There's no glory for scout teams, but players vital to success

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

At North Carolina, the cast list is posted on Tuesdays. It’s not really a list – not exactly. But the players on the scout team – the walk-ons and the freshman too far down on the depth chart, the guys who might never see the field on Saturdays – treat it as a list, and when they find out their number, they know which part they’ve earned.

“When you walk in on Tuesday, you get your jersey in your locker, see who you’re going to be,” Luke Heavner, a walk-on who joined the team in 2011, said earlier this season. “Everybody wants to check it, see if they’re going to be that big-time guy for the other squad.”

On the Tuesday before UNC played at Georgia Tech in mid-September, Heavner found a gold and white No. 2 jersey waiting for him. He didn’t have to check a Yellow Jackets’ roster to know that he’d be playing the role of Vad Lee, Georgia Tech’s multi-dimensional quarterback.

In his high school days, Heavner was an all-conference quarterback at Ragsdale High. He passed for more than 3,500 yards and 40 touchdowns in his final two seasons but now, on the Tar Heels’ scout team, his highlights come in front of a crowd that consists only of his coaches, teammates and other members of the Tar Heels’ support staff.

Players on the scout teams at UNC, N.C. State and Duke receive no glory. They rarely, if ever, play in real games. Their sole responsibility is to prepare the players who will play for what they will see on game day, and to mimic players on the other team. N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett has played the part of Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston. Duke running back Joseph Ajeigbe helped teammates prepare for Kevin Parks and Shadrach Thornton.

Before UNC’s game at Georgia Tech, Heavner needed to become Lee.

“They’ve got us watching a lot of film,” Heavner said then, “trying to get us ready and kind of learning what he does and how he operates the offense. So (I learn by) just watching that and going out and doing it every day.”

The rhythm of football – one game per week, usually – makes it unlike other sports. Coaches have more time to prepare. Details become magnified. And each week, there is a game plan within a game plan – one for the scout team, inside the larger plan for the team that will play on Saturday.

Before UNC’s game at Georgia Tech, for instance, the Tar Heels’ scout team had to learn how to run the spread-option, run-oriented offense the Yellow Jackets use. UNC didn’t play a game the week before traveling to Atlanta to face the Yellow Jackets, and so that allowed for more time to prepare.

Blake Anderson, the Tar Heels’ offensive coordinator, said graduate assistant coaches and the defensive coaching staff is most responsible for coaching UNC’s scout team offense. For the Georgia Tech game, UNC coach Larry Fedora also played a prominent role because of his time in an option offense at Air Force.

Heavner, meanwhile, did his best to mimic Lee. Which came just a few weeks after he played Bruce Ellington, the South Carolina receiver, in the days before the Tar Heels’ season-opener.

“Everybody’s got a role,” Heavner said, “and especially when you get to play somebody that you know the defense is going to be keying on, you know that you’re going to get to do a lot of different stuff and definitely give a lot of different looks. So it is fun. It’s fun to be that (player).”

Pack’s Brissett benefits from scout team work

N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett can’t play in real games. The Florida transfer has to sit out this season under NCAA rules. So the junior quarterback, has tried to compensate by playing in his own version of fake games.

He already has pretended to be Clemson’s Tahj Boyd and Florida State’s Jameis Winston with the Wolfpack’s scout team. It doesn’t make up for not being able to play this season, especially when the Wolfpack needs help at quarterback, but it has helped Brissett cope with the transition.

“It’s different, but it has given me a chance to work on my game and to have fun,” Brissett said.

Brissett, who’s closer to Winston than Boyd in size at 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds, said the chance to emulate Boyd in practice was his favorite week. It wasn’t because of an ingrained dislike of Florida State either, Brissett said.

“I like the Clemson offense because it’s the same as ours,” Brissett said.

Brissett is trying to learn Matt Canada’s offense and be ready for the 2014 season. He will have two seasons of eligibility at N.C. State.

He started three games in two seasons at Florida but found himself behind classmate Jeff Driskel on the depth chart during the 2012 season. A top 100 recruit out of high school in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2010, Brissett decided to transfer last January.

Driskel broke his right leg in the third game of the season, so in theory, Brissett could be the Gators’ starter right now instead of running State’s scout team.

“I’m over that,” Brissett of his decision to leave Florida. “That’s the past. I’m onto bigger and better things.”

N.C. State hopes so. Production from the quarterback position this season has been a struggle. First-year coach Dave Doeren is hopeful for the future after watching Brissett in practice.

“He’s just a tremendous competitor and next year when we get to him, we’ll be excited about it,” Doeren said. “Right now, we’re trying to do what we can with what we have.”

Brissett has done his best to help the first-team defense during practice. Doeren said there’s a noticeable difference with the way Brissett throws the ball than a walk-on or third-stringer would at most programs.

“He’s zipping the ball into tight windows, and he’s yelling at his offensive line to block for him,” Doeren said. “It’s competitive. It’s fun to watch.”

Brissett’s not allowed to travel with the team but has been to every game this season. He drove to road games at Wake Forest, Duke and even Florida State. He has been demonstrative on the sidelines, too, not just sitting back and taking in everything.

“I’m just trying to show that I’m there for them,” Brissett said.

Joe Giglio

Duke’s Ajeigbe almost too real

It took Joseph Ajeigbe a little bit to warm up to the idea of being a running back on Duke’s scout team.

“When you first find out that you’re redshirting, you can be down a little bit,” said Ajeigbe, a freshman from Riverside, Calif. “But Coach (David Cutcliffe) and Coach (Re’Quan Boyette), the running backs coach, they talked to me and let me know that this year is a year for me to get better – to learn our offense as well as prepare the defense.

“That’s a really huge role because they’ve never really had someone on the scout team that can give them a realistic look.”

That is not the case this year, with Ajeigbe excelling as the fake Kevin Parks (Virginia’s running back) or the imitation brand Shadrach Thornton (N.C. State’s primary ball-carrier).

Depending on Duke’s opponent, Blue Devils defensive lineman Kenny Anunike said Ajeigbe will change the way he runs.

“When you see him out there, you’ll see some of the mannerisms that certain backs have,” Anunike said. “Maybe if a running back takes a certain kind of step before he cuts, or when the ball is snapped, he might do a false step backward – little things that we might pick up on that the actual back does, (Ajeigbe) does that in practice.”

While Anunike really noticed Ajeigbe’s talent for mimicry the week of the Memphis game – the Tigers averaged only 2.7 yards per carry in Duke’s 28-14 victory – Blue Devils linebacker Kelby Brownsaid he thinks Ajeigbe’s best week was when he pretended he was Parks.

Brown said the two have almost the exact same body type (Parks is 5-8, 205 pounds, Ajeigbe is 5-9, 215 pounds) and similar running style (in a word, Brown said both run “hard”). And Parks, who is third in the ACC in rushing yards, only gained 50 yards on the ground in Duke’s 35-22 win against the Cavaliers.

Despite what it might look like to Duke’s defensive players, Ajeigbe said he tries not to spend too much time thinking about running styles when he’s on the practice field. While he studies plenty of film to get an idea of the opponent’s offense and their running back’s tendencies, he said he tries to rely on instinct.

At the end of each week, Ajeigbe is in a unique position to judge both how the defense did and what the opposing running back might have done differently.

Sometimes that advice might be simple – run more like Ajeigbe.

“There’s been a couple of times when I saw the running back and I felt like I did a little bit better in practice against our defense,” Ajeigbe said. “That’s part of the thing – me doing well in practice prepares our defense for the game.”

Jack Daly

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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