Tech vs. ECU  9/19/2010

Defensive end James Gayle (99) makes a tackle during a game last season against East Carolina. Gayle, a Bethel product, has had a productive spring for the Hokies. (T.J. Witten, Daily Press / April 21, 2011)

Spring football is rooted in hope, and rare is the coach who admits "we're getting worse and I'll be lucky to save my job."

That said, ACC head coaches offered unusually lavish praise for players from Hampton Roads during a media teleconference Thursday.

"I think James Gayle has really taken another step," Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer said of the sophomore defensive from end from Bethel High. "He plays fast. … He's a guy you notice out there."

Spring reviews have portrayed Gayle, a Bethel High graduate, as the program's next Bruce Smith or Darryl Tapp. Line coach Charley Wiles called him "unblockable," and strength coach Mike Gentry awarded him the team's highest weight-room honor.

"He's taken that (strength and conditioning) to the football field, too," Beamer said, "and he's using it."

The Hokies need Gayle and others — outside linebackers Alonzo Tweedy and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow come to mind first — to emerge if they're to avoid the big plays that doomed them in losses to Boise State and Stanford last season.

Linebacker is also a concern at North Carolina, where Butch Davis must replace NFL prospects Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant. Among the candidates is true freshman Travis Hughes from Virginia Beach's Kempsville High, a recruit who escaped Virginia Tech and Virginia.

"I don't think there's any question," Davis said of Hughes contributing immediately. "We have talked long and hard about the roles Travis can play. Travis is physically gifted enough that he could play any of the three (linebacker) positions.

Hughes is part of another acclaimed Carolina recruiting class, but the fact is, the Tar Heels haven't had a winning ACC record since 2004 and haven't finished better than 5-3 in the conference since 1997, Mack Brown's final season as coach.

The success of Mike London's second season as Virginia's coach hinges, in part, on progress from a defense still transitioning from Al Groh's 3-4 alignment to London's 4-3. A key component of any improvement could be sophomore cornerback Rijo Walker, like London a Bethel product.

Walker was a special-teams staple last year but during spring saw more time at corner because of 2010 starter Devin Wallace's absence. London suspended Wallace indefinitely in February after his arrest on assault charges and does not seem inclined to reinstate him.

"I'll tell you what," London said, "Rijo plays like a seasoned veteran. He took great advantage of (the opportunity). Rijo's a smart player. He's doing well in school. He's a great teammate. … He's smart enough where he can play safety, also."

Virginia's defensive issues (10th among 12 ACC teams in points allowed) last season mirrored Clemson's on offense. The Tigers were 10th in the conference in scoring at 24.0 points per game and endured their first losing season (6-7) since 1998, ratcheting up the pressure on coach Dabo Swinney.

Swinney fired offensive coordinator and hired Chad Morris from Tulsa, where the no-huddle Golden Hurricane ranked sixth nationally in scoring last year at 41.4 points per game. The rapid-fire offense is ideal for new Clemson quarterback and Phoebus High graduate Tajh Boyd, according to Swinney.

"I wanted to include every ounce of his skill set," Swinney said of Boyd, a redshirt sophomore. "I think this system will do that. …Tajh has got an explosive arm, but he can also run the football. I want people to have to defend that, and this system's going to allow us to feature what he can do best."

Like Boyd, Florida State junior EJ Manuel of Virginia Beach's Bayside High is a dual-threat quarterback, except that at 6-foot-5 he's four inches taller. He succeeds Christian Ponder, whose NFL draft stock reportedly is rising.

Manuel operated behind a patchwork line — starting tackles Zebrie Sanders and Andrew Datko were injured — during spring practices, but coach Jimbo Fisher was impressed nonetheless.

"When you're so banged up up front it's hard for the skill guys to function," he said. "(But) I thought he had an exceptional spring. I will be shocked if he doesn't have a very successful season. … He'll do what we need him to do, I promise."

Promise? Now there's a confident coach.

There's a coach who knows it's spring.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP