As always, Ken Sugiura and Larry Harstein are doing a good job keeping you up to date on spring ball at Georgia Tech. But what is going on in the rest of the ACC? Here are five things to ponder:
1. Virginia Tech begins with Alabama on its mind: Virginia Tech finished 10-4 last season, won another ACC championship, and beat Cincinnati, a slight favorite, in the Orange Bowl. With 15 starters from that team coming back, the Hokies are getting some early love as a potential dark horse for the national championship. Spring practice begins today in Blacksburg and coach Frank Beamer knows that he won’t have to wait long to find out if he’s got a contender. That’s because the Hokies open the 2009 season in Atlanta against Alabama, which will be in everybody’s preseason Top 10. “When you play a big game early—and we’ve done that in the past—it focuses you team better in the spring and in the summer,” Beamer told me when the Sept. 5 game at the Georgia Dome was put together. “You can’t ease into your season. You’ve pretty much got to hit the ground running.” One of the top priorities of the spring is to find a backup to QB Tyrod Taylor, who has a history of getting banged up.
The last time Virginia Tech opened with a game this big was 2004 when the Hokies played Southern Cal and lost 24-13 in Landover, Md. The Trojans went on to win the national championship.
2. Miami could be the surprise team in the ACC Coastal: A lot of people will be picking Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina as the three teams that will vie for the Coastal Division championship in 2009. Just a word of advice: Don’t forget about Miami. Miami had its Spring Game last Saturday and there were signs that the Hurricanes could be turning the corner in the third season under Randy Shannon. Sophomore QB Jacory Harris has become the unquestioned leader of the offense. During one scrimmage earlier in the spring he completed his first 17 passes. Even the defensive players at Miami have noticed that the Hurricanes’ offense will be quite a bit more sophisticated under new coordinator Mark Whipple. Miami has even found a backup to Harris in 6-7 Taylor Cook, a redshirt freshman. Another bright spot of the spring has been the development of wide receiver Leonard Hankerson, a talented kid who had some issues with drops a year ago. The bottom line is that the talent level at Miami, which had dropped more than anyone wanted to admit, is significantly better after three years of good recruiting. Shannon has hired a couple of pros in Whipple and DC John Lovett, which should free him to pay more attention to detail. It could be that the U is still a year away but it appears the ‘Canes are heading in the right direction.
3. The Florida State defense is starting to get a little better: With only five starters returning on defense, it was supposed to be a long spring for Mickey Andrews’ group. There were just so many holes to fill, especially the one left by junior DE Everette Brown, who led the ACC in quarterback sacks with 13.5. But defense dominated last Saturday’s scrimmage and there are signs of encouragement with the Garnet and Gold Spring Game coming up on Saturday. (Note: Florida State plans to practice a few more days after the game and actually conclude spring ball on April 8). Both defensive ends from year are gone but true freshman Brandon Jenkins has been impressive as has sophomore linebacker Nigel Carr. Jenkins came back in Monday’s scrimmage and had four sacks, according to a report by Steve Ellis in the Tallahassee Democrat. Bottom line: The offense appears to be on track in this, the third season under OC Jimbo Fisher. The defense appears to be ahead of schedule given the number of new faces in new places. A year ago I predicted that Florida State would win the ACC Atlantic in 2009. It’s a long time until Sept. 5 but for now I’m sticking behind that pick.
4. Clemson’s Jamie Harper looks ready to break out: Senior speedster C.J. Spiller will be the featured back at Clemson this season but sophomore Jamie Harper of Jacksonville looks like he’s getting ready to take college football seriously. He has dropped about 20 pounds and was impressive in Saturday’s scrimmage. Harper was a highly-recruited kid out of Trinity Christian Academy and almost went elsewhere after verbally committing to Clemson. One of the big concerns when the spring started, as it was a year ago, was the offensive line but things appear to be rounding into shape there. The same cannot be said, at least not at this point, about the other big offensive concern at wide receiver. Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham combined for 104 catches last season and both are gone. Jacoby Ford, who had 55 catches last season, is running track. Somebody has got to step up and show that he can make plays. That guy will probably have to be Marquan Jones, a redshirt freshman from Columbia. In case you missed it, Clemson has hired former Tennessee defensive line coach Dan Brooks to fill the same position with the Tigers. A spot became open when David Blackwell left for South Florida.
5. North Carolina did have a spring game: Butch Davis learned another lesson about being the head football coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. You don’t schedule the spring game during March Madness because history tell us that the Tar Heel hoopsters are going to still be involved. Published reports had the crowd at about 2,000 Saturday at Kenan Stadium. The UNC basketball team didn’t play Oklahoma in the South Regional final until Sunday. But a lot of fans who would have been at the Spring game were in Memphis or in the bars on Franklin Street watching the other regional finals. Still, there were some things worth noting. Quarterback T.J. Yates from Marietta (Pope H.S.) was one of three quarterbacks who combined to complete 23 of 30 attempts for 202 yards and a touchdown. Yates will be the starter but it appears that Mike Paulus, a sophomore, is being groomed for the backup spot as he attempted 15 passes and completed 12. Going into the spring Davis said that the Tar Heels would replace WR Hakeem Nicks by committee. He was true to his word as 12 different receivers caught passes in the spring game. Also note that North Carolina has several more days of practice left and will finish up this Saturday.