Perhaps no ACC team has as much intrigue this spring as North Carolina, which brought in Gene Chizik to revamp the defense and will go to battle without starting QB Marquise Williams, who is out for the spring with a hip injury. To get a feel for where the Heels are at, we talked with coach Larry Fedora about some of the biggest spring storylines.

David Hale: Last year, you talked a lot about how young your team was. Now those guys have a year of experience under their belts, can you tell a major difference?
Larry Fedora: It's interesting because as we talked about through our [morning] workouts, the guys who were struggling were always the newcomers who just entered school and the freshmen who hadn't been through the offseason workouts. The other guys are veterans. I see those guys have experience, they're comfortable, they're not feeling their way. They understand the expectation level and the amount of energy and work we're asking for them.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeCoach Larry Fedora, who guided the Tar Heels to a 6-7 overall record last season, enters spring practices with a new coordinator and more experienced players.
Hale: Obviously bringing Chizik in changes a lot on defense. Have you seen a palpable sense of excitement from the D with him on board?
Fedora: In our whole team -- not just the defense. The entire team is excited about it, and the new guys on that defensive side of the ball -- they're just really, really excited about the new blood and basically starting from scratch with that.

Hale: How big of a transition from the previous system to Chizik's do you expect?
Fedora: I don't think there'll be a whole lot of carryover. It'll be quite a bit of newness for them, and that's one of the things they're excited about. Everybody has a clean slate and everybody gets to build their resume on a daily basis, from the time they step on campus.

Hale: Given the up-tempo style you run on offense, were you looking for a guy who could tailor a defense around that?
Fedora: For me, it was about finding the best defensive coordinator there is. A guy who could come in and I could turn it over and not be worried about what's going on on that side of the ball. Gene is obviously a proven defensive coordinator, who has had success everywhere he's been. That was an easy decision for me. The tempo and the amount of plays we run were not a factor for me.

Hale: How did the hire come about?
Fedora: After the season was over, I started looking into people. Gene was a guy I'd always had on my list, and I think a lot of people, it surprised them because Gene was working in TV at the time. But he's a guy I knew eventually would want to get back in, and I was hoping we were the right time and place for him. And we were.

Hale: What do you see as the biggest challenges for Chizik this spring?
Fedora: One of the things is we had two hybrid positions. Our bandits were a defensive end/linebacker that could rush and drop into coverage. We have to make a decision with those guys whether they're going to linebacker or D-end, and some of them are kind of 'tweeners, because that's what we were recruiting for. Same thing with our ram position. Those guys were safeties/linebackers. We have to find out where they're going to fit best also. There'll be some issues recruiting-wise we have to do to correct those things and recruit toward the philosophy where we're going now.

Hale: You probably want to make some quick decisions there to get guys into the weight room to prep for those new roles, right?
Fedora: Right. Some guys we've already talked about we need to add some weight, some need to drop some weight. But at the same time, Gene has to find where's the best fit for those guys. Where are they going to help us the most? Then we have to mold the defense and the system around what these guys can do because, no matter what, this is who's playing for us, and we've got to get the most out of them.

Hale: Last year, you didn't want to name Williams as your starting QB in the spring, but he turned in arguably the best statistical season of any ACC QB when the season began. How has your opinion of him changed?
Fedora: Marquise is our starting quarterback. That doesn't mean -- we still want competition. But he comes back as a starter in that position. We're still going to have somebody try to push him, but I think Marquise played very well last year, and we need to get him where he's completely healthy and playing at a high level consistently throughout the entire season.

Hale: You got some criticism for playing backup Mitch Trubisky a lot early in the season. Looking back, was that the right decision?
Fedora: I would not have changed the way we did that. It still benefited both players and benefited our team. If you go all the way into the Virginia game, it was a fourth-down call and on third down, Marquise's helmet got knocked off. Mitch came in and threw a touchdown pass on fourth down. If he hadn't had those reps, who knows? You always want your guys prepared. I think the way we did it last year was really good -- for Marquise, for Mitch and for our football team.

