College Football: Spring optimism for Big Four
By Aaron Beard
RALEIGHó Ask the coaches of the state’s four Atlantic Coast Conference schools about spring football practice and familiar phrases litter their responses.
Their teams are “improved.”
Things are “definitely moving in the right direction.”
The problem is that no one knows what that actually means, not in a state where football has become an annual rite of struggle that only passes the time until basketball season. That’s why the words coming from Duke’s David Cutcliffe, North Carolina’s Butch Davis, North Carolina State’s Tom O’Brien and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe during the weekly ACC coaches teleconference should offer little hope for fans just yet.
After all, optimism has been heard in these parts for years, only to be undermined by the season-opening weekend.
Since the ACC’s inaugural season in 1953, the “Big Four” schools have never managed to have a winning record in the same year. It’s been six seasons since the last time three of the schools had winning marks in the same year. As one program has stepped forward ó currently it’s Wake Forest’s turn ó two others have slid. Meanwhile, Duke keeps wandering the same miserable path.
It’s almost as though football throughout the state of North Carolina needs the kind of change in culture that Cutcliffe was asked about at Duke, which hasn’t had a winning season since 1994.
“One of the things I had to explain to them is that I didn’t come here to change a culture,” he said. “I came here to assist them to earn a change in culture. So real quickly, I put it in their minds that if anything was going to change it had to come from within them ó internally and externally.”
Only the Demon Deacons have managed the latter part ó at least recently, anyway. They followed their surprise run to the ACC championship and the Orange Bowl in 2006 with a 9-4 finish for their first back-to-back bowl seasons in school history. Grobe spent much of the spring looking for depth on the offensive line and a leading receiver, through he returns star quarterback Riley Skinner and ACC rookie of the year Josh Adams at running back.
Of course, the Demon Deacons have had their share of lean times, with just 12 winning seasons in 53 years before their present run.
North Carolina and N.C. State are trying to improve themselves in similar ways. They sank money into stadium upgrades in the past decade and let go of coaches who attended school there in favor of bigger names like Davis and O’Brien. Now they’re each preparing for a second season under coaches whose proven resumes required significant financial commitments: O’Brien at more than $1.1 million a year, Davis at $2.1 million.
O’Brien’s first team saw its chance to become bowl eligible end with a 37-0 home loss to Maryland in the final game. The Wolfpack (5-7) has to break in several starters on defense and sort out a muddled quarterback race that includes Daniel Evans, Harrison Beck and Russell Wilson. If the spring game was any indication ó it ended with a final-play touchdown catch on a desperation heave ó the Wolfpack could be in for plenty of ups and downs.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” O’Brien said. “They’re good kids, they’re working hard and it’s important to them. Those are the type of kids we like to be around and coach.”
The Tar Heels are counting on Davis to get them to their first bowl since 2004, though they already had a setback by going through spring drills without starting quarterback T.J. Yates, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. Yates has all of 12 games on his resume and could have used the extra practice time in John Shoop’s offense, which operated under backups Mike Paulus and Cameron Sexton through the spring.
Davis figures his team is better at running back with converted receiver Greg Little, has plenty of talent at wideout and has improved its depth on the offensive line. But will that mean an improvement on the four wins of last year?
Davis ó like everyone else ó will have to wait to find out.
“There’s an awful lot of challenges with this football program,” he said. “We’re still a long ways away from being where we need to be to be competitive not only on an ACC level but certainly on a national level.”