NCF Nation: Vance Walker

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

At 6-foot-7, 325 pounds, and from the football-rich state of Alabama, massive Georgia Tech redshirt freshman T.J. Barnes wowed a lot of college coaches during his recruiting process as a potential offensive tackle or guard -- two positions he had absolutely no interest in playing anymore. Alabama and Louisville were among his suitors, as was Auburn, where his father, Terry Jones, was a defensive lineman and his cousins, Fred Baxter and Randy Hart both played.

"All my offers were for offense," Barnes said. "Nobody really believed I could play defense except for Auburn and Georgia Tech."

Georgia Tech had no doubt he'd have a future as a defensive tackle.

"That's all I wanted to do," Barnes said, "play defense."

That and make a name for himself somewhere other than Auburn, where expectations to continue the family legacy would be high.

This spring, Barnes will get his chance to do both.

Georgia Tech only lost six starters from last year's nine-win team that tied with Virginia Tech for the Coastal Division title, but three of them were on the defensive line and had combined for 87 career starts. That leaves the door wide open for Barnes -- and several other young players -- to win starting jobs this spring and summer. The unit lacks both depth and experience, and is easily the Yellow Jackets' biggest question mark heading into the fall, as junior defensive end Derrick Morgan is the only player returning with any starting experience.

"Coach (Giff) Smith instills in us we have to be the best group on the team," said Morgan, who cracked the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2007. "That's what we strive for. I know we're losing four seniors, but we're not looking at it as a lack of talent. We have talent. We don't want to lower our expectations coming into next year just because we're losing four seniors. We're setting the bar high."

Morgan has set the standard high for himself. He was second on the team and eighth in the ACC with seven sacks last year. He had 9.5 tackles for loss and was tied for second nationally in fumble recoveries with four. He led all of Tech's linemen with 51 tackles, but soaked up his teammates' knowledge on a daily basis.

Former starters Vance Walker, Michael Johnson and Darryl Richard often shared different pass rush techniques and how to see blocks. Morgan said he's still learning from the trio as they audition for NFL scouts, and give him advice on going through the NFL combine and handling his post-collegiate career. They've also added to the growing list of voices telling him he has to be a leader this season.

"I'll probably have a bigger leadership role amongst my teammates," said Morgan, a junior who recently turned 20 years old. "I'm ready for that. A couple of coaches have said I have to step up and become one of the leaders of our team, and I have no problem doing that."

He'll be anchoring a group that includes defensive end Robert Hall and defensive tackle Ben Anderson, both who played significant snaps last year. Defensive end Jason Peters returns, along with defensive end Anthony Egbuniwe, who played sparingly last season after transferring from Tulsa. Defensive end Emmanuel Dieke (D-A-K) enrolled early and has impressed the staff, and defensive end Antonio Wilson is a redshirt freshman who didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. There's no shortage of bodies at end, but experience and the interior line is another matter.

"Anytime you lose guys that have played as much football as they have, there's an adjustment," Smith said, "but I think we've done a good job of keeping talent coming in. Although it will be a little bit inexperienced, I think it's a great challenge. It's like I told them last year, all the eyes were on us for one reason, now all the eyes are on us again for a different reason. I think they're excited about the challenge and I think people will be surprised when they see the caliber of players we have at Georgia Tech."

Morgan said he's heard all off-season about what the Yellow Jackets don't have coming back on the defensive line.

"I kind of expected that," Morgan said. "We're just going to take that with a grain of salt, work hard, and use it as motivation, which is kind of an advantage. Teams are going to probably underestimate our d-line and not take as much time to game-plan for us like they did last year. We're going to have to go out there and prove ourselves, which is no problem for us."

Like Barnes, Morgan, too, has something to prove. He said he wants to silence come critics who don't think he can be as effective as he was last year without the veteran lineup beside him.

"God-willing that's what I'm aiming for, that's what I'm working for," he said of a breakout season. "I know there are going to be skeptics who say, well, can he do the same thing he did last year without the three veterans? I want to go out there and prove I can do everything I did last year and more."

There's no doubt the Yellow Jackets will need him to.

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

ATLANTA, Ga. -- Talk about a bummer for a senior on senior night. It looks like defensive tackle Vance Walker's nagging ankle injury will keep him from starting on senior night, breaking a streak of 23 consecutive starts. Walker is dressed, but if he plays, it will only be because he guts it out. Senior Elris Anyaibe will make his first career start.

