ACC Kickoff Rundown: Going Coastal

The Sports Xchange

July 22, 2016 at 12:24 pm.

Jul 21, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies head coach Justin Fuente speaks to the media during the ACC Football Kickoff at Westin Charlotte. Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 21, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies head coach Justin Fuente speaks to the media during the ACC Football Kickoff at Westin Charlotte. Photo Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The arrival of new coaches in the Coastal Division dominated much of the conversation during the Atlantic Coast Conference Kickoff.

Three of the ACC’s four new coaches are in the same division with Mark Richt taking over at Miami, Bronco Mendenhall in charge at Virginia and Justin Fuente at the helm for Virginia Tech.

Richt, a Miami grad who had been coaching at Georgia, probably sees the ACC in a different light considering he’s also a former assistant coach in the conference while at Florida State.

“I really look forward to the changes that have happened,” Richt said. “More teams. I think the league is much deeper and tougher top to bottom than when I remember leaving it.”

In each of the cases, the programs they take over have been struggling to find stability in recent years, with even Virginia Tech showing signs of decline.

Richt succeeds Al Golden with the Hurricanes.

“The thing that people want to ask, ‘How do you think the team is going to do?’ ” Richt said. “I really don’t know for sure. The only thing I promised is that we’re going to work hard and try to do things the way everybody will be proud of us.”

There’s plenty to fix at Virginia and Virginia Tech as well.

“We’re ahead of schedule in terms of the culture, with the execution to follow,” Mendenhall said.
Mendenhall, who replaced Mike London, said he has seen confidence blossom in his team since the first team meeting.

“If you believe you’re capable, you kind of are anxious to take on challenges rather than be hesitant or apprehensive about what might come,” Mendenhall said. “I think that has been the biggest change, earned confidence through our preparation.”

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente takes over after the retirement of legendary Frank Beamer, who was the winningest active Division I coach when he stepped away.

Fuente said it’s important to understand and embrace the foundation that Beamer established, but that building on that is the best way to show the proper respect for it.

“Something he said right away that stuck with me,” Hokies fullback Sam Rogers said, “is that he wasn’t going to tear anything down that Coach Beamer started. He was starting with that foundation. It’s awesome to play for a guy who has that mentality.”

Fuente, who began working on campus before Beamer took the Hokies to a 2015 bowl game, said he’s happy with the way the change was orchestrated.

“The transition has been extremely smooth thanks to the professionalism of people … without worrying about who gets credit,” Fuente said.

North Carolina, the reigning champion of the Coastal Division, faces seven teams with first-year coaches, beginning with non-league foe Georgia on Sept. 3.

“Where it hurts us in these early games, that makes it much more difficult when you’re trying to prepare for them without any film,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might have a different vantage point. The Yellow Jackets plays Miami annually in the Coastal Division, so facing off with a Richt-coach team will come earlier in the season than the typical late-November matchup with non-league rival Georgia.

“Certainly he brings some credibility to their program and to the conference,” Johnson said.

NEXT UP FOR TAR HEELS DEFENSE: North Carolina’s defense last year — leading the ACC in turnovers forced and ranked third in passing defense — has only raised expectations under second-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.

Senior cornerback Des Lawrence said the difference is the level of confidence for the Tar Heels.

“The belief is at an all-time high since I’ve been here,” Lawrence said. “We’ve always had guys who are really confident in themselves, but as a group collectively, I think that we really believe that we’re one of the top defenses in the nation, regardless of what the stats may say or what the outsiders may say.”

North Carolina gave up 45 points and 608 yards and 49 points and 756 yards (645 rushing) in the last two games of the season, against Clemson and Baylor.

But the Clemson performance isn’t a detractor for North Carolina.

“I think all the way to the end — well, not the end, but the Clemson game we came out and made some stops real early,” Lawrence said. “I mean, they were the No. 1 team in the nation, they did the same thing to Alabama (in a national championship game loss). We were able to compete with those guys, so it gave us a kind of boost in confidence.”

