Friday, August 29, 2008

ACC Predictions Part 2

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson (10-2)*+
2. Wake Forest (9-3)*
3. Maryland (7-5)*
4. Florida State (6-6)*
5. Boston College (5-7)
6. NC State (3-9)

*-Bowl game
+- ACC Champion

Despite having Terry Bowden as their coach this Clemson team should be able to finally produce results commensurate with the talent they have on the roster. With 16 returning starters this Tigers team will be experienced and very talented at the skill positions. Quarterback Cullen Harper is probably the best returning QB in the ACC, with all due respect to Riley Skinner, and his running back duo of C.J. Spiller and James Davis might be tops in the nation. A solid defense gets one of the best freshmen in the nation at any position in defensive end Da'Quan Bowers who may be a Julius Peppers level player. Add into that a very favorable road schedule with only one formidable game against Wake Forest and this season is tailor made for Bowden to finally earn his salary. The only stumbling block could be an unproven offensive line that lost four starters.

Jim Grobe has done the unthinkable and turned Wake Forest into an ACC football program worth taking seriously. He has an outside shot at a second ACC title in three years and if Clemson stumbles the Deacons will be right there to get to the Championship game. In my mind they are the second best team in the ACC. Riley Skinner needs to make better decisions as his mistakes probably cost the Deacons as many games as his gun slinging style won them. On defense senior CB Alphonso Smith might be the best defensive player in the ACC as he picked off 8 passes last season, returning three for touchdowns, forced four fumbles and had 18 passes defensed.

Maryland welcomes a new offensive coordinator and a new 3-3-5 scheme on defense this season. It remains to be seen if the personnel fit the West Coast style of James Franklin's new scheme but inexperienced senior Jordan Steffy was tagged to run the team in the early season tune ups against the likes of Delaware and Middle Tennessee. If he falters expect(or hope for) a quick hook. I was never enamored with West Virginia's use of the 3-3-5 defense and don't see it as a great improvement for a group that was awful against good running teams. Unfortunately for Maryland they face Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech this season who could all run the ball down the defense's throat. It seems likely that Chris Cosh will again prove he is no Gary Blackney. Maryland gets no favors with the schedule as they face a pair of no-win road games at Clemson and Virginia Tech and a bunch of tough home dates against conference title darkhorses in UNC and Wake Forest. The offensive scheme and quarterback play will probably limit the effectiveness of the skill position players.

Florida State continues its slide to irrelevance with an aging coach and rudderless program. The offense was supposed to be revived by coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher but Drew Weatherford stunk just as much as he did the year before and the Seminoles still lack a credible ground game. The only team FSU managed to blow out last season was Duke and even their 7-6 record was a shaky 7-6. Preston Parker and Greg Carr are big play skill position players at running back and wide out but I'm not sure the offensive line and quarterback will be able to exploit their talents.

Boston College has to come back down to earth after their magical 2007 season. Much like the basketball team the law of averages will probably catch up to the Eagles this season with QB Matt Ryan, RB Andre Callender and OT Gosder Cherilus all gone. Besides Ryan, who was a top pick in the NFL draft with 32 career starts, Callender had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage for an offense that was at times dynamic and at times sputtering. The defense should be solid if LB Brian Toal and DT B.J. Raji can regain their 2006 form after sitting out last season with injuries.

I did get to see NC State get demolished 34-0 last night by a South Carolina team that looked mighty rusty on offense. Think what may have happened if Spurrier's offense was clicking. Tom O'Brien's offenses are not dynamic but he has had much better than this inept collection. The defense is okay and obviously can cause some turnovers. Running back Andre Brown looks like he could be pretty good but after the play of the quarterbacks last night teams will be stacking the box all season long. The schedule provides few breaks and the closing stretch of games: Wake Forest, at UNC and Miami is brutal. The game at Duke is their only ACC breather and that isn't a sure thing this year.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

ACC Predictions Part 1

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Tech (8-4)*
2. North Carolina (7-5)*
3. Miami (7-5)*
4. Georgia Tech (6-6)*
5. Virginia (5-7)
6. Duke (1-11)

*-Bowl game

Virginia Tech will likely win the Coastal division again this season because they are the least flawed team out of what appears to be a fairly mediocre group. I actually think that North Carolina could have a chance to win the division but will probably get held back by a challenging out of conference slate that includes Connecticut, Notre Dame and Rutgers. Meanwhile the Hokies, in normal Beamer fashion, play Furman, Western Kentucky and East Carolina giving them a likely two game advantage in the standings. As usual Bud Foster's defense will keep Virginia Tech's moribund offense from costing them too many games but Sean Glennon isn't reliable without a strong running game and solid offensive line, neither of which he is likely to have this year.

