Size and speed are important. Brains and effort and discipline help, too.
But sometimes, the parts of a football team that perform the best are the ones
where the players have been together the longest
and the individuals
in those groups that are struggling are still trying to get to know the teammates
at their sides.
Dave Glenn and Staff, ACC Area Sports Journal
October 6, 2003
Check out how experience reflects on a team's success
Senior Linebackers Steady FSU TALLAHASSEE Their numbers alone speak volumes about the career contributions of Florida State senior outside linebackers Kendyll Pope and Michael Boulware. With more than 600 tackles and 62 starts between them through five games this fall, there is no arguing their value. Even as the Seminoles labored through nine losses over the past two seasons, Pope and Boulware were steadying forces, always accountable on and off the field. But numbers alone can't completely quantify what Pope and Boulware and senior middle linebacker Allen Augustin, a former walk-on bring a team that leads the nation in scoring defense (7.4 points a game) and ranks among the top 20 nationally in virtually every defensive category. Their collective experience allowed first-year linebackers coach Kevin Steele to successfully introduce the zone blitz scheme this past spring that he learned from Dom Capers during his four-year run as an assistant on the Charlotte Panthers staff. What made their adaptation even more impressive was that Pope and Boulware sat out the spring while recovering from shoulder surgeries. If there was a silver lining to their spring absences, it was the additional repetitions left for backups A.J. Nicholson, Ray Piquion, Buster Davis and Marcello Church. Those practice reps for the backups plus the complete recoveries of Pope and Boulware have allowed defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews to substitute liberally this fall. Indeed, FSU's linebacker corps may be the deepest group at any single position in the entire ACC. There ain't a whole lot of difference, Andrews said, between our first team and our second team. Pope and Boulware have served as mentors to their young understudies. That's a luxury they never were fully afforded themselves. Though they were productive backups on the 2000 FSU team that played Oklahoma for the national title, their snaps behind seniors Tommy Polley and Brian Allen were somewhat limited. A year later, though undersized, Pope and Boulware were thrust into the starting lineup. They've learned how to play football by playing football, Andrews said. Some of them have had to play before you really wanted them to play. This group had to play and basically had to take some lumps when they were learning to play. Not only have they learned well, as they reach the midway mark of their senior seasons as third-year starters, they have shared the vast knowledge picked up in the process. This group is good about correcting mistakes, (asking) what can I do to help us get better? Andrews said. That kind of blends in with a championship attitude. So too does the leadership they bring to the squad. We're trying to get leadership in each segment, Andrews said. I think we've had several people (step forward), because we're not depending on one person. I think we're getting collectively more from each segment. It's not just one guy. It may be two, it may be three. Coaches consider the three senior starting linebackers among the strongest leaders on the team. Augustin, who graduated in three and a half years, has been a quick study throughout his career, playing all three linebacker positions. He finally settled into the middle, where he's made 11 consecutive starts. Though undersized, he shares the team lead in tackles at 28 with Boulware and safety B.J. Ward. Unlike the past two seasons, tackles are harder to come by. A year ago, Pope led the team with 131 stops. He has 312 for his career and will finish among the top 10 in school history. This season he has just 16 in four games after sitting out the Duke contest with a knee sprain. Is that a good thing or a bad thing as a linebacker? Pope asked. It's got to be a good thing. Plays are kind of hard to come by. Once you get your shot, you better make it. Things are stingy. Boulware's tackle numbers he has 294 in his career are down, and so are his big plays. The rangy strongside linebacker has three career touchdowns, five interceptions, six fumbles caused and three fumbles recovered. Why the dropoff? In part because the seniors have successfully imparted their wisdom on the underclassmen, who are now getting nearly as many repetitions as the starters. We're a lot more together, Augustin said, and we practice to be great.
