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July 27, 2009

Notebook: Herzlich illness hits Eagles hard

GREENSBORO, N.C. - The text message arrived on each Boston College player's cell phone during a break from classes that had caused students to scatter across the country.

Check your e-mail for an important message about Mark Herzlich.

His teammates assumed they'd get an update about how the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year had received one more accolade. They instead learned that the star linebacker had been diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

"You read it and think, 'Wow,' " Boston College center Matt Tennant said Monday at the ACC Media Days gathering at the Grandover Resort and Conference Center. "You couldn't believe it. It's so surprising to have something like that affect a guy like that."

Herzlich's situation represented the most serious setback in a turbulent offseason for the two-time defending Atlantic Division champions.

Boston College's upperclassmen have grown accustomed to dealing with offseason adversity. Two years ago, they went through a coaching change when conference rival North Carolina State hired away Tom O'Brien. Last year, the Eagles fielded questions all summer about how they were ever going to replace star quarterback Matt Ryan.

But nothing could have prepared them for this.

"It's been tough," Boston College defensive end Jim Ramella said. "Honestly, it's just like one thing after the other. When's it going to stop?"

They endured another coaching change when Jeff Jagodzinski got fired after seeking NFL opportunities. Presumed starting quarterback Dominique Davis decided to transfer after being suspended for academic reasons. And in the most stunning news of all, their top overall player was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

"It's about going into life," said Boston College coach Frank Spaziani, who was promoted from defensive coordinator after Jagodzinski's ouster. "I'd like to think I do more than draw Xs and Os. I'm a teacher. That's why these mothers gave us their babies. We want to win games with them - we want to do that - but we're also developing young men. These problems we have are minimal compared to what they're going to face."

The Eagles have proved they know how to deal with adversity.

They won a division title two years ago in their first season without O'Brien. Picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic last season, they instead overcame a season-ending injury to quarterback Chris Crane and won a second consecutive title. Boston College's offensive line annually ranks among the conference's best even though the Eagles have gone through four offensive line coaches in Tennant's five-year career.

"We have the hard-nosed, blue-collar mentality that we get from the city of Boston," Tennant said. "You may not think we're that good. That's fine. We'll just go down there and play the game."

Boston College once again must buck conventional wisdom. In the preseason media poll released Monday, the two-time defending Atlantic Division champions are picked to finish last.

"I halfheartedly said, 'I wondered why you picked us so high,' " Spaziani quipped.

The Eagles have learned to take those preseason predictions with a grain of salt. They already have grown accustomed to overcoming expectations.

They figured out how to replace O'Brien. They found a way to cope without Ryan. But finding a way to thrive without Herzlich may be the toughest challenge yet.

Then again, perhaps they'll have Herzlich on their side after all. Herzlich won't play this season, but he remains on campus taking classes. His teammates are planning a "Lift for Life" event in which players perform strength and conditioning drills to help fund research into rare diseases (donations can be made at www.upliftingathletes.org). The Eagles expect Herzlich to show up at practice and roam the sideline during home games.

"Whatever his physical status will allow, we want him [around] as much as possible," Spaziani said. "I know he wants to be around, and it would be great for us."

ACC Preseason Media Polls
Atlantic Division
1. Florida State (56 first-place votes): 479
2. Clemson (14): 387
3. N.C. State (10): 364
4. Wake Forest (7): 295
5. Maryland: 157
6. Boston College: 145
Coastal Division
1. Virginia Tech (78): 512
2. Georgia Tech (9): 415
3. North Carolina: 350
4. Miami: 282
5. Virginia: 148
6. Duke: 120
ACC Championship Game Winner
Virginia Tech: 69
Florida State and Georgia Tech: 7
Clemson and N.C. State: 2
Preseason ACC player of the year
Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech: 39
C.J. Spiller, Clemson: 28
Russell Wilson, N.C. State: 16
Christian Ponder, Florida State; Vic Hall, Virginia; Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech; Riley Skinner, Wake Forest: 1
Spaziani considers himself the answer to a Joe Paterno-related trivia question.

"I'm the last guy he ever recruited as an assistant," said Spaziani, a former Penn State quarterback and linebacker.

That fact reveals just how circuitous a path Spaziani took to his first head coaching job. Spaziani, 62, spent nearly 40 years working as an assistant coach. After working as Virginia's defensive coordinator from 1985-90, he even moved to the Canadian Football League.

