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July 23, 2007
PINEHURST, N.C. ? Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice doesn't mind losing his status as one of the nation's most underrated players.
Playing in the shadow of All-America wide receiver Calvin Johnson last year, Choice failed to earn first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors despite leading the league with 1,473 rushing yards.
Now that Johnson has headed to the NFL, Choice should have more of a chance to make a name for himself.
"I told my coaches and offensive line that 1,800 to 2,000 (yards) is the number we want to get this year," Choice said Sunday at the ACC Media Days at the Pinehurst Resort.
Choice considers that a realistic goal.
After all, he rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the Yellow Jackets' final seven games last year while helping Georgia Tech win the ACC Coastal Division title. Choice believes he might have reached the 1,800-yard mark last year if he'd carried the ball more often early in the season.
The senior ran the ball just 15 times per game during the first five weeks of the season. He averaged 25 carries per game the remainder of the season and figures to continue getting extensive work this year under new offensive coordinator John Bond, who held the same position at Northern Illinois last year while helping Garrett Wolfe capture the NCAA rushing title.
"If they want to ride me, they can ride me all day," Choice said. "I'm ready to go. I'm locked and loaded. I'm just fired up about this season."
Another big season by Choice could help the rest of the nation discover what ACC opponents have already learned.
Choice might not be a household name outside ACC country, but Virginia defensive end Chris Long considers the Georgia Tech senior the best running back he faced last year.
"He runs hard," Long said. "He's a great dude. He competes. He'll talk to you during the game. He just runs hard.''
Choice might not have to do much trash talking to opponents if he repeats last year's success.
His production will speak for itself.
Lost in the wreckage of a losing season was the fact Virginia put together one of the nation's top defenses last year. The Cavaliers finished 17th in the nation in total defense and gave up more than 17 points just once in their last five games.
"We take a lot of pride in being a unit," Long said. "We're a unique defense in that you can say we have one or two players who get some more notoriety, but we're a real team-oriented defense. Guys are really selfless. We take a lot of pride in being a hard-nosed blue-collar (group)."
Long, one of the guys getting a lot of notoriety as a potential first-round draft pick, believes the Cavaliers' defense could be even better this season. Virginia returns 10 starters on that side of the ball.
"I always say the sky's the limit," said Long, who is alone on the cover of Virginia's media guide. "That's what I tell all my teammates. The sky's the limit. Let's not set our standards low. Let's go for it."
Wake Forest's Cinderella run to the ACC title last year has inspired all the conference's other downtrodden programs.
If the Demon Deacons could win the championship after being picked to finish last in their division, why shouldn't any team in the conference believe they could make similar magic?
"The one thing about Wake Forest was that they were very sound (fundamentally)," said North Carolina State defensive tackle DeMario Pressley, whose team went 3-9 last season. "If we could get to that level of soundness, we'll be fine. Absolutely fine."
Enjoying the change
Miami offensive guard Derrick Morse believes moving the Miami-Florida State game later in the season could benefit the rivalry.
The Hurricanes and Seminoles opened the season against each other each of the last three years to give the ACC a prime-time showcase on national television. The nation wasn't treated to much offense, as neither team scored more than 16 points in any of those three games.
Miami won't face the Seminoles on Labor Day this year and instead visits Florida State on Oct. 20. Morse approved of the switch but noted that the Hurricanes still face a tough early-season schedule.
"I think ultimately it will probably be a little bit better," Morse said. "Both teams will get all the kinks out before we get to play. But we don't have much time. We open with Marshall, which isn't bad, then we go right to Oklahoma (on Sept. 8)."
Although the game with Miami was moved back, Florida State still will be playing a nationally televised Labor Day game at Clemson. Florida State running back Antone Smith said he liked playing the Labor Day game, even if it hasn't produced much offense lately.
"I love it," Smith said. "I liked playing Miami those last two years on Labor Day because we're the only (game) being shown. I don't mind it at all."
Clemson defensive end Phillip Merling said the Tigers have received T-shirts with the slogan "Finish The Job."
The Tigers finished poorly last season with four losses in their final five games.
Offensive tackle Barry Richardson didn't like the way the Tigers fell apart at the first sign of adversity late in the season. He specifically cited Clemson's poor performance in a 28-20 Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky after the Tigers failed to earn a more prestigious postseason invitation.
"Nobody wants to repeat that," Richardson said. "We want to go to a real bowl, a good bowl we can be proud of. (The Music City Bowl) was all right, but we knew we could have done better. We could have been in the ACC championship."
Merling said youth may have caused the Tigers' downfall last season. Although Clemson had a senior at quarterback and four seniors on the offensive line, the Tigers lacked experience elsewhere.
"Two safeties were sophomores," Merling said. "The whole defensive line was sophomores aside from Gaines (Adams). Cornerbacks who played a lot of plays last year were sophomores and freshmen. We're going to have a lot of experience this season."
Virginia Tech's players have discovered an unexpected benefit of summer school.
The extension of summer school programs at Virginia Tech caused enough practice conflicts to prevent the Hokies from holding two-a-day preseason workouts this year, defensive tackle Carlton Powell said.
"It's definitely going to give a lot of people a lot more time to recuperate," Powell said.
(Andrew Joyner contributed to this report).
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.