Between his ankle and quarterback Josh Nesbitt's, things do not look good for the Yellow Jackets, and the game hasn't even started yet. Here are a few other quick notes before kickoff:

  • Either senior Jahi Word-Daniels or true freshman Rashaad Reid will start at cornerback. That's a game-time decision.
  • Senior Andrew Smith will make his first career start at wide receiver in place of Correy Earls. He will also handle punt return duties.
  • Late arriving crowds aren't uncommon here, but a six-car accident on I-85 might have something to do with this one.
  • The temperature isn't unbearable. It's 48 degrees. I'm ok in my sweater, since I know you were all concerned.
  • Miami's Laron Byrd will start in place of Travis Benjamin at wide receiver. Benjamin will play, only in certain situations, and he won't return kicks. Thearon Collier will handle that.

ACC midseason report

October, 15, 2008
10/15/08
11:17
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Three things stand out about the ACC at the midpoint of the season: First, the league isn't as bad as it appeared in Week 1. Second, the defenses are dominating and third, it's time for some separation.

The ACC is 32-10 against its nonconference opponents, and Clemson's woes aside, the loss to Alabama seems less damaging when the Crimson Tide is ranked No. 2 in the nation. No, the ACC is not the best BCS conference, but good luck finding one that's more competitive from one through 12. The league has been impossible to predict, from Maryland's losses to Middle Tennessee and Virginia, to Clemson's utter meltdown.

Youth and quarterback changes have overtaken the league, and Florida State seems to be ahead of Miami in the race to resurrect their once-mighty programs. Still, the Seminoles are one of a handful of teams with a chance to win the Atlantic Division.

None of the teams have emerged as clear frontrunners to win the ACC championship. If the title game were played today, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech would be the Tampa-bound teams, and only the Hokies were predicted as preseason favorites. Even Virginia Tech, though, which holds a comfy 2-0 edge over its Coastal Division opponents, has shown its vulnerabilities. Considering how wide-open the league is, it would have been the perfect opportunity for Clemson to take advantage of it.

Instead, teams like North Carolina and Georgia Tech have. Here's a look at how the league has fared so far:

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson is two wins shy of bowl eligibility in his first season (two wins are over FCS opponents, and only one counts towards bowl eligibility). Johnson is winning with a new offense, a new defense and one of the youngest rosters in the ACC. The Jackets were picked by the ACC media to finish fourth, and instead are off to their first 5-1 start since 1990.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Clemson is easily the biggest bust of the year. Once ranked No. 9 in the nation, the Tigers have since lost three games, their head coach and their offensive coordinator. Injuries to the offensive line made an already tough job even more difficult for assistant coach Brad Scott, and it has had an impact on the entire offense.

MIDSEASON OFFENSIVE MVP: UNC wide receiver Brandon Tate. No, this is not a sympathy vote. He earned it with his ACC-leading 163.7 all-purpose yards per game. Tate finished his injury-shortened career as the NCAA's all-time leader in combined kick return yards with 3,523. Through the first six games, Tate had 376 receiving yards, 305 kickoff return yards, 158 punt return yards and 143 rushing yards.

MIDSEASON DEFENSIVE MVP: Georgia Tech defensive tackle Vance Walker. The spotlight is on Michael Johnson, but Walker has been the top performer on one of the nation's best defensive lines, and is a first-round draft pick. He consistently gets the job done, has six tackles for loss and epitomizes the Yellow Jackets' defense -- underrated.

MIDSEASON COACH OF THE YEAR: Frank Beamer. Few realized just how little the Hokies had to work with this season, and in addition to the depleted roster he started with, Beamer also lost running back Kenny Lewis Jr., safety Davon Morgan, receivers Zach Luckett, Ike Whitaker and Brandon Dillard to suspensions and injuries. He made the right call at quarterback in the face of criticism and has Virginia Tech at the top of the Coastal Division once again.

BOWL BOUND: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Florida State, Boston College, Maryland, Clemson, Miami

ACC in the Tallahassee morning

September, 18, 2008
9/18/08
8:16
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Good morning from the Sunshine State, where the Seminoles are confident they're going to win. (In addition to Christian Ponder, who high-fived me yesterday for my motivational o-line ranking, Preston Parker also made the declarative statement they're going to win this game).