Hale: How much has Mitch improved?
Fedora: I think Mitch progressed throughout the entire year. He got better as we went and is doing a good job right now. He knows he's a play away.

Hale: The other big issue for you last season was on the offensive line, where you were especially young. Could that become an area of strength this season?
Fedora: We struggled. I don't mean to put everything on the offensive line, but being young, there were some games we were able to run the ball more effectively, and some we weren't, and a lot of that had to do with the youth up front. When you're trying to develop that many young kids, it's tough. When you're in the trenches, it's hard to play when you're really young. As far as the way those guys developed all year, I'm excited going into the spring. They all have experience. They're still developing, but they're not going to be wide-eyed. They're going to know what to do and I think you'll see them start to really excel up front.
The conference returns a number of experienced and talented quarterbacks, but for two of the ACC's top teams, there is an open competition at the position. Those competitions will define the spring for Florida State and Louisville and could define all of 2015. Those position battles highlight the conference's most intense competitions this spring.

1. Florida State starting quarterback
When Jameis Winston committed to the Seminoles, it was assumed the No. 1 high school quarterback would transition into the starting role after a redshirt year once EJ Manuel departed. There is not an obvious answer for who will follow Winston, however. Sean Maguire filled in admirably against Clemson under tough circumstances and against the top defense in 2014, but he still has much to prove. J.J. Cosentino was an ESPN 300 recruit and certainly has the build (6-foot-4, 234 pounds), but he redshirted as a freshman. De'Andre Johnson enrolled in January and could be a dark horse, but fellow freshman Deondre Francois, who will arrive in the summer, has the higher prep pedigree. John Franklin III could get some looks in the spring, but he spent most of last season at receiver.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill Gardner passed for 1,669 yards with 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions in eight games for Louisville last season, but missed five games overall, including the final three.
2. Louisville starting quarterback
You might have better odds hitting the superfecta at Churchill Downs two months from now than accurately pegging who the Cardinals will start in the season opener. Will Gardner, who took the majority of snaps in 2014, is recovering from a torn ACL. Reggie Bonnafon collected a handful of starts as a true freshman, but he could not wrestle the starting gig from Gardner long term. Kyle Bolin showed promise against Kentucky in the regular-season finale but struggled in the bowl game against Georgia. Tyler Ferguson has followed Bobby Petrino around recently, so the transfer should have the offense down. Making it tougher on the three spring participants is the lack of experienced receivers. That will be another interesting position battle.

3. Georgia Tech's running backs
The Yellow Jackets are losing seven of their top nine leading rushers at running back, so aside from Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech's crowded backfield will have several new faces. Broderick Snoddy is the most experienced but is recovering from a devastating leg injury suffered in November. Snoddy has lightning speed and is a home-run threat with the ball in his hands. Dennis Andrews had only 16 carries in 2014, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. The name to watch is C.J. Leggett, who redshirted as a freshman last season but was highly rated coming out of high school.

4. Boston College's starting offensive line
Former offensive line coach Steve Addazio had the luxury of coaching five seniors along the line at certain points in 2014. The obvious flip side is that now he has to completely retool the offensive line, and the spring is the ideal time to start working on that chemistry. Guard Harris Williams returns from injury, but there are a number of question marks around him. Dave Bowen could be a solid bet to start at one of the tackle spots. Senior Frank Taylor could step in at center. Aside from Williams, though, nothing looks to be set in stone.

5. Clemson backup quarterback.
The Tigers probably have the conference's best quarterback, but Deshaun Watson has struggled to stay healthy since enrolling at Clemson. He suffered three significant injuries his first season, the last a torn ACL that will cost him spring practice. A year ago, the Tigers still had Cole Stoudt, who had started a handful of games. If Watson is not ready for the opener or has to miss any time in 2015, the Tigers' season could be in jeopardy. Nick Schuessler is a redshirt junior but a former walk-on who has thrown only 10 career passes. Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel are true freshmen who enrolled in January.

6. Miami running back
Duke Johnson, whose career will be celebrated at Miami for quite some time, is off to the NFL. Miami has a strong stable of running backs it can rely on to replace Johnson, but it remains to be seen who will get the majority of the carries. Joseph Yearby was one of the country's top running backs in the 2014 class and ran for more than 500 yards as a freshman. However, Gus Edwards could leave the spring with the starting gig. Edwards is a bigger back but is capable of running away from defenders. Mark Walton is enrolling in the coming months, and he was one of the top high school players in Florida last fall.

ACC morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
9:00
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AthlonSports released its ACC spring preview this week, and writer Steven Lassan is not overlooking Florida State just yet.

In his pre-spring power rankings, Lassan has the Seminoles atop the Atlantic Division, listing the quarterback battle as the obvious top offseason priority. Despite winning the last three ACC titles, FSU has seemed to take a bit of a backseat this offseason to Clemson, the perceived early frontrunner in the division and the league.

Look no further than this space, where the four of us all picked the Tigers to win the Atlantic in our way-too early ACC predictions for 2015. We also -- well, three of us -- picked Georgia Tech to win the Coastal, and Lassan thinks no differently in his early spring power rankings though, as he points out, the Yellow Jackets do need to replace plenty of key figures at the skill position spots after last year's production.

One other interesting early slotting by Lassan? He has Duke at No. 6 in the Coastal, this after second- and first-place finishes in 2014 and 2013, respectively. There is certainly be plenty of turnover on both sides of the ball for the Blue Devils, so it will be interesting to see what David Cutcliffe does in his eighth year in Durham.

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Naples High has enjoyed tremendous success under head coach Bill Kramer. With two state titles and numerous deep playoff runs, the Southwest Florida 6A power has become a must stop for college coaches having produced a number of national recruited prospects over the past decade.

In the 2016 class, there are a trio of prospects who rank among the best in the area, state and country.

Fils-aime hot on the trail despite injury in 2014

Headed into the 2014 season, ESPNJr300 running back Carlin Fils-aime was a name known to college coaches, and had a handful of offers. After injuring his ankle in Game 4 caused him to miss the rest of the season, the quick and powerful back was unsure what would come of his recruitment.

That question was answered in February with offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Auburn, and Florida.

"After I got injured, I didn’t really expect to get any more offers," Said Fils-aime. "When those schools offered me I was pretty shocked because of my injury."

The Gators are one of several schools the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder plans to visit in the coming weeks.

"For now, we are trying to go up to Florida during spring break, but if not will get up there in the summer. We also want to visit Georgia, North Carolina, N.C. State if we can this summer. I’ll probably fly up to Ohio State, too. I was just at Miami, and had a great time. I was impressed with how they rotated their backs in practice, and the basketball game against North Carolina was fun."

If there is one program yet to offer that could be a game-changer in the physical back's recruitment, it would be Stanford.

"I’m a big Stanford fan. I have always liked them because they have a great law program, and if football doesn’t work out for me, I want to go into law. That is one of the schools that I do love."

Naples High head coach Bill Kramer has had some really good backs through the years, including former Ohio State star Carlos Hyde. In Fils-aime, Kramer has a talented athlete who brings a lunch-pail mentality.

"I love his competitive DNA," Said Kramer. "He works in the classroom, and is already qualified. He’s a guy that you can count on, and it matters to him every day. Our defensive players say hitting him is like hitting a light pole. He’s can make plays in really small spaces, understands leverage, and is really explosive."

Byrd one of the nation's best

The Miami Hurricanes' 2016 class is the best in the nation in the early going. One of the 10 ESPNJr 300 verbals is former Florida pledge Tyler Byrd. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound versatile prospect is blessed with rare talent according to Kramer.

"I think he’s a Top 50 wide receiver and Top 10 corner. He’s really strong physically, he’s almost 6-feet even, you are not going to outleap him, and if he gets his hands on you, you are negated. He’ll do something about every day that is just spectacular."

