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Talented Tailbacks Among Acc's Biggest Spring Splashes

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By David Glenn

May 1, 2007

Looking ahead to the 2007 football season, tailback should be a position of strength for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The league's list of outstanding runners is a long one. There's James Davis and C.J. Spiller at Clemson, Tashard Choice at Georgia Tech, Lance Ball at Maryland, Andre Brown and Toney Baker at N.C. State, and Branden Ore at Virginia Tech, among others.

Based on the results of spring practice, which for the ACC as a whole stretched from March 1 (Georgia Tech's start) through April 28 (the end for Boston College and Maryland), the tailback talent base is getting deeper.

Graig Cooper of Miami, Antone Smith of Florida State, Keith Payne of Virginia and Jeff Smith of Boston College likely will have very different roles for their respective teams this season, but all four players made huge statements with their eye-opening performances during spring practice.

While many of the ACC's proven stars predictably dominated spring drills, the four tailbacks generated a different level of excitement in March and April because they were not yet household names to any audience beyond their own fan bases. Antone Smith was a backup for the Seminoles last season. Jeff Smith served mainly as a return man for the Eagles. Cooper and Payne will make their college debuts this fall.

Miami fans didn't even get to see Cooper, a 6-0, 195-pounder who enrolled at UM in January after a semester of prep school, in action this spring. Coach Randy Shannon closed most of the Hurricanes' practices to the public, and Cooper suffered a broken finger that kept him out of the team's spring game.

Before his injury, however, Cooper showed a level of athleticism that stood out even on a team full of great athletes. His ability to accelerate quickly and make big plays was compared to that of former UM star and current NFL playmaker Devin Hester. Cooper's overall skill level even led the coaching staff to draw up various plays and formations designed specifically for him.

NFL running back Edgerrin James, a former Miami star whose cousin Javarris was UM's starting tailback last season, watched the Hurricanes practice this spring and came away with the impression that Cooper should start this fall – ahead of Javarris, who led the team with 767 rushing yards in 2006.

"(Javarris) isn't the best back right now," Edgerrin James said. "Cooper is the best back right now."

In 2005, as a high school senior in Tennessee, Cooper was named the state's Mr. Football after rushing for 2,123 yards and 30 touchdowns and averaging more than seven yards per carry. After failing to qualify academically for college enrollment last summer, he gained 1,327 yards and averaged more than 12 yards per carry at Milford Academy in New York in 2006.

"(College football) is a lot different from high school. I just have to learn a lot of the small things," Cooper said. "In high school, you only have to learn what you have to do. In college, you have to learn what everyone's got to do."

At Florida State, Antone Smith showed more of the form that once made him a prep All-American in the Sunshine State. Working in a new offense and behind a rejuvenated line, he seemed to break a long run almost every day in practice and averaged nearly 10 yards per carry in the Seminoles' spring scrimmages.

"Antone Smith, he's one guy that's way out ahead at his position," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "He had an excellent spring."

"He's a competitor, he can catch, he can run, he blocks well, he's tough, he has great top-end speed, and he can make you miss," first-year FSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher said. "He's a very good football player, and he seems to be getting better every day."

Smith, a 5-9, 188-pounder who finished his high school career with more than 6,000 rushing yards and two state championships, gained 644 yards over the past two years at FSU as a reserve. Now, heading into his junior season, his game-day opportunities look as if they are about to increase greatly.

New FSU running backs coach Dexter Carter said that if Smith can carry his spring dominance over to the fall, he'll deserve the overwhelming majority of the team's rushing attempts. That would be a major shift from the Seminoles' philosophy in recent years, when they had rigid, two-man tailback rotations, including with Lorenzo Booker (since graduated) and Smith in 2006.

At Virginia, Payne may not even be the starter this fall. Junior Cedric Peerman has a much better understanding of the team's offense, especially in terms of pass protection, and he does a much better job of following blocks correctly.

But Payne, a redshirt freshman, is intriguing because he combines solid speed and athleticism with extraordinary size and power. He's 6-3 and 235 pounds – that's about three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than the typical ACC tailback – and he has enormous hands and size-14 shoes.

