It is never easy when a coaching legend leaves or, as was the case with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, is gently nudged out the door. Transitions are normally hard as an entire team has to adjust to a new staff and a new way of doing things. Wins and losses, in the short term, take a back seat to the sometimes painful process of just getting everybody on the same page.
This will not be the case at Florida State.
Bowden is gone after a Hall of Fame career that included 35 seasons at Florida State and an unprecedented string of success in Tallahassee. But the fact remains that the Seminoles, who dominated the ACC after their arrival in 1992 and were a fixture in the BCS championship race from 1987-2000, have not been relevant on the national stage for a decade.
That is about to change. Jimbo Fisher agreed to serve as head coach in waiting to Bowden for what seemed like three very long seasons. The purpose of that exercise was to make the inevitable coaching transition as seamless as possible.
“We all knew this day was coming,” said Fisher. “I love coach Bowden and owe him and his whole family a lot. My job is to take what he built and move forward.”
And in 2010, that is exactly what Florida State will do by winning the ACC’s Atlantic Division and playing for its first conference championship since 2005.
The likely challenger to Florida State will be Clemson, which reached the ACC championship game in Dabo Swinney’s first full season as head coach. But there are some holes to fill in Death Valley, especially the one left by the splendid C.J. Spiller. There is also the uncertainty around quarterback Kyle Parker, who may get a chance to play professional baseball after the June draft. Clemson goes to Florida State on Nov. 13 and the division championship could be on the line.
Here is our Spring practice review of the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The teams are listed in the order of their projected finish:
1. FLORIDA STATE
**–Last season: 7-6, 4-4 ACC; beat West Virginia 33-21 in Gator Bowl.
**–Coach: Jimbo Fisher, first season at Florida State.
**–Key losses: CB Patrick Robinson, LB Dekoda Watson, WR Rod Owens.
**–Returning starters: Offense 10, defense 6, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Christian Ponder, OG Rodney Hudson, CB/KR Greg Reid, LB Nigel Badham.
**–What we know: Life must go on without Bobby Bowden. Bowden stepped down as college football’s No. 2 all-time winner after last season and Jimbo Fisher is now in command. He will start with an offense that is going to be very, very good. Christian Ponder was playing as well as anybody in the country last season (2,717 yards passing, 14 TD), when he was knocked out (shoulder) in the ninth game against Clemson. Ponder is back and will be protected by an offensive line that will be the best that Florida State has put on the field since the glory days of the 1990s. All five starters return and collectively they have started 142 games for the Seminoles.
**–What we still don’t know: Can the Florida State defense improve just enough to be okay? A big chunk of this spring was spent breathing life into a defense that finished dead last in the ACC (434.62 ypg). Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops (brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops), replaces veteran Mickey Andrews. Stoops and company had a good spring but there is still much work to do this summer. “I know we struggled last year but we’ve got some guys on defense who can run and hit people,” Fisher said. Three starters return up front. DE Markus White had 10 tackles for loss last season. Kendall Smith (85 tackles) and Nigel Bradham (93 tackles) are proven linebackers. If the defense can just finish in the middle of the league, the offense will be good enough to put Florida State in the ACC championship game.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Samford.
**–Last season: 9-5, 6-2 ACC; lost to Georgia Tech 39-34 in ACC championship game; beat Kentucky 21-13 in Music City Bowl.
**–Coach: Dabo Swinney, 13-8 in two seasons at Clemson.
**–Key losses: RB/KR C.J. Spiller; TE Michael Palmer, LB Ricky Sapp, CB Crezdon Butler.
**–Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 6, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Kyle Parker, TE Dwayne Allen, DE Da’Quan Bowers, RB Jamie Harper.
**–What we learned: The defense is going to be more physical and more aggressive. This will be the second year that Clemson works under the system of DC Kevin Steele. There is depth up front and a bunch of guys who can make plays. Junior DE Da’Quan Bowers (10.5 tfl in 2009) was one of the most highly-rated players in the country coming out of high school and this year he will shine. All-America safety DeAndre McDaniel has 208 career tackles and 11 career interceptions.