Though Byrd is solid with his commitment to the Hurricanes due to the love that Al Golden and staff showed throughout the entire process, programs such as Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and others remain under consideration. On Monday, Byrd said he planned to make all five of his official visits.

Riley the best on defense at Naples High

While Fils-aime and Byrd are names known both regionally and nationally on the recruiting radar, Naples High is home to one of the top sleepers in the Sunshine State in safety Chris Riley.

According to Kramer, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound talented all-around athlete is the team's best defensive player, which is saying something considering Byrd is on that same unit.

"Our best defensive player, and that’s saying something because we have some really good players. He was Southwest Florida Defensive Player of the Year for good reason. He has tremendous length, he’s physical, knows all of his run fits, and is a great tackler. We can’t count how many one-on-one tackles he’s made in space against really good players. He can also cover man, is terrific in zone, and understands how it all works and fits together."

Riley is receiving interest from North Carolina, Boston College, and a growing list of others.

"I’ve heard from North Carolina, Boston College, Purdue, Georgia Tech, Harvard and Yale," Said Riley. "North Carolina and Boston College are two I really want [offers]."

Riley had 103 tackles and two interceptions as a junior, taking home area Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as being an all-area punter. Riley’s father, Chris Riley, played quarterback at Connecticut.

Defensive tackle Colton Strickland and kicker Jerry Nunez are also expected to receive offers in the 2016 class.
DURHAM, N.C. -- Thomas Sirk is tall and lanky and baby-faced, and when he answers questions about his spring performance and his role as the heir apparent to Duke’s starting quarterback job, he’s adept at breaking down his strengths and weaknesses with the kind of nervous charisma reserved for a job interview. Self-awareness is a crucial ingredient for improvement, he says.

Sirk’s personality neatly summarizes the quarterback situation at Duke this spring. For the first time since David Cutcliffe arrived as head coach in 2008, there is no clear-cut, experienced passer waiting in the wings, but in the locker room, that is of little concern. Instead, there is a sense of excitement about what’s to come -- a taste of the unknown for the first time in years at that position, but also a sense that the ceiling for Sirk and the rest of his quarterback competitors is incredibly high.

[+] EnlargeThomas Sirk
Fabian Radulescu/Icon SportswireThomas Sirk tops Duke's spring QB depth chart, but Parker Boehme and Nico Pierre are also competing to replace departed starter Anthony Boone.
"It’s somewhat like when we came in here and winning wasn’t in anybody’s vocabulary," said Cutcliffe, who has led Duke to three straight bowl games after the program had a 17-year postseason hiatus. "It’s going to be fun. The skill set is fun for us, because it allows us to look at a few things we’d like to do differently because of the athleticism of these guys."

Cutcliffe inherited a veteran quarterback upon arrival and has worked to groom a successor each season since. Not since 2006 has Duke opened a season with a starting quarterback who had fewer than 50 career pass attempts. This year, the depth chart includes players with a combined 16 throws in their careers.

That has complicated the locker-room dynamic a bit, as Sirk, Parker Boehme, and Nico Pierre jockey for position on the depth chart in hopes of replacing Anthony Boone, who had been one of Duke’s unquestioned leaders on offense. On the field, things are actually running pretty smoothly.

"I feel mentally and physically prepared for that role," Sirk said of his spot atop the spring depth chart. "Stepping into some big-game situations last year definitely prepared me. And the way that we practice is so much like a game that if you can just transfer it over to the field, you’ll play at a high level."

Sirk did get his share of snaps last season. He scored eight rushing touchdowns as the change-of-pace and red-zone quarterback behind Boone. That was crucial in getting his feet wet in a pressure-packed situation, Cutcliffe said, but the limited role undersold just how dynamic the redshirt junior might be this season.

"Thomas’ skill set -- all of it is good," Cutcliffe said. "He’s strong-armed, accurate, he’s got great size, and he has outstanding speed. He’ll be the fastest starting quarterback I’ve ever coached. From a character, intelligence, reliability, accountability sense, they’re through the roof."

