In just six short years (1995-2000) Butch Davis built a national championship program at Miami but left for the NFL before he could really enjoy the fruits of his labor.
He exited Coral Gables after the 2000 season (one in which he should have played for the national championship but got squeezed out by Florida State, a team Miami beat in the regular season) to take a big money offer from the Cleveland Browns. But on the way out he told a friend that he was leaving “at least one national championship” and maybe more behind in Miami.
Davis was right. In 2001 Miami won the national championship under Larry Coker and in 2002 was favored to repeat with a team that was stocked full of NFL draft choices. The Hurricanes lost in double overtime to Ohio State in the BCS championship game, played at the Fiesta Bowl.
The point is, Davis knows what a very good college football team is supposed to look like and he knows how to recruit great players. So when North Carolina hired him on Nov. 13, 2006 it was with the expectation that Davis would eventually be able to stockpile enough talent to get the Tar Heels back into the race for the ACC championship, which they haven’t won since 1980.
North Carolina’s ACC title drought in football will finally come to an end in 2010 as the Tar Heels will win the Coastal Division and beat Florida State to win its first conference championship in 30 years.
“We have a good group of veteran players who know they might have an opportunity to do something special,” said Davis.
Yes, I know. A lot of people are going to pick Virginia Tech to not only win the ACC title, but to compete for the BCS championship as well. I know I’m going against the grain of conventional wisdom here because the Hokies are going to be absolutely loaded on offense. Bud Foster is one of the best defensive coordinators of this generation but I just see too many holes in the wrong places on that side of the ball. And did we mention the Virginia Tech schedule? The Hokies open with Boise State, a consensus top five pick in the preseason. They also have back-to-back-to-back games with Georgia Tech (Nov. 4), at North Carolina (Nov. 13), and at Miami (Nov. 20). That’s tough.
In fact, I’ve got Georgia Tech finishing ahead of Virginia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, the defending ACC champs, lost four NFL draft choices (two on each side of the ball) but the offense will be good as long as quarterback Joshua Nesbitt stays healthy. And if Al Groh’s new 3-4 defense jells early and Tech can win at North Carolina on Sept. 18, the Jackets will be in the hunt at the end.
I could be completely wrong here but hey, it’s May. A lot can happen between now and August. But for now, here is our Spring review of the ACC Coastal:
1. NORTH CAROLINA
**–Last season: 8-5, 4-4 ACC; lost to Pittsburgh 19-17 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
**–Coach: Butch Davis, 71-38 in nine years, 20-18 in three years at North Carolina.
**–Key losses: DT Cam Thomas, DE E.J. Wilson, OT Kyle Jolly.
**–Returning starters: Offense 10, defense 9, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: DT Marvin Austin, S Deunta Williams, LB Quan Sturdivant, DE Robert Quinn.
**–What we learned: The Tar Heels are loaded with NFL players on defense. Nine starters return from a unit that led the ACC (269.62 ypg) and intercepted 19 passes and returned them for 508 yards—an ACC record. Seven of the returning nine players have started 22 or more games in their careers. “If we can find some depth and certain positions we have a chance to have a pretty solid defense,” said Davis. Davis is actually being modest as North Carolina could have the best defense in all of college football. North Carolina is also due to win the close games this season. Of five losses in 2009, three were by a combined total of six points: Florida State (30-27), N.C. State (28-27), and Pittsburgh (19-17).
**–What we still don’t know: Can quarterback T.J. Yates hold on to his job? Yates, a senior from Marietta (Pope H.S.) has started 31 games at North Carolina but the last two seasons have been marked by injury and inconsistency. He came under significant criticism last season when he threw for 2,136 yards with 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Redshirt freshman Bryn Renner showed arm strength and athleticism this spring. Yates is going to start the first game of the season against LSU at the Georgia Dome, but if he struggles, Tar Heel fans are going to start clamoring for the talented newcomer. “T.J. has so much experience and he has learned that he doesn’t have to put the offense on his shoulders,” Davis said. “It is a long season and we have to have more than one quarterback who can win a game for us.” Yates is going to be under a lot of pressure because good quarterback play—or the lack of it—is the one thing that could keep North Carolina from having a big season.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. LSU (Georgia Dome, Atlanta).
2. GEORGIA TECH
**–Last season: 11-3, 7-1 ACC; beat Clemson 39-34 in ACC championship game; lost to Iowa 24-14 in Orange Bowl.
**–Coach: Paul Johnson, 127-46 in 13 years, 20-7 in two years at Georgia Tech.
**–Key losses: RB Jonathan Dwyer, DE Derrick Morgan, S Morgan Burnette, WR Demaryius Thomas.
**–Returning starters: Offense 7, defense 8, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Joshua Nesbitt, RB Anthony Allen, CB Jerrad Tarrant, LB Brad Jefferson.
