By Dave Glenn and staff
October 11, 2005
Florida State: Back From Brink, Bunkley Roars
Virginia Tech: Montgomery A Walk-On Anchor
Miami: Maxey's Persistence Paying Off
Boston College: Eagles Accidentally Found Kiwanuka
N.C. State: Williams Blossoms With Wolfpack
Maryland: Jackson Proving Skeptics Wrong
Georgia Tech: Wilkinson Links Family, Football
Virginia: Schmidt Making History At UVa
Clemson: Bennett Building On 2004 Splash
North Carolina: Baker Cooks Up Happy Endings
Wake Forest: Randolph Survives Roller-Coaster
Duke: Gridiron Lifts Moravchik's Spirit
BACK FROM BRINK, BUNKLEY ROARSTALLAHASSEE -- That the Florida State defense is getting the ACC's most dominant interior line performance from one of its players should surprise no one, given the lineage of Seminole greats.
That this season's major force is senior Brodrick Bunkley, however, may rank as the biggest surprise of all. Not that Bunkley -- an impressive 6-3, 284-pound physical specimen -- doesn't possess the assets for greatness. A state champion shot putter and accomplished discus thrower at Tampa (Fla.) Chamberlain, he is blessed with quick feet and explosive power.
Applying those physical attributes on the field came naturally. Applying the necessary academic work habits, however, was a challenge. Bunkley was on the brink of losing his final season of eligibility on the field for things he wasn't taking care of off of it.
"He was faced with almost an impossibility; he had that much to do," defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. "Thank goodness for him and his teammates, he got his priorities and his focus in order. He's been a very positive influence not only as a player, but as a leader and role model. We wouldn't be (undefeated) right now without (Bunkley and fellow tackle Andre Fluellen)."
Through four games, Bunkley's 18 tackles ranked fifth on the team, and he led the way with seven tackles for loss (including 3.5 sacks) and six quarterback hurries.
"He's overpowering people," said Andrews, whose unit has not missed a beat despite the loss of All-ACC and first-round draft pick Travis Johnson to the NFL.
Bunkley's emergence could not have been better timed. The Seminoles already had lost sophomore tackle Clifton Dickson to academic dismissal after a dominant spring performance. They couldn't afford to lose Bunkley, who had shown flashes of brilliance before an illegal chop block by Florida offensive lineman Mo Mitchell in the final game of the 2003 season left him with a bum knee and marked the first in a series of injuries.
"When Bunkley was a sophomore, I thought he might have been our best tackle," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. That's quite a compliment, considering that the Seminoles also had current NFL starters Darnell Dockett and Johnson that season.
Bunkley was on the shelf in the spring, recovering from ankle surgery while trying to resurrect his academic eligibility. Injuries aside, his battle to remain eligible had been a constant that followed him from high school and was largely self-induced.
"When you first get here, you're thinking parties and all that stuff," said the bright and articulate 21-year-old from Tampa. "It's a shame it takes me almost leaving here to get me back on track. I'm just happy I'm here."
Banned by the coaching staff from working out with his teammates during voluntary summer drills, Bunkley said he spent nearly 15 hours a day trying to meet academic eligibility standards. As additional penance for his classroom shortcomings, Bowden did not allow him to take part in the team picture and held him out of the first week of summer practice.
"We just said, 'Your priority is academics and you take care of that, because if you don't do that you're not going to be here anyway,'" Andrews said.
Bunkley did the work in the classroom. He also somehow found the time to squeeze in workouts on the side, returning to practice in better condition than anyone on the staff imagined. He's been making plays ever since.
"I think because of what he had to do this summer, being separated from the football team, made him realize that (football) is pretty important for him," Andrews said. "That's been a pleasant surprise to see -- the attitude he's taken and accountability -- not only academically, but football, and the leadership he's shown to those young kids."
Fluellen, a sophomore, is the only other experienced tackle among the other four in the playing rotation. Bunkley's talent and experience has enabled the defensive coaches to expand their 3-4 package, allowing the Seminoles to flourish with their deep and talented linebacker corps.
-- Bob Thomas, Florida Times-Union
MONTGOMERY A WALK-ON ANCHORBLACKSBURG -- Will Montgomery has a very distinct way of talking.
He basically starts speaking on the inhale, giving the first couple of words a bit of a nasal sound. After being around him for years, many of his buddies on the Virginia Tech offensive line can mimic the sound perfectly. They love to walk by Montgomery when he's doing an interview and speak in Montgomery-ese.
In the code of the locker room, it's a sign of respect. They love to have fun with Montgomery. His nickname is "Weird Will," and it's meant in a positive way. They also love having him on their side.
"No question," said senior Jimmy Martin, the Hokies' starting left tackle. "He's our best lineman."
Offensive coordinator/line coach Bryan Stinespring said Montgomery was "pretty much the indispensable man" for the Hokies' line these days, and that's true. He is Tech's starting center, and he's capable of sliding over to play left guard, which he's done this season.
"And I'm sure if we asked him," Stinespring said, "he could move over and play tackle, too."