SIRK BOUNCES BACK: Recovering from a torn Achilles has been taxing for Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk.

But five months after suffering the injury during an offseason workout, the senior could be ready for the team’s opener against North Carolina Central.

“These past five months haven’t been fun. I have to just continue to move forward and see where I am August 8 and September 3,” Sirk said. “It’s all worth it if I get to go out there and play with my brothers again and play with my seniors that I came in with my last year and strive toward our goals. We have unfinished goals as a senior class.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe isn’t ready to sign off on Sirk’s availability at the start of the season, but he said the progress has been encouraging and surprising.

KEEP THEM GUESSING: Mendenhall isn’t close to being ready to commit to a starting quarterback for Virginia.

Matt Johns started all 12 games last year.

“We currently have three quarterbacks in contention that we will carry through fall camp before we make a decision,” Mendenhall said.

Kurt Benkert joined the competition as a transfer from East Carolina. New Virginia assistant coach Ruffin McNeill had been East Carolina’s coach.
Senior Connor Brewer is the other candidate.

HOKIES NARROW IT TO TWO: Fuente said he’s likely to go with one of the veteran quarterbacks on the team with either Brenden Motley or Jerod Evans.

“My evaluation so far is it will probably be one of those two,” Fuente said. “It’s up in the air.”

KAAYA WITH CONFIDENCE: Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is no longer lacking experience compared to his ACC peers. The junior is about to become a third-year starter.

“I’m just more mature is the biggest thing,” Kaaya said.

He led the ACC in the regular season by averaging 274.5 passing yards per game. Perhaps most encouraging was that he reduced his interceptions to five.

Now, he’s learning a new system under Richt.

“We have a lot of different personnel packages,” Kaaya said. “I think we have the personnel to do it.”

CONNER’S INSPIRATION: Running back James Conner of Pittsburgh is back in the mix after dealing with Hodgkin lymphoma.

His return to action should give the Panthers a lift that might be immeasurable.

“Just seeing his work ethic while he still had cancer and was beating it, as well as fighting to be the best player he can still be while he has got cancer,” quarterback Nathan Peterman said. “It has been awesome to witness that. I know it will be a special moment once he gets that first touch.”
Conner was the 2014 ACC Player of the Year. He suffered a knee injury in the first game of 2015 and later battled the cancer.

Coach Pat Narduzzi the Panthers are counting on Conner to be at full strength.

“I expect nothing but his best performance,” Narduzzi said. When you look at what James has done, what he has been through, the size of that heart inside his chest cavity, I think you’re going to get his best effort.”

EXPERIENCE TALKS: Pittsburgh has nearly double the number of seniors on the team for Narduzzi.
That’s something that the Panthers must take advantage of.

“This year, we have 20,” Narduzzi said. “When you talk about a great football team, I think you have to have a great senior class.”

A dozen of those seniors are in their fifth college seasons, adding another layer of experience for Pittsburgh.

OVERSEAS TRIP: Georgia Tech starts its season Sept. 3 in Ireland against Boston College, so the trip itself is a major event for the Yellow Jackets.

“Definitely it will be a different experience,” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “I’ve never been anywhere out of the country, so it will be different, just seeing how people live, how they do things over there.”

Johnson said about 110 players will travel to Europe for the game.

“The bottom line, it’s a conference game, conference opener,” Johnson said. “We’re going over there with the mindset to try to win the football game.”

KEEP KICKING: North Carolina senior receiver Ryan Switzer, who has been on a record-setting pace as a punt returner, said he would be disappointed in seeing a reduction in emphasis on special teams returns.

With rules under consideration that might alter kickoff procedures in the future, Switzer said he would like to keep the returns an integral part of the game.

“To see kickoffs taken out of the game, I don’t feel would be positive for the game of football,” Switzer said.