|Tuesday, June 27
Updated: July 6, 9:48 AM ET
Others are catching up, but FSU still No. 1
By Joe Wojciechowski
This used to be easy.
Florida State would just stroll through the ACC schedule en route to the real game that mattered -- Florida. That's changing, though. Yes, the Gator-Seminoles rivalry is one of the best in sports, but no longer can FSU count on going untouched through the ACC. Clemson and Tommy Bowden scared the beejeezes out of his old man in a 17-14 loss to the Seminoles last year and the Tigers are better this season. North Carolina could be dangerous if Ronald Curry returns. Georgia Tech still has some scoring threats even though Joe Hamilton and Dez White left. And don't forget Maryland RB Lamont Jordan, who has Heisman talent.
Still, FSU will likely win its ninth straight ACC crown. But it's getting tougher each year.
Clemson lost just three starters from an offense that averaged 403 yards a game, which was third highest in school history. Add in QB Woodrow Dantzler, who wasn't a starter but threw for over 1,500 yards and nine TDs while replacing the injured Brandon Streeter, and this group has some serious juice. Dantzler was supposed to be challenged by redshirt freshman Willie Simmons, but an ankle sprain slowed Simmons and Dantzler moved the offense with ease, throwing one interception in 91 attempts. End of controversy.
Running back Travis Zachery, who rushed for 820 yards and 16 TDs, and WR Rod Gardner, who set Clemson single-season marks with 84 catches for 1,084 yards, give the offense a few more playmakers. From a rebuilt line last season, all five starters return to make sure this is an offense that will score in bunches.
Defensively, preseason All-America LB Keith Adams, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year who led the nation in tackles (186), is back looking to improve on last season's numbers. Look out for Altroy Bodrick, who played well this spring and could take Braxton K. Williams' slot at linebacker. The secondary lost two starters, but returns Robert Carswell, who was 10th in the nation with six interceptions. The defensive line has depth in addition to three starters returning. Watch the defensive ends Nick Eason and Bryant McNeal. McNeal had a fantastic spring that earned him a No. 1 slot with Eason.
Question mark: Will the offensive line be good enough? Center Kyle Young returns, but little else is certain. Theo Mougros started at guard last season, but missed spring drills while recovering from a torn ACL. Mougros, like the Tigers' line, should be ready for the fall, but who knows?
Keep an eye on: CB Kevin Johnson. The redshirt freshman is a backup -- for now. Johnson had a solid spring and has picked up the defense quickly. He could take Brian Mance's job when the Tigers return in the fall.
Duke Blue Devils
Of course, the bigger mystery is who will catch the ball. Scottie Montgomery graduated and Richmond Flowers transferred to Chattanooga, meaning the Blue Devils are without the two receivers who combined for 93 catches, 1,468 yards and 10 TDs. Kyle Moore grabbed the No. 1 receiver slot with a solid spring, and Bryan Amant looks like he'll take the No. 2 slot. Ben Erdlejac, who caught 19 passes last year before suffering a knee injury, was out for the spring. Duke won't know until later this summer whether he'll be ready for the fall.
RB Duane Epperson will be the workhorse this fall, replacing B.J. Hill, who rushed for over 700 yards before injuring his knee last season. With Hill's move to defensive back, Epperson and redshirt freshman Chris Douglas, who averaged four yards a carry and scored a TD during the spring game, will carry the load. They should be able to run behind the right side of the Blue Devil line, thanks to returning starters Troy Andrews, John Miller and Wes White.
Defensively, the Blue Devils will be inexperienced. Only three starters return, but among them is ILB Todd DeLamielleure, who led Duke with 103 tackles. Akil Ross moves to the outside slot, and with Jaymon Small spending the spring rehabbing his shoulder, Ross was able to get plenty of reps and a good feel for the position. The secondary will be untested but could be all right. Temo George and D'Juan Donald are athletic enough to make up for the inexperience.
Question mark: Will the Blue Devils be able to stop anyone defensively? They struggled with the run last season, and this year they have three new starters on the defensive line.
Keep an eye on: Incoming freshmen wide receivers Reggie Love and Jeremy Battier. Maybe some of that basketball mojo will rub off on the football team (Love is a two-sport star, and Battier is the little brother of Duke hoops star Shane Battier), as both will need to contribute immediately.
Florida State Seminoles
QB Chris Weinke stunned everyone -- including offensive coordinator Mark Richt -- by coming back for one more season and has been nothing short of spectacular. He dropped nearly 20 pounds and has shown some mobility throughout the spring to go with his accurate arm. Weinke's not the only one serious about this final season stuff. Senior RB Travis Minor is in great shape, trying to shake off the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his career. Is it working? Ask the FSU defense, which saw nothing but the back of his jersey as he ripped off a 75-yard TD run in the spring game.