The Seminoles know, though, that this is their first true test. There are so many veteran players on the Wake Forest defense that even a veteran can get overshadowed.

While there is plenty to write about here, don't forget about that other important divisional game.

Whomever wins the Virginia Tech-North Carolina game is going to come out looking like the early frontrunner of the Coastal Division. Don't forget about those Hurricanes, though. Randy Shannon has had his team working on turnovers this past week. The question on defense, though, is if Eric Moncur will play.

Georgia Tech got a key piece of its defense back, as Vance Walker is back from a head injury.

Speaking of getting hit ...

- The effects of Kevin Barnes' hit on Cal running back Jahvid Best are still resounding in College Park. Imagine how Best feels. Really. It's all over the Internet.

- Clemson receiver Tyler Grisham is now tied with Maryland quarterback Jordan Steffy at five concussions. Seriously. Not all bad news in Clemson, though. What was once a weakness for the Tigers is now a strength.

- Has Boston College mended its bruised ego?

- UVA has plenty to work on during its bye week.

- Duke has a bye week. And there is a story in the paper about their defensive line. Yes, things have changed in Durham.

Preseason All-ACC team

August, 26, 2008
8/26/08
10:39
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Just so you know, I agonize over these things. You can't pick everyone.

Here's the final version:

OFFENSE

QB -- Cullen Harper, Clemson
RB -- Josh Adams, Wake Forest
RB -- James Davis, Clemson
WR -- Aaron Kelly, Clemson
WR -- Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina
TE -- Ryan Purvis, Boston College
T -- Andrew Gardner, Georgia Tech
T -- Eugene Monroe, Virginia
G -- Rodney Hudson, Florida State
G -- Sergio Render, Virginia Tech
C -- Edwin Williams, Maryland

DEFENSE

DE -- Everette Brown, Florida State
DE -- Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech
DT -- Ron Brace, Boston College
DT -- Vance Walker, Georgia Tech
LB -- Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
LB -- Clint Sintim, Virginia
LB -- Michael Tauiliili, Duke
CB -- Victor Harris, Virginia Tech
CB -- Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest
S -- Michael Hamlin, Clemson
S -- Chip Vaughn, Wake Forest

SPECIALISTS

PK -- Sam Swank, Wake Forest
P -- Brent Bowden, Virginia Tech (Graham Gano is injured, out 3-5 weeks)
KO RET -- C.J. Spiller, Clemson
PUNT RET -- Preston Parker, Florida State (following his two-game suspension, of course)

ACC in the 2009 NFL draft

July, 11, 2008
7/11/08
12:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

 
 Brad Schloss/Icon SMI
 Michael Johnson has recorded 10 sacks during his career at Georgia Tech.

Before compiling this list, I spoke with an NFL scout to get his take, just so you don't think I'm pulling names out of a hat. Here's what we came up with for the top 10 ACC players to watch with NFL draft potential (sorry, Miami, but we both agreed your best NFL talent is only 18 years old):

1. Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia: This hulking 315-pound left tackle might be the best offensive lineman in the ACC and should be a first-round pick.

2. Michael Johnson, DE, Georgia Tech: He hasn't even started yet, but the 6-foot-7 senior is extremely athletic and one of the team's best pass rushers.

3. Aaron Kelly, WR, Clemson: The 1,000-yard receiver led the ACC with 83.2 receiving yards per game last season.

4. C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson: Spiller is a smaller back, explosive and borderline first-round talent, but should be highly sought after for his speed. He led the Tigers in all-purpose running last year with 1,723 yards, 132.5 per game.

5. Ricky Sapp, DE/OLB, Clemson: The junior had 10 tackles for loss, five sacks and 22 quarterback pressures as a sophomore when he started all 13 games.

6.  Victor "Macho" Harris, CB, Virginia Tech: A strong tackler who will see more man-to-man coverage and passed on the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. Brandon Flowers' success at the next level will help determine where he goes because similar in speed and skill.

7. Vance Walker, DT/DE, Georiga Tech: He had 14 tackles for a loss last year and 8.5 sacks. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two.

8. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland: The junior is one of the fastest players in the ACC (4.23 40), but hasn't reached his full potential yet with the Terps.

9. Myron Rolle, S, Florida State: Only a junior, he has 144 tackles in two seasons and is poised for a breakout year.

10. Sergio Render, OG, Virginia Tech: Two-year starter and one of the most experienced players on the line. Excels in the run game.

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