Getting physical in the ACC's Coastal Division
Posted August 2
As we saw in my previous column, Duke’s David Cutcliffe loves having a quarterback with a season full of starts under his belt-almost no other team in the Coastal Division has that luxury. At the same time, Cutcliffe is also concerned about keeping Daniel Jones healthy in what he considers to be a very physical Coastal Division.
His words are worth reviewing a second time: “It always is a bonus to have a returning quarterback, Cutcliffe began, adding, “I don't know that it's an upper hand in a division like ours where, as you look at our teams, everybody in our division is growing and getting better. And we've got some physical football teams. I am very grateful that we have a quarterback that's a returning starter. I just hope and pray we can keep him healthy.”
Without question, the Coastal Division of 2017 plays a more physical brand of football than when Cutcliffe first began coaching at Duke. Miami and Pittsburgh have changed coaches and playing styles. And the Techs—Virginia and Georgia—also put a special stamp on games played against them.
Running strong in Miami
Miami piled up 40 points on Duke last season. The Hurricanes rushed for more than 150 yards per game—not as much as second-year coach Mark Richt wants, but at least a step in Richt’s direction. Star running back Mark Walton certainly appreciates the change.
“You know, when Coach Richt came the year before, the old coaching staff that we had, we never ran 21,” Walton recalled. But the new staff began using a lead blocker on many running plays, and Walton loves it.
Here’s how he describes the change: “When Coach Richt came over, running 21 with a fullback and bringing an extra block for you, instead of out of the gun, just bringing different styles of running the ball. You can run it in the gun, variations, 21, 11, 12. That's helped me a lot, trying to wear down the defense, just hitting carries on different sides.”
To be sure, Richt also wants to throw the football down the field. But the beefed up run game is a game changer for both Miami and the Coastal Division. As Richt says, “You've got to be physical to run the football.”
Richt hedged, though, when asked to describe the Coastal’s most physical units.
“Who's the most physical team? I don't know," Richt said. "If I say one team, the other guys get mad. I think they're all physical. I mean, it's a physical sport. That's why they put the pads on. That's why there's rules against targeting, because guys are trying to play as physical as they can. It's an impressive league for sure.”
Bringing B1G to Pitt
No doubt Pat Narduzzi taking over the Pitt program a couple of years ago has changed the tone in the Coastal Division. Narduzzi brought with him from the Big Ten an aggressive, eight-man front that looks to stop the run and put heat on the quarterback.
On the other side of the ball, Pitt’s offensive line looks to dominate opponents, too. Pitt returns three of five starters from one of the ACC’s biggest, best and most physical offensive lines, including junior tackle Brian O’Neill.
“Yeah, physicality is the hallmark of our program,” O’Neill said. “It's something we pride ourselves on. As an offensive line, we take it very personally that there's no group out there that's going to be more physical than us, and I think that's been the trend for the last couple years. If we hang our hats on that, good things are going to happen. I think we still have a lot of guys left who are capable of doing that. We hear a lot about the two guys who left, and they did great things for us, but we`ve still got some horses left.”
At Virginia Tech, every Bud Foster defense exudes physicality. In 2017, the Hokies return eight of the eleven defensive starters from the group that won the Coastal Championship. On offense, second-year head coach Justin Fuente wants more physicality from his running backs, all of whom were outgained last year by quarterback Jerod Evans.
Mind games at Georgia Tech
Truthfully, the mere presence of Georgia Tech makes playing games in the Coastal Division different than anywhere else. Coach Paul Johnson, of course, runs a unique offense that he calls the spread option—whatever he calls it, the Yellow Jacket attack looks like a throwback to the heyday of the wishbone in the 1970s.
Georgia Tech opponents must be able to stop the dive play and the option. Most of all, they must prepare to face blocks from every player on the field, including wide receivers and the quarterback. Opponents must get ready mentally and physically for the dreaded cut blocks—legal blocks below the waist.
Johnson’s Georgia Tech teams have become more proficient in the throwing game in recent years, too. But the ground game still rules.
“The bottom line in football is the team that blocks and tackles and takes care of the ball the best is going to win,” Johnson insists. He knows the Georgia Tech system can wear on opponents mentally as well as physically.
“If people think that what we do is different, and it gets in their head, that's good,” Johnson said wryly. “If they think we're a little more physical, that's good.”
This is not to overlook the Georgia Tech defense, which under coordinator Ted Roof, pursues ball carriers like heat seeking missiles, hoping to force turnovers. GT like VT, returns eight of eleven starters on defense.
The leader of that group, Keshun Freeman, who has logged 37 career starts at defensive end, sizes things up this way: “To me we are a really, really, really strong group of people. Each team really wants to win and be the Coastal representation (in) the ACC Championship. Yeah, we are very physical, man, because everybody is going to be that top spot.”
UNC imposing its will
Freeman gets no argument from UNC’s All-ACC candidate Bentley Spain. The senior offensive tackle from Charlotte told me, “The Coastal Division is very physical, and that's something we stress as a team and as an O-line.” Spain continues: “Imposing your will on someone physically is one of the most demoralizing things you can do to another team, so that's definitely the goal of every O-line. So, that's just what we're going to try to do every game this season.”
UNC coach Larry Fedora says three words to his team before every game: “Smart, fast, physical.” With the Tar Heels bringing so many new starters in to the program’s heretofore explosive offense, physicality becomes more important for UNC. Fedora has suggested the Tar Heel defense may have to carry the team early in the year.
The Atlantic Division is known for producing national championship contenders. In fact, Florida State and Clemson have each won the national championship within the last four years. But the Coastal is known for balance. Only twice in 12 years of Coastal Division play has a team finished the league with an unblemished record—Virginia Tech in 2010 and UNC in 2015.
Three times in the last four years a record of 6-2 has been good enough to win the Coastal. Incredibly, in two of the Coastal’s twelve seasons, a 5-3 record sent Virginia Tech and later Georgia Tech to the ACC Championship Game.
So, in a division with such a small gap between winning and losing, expect every game, and indeed every play, to be fiercely fought.