Reserves key to titles, bowls for some ACC teams
Reserves have played a leading role in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year, whether keeping their team in the title chase or helping them become bowl eligible.
Most of the ACC's nine bowl eligible teams at some point were at a crossroads this season when reliable depth - or lack thereof - was going to determine what kind of season they would have.
''When you start establishing yourself and getting the recruiting classes and getting the depth on your football team that you need,'' Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said, ''that's when you really start competing for championships in my opinion because the injuries are going to come.''
Seems no position was sparred as teams replaced injured running backs, quarterbacks and linemen.
Some teams had to replace injured running backs for several weeks. E.J. Manuel stepped in while Florida State star Christian Ponder missed a game during the peak of the Atlantic Division race. At North Carolina, coaches juggled the lineup to deal with an NCAA investigation and multiple injuries.
For the players pressed into expanded roles, the mentality is simple.
''Whatever the coaches and the team need,'' said Clemson running back Jamie Harper, coming off consecutive 100-yard days while top rusher Andre Ellington is out with a foot injury. ''I'm just here to play my role. Whatever opportunity comes up, I'm willing to take.''
Perhaps no team better illustrated that than the 13th-ranked Hokies.
Ryan Williams ran for ACC freshman-records of 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns last year only to injure his hamstring in the first month. At that point, the Hokies were 1-2 after being picked to win the league.
But Darren Evans - himself a former ACC record-setter by running for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2008 before missing last season with a knee injury - filled in capably. With Williams out for four games, Evans ran for seven of his nine touchdowns while sharing the workload with David Wilson to help the Hokies pull themselves together again.
Now Williams is back and looks fresh while splitting carries with Evans. And Virginia Tech (9-2, 7-0 ACC) has wrapped up the Coastal Division crown and a spot in the ACC championship game in Charlotte on Dec. 4.
''You know, we've got some great play from our tailbacks,'' Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. ''I mean, you look at it and all of them run hard and all of them got a different style but when you can keep 'em fresh and eager, that's a good thing to have. And again, let's not get 'em beat up. This time of year, there's a lot of guys beat up. I think ours are fresh and ready to go.''
There were also a slew of quarterback injuries.
Georgia Tech lost Joshua Nesbitt to a broken arm and turned to Tevin Washington to get its sixth win and become bowl eligible for a 14th straight season. At Miami, coach Randy Shannon now must decide who to play at quarterback this weekend against South Florida: Jacory Harris, who is back after missing three games with a concussion; or backup Stephen Morris, who won two of three starts to keep the Hurricanes in the Coastal Division race until last week.
At Maryland, the Terrapins - eliminated from the Atlantic Division race last week - have thrived under Danny O'Brien, who started the season as a reserve but took over as the starter when Jamarr Robinson hurt his shoulder. Robinson is back, but as a reserve.
Coach Ralph Friedgen also had to juggle the line in front of O'Brien and Robinson. The Terps had to go deep on the bench to replace injured offensive tackles Justin Gilbert (knee) and Pete DeSouza, who broke both legs in a scooter accident.
''What I was hoping to do was stay healthy and bring the (backups) along, give them some playing time and some experience so they could mature into their roles,'' Friedgen said. ''But we've been forced to play them regardless.''
Yet injuries weren't the only reason coaches reached into their benches.
Boston College wanted to redshirt quarterback Chase Rettig, but he became the starter when Dave Shinskie struggled. At Georgia Tech, sophomore linebacker Julian Burnett provided a boost by moving from a third-stringer in preseason to a starter at midseason and now an all-ACC candidate.
The Tar Heels have dealt with a little of everything. They lost leading receiver Zack Pianalto at tight end to a broken leg and leading rusher Johnny White to a broken collarbone, leading to bigger roles for reserves like tailback Anthony Elzy. Then there's the NCAA investigation into agent-related benefits and academic violations, which sidelined 14 players at least one game and seven for the entire year.
Like Friedgen, Tar Heels coach Butch Davis has been forced to throw young players into the lineup - particularly in the secondary - to get by.
''There will come a day when we look back at this and say, 'Had this not happened, these 8 or 9 freshmen wouldn't have played and these guys wouldn't have played as big a role,''' Davis said. ''... Certainly depth next year will make a significant difference just because we'll get some guys back, we'll add some guys through recruiting and we'll get a lot of these guys that got some experience.''
AP Sports Writers Dave Ginsburg in College Park, Md.; Hank Kurz in Blacksburg, Va.; Joedy McCreary in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, S.C.; and Charles Odum in Atlanta; and Brent Kallestad of The Associated Press in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.