drager, who the staff wanted to move back to tight end, and Steven Friday. Redshirt freshmen will be given a chance – Duan Perez-Means, Tyrel Wilson, James Gayle and J.R. Collins – but they’ve never played. Isaiah Hamlette is the only other end who’s played and that was a skinny minute. At defensive tackle, Antoine Hopkins will be the frontrunner to replace Cordarrow Thompson.

• Darren Evans’ comeback. Evans, the team’s leading rusher in 2008, is working his way back from a season-ending ACL injury, and one of the biggest questions in Blacksburg is how the staff will divide the carries in such a talented backfield that includes Ryan Williams. With two returning 1,000-yard rushers, will David Wilson decide to redshirt? The spring will help him in that decision.

• The evolution of Tyrod Taylor. He’s going to be a senior, and with so many questions on defense heading into the season, the offense will be leading the way. This should be a breakout year for Taylor, who by now should have mastered the offense and should consistently be a passing threat to compliment his running abilities.

WAKE FOREST

Spring practice starts: March 16

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

• The quarterback competition. It’s the most glaring hole the Deacs have to fill this spring, as they’re tasked with replacing the winningest quarterback in school history, Riley Skinner, and his backup, Ryan McManus. Redshirt sophomores Ted Stachitas and Skylar Jones, and sophomore Brendan Cross, will compete with rookie Tanner Price for the top spot.

• Offensive line. The Deacs will take a huge hit here, as seven players in the two-deep depth chart were redshirt seniors, including all four tackles. Three starters have to be replaced.

• The interior defensive line. Nose guard Boo Robinson and John Russell have graduated, and Russell’s backup, Michael Lockett, was also a redshirt senior. The Deacs are in good shape at the ends, but will need some help inside.
Tags:

ACC, Russell Wilson, Darren Evans, Marc Verica, Boo Robinson, Phil Costa, Jamarr Robinson, Mike Glennon, David Wilson, Jimmy Graham, Jamie Harper, Michael Carter, Sean Renfree, Mikell Simpson, Austin Barrick, E.J. Wilson, Jacory Harris, Joe Joseph, Skylar Jones, T.J. Yates, Sean Bedford, Jonathan Dwyer, John Russell, Nate Irving, Thaddeus Lewis, E.J. Manuel, Ryan Williams, C.J. Spiller, Eric Moncur, Bruce Campbell, Demaryius Thomas, Rashawn Jackson, Cannon Smith, Tyrod Taylor, Ryan McManus, Chris Turner, Dave Shinskie, Cordarrow Thompson, Richard Gordon, Christian Ponder, Johnny Williams, Morgan Burnett, Riley Skinner, Derrick Morgan, Jameel Sewell, Allen Bailey, Mike London, Mark Herzlich, Taylor Cook, Leon Wright, Ted Stachitas, Jim Ramella, Jonathan Cooper, Mark Stoops, Cameron Chism, A.J. Highsmith, Braden Hanson, Bryn Renner, Paul Pinegar, Austin Giles, Kaleb Ramsey, CHris Chancellor, Andre Ellington, Luke Kuechly, Cam Thomas, Marcus Gilchrist, Chase Rettig, Michael Strauss, Tanner Price, Anthony McCloud, Debrale Smiley, Brendan Cross, Antoine Hopkins, Bill Lazor, Brad Newman, C.J. Brown, Charlie Hatcher, Chris Drager, Chris Hazelton, Chris Ward, Clay Belton, Crezdon Butler, Danny O\'Brien, DeAndrew McDaniel, Dexter McDougle, Dominique Wallace, Duan Perez-Means, Isaiah Hamlette, J.R. Collins, James Gayle, Joseph Gilbert, Josh Bordner, Josh Holmes, Justin Gilbert, Kevin Parks, Kyle Paker, Michael Lockett, Ochuko Jenije, Quinton Coples, Rahsard Hall, Rick Petri, Rodney Smith, Roko Smalls, Ross Metheny, Sean Schroeder, Stephen Morris, Sydney Sarmiento, Torrey Mack, Trenton Hughes, Tydreke Powell, Tyrel Wilson, Wesley Oglesby, Willie Haulstead

