HEADLINE

Second-year coaches look to make mark in ACC Coastal

Sports Xchange

July 14, 2017 at 5:48 pm.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The second go-around in the Atlantic Coast Conference could bring more comfort and possibly better results for three Coastal Division coaches who made it through their first seasons with varying degrees of success.

Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech probably wouldn’t mind much of the same because his team won the division and went on to a riveting bowl victory last season.

Miami’s Mark Richt put together a nice opening season at his alma mater so the foundation could be set for the Hurricanes. Yet Bronco Mendenhall encountered the roughest waters at Virginia.

With no newcomers among the ACC’s head coaches this year, the trio remains the newest among the conference’s head men.

Another coach, Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi, showed that there can be early success. The Panthers had eight-win regular seasons in his first two years, something that hadn’t been achieved since 2009.

So immediate success is possible within a Coastal Division that has seen some teams take significant dips from time to time in the past decade.

Virginia Tech’s 10-4 season was capped by a Belk Bowl victory against Arkansas.

“Our long-term mission is return Virginia Tech back to the top of the ACC,” Fuente said Friday during the ACC Kickoff. “That’s our goal. But to me, it’s about the process and it’s about are we going about the process that’s been proven over time that leads to our improvement?”

The Hokies went through strange stretches last season, with uplifting victories and puzzling losses.

“Our margin of error wasn’t that great,” Fuente said.

Despite winning the Coastal Division, there was unfinished business for the Hokies.

“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder, being that we didn’t win last year (the overall league title),” Virginia Tech linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka said. “Definitely the goal is to make it back to the ACC championship.”

Miami went 9-4 in the first season under Richt, who has a better grip on things entering his second year.

“A year later, we’re still going through the installation (of schemes), but it’s just not as crazy as it was a year ago,” Richt said. “There wasn’t that big of a learning curve across the board.”

The second year directing the program is critical in Richt’s mind because now there’s a fuller understanding of all the operations from the players and staff.

“We understand how to do the little things right, and we understand how we want to go about our business,” he said. “We’re moving right along at a very good pace.”

For Mendenhall, he said it’s important to maintain perspective.

“Realistic, opportunistic and anxious to get to work,” he said in describing the outlook and willing to let the process play out. “There is no time frame that I’m imposing.”

Still, Mendenhall, whose team went 2-10 last year, had to endure an unusual season based on his background.

“I’m not used to losing more than winning, so that was a reframing,” he said.

FEW QUARTERBACKS RETURNING: Quarterbacks Kurt Benkert of Virginia and Daniel Jones of Duke are the only returning starting quarterbacks among Coastal Division teams.

They both paid their dues last year, when in some ways they became unexpected starters and their teams combined for six victories. Now, they’re considered keys to their teams’ offenses.

Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, arrived at Virginia with a knee injury that was still healing. He became the starting quarterback, and yet often paid the price physically during the season.

“It kind of pushed me to the limits,” Benkert said. “I look forward to starting (this) season healthy.”

Jones wasn’t even on the radar last summer when he was a little-known player about to enter his redshirt freshman season. That was before Thomas Sirk suffered another Achilles injury and that thrust Jones into the role as the starter.

He never relinquished that spot, quite an achievement for a player who committed to the Blue Devils as a non-scholarship enrollee.

The support from Duke coach David Cutcliffe has only grown.

“He is physically different. He’s stronger and I think faster,” Cutcliffe said of as Jones approaches his second season. “I think the biggest difference is confidence.”

Cutcliffe said Jones should benefit from the leadership role that has grown on the team. He said it was difficult a year ago when Jones was thrust into his spot when the Blue Devils were gearing up for months to play under a different signal-caller.

Jones said he can tell there’s more comfort even if he can’t pinpoint when that occurred.

“I don’t know if there was a specific event or a defining moment,” Jones said. “A process that I kind of progressed throughout the season.”

At Virginia, Benkert said there’s a slightly different tone knowing he’s going into this season as the clear-cut first-string quarterback.

“Competition brings out the best in everybody,” he said. “This will be the first year it’s not a true competition.”

Mendenhall said the Benkert’s development has been noteworthy.

“It has been fun seeing confidence, decision-making and maturity improve,” he said.

Mendenhall said Benkert has had the ability to make every necessary throw and now his mobility and accuracy have been upgraded.

FILL THE OPENING: North Carolina will unveil a new starting quarterback after the departure of Mitch Trubisky, who was the NFL Draft’s second overall pick by the Chicago Bears.

The Tar Heels had Trubisky in the first-string role for only one season, but his junior campaign was enough to send him to the next level and thus leave an unexpected void on the North Carolina depth chart.

The 2017 starter is likely to be either Chazz Surratt, a redshirt freshman, or Brandon Harris, a graduate transfer from LSU who made 15 starts across three seasons with the Tigers. Harris, though, played in only four games last year.

“The guy that’s going to win that job is going to be a guy that can lead our football team,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “He has got to be able to make good decisions and take care of the football.”

Surratt was being groomed as Trubisky’s potential replacement, but with the accelerated time frame the landscape changed again when Harris enrolled.

HOKIES ON HOLD: Virginia Tech’s quarterback question has yet to be fully answered.

Fuente is deflecting attention from that topic.

“The biggest thing for us is the supporting cast,” he said, “in terms of the wide receivers and getting some more production out of our running back position as we move forward so that whoever does play quarterback has a chance to be productive.”

NEW-NAME OFFENSE: Pittsburgh’s offense will need a new identity, particularly with the departure of running back James Conner, who enjoyed an inspirational senior season last year after a bout with cancer.

Also gone is quarterback Nate Peterman.

“They’re the two best examples I’ve ever been around on how to lead other guys and how to incorporate everybody in everything we do and hold everybody accountable,” offensive tackle Brian O’Neill said. “Those are two of the biggest things we’ve tried to work on as a rising group of upperclassmen and leaders on the offense is being able to lead by example and incorporate everybody.”

The offense is under the direction of new coordinator Shawn Watson, so new wrinkles are bound to be part of what transpires when the Panthers snap the ball.

It figures the quarterback duties could fall to Max Browne, a graduate transfer from Southern California. He started three games last year for the Trojans.

“He knows he’s coming into this fall camp with guys on his heels,” Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said.

CONFERENCE PRIDE: Georgia Tech provided a source of ACC pride last season by posting a 3-0 record against Southeastern Conference opponents.

The Yellow Jackets will be right back at it against an SEC foe when they open the season against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Sept. 4 at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said it’s an important clash for the Yellow Jackets, with also an impact on the ACC.

“You can’t hide from the fact that people are going to compare the leagues,” Johnson said.