Miami continues to float along with excellent recruits that don't add up to a great football team. The defense is the strength of this group and will need to carry them if they are to reach my projected 7-5. That may be a little optimistic of me but I think the Hurricanes will find some impact freshmen among their #1 rated recruiting class. There are larger problems in Coral Gables as the intimidation factor that Miami once enjoyed is not totally gone. In just two games last season against Oklahoma and Virginia the once proud "U" was obliterated 99-13. Think about that for a moment.

Georgia Tech replaced Chan Gailey with former Navy coach Paul Johnson. It may take a few games for ACC defenses to adjust to Johnson's option style spread attack. That alone may allow the Yellow Jackets to steal a few extra games. Assuming the players buy into the new philosophy and the loss of Jon Tenuta isn't devastating to the defense they could piece together a decent season. My guess is there was too much talent and experience that departed last year and with only eight returning starters it might be optimistic to predict anything more than a fringe bowl game for this group.

Virginia was my sleeper pick last season and they didn't disappoint, going 9-4 and nearly appearing in the ACC Championship game. This team bears little resemblance to that group as the Wahoos lost nearly everyone including both their kickers. Quarterback Jameel Sewell was lost for academic reasons along with a few other players and All-American DE Chris Long went to the NFL. It would take a coaching feat of genius for Al Groh to get this group back to a bowl game and I don't think he has that in him.

Duke hired David Cutcliffe to try to elevate them out of the cellar of college football. Cutcliffe may be able to do that, like Jim Grobe did at Wake Forest, but it will take some time. Lucky for him 19 starters return to this team but unfortunately most of them are not any good. Still, with all that experience Duke could win an ACC game this year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Season Preview: Linebackers

Two time All-ACC linebacker Erin Henderson departed for the NFL but a solid core of experienced and talented linebackers remains going into this season. The position is probably the deepest and most talented on the team. Returning starters Dave Philistin and Moise Fokou are not even guaranteed their starting positions this season and are being challenged by Chase Bullock and Adrian Moten respectively. At middle linebacker sophomore Mike Wujciak replaces Henderson after sitting out last season with a knee injury. Wujciak was very impressive before that knee injury and it remains to be seen if the injury is still going to be an issue. He did have swelling in the joint after a series of hard practices. If Wujciak misses time freshman Ben Pooler is listed as the backup thought I wouldn't be surprised to see Bullock or Moten fill in either. Wujciak is a fearless and hard hitter with great instincts even if he may not be the fastest player of the bunch.

Even though Philistin is coming off a season where he amassed 124 tackles and is a preseason All-ACC selection and on the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy he isn't guaranteed a starting spot. I think he'll hold off Bullock but if his shoulder surgery gives him problems Maryland has a viable backup. Philistin has great athleticism but doesn't seem to have exceptional instincts for the position.

Moise Fokou is a former scout team player who has excelled as a starter and special teams player. While not overly strong or fast Fokou is very productive and sure tackler with a knack for forcing fumbles. Even though Philistin has more career starts Fokou is probably the most experienced member of the linebacker corps. His backup Adrian Moten is very similar to Erin Henderson as a quick, hard hitting linebacker who can run sideline to sideline. He is slightly undersized but has good instincts and uses his quickness to keep blockers from locking on to him. He is also a good blitzer evidenced by his 5.5 sacks in spot duty, two in the bowl game against Oregon State. I wouldn't be surprised to see Moten take the starting spot by the end of the season as he is more of a playmaker than the steady but unspectacular Fokou.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Cal's QB