All-ACC bowl team

January, 12, 2010
1/12/10
11:37
AM ET
Bowl season deserves more than just helmet stickers. It deserves its own team. Regardless of whether they won or lost, these ACC players had an impact this postseason. Here is your 2009 All-ACC bowl team:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Read full post)

What to watch in the ACC title game

December, 3, 2009
12/03/09
8:00
AM ET
There’s only one game, but it features two teams that haven’t won the conference title in at least a decade. Clemson and Georgia Tech are the only two teams to finish with a 4-0 home conference record in the ACC this year. They have the top two scoring offenses in the ACC, and two of the top three rushing offenses in the ACC.

There is still plenty worth watching …

1. Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. ACC fans have seen this before. Remember when Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams fumbled in the fourth quarter in the loss to UNC? Thomas had an equally costly drop last weekend against Georgia. How he responds and rebounds will be key. If he learned anything from Williams, Thomas should be OK, but the Jackets will need their top target focused.

2. Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt’s pass plays. Paul Johnson has proven he’s not afraid to throw it deep, but Nesbitt completed just 1 of 7 passes for 17 yards on attempts of throws greater than 10 yards last weekend against rival Georgia. For the season, Nesbitt has completed 33.3 percent of his passes (21-of-63) greater than 10 yards for four touchdowns and four interceptions. Two of those completions, though, came late in the regular-season game against Clemson, and for the Tigers, it was costly. Clemson was not efficient on third-and-long in the last meeting.

3. Fourth downs. Johnson has developed a reputation for going for it on fourth down -- just ask Wake Forest. The Jackets have been successful on 13 fourth-down conversions this year, 56.52 percent of the time. Clemson is fifth in the country, though, on stopping fourth downs, holding opponents to just 4-of-15 (26.67 percent).

4. Pure talent. This will be the highlight of the game, as it features three of the ACC’s top five rushers in Jonathan Dwyer, C.J. Spiller and Nesbitt. Defensively, Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett has 14 career interceptions, and Clemson’s DeAndre McDaniel has eight this year. Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan has 17 tackles for loss, and Clemson’s Ricky Sapp has 13. Both Sapp and Morgan rank in the top five in the ACC.

5. Time of possession. Georgia Tech leads the country in time of possession with 34:03 per game. Nobody holds onto the ball longer. And yet the first time these two teams met, Clemson’s defense forced eight three-and-outs in 13 possessions. The Tigers have been one of the few teams able to get Paul Johnson’s offense off the field. Clemson had seven straight three-and-outs in the last meeting. Whether the Tigers can have a repeat performance will go a long way in determining the winner.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich


Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has tried just about everything. He’s moved players around. He’s switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme because he was running out of healthy defensive ends. Now, with the injury situation having limited his options, he’s given his players one more task -- have fun.
 
 AP Photo/Gregory Smith
 Safety Morgan Burnett knows the defense needs to pick things up.


Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett said the message this week was not to become preoccupied with making mistakes or worrying about past errors made against Florida State. Instead, it was to let loose and have some fun on Saturday against the Hokies.

There’s no question, though, that the Yellow Jackets’ pride has taken a hit in the past two weeks. Despite winning both games, Georgia Tech allowed Florida State 539 yards of total offense and Mississippi State racked up 487. Both teams averaged 37.5 points against Georgia Tech, and with the way Virginia Tech’s offense has been clicking lately, the better defense should win on Saturday in what could be a season-defining Coastal Division game.

“You take that real personal because football is a competitive sport, so no matter what you do, you want to be the best,” Burnett said. “You want to be the best unit and you want to try to stop the offense. When a team puts up that many points, it’s very frustrating, and it gets you really upset. But you can’t get frustrated. We have to move on to Virginia Tech. We can’t sit back and worry about what happened at Florida State. The only thing we can do is fix it and get better.”

Georgia Tech’s defense was the Jackets’ lone question mark entering this year, as it lost three of four starting defensive linemen who are now in the NFL. With the exception of Burnett and defensive end Derrick Morgan, this defense lacks the superstar lineup it had a year ago, and injuries have compounded the problem.

Linebacker Kyle Jackson suffered a season-ending foot injury, and two defensive ends -- Anthony Egbuniwe and Robert Hall -- have both missed time. Hall could return from a knee injury in November, and Egbuniwe missed one game with an illness. Two star safeties -- Cooper Taylor and Dominique Reese -- have missed a combined four games. Taylor has missed the past three games with a heart problem, but began to practice lightly on Monday. Reese has a shoulder injury and missed one full game and played only a snap at MSU. Combined, those players have missed 13 games.

“You hate to sit there and say that because it sounds like you’re making excuses,” Wommack said, “but I think that’s it as much as anything, I really do.”

It’s caused a lack of continuity, and the Jackets have gotten away from the experienced reps they had during spring and two-a-days. Wommack said he doesn’t expect to get anyone healthy this week. Instead, he’s had to move a corner who’s never played safety to free safety in Rashaad Reid, and that’s part of the reason he’s been tweaking his defensive philosophy midseason, which is usually unheard of.

“It’s the worst thing you can do, to keep changing this and that,” Wommack said. “We’ve got new players playing different positions and so forth, but it’s somewhat been out of necessity, too.”

Georgia Tech is ranked 108th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Its rushing defense is allowing 135.5 yards per game. The number that counts, though, is how many points they’re allowing, and that’s 26.5 points per game. None of those statistics match up well against the No. 4 ranked Hokies, who are scoring 34 points per game, and rushing for 208.5 yards per game. Virginia Tech is ranked among the top 20 in the country in both categories.

“You just fight through it, that’s what you’ve gotta do,” Wommack said. “You try to point out the mistakes to the kids when you review the film and why, where the breakdowns were, and all of a sudden you start getting better. It doesn’t happen overnight. It really doesn’t happen overnight.”

It’s got to happen by Saturday, though, or the Jackets will be behind the Hokies in the Coastal Division standings -- again.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

The ACC has released its preseason all-conference team last month, now ESPN.com is releasing ours. Here's the final version with minimal tweaks from the original ballot:

OFFENSE

QB Riley Skinner, Wake Forest
RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
RB Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech
WR Jacoby Ford, Clemson
WR LaRon Byrd, Miami
TE Greg Boone, Virginia Tech
OT Anthony Castonzo, Boston College
OT Jason Fox, Miami
OG Thomas Austin, Clemson
OG Rodney Hudson, Florida State
C Ryan McMahon, Florida State
PK Matt Bosher, Miami

DEFENSE
DE Willie Young, NC State
DE Jason Worilds, Virginia Tech
DT Vince Oghobaase, Duke
DT John Russell, Wake Forest
LB Sean Spence, Miami
LB Quan Sturdivant, North Carolina
LB Dekoda Watson, Florida State
CB Stephan Virgil, Virginia Tech
CB Patrick Robinson, Florida State
S Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech
S Kam Chancellor, Virginia Tech
P Travis Baltz, Maryland
SP C.J. Spiller, Clemson

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Much of the attention Georgia Tech has received this preseason has been focused on Jonathan Dwyer and the Jackets' stable of running backs. If they're going to contend for the Coastal Division title, though, the defense will have to hold its weight, too, and the Jackets have to replace three of four starters up front. I caught up with defensive coordinator Dave Wommack to check in on the defense heading into summer camp.

 
  Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI
  Entering 2009, Dave Wommack has some holes to fill on his defensive line.

Are you changing anything? I've heard some rumblings about maybe a different scheme this year.

DW: We may change up some things a little bit, but I think it may be based [more] on personnel than it will anything else. We'll see when we get into two-a-days, but there's not going to be any drastic changes.

Are there things you saw in the spring on the defensive line that give you concerns that are forcing you to tinker with it?