In Virginia's spring-ending scrimmage, Payne rushed eight times for 29 yards and caught a screen pass for 12 yards. He's already developed a walk-on-water reputation among some UVa fans, but the coaching staff still prefers more of a wait-and-see approach.

"His talent is obviously, to anybody looking at him, pretty high-end talent," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "(But) his game is still a little bit schoolyard."

In high school, Payne had a huge senior year, rushing 273 times for 2,059 yards and 26 touchdowns and leading Oakton High to the Class 3A (largest schools) state championship in Virginia. A consensus top-25 prospect in the Commonwealth, he earned SuperPrep All-America honors but was regarded only as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com and Scout.com.

"My goal is to be the best in the ACC," Payne said. "I want to be the best running back. I want to run the plays and help us win. That's the ultimate goal, to win games."

Jeff Smith, a sophomore, also faces a major challenge for playing time this fall, because Boston College's tailback cupboard is well-stocked with reliable veterans L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender.

A 5-9, 190-pounder with sprinter's speed, Smith led the ACC with a 28-yard average on kickoff returns last season as a true freshman. In the Eagles' 34-33 double-overtime victory over Clemson, he had five returns for 213 yards, including an electrifying 96-yard touchdown.

Under former coach Tom O'Brien, however, Smith touched the ball on plays from scrimmage only eight times (five runs, three receptions) in 2006. Many BC fans added that development to their growing list of complaints about O'Brien, who left Chestnut Hill after the season for the N.C. State job.

First-year BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski said he's not worried about where Smith lines up for the Eagles, or how he was utilized last season. The coach said he just knows, after watching Smith on film and then during spring practice, that he needs to get the ball to him as much as possible.

"You've got to put the ball in the playmakers' hands," Jagodzinski said. "Whoever these guys are, we'll identify them. We're going to find ways to get (Smith) the ball, whether it's a kickoff, punt, a reverse, at tailback, at receiver, screens, whatever it takes to get the ball in his hands. He's shown what he can do. He can change a game."

There are still times when Smith doesn't look like a natural tailback, and that may be because he hasn't spent much time at the position. In high school, he ran for 1,469 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior, but he did so mostly from the quarterback position. He also was an outstanding safety at the prep level, but he was recruited all along by the Eagles as a tailback and a return man, and that's where he spent his time last season.

Below are some other ACC players who haven't been full-time starters in the past but who looked great this spring and likely will play important roles (some as backups) this fall.

Clemson defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson: A rising junior, Jackson is not a new face for the Tigers. He played plenty in a backup role over the past two years, but he performed so well this spring that he may get a first-team nod in 2007 over one of the team's returning starters, Dorell Scott and Jock McKissic.

A 6-3, 290-pounder, Jackson dominated the interior of Clemson's rebuilt offensive line so often this spring that Tommy Bowden called him "unblockable." The coach also described Jackson as the team's most consistent defensive lineman, along with veteran end Phillip Merling. A questionable student in high school who needed a special academic waiver to attend Clemson, Jackson also has picked up the pace in the classroom, where he compiled a 3.0 GPA last semester.

Duke linebacker Marcus Jones: The Blue Devils desperately need more linebackers to step up in support of outstanding veteran Michael Tauiliili, and Jones may be the most talented of a group that also includes projected starters Vincent Rey and Tim Ball. Jones had two tackles for loss (including a sack) in the Devils' spring game, continuing his month-long penchant for big plays.

ACC fans may remember Jones as Duke's starting quarterback on opening day last season, or as a former wide receiver for the Devils. With decent depth at those positions, coach Ted Roof suggested during the offseason that Jones – a 6-3, 220-pounder and one of the program's better all-around athletes – might be able to help the team's thin linebacker corps. Jones did play linebacker at times in high school. If he learns his assignments better, he could start this fall.

Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan: If you can work your way onto Tech's depth chart at defensive end, where veterans Adamm Oliver, Darrell Robertson and Michael Johnson already are very accomplished players, you're pretty darn good. If you can do it as a true freshman, you're a freak of nature.