It seems that California will be the only real test for this group before ACC play starts, though a trip to Middle Tennessee State could be an upste in the making like traveling to Northern Illinois a few years back. Jeff Tedford seems to have done a George Costanza and pulled the opposite of Ralph Friedgen. He picked the sophomore quarterback, Kevin Riley, who played well at the end of the season instead of the senior who started last season before losing his job. To be fair Longshore is a better quarterback than Jordan Steffy ever will be but it is interesting that Tedford made the choice that was about who played well in games, not who had great practice stats. Like Fridge Tedford hemmed and hawed about how close the competition was and even hedged his bets and said that the senior, Nate Longshore, may still play in the opener. The fans at Cal seem fairly pleased with the decision.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Turner Staying

Chris Turner isn't going to transfer from Maryland according to the school and his father. That is great news for Terp fans and it just may save the bacon of this coaching staff. I'd be willing to all but guarantee that Jordan Steffy will miss at least two games this season and Turner may make the difference between a bowl game and another losing season. If Turner had departed and Steffy either went down with an injury or was awful things would get very ugly for Friedgen. Much worse than being dogged with questions about his Steve Slaton recruiting gaffe. Josh Portis can make impressive plays but he isn't ready to run an offense, and unfortunately for him that is a much bigger part of being quarterback than being able to scramble when a play goes to hell. According to Turner's father it was far from a foregone conclusion that Chris would remain at Maryland. Fridge is lucky that he and his dad didn't make the same decision that Josh Portis and his mother made at Florida.

Depth Chart News

It seems Isaiah Williams has won the split end position at wide receiver over freshman Torrey Smith. Landsford Watson will play the H-back position, although it remains to be seen how much new coordinator James Franklin will use that position. On defense, in contrast to the quarterback decision, there is little decisiveness by the coaching staff. Both outside linebacker spots are still up in the air and one corner spot is still open to either Anthony Wiseman or Nolan Carroll. It seems Terrell Skinner has held off USC transfer Antwine Perez at free safety.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Season Preview: Running Backs

The running back tandem of Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore departed and took with them over 1500 yard of rushing offense and 25 touchdowns. Ball quietly finished his career as the fourth leading rusher in Maryland history with 2487 yards and 26 touchdowns but had to bear the indignity of sharing carries with Keon Lattimore last season. Ball almost averaged a half yard better per carry but Friedgen couldn't help himself and instituted another halfback by committee rotation. One of my greatest hopes is that the new offensive coordinator James Franklin doesn't have such a neurotic obsession with splitting carries among running backs. It may keep some players happy but it does nothing for the consistency of an offense.

Sophomore Da'Rel Scott is the prime candidate to step in and be the primary ball carrier. Scott is a former track star who can also get those tough yards when needed and won't flop at the first sign of contact. His big play potential was on full display last season as he averaged 9.6 yards per carry and had one screen pass that he turned into a 57 yard touchdown, his first career catch. Scott is probably better in space and off tackle than running behind the center or guards where he can't use his break away speed as effectively. He can run between the tackles if necessary.

Morgan Green came to College Park with some high expectations after breaking most of the high school rushing records in Maryland but has been derailed by injuries and a backed up depth chart. He seems to have gotten in Ralph Friedgen's dog house with some nagging injuries that the head coach questioned in the media. With the emergence of Davin Meggett he might be relegated to third string if he doesn't finish camp strong. On paper Green is a complete back. He can run with power but also has a top gear that can get him into the secondary. His only real weakness is an inability to stay healthy.

True freshman Davin Meggett has impressed the staff with his play in camp and could be making a run at the number two spot in the running back rotation. In a rare turn the coaching staff seems to think Meggett is doing better than he thinks as he criticised his own mistakes in talking to the media. Meggett is a compact back with good speed and vision. He is just one of those players who doesn't wow you with his physical abilities but piles up the stats.

There isn't much depth behind those three as Rashad Henry and Dan Bonato don't have much experience nor have they shown the ability to produce yards consistently.

Fullback Cory Jackson returns as the starter from last season. Jackson is a physical punishing blocking back that will be vital to success of the running game. He sometimes struggled to take on physical linebackers last season as a sophomore but he should be more physically ready to handle the workload. He is a decent pass catching option out of the backfield.