Spaziani spent two seasons as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' defensive coordinator and had the same title with the Calgary Stampeders for three more years. He jokingly refers to his time in Canada as his stint in the Witness Protection Program, but the move actually helped make him better prepared for the 21st-century version of college football.

"Lo and behold, the Canadian offenses, because of the nature of the football, were exactly what came down here," Spaziani said. "The spread, the one-back, no backs. Throwing the ball. I got seven years ahead of the curve."

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was happy to hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's decision to reinstate former Hokies quarterback Michael Vick.

Vick, who recently finished an 18-month prison sentence for running a dogfighting ring, can take part in preseason practices, workouts and meetings and also can play in the final two preseason games for whatever team signs him. He could be eligible to participate in regular-season games by the week of Oct. 18.

"He's making every effort to get his life back right and make good decisions," Beamer said. "I'm firmly pulling for him. I think he's going to have a great story."

Beamer said he spoke with Vick less than two weeks ago.

"He had a lot. He lost a lot," Beamer said. "Now through hard work, dedication and making good decisions, he's going to get back on his feet. There's a lesson for a lot of young kids there that you've got to make decisions and make the right decisions and be with the right people to get your life successful.

"I think he can affect a lot of young people by how he comes back, gets it going and gets things back right."

Most observers see Miami's early season schedule as a major test. Miami coach Randy Shannon prefers to see it as a major opportunity.

Miami travels to Florida State, plays host to Georgia Tech, visits Virginia Tech and plays host to Oklahoma in its first four games. Perhaps no team in the country has a tougher stretch to open the season.

"You'll know you're where you're at after the first four games," Shannon said. "You'll have a chance to be in the top 10 or you won't be. You take it more as a challenge, more of [discovering] where you want to be as a football team instead of saying, 'It's going to be tough,' or, 'How are we going to win these games?' We take it more as, 'Hey, we need to see where we're at as a football team.' We're still young, but these guys have played in some games. Let's see what we can do and build on that."

Shannon also noted that it's easier to pull an upset early in the season.

"Early in the season, everybody plays differently," Shannon said. "If you're not careful, you can sneak up on somebody, nothing against Michigan, but like Appalachian State did [in 2007]. If you play a team early, you have a good chance of beating teams. When teams get in a groove and get in a rhythm and they get on a roll, it's pretty hard."

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is amused by the notion that LSU's 38-3 destruction of the Yellow Jackets in the Chick-fil-A Bowl suddenly means that teams have figured out how to stop his option attack.

"LSU beats us, so therefore the offense is null and void," Johnson said.

Johnson also disagrees with the idea that Georgia Tech's foes will have a better idea of how to handle the option now that they've had a year to watch the Yellow Jackets operate this scheme.

He instead believes Georgia Tech will operation the option attack more effectively this season. Georgia Tech went 9-4, ranked fourth in the nation in rushing and led the ACC in total offense last season even though the Yellow Jackets "weren't very good" on offense, at least in Johnson's estimation.

"I promise you we're better than we were a year ago," Johnson said. "Will that equate to winning more games. I don't know? That's why you play. Will we score more? I don't know. You could get guys hurt. You could turn the ball over. A lot of things could happen. We're better on offense right now than we were any time a year ago, because we've done it. [We have] experience."

If Georgia Tech wasn't very good on offense last year, what would Johnson define as a good season in that regard?

"If you go back and you look through the years at our stats in points and numbers, we need to score more than 30 points a game and we need to [gain] more than 400 yards of offense," Johnson said. "That would be pretty good."

Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer is the reigning ACC player of the year and the preseason choice to win the honor again this season. Clemson's C.J. Spiller is being billed as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Virginia Tech's Darren Evans was the Orange Bowl's most outstanding player.

But perhaps no running back in the ACC offers more intrigue than Virginia's Mikell Simpson.

Simpson was one of the conference's hottest running backs late in the 2007 season - when he replaced an injured Cedric Peerman and rushed for 580 yards and eight touchdowns in the final six games of the year. He followed that up by gaining just 262 yards last year before a shoulder injury caused him to miss the last nine games of the season.

After gaining five yards per carry in 2007, Simpson mustered just three yards per attempt last year. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Virginia slipped to 5-7 last year after going 9-4 in 2007.

"That's probably one of [our] bigger questions," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "Will we have the Mikell Simpson who did such a terrific job for us in the second half of '07?"

Groh can't explain the reversal of fortune, but he remains optimistic Simpson can regain his 2007 form. Groh cited the example of Peerman, whose career also featured some ups and downs.

"He lost his way along there somehow, but the same thing happened to Cedric a couple of years before," Groh said. "He got back on track with it, so we're hoping for the same [with Simpson]."