A guy who had no Division I-A scholarship offers coming out of Clifton (Va.) Centreville has worked his way into being the best offensive lineman on his team and one of the best in the ACC. Montgomery was 6-3 and 240 pounds coming out of high school.
"That kind of size isn't going to draw offers," Montgomery said.
He could have gone to a Division I-AA program, but he wanted to try the top level. So he accepted the Hokies' invitation to walk on and made it work right away.
Tech's offensive and defensive staffs got into something of a bidding war over Montgomery, with Stinespring and company winning out. By his redshirt sophomore year, Montgomery was a starter. A quiet type, he's come out of his shell and become a leader.
Watching him interact with Duane Brown during the Hokies' 2005 opener was an indication of Montgomery's value beyond his skill. Brown, a sophomore, had been moved from tight end to right tackle only two weeks before the first game. Promptly inserted into the starting lineup, Brown was learning on the fly. Montgomery helped make it easier.
"I've only been around him a short time, and I feel like it's been all my life," Brown said. "Great player, great teammate, great guy."
Montgomery is up to 307 pounds, which is a significant upgrade over his high school weight but still not considered massive in the world of offensive linemen. Yet he stands out for several reasons.
He's as fundamentally sound as they come. He learned early that doing things the right way would help him overcome physical disadvantages, and it's been an even bigger help now that he's evened out those disadvantages somewhat. He's as well-prepared as anyone. After four years as a regular, he's seen just about everything a defense can offer. Finally, he's ridiculously strong.
Montgomery probably will have to prove himself all over again when it comes time to impress the NFL people. No one who knows him doubts that he'll get that done, too.
"Will is one guy I don't worry about," Stinespring said. "Whatever he needs to do he's going to do, and he's going to do it well."
-- Mike Harris, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
MAXEY'S PERSISTENCE PAYING OFFCORAL GABLES -- Marcus Maxey doesn't have a chip on his shoulder; it's a two-by-four.
It's no wonder that Miami's fifth-year senior cornerback feels disrespected. He's been buried on the depth chart, and targeted by opposing offenses on game day. When he does get a compliment from the coaching staff, it typically comes with qualifiers and/or criticism.
For instance, UM coach Larry Coker often begins and ends his statements about Maxey with mixed messages along these lines: "Marcus is probably not the most talented of our defensive backs, but he's certainly one of the most consistent."
Some Miami fans began the 2005 season wondering why Maxey was starting instead of electric three-way playmaker Devin Hester, who led the team with four interceptions last year. It's easy to forget that Maxey won the spot vacated by Antrel Rolle by outplaying Hester in practice all spring and fall.
"Go ahead and doubt me," said Maxey, who's tied for the team lead with two interceptions this season. "I'm no fluke. People don't understand the work that I put into this. I study. I train hard. I've done everything I can to put myself in this position. And believe me, nothing has been handed to me."
Maxey was mostly a special teams contributor until he received a fresh start from a new position coach a little over a year ago. Tim Walton, who replaced Mark Stoops in the spring of 2004 as the Hurricanes' secondary coach, moved Maxey from safety to cornerback, the position he played in high school.
From there, Maxey's career took flight. Already Miami's strongest defensive back, he pushed himself to become one of UM's fastest players as well. He ran a team-best 4.25 in the 40-yard dash last summer. His hard work got him four 2004 starts in the nickel package, before his body began to wear down. He hit a rough patch of games at midseason and was unseated by Hester.
Even though Hester shone, contributing big plays, Maxey never stopped pushing. He worked his way back to the forefront to become a key contributor this season, before suffering an ankle injury against Colorado that limited him for two weeks.
His return is important to the Hurricanes because his technique on the boundary is far superior to Hester's at this point, and having him on the field frees up Hester to work on special teams and offense. Many believe that's where the junior is more valuable to Miami, especially with Maxey locking down his receiver.
"We can always count on Maxey to be steady," Walton said. "We know he's going to do the right things, prepare the right way. He may surprise a lot of people this season, but he's not surprising us."
It would have been easy for Maxey to quit at Miami. Many of the Texas schools that were upset when he left his home state for college would have welcomed him back with open arms. But transferring was never an option because Maxey, who received his psychology degree this summer, believes in finishing what he starts.
"If I gave up, I could never go home," Maxey said, referring to his hometown of Navasota, Texas, which has a population of about 5,000. "How are my folks going to look at me? I've got little brothers, little sisters, cousins that look up to me. If I give up on something, when they are faced with adversity, what are they going to do?"
It appears that Maxey's patience and commitment to both UM and himself has paid off, considering that the speed and skills he's shown in games have allowed him to work his way onto Miami's list of draft-worthy prospects. As long as he proves he can remain consistent, playing at the next level will become a possibility for this long-time underdog.
-- Omar Kelly, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
BC ACCIDENTALLY FOUND KIWANUKACHESTNUT HILL -- Regardless of what he does on the football field, people repeatedly ask Mathias Kiwanuka about a grandfather he never knew.