We also learned that while the Tigers cannot replace C.J. Spiller, they are not without some playmakers. RB Jamie Harper (418 yards rushing) and redshirt sophomore Andre Ellington (491 yards rushing) now get the chance to step out of the shadow of Spiller, who had 21 career touchdowns of 50 yards or more. Tight end Dwayne Allen is just a sophomore but he is going to be a star. The offensive line returns four starters. This year that group will be a little meaner and more physical.
**–What we still don’t know: Will Kyle Parker return as Clemson’s quarterback? Parker, who threw for 2,526 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, will have a decision to make come June, when he is expected to be taken in the Major League baseball draft. If the up-front money is big enough, Parker could give up his final three years of football eligibility. “I think he’s going to be back,” said Swinney. “I just believe he would rather spend this fall running down the hill in Death Valley than riding a bus in Wichita.” But it depends on where Parker, who leads the ACC with 16 home runs, is chosen. Last year every player but two chosen in the first round of the draft earned a signing bonus of $1 million or more. Without Parker, redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd takes over. Boyd is talented, but he’s not quite ready to be a starting quarterback in the ACC.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. North Texas.
3. BOSTON COLLEGE
**–Last season: 8-5, 5-3 ACC; lost to Southern California 24-13 in Emerald City Bowl.
**–Coach: Frank Spaziani, 9-5 in his second season at Boston College.
**–Key losses: C Matt Tennant, WR Rich Gunnell, LB Mike McLaughlin, SS Marcellus Bowman.
**–Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 7, specialist 1.
**–Players to watch: LB Mark Herzlich, RB Montel Harris, LB Luke Kuechly, TE Chris Pantale.
**–What we learned: We are not going to bet against Mark Herzlich. Herzlich was the ACC defensive player of the year in 2008 but missed the entire 2009 season while he underwent treatments for bone cancer. This time last year the discussion was about Herzlich’s survival, not if he had a football future. He returned to practice on a limited basis (no contact) this spring. “We let Mark do what he could,” said coach Frank Spaziani. “He’s certainly nowhere near ready to play, but it’s remarkable to see him where he’s at right now.” Herzlich had a titanium rod inserted in one leg. If Herzlich comes back anywhere near his previous level, BC will have two of the best linebackers in the country. Freshman Luke Kuechly took Herzlich’s position last season and was the league’s defensive rookie of the year.
**–What we still don’t know: Will QB Dave Shinskie take another step forward? Shinskie, a former minor league baseball player, was pressed into service as a freshman last season and responded by throwing 2,049 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 starts. Shinskie turned 26 years old on May 4 and so mentally, he’s not a sophomore. We still don’t know if BC will be able to find some help for running back Montel Harris, who ran for 1,457 yards as a sophomore. His 308 carries in 13 games was more than any back in the ACC. Only two players in Division I-A football—Toby Gerhart of Stanford (343) and Dion Lewis of Pittsburgh (325)—had more carries last season than Harris.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Weber State.
4. N.C. STATE
**–Last season: 5-7, 2-6 ACC.
**–Coach: Tom O’Brien, 91-66 in 13 years, 16-21 in three years at N.C. State.
**–Key losses: C Ted Larsen, RB Toney Baker, DE Willie Young.
**–Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 5, specialist 1.
**–Players to watch: QB Russell Wilson, LB Nate Irving, TE George Bryan, WR Owen Spencer.
**–What we know: This spring was all about survival for the Wolfpack. From an injury standpoint, the 2009 season was one of the worst O’Brien has experienced in his 13 years as a head coach. N.C. State used 10 different defensive lineups because of injuries. One of O’Brien’s primary goals was to get to the end of spring practice with as many healthy bodies as possible. Still, O’Brien said he had only 44 scholarship players during spring drills.
LB Nate Irving returned to football after almost losing his life in an automobile accident last summer. Irving was an honorable mention All-ACC pick in 2008. The spring ended on a decidedly down note as four players, including All-ACC tight end George Bryan, were arrested on misdemeanor drug charges. Bryan, a candidate for the Mackey Award (nation’s best tight end), was charged with maintaining a dwelling for the use of controlled substances. Starting left tackle Jake Vermiglio was also among those players charged.