We're playing together as a team, Pope said. We're holding each other accountable. When the season began, Andrews had high hopes for his unit, largely because of a veteran linebacker corps that is blessed with speed and athleticism. They offered a glimpse of this season's success when they limited N.C. State, Florida and Georgia to one touchdown each over the final three games last season. That tells you, Andrews said, you've got a chance (to be a great defense). Winning Team: Rivers-Cotchery RALEIGH They had barely broken the huddle on the first play of the second half, and both players knew exactly what was going to happen. Senior wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery knew that North Carolina's safeties were going to leave him uncovered, and quarterback Philip Rivers knew Cotchery would be in the right place. Now, neither of them could count on sophomore Brian Clark to run exactly the right route or tight end T.J. Williams to take out two potential tacklers with a downfield block. But Rivers and Cotchery knew the play would work. The result? An 80-yard touchdown that seemed to be more intuition than just talent. That's the byproduct of spending more than three years playing toss and catch with each other. They rarely have to think about it any more. Their senior leadership is our bond on offense, Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato said. They won't let us lose. No player in N.C. State history and few players in ACC history have been productive for as long as Rivers. He has started 44 consecutive games (through six games this fall) since he arrived in Raleigh and has led his team to more wins (29) than any other quarterback playing college football at the moment. Cotchery didn't get his chance to play on offense as early as Rivers, having spent most of his freshman season as a special teams player, but he's still the most experienced receiver in the ACC. He's started 30 straight games since the beginning of his sophomore year, and he'll end up as one of the most productive wideouts in school history, right in line with current NFL stars Torry Holt and Koren Robinson. An Alabama product who didn't draw a single SEC scholarship offer coming out of high school, Cotchery has turned into a superstar who is likely to be named first-team All-ACC for the second consecutive season. Through the first five games this fall, he not only led the ACC in receiving yards per game, he also was tied with tailbacks Greg Jones of Florida State and Josh Allen of Maryland for the league lead in touchdowns. There are times when even Amato thinks that for all Rivers has done for the program and the Wolfpack wouldn't be headed for its fourth consecutive bowl without Rivers that Cotchery might be the most talented and productive player on the field. I am not so sure that we aren't all missing the boat on that, Amato said. Jerricho is somebody people don't realize how good he is. He's that good because he's an overachiever. While a State defense with no senior starters has struggled, the offense has blossomed with Rivers and Cotchery. The Wolfpack leads the ACC in four of the five top offensive statistical categories 40-plus points a game certainly has a nice ring to it and probably would be better in rushing offense if tailback T.A. McLendon hadn't been hurt for most of the season. Terps: No Secondary Concerns COLLEGE PARK It wasn't too long ago that Maryland fielded one of the worst secondaries in the ACC, if not the nation. In 1997 and 98, a unit that featured such forgettable defensive backs as Troy Davidson, Paul Jackson, Lynde Washington and Henry Baker was torched for a total of nearly 5,000 yards. Everyone had a field day throwing against the Terps in those two seasons, which came at the start of the Ron Vanderlinden era. Florida State once rolled up 559 yards passing, with Thad Busby, Dan Kendra and Chris Weinke all getting into the act. Improved talent, coupled with good old-fashioned experience, steadily has transformed that same unit into an area of strength for the Terrapins. Suddenly, Maryland puts out a secondary that features a pair of All-ACC selections and was rated among the nation's best by every major preseason publication. It is a veteran group comprised of four players who have made a combined 106 career starts. It is a versatile contingent that has totaled 22 interceptions and 75 pass breakups, a testament to the fact that all four starters have played cornerback at some point in their careers. Leading the way are junior cornerback Domonique Foxworth and senior free safety Madieu Williams. Both are considered NFL prospects. Foxworth was named first-team All-ACC in 2002 after posting a career-high 54 tackles, five interceptions and 17 breakups. Williams was a second-team selection on the strength of 82 tackles (fourth on the team), four interceptions and two forced fumbles. Defensive coordinator Gary Blackney, who doubles as the Terps' secondary coach, will tell you that senior cornerback Curome Cox and senior strong safety Dennard Wilson have been just as effective as their more highly touted mates the past two seasons. Cox is the most experienced member of the unit, having made 40 career starts (including bowls) through six games this fall. Wilson, who cracked the starting lineup as a sophomore, may be the team's most consistent defensive back. Dennard, to me, is one of the unsung heroes of our defense. He is a real consistent, positive player, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. If you look at who is there, play-in and play-out, Dennard is a guy who is making good plays more often than not. Interestingly, all four starters are local products, with Foxworth the only one who was considered a big-time recruit. Out of Western High in Baltimore County, the speedster was headed to Purdue before Friedgen was hired and came in with a convincing sales pitch. Only Vanderlinden was high on Cox and Wilson, who came out of D.C. powers Gonzaga and DeMatha, respectively. William, who had no Division I-A offers as a senior at DuVal High in Prince George's County because of academic shortcomings, is a transfer from Towson. A key reason why the unit is so experienced is that all four starters were forced to play early in their careers, an indication of how weak Maryland's secondary was during Vanderlinden's tenure. Cox started nine games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman and hasn't left the lineup since. Wilson played as a true freshman and was a starter by the end of his sophomore campaign. Fans may remember that Foxworth was forced to burn his redshirt year 10 games into 2001 because of injuries to other players; he made two starts at corner that season as a true freshman. Williams, who started for Towson for two years before realizing he could play at a higher level, arrived in College Park good enough to play any of the four spots in the defensive backfield. I don't know many safeties in any division in football that can play corner and safety interchangeably, Friedgen said. We keep (Williams) at free safety because he's such a good tackler. Some critics were calling Maryland's secondary overrated after it allowed Northern Illinois and Florida State to have some success throwing the ball. The Huskies played dink and dunk by throwing underneath in the soft spot behind blitzing linebackers. Meanwhile, Chris Rix's 16-for-29, 228-yard, two-TD effort actually marked one of the Terps' better performances against the Seminoles' vaunted passing attack. Entering the Clemson contest, Maryland ranked seventh nationally and first in the ACC in pass defense, giving up an average of 141.2 yards per game. West Virginia, Citadel and Eastern Michigan combined to complete only 20 passes for 228 yards against the stout secondary, which gave up only 12 touchdowns in 14 games a year ago. I'm a little biased, but I think all four of those guys back there deserved equal recognition last season, Blackney said. They all have the attitude that they want to be the best, and they're an outstanding group not just from a physical standpoint, but also in terms of character and intelligence. Cavaliers Have Corners Covered CHARLOTTESVILLE Muffin Curry and Jamaine Winborne should not have played as true freshmen for Virginia in 2000 and, the truth be known, new coach Al Groh wasn't wild about having to use them in 2001. It was a challenge to find consistency out on the corner, Groh said. It was an audition from start to finish. We started the season with very few players who had played in a game at corner and no corners who really had any rÈsumÈ as a college corner. They had no real credentials. UVa started the 2001 season with Winborne and fourth-year junior Rashad Roberson as its starting corners, with Winborne eventually giving way to classmate Art Thomas. Curry moved into the starting lineup at the end of the season, but he and Winborne never started in the same game in 2001. Curry and Winborne started together for the first time in the third game of the 2002 season, and that's been the Cavaliers' cornerback pairing ever since. Winborne made his team-high 25th start (including bowls) at North Carolina recently, and Curry made his 23rd. It's not unique to that position, Groh said, but these two players certainly point out the value of development and experience. This is a position where they're out in front of everybody, everybody knows what they should do. Nobody's ever done it, even on the coaching staff, but everybody's a corner coach. Every fan knows what the corners should be doing. All the commentators know what the corners should be doing. And it can break some guys out there. It didn't suit Thomas, now enjoying a rebirth at wide receiver. Winborne, Curry and Thomas were teammates at Fork Union Military Academy in 2000, when Thomas was seen as a prototypical corner because of his size (6-2, 205) and 4.5-second speed for 40 yards. Winborne may be a half-step slow for the position. Curry, a first cousin of former North Carolina star Ronald Curry, may be a half-size small, or maybe even a full size small at his listed 5-8 and 175 pounds. Curry is an anomaly for a cornerback in that he came into the 2003 season with twice as many career sacks (six) as interceptions (three). Winborne (5-10, 202) did not have a single interception in 2002, when he played in all 14 games and 979 plays. They have made up for lost time this year, most notably when each had interceptions in back-to-back games with Western Michigan and Wake Forest. Through five games, no ACC player had more picks than Curry (three) and Winborne (two). Winborne's interception in the final minute of regulation set up the winning field goal for UVa in the Cavaliers' 27-24 triumph over the Demon Deacons. His performance against Western Michigan was a statistical dream for a cornerback: an interception, a fumble recovery, his first career sack, a caused fumble and a blocked punt. Curry had interceptions at exactly the same point in both games, on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. He had a 23-yard return for a touchdown against Western Michigan and a 26-yard return to the six-yard line against the Deacons. He has a little knack, Groh said, for how to (trick) guys into making the throw he wants them to make. Small wonder. He's been doing it long enough. Change Helps Clemson Receivers CLEMSON Sometimes, change is a good thing. When Clemson wide receivers coach Rick Stockstill decided last spring to move to East Carolina to be the offensive coordinator, there was some grumbling by the fans. Stockstill, who worked for four head coaches while with the Tigers, was known as one of the ACC's best recruiters, and he was extremely popular with the fans and players. The grumbling became even louder when Clemson coach Tommy Bowden decided to replace Stockstill with Dabo Swinney, a former Alabama player and assistant coach who had been out of football for two years. Less than six months later, though, there's not much grumbling to be heard. Clemson's receivers are playing at a very high level. The wide receivers are just playing really, really good, Bowden said, the best they've played since I've been here. Swinney, a walk-on at Alabama and a member of the Crimson Tide's 1992 national championship team, learned the game from former Tide coach Gene Stallings, so he believes in toughness. He has made the Clemson receivers better targets and better blockers. The Tigers' wideouts finally seem willing to do the dirty work. Swinney hands out weekly awards. The most cherished is a de-cleater, or knockdown block. Three de-cleaters in a game earns a receiver a tiger paw sticker for the back of his helmet. Against Middle Tennessee State and Georgia Tech, the Clemson receivers had a total of 39 de-cleaters. Swinney also sometimes hands out a Mr. No-Hitter Award. As the name might suggest, players who receive the No-Hitter Award receive relentless ridicule from their teammates. Meanwhile, gone are the days of one main target. (See Gardner, Rod.) Charlie Whitehurst has multiple options when he drops back to throw, and the play of Clemson's receivers has positively affected the quarterback's numbers. Whitehurst is now first in school history in career completion percentage (.613) and passing efficiency (138.9). Entering October, Clemson had three of the top eight receivers in the ACC in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. Junior Airese Currie was second in the league in receptions per game with 6.50, fifth-year senior Kevin Youngblood was fourth with 5.75, and redshirt junior Derrick Hamilton was eighth at 4.75. Currie is Swinney's biggest success story to date. Currie, who can run the 100 meters in 10.2 seconds, struggled with simply catching the ball last fall. He is using his hands better this season. His 12 receptions against Middle Tennessee State marked the highest single-game total in the ACC this year. Youngblood, who finally has fully recovered from a broken leg he suffered during pre-fall camp in 2001, is a big target at 6-5 and 215 pounds. Swinney has helped turn Youngblood into an all-around player. The wideout's attitude about blocking has improved dramatically, probably because Swinney demands that only those who block will play. Kevin played his most complete game against Georgia Tech, Bowden said. Hamilton may be the most dangerous of the three because of his ability to return kicks. Bowden has nicknamed Hamilton Noodle because of his ability to bend and avoid solid hits. Entering October, Hamilton was the ACC leader in all-purpose yardage at 126.8 yards per game. Deacons Relying On Linebackers WINSTON-SALEM Every time coach Jim Grobe thought about Wake Forest's offense this offseason, it probably wasn't long before his mind wandered to the defense. After all, it wouldn't take much time spent on the offense a unit decimated by graduation, an academic casualty, a suspension, injuries and the loss of its coordinator to the NFL to drive a man crazy. Now the defense, a unit that had plenty of experience, that was a much more soothing topic. Eight starters were back, including two experienced and productive linebackers. Senior Kellen Brantley was the Demon Deacons' second-leading tackler in 2001, and redshirt junior Brad White was their second-leading tackler in 2002. The two have become rocks of stability for Grobe. Brantley hasn't left the starting lineup since the opener in 2001, and White has started every game since becoming eligible last fall after transferring from Georgia. White said he knew the Deacons' defense would need to help its younger counterparts this season. The defense this year, we feel we need to make plays, White said. We feel like when we need a turnover, we'll create one. It's real important that the defense steps up to take the pressure off the offense. I don't think they need any added pressure of feeling they have to put up 40 points a game. Through five games, the Wake defense hadn't exactly dominated, but it had played pretty well against tough competition. The Deacons didn't allow more than 28 points (last year's unit allowed more than 30 six times), and they were forcing 3.2 turnovers a game, up from 2.6 last season. White, the middle linebacker, was second on the team in tackles last fall. He took a long route to get to Wake: He wanted to go to Boston College, then committed to Yale, then decided to attend Georgia as a walk-on. After one year with the Bulldogs, he was going to leave and head back to an Ivy League school. But his position coach at Georgia, Brad Lambert, was part of the Jim Donnan exodus from Athens. Lambert soon headed for Wake, and he quickly convinced White to join him. White started his college career a little light at 216 pounds, but he's now about 235. His No. 1 attribute is his preparation, Lambert said. He really prepares well. Mentally, he's going to do everything he needs to be ready to play. Brantley, though solid, hit a plateau after the promise of his outstanding sophomore season. A natural inside linebacker at 6-3 and 240 pounds, he's had to adjust to playing outside in Grobe's unconventional 3-3-5 system. This season, he's tied for the team lead in tackles for loss. Sharing a starting role this season have been seniors Dion Williams and Jamaal Argrow. Williams saw significant action last season, including two starts, but his play was sporadic. He said that sometimes when he made mistakes, he hid behind not being a starter. I was never real sure how important football was to (Williams), Grobe said. He's typical of a lot of kids. When they see their clock tick down, they realize they need to make the most of it. Toward the end of last year, we saw a little bit of that. He matured and started doing some good things for us. Grobe hasn't been able to choose between Williams and Argrow, who also started twice last season. Argrow (6-1, 230) started to move to defensive end, but he was shifted back to linebacker as the season started. Through five games this fall, Argrow had two tackles for loss, a pass broken up, a forced fumble and another recovered. As a group, the four veterans are as large as they are experienced. Williams tops them all by packing 247 pounds on his 6-1 frame. The size probably is a good thing, since the unit hasn't had a big defensive line to keep blockers off them in the last two years. They may not be as quick as some other crews, but Grobe isn't worried. We don't really have anybody there who can't run, Grobe said. You've got to be able to run to play. Jackets Enduring Growing Pains ATLANTA When Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey chose true freshman quarterback Reggie Ball to direct his offense during the 2003 season, he decided that Ball's playmaking and decision-making abilities outweighed the experience offered by senior A.J. Suggs and even redshirt sophomore Damarius Bilbo. Like most young quarterbacks, unfortunately, Ball has endured an up-and-down season. While his exciting running ability has been a plus, his inexperience has hurt the Yellow Jackets in their passing attack. Through five games, Tech was last in the ACC in scoring offense (14.0), passing yards per game (156.0) and passing efficiency (95.6). I don't see how anyone cannot come to spring and start that first game, said N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers, a senior whose debut as a true freshman starter in 2000 came after he went through spring practice. I've said all along that if I didn't come in the spring, I couldn't have played the first game. How quickly (Ball) picked things up, that's a tribute to him. Although he has exhibited impressive amounts of patience and poise at times, Ball also has had a tendency to struggle with the fundamentals in tense situations and big games. After he engineered an early season upset of Auburn, Ball broke down. As the