HOT SPRINGS, Va. - Virginia Tech's players had every reason to be proud and perhaps even a little smug during the first day of the annual ACC kickoff at the Homestead, a resort in the western Virginia mountains, on Sunday.
After all, at this time last year the Hokies were picked to finish sixth in their first season in the ACC and ended up making a shocking run to the league title and a BCS game. With 15 starters returning, many are predicting a repeat performance.
Still, Virginia Tech tight end Jeff King and defensive end Darryl Tapp don't view themselves as the ACC favorites. They don't even believe perceptions have changed that much from a year ago.
"No, we're not Florida State or Miami," said Tapp, when asked if the Hokies were the team to beat in the ACC is this fall. "They are still FSU and Miami. It's the same thing in the ACC. They are blessed with a lot of talent. They have national championships and Heisman trophy winners. We are trying to reach that level."
King, who earned second-team All-ACC honors after catching 25 passes for 304 yards in 2004, said he and his teammates always had lofty expectations for themselves and have paid little attention to anyone else's opinions.
"In our minds we have been proud of this program regardless of what the media thinks," he said. "We knew could win (the ACC) and it only matters what we think"
The Hokies will get a chance to gain more national respect and some revenge in their season opener at N.C. State, the only team in the league to beat them last season. The two teams face off on Sunday night on Sept. 4 in nationally-televised game.
IS VERSATILE EAGLE DONE WITH D?: There have been reports this offseason that Boston College's two-way star Will Blackmon would start playing receiver full time, but the senior, who is also one of the nation's top kick returners, said that most likely won't be the case. "There is a strong possibility I will play defense," he said. "I'm willing to do whatever the team needs me to do regardless of my NFL future." Blackmon said he views himself as a defensive back in the future, but credited coach Tom O'Brien with convincing him into playing more on offense.
BAKER'S BOYS: Matt Baker will have some considerable help in replacing Darian Durant, arguably the top quarterback in North Carolina history. The Tar Heels return four receivers who made 19 catches or more last season, including Jawarski Pollock (45), Jesse Holly (30), Derelle Mitchell (21) and Mike Mason (19). Pollock led the league in catches two seasons ago. "I think they have the potential to be the best receiving corps in the league," Baker said.
DON'T FAVOR JACKETS: Georgia Tech has been one of the most inconstant teams in the ACC over the last two years, producing a handful of big upsets and unexpected losses. Linebacker Gerris Wilkerson has a simple explanation. "It seems like we like being the underdogs and when we aren't we don't have the same intensity or focus. We have to play that same way every week." The Jackets will begin the season as a heavy underdog at Auburn on Sept. 3.
OFFENSIVE REBOUND: A year after struggling without Philip Rivers at the helm, NC State receiver Tramain Hall is convinced that the Wolfpack offense will be much improved under new coordinator Marc Trestman. "There is something new about this offense. We have great chemistry," Hall said. "We have 7-on-7 drills four days a week and Jay (Davis) is starting to see the double teams deep and throwing off to his check off man. The depth on the offensive line is also tremendous and that brings aggression."
DUKE COLLECTING DEPTH: The Blue Devils have had trouble competing with the rest of the ACC; lacking the ability to rotate a handful of quality players at most positions like other teams in the league. That may be changing. "My junior year we had a good team, but this is definitely the most depth and the most quality depth we have had since I have been here," Duke's fifth-year senior Philip Alexander said. "The drop off from the starters isn't nearly as dramatic as it used to be."
MORE BAD NEWS FOR FSU?: The Seminoles have suffered through a tumultuous offseason filled with arrests and key injures. That trend could continue with defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley's academic eligibility remaining in question. Senior defensive end Kamerion Wimbley is confident that Bunkley, an All-ACC caliber type of player, will be lining up beside him this fall. "I think he will be eligible," Wimbley said. "He is working out with us and taking care of what he needs to in study hall. I think he will be out there. I would hate to lose a guy like that because he brings so much to the table."
EXPANSION NOT UNAMINOUS: Most of the players praised the addition of Boston College and the title game it has created for the ACC. But, Clemson senior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was one of the few who spoke out publicly against it. "I would like to play UNC or Virginia again. They have both been in the ACC a long time. I had the second start of my career against UNC and have a lot of great memories of that. So, in that regard it's definitely a negative. But, money plays a big deal."
