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Monday May 20th, 2019 8:49PM

ACC features array of versatile backs that add big punch

By The Associated Press

When Boston College's special teams coach was looking for volunteers to return kickoffs a couple of years ago, freshman wide receiver Michael Walker shyly raised a hand and quickly found a niche.

"I kind of just took on the role and it's been working out," Walker said.

And then some.

Walker is among an impressive array of versatile special teams players in the Atlantic Coast Conference that tend to make life miserable for opposing coaches. WR Anthony Ratliff-Williams of North Carolina is second nationally to Walker (716, all on kickoffs) and WR Quadree Henderson of Pittsburgh is fourth (684), while DB Greg Stroman of Virginia Tech ranks 13th in punt return average (12.8).

Then there are all-purpose studs who excel at returning kicks, including WR Greg Dortch of Wake Forest (559) and RB Nyheim Hines of North Carolina State (525).

But Walker is leading the way — nationally.

He played in all 12 games his freshman year, mostly on special teams as a returner, and became a major factor for head coach Steve Addazio. Walker finished that season ranked second in the ACC and 10th nationally in kickoff return yardage — his 28.6 yards per return also was a BC single-season record — and was third in the ACC in kick return yards (686).

This year, assistant coach Ricky Brown asked the 6-foot, 195-pound Walker to add punts to his repertoire and Walker has upped his game. He leads the nation in combined return yardage — 556 on kickoffs and 356 on punts for a total of 912 — and his punt return average (14.8) ranks ninth nationally.

"I think it's becoming a signature. The coaches are very strong and innovative in our league," Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said of how talented players are being utilized. "I've been impressed that way. When you have, man, a very good football player, you want him on the field as much as you can."

ACC players have the two longest punt returns in the nation this season. Hines had a 92-yarder for a TD against Pitt on Oct. 14 and Stroman had a 91-yarder the next week against North Carolina. That was Stroman's fourth career punt return for a score and he now has 1,057 career yards returning punts, the eighth-best total in league history.

Even though Pittsburgh has struggled this season, the Panthers are still within reach of qualifying for the postseason and Henderson has provided a jolt. He had a 75-yard punt return on Saturday in a win over Virginia , boosting his career total for kick return touchdowns to seven — four on kickoffs and three on punts. That's one shy of the FBS record shared by eight players, including former Clemson star C.J. Spiller, the ACC record-holder.

"Their player just made a better play on probably five guys that had a chance, not a great chance, but a chance to make a play," said Mendenhall, who also watched Henderson return a kickoff for a touchdown against the Cavaliers last year. "It did hurt. When you consider points allowed, man, and momentum, those things, they hurt."

Dortch, a redshirt freshman who gave Wake Forest an element that it was lacking, was lost for the season with an abdominal injury after setting a program record with four touchdown catches in a 42-32 victory over Louisville on Saturday. He bows out tied for third nationally with nine TD catches and fifth in all-purpose yards per game (161.25).

"He's really allowed us to open up the offense. We've made a lot more explosive plays this year. That was something that we really lacked," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. "I think everybody in this league has a guy that is elusive in space."

North Carolina State's No. 14 ranking last week was its highest since 2003, and Hines has been a big factor in the Wolfpack's surprising surge. The track All-American's performance against Pitt also included an 83-yard scoring run, which made Hines the first FBS player this century with touchdowns of 80 or more yards on both a punt return and a rush in the same game.

Hines also helps on punt coverage.

"The ACC has had great talent for a long time, and it's only getting better," Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. "Week in and week out, you see a lot of different types of players that bring different things to the table."

Despite getting hurt early on Saturday in a loss at Notre Dame, Hines is second to Dortch with 158.5 all-purpose yards per game and Doeren said the injury isn't serious.

"I think you start seeing as the league gets better, you see more and more players that are playmakers, difference makers," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "You see it across the board. I turn on tape, and every team has got somebody that makes you nervous.

"What scares you is we see some teams in our league that have three or four of those guys, and now you're really talking about making it difficult to defend."

As for Walker, in late September he returned three punts for 124 yards to spark a 28-8 victory over Central Michigan that ended a three-game losing streak for Boston College and sent the Eagles on their current run. They have won three of four and are in contention for the postseason.

"You're going to see talented guys that are put in good schemes with an understanding of how important that role is," Addazio said. "I think that's why you see what you see."

It's been six years since former North Carolina star Giovani Bernard set the ACC single-season record for all-purpose yards (198.1 yards per game in 2012) that included a dramatic day against North Carolina State . He still keeps an eye on the conference's versatile guys.

"It's the style of the coaches that are in that league," said Bernard, a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. "Those types of guys, they were able to recruit them. That's huge because the more you can do, the better.

"That's kind of the motto a lot of people carry, and they should carry it. The more you can do, the longer you can play, the more things you can do to help your team win."

___

AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Virginia, Aaron Beard and Joedy McCreary in North Carolina, Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina, and freelance writer Ken Powtak in Boston contributed.

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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