If there is a thin spot -- and this is about as thin as Tom Cruise's hair -- it's at wide receiver. The 'Noles lost Peter Warrick, Ron Dugans and Laveraneus Coles, but they'll be just fine with Marvin Minnis, Atrews Bell, Robert Morgan. Also, watch former high school quarterback Anquan Boldin and junior-college transfer Javon Walker, who surprised everyone with his play this spring. With the ACC schedule being almost nothing more than a tune-up for the Florida and Miami games, they should have plenty of time to get in a rhythm with Weinke.
As great as all that sounds, that's not even the strength of this offense. The offensive line returns three starters, but this spring has shown there are nine guys who could play every down. The team is so deep FSU might redshirt talented senior Char-ron Dorsey if he doesn't earn a starting spot. How good is that?
Defensively, the Seminoles have to replace Corey Simon and Jerry Johnson, but there's a reason FSU brings in a top-five recruiting class every year. Freshman Kevin Emanual has been dominating this spring, and sophomore Chris Woods has star potential at tackle so the inside should be solid. Jamal Reynolds is proving why he'll be a top-five pick in the 2001 draft with his speed and power this spring. LB Tommy Polley is coming off knee surgery, but even if he's not back, the job will go to either sophomore Cornelius Collier or freshman Kendyll Pope, who has been absolutely sticking anybody associated with the offense this spring. The Seminoles' habit of playing a handful of defensive backs will pay off because they have an experienced unit.
Question mark: Who will replace Sebastian Janikowski? Not only was the Polish Partier automatic from 60 yards in, he also forced touchbacks 70 percent of the time on kickoffs. No pressure there. Chance Gwaltney has first crack at the job, but has been less than impressive this spring, leaving the job open when true freshman Brett Cimmorelli arrives this fall.
Keep an eye on: RB Nick Maddox. Yes, Minor is the workhorse back, but Maddox has all the tools to be a game-breaker. He will get plenty of carries this fall because the Seminoles should have their share of blowouts. Should Minor get his annual injury, Maddox will make sure FSU doesn't miss a beat.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
While White is in the NFL, Kelly Campbell will be an all-conference performer, and O'Leary said senior Joe Muyers had the best spring of any receiver. Georgia Tech will look to run the ball more with the talented one-two punch of Sean Gregory and Joe Burns. They will run behind Ed Wilder, a fullback who never met a defensive player he didn't like to flatten. Wilder was held out of spring drills with chronic knee problems, but will be opening holes in the fall.
The line returns only two starters, which could be cause for concern. Former walk-on David Schmidgall takes over at center, redshirt freshman John Bennett snagged a starting slot at right tackle this spring, and redshirt freshman Clay Henry and sophomore Raymond Roberts-Blake are listed as co-starters at left guard.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets were 100th in Division I-A last season, but they will be much improved this season. Of course, it's hard not to improve on that, but Georgia Tech returns nine starters. After going through last season's growing pains, this is a unit that can make a difference. Redshirt freshman Ather Brown had a great spring and earned an outside linebacker starting slot and sophomore DT Greg Gathers is undersized at 255 pounds, but always seems to be around the ball.
Question mark: Will Jamara Clark and Marvious Hester be able to do the job at cornerback? Both have plenty of talent but are inconsistent. Cornerback is a weak spot for the Yellow Jackets, who will need the defense to play well this season if they are to return to the elite of the ACC.
Keep an eye on: QB Brian Camp. The redshirt freshman quietly had a solid spring and earned the No. 3 slot. He has a strong arm and is slowly getting a better feel of the Tech offense. It wouldn't be surprising to see him climb up the depth chart as the season progresses.
More good news was that QB Calvin McCall, after a winter of playing basketball for the Terps, looked like the best quarterback this spring. Vanderlinden wasn't thrilled by the idea of McCall spending the winter playing hoops, but McCall didn't miss a beat. Shaun Hill and Latrez Harrison will challenge McCall again in the fall, but it shouldn't matter much. There are a slew of receivers back for the Terps, highlighted by Jason Hatala, who averaged over 22 yards a catch last season. Three starters return on a offensive line that allowed a league-low 11 sacks last season. Possible starters Mike George and Chris Snader missed the spring because of academic difficulties, opening the final two spots on the heading into the fall.
Defensively, the Terps will be as good as their defensive line. William Shime and Ryan Swift return at the ends, but redshirt freshman Michael Whaley and London Jones played well enough in the spring to have Shine and Swift looking over their shoulders. Kris Jenkins and Charles Hill will need to be solid inside as the rest of the defense is solid. They have experience at linebacker and in the secondary. If Kevin Bishop returns from off-season knee surgery, this will be a solid group.
Question mark: Will Jordan be as good as he was last season? The Heisman Trophy candidate scared people with his absence this spring, but when he's on, he's as good as anyone in the country.
Keep an eye on: WR Moises Cruz. Cruz, who missed last fall, returned in the spring and looked like he never left. The Terps have a bunch of solid receivers, but no game-breaker. Look for Cruz to become that guy before too long.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Spoon leads a defense that returns 10 starters and should be one of the ACC's best. The defensive line is deep with Julius Peppers, Ross McAllister and Ryan Sims. Spoon is a Butkus Award candidate any time he's on the field, and the secondary is deep and talented.