HOW TO BEAT THE U: North Carolina senior linebacker Tommy Richardson pointed to one specific strategy that led to the Tar Heels' shocking 31-28 upset of Miami last season and it had nothing to do with the defense. "We decided not to kick Devin Hester and that helped a lot," said Richardson, who is from South Florida. "Also, I'm not going to say they didn't play with intensity but we were able to supersede their intensity." Hester, who returned four kicks for touchdowns last season, has set a goal of returning 10 for scores this fall.
SENIOR DISCOUNT: Blackmon doesn't expect Boston College's Alumni Field to be a hostile environment for the rest of the ACC in the slightest. "It's low key," said Blackmon, when asked to describe the game day atmosphere. "We have a lot of alumni at the game and we have senior citizens sitting behind our bench. If we caught a hail mary to win a game they would probably still stay seated."
INSTANT REPLAY GETS IGNORED: Most of the players asked about addition of instant replay in the ACC said they were in favor but doubted it would have much effect. "I don't think it will impact the game much although my first year when we played Colorado State I wish we had it," Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans said. "I threw a shovel pass that was actually ruled a fumble and we lost the ball. With replay, they would have seen it was an illegal pass we would have kept the ball." Miami defensive end Thomas Carroll feels similarly. "(Instant replay) really doesn't help me, being a lineman," he said.
VICK II? FORGET ABOUT IT: Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick has been constantly compared to his older brother and former Hokie Michael, but opposing ACC defenses don't see the resemblance on the gridiron. "We have some film on Marcus Vick and he doesn't remind me of Michael," N.C. State linebacker Oliver Hoyt said. "Marcus will tuck the ball and scramble for 20 yards. Michael can scramble for 90."
TROOPER TO HAGANS: Just beat Tech, please: On the way down to the Homestead, Hagans was stopped by a state trooper. After examining Hagans' licensee the trooper quickly realized who he was and let him proceed after a quick request. "Just beat Virginia Tech," he said. "Please." Don't worry Cavaliers fans, Hagans was pulled over at a routine checkpoint.
BREAKOUT PERFORMERS: A handful of underrated and overlooked players are poised to emerge as stars, including Georgia Tech linebacker Philip Wheeler, Virginia Tech linebacker Xavier Adibi and UNC cornerback Jacoby Watkins. "I think Wheeler is going to shock a lot of people," Wikinson said. "He is athletic, real intense and plays with a lot of emotion." .."It's up to Xavier how good he wants to be. He can do whatever he wants to do," Tapp said. "I wish I was around two more years so I could play with him." ."Look out for Jacoby Watkins." Richardson said. "He has a lot more confidence after doing well against receivers from Georgia Tech, Miami and FSU."
THE FORGOTTENS: UNC defensive tackle Chase Page and Alexander both missed all of last season with injuries. If healthy, the fifth-year seniors might have landed on the All-ACC team. Page looked very strong in the spring, reportedly dominating drills. "People are underestimating Chase," Richardson said.
NOT-SO-ORDINARY NEWCOMERS: A pair of true freshman are creating a lot of buzz on their respective teams. Duke defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase (6-0, 325) and Miami safety Kenny Phillips are both expected to play immediately and challenge for starting jobs. Oghobaase, arguably the most sought after recruit in Duke history, participated in spring practice. "Vince is definitely the real deal," Alexander said. "He has a lot of gifts and it helps weighing over 300 pounds. He came in and picked up the defense quickly and will definitely make an impact and help us out this year." "I believe Kenny can make difference on special teams or defense," Carroll said. "He has size, is strong and great ability. I believe he will play in his first year."
OTHER NOTEABLES: Hagans got two new tattoos in the offseason, including the likeness of a former friend who was shot to death at 22-years-old months ago Miami begins its season on the road at Florida State and then at Clemson. "I've heard those are the two toughest venues in the conference," Carroll said ..Wilkinson said he learned which teams are in the Atlantic and Coastal divisions by playing the video game NCAA 2006 .Florida State's Leon Washington, one of the nation's top running backs has been working this summer, cutting grass and washing cars.