If that makes it sound like the competition for the starting job is already over, Boehme would emphatically disagree.

The redshirt sophomore got a taste of action last season but threw just two passes, and he has spent the spring mostly working with the No. 2 offense. Still, he’s not conceding the starting job to his more experienced teammate.

"It’s good competition at every position, but especially the quarterback position," Boehme said. "It’s been clear it’s an open spot."

Of course, even if Boehme isn’t the starter, he’ll see action.

Last season, Sirk had 61 touches as the backup. The year before, Brandon Connette played in every game, accounting for 27 touchdowns. In 2012, Boone was a regular on the field while backing up Sean Renfree. Cutcliffe wants his No. 2 quarterback to get plenty of work, and that won’t change this season, he said.

With that in mind, this spring has been something of a trial-by-fire -- if not to identify the clear-cut No. 1, then certainly to ensure two quarterbacks are ready for what lies ahead.

Not only did Duke lose Boone, but two crucial members of the offensive line are gone, too. So Cutcliffe has turned his pass rush loose, looking to confuse and frustrate his new faces on offense. So far, it’s been a fun battle.

"Our defense has thrown a lot at us this spring," Sirk said. "I think we’ve done a good job of keeping up, keeping track of their blitzes, handling their pressures and responding how we need to."

After each play, Sirk, Boehme and Pierre saunter back toward their coaches and face the interrogation. What was the coverage? Where did the blitz come from? Who was your hot read?

"He stays on us, throwing the ball and making the right reads," Sirk said of Cutcliffe. "He does a great job making sure we get the ball out of our hands quick, and afterward, he wants us to come back and tell him what the coverage has been."

As spring winds down in Durham, Cutcliffe has been pleased with how many of these tests his young quarterbacks have passed.

This isn’t the old days at Duke, when a rare talent walks out the door and the cupboards are left bare. Cutcliffe sees a world of possibility in Sirk and Boeheme, and though the questions will linger at the position until they have both seen enough work on game day to allay any doubts, Cutcliffe isn’t the least bit concerned.
Games are won in the fall. But the foundations for great plays, and great seasons, are often built behind the scenes in the spring and summer months. With spring ball already underway at a few ACC stops, we're taking a look at some of the players who have plenty to prove on the field in the coming weeks and months.

Sean Maguire. The race to replace Jameis Winston will draw no shortage of attention in Tallahassee. And the man currently at the top of the pecking order, at least experience-wise, is Maguire, a redshirt junior. Starting in place of the suspended Winston in FSU's biggest game of the year, at home in September against Clemson, Maguire had an up-and-down performance: 21-of-39 passing for 304 yards with one touchdown and two picks in an overtime win. Still, that's more than anyone else on the roster can show right now, and it's up to Maguire to fend off highly-touted challengers J.J. Cosentino (redshirt freshman) and De'Andre Johnson (freshman).

[+] EnlargeTallahassee, FL - September 20, 2014 - Doak Campbell Stadium: Sean Maguire (10) of the Florida State University Seminoles during a regular season game (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesStarting in place of a suspended Jameis Winston, Sean Maguire led the Seminoles to an overtime win against Clemson last season.
Stacy Coley. Remember this guy? Let's refresh your memory: As a freshman in 2013, Coley burst onto the scene for Miami, catching 33 passes for 591 yards and seven touchdowns, while also returning a punt and a kickoff for a score. (And rushing for one more, too.) Then he had a sophomore slump in 2014: Just 23 catches for 184 yards, with no scores. A shoulder injury was partly to blame, but the dropoff was still perplexing. If Coley can regain his rookie form and connect with reigning ACC rookie of the year Brad Kaaya, that could certainly open things up for the Hurricanes' offense moving forward.