Offensively, the person to watch is new offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain. The former NC State coach will liven up the offense; the only question is who will run it. If Curry is back, it could be fun. If not, Luke Huard and Antwan Black will battle for the job. At least this year the Heels have a running back. Willie Parker showed this spring he's a legitimate threat to break a long run every time he touches the ball. Now, whether the offensive line can open any holes is another question because North Carolina must find five new starters. If they can gel quickly and keep Curry from getting killed, anything's possible with O'Cain calling the plays.
Question mark: Will QB Ronald Curry play? He didn't play basketball or spring football and has talked about redshirting should his foot not completely recover from last season's ruptured Achilles tendon. If he sits out the year, it will be a long one in Chapel Hill.
Keep an eye on: DB Michael Waddell. Waddell has the talent and attitude to make Tar Heel fans forget former star and current St. Louis Ram Dre Bly. North Carolina may return all four DBs, but Waddell will be starting before too long.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Luckily, Rivers will have a pair of Robinsons to help him out. RB Ray Robinson had a good spring and actually avoided injuries, which is a novelty for him. WR Koren Robinson burst on the scene last season, starting the final six games and going over the 100-yard mark in five of those games. The offensive line has only one starter back, but Jarvis Borum (6-7, 341) is the guy to have back. He's a machine on the line and looks ready for a breakout season. Alex Rice started 12 games in 1998, but a neck injury sidelined him last season. He's back, but it will be worth watching to see if he can hold up over the long season.
Defensively, the Wolfpack should be solid, but there are questions still lingering from the spring. Nate Goodsen is a talented player, but he didn't have a good spring. Brian Jamison wreaked havoc last year at times, but could be challenged by Northwestern transfer Drew Wimsatt, who had a great spring and could take Jamison's spot or start at the opposite end of him. The Wolfpack is strong at linebacker, and J.J. Washington and Julius Patterson came out of the spring as the starting cornerbacks. If they play well, the Wolfpack has the making of a very good secondary.
Question mark: Will NC State really play a true freshman at quarterback? Rivers had a nice spring and sure didn't look like a kid who should be worrying about prom plans and pimple cream instead of playbooks. But the ACC is tough, and Amato could lean toward the more experienced Sanders or Olin Hannum, a junior-college All-American from Utah.
Keep an eye on: OL Chris Colmer. The redshirt freshman offensive lineman had a great spring. On a team that needs some serious line help, he could be a nice surprise.
QB Dan Ellis completed over 60 percent of his passes for 21 TDs last year and showed no signs of slowing down this spring. He'll have a quality corps of receivers, led by Kevin Coffey and Billy McMullen. As good as Ellis is, he'll need help from the running game. Antwoine Womack, a second-team all-ACC selection in 1998 who sat out in 1999 for personal reasons, did not participate this spring with academic difficulties, but he has been cleared to return in the fall. He can be a force, but who knows what kind of game shape he'll be in come August. Tyree Foreman and Arlen Harris played well this spring and should challenge Womack for the starting nod. Three starters return on the line, and Jared Woodson emerged as the starting center with a solid spring.
Defensively, LB Angelo Crowell is a star in the making. While Donny Green sat out with academic problems, Crowell wowed everyone in the spring and was simply the best defensive player on the field. The line is talented, but very young. No one has stepped forward as the leader yet, but the good thing is the schedule allows the Cavs time to gel. Another area that will need some time is the secondary, which has just one starter returning and several players switched over from offense to provide depth. Ahmad Hawkins, a starting wide receiver as a junior, made the switch this spring and played well enough that he could be a starter in the fall.
Question mark: How will this team look in the fall? With so many players missing spring drills, it'll be interesting to see who's where in the fall.
Keep an eye on: OL Jermese Jones. Jones, a 6-6, 325-pound lineman who missed all last season with a knee injury, is back. If he stays healthy, Jones could be an all-ACC lineman.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Defensively, it's not any prettier. Yes, DE Bryan Ray is back -- and that is something -- but this spring was brutal; players who could help, like Da'Vaughn Mellerson and Milo McGuire, missed the spring with injuries. The line is so depleted, Wake was looking at offensive linemen on the defensive side of the ball. Wake Forest is still waiting for someone to step forward and claim the spots at linebacker, but Adrian Duncan and Keyshorn Smith could be one of the best cornerback tandems in the conference.
Question mark: Will C.J. Leak make it through the season? With no running game to speak of and a new offensive line, Leak will need to use every last bit of his famed mobility to survive this fall. Of course, if he goes down, it's downright ugly. Backup QB James McPherson suffered a torn ACL this spring, moving converted DB Ricky Perez to the backup slot.
Keep an eye on: DE Bryan Ray. The senior was third in the ACC in tackles for loss and sacks and will be the lone bright spot on a young defense. Even though he'll often be double-teamed, he's still an all-ACC caliber player.
Joe Wojciechowski is the college football editor for ESPN.com