As Duke prepares for its Spring Game slated for Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium, other programs across the ACC are making similar preparations, although with slightly different expectations.
Neighbors N.C. State and Wake Forest along with familiar foes Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech all have their spring scrimmages scheduled for Saturday as well. Rival North Carolina's Spring Game was cancelled due to weather April 5, and was played to far less fanfare two days later.
While Saturday's game will give fans their first look at the Blue Devils under head coach David Cutcliffe, no one expects the showcase to be a preview of the 2008 ACC Champions. Expectations at Duke may be notably higher this year than in years past, but they pale in comparison to the expectations at Virginia Tech and Clemson, the early favorites to represent their divisions in the ACC Championship Game in Tampa, Fla.
The Hokies are used to the spotlight, as head coach Frank Beamer's bunch has reached the title game in two out of the last three years after winning the ACC in 2004-the last season played without a conference championship game. But this spring, even as the experts still place Virginia Tech at the top of the Coastal Division for 2008, many questions still remain in Blacksburg, Va.
Over the winter, running back Branden Ore, an All-ACC performer as a sophomore in 2006, was kicked off the team after a long string of rule violations. Last week, the team announced that expected first-string tailback Kenny Lewis, Jr. would be out four to six months after tearing the labrum in his left shoulder. Making matters worse, Lewis' backup, Jahre Cheeseman, broke his left leg in the Hokies' most recent scrimmage April 12. Without Lewis and Cheeseman, no healthy running back on Virginia Tech's roster has ever taken a snap in a regular-season game.
"It was time for us to pick it up when Branden [Ore] left," said Darren Evans, a redshirt freshman tailback. "He left some big shoes to fill. But now we've all got to pick it up even more. We've got to get our mind right, get our protections down and understand the game better."
While Lewis and Cheeseman's injuries will give Evans and fellow freshman Josh Oglesby some valuable experience in the Spring Game, Beamer would certainly prefer to see his top two running backs take the field Saturday. Instead, he'll have to settle without last year's top four wide receivers-all who graduated-and top three running backs.
Down in Clemson, S.C., head coach Tommy Bowden's team was able to avoid the injury bug at its Spring Game April 12. Bowden even said that the best thing about the game was that "no one got hurt."
The Tigers return eight starters on each side of the ball in 2008-including All-ACC tailback James Davis, who sat out the Spring Game with a shoulder injury suffered earlier this spring. Unlike Virginia Tech's Lewis and Cheeseman, Davis is already a proven back, and Clemson's medical staff expects the senior to be ready for fall practice in August.
Aside from the offensive line and at linebacker, the Tigers have proven players at every position. Expectations have been high for Clemson in recent years, but the squad has failed to reach the conference title game each time. If April 12 was any indication of how the Tigers' skill players will perform in 2008, Clemson fans should be excited about the team's prospects in the upcoming season.
Quarterback Cullen Harper-who led the ACC in passing efficiency in 2007-was his usual efficient self, completing 13 of 18 passes for 142 yards and two scores in only a half of play-and behind an inexperienced offensive line. Harper will be tested early, as the Tigers face Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in their first game of the 2008 season.
"I've got some questions concerning the offensive line with them being so young," Bowden said. "That will be a concern especially with such a quality opponent in our opener. But, with our returners and leaders, I feel good about the season."
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