"He was a very revered man," the Boston College star said of Benedicto Kiwanuka, the first prime minister of Uganda. "He changed a lot of people's lives. (His death) was hard for my parents to even talk about."
His death isn't the kind most kids talk about when it comes to their grandfather or anyone else in their family. Benedicto Kiwanuka, elected by the people of Uganda in 1961, was assassinated by Idi Amin's forces in 1972.
His legacy, and his life ethic, lives on in his grandson. So does the ethic of Mathias' mom, Deodata, who married and divorced Benedicto's son. She has a cleaning service, one she built herself to send her three kids through private school. Even now, when he's home, Mathias, who vows to make his mom's life easier when the NFL money arrives, helps Deodata out at the office. There's that ethic again.
It was at one of those private schools -- Cathedral in Indianapolis -- that Mathias was discovered by BC, quite by accident. A 6-5, 215-pounder, he was a teammate of hulking offensive lineman Jeremy Trueblood, the guy the Eagles really wanted as they looked to further their reputation of being "O-Line U." Kiwanuka was described by one BC assistant coach as "a tall, skinny kid who thought he was a basketball player."
Said defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani: "If Trueblood weren't there, we would have gone right by the school."
The Eagles wound up with both players, and both may wind up in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft.
Kiwanuka and Trueblood, who redshirted as freshmen in 2001, could have entered the draft last season. Both decided to pass, with good reason. They project higher this time around. Kiwanuka, the media's preseason choice for ACC player of the year (he won defensive honors in the Big East last fall), is seen as the third or fourth pick by some analysts.
The lure of the money was there this spring for Kiwanuka, even though he probably wouldn't have been picked in the first round. His coaches, knowing their player needed to get bigger and stronger while learning to play hard on every down (he tended to take plays off in the past), advised him to stay. Kiwanuka is 6-7 and 262 pounds now, after finishing last season in the 250 range.
"The name of the game is consistency," said his line coach, former NFL player Keith Willis. "He can play football. We know that. But it's consistently rushing the passer, consistently stopping the run, consistently making the play."
So Kiwanuka stayed. He finished a degree in psychology and is heading toward a second, in English. Like most Boston College student-athletes, he will be ready for life, regardless of what happens on the field. As of now, though, all signs point to a career in the NFL, where his quickness (and increasing strength) is being touted by scouts who believe he can become something special.
Kiwanuka saw a lot of double- and triple-teams last season, which ended for him with a dominating game against North Carolina in a Continental Tire Bowl victory. Many opposing offenses have taken the same approach this fall, making it vital for his buddies on the line and behind him to come through while opponents pay attention to him.
He had only a half-sack in the first four games, but he made two plays in the loss to Florida State that amazed people -- one with his strength, the other with his marvelous speed for a big man. In game five, when Ball State elected to play him straight-up despite starting two young tackles, Kiwanuka had three of BC's six sacks in the Eagles' 38-0 win.
That career-high effort gave the man they call "Kiwi" 31.5 career sacks, allowing him to snap Mike Ruth's long-standing school record (29 from 1982-85).
-- Mike Shalin, Boston Herald
WILLIAMS BLOSSOMS WITH WOLFPACKRALEIGH -- T.J. Williams wasn't one of the so-called blue-chip prospects back in 2000, as a senior at Tarboro (N.C.) High. Even after a successful season at Hargrave Military Academy, he had only a few Division I-A scholarship offers.
Four years later, though, Williams ranks as one of the top tight ends in the nation. He's a legitimate All-ACC candidate in a conference that also includes mega-talents such as Vernon Davis (Maryland), Jeff King (Virginia Tech), Greg Olsen (Miami) and Ben Patrick (Duke). Clearly, Williams has surpassed expectations at N.C. State, while becoming an intense, nasty, tough, clutch playmaker.
Last season as a junior, Williams became the first tight end since Jeff Brown in 1983-84 to lead the Wolfpack in receiving. He entered his senior year as a nominee for the John Mackey Award, which is given annually to the nation's top tight end.
"Honors like that are nice, because you feel overlooked a lot of times as a tight end," Williams said. "Overall, the tight end has to know the second-most about the offense, next to the quarterback. We have to know the blocking schemes and the passing routes. But most people don't realize that."
One person who did notice was N.C. State coach Chuck Amato. He was adamant about making the tight end a big part of the Wolfpack's offense when he took over the program prior to the 2000 season.
"When I first got here, I told (then-coordinator) Norm Chow that I really liked the offense he had run at BYU, which was a form of the West Coast offense," Amato said. "From being a defensive coach most of my career, I knew that tight ends and running backs sometimes get unnoticed in coverage, because everyone concentrates on the skill people outside who run so very fast. I wanted the tight end to be a big part of our offense, and it has been pretty much all the way through.
"We're lucky to have a guy like T.J., who is 6-3, 255 pounds, who runs as fast as he does and who has good hands. You can throw short passes to him, but he can also get downfield deep because he has such good speed. We've been fortunate to have such a talented guy like him to utilize at tight end."
One of the major factors in Williams' decision to attend N.C. State was Amato's commitment to featuring the tight end position.
"It was a big factor," Williams said. "I felt like I could come in and contribute as soon as possible."
Williams played a variety of positions while growing up in Tarboro, a small town in the tobacco belt of eastern North Carolina. His earliest experiences in flag football came as a linebacker, safety and center. As he moved up to the junior high level, he played running back, wide receiver and even quarterback.
He moved to tight end once he reached the varsity at Tarboro High, where he was a starter for three seasons. But as a senior Williams played in just five games, making 27 receptions for 400 yards. Then came the detour to Hargrave.
"A lot of schools were recruiting me, and a couple of them offered," Williams said. "But I had my mind set on coming to N.C. State since the day I was offered."
Williams entered the Pack's game against Georgia Tech ranked fourth in the ACC in receptions per game (4.67) and eighth in receiving yards per game (59.3). After making four catches for 38 yards against the Yellow Jackets, including a clutch third-down conversion on which he fought through several tacklers for a first down, he had 18 receptions for 216 yards and a touchdown through four games.
"Overall, I feel my game is at a high intensity right now," Williams said. "Every week, I come out competing and trying to play at the highest level. Hopefully, the best will come out on top."
-- Sammy Batten, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
JACKSON PROVING SKEPTICS WRONGCOLLEGE PARK -- It seems so implausible now. D'Qwell Jackson was a two-time all-state selection in talent-rich, football-mad Florida, yet he received only mild interest from the top three programs in the Sunshine State.
Florida, Florida State and Miami knew the Seminole High product was a playmaker, but they considered him too small to play inside linebacker and too slow to play outside.
Maryland had no such reservations. Former assistant Mike Locksley was dogged in his pursuit of Jackson, who wound up picking the Terrapins over LSU and N.C. State.
Jackson was named first-team all-state as a junior after piling up 150 tackles, including 16 for loss. He was a repeat selection as a senior after totaling 91 tackles and 10 sacks. Yet it took an impressive performance in the annual Florida-Georgia All-Star Game for one of the "big three" to notice him.
Florida coaches were in attendance as Jackson notched a game-high 10 tackles, while throwing blockers around like ragdolls. The Gators tried to get him to take an official visit on the next-to-last weekend of the recruiting period, but he declined. UF persisted, and there were some anxious moments for Maryland down the stretch. The Terps' next-to-last commitment, Jackson did not fax his letter of intent until the morning after signing day.
In College Park, Jackson became an immediate-impact player. Thrust into the lineup as a true freshman because of injuries to other players, the 6-1, 231-pounder recorded 12 tackles (10 solo) in the 2002 opener against Notre Dame.
It's been nothing but success ever since for Jackson, who led Maryland with 136 tackles as a sophomore, then led the entire ACC with 123 tackles as a junior. He's enjoying another tremendous season as a senior, leading the league and ranking second nationally with 72 tackles through five games.
"Jackson covers the field better than a carpet layer, and it seems like he makes every tackle," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "He's as good as any linebacker I've seen the last three or four years."
Jackson, while undersized for a middle linebacker, has a special knack for shedding blockers and getting to the ball. The Butkus Award candidate is known for his natural instincts, relentless pursuit and sure tackling.
"He's a terrific player who gets an awful lot done," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "He's got a real explosiveness and the power to take on blockers. He's got the quickness to get over the top of blockers before they can get there."
Jackson learned the finer points of playing inside linebacker from former teammate E.J. Henderson, the 2002 Butkus Award winner now with the Minnesota Vikings.
"E.J. didn't say a whole lot; he led by example. I respected his work ethic, on and off the field," Jackson said. "He made things look easy, but I knew that was because he perfected his technique every day in practice."
Jackson, who watched two seasons of film that focused on Henderson's plays, has adopted a similar lunch-pail philosophy.
"What stands out about D'Qwell is his consistency. He is a very good player all the time," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "He is always precise in practice, always sharp in every drill."
Jackson, who ranks in the top 10 at Maryland with 382 career tackles, is one of the few juniors ever named a team captain for the Terps.
"D'Qwell is a natural-born leader. His teammates all admire and respect his commitment to excellence," Friedgen said. "D'Qwell is a guy that constantly makes plays, and that's something that does not go unnoticed by coaches or teammates."
Jackson, who has led the Terps in tackles in 18 of his last 29 games, might have turned pro last spring if not for a nagging wrist injury that required offseason surgery. Now rated among the nation's top three linebackers by some NFL draft gurus, he likely will be a first-round pick in 2006.
WILKINSON LINKS FAMILY, FOOTBALLATLANTA -- California is not a frequent recruiting destination for Georgia Tech. So it wasn't shocking that Gerris Wilkinson essentially had to introduce himself to the Yellow Jackets during his senior year of high school in 2000.
Wilkinson, a star at Skyline High in Oakland, initially was ready to write off the Jackets. But at the insistence of his mother, Denise Bowers, he sent along a highlight tape. Tech interested Wilkinson because his father, Gregg, lived in Atlanta, and Gerris had made yearly summer visits to the city. The tape quickly sent the Jackets to the West Coast, where they eventually convinced Wilkinson -- with a big assist from his family -- to choose Tech over several Pac-10 schools and Miami.
The decision has paid off well for both parties.
A second-team All-ACC selection last year, Wilkinson graduated with a degree in management in May, and he is working on a second degree. A three-year starter, he also used the time in Atlanta to develop a deeper relationship with his father.
Wilkinson's parents divorced when he was three years old. While visiting his father each summer in Atlanta, Gerris longed for more.
Gregg Wilkinson now is a fixture at Georgia Tech games. He often tells the story of when a very young Gerris, upon spotting one of Tech's promotional signs during an early visit to Atlanta, announced his intention to attend the school. Father and son, who were close before Gerris' cross-country college decision, have become even tighter, even as Wilkinson maintains a close relationship with his mother and stepfather in California. After using Bowers-Wilkinson as his last name when he arrived at Tech, Gerris now goes by Wilkinson.
The Yellow Jackets, too, have benefited from the all-conference performer and unselfish team player. In 2003, as a redshirt sophomore, Wilkinson shifted to defensive end to help out a depleted position, despite being undersized at 6-4 and 230 pounds. Happy to get on the field as a starter, he posted a solid season, registering 47 tackles (12 for loss) and four sacks.
In 2004, Wilkinson was on the move again, this time to middle linebacker. He excelled at that spot, too, leading the Jackets with 119 tackles (17 for loss) and 4.5 sacks. Now, for the first time in his career, he is playing the same position for consecutive seasons.
"That right there gives me a lot of confidence," Wilkinson said. "I know what to expect, I know what's expected of me, and I know what I expect of myself."
He again is leading Tech in tackles. Wilkinson, after many moves, has found his natural spot. With the speed to go sideline to sideline, the physical stature to take on fullbacks and the awareness to drop into pass coverage, he is the team's most complete linebacker.
Though not outspoken, Wilkinson also has displayed a quiet leadership that is appreciated by his teammates, who voted him one of four captains for the 2005 team.
"Any time your teammates think enough of you to elect you for something like that," Wilkinson said, "it means a lot."
SCHMIDT MAKING HISTORY AT UVACHARLOTTESVILLE -- At a time in college football when it is rare for a recruit to take all five of his allotted campus visits, rarer still is the player who visits five schools and then doesn't sign with any of them.
Such was the case with Brennan Schmidt, a defensive lineman for DeMatha Catholic High in 2000-01. Schmidt took official visits to Northwestern, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Syracuse. Then he picked Virginia over Boston College.
One might have guessed that BC would have been in the mix because Schmidt's brother, J.D., had played in Chestnut Hill. If BC had not dragged its feet, Brennan might have committed to the Eagles early in the process.
Virginia became a factor only because Schmidt was not wild about his first five. ("I went to three high schools, if that gives you any idea," he said.) The Cavaliers had not recruited his brother and had not recruited Brennan under former coach George Welsh.
Only when Welsh resigned and was replaced by Al Groh, who hired former BC assistant Mike London as his recruiting coordinator, did the Cavaliers start recruiting Brennan. London had been the lead recruiter on J.D. Schmidt for the Eagles and had kept Brennan on BC's board.
Schmidt, who lived in McLean, Va., and commuted to DeMatha across the Potomac River, still isn't sure why the Welsh staff didn't pursue him. Maybe it was his size. Although he gained 20 pounds during the offseason and now is listed at 289, he spent his first four seasons in Charlottesville under 270.
"When you'd go up against a Ray Willis from Florida State, a guy who weighed 350 pounds," he said, "you could feel it."
It was Schmidt's "motor" that first got Groh's attention and landed him a spot in the starting lineup that he has not relinquished. When Schmidt recently went out for the opening snap against Boston College this fall, it represented his 44th consecutive start. That was two more than classmate D'Brickashaw Ferguson, an offensive tackle whose streak came to a close in September after he suffered a knee injury against Duke.
Schmidt is in position to break the UVa records for consecutive starts, which are 47 for a position player (cornerback Tyrone Lewis) and 48 for all players (punter Will Brice). Given Schmidt's demonstrated durability, that shouldn't be much of a problem, but there were several times when the streak was in jeopardy.
Schmidt had experienced shoulder problems, but nothing to keep him out of the lineup, before he suffered a torn labrum at Florida State in the sixth game of the 2004 season. The labrum, which is the ligament that connects the arm to the shoulder, is a fairly important mechanism.
Thus impaired, Schmidt played the final six games of the season, including the MPC Computers Bowl, then underwent surgery on the labrum. While Schmidt was on the operating table, doctors also repaired torn ligaments in one of his thumbs.
On doctors' orders, he missed spring practice, which Schmidt described as "a tough time for me. It was the first time in eight years that I had not been able to play or practice for an (extended) period."
Before the start of preseason practice, teammates voted Schmidt as one of their co-captains for the second year in a row, and he could be on the verge of his best season. An eight-tackle performance against Maryland left him at 246 for his career and within sight of the 300-tackle mark, never before reached by a UVa lineman.
-- Doug Doughty, Roanoke (Va.) Times
BENNETT BUILDING ON 2004 SPLASHCLEMSON -- Clemson defensive end Charles Bennett lists sleeping as one of his hobbies, and that laid-back demeanor is apparent when he's talking about himself or his team. The ferocity of the trenches is not apparent as Bennett calmly and patiently answers questions, taking time to think before he speaks.
"When I'm off the field, it's my time, so I'm relaxing," Bennett said. "I'm a pretty calm person. I smile a lot, try to cut a couple of jokes here and there, just try to enjoy life. But when I'm on the field, it's all about work. It's my business."
Patience has been a requisite for Bennett at Clemson, as he has waited for his turn in the spotlight. Highly touted out of Camden (S.C.) High, he redshirted in 2001. He played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, before his time finally came in 2004.
As a senior this fall, Bennett is considered one of the team's best players. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning calls him a "technician."
"He's so good with his hands and feet," Koenning said. "He's very strong-handed and can shed blocks quicker than you might think."
Bennett was buried on the depth chart in 2003, playing behind Khaleed Vaughn and J.J. Howard. But Howard suffered a season-ending injury in the sixth game, and Bennett's role was elevated by necessity. In a season-ending upset of then-No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl, he announced his arrival with a key sack of quarterback Casey Clausen.
Last year Bennett moved into a starting role and proved he deserved the promotion. When Clemson's starting line was punchless in the first half of the season, failing to register a sack through five games, Bennett made another statement.
Bennett triggered a second-half resurgence on the line -- and on the entire defense -- with two sacks against Utah State. The line went on to record 13 sacks over the last six games, as Clemson finished 5-1. Bennett also came up with the game-saving interception in the Tigrs' 26-20 win over N.C. State, as the Wolfpack was driving for what otherwise may have been the game-winning score.
This season Bennett entered fall camp primed for an All-ACC season, but personal setbacks dealt him a blow. Several relatives passed away during a short period over the summer, including a 47-year-old uncle who died of a heart attack.
"He's had a lot of family issues," Koenning said. "He's really a strong man in a lot of ways."
Bennett and fellow end Gaines Adams encountered their share of difficulties in the Tigers' 2-3 start, mainly because they were going against big, physical offensive lines. Bennett still managed 23 tackles, two tackles for loss and five quarterback pressures in the first five games, and he came up with a huge play against Miami.
After Clemson's offense scored with 2:58 left to trim the Hurricanes' lead to 20-17, the defense needed a stop. Bennett provided it when, on a third-and-seven play, he raced into the backfield on a stunt and pounced on quarterback Kyle Wright for a sack that lost nine yards and forced a punt.
Miami went on to win 36-30 in triple overtime, but Bennett's presence was felt with a season-high eight tackles and the big sack.
"It was pretty exciting," he said. "It was a big game, and it happened at a big time in the game."
-- Larry Williams, Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier
BAKER COOKS UP HAPPY ENDINGSCHAPEL HILL -- You believe Matt Baker when he tells you he's feeling no urgency, that even though his college career is drawing to a close just as it begins, that doesn't mean he's in some type of anxiety-riddled hurry.
That's just Baker, who naturally comes more chilled than a room-service bottle of Dom Perignon. Whether it's his intentionally mussed hair or his relaxed speech pattern, North Carolina's fifth-year senior quarterback embodies an unruffled attitude, the one he carries into the huddle on Saturdays and also takes onto the golf course in the summer.
"I'm a lot calmer on the football field than I am on the golf course," said Baker, who routinely shoots in the mid-70s. "Football, like golf, is a long game. A lot of things happen. You're going to hit good shots and bad shots, just as you're going to make good throws and bad throws. You've just got to be able to shake the last one off and stay steady."
It is that attitude that allows Baker to lead the Tar Heels. It was that poise that helped him shake off a 1-for-9 first half at N.C. State on Sept. 24, when he bounced back to rally UNC to a 31-24 comeback victory with 174 yards and a touchdown after the break. It was that determination that allowed him to throw for 281 yards the next week against Utah, hitting receiver Jesse Holley in the fourth quarter with the game-clinching 43-yard touchdown pass to seal a 31-17 win.
After four years in the shadows, Baker can exhale and enjoy now. He said practices feel far more meaningful than in the past, and the wins carry greater satisfaction. He admits that after the N.C. State triumph he spent the night walking around Franklin Street "with a great big smile on my face."
It's not your fairy tale college football career by any means. In 2001, Baker came out of high school in Michigan as a middle-of-the-road prospect who had scholarship offers from just three Division I-A programs. Virginia wanted him. Western Michigan would have given him a chance to start early in his career. Then North Carolina swept in, shortly after the team's coaching change from Carl Torbush to John Bunting.