Taquan "Smoke" Mizzell. Mizzell has been stellar and versatile through two seasons at Virginia, leading all ACC running backs last season with 39 catches. Still, more is expected of a former ballyhooed recruit than 280 rushing yards, which Mizzell totaled last year. And as Mizzell enters his junior year in a crucial season for the Cavalier program, he needs to make the leap from good to great, especially with Kevin Parks now out of the picture.

Jabari Hunt-Days. Hunt-Days missed the 2014 season because of an academic issue, a big setback for a player who had notched seven stops behind the line of scrimmage as a sophomore in 2013 -- after earning several freshman All-America honors the year before. He's a fifth-year senior now, and the defensive lineman could be the big playmaker who brings Georgia Tech's defense up a level in 2015. (His brother, Synjyn Days, certainly set a nice example in 2014 with a strong senior year for the Yellow Jackets.)

Josh Harvey-Clemons. Spots are open for the taking in Louisville's secondary, and few may be in better position to take advantage than Harvey-Clemons, the former ESPN four-star prospect. The safety was dismissed from Georgia last winter following multiple violations of team rules and reunited with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with the Cardinals. Despite missing two games in 2013, Harvey-Clemons led the SEC with three fumble recoveries, adding 5.5 tackles for loss and one pick. The talent is obviously there. Now eligible, Harvey-Clemons must perform for the Cards.

Al-Quadin Muhammad. Now a redshirt sophomore at Miami, Muhammad is back with the Hurrricanes after a semester-long university-issued suspension last fall. The former ESPN four-star prospect said he never contemplated transferring, and coaches and teammates have stuck by the lineman. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has changed his jersey number from No. 98 to No. 8, and he certainly possesses the physical tools necessary to make an impact up front on the Canes' defense, for whom he tallied a pair of sacks as a true freshman when he last took the field, in 2013.

Everett Golson. Golson struggled down the stretch in 2014 for Notre Dame, with all 22 of his turnovers coming in the final nine regular-season games, leading to Malik Zaire starting the Irish's bowl against LSU. Both quarterbacks played in the win, but Golson -- who had begun his college career with a 16-1 as a starter -- will have no shortage of suitors elsewhere if he chooses to leave Notre Dame. In order to do that, though, he must first graduate, something he has said he is on track to accomplish this spring. If Golson wins the job back soon, does that mean he likely stays? If the starting job remains unclear as he gets his diploma, does he take his chances elsewhere? Stay tuned.
While many of the nation's best in the Class of 2016 were known commodities headed into the 2014 season, prospects still develop at different rates and appear on the national radar at different times. This spring, there are a number of ultra-talented prospects who will bring out college coaches by the dozens:

Damion Dickens, DE
ESPN Junior 300 ranking: No. 93


The updated ESPN Junior 300 rankings saw several newcomers to the list. Here are a few new additions to keep an eye on:

DE Damion Dickens
Dickens is an elite athlete for his size.

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- A day after the 19th annual Nike Football The Opening Miami Regional featured some of the nation's best skill prospects, the Orlando Regional on Sunday offered up depth at a number of positions, with the offensive line and linebackers standing out. As expected, a number of commitments and top targets of Power 5 schools competed decked out in team gear and delivered high-quality performances.

Here are some of the best sights and sounds from Sunday's ultra-talented Orlando Regional.


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ACC morning links

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
9:00
AM ET
There has been no shortage of talk about ACC players in the lead-up to the NFL Draft. Look no further than the debate over the first pick, which currently looks to be leaning in the favor of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The former Heisman Trophy winner filed a trademark for "Famous Jameis," our Darren Rovell reported Monday, putting himself in position to capitalize on a nickname that has followed him from early on during his career with the Seminoles.

But it's a rather off-the-radar former ACC player who has experienced a rapid rise in the early months of pre-draft evaluation: Kevin Johnson.

The former Wake Forest cornerback drew representatives from 23 NFL teams Monday to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for his pro day, and he has little doubt about about his abilities.

"I think I'm the best cornerback," Johnson said, according to our David Newton.

