PINEHURST — Dave Clawson, David Cutcliffe, Dave Doeren and Larry Fedora may not agree on much, but all four do agree on one thing — their teams can get better.
Duke finished second to Georgia Tech in the Coastal Division with a 5-3 record and closed out the campaign with a 9-4 mark after falling to Arizona State in the Sun Bowl.
North Carolina State came on strong at the end of the year to win four out of its final five games to post an 8-5 record. The Wolfpack was 3-5 in the Atlantic Division and finished fifth.
North Carolina slipped below the .500 mark at 6-7 for the first time in three seasons under Fedora following its loss to Rutgers in the Quick Lane Bowl. Despite their overall struggles, the Tar Heels posted a 4-4 record in the Coastal Division and ended up tied with Pittsburgh for third.
Clawson’s first year at Wake Forest resulted in just one conference victory — over Virginia Tech — and finished in the cellar in the Atlantic Division. The Demon Deacons were 3-9 overall.
A new season begins in September and expectations are running high for the state’s Big 4.
Fedora added former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to his staff as defensive coordinator after the Tar Heels allowed a league-worst 507 points last year.
“I think we’ll be a better football team, I really do. I’m excited about this group,” Fedora said. “We have some seniors in this group that I know are great teammates, that care about the team, wanting to be successful as a football team more than they do individually. So I think what Gene brings to the table is the renewed confidence in those guys. I think that is the biggest factor I’ve seen to this point, is that Gene has a very determined teaching progress of the way he wants to teach the defense and the philosophy of defense. If you talk to Jeff Schoettmer, any of those guys, you see the confidence back in their eyes. I think that alone is going to make us a better football team.”
Defense wasn’t a problem for Wake Forest, it was the offense. The Demon Deacons only managed to score 178 points last season, worst in the ACC. Clawson admitted he was to blame for some of the offensive struggles in 2014 because of his play calling. He feels this year will be different as they enter Year 2 of the Clawson era in Winston-Salem.
“I thought it was amazing last year how well our defense played despite the fact that time of possession was never good, we weren’t working first downs,” Clawson said. “They were stuck a lot of times defending a short field. We played very conservatively on offense last year because we didn’t want to give games away. We knew we were over-matched up front. We didn’t make explosive plays. We didn’t want to turn the football over. At times last year, and I take responsibility for this, we’d run a draw play on third-and-9. We wouldn’t throw the ball on third-and-12. We wanted our defense to have a chance to keep us in game or block a punt or return a punt.”
Cutcliffe has been in charge of Duke’s return to prominence on the football scene not only in the ACC, but regionally and nationally as well. The Blue Devils are 40-48 in Cutcliffe’s seven seasons on the sideline. In the seven years prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival in Durham, Duke was 10-71 under two different coaches — Carl Franks and Ted Roof.
“It doesn’t get old because I think we’re still in a big process of trying to become what we want to become,” Cutcliffe said about Duke’s turnaround. “We’re certainly far from arriving…You don’t think you ever arrive in college football. As soon as you think you do, you’re backing way up.”
N.C. State feels this is the year to take down Clemson, Florida State and Louisville to claim the Atlantic Division and head to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game.
“Well, you can’t beat teams if you don’t believe you can beat ‘em, that’s for sure. I think at the end of the season we were playing very confident team football,” Doeren said. “I think our guys believed they could beat anybody in the country. We started to play like it. Now we’ve got to go out there and do it. I don’t think there’s a man in our locker room that doesn’t believe we can. That’s exciting as a coach, to know you have that kind of confidence. We just have to make sure we back it up with the work and preparation that it’s going to take.”
ACC coaches discuss local players
There will be two players from Richmond Senior who will be playing on Saturdays for schools in the ACC. Offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder is going to be a redshirt sophomore at Clemson. Running back/kick returner Dakwa Nichols will also be a redshirt sophomore for N.C. State.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Crowder has the opportunity to turn a lot of heads for the Tigers.
“He is our starting right guard coming out of spring and going into fall camp. I don’t see him giving that up very easily,” Swinney said. “He is a very smart player, incredibly strong, great flexibility and athleticism for a guy his size. Last year he got some experience, but the offseason was huge for him this year and the confidence he got from having a chance to play last year. He is just learning the process of what it takes to be a great offensive lineman at this level — from a nutrition standpoint, taking care of your body, all those things. He’s in a good spot and I think he’s got a chance to be an outstanding player for us these next three years.”
Doeren likes what Nichols can do on the football field but said the former Richmond standout is unable to avoid the injury bug. If Nichols can remain healthy, Doeren is excited about his big-play ability.
“He will play running back and on special teams both it’s a matter of him being healthy, to be honest,” Doeren said. “He pulls his hamstring a lot. If we can keep the kid on the practice field where he can earn some playing time, he’s really talented, he’s a hard worker. We love the kid to death, he’s had a frustrating go of it with his hamstring.
“We have done just about everything we know. He’s had every medical test we know CAT scans, MRIs to chiropractors to diet, hydration, just going to keep trying to figure it out until we get it. He’s a talent guy, it’s hard to make the club when you’re in the tub.”
One player from the area who isn’t on campus yet is former Scotland quarterback Jaylend Ratliffe. The former Scot signed with Georgia Tech but isn’t expected to be a Yellow Jacket until the early part of next year.
Despite his head injury following an ATV accident before the start of practice last season, Georgia Tech honored its scholarship offer to Ratliffe.
“Jaylend is a great kid from a great family,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “When we commit to somebody, we’re committed. Jaylend is going to be a part of our program and he is planning on coming in in January. If he gets cleared to play football, that’s great, if he doesn’t get cleared he is going to help us coach. We’re excited to get him there in Atlanta.”
Reach Richmond County Daily Journal managing editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 and follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.