offense evolved Tech is nowhere near the level of sophistication Gailey ideally prefers Ball's retention of the basics suffered. That's not to say Ball has been a bust. Hardly. His dazzling runs and high confidence have been rare bright spots for the struggling Tech offense. But there's no question that his youth and inexperience have hampered the attack at times. It's apparent on a week-to-week basis, when Ball will go from spectacular to spectacularly bad. Sometimes it even happens in a single game. It's never easy, Gailey said. Everybody would like to go into every season with an experienced quarterback. But at some point, you walk in there with somebody that doesn't have any experience. I tend to be the one who gets excited about the potential. The coaching staff continues to emphasize basics with Ball taking proper drop steps, not floating on his drop, going through his reads, moving his feet into the right place for making throws. But Gailey, after watching Ball run the two-minute offense to perfection in a come-from-behind overtime victory against Vanderbilt, is talking about simplifying things even more for his quarterback, eliminating plays with five or six reads and reducing it to two or three before allowing Ball to run. The outside expectations from fans and media have continued to grow for Ball, but Gailey has been quick to remind anyone who will listen that Ball is just a freshman. The coach said he often has to remind himself of that as well. The fact that Ball is surrounded by inexperienced skill players hasn't helped either. Tailback P.J. Daniels is a sophomore who is getting his first extended playing time this fall. With the exception of senior Jonathan Smith, whose production has ebbed and flowed this season, Ball's receiving corps is inexperienced, too. Redshirt junior Nate Curry, who is emerging as the team's deep receiver, missed 2001 with a knee injury and played sparingly last season. Bilbo, who just two months ago was battling for the starting QB job, recently earned the third wideout spot. A tall target on a team without many, he caught his first pass against Vanderbilt (for 49 yards) and could become a bigger part of the offense as the year progresses. Behind Smith, Curry and Bilbo, there's redshirt junior Mark Logan (six career receptions), junior Levon Thomas (24 career receptions) and redshirt freshman Xavier McGuire. Thomas' penchant for dropped passes has sent him sliding down the depth chart. It's all added up to inconsistency in the passing game. No doubt as Ball matures, and his receivers mature along with him, the Yellow Jackets will improve through the air. For now, however, Gailey is just trying to make the best of what he's chosen to work with. Duke: Freshman QB Needs Time DURHAM The best-laid plans of a nice man, Duke coach Carl Franks, have gone astray, which is why he is being forced to endure his make-or-break coaching season with a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Entering the season, no Division I-A coach in the country had more returning starters than Franks, whose 20 returnees included all 11 on offense. One of them was Adam Smith, a redshirt junior, at quarterback, and as far as Franks knew that was a good thing. Last season Smith threw for 2,031 yards, completed 56.5 percent of his passes and essentially looked like the kind of steady hand Duke would need to be competitive this season. That plan was based on two assumptions. One, tailback Alex Wade would be as productive as last season, when he ran for 989 yards. Two, Smith would give Franks no reason to alter the depth chart at quarterback. Well, Wade suffered a hamstring strain in the preseason and hasn't played a full game yet, and Smith was just uninspiring enough in the season-opening loss at Virginia to make Franks give a shot to redshirt freshman Mike Schneider. Then Schneider performed just well enough to justify the change. So there Franks was with a 2-3 record after the Florida State game, a 56-7 loss, with his next four games against Maryland, Wake Forest, N.C. State and Tennessee. And at quarterback he was starting a guy, Schneider, who ranked last among the ACC's eight qualifying quarterbacks in passing yards and total offense. He was seventh of eight in pass efficiency, ahead of Georgia Tech true freshman Reggie Ball. At 2-3, Frank was in a position where he needed to win at least three, and maybe four, more games to guarantee his return in 2004. Franks was sticking to his new starter at quarterback while also asking for a bit of patience from fans? media? athletic director Joe Alleva? in return. I think this is a better team than we had last year, but any time you commit to playing a redshirt freshman at quarterback, we know that there are certain limitations to what we're going to be able to do, Franks said. That's why we need a strong running game. I do believe Mike Schneider gives us the best chance to move the football and win football games. I know that's