A 6-4, 272-pound consensus prep All-American from Pennsylvania, Morgan graduated from high school early and enrolled at Tech in January. At spring practice, he more than lived up to the hype, making as many "wow" plays as any Tech defender of recent years. The Yellow Jackets actually have yet another solid end in Robert Hall, so it's still conceivable that Morgan could redshirt this fall, but given his talent level it will be extremely difficult to keep him off the field.

Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak: On the last day of spring practice, Wujciak started a fight with an offensive lineman early in the day, had another scrap with a tailback about an hour later, then completed his violent trifecta by absolutely hammering one of Maryland's quarterbacks on a goal-line play. Oh, and he made lots of tackles, sacks and interceptions in April, too.

A 6-3, 248-pound redshirt freshman from New Jersey, Wujciak is competing for a starting role at middle linebacker, a position vacated by the surprise offseason announcement that incumbent Wesley Jefferson was giving up his final season of eligibility to pursue his dream of becoming a state trooper. Veteran Chase Bullock makes fewer mistakes and remains bracketed with Wujciak on the depth chart, but Wujciak has the look of a possible four-year starter, assuming he develops a better understanding of the defensive scheme.

North Carolina safety Shaun Draughn: When North Carolina's new defensive coaches looked at video of the Tar Heels' 2006 season, one of the first things they noticed was the team's lack of punishing tackles against the run. Safety Kareen Taylor and linebacker Larry Edwards, both seniors last fall, had a few beauties. But it wasn't a long list, and the safety position opposite Taylor proved to be an embarrassingly soft spot for UNC.

Into that physical void this spring stepped Draughn, a 6-0, 195-pound redshirt freshman who was good enough in practice last year that former coach John Bunting and his defensive assistants gave serious thought to throwing him into the fire. New UNC coach Butch Davis, who complimented Draughn for his "real physical play" on several occasions this spring, is glad they didn't. On a team with lots of jobs open, Draughn was the only freshman in the program who even came close to solidifying a starting job in April.

N.C. State defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash: Years ago, former Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato signed a lightly regarded defensive tackle from Virginia named John McCargo, whose performance in Raleigh ultimately made him a first-round NFL draft pick. In 2005, Amato signed a lightly regarded defensive tackle from Virginia named Alan-Michael Cash, and now new State coach Tom O'Brien is hoping to see a similar career path.

A 6-1, 291-pound redshirt sophomore, Cash earned a starting role for the Wolfpack this spring by plugging the middle in the absence of departed star Tank Tyler (a third-round NFL draft pick) and veteran DeMario Pressley (injured). Along with fellow redshirt sophomore Ted Larsen, Cash is a solid player and a potential star in the trenches for the Pack, which should have a strong three- or four-tackle rotation this fall, even without Tyler.

Virginia Tech offensive tackle Ed Wang: Remember the Duane Brown experiment? Tech's coaches certainly do. The former tight end, converted into an offensive lineman two years ago, became a second-team All-ACC player at right tackle last fall. Now a left tackle, Brown will be the anchor of the Hokies' o-line as a senior this season. Next on the agenda: the Ed Wang experiment.

Wang still was listed at 6-5 and 268 pounds (his tight end weight last year) on Tech's official spring roster, but he added at least 40 pounds during the offseason, and the extra weight didn't seem to slow him down as he won the starting right tackle spot during spring practice. Tech coach Frank Beamer said Wang had "good ability" at tight end, where the Hokies are well-stocked, but "great ability" at tackle, where the team needs a stable bookend for Brown.

Wake Forest nose guard Boo Robinson: In theory, the ACC champion Demon Deacons could be vulnerable in the middle of their defense this fall, after the offseason departures of nose guard Jamil Smith, All-ACC middle linebacker Jon Abbate, strong safety Patrick Ghee and All-ACC free safety Josh Gattis. In practice, it may not work out that way.

Right in the middle of the action in the trenches this year for Wake will be 6-2, 326-pound redshirt sophomore Boo Robinson. As a second-team player in 2006, he had 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception. An impressive combination of size, strength and quickness, Robinson will join forces this fall with senior tackle Zach Stukes, super-sized (288 pounds!) middle linebacker Eric Berry and promising safety Chip Vaughn in a group that may be able to give opponents second thoughts about trying to ram the ball up the middle.

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