**–What we still don’t know: Quarterback Russell Wilson, who had 31 touchdown passes last season, missed the spring as he spent his third season with the N.C. State baseball team. That has led to speculation that Wilson, like Clemson’s Kyle Parker, could give up football if he is taken high enough in the June baseball draft. O’Brien insists that Russell will be back. “Russell’s coming back, so I don’t know why there’s ever been any question,” O’Brien told reporters in mid-April. If Russell does leave N.C. State has a capable quarterback in sophomore Mike Glennon, a highly-recruited player who completed 24 of 39 passes in limited action last season. Glennon threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Western Carolina.
5. WAKE FOREST
**–Last season: 5-7, 3-5 ACC.
**–Coach: Jim Grobe, 92-84-1 overall, 59-51 in nine seasons at Wake Forest.
**–Key losses: QB Riley Skinner, DT John Russell, CB Brandon Ghee, NT Boo Robinson.
**–Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 7, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: RB Josh Adams, QB Skylar Jones, WR Marshall Williams, DE Kyle Wilbert.
**–What we learned: The Deacons will go back to basics. Coach Jim Grobe came to Wake Forest nine seasons ago as a coach who believed strongly in running the football. But when the Deacons signed quarterback Riley Skinner in 2006, Grobe changed his offense. Skinner started 49 games for the Deacons, won an ACC championship (2006) and took his team to three straight bowl games. “You really get spoiled when you have a reliable guy like that for four years,” said Grobe. Expect Grobe to return to running the ball with former wide receiver Skylar Jones, who emerged from spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. But don’t count out the other quarterbacks, sophomore Ted Stachitas and redshirt freshman Brendan Cross (son of former NFL great Randy Cross) of Alpharetta. “We’ll find a guy who can get the ball out there,” said Grobe. “It just won’t be as many times as we did with Riley.”
**–What we still don’t know: With a new quarterback, will Wake Forest be able to get the ball to its playmakers? It’s telling that wide receiver Devon Brown, who caught 61 balls for 671 yards a year ago, ran the ball four times from the slot position in the spring game. The Deacons have another good, athletic receiver in Marshall Williams (60 catches, 867 yards). Don’t be surprised if Grobe puts in more running plays for these two in order to give them a chance to operate in space. And because Wake Forest will go back to the run, can we expect a big senior season for Josh Adams? Adams was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2007. Last season he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and caught 28 balls for 307 yards. Will Wake Forest finally catch a break in a close game? The Deacons lost seven games in 2009. Five of those were by three points or fewer for a total combined 13 points. There were two overtime losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech.
**–Opening game: Sept. 2 vs. Presbyterian.
**–Last season: 2-10, 1-7 ACC.
**–Coach: Ralph Friedgen, 66-44 in nine seasons at Maryland.
**–Key losses: QB Chris Turner, OT Bruce Campbell, CB Anthony Wiseman, FS Terrell Skinner.
**–Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 5, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: RB Da’Rel Scott, P Travis Baltz, WR Torrey Smith, LB Alex Wujciak.
**–What we learned: The offense is going to be just fine. Quarterback Chris Turner (30 career starts) is gone but Friedgen was encouraged this spring about the progress of Jamarr Robinson, who got significant experience in the final four games of the 2009 season. Friedgen also feels better about his offensive line, which was all but depleted due to injuries last season. A reliable quarterback and a veteran offensive line should only help RB Da’Rel Scott, who was a first-team All-ACC pick in 2008 when he rushed for 1,133 yards. Injuries limited Scott in 2009. Now the Terps have some depth at running back with Davin Meggett (338 yards last season). “I felt better at the end of the spring,” Friedgen. “If we can stay healthy, this bunch has a chance.”
**–What we still don’t know: Can Maryland find a way to win the close ones? The Terps lost 10 games last season but rarely did they get blown out. They lost to Middle Tennessee by one (32-31), to Boston College by two (19-17), to Florida State by three (29-26), to Duke by four (17-13), and to N.C. State by seven (38-31). It would help matters if Maryland could take it up a notch or two on defense. The Terps were last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing 31.25 points per game. Veteran defensive coordinator Don Brown was brought in last season in an effort to improve that unit. Brown is building around LB Alex Wujchiak, who will be the ACC’s leading returning tackler (264). Brown also has a big time cornerback in Cameron Chism. Based on spring practice this should be a more athletic defense.
**–Opening game: Sept. 6 vs. Navy (Baltimore)
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