By Bob Thomas
May 24, 2005
Aside from the ACC's southern-most member Miami it's difficult to geographically justify the league's Coastal Division. Virginia Tech is nestled in the Shenandoah mountain range, and the beach is no closer than a two-hour drive from Virginia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina or Duke.
As if justifying the division's title isn't hard enough, try determining which of its members is best-fitted for divisional title frontrunner status.
It's not difficult to identify the logical starting point. Defending league champion Virginia Tech met Miami on the final Saturday of the regular season last year to determine the league's BCS representative. Not only has their traditional final-weekend matchup in place throughout much of their Big East co-existence, too been moved up to Nov. 5 (in Blacksburg), the winner still will have to get past Virginia later in the month to stake a claim to Coastal representation in Jacksonville for the conference's inaugural title game.
That's no small order, especially considering that both the Hokies and the Hurricanes are turning their offenses over to heralded, talented but largely untested quarterbacks in Marcus Vick and Kyle Wright. Conversely, UVa's Marques Hagans and Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball are two of the league's top playmakers, with ample experience and supporting casts to make things interesting.
Without further ado, here's a post-spring look at the Coastal Division:
Chalk up the media's 2004 preseason prediction that the Hokies' ACC debut would culminate with a second-tier finish in the standings as pure foolishness. All coach Frank Beamer has done over the past 10 seasons is win 94 games; that's hardly the stuff that should allow a team to sneak up on the pack and steal a conference title. You don't amass that kind of track record by letting the cupboard run bare.
With eight offensive starters returning from a beautifully balanced offense, Tech will enter its title defense season as conspicuously as a giant dancing through a minefield. Just don't expect Vick to be tip-toeing around, now that he's out of the shadow of ACC most valuable player Bryan Randall.
Emerging from a one-year suspension he spent a portion of his time in Atlanta, picking the brain of his brother Michael Marcus Vick was the clear-cut winner of the spring quarterback race, throwing just one interception in scrimmages to beat out Sean Glennon. Beamer has done his best to shield Vick from the comparison to the Falcons' uber-QB. No need. Word is, the redshirt junior is a far better passer at this point in his career, and that could spell trouble for the rest of the ACC.
Managing the game, an area where Randall was unsurpassed last season, should be a lot easier for Vick. From the stable of tailbacks led by Mike Imoh and Cedric Humes, to the league's deepest receiving corps, the Hokies are loaded. Third-year starting lineman Will Montgomery, who will move from center to guard, is the undisputed leader up front. Put the pieces together, and the Hokies have the makings of a unit that could eclipse last season's 30.8 points per game average, which ranked second in the league.
Yet for all of the play-making ability on offense, the Hokies' title run could be directly attributed to Bud Foster's defense, which finally rid itself of continued late-season collapses.
Taking a page from Florida State's tried-and-true approach, Foster began developing depth early in the season. By the time November rolled around, the Hokies had a two-deep unit that provided quality play from start to finish without showing signs of fatigue.
"Last year's seniors gave us the blueprint," senior defensive end Darryl Tapp said. "Now it's up to us to come out every day with intensity, emotion and leadership."
Tapp and cornerback Jimmy Williams are the certifiable stars, but the heart of the unit may be the linebacker corps, where sophomores Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi are two of the best you've never heard of. That will change, but don't expect the Hokies to lose their place in the ACC pecking order.
The Hurricanes' rich quarterback tradition is filled with record-setters and Heisman winners. Most of all, it's chock full of winners who weren't solely defined by their physical gifts.
For every Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde or Bernie Kosar, there was a Gino Torretta, Steve Walsh or Ken Dorsey. Somewhere between the two groups would fall Brock Berlin, whose two-year reign as a starter was marked by maddening inconsistency.
Privately, Miami coaches might tell you that Berlin, while physically gifted and a fierce competitor, struggled to read defenses. That would explain his 34 touchdowns-to-33 interceptions ratio over the past two seasons. It's also the reason why then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier lost faith in the youngster early on, leading to Berlin's decision to transfer.
Miami quarterbacks coach Dan Werner recently was heard at a booster golf outing explaining that the Hurricanes tried to minimize the quarterback's reads last fall. The "throw it here" approach worked wonders, as Berlin notched 22 TD passes and only six interceptions.
Werner doesn't anticipate putting those same kind of restrictions on Wright, who (unlike Berlin) has prototypical size (6-5), a strong arm and a heady approach to the game.
That's a good thing, because these are heady times in Coral Gables, where coach Larry Coker is under a magnifying glass following last season's 9-3 disappointment, which matched his loss total from the three previous seasons combined.
Coker needs to win and win big. The Hurricanes didn't jump to the ACC to finish behind Virginia Tech. They won championships with coach Butch Davis' players, and now they must do it with Coker's.
With four returning offensive line starters and receiver Ryan Moore the best of a young but emerging bunch reportedly healthy again, Miami should be just fine offensively. Even with Wright as a first-year starter.
Offense wasn't a problem last season. It was stopping opponents that proved particularly troublesome for the Hurricanes, which was a stunning development given their history. The "U" was eighth in the ACC in total defense, surrendering 328 yards a game, with 155 of those on the ground. Its inability to stop the run against North Carolina and Clemson (late in the game) led to a pair of mind-boggling losses.