"North Carolina came in at the last minute, one of the last weekends of recruiting," Baker said. "I came down to visit, and I loved the place. So I've been here ever since."
In some ways it feels like forever, particularly on the football field, where over his first four years Baker never made a start, completing just 44 of 80 passes. For the most part, he spent his Saturday afternoons waiting -- sometimes patiently, sometimes dispirited -- for his chance to shine.
Baker admits he cut corners early in his career, knowing his weekly preparation had little impact on the games' results. But eventually that apathy gave way to motivation. He knew his time would come, and he wanted to be ready for it.
"I've been setting up this role for a couple years now," Baker said. "And it's not like I was silent in past years when I was the backup quarterback. I was still a pretty vocal leader and working to gain my teammates' trust. That made things that much easier when now I was the only person to look at when they were looking for direction and leadership in the offense."
Bunting sees Baker's confidence and understands how infectious it can be.
"These kids rally around Matt Baker," Bunting said. "And Matt Baker gives it back. He rallies around them. It's a real good situation. It's one I really believed would happen, and it has. With Matt, we always have a chance to win."
Without hesitation, Bunting lauds Baker's strong arm, his toughness and the way his game-management skills have sharpened since the season began.
"He's never going to be perfect. No quarterback ever is," Bunting said. "But he'll continue to get better. And by season's end, Matt Baker might be the best quarterback in the ACC."
It seems that everywhere within the UNC program, someone has Baker's back, from the coaches to the receivers to the linemen who protect him. Baker makes sure to keep strong company -- literally. He lives with left tackle Brian Chacos and also hangs out with guard Arthur Smith and center Steven Bell.
"I wouldn't say there are too many benefits to it," Baker said with a laugh. "I can't play any pranks on them. They control whether I get hit or not. So if I piss them off or play a prank on them, they can give me a good old 'Look out!' block."
That's typical Baker. He knows his limitations and works within them. That said, he isn't afraid to take on big challenges. They range from road tests at Miami and Virginia Tech (both on the horizon this fall) to wrestling matches with his super-sized roommate, who weighs in at 301 pounds.
"The last time we wrestled, I dropped Chacos," Baker said. "I've since retired. Went out on top."
Baker can only hope for a similar end to his college football career.
"The wait has definitely been worthwhile," Baker said. "I never considered transferring or leaving or quitting football, because I've enjoyed my time here in Chapel Hill, and I wouldn't give up going to this university and my friends here for anything. Plus, there was always that light at the end of the tunnel. There was always that fifth year, where I knew that if I kept working hard and put myself in the right position that I would definitely be the starter for this season.
"Now it's my time to enjoy it all."
-- Dan Wiederer, Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
RANDOLPH SURVIVES ROLLER-COASTERWINSTON-SALEM -- Cory Randolph made it difficult for anyone to tell that he was happy with his comeback performance, a victory over Clemson after returning to quarterback.
Then again, Randolph also made it difficult to see his frustrations last year, when he couldn't keep backup Benjamin Mauk off the field and couldn't bring the Demon Deacons many wins.
To hear Randolph tell the story, you wouldn't have been able to see anything interesting happen even when coach Jim Grobe told him in late September that he'd be returning to quarterback. That's where he was the starter for 20 games, before losing the spot to Mauk late last year.
"Nothing real emotional happened," Randolph said. "I just felt that this was what coach wanted me to do, and I have a job to do and go out there and do it."
That low-key demeanor caused many to question his leadership abilities last year, when he and the team were struggling. But staying level-headed may have been the key to Randolph's ability to return to quarterback and succeed with only a week of practice.
At one time, Randolph looked like a lock to be the Deacons' quarterback for three straight seasons. After redshirting in 2001, he backed up James MacPherson in Wake's Seattle Bowl season.
Then Randolph took over as the full-time starter. He led Wake to a 5-7 record (3-5 ACC) in 2003, completing 58.5 percent of his passes and running for 404 yards. But while displaying a strong arm and quick feet, he also showed just enough inconsistency to make people start to wonder. Wake's poor finish to the season as a team didn't help.
Neither did the arrival of Mauk, a record-setting prep passer. As the competitive Mauk worked his way into the rotation, Randolph began to go downhill. His problem areas, mainly holding the ball too long in the pocket and sporadic accuracy, began to get worse.
Publicly, Randolph said very little about the rotation system, although he was asked constantly about it. Even after losing the starting job eight games into last season, he refused to bash the process. But when the season was over, he went to Grobe and expressed his displeasure. Grobe told him he thought he stopped competing at some point.
By the end of spring practice this year, it was clear that the coaches had decided to go with the younger Mauk. In August, Randolph was moved to wide receiver, where he quickly worked his way into the top-three rotation.
"You realize that certain things happen for certain reasons," Randolph said. "Coach gave me another opportunity to go out there and play at receiver and make plays. I never got down on myself. I had a lot of support from a lot of fans and especially my family."
