ACC football: Meet the playmakers for Duke, NC State, UNC

jwgiglio@newsobserver.comAugust 10, 2013 

The NFL Network flipped among five games Thursday night in their aptly named "Preseason Games" coverage.

With so many former ACC players involved, it could have been confused with an ACC infomercial. There was Gio Bernard making plays for the Cincinnati Bengals, Mike Glennon for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Sean Renfree for the Atlanta Falcons.

It was also a reminder of who will be missing in the ACC and Triangle this season.

Nobody ran for more yards in the ACC last season than Bernard, whose 1,228 rushing yards helped North Carolina win eight games.

Nobody passed for more yards in the ACC than Glennon, whose 4,031 yards helped the Wolfpack win seven games.

Renfree posted the second 3,000-yard season (3,113) of his Duke career and led the Blue Devils to their first bowl game since the 1994 season.

The good news for the three Triangle ACC teams is they aren’t the only ones with personnel turnover. Eight of the 14 conference teams will have a different starting quarterback in the 2013 season-opener than from the 2012 season-opener.

Five ACC schools need to replace their leading rusher and five need to replace their leading receiver. Boston College and Miami are the only two teams that return their top passer, rusher and receiver.

Who will make the plays that count this season for the Tar Heels, Wolfpack and Blue Devils?

Get Underwood the ball

Junior receiver Bryan Underwood has proven he’ll make plays for N.C. State if he gets the ball.

Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round pick of the Houston Texans, was the only ACC player who had more touchdown catches than the speedy Underwood last season.

The problem for Underwood was getting the ball. He finished the season with 10 touchdowns on just 44 catches. Compare that to Hopkins, whose 18 touchdowns came on 82 catches.

Underwood, who’s undersized at 5-9 and 180 pounds, doesn’t just maximize his touches; he makes big plays when he gets the ball.

Nine of 12 career touchdown receptions have covered more than 20 yards, five have been longer than 40 yards. He caught a touchdown in each of the first eight games last season, the second-longest streak in ACC history.

Ironically, it was Underwood’s shortest touchdown, a 2-yarder against Florida State, that was his most memorable. On fourth-and-goal, and trailing 16-10, Underwood pulled in the game-winning touchdown catch from Glennon to upset the Seminoles. Underwood got his clock cleaned on the play by FSU safety Terrence Brooks but held onto the ball.

Dropped passes were an issue for all of Glennon’s targets last season. All but Tobais Palmer return, which is why ball security has been a priority in practice.

"We’re focusing more," Underwood said. "If you drop one, you don’t want to have it in the back of your head. One can turn into 10."

Underwood has also picked up the pace in practice from the spring. He was admittedly a step slow in the spring, trying to learn a new offense and play at a faster pace.

Underwood’s reticence in practice led to new coach Dave Doeren to think Underwood was a "guy that likes Saturdays more than he does Tuesdays."

"I had a lot going on with school and trying to learn the new system," Underwood said. "I was trying to slow everything down and know where I was going."

Underwood said he has been up to full speed since practice started last week. Underwood at full speed can only mean good things for the Wolfpack.

Crowder in the clutch

The last-minute, fourth-down touchdown catch that beat North Carolina and clinched Duke’s first bowl berth in 17 years will forever be one of the program’s finest moments.

And the player who caught it, Jamison Crowder from Monroe, N.C., has two more years to try to lift the Blue Devils even higher.

"He’s a ball player," All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "He shows up. He shows up in big moments. He did for us last year, and he’ll continue to do so this year."

The catch against UNC, which the 5-foot-9 Crowder elevated himself to get before getting crushed (and flipped) by two UNC defenders, wasn’t Crowder’s only clutch catch of the season. Crowder set a new ACC record with a 99-yard touchdown reception against Miami (one of eight catches he had in the back-and-forth, high-scoring loss) and also caught six passes against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.

This year, Crowder will be the main focus for opposing defenses, now that Conner Vernon is off with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. Crowder does have a main skill, though, that should help him continue to make plays.

"He’s really quick off the line," said freshman Bryon Fields, who has gone against Crowder in summer practices. "Really, really quick off the line."

Pair that quickness with the toughness he demonstrated most clearly in the waning seconds of the Carolina win, and the Blue Devils have a playmaker at wide receiver who will deliver when they need it most.

Laura Keeley

Fedora: Ebron must find the end zone

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora liked the way Eric Ebron began last season, in part because Ebron caught three touchdown passes in the first two games. But after that? Ebron, the junior tight end from Greensboro Smith High, caught just one touchdown pass the rest of the season.

Fedora didn’t care much for that and so that’s why he has made his expectations clear entering the season: He expects Ebron to catch 12 touchdown passes. If not more.

Fedora didn’t consult with Ebron before going public with the 12-touchdown mandate.

“But he knows,” Fedora said. “I would imagine his expectations are probably higher than mine, but it’s really – again, for him to understand that we need him to get the ball in the end zone. It’s not just about making catches.

“It’s not just about blocking at the point of attack. Let’s take your game to another level and let’s get the ball in the end zone. Let’s be a threat every time you have the ball in your hands. Let’s don’t expect to get tackled.”

UNC’s offense last season had no shortage of players with NFL potential. Three-fifths of the Tar Heels’ offensive line was selected in the NFL draft, and running back Bernard went in the second round to the Bengals.

The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Ebron is next in line. Fedora and Walt Bell, UNC’s tight ends coach, both believe Ebron should be an unquestioned first-round pick. But to make that a reality, Ebron’s production likely needs to increase.

He caught 40 passes a season ago, including those three touchdowns, but consistency was an issue. This season, without Bernard, and with a young, inexperienced receiving corps, UNC might be reliant on Ebron more than any other offensive player besides senior quarterback Bryn Renner.

It’s not uncommon, Fedora said, for his up-tempo spread offense to feature tight ends. And Ebron’s skill set is a good match for Fedora’s offense, which allows skill players to exploit one-on-one matchups.

“In our offense, the tight end’s always played a big role,” Fedora said. “That guy’s always been a 50-catch guy, a guy who can make plays. I’ve had actually quite a few of them that have gone on and played in the NFL. So I’ve been very fortunate to have guys that we could take advantage of with those big bodies.”

Among the tight ends who have thrived in Fedora’s offense is the Detroit Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew, whom Fedora coached at Oklahoma State. After playing in Fedora’s offense, Pettigrew became the first tight end selected, and the 20th overall pick, in the 2009 NFL draft.

When Fedora looks at Ebron, he sees a bit of Pettigrew. Now Fedora is hoping the production, and playmaking, matches Ebron’s considerable physical skills.

“He’s got as much talent as Brandon,” Fedora said of Ebron. “If not more in some areas.”

Andrew Carter

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