DW: [He laughed]. Just inexperience. When you lose three guys to the draft, it's just a matter of inexperience. I think we've got some good, young guys that are coming up. They just haven't played very much. That's the biggest thing, but no, that's not why we're changing. It's really our experience is more in the secondary, maybe get more five DBs on the field more than anything else.

Yeah, tell me about that group a little bit. You have a lot of guys coming back, especially with Morgan Burnett.

DW: It kind of flips. Now your most-experienced players are guys that have played one year. I'm looking forward to the secondary. I think it will be a strength for us with Morgan leading the way.

What more can he do? What are you expecting from him this year?

DW: Really that's the thing that concerns me as much as anything, because Morgan wants to make every play. It's really, Morgan, stay within the framework of your defense. Don't let your eyes get you in trouble. The play is going to come your way. You're a featured stop for us on defense, so don't try to do more than what you need to do because the defense will break down. So I don't think it's so much asking him to do more, just really do what you've done. Don't try to do too much.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

There are some teams in the ACC that are stacked at a particular position or positions -- meaning there's not just depth there, but depth and legitimate all-conference talent. Here's a quick look at who in the conference is simply loaded:

UNC front seven: All four starters return on the defensive line, and there is outstanding depth both there and in the secondary. On the line, tackle Cam Thompson is coming off his best season at UNC, tackle Marvin Austin and end E.J. Wilson both started the majority of games last season, and Robert Quinn had 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles.

Linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant both started every game last season, and the position is the deepest it's been in recent years. Carter led the team with 11 tackles for loss and Sturdivant led the nation with 87 solo tackles.

Georgia Tech running backs: Jonathan Dwyer, Roddy Jones, Anthony Allen, Marcus Wright -- so many players, only one football.

Georgia Tech secondary: Morgan Burnett, Rashaad Reid, Mario Butler, Dominique Reese, and Cooper Taylor all have experience, and the group also welcomes back Jerrard Tarrant from a suspension.

Virginia Tech running backs: Darren Evans and Ryan Williams are all the Hokies will need, but they've also got Josh Oglesby and Kenny Lewis Jr. as players they can count on.

Boston College secondary: The Eagles return DeLeon Gause, Wes Davis and Roderick Rollins, who have combined for 32 career starts. This should be the best group BC has had in a while.

Clemson defensive line: The Tigers return three starters across the front, and coach Dabo Swinney has said this unit could be the strength of the entire team. Ricky Sapp is the leader, senior Kevin Alexander is a returning starter, and there are really three starters returning for the two defensive end positions, including DaQuan Bowers, who started six games last year and finished with 47 tackles, the most among the linemen.

Miami wide receivers: Travis Benjamin, Aldarius Johnson, Thearon Collier, LaRon Byrd, Kendal Thompkins, Tommy Streeter ... the Hurricanes could field a team that consists entirely of receivers.

Florida State offensive line: The Noles are oozing with talent here. Tackle Andrew Datko, guard Rodney Hudson and center Ryan McMahon combined to start all but one game last season. What was the youngest offensive line in the FBS last season could be one of the best this year. For the first time since 2004, all five starters return.

Wake Forest offensive line: The Demon Deacons return eight offensive linemen with a total of 118 career starts among them. Jeff Griffin and Joe Birdsong are Wake's returning starters at tackle while Barrett McMillin and Joe Looney each started at guard in 2008. Russell Nenon, who started the season at guard, moved to center at midseason following an injury to Trey Bailey. Bailey returns after fully healing from a broken ankle. The Deacons also welcome back Chris DeGeare who missed the 2008 season while getting his academics in order.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

There was some progress in the ACC this spring, and each team got a little bit of help at certain positions. Here's a look at who found some help this spring and where:

BOSTON COLLEGE: Marcellus Bowman and Wes Davis are two safeties who should help make the Eagles' secondary one of the best BC fans have seen in recent years. Four players return to the secondary with starting experience.

CLEMSON: It's amazing what a year of experience can do, and the Tigers' offensive line needed it. The only direction for this group to go is up, and it started to do that this spring. All five starters return.