Newton, who covers the Carolina Panthers, says Carolina could be in the hunt for a corner like Johnson in the first round with the No. 25 pick. Another team with interest appears to be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who sent a league-high four reps to Wake Forest.

In his most recent mock draft, Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay has Johnson going 14th overall, to the Miami Dolphins.

Johnson rested on his Combine numbers Monday -- namely a 4.52 40-yard dash -- and both he and Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson believe that Johnson can be a shutdown corner at the next level despite notching just one interception this past fall.

"He's a tall corner that can run," Clawson said. "And he has the loosest, quickest hips of anybody I've ever seen."

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Brent Venables was already hard at work breaking down film of Clemson’s 2015 opponents last month when he noticed something interesting in Notre Dame’s resounding defeat at the hands of USC. The Irish, who travel to Death Valley on Oct. 3, were getting trounced 49-7 midway through the fourth quarter, and Venables couldn’t help but note that USC still had the bulk of its starting defense on the field.

This isn’t entirely uncommon. The stats look a lot better when the best players are on the field the whole game. But this isn’t a philosophy Venables ever has understood, and he’s hoping his plan of distributing as many snaps as possible to his bench players will pay some dividends this year.

[+] EnlargeMackensie Alexander
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesMackensie Alexander and the secondary will be expected to hold things down while the revamped front four comes together.
“Sometimes it’s not quite as pretty at the end of the game if they put a couple cheap ones on you, but we’re building for the future and getting guys that are experienced,” Venables said.

Last season, Venables’ defense was oozing experience. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and a host of seniors anchored a unit that led the nation in nearly a dozen statistical categories. It was the culmination of a four-year journey that transformed Clemson’s D from national punchline into national powerhouse.

Now the journey begins again — but Venables isn’t exactly starting from scratch.

Nine seniors from last year’s two-deep have moved on, but the group that remains is not short on experience. While just three starters return, the Tigers have a host of players who have earned meaningful snaps over the past few seasons. In fact, 23 defenders had at least 75 snaps played last season.

“We’ve got players at every position in the front seven who have either started games in the last two years or have played substantial snaps,” Venables said. “But like all starters — can these guys play to the level of consistency that we just lost? That’s the challenge, getting these guys to grow up and take responsibility for the day-in, day-out grind of what it takes to be a starter.”

For some, there are fewer questions. Beasley’s former backup, Shaq Lawson, is the ACC’s only returning defender who accumulated at least 10 tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons. D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins both have starting experience at tackle. Ben Boulware got a jump start on his 2015 campaign at linebacker by returning an interception for a TD against Oklahoma in Clemson's Russell Athletic Bowl win. B.J. Goodson and Korrin Wiggins have seen their share of work at outside linebacker.

In other words, this isn’t a group that figures to be overwhelmed by the moment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to match the legacy of the players who preceded them.

“That was a special group we had — not just at Clemson but in college football,” Venables said. “We had a great chemistry that is hard to coach, and hopefully these young guys have learned something from that. If we don’t have the work ethic and the toughness and competitiveness, it’ll be a substantial drop-off.”

With that in mind, Venables has been careful not to dole out too much advanced praise for the new starters stepping into bigger roles. What Beasley, Jarrett & Co. provided was so much more than just production on the field. That group valued the details as much as any Venables has coached and its work ethic was a rarity.

Last year’s seniors worked to instill that mentality in younger teammates, but there are no guarantees those seeds will take root.

“It’s one thing to talk about it now before they’ve ever really led, but they recognize what it takes,” Venables said. “It’s hard. It’s easy to talk about it. It’s easy to do it today or this week. But can you do it day in and day out? That’s the challenge of being a really good player and a really good leader.”

Regardless of the turnover, don’t expect the overall philosophy behind Venables’ D to change much. The game plan won’t be adjusted to account for the loss of Beasley or Jarrett, but the demands on those who remain will be bigger.

While last year’s D was led by the front seven, Venables said the secondary will need to star in the early going this season. And while the pass D at Clemson was tops in the nation last year, it won’t have the luxury of those stars up front to set the table in 2015. That puts the onus on emerging stars such as Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse to step up.