**–What we learned: Georgia Tech now has a defensive identity. The fact is Georgia Tech tried a lot of different things on defense last season to the point where players were confused and uncertain. That has changed with the arrival of new coordinator Al Groh. Groh, who has been the head coach at Wake Forest, Virginia and the New York Jets, installed a 3-4 defense that will allow Georgia Tech to be more aggressive. Georgia Tech has a clear identity with Paul Johnson’s offense and now it will be the same on defense. The Yellow Jackets will now recruit to this system. “I think it is a simpler system that allows guys to just go play,” said Johnson. “We’ve got some good athletes on that side of the ball. I like what I saw over there.”
**–What we still don’t know: Georgia Tech lost four difference makers—Dwyer, Morgan, Burnette, and Thomas—to the NFL Draft. Can the Yellow Jackets replace that big-play potential? Morgan and Thomas were taken in the first round. Dwyer, the 2008 ACC offensive player of the year, fell to the sixth round but has first or second round talent. Burnette was a very underrated safety. Johnson believes that the program has recruited well enough to absorb the losses. Last season, Johnson recalled, the experts said that Georgia Tech would take a dip because it would everybody’s second look at the option offense. Tech won the ACC championship. “I think we’ve got some other good players,” he said. “We’ve got 15 starters back from our team that won the league. We’re not ready to throw in the towel; we’re going to still show up. Those guys were good players and (now) somebody else will have an opportunity.”
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. S.C. State.
3. VIRGINIA TECH
**–Last season: 10-3, 6-2 ACC; beat Tennessee 37-14 in Chick-fil-A Bowl.
**–Coach: Frank Beamer, 229-115-4 in 29 years, 187-92-2 in 23 years at Virginia Tech.
**–Key losses: TE Greg Boone, OT Ed Wang, DE Jason Worilds, FS Kam Chancellor, DT Cordarrow Thompson.
**–Returning starters: Offense 8, defense 5, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: RB Ryan Williams, RB Darren Evans, QB Tyrod Taylor, WR Jarrett Boykin.
**–What we learned: The Hokies are loaded on offense. Let’s start at the running back position, where Virginia Tech has an embarrassment of riches. Sophomore Ryan Williams became the first freshman to ever lead the ACC in rushing (1,655 yards) and scoring (22 touchdowns) last season. He was the All-ACC running back and was easily the choice for the conference rookie of the year. But the reason Williams got a shot last season was that Darren Evans, the 2008 rookie of the year, was injured and sat out the season. Now both are back. And there are some incredibly talented runners waiting in the wings like David Wilson and Tony Gregory so Beamer will probably redshirt a running back who could start for any other team in the conference. Tyrod Taylor, who led the ACC in passing efficiency, is back for his senior season. WR Jarrett Boykin averaged 20.9 yards per catch last season. If a couple of new starters can be found on the offensive line, this has a chance to be Beamer’s best offense since Michael Vick led the Hokies to the national championship game in 1999.
**–What we still don’t know: By the standards of defensive coordinator Bud Foster, 2009 was an average year. The Hokies finished second in the ACC behind North Carolina in total defense and No. 12 nationally. There are some major holes to be filled as six starters are gone, including both defensive ends (Jason Worilds, Nekos Brown), a really good outside linebacker in Cody Grimm, and a free safety (Kam Chancellor) who started 41 career games and was basically the quarterback of the defense. “This is going to be the first time in a long time that we’ve had to replace so many starters up front,” Foster said. “We’re going to be as young this year as we’ve been in a long, long time. There are a lot of question marks.” Some of those questions need to be answered soon because the Hokies open the 2010 season on Sept. 6 against Boise State at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Boise State returns 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 14-0 last season and beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. Beamer, being the special teams guru, is worried about finding a new punter and placekicker.
**–Opening game: Sept. 6 vs. Boise State, FedEx Field, Landover, Md.
**–Last season: 9-4, 5-3 ACC; lost to Wisconsin 20-14 in Champs Sports Bowl.
**–Coach: Randy Shannon, 21-17 in three seasons at Miami.
**–Key losses: RB Jevarris James, OT Jason Fox, LB Darryl Sharpton, CB Sam Shields.
**–Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 8, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Jacory Harris, LB Sean Spence, RB Graig Cooper, CB Brandon Harris.
**–What we learned: The ‘Canes look like they are finally ready to break out. Miami went 9-4 last season against a very difficult schedule. But there was the nagging sense that the Hurricanes could have been even better. Shannon said recently that this was the best spring Miami has had since he became head coach in 2007. Part of that was because the Hurricanes finally have enough depth to have competition at almost every position. Quarterback Jacory Harris, who is set to begin his third season, sat out the spring while he recovered from an injury to this throwing hand. Shannon said on an ACC coaches’s call on April 21 that Harris would be back to throwing “within the next two weeks.” Harris suffered the hand injury on Nov. 14 against North Carolina and played the final three games wearing a brace. This schedule, by the way, is still ridiculous with non-conference trips to Ohio State (the Big Ten favorite) and Pittsburgh (a favorite to win the Big East) in September.