The problem was that Mauk couldn't do enough to hold the job. When the Deacs started 1-3, with poor quarterback play the team's chief weakness, Grobe felt the season slipping away and reached for his veteran.
Randolph stepped back behind center and ripped off a 20-for-25 showing with three touchdown passes against Clemson. Gone was the Randolph who stood in the pocket, finally taking a sack because he couldn't make a decision. Instead, he ran the offense with decisiveness and precision.
"Honestly, this is the Cory Randolph we always expected and expected last year," Grobe said. "The thing that I was so impressed with was he was doing a good job making decisions. They weren't always right, but he was making decisions and going with them. He never had any lulls where it looked like he wasn't trying to make things happen in a hurry.
"The key for him was he just went out and played. He didn't worry about things. He played full-speed and was really quick and decisive in everything he did."
Grobe said most players couldn't have done what Randolph did.
"A lot of guys would have quit," Grobe said. "A lot of guys would have transferred. A lot of guys would not have moved to wide receiver and tried to play there, but he's just a kid who wanted to do anything he could to help the team. He's not been real happy about it. I never expected him to be, but he handled it with class and like a champion. He just patiently waited, and now he's got another chance."
Randolph refused to appear excited about his Clemson performance. Although always reticent, he has even more perspective on life now, knowing that for all the highs, the lows often are lurking.
"Character-wise, you realize that some things are bigger than yourself," Randolph said. "You take it as a challenge. Life is not perfect. The fairy tale story is rare."
This fall, Randolph has resumed writing his own interesting story. Now the Wake program is anxious to see the ending.
GRIDIRON LIFTS MORAVCHIK'S SPIRITDURHAM -- Jim Moravchik has seen Duke lose a lot of football games since arriving on campus in the summer of 2001. There have been close losses, lopsided losses, frustrating losses, embarrassing losses and more than a few that have been downright heartbreaking.
But it's not hard for Duke's fifth-year senior guard to keep his on-field disappointment in perspective. After the off-field tragedies Moravcik has endured, losing a mere football game -- even a lot of mere football games -- has become a lot easier to handle.
"Football is a release," Moravchik said. "I think about my dad more when I'm just doing nothing. When I get around the guys, I forget about my dad, and playing is so much fun."
Moravchik's dad, also named Jim, died of a heart attack on Sept. 1, just days before Duke's 2005 opener at East Carolina. The Blue Devils' most experienced offensive lineman flew home to Sun Prairie, Wis., on the Thursday before the game, but he returned on Saturday morning and started at left guard in Duke's 24-21 loss to the Pirates.
"When we got to East Carolina and he showed up at the team hotel, I thought, 'That's a great guy,'" Duke safety Chris Davis told the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun. "His father just passed away a couple of days ago, but he's a starter on this team, and he knew he had a big role in us trying to win the game. I really have a lot of respect for him for that."
Moravchik flew back to Wisconsin after the game to attend his father's funeral. Duke coach Ted Roof and several other Blue Devils also made the trip.
"He was an extraordinary person," Moravchik said. "Whenever I think about him, I smile. I've cried for him one or two times, but that's it, just because he was so extraordinary. There are things that spark memories about my dad, and those are the hard times."
Moravchik has seen plenty of hard times at Duke. He redshirted in 2001 when the Devils went 0-11, and he played briefly the next season when Duke was 2-9. As a redshirt sophomore in 2003, he became a part-time starter on a team that began 2-5 under coach Carl Franks, but finished strong -- with Duke's best stretch of football this century -- in the final five games under Roof.
Moravchik was looking forward to his junior season when his best friend on the team, defensive end Micah Harris, fell asleep at the wheel of his car and was killed in a one-car accident in southern Virginia.
"I just cried forever," Moravchik said. "Then Coach Roof and the coaching staff came over to my apartment, and a bunch of friends came over. We just spent the night, 'til like 3 a.m., just talking about him. For the next couple of weeks, I kind of went in a depression."
Moravchik considered leaving Duke after his redshirt junior season. He was on pace to graduate on time, and after living through 38 losses (and just eight wins) with the Blue Devils, he thought it was time to move on. But he missed football and during the summer, a sense of unfinished business drew him back to the team.
"When I got here, Duke was coming off two straight winless seasons," he said. "I wanted to help turn the program around and get it back where it belongs. We've made a lot of progress, but there's still more to accomplish."
When Moravchik told Roof he was returning, the Duke coach offered him a special prize -- a chance to honor Harris. Moravchik gave up the No. 79 jersey he'd worn in his first four seasons at Duke for Harris' No. 55.
"It's a great honor," Moravchik said. "I could never turn it down. I feel a great sense of pride when I put it on. Whenever I see the 55, it reminds me of who he was."
Moravchik's decision to return to Duke proved a godsend for the Blue Devils, especially after projected starter Bob Benion (knee) was lost for the year in the preseason. That left Moravchik and junior guard Tyler Krieg as the only two players up front with starting experience. They have to provide a solid foundation, while youngsters such as Matt Rumsey, Lavdrim Bauta and Fred Roland learn on the job.