DUKE: The return of running back Re'quan Boyette will give the Blue Devils' running game a more potent punch. He could be a difference maker on the field this fall, and Duke will need him to be.

FLORIDA STATE: Leading rusher Antone Smith is gone, but FSU fans can rest assured Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones can carry the load for the Noles. Both had several breakaway runs this spring.

GEORGIA TECH: On a defense that lost its leaders up front, defensive end Derrick Morgan and safety Morgan Burnett established themselves as the new captains of the ship this spring, and they should be the Jackets' top two defenders.

MARYLAND: Phil Costa helped ease the transition of the graduation of longtime leader Edwin Williams at center. The Terps lost three starters up front and have four players in new positions, but Costa proved he can be the new leader of the group.

MIAMI: This "got help" award goes to new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. He had an immediate impact on the offense this spring and has Jacory Harris' full attention.

NORTH CAROLINA: Da'Norris Searcy and Melvin Williams gave the staff some confidence in life without Trimane Goddard. Searcy played well in the Meineke Car Care bowl as a fifth defensive back and played with confidence this spring.

NC STATE: Mike Glennon answered the distress signal at backup quarterback, a position that had been exposed far too many times in the past. Glennon completed 23 of 38 passes for 272 yards and one touchdown in the Kay Yow Spring Game.

VIRGINIA: The return of Jameel Sewell at quarterback and addition of Vic Hall no doubt helped the Cavaliers. At this point last year, they didn't have one quarterback who had any starting experience. Now they've got three.

VIRGINIA TECH: Confidence grew in the linebackers this spring, and that's because of the efforts of Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson. Bruce Taylor and Quillie Odom are still learning, but there was progress at this position.

WAKE FOREST: Kenny Okoro and Josh Bush both proved to be dependable players at a position that just lost Alphonso Smith. Okoro in particular stood out, but both of them got a lot of reps with Brandon Ghee out with an injury.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 9, 2009
4/09/09
12:45
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACC's lunchtime links

February, 25, 2009
2/25/09
12:57
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Love it or hate it, here's your daily trip around the ACC ...

  • After just one day of spring football practice, it sounds like Miami quarterback Jacory Harris was so excited about the new offense he was ready to jump out of his jersey. The Canes were all "fired up" for practice on Tuesday.
  • With Miami tight end Dedrick Epps out because of a knee injury, Miami coach Randy Shannon told Richard Gordon "it's his time now." 
  • Has Al Groh made his final hire? Looking in UVa's directory is one way to find out.
  • Maryland picked up another commitment.
  • There's a new blog in town, and it's all about Georgia Tech sports. Larry Hartstein of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution kicked it off with an interview with safety Morgan Burnett. (I guess when your hoops team is 1-12 in the ACC it's OK to write about ACC football in February).

All-ACC 2008

December, 10, 2008
12/10/08
10:57
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

OFFENSE

QB -- Russell Wilson, NC State
RB -- Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech
RB -- C.J. Spiller, Clemson
TE -- John Phillips, Virginia
OL -- Eugene Monroe, Virginia
OL -- Matt Tennant, Boston College
OL -- Andrew Gardner, Georgia Tech
OL -- Edwin Williams, Maryland
OL -- Rodney Hudson, Florida State
WR -- Hakeem Nicks, UNC
WR -- D.J. Boldin, Wake Forest
K -- Graham Gano, Florida State

DEFENSE

LB -- Clint Sintim, Virginia
LB -- Michael Tauiliili, Duke
LB -- Mark Herzlich, Boston College
LB -- Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
DL -- Everette Brown, Florida State
DL -- Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech
DL -- B.J. Raji, Boston College
DB -- Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest
DB -- Victor Harris, Virginia Tech
S -- Trimane Goddard, North Carolina
S -- Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech

SPECIALIST

C.J. Spiller

PUNTER

Travis Baltz, Maryland

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

1. North Carolina's losing winning trend. In all six of their wins this season, North Carolina has had to trail before they have won. And the two losses? They were winning most of the way. UNC seems to be at its best when the pressure is on.