a risky maneuver, but I think he adds a different dimension to our football team. We've got to be able to move the ball. Schneider has made freshman tight end Ben Patrick an NFL-type talent, based on early returns one of his favorite targets, but too many times Schneider has either been forced to leave the pocket early or has left on his own. We need to keep developing our quarterback, Franks said. He's learning how to play and make decisions, and he makes some mistakes. That is to be expected. If we're going to play with him, I've got to be able to live with some of those mistakes. We've got to coach him as hard as we can, so that he can make some of those plays. We've got to teach him to get down; he doesn't need to run as much as he does. He competes very hard, but we need to keep him healthy and if he keeps running he's not going to stay healthy. UNC Linebackers Still Learning CHAPEL HILL In North Carolina's fifth game of the 2003 season, a 38-13 loss to Virginia that dropped the Tar Heels to 0-5, UNC started three players at linebacker whose gross inexperience typified a defense ranked dead-last in the nation statistically. Middle linebacker Devllen Bullard, a redshirt junior, played mainly on special teams during his first three seasons on campus. On his flanks in the starting lineup against the Cavaliers were Melik Brown and Larry Edwards, two of the 12 true freshmen the Tar Heels utilized in the early going. Combined career starts entering the UVa matchup: six. Bullard started two games early last season. Brown started his first four games in a UNC uniform this fall. Edwards was on the first string for the first time. Early in the second quarter, with the Tar Heels holding a 3-0 lead, Virginia marched the length of the field before UNC surprisingly stiffened inside its 10-yard line. UVa tailback Wali Lundy gained just one yard on back-to-back rushing attempts, forcing a fourth-and-one play from the six-yard line. The Cavaliers decided to go for it. Carolina, whose defensive failures this season already had reached epic proportions, hoped to feed off the growing Kenan Stadium excitement and stuff the opposition for a third straight time. Even before the pivotal play, however, the Tar Heels again fell apart. Bullard, who as the middle linebacker calls the plays and directs most pre-snap adjustments, misinterpreted the Virginia setup at the line of scrimmage and put his teammates in the incorrect alignment. Other defenders seemed to sense something was wrong, but it was too late. Lundy carried again, going wide into a gaping hole for an easy six-yard touchdown run. What could have been a momentum-changing play for the Heels was instead an enormous emotional lift for the Cavaliers, and pure talent had little to do with it. It was just a mental error by all of us, Edwards said. We should have focused on the closed side. We just got a bad call by the middle linebacker, but it's not his fault. It's all of us as a team. We should have recognized that it wasn't the right side. That was just one of (our) mental breakdowns throughout the game. Indeed, it was just one of the Carolina defense's many mental and physical breakdowns throughout the season. On a key overtime play in the Heels' 49-47 triple overtime loss to Syracuse, UNC allowed a ridiculously easy 25-yard TD on a simple running play after a defender lined up in the wrong spot and allowed the tailback to get outside. In N.C. State's 47-34 victory over the Heels, the Wolfpack ran variations of the same perimeter passing play six consecutive times during a long, unimaginative early scoring drive. When Florida State came to Chapel Hill to open the season, the Seminoles asked QB Chris Rix to do little more than isolate his tailbacks against UNC's linebackers on sweeps and swing passes, and FSU yawned its way to a 37-0 win. North Carolina coach John Bunting, a former linebacker at UNC and in the NFL, and defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, who also serves as linebackers coach, went into the 2003 season knowing they had a problem on their hands. Their most experienced players, redshirt sophomore Doug Justice (11 career starts entering 2003) and redshirt junior Clarence Gaddy (seven), lack the size and speed to be dominating players, and even they had their only starts during the Heels' 3-9 defensive disaster last fall. Meanwhile, the most talented linebackers on the roster true freshmen Brown, Edwards, Joe Kedra and Fred Sparkman lack strength and a thorough knowledge of the defense, although Brown got a head start by enrolling in January and participating in spring practice. Through five games, Justice led all UNC linebackers with 23 tackles and his knowledge of the defense is second to none, but his lack of foot speed prevents him from running down opposing tailbacks. Brown (12), Edwards (12) and Sparkman (11) clearly represent the future, although Brown (6-1, 255) may be a better fit at defensive end. Edwards and