Two players figure prominently in improving the run defense. Senior tackle Orien Harris, a shell of the performer Miami expected him to be last season, displayed a passion in the spring that had been missing. But the big difference-maker may be controversial redshirt freshman linebacker Willie Williams, who at least one NFL scout said was the Hurricanes' best front-seven defender during last season's bowl practices.
For all the hype and harrumph over coach Al Groh's outstanding recruiting classes and his teams' 25 wins over the last three seasons, the Cavaliers have yet to establish that they are anything more than a solid program.
Of course, when you spit the bit in big games as the Cavs did last season against FSU, Miami, Virginia Tech and Fresno State the only ranked opponents on the schedule the underachieving label tends to stick a little easier.
Groh's fifth season at his alma mater may be his biggest yet. And it most certainly will be the biggest for diminutive senior quarterback Marques Hagans.
Hagans led the ACC in completion percentage (62.8) as a first-year starter last fall. What he didn't do was produce enough big plays to lead the Cavaliers over the hump in big games. He finished with just nine touchdowns (five interceptions), and his 12.3 yards-per-completion average ranked sixth among ACC starters.
Of course, some of that had to do with Virginia's dearth of talent at receiver. That likely will remain an issue, barring a breakthrough by a trio of touted incoming freshmen. Tight end Heath Miller and tailback Alvin Pearman, both of whom will be playing on Sundays this year, were Hagans' top threats in 2004.
If the Wahoos are going to make a run at the division title, they'll need more big plays from Hagans, either through the air or on the ground. He rushed for 394 yards last season, second only to Randall in the ACC.
"There were occasions last year when I thought we passed the ball very effectively," Groh said. "But there are some occasions where we're looking to pass the ball with a little bit more firepower this year."
4. GEORGIA TECH
You don't have to look beyond the Yellow Jackets' defensive statistics over the past two seasons to understand why coordinator Jon Tenuta is the most handsomely compensated man at his position in the league. After finishing 20th nationally in total defense in 2003, the Yellow Jackets jumped to 12th last season, despite the loss of their entire linebacker corps.
Now Tenuta will have to perform some magic with his defensive front, a key component if Tech is to remain a viable darkhorse in the division chase. On paper, Tech's prospects for another stellar unit appeared promising, with 10 starters returning. But that was before the tackle position was gutted by the end of spring practice.
Initially, the Jackets' depth up front allowed coach Chan Gailey to moved 300-pounder Mansfield Wrotto to the offensive line, where the team had some serious holes to fill. But the ranks thinned quickly when promosing youngster Darryl Richard was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Things went from bad to disastrous when senior Travis Parker, whose 36 career starts led the team, was academically dismissed in May.
Unless Tenuta and Gailey can come up with some stop-gap measures, the offense is going to have to carry a bigger burden than desired. That could prove to be a calamity for talented but error-prone quarterback Reggie Ball, who has thrown 29 interceptions in two seasons. With the offensive line in rebuilding mode, Ball might be left running for his life, while trying to spot NFL-caliber sophomore receiver Calvin Johnson downfield.
5. NORTH CAROLINA
If coach John Bunting had a checklist of things to be encouraged about heading into the season, it would include his running backs, offensive line, special teams and receivers.
While providing a nice core to build a team around, there remains something missing defense. Of course, that's not news, given that the Tar Heels have "improved" from 116th to 109th nationally in total defense over the past two seasons.
Even if starting quarterback Matt Baker proves to be a capable replacement for Darian Durant, the Heels likely will be flirting with mediocrity or worse again, if they don't step it up when it comes to stopping opponents.
"Our defense has really made major strides over the spring," Bunting said. "We have a chance to be really good. I've challenged them. We've been in the hundreds (statistically) three straight years. It's time to get below that this year."
The good news is that 10 starters return. Of course, that also could be the bad news, based on last season's yield of 446.5 yards and 31.8 points per game.
The healthy return of senior tackle Chase Page is critical, but the Heels also need talented linebackers Tommy Richardson and Larry Edwards to play to their ability and Jacoby Watkins to lock down at least one side of the field at cornerback. That's the starting point for improvement.
"In order to win week to week, you've got to have a good defense," Bunting said. "I know what one looks like, and we're getting closer."
If not, non-conference games against Wisconsin, Utah and Louisville probably will be painfully revealing.
Coach Ted Roof deserves your sympathy, though he certainly doesn't want it. The Blue Devils were 2-9 last season, though often competitive, despite an offense that ranked last nationally (265.5 yards per game) and mustered just 16.6 points per contest.
With every skill-position starter returning, there's bound to be some improvement. Right? Well, there is that matter of replacing four offensive line starters, not to mention rolling out a new offensive system.
So while Roof has made significant strides in areas such as recruiting and team morale, it still will be difficult to improve on the win-loss ledger.
Unfortunately for the Devils, a bowl is again a longshot, and it's still a long ride to the beach.