2. How Georgia Tech's offensive line fares without Andrew Gardner for the first time in 48 games. They Yellow Jackets will depend heavily on Nick Claytor and Austin Barrick. Both of them played significant snaps against Florida State, but nobody on the line has the experience Gardner had.

3. Turnovers in Chapel Hill. Georgia Tech has the nation's leader in interceptions in Morgan Burnett. But North Carolina leads the nation in interceptions. Fortunately for the Yellow Jackets, they don't throw the ball that much. They have been known to fumble it once or twice, though.

4. Wake Forest's defensive line against Virginia's offensive line. In order to have a chance at winning, the Demon Deacons need to stop Cedric Peerman. In order to do that, they've gotta get past NFL prospect Eugene Monroe.

5. Virginia tailback Cedric Peerman. Peerman took the first fumble of his career last week against Miami pretty hard. He's the heart of the offense in terms of leadership, so they'll need him to bounce back quickly.

6. Duke running back Clifford Harris. He filled in for injured fullback Tielor Robinson at Wake Forest and scored two touchdowns. He's very football-savvy and has the ability to play both fullback and tailback, and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

7. Florida State's kickoff coverage team against C.J. Spiller. The Noles are allowing 21 yards per return, and Spiller is second in the ACC with a 31.9 return yard average and one touchdown.

8. Turnovers in Tallahassee. Unlike Georgia Tech and North Carolina who take the ball away, these two teams give it away. Clemson and FSU are the ACC's two worst teams in terms of turnover margin. FSU is minus-4 and Clemson is minus-9. Clemson has had 10 turnovers in its past two games.

9. Boston College pass defense against Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The Eagles have the nation's No. 12 pass efficiency defense while Notre Dame is 18th nationally in passing offense.

10. The big picture. Nobody can really afford to lose anymore, but Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina seem to have the most to lose this weekend. The Noles are still trying to become bowl eligible, and the Yellow Jackets and Tar Heels are both trying to avoid their third Coastal Division loss. Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia can all become bowl eligible this weekend.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Georgia Tech sophomore safety Morgan Burnett was one of top high school players in the nation, and could have followed his brother's footsteps straight to Georgia, where Cap Burnett was a safety and linebacker from 1998-2002.

 
 Paul Abell/Getty Images
 Morgan Burnett's six interceptions are the most in the country.

Instead, he was lured to rival Georgia Tech by a group of friends he considers as close as brothers.

"I felt comfortable around Georgia Tech and felt it was somewhere I wanted to spend my college career at," Burnett said. "Plus, I had people like my roommates -- Joshua Nesbitt, Brad Jefferson and Demaryius Thomas -- they made the decision easy. Those guys are like brothers to me, too."

It has turned out to be a good decision for all of them, as Burnett leads the nation in interceptions with six and has more interceptions in one season than any Yellow Jacket since 1991. Last year was a just a foreshadowing of his potential, as Burnett led Tech in interceptions with three, despite starting just one game.

"He has really done a great job," coach Paul Johnson said. "On the interception Saturday, he was actually in man coverage on another player. When that player blocked, I don't think the quarterback saw him and he made the play on the ball. He adjusts to the ball and he has great ball skills, but like I said, he loves to play the game."

He grew up playing it with his brother, and still talks to him after every game.

"I look up to my brother a lot," Burnett said. "We might have friendly arguments at times, but when he was in college I supported him very well and now that I'm in college he supports me very well."

Burnett said he didn't realize he led the nation in interceptions until a few people mentioned it to him at practice on Monday. He attributed his success to the Yellow Jackets' veteran defensive line.

"We can't get interceptions down there unless the d-line gets the push up front," Burnett said. "Those guys, that whole front four, those guys force the quarterback to roll out of the pocket and just throw the ball in the air, what we call hand grenades, and I go get 'em. That's an awesome d-line, and I'm glad they're on our team."

They'd probably say the same thing about him.

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