**–What we still don’t know: Who is going to be the featured running back? Jarvarris James (492 yards) is gone and Graig Cooper (Miami’s leading rusher with 695 yards) suffered a severe knee injury in the Champs Sports Bowl last December. His status for the 2010 is still uncertain but Cooper’s rehab, which is supposed to take 4-6 months, is ahead of schedule. Shannon spent the spring looking at four candidates: Damien Berry, Storm Johnson, Mike James, and Lamar Miller (who is the fastest back on the team). No one, Shannon said recently, separated themselves from the pack during spring practice but it looks like Berry, a senior who had 616 yards last season despite not seeing action until the fifth game, will be the starter. Shannon has also said that he wants his defense to be “a little nastier” this season. Can the Hurricanes, who were fifth in the ACC in total defense (329.62 ypg), give Shannon his wish? They can with more players like Allen Bailey (Sapelo, Ga.), who can play end or tackle and will be an All-American this season, and LB Sean Spence, who is set for a big junior year after injuries limited him to 10 games in 2009.
**–Opening game: Sept. 2 vs. Florida A&M.
**–Last season: 5-7, 3-5 ACC.
**–Coach: David Cutcliffe, 53-44 in nine years, 9-15 in two seasons at Duke.
**–Key losses: QB Thaddeus Lewis, DT Vince Oghobasse, LB Vincent Rey.
**–Returning starters: Offense 9, defense 6, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: QB Sean Renfree, OT Kyle Hill, C Bryan Morgan, WR Donovan Varner.
**–What we learned: Sean Renfree will replace Thaddeus Lewis (46 career starts) at quarterback but Renfree missed spring practice while he recovered from knee surgery. Renfree did participate in 7-on-7 drills, however. “Sean was actually able to do more than we thought he would be able to do and that was a position,” Cutcliffe said. Cutcliffe, however, had a couple of young, talented quarterbacks to work with during the spring in redshirt freshman Sean Schroeder and true freshman Brandon Connette, who enrolled last January. Another talented quarterback, Anthony Boone, arrives this summer. Connette, from Corona, Calif., was very impressive this spring, said Cutlciffe. “I like our athleticism at quarterback,” Cutcliffe said. “These are maybe four guys who are as talented as I’ve been around at any one time in a program. They are just young.” The good news for all the quarterbacks is that four of five starters return on the offensive line and two of them, C Bryan Morgan (25 career starts) and tackle Kyle Hill (24 career starts) will push for post-season honors. Duke also returns a 1,000-yard receiver in Donovan Varner, who led the ACC with 65 catches.
**–What we still don’t know: Can Duke overcome its youth, especially on defense? When Duke gathers in August to begin preseason practice, 54 of its 83 scholarship players will be freshmen or sophomores. Nine of Duke’s 14 defensive linemen will be freshmen. “We are much faster and more athletic on defense but we are a whole lot younger,” said Cutcliffe. “Between graduating some good players (DT Vince Oghobaase had 44 career starts) and dismissing some others, we’re going to be in a position where we really have to grow quickly there.” Cutcliffe has reassigned some duties on his defensive coaching staff and DC Marion Hobby, the former Tennessee defensive tackle, will be calling more of the signals.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Elon.
**–Last season: 3-9, 2-6 ACC.
**–Coach: Mike London, 24-5 in two seasons, first season at Virginia.
**–Key losses: CB Chris Cook, WR Vic Hall, OT Will Barker.
**–Returning starters: Offense 6, defense 6, specialist 2.
**–Players to watch: CB Ras-I Dowling, LB Steve Greer, QB Marc Verica, DE Matt Conrath.
**–What we learned: Mike London has a lot of work to do but the defense has a chance to be decent. London, a former assistant at Virginia, won a Division I-AA national championship at Richmond in 2008 before returning to Charlottesville to replace the departed Al Groh for this season. London earned his stripes as a defensive coordinator at Virginia (2006-07) and if the Cavaliers are going to be at all competitive in 2010, the defense will have to carry the load. London installed a 4-3 defense, replacing the 3-4 which was favored by Groh, now the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech.
**–What we still don’t know: Who are going to be the playmakers? Wide receiver Kris Burd (31 catches) is back but after that the pickings seem pretty slim from a unit that finished dead last in the ACC in total offense and scoring offense. Fifth-year senior Mark Verica threw for over 2,000 yards in nine starts in 2008 and appears to be the likely replacement at quarterback for Jameel Sewell. There are two freshman quarterbacks, Ross Metheny and Michael Strauss, who got a good look in the spring. Verica has experience (he completed 63.8 percent of his passes in 2008 but also had 16 interceptions) but didn’t help himself by completing only 8 of 23 passes with two interceptions in the spring game. We also don’t know who the starting running back will be. Right now it appears to be sophomore Torrey Mack, the leading returning rusher who had 73 yards last season. There isn’t a whole lot to get excited about on the offensive side of the ball. This season has a chance to be pretty ugly for the Cavaliers.
**–Opening game: Sept. 4 vs. Richmond.
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