BC Quarterback "New" Senior
CHESTNUT HILL It's been almost two years since Quinton Porter has taken a snap in a college football game. But that doesn't mean the Boston College quarterback isn't confident he and his team can make some serious noise in the school's first year in the ACC.
"We're looking good. I don't see any reason why we can't come in and make waves in the ACC," the soon-to-be fifth-year senior said recently. "We don't need to come in and tip-toe into it. Miami and V-Tech didn't, so we won't, either."
Most early prognosticators have the Eagles ranked heading into the 2005 season, and at least one has picked them No. 2 in their new home. After two non-league games (at Brigham Young, Army) this fall, BC will fly into ACC play by hosting Florida State.
Florida State! Bobby Bowden.
"That's exciting," Porter said. "That's one of them that you just look at the schedule and say, That's going to be a good one.' That and Clemson (the first league game, the following week) big-time games, that's what we're here to play. Those are the ones we'll remember. But it's not like I'm sitting here preparing for Florida State."
No, what he's doing is preparing to make a return as a college quarterback.
How long has it been for Porter? Well, the New England Patriots have won two Super Bowls since the last time he played. The Boston Red Sox ended an 86-year drought and won the World Series. George W. Bush will be in the ninth month of his second term when the Eagles visit BYU on Sept. 2.
If you missed it, Porter, who received his undergraduate degree from BC in December and is currently in the school's MBA program, was
5-5 as a starter in 2003 after beating out transfer Paul Peterson. Porter was up and down that year (140-for-250, 1,764 yards, 14 TDs, six interceptions), but his season ended when he injured his throwing hand in the 10th game, on Nov. 8. Peterson took over, almost pulled that one out, then ended the season with three straight wins.
When they came to camp last year, BC coach Tom O'Brien announced that one would start and the other would sit out and lead the Eagles into the ACC.
"That whole period of time where he was like, OK, one of you is going to redshirt, one of you isn't,'" Porter said. "Yeah, you take it as a little bit of a loss; that's never good. But you know you have to handle it and stay positive."
One good thing about the decision was that it was etched in stone.
"(O'Brien) had said, You're not going to lose your redshirt, no matter what,'" Porter said, meaning it was good to know he wouldn't be thrown in if Peterson were injured. "Basically, I stepped back, even from the team a little bit."
Peterson turned out to be the team MVP last year, missing only the regular-season finale as redshirt freshman Matt Ryan played. Porter watched and fretted some. What if the kid had a huge game? Ryan was OK and has a bright future, but BC lost badly, and neither that game nor the spring action moved O'Brien away from Porter.
"We feel (Porter) has the best chance to win football games for us at this time," O'Brien said.
"He's got game experience, and what we felt he needed all along was that redshirt year, and we were not able to do that on the front end of his career," offensive coordinator Dana Bible said. "What we have (now) is somebody that has been successful at the major-college level and, in his own personal development, he's had a chance to have that full allotment of time a player has to mature. That was the coach's plan, and we're hopeful we'll be able to reap the benefits of the plan."
Asked if he can see a difference in Porter, now 22, Bible said: "Yes, in obvious ways and in subtle ways. The way he handles himself."
Porter sees it, too.
"I'm better because I'm just more comfortable with everything," he said. "I've always known the offense pretty well, but now it's just like second nature. More just comfortable with just playing and letting it all happen."
Porter admitted that, even though he had prepared himself for what was to come, the actual news that he would sit out in 2004 was a bit stunning, and the sitting out itself was no picnic. He roomed with three members of last year's team but said he had to "distance" himself from them and the rest of the squad. He quarterbacked the scout team and was there on the sidelines at games, helping in any way he could, but it was strange.
"I (was) roommates with (Jeremy) Trueblood, Tim Bulman (now gone) and Chris Miller," Porter said. "They're all right in the middle of a season, and I'm just it didn't feel like I was in the middle of a season. It even affected my relationships with them. It was kinda like, yeah, you don't feel as much a part of the team and there's some sadness.
"At this point now, that's what spring was all about, just coming back and just proving to the guys this is it, I'm back now, I'm the guy. Right now, this is my team."
Porter said he did not watch game films during the season last year, but he added that he did pay closer attention to 2004 opponents Wake Forest and North Carolina, which both are on the BC slate this season.
There was some rust, but that, he said, disappeared as spring camp wore on. He has the confidence to do what has to be done. He will enter August camp with an offensive line that returns intact and with speedy Will Blackmon apparently coming over from defense to help at wide receiver.
Said Bible: "I think, Coach O'Brien, the way he handled it, the two-year window. I think it was obvious to Quinton where he stood, development-wise. This was best for the team and best for his development. When you see that, I would imagine you see the benefit of it, and then you're on-board. Tom did a great job of laying out the plan and what the vision was for the quarterback position. It always has and always will be a competitive situation. That hasn't changed."
Porter knows that. He knows that there are many on or around the BC campus who consider the younger Ryan the better pure quarterback. But Porter is prepared to keep his job throughout his second senior season, and he's thrilled with the way it worked out.
"I'm going to catch the ACC," Porter said. "I just caught this new Yawkey (Athletic) Center. Lots of new things happening around here, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Mike Shalin, Boston Herald
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