Overall this group has the potential to be more productive than the senior duo from last season. They certainly have more raw talent and speed than either Ball or Lattimore. Much of their success will depend on the ability of the offensive line to stay healthy and effective.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Steffy named starter

Ralph Friedgen named Jordan Steffy as the starter at quarterback today in a surprise move that almost certainly guarantees turmoil this fall. The starter from the end of last season, Chris Turner, was widely assumed to be the leader for the starting nod going into this season as neither Josh Portis or Steffy had distinguished themselves in Spring practices. Apparently the coaching staff didn't see it that way as the comments from Friedgen and offensive coordinator James Franklin seem to indicate that Steffy won the competition by a wide margin based on his practices.

This decision reminds me of the 2004 season which saw Friedgen doggedly insisting week after week that Joel Statham was the best practice player of all the quarterbacks even though he was terrible in actual games. That season slipped away by the time Fridge realized that what he was seeing in practice wasn't indicative of what he would see on Saturdays. It was only at the end of the season that Friedgen, when faced with no alternative, turned to Sam Hollenbach who turned into a two year starter. Before that his only option was a freshman in Steffy who didn't have a clue how to run the offense. A stout defense lead by Shawne Merriman and D'Qwell Jackson was wasted by an inept offense that couldn't get out of its own way. With a slightly better offense that team could have easily won seven games and gone to a bowl game. The 2008 Terrapins do not have the luxury of an excellent defense but they do have far more offensive talent than the 2004 group. Unfortunately I don't think Steffy is the quarterback to make use of that depth.

In his brief play last season Steffy averaged only 150 yards passing per game against the likes of Villanova and Florida International, which was partially poor playcalling in addition to poor play by Steffy. He only notched two touchdowns in four games and a partial fifth game at Rutgers before losing his starting job. He came to College Park as a mobile quarterback but has become a statue in the pocket and a deer in the headlights against the blitz. He was sacked 17 times in the first five games of the season in only 100 passing attempts! Even later in the season when Friedgen benched Turner against Florida State in a fit of anger Steffy was plain awful. Inept doesn't begin to describe how hopeless the offense was in the series he played. It was bad enough that Turner was right back in the game and got the team within a score of tying the Seminoles. In short there is nothing that Steffy has accomplished in games that would make anyone think he was a better option than Chris Turner.

The rational of the coaching staff is that the practice statistics show that Steffy has clearly played better than Turner. Yes, that is correct, PRACTICE statistics. When you have to pull out practice statistics to justify yanking a stater that got you to a bowl game last season it would be charitable to call your logic flimsy. Worse still the coaches indicated that they polled the team and they overwhelmingly supported Steffy as the starter. When did this team turn into a county council meeting? Friedgen even tried to claim that he would have lost credibility with his players by not starting the clearly better player at quarterback. If that really is the case, and not just a coaching cop out by Fridge, then Steffy must have convinced all the freshmen who were not around to see him fail to beat a single credible team last year that he really is the right guy for the job. What we do know is that Portis, the current 3rd QB, will play according to Franklin. Steffy in comments to the media indicated that he was told the competition was closed and he was the starter. Given Steffy's proclivity for concussions I don't think the starting job is at all settled and Turner is probably one sack away from being the starter again. Steffy has been commendable in waiting his turn and dealing with high expectations along with great disappointment, but you shouldn't be the starter just because you are a good teammate.

This decision could end up scuttling this season before it even starts unfortunately. It is not the way you'd like to see Franklin's regime as coordinator start and it is another troubling sign that Friedgen's mishandling of the quarterback position is going to continue. My fear is that the cupcake schedule to start the season (with the exception of California) could hide the deficiency at quarterback much like it did in 2004 when the Terps beat Duke, Temple and Northern Illinois on the way to starting 3-1 before crashing to a 2-5 stretch in ACC play. For some reason the gambling and confident Ralph Friedgen of 2001-2003 is gone and a tentative and dreadfully conservative coach has replaced him.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Season Preview: Defensive Line