Sparkman, mainstays on special teams from the beginning of the season, appear to have ACC-caliber talent. That's an important step up for the Tar Heels, but they still need their talented young linebackers to grow up in a hurry. They played hard and they played fast (against Virginia), Bunting said. Larry Edwards played fast. He was all over the place. That's the kind of talent that you need to be competitive in the ACC. That's the kind of players we are playing against. Veteran Linebackers Lift Hokies BLACKSBURG Ask Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer about his linebackers and how they've played this season, and you'll see a man who is almost breathless with excitement. Most of Beamer's enthusiasm is reserved for fifth-year senior Vegas Robinson and redshirt junior Mikal Baaqee. But for a unit that looked horribly thin last season thanks to a lack of experienced depth, Beamer has plenty to be proud of this season. Baaqee and Robinson entered the season as Butkus Award candidates, and they have done little to tarnish their reputations this fall. Baaqee, who led the Hokies in tackles (with 112) in 2002, has established himself as one of the Big East's most talented linebackers covering from sideline to sideline. Robinson has overcome offseason ankle surgery and has become more of a pass-rushing force than he was last season. Any conversation with Beamer about one of his two stud linebackers quickly becomes a conversation about both of them. Beamer sees their success as being linked. I think (Robinson) is as fast as ever, Beamer said. Baaqee is just a good, good player. He's quick. He's a serious, tough guy. Robinson and Baaqee have taken similar paths to their starting positions. They arrived in Blacksburg as second-tier recruits from outstanding prep programs Robinson a top-25 prospect in Virginia from Chesapeake Deep Creek in the talent-rich Tidewater region in 1999, Baaqee a top-25 prospect in Maryland from regional powerhouse DeMatha Catholic in 2000. (Baaqee received prep All-American recognition from one service.) They showed up on campus at around 200 pounds, bulked up during redshirt seasons, contributed mainly on special teams for a year (Baaqee) or two (Robinson), then entered the starting lineup last fall. Both players are considered extremely hard workers, in the film room, on the practice field and during weight training. Robinson (6-0, 244), whose vertical leap (40.5 inches) in offseason testing set a Tech record for inside linebackers, has received Super Iron Hokie honors for three straight summers. Baaqee (5-10, 227), who bench presses 380 pounds, earned Super Iron Hokie status in each of the last two years. On the field, they know the Tech system, and they're rarely caught out of position. They have a strong desire to get better, and they're willing to pay the price, Beamer said. That's the foundation of their success, and that's the foundation of our success. They're not trying to cut corners. At Tech's weakside linebacker spot, there has been good competition. Junior Brandon Manning has held down the starting job all season, but he has been pushed by redshirt freshman Aaron Rouse, a player who made huge strides in the offseason. Despite slightly less playing time, Rouse has spent most of the season ahead of Manning in the tackles category. Behind Baaqee and Robinson, the Hokies have more quality backups than last season. When Robinson went out with his ankle injury last year, backups James Anderson and Blake Warren were forced into additional playing time and weren't ready for it. Anderson and Warren, both redshirt sophomores, were victimized in pass coverage in losses to Syracuse and West Virginia. One had to wonder about the future of Tech's linebackers. Warren, the son of former Washington Redskins tight end Don Warren, has made the biggest improvements after a subpar 2002 season. He has established himself as Robinson's top backup. Meanwhile, sophomore Jordan Trott, Virginia Tech's most physically imposing linebacker at 6-4 and 247 pounds, has worked his way into position to be Baaqee's top backup despite splitting time as a special teams enforcer. I think guys have come to play more or less, Baaqee said. I think they've picked up where they left off last year. I think we've still got a lot of getting better to do. I haven't played my best game yet. You just go out there and make plays. Things have to happen for you. Anderson, redshirt junior Chad Cooper, Rouse, Trott and Warren have had the extra advantage of bonus playing time in lopsided games early in the season. Beamer has substituted liberally at his linebacker positions, and it has paid dividends. Those guys needed those reps, Baaqee said. It gave those guys an opportunity to get in there and play in a game situation. I don't think there's a significant gap (between the first-team linebackers and the backups). I think they just need the playing time. I think they could be getting it done just like us.