N.C. State fans have reason to feel optimistic after watching All-ACC quarterback Russell Wilson lead the Wolfpack on a four-game winning streak to end the 2008 regular season.

Now here's some bad news. Even though Wilson is only a redshirt sophomore, there's a chance he might not play for the Wolfpack beyond this season.

North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien noted that possibility Monday. Wilson, who stars in baseball as well as football, is on track to graduate in May. The star quarterback conceivably could leave school to begin a pro baseball career if he gets drafted next summer.

"Because of his accelerated graduation and [that] his draft date comes next year, I think that's when he can make a decision if he's going to play baseball or not," O'Brien said. "He loves football. He loves football now because football [season's] here. He might like baseball more in the spring. That's just the way his mind is and the way he works things.

"I think he has some family situations. His father's had some health issues and things like that. He may be like somebody who goes out a year early in the draft in football because of family situations. If baseball's his way he has to go to help his family and do what's best for him, certainly we'll support him. We'd love to have him, but he came in with a plan. He's going to graduate in three years. He's got the baseball side and football side, and he likes whatever he's doing that minute."

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney admits that he can do his job a bit differently now that the word "interim" has been removed from his title.

Swinney was promoted from receivers coach after Tommy Bowden's midseason departure. Clemson officials announced Swinney as the permanent coach only after the Tigers trounced South Carolina 31-14 in their regular-season finale.

"I'm going to sleep a bit before that first game. That's one thing I'll do differently," Swinney quipped. "It's just a whole different deal. You do the best you can in certain situations that come your way in life. That's really what that was about.

"You try to make the circumstances work for you and not against you. There were a lot of dynamics involved in that whole process. I just feel more complete now, but it was an invaluable experience, the whole process you go though on a week-to-week basis, just little things like sitting down with the media and things like that."

Swinney admitted he was unsure about his chances of keeping the job beyond the 2008 season, though he was too preoccupied to think much about it. He didn't start feeling confident until the closing minutes of the South Carolina game.

"When all 85,000 people were chanting my name with about two minutes to go in Death Valley is when I started saying, 'You know, I might have a shot,' " Swinney said. "Until then, it was one of those things. Obviously you think about wanting to be a head coach and you hope it comes out, but I was more interested in trying to do a good job and trying to be professional."

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said the tips he received from George O'Leary while working on Georgia Tech's staff helped prepare him for his head coaching career.

Now he's passing those same lessons on to offensive coordinator James Franklin, who has been announced as Friedgen's eventual successor.

"When I brought James back to be the assistant head coach, I was trying to groom him for that position anyway," Friedgen said. "One of the things I told him when I brought him back was I was going to take him into the inner sanctum. … George O'Leary did that for me, and it was a tremendous help for me. There's a lot of decisions you have to make [as a head coach] where there are no right answers."

Friedgen said many of those lessons involve off-field demands such as fundraising.

"We have to run a gala and a golf tournament every year just for football," Friedgen said. "Running that gala is about the same preparation as it is to game plan. How you run this. How you set that up. There are a lot of things I've had to learn. Plus you have to go out and get sponsorships… and you still have to recruit."

NORTH CAROLINA-LSU? North Carolina coach Butch Davis wouldn't confirm an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report that the Tar Heels and LSU are on the verge of agreeing to play each other in a 2010 season opener at the Georgia Dome, but he couldn't hide his excitement about the possibility of such a matchup.

"It's certainly something we'd like to do," Davis said. "I think it's a real plus for any program. I think [Virginia Tech coach] Frank Beamer would tell you the opportunity to play Alabama is a great way to start the season. I was fortunate enough to be at Miami when in 1999… we got a chance to open the season against Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic, and it was a great experience. If that opportunity comes up, we'd certainly like that."

The ACC's push for an early signing date hasn't gained much traction across the nation.

Two years ago, the ACC recommended setting an early signing period on the third week of December. ACC commissioner John Swofford acknowledged Sunday that other conferences hadn't exactly warmed up to the idea.

Davis, a proponent for an early signing period, admitted Monday that the movement has lost momentum.

"There are more conferences that are against it than there are for it," Davis said. "I understand. If I was the head coach in Wyoming or the head coach maybe in Kansas, and there's only seven kids in your state and you need the extra six, seven or eight weeks to go to Dallas, to go to Houston, to go to Chicago, to go to St. Louis, you might not be in favor of it. There are a lot of people worrying about whose ox is getting gored."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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