Of all the position groups defensive line, along with perhaps tight end, is the most unsettled going into this season. Veteran Jeremy Navarre is the lone returning player with significant experience and is moving from end to tackle for his senior season. Navarre has been a fixture since he broke into the lineup as a freshman and has amassed a team high 35 career starts. In those starts he has 9 career sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, which is decent if unspectacular, and 113 tackles. Navarre has a similar style of play to Virginia's Chris Long but without the big play ability. A "motor" player, Navarre is good in pursuit and will not give up in trying to get to the quarterback resorting to double and triple moves if necessary. He needs to keep moving and prevent offensive linemen from locking onto him to be successful. Navarre will sometimes get washed out on running plays and had trouble anchoring at defensive end. The move to tackle may help him focus more on getting up the field and splitting the guard and center instead of trying to hold gaps and getting blown off the line of scrimmage. He is a vocal and experienced leader who can help mentor some of the younger defensive linemen. Navarre and backup tackle Travis Ivey are the only two linemen left from a star crossed 2005 class that included Melvin Alaeze and Barrod Heggs. Navarre must replace Dre Moore who had a very solid senior season with six sacks and 63 tackles leading to 1st Team All-ACC honors and being selected by the Tampa Bay Bucs in the 4th round of the NFL draft.

At defensive end the coaches are hoping that Mack Frost can return from his knee injury to provide some stability on the end of the line. He had some knee swelling in camp so it is probable that he may struggle early in the year to stay on the field. Frost was playing well towards the middle of the season before going out with a knee injury against Georgia Tech. He has some pass rush ability and his long arms help him keep linemen from latching onto his body. Behind him the pickings are a little slim. Juniors Deege Gault and Jared Harrell are the backups at defensive end and may have some talent but are untested.

At nose tackle transfer Olugbemi "Bemi" Otulaja and Dion Armstong are battling for the starting position. Otulaja was profiled in several episodes of Terrapins Rising on Comcast Sportsnet along with DT Dean Muhtadi. The room mates are both transfers from lower level programs and fought to secure roster spots this offseason. Otulaja is a bull at nose tackle and provides what you want in that position. He can anchor at the point of attack but needs to get better at reading the blocking schemes and pursuing the ball carrier. Right now it appears that Bemi has the starting job and Armstrong will provide depth. Two freshmen, A.J. Francis (redshirt) and Masengo Kabongo, provide some talented depth at the position. While unproven this group has some potential to be very deep and perhaps allow a rotation on the inside.

At the LEO position starter Trey Covington is entering his forth season where he has been a fixture since his redshirt freshman year. Covington is an impressive physical specimen with great speed and good strength. On paper he seems to be born for the LEO position but he plays a little stiff at times and lacks great instincts which has prevented him from becoming a playmaker. He did have his best performance of the year against Oregon State in the bowl game where he finished with nine tackles and two sacks. It remains to be seen if that is any harbinger of his performance this season. Rick Costa is his backup and has shown flashes of pass rush ability in limited play. His 2007 season was a wash with injuries. Less athletic than Covington Costa has a superior feel for the game and better instincts.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Season Preview: Offensive Line

It doesn't take a football genius to figure out that a team's fortunes are almost always tied to how well they play on the line of scrimmage. When Maryland has had a stable and healthy offensive line the team has normally done well and when it hasn't the record reflects that too. This year the offensive line is one of the most mature in the ACC with 66 career starts among its returning starters from last season. Only North Carolina and Virginia Tech have more career starts among their returning starters from last season. This line is very experienced but it is an open question as to how good this group will play. Having a high number of mediocre players returning may not produce good results. The line was 10th in the ACC with 40 sacks allowed and 10th in sacks per pass attempt even though the offense was a mostly run oriented scheme. There were injury issues on the line and the quarterbacks didn't help matters but that isn't a great sign going into this year. The run blocking wasn't exactly outstanding either and too often Maryland couldn't finish off drives or convert short yardage when the team needed it.

Both the tackle spots are held by fifth year seniors with Scott Burley on the left and Dane Randolph on the right. Both are solid if unspectacular and do a decent job run blocking. Each has a history of injuries and it has probably sapped them of their athleticism. Each is somewhat stiff in pass blocking and struggle with speed rushers. Behind them is sophomore Bruce Campbell who came in as a true freshman and played well. He could fill in at either tackle spot.

Jamie Thomas returns at guard after missing some of the end of last season with an broken bone in his leg. He is a massive and physical guard who should excel at run blocking. He hasn't shown the ability to dominate on the line as he should given his 6-4 330 pound NFL style body. I expect that he will elevate his play this year with Andrew Crummy having moved on. At right guard Phil Costa and Jack Griffin will battle for the starting spot. Griffin's body type makes him much better suited to play tackle and at 6-6 300 pounds he would struggle to keep a low center of gravity against defensive tackles. Costa is a more natural interior lineman and can also play center but was at times overpowered last season. If he has been able to upgrade his strength he should be able to take over the position at some point.

The true anchor of the line is center Edwin Williams. He is a smart and feisty player who is a leader on and off the field. He is a preseason All-ACC pick and deservedly so since he will likely find his way to an NFL training camp next year. As the commander of the line he needs to cut down on his mental mistakes and make more of the right calls in blocking. Though the line is experienced whether it will gel into an effective unit will have much to do with how Williams handles being the leader of this group. Besides that Williams is a real credit to Maryland's football program and a solid student athlete.

It will be worth keeping an eye on the health and early effectiveness of this group. If they struggle to dominate teams like Delaware and Eastern Michigan then the offense will struggle again this season. The young running backs need help from the line to open some running lanes and they need to give Chris Turner or Jordan Steffy the time to find open receivers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Turtle Waxing Endorses RazorGator for Terps Tickets

With Maryland football and basketball starting soon along with the NFL season kickoff and the baseball pennant races taking shape now is the time of year to plan to see an event in person. If you are in the market to buy or sell sports tickets I recommend RazorGator as your first stop for a broker who has a great selection and competitive prices. I know because I've used them myself and have always been satisfied with the ease of purchasing and the quality seat locations, including Maryland Terrapin games. Not only do they take care of their customers they are also good citizens with programs that give free NFL tickets to local Boys and Girls clubs.

I am pleased to have RazorGator as a partner of Turtle Waxing.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Training Camp Report I

Some players are making moves during the early practices in August. Heralded freshman receiver Kenny Tate is making the move to safety to provide some depth in the defensive backfield. With wideout being a deep position and the secondary going into the season untested it is a logical move but I suspect that Tate will be moved back to receiver next season. Senior WR Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams will be gone along with Darrius Heyward Bey who will almost certainly enter the NFL draft as a junior. That will open plenty of playing time for young receivers like Tate, Kevin Dorsey (who will probably redshirt because of a foot injury), Kerry Boykins and LaQuan Williams next season.

Ralph Friedgen is keeping the suspense going in the quarterback competition by alternating praise for Josh Portis, Jordan Steffy and Chris Turner on any given day. I think Turner still has a firm hold on the starting job unless he implodes over the next few weeks. Freshman running back Davin Meggett turned some heads in the recent scrimmage and has moved past the injured Morgan Green to be the backup to Da'Rel Scott. Meggett was just a productive and solid running back in high school and seems to be filling that same role at Maryland. Many felt he was a steal in last years recruiting hall. It seems Danny Oquendo will keep his punt return duties this season after some of players tried out for the spot and kept dropping balls.

Rick Costa is back at the LEO position to back up Trey Covington and could be a nice playmaker off the bench. His 2007 season was a wash with injuries but in 2006 he had a very nice close to the season and was a standout in the bowl game against Purdue.

Kevin Barnes looks to be very solid at corner and the play of Nolan Carroll may help offset the loss of Isaiah Gardner. Jeff Allen and Terrell Skinner probably can replace J.J. Justice and Christian Varner without much difficulty but hopefully they will be more of a big play duo.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

New Terps Recruit

There is a new Maryland recruit that just popped on the radar. The 7lbs 11oz girl is being considered for all the women's sports at Maryland and the early reports are that the Terps are in the lead for her commitment. She has been too busy in between diaper changes and feedings to comment herself but her dad is a fanatical Terps fan.

A lot has happened in the last week that is worth writing about. Kenny Tate being moved to safety, Maryland dropping Florida as a football recruiting ground, some freshmen impressing the coaching staff, Josh Portis may be "getting it" finally and some basketball rumors worth noting. I'll try to get back on track with these issues in the next few days.