“They need to be better than what they were,” Venables said. “That ball may not come out [as fast]. They’ll need to be tighter in their coverage, play better awareness and eliminate some mistakes. They need to make marked improvement.”

There’s also the not-so-small task of finding youngsters ready to take on the snaps that Lawson, Reader and others consumed in reserve roles last year. That’s perhaps the biggest mystery — and greatest source of excitement — on D as Clemson gets set to open spring practice.

“It’s one thing running over bags and around cones,” Venables said. “We feel good about our young guys, and it’ll be a process. But maybe after a few weeks we’ll feel better about proclaiming who can break that two-deep with those young guys. But we like the group of guys we have in here.”

The truth is, the defense won’t be the same in 2015 as it was a year ago. That group was unique, and Venables understands there will be growing pains.

But he also isn’t surprised this day has come. Even as the Tigers were busy tormenting opposing QBs throughout 2014, he was planning for the inevitable.

“Some things aren’t going to be the same,” Venables said. “Vic Beasley isn’t just going to show up. That doesn’t happen. The older you are, the better you get, the less mistakes you make. We may not have that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be really good.”
As one of the most sought-after assistant coaches the last few seasons, it didn’t take long for then-Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to become Randy Juhl’s top target after the coaching carousel swept through Pittsburgh yet again.

“Pat quickly rose to the top,” Juhl said.

Juhl was only Pitt’s interim athletic director, though. Steve Pederson was relieved of his athletic director duties in December after Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin, marking the fourth coaching change since Pederson arrived at Pitt in 2007.

With the athletic director often the one tasked with hiring a coach, how would the administrative opening affect the interest of Narduzzi, a hot coaching commodity each winter?

It’s not unusual to read of fractured relationships between a coach and an athletic director who wasn’t involved in the hiring of the current staff. A new athletic director could be quicker to make a change in lean years and bring in a coach of his own.

“It’d be hard for me as a coach to go somewhere and not know who my boss is,” said Barry Alvarez, who has played both roles after spending four decades as a coach and is now Wisconsin’s athletic director. “But if the president is the boss and you answer to the president, you can live with it.”

Pitt’s lack of stability at athletic director was discussed, Narduzzi said, but those conversations were short thanks in large part to the presence of new chancellor Pat Gallagher.

“I really felt good with [Gallagher],” Narduzzi told ESPN.com. “Myself and [men’s basketball] Coach [Jamie] Dixon, we’re going to have a say on who that next guy is going to be. We’ll end up interviewing them when they get on campus. We’ll have some input in what’s going on in that job.”

Gallagher was named Pittsburgh’s chancellor in February 2014, leaving a position with U.S. Department of Commerce and as Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Gallagher had not been involved in a coaching hire before, but Juhl said Gallagher was present for meetings with Narduzzi.

He even played a role in shoring up Narduzzi's first recruiting class as the first-year coach had to scramble a month before signing day. Narduzzi said he was at a prospect's home when Gallagher sent him a text message. He got on the phone with Gallagher and even had the prospect speak to the new chancellor. Did it help?

"Makes all the difference in the world," Narduzzi said. "ADs are important, but when you’ve got the big man up, you’re going to have the next guy in line with you as well."

Juhl, who recently announced his intention to retire, said he hopes to have a new athletic director in place by the spring. He said Pitt will hire “somebody that Pat Narduzzi wants to hire” and that the interest in the position has been significant.

Juhl said there were not any concerns as to whether Pitt could make a splash coaching hire without an athletic director in place.

“Your colleagues in the press brought it up, and that’s where we thought about it the most,” he said.

Nate Craig-Myers talks FSU visit 

March, 2, 2015
Mar 2
12:34
PM ET
KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Nate Craig-Myers, the top-ranked receiver in the 2016 class, was in attendance at the Nike Football The Opening Orlando Regional on Sunday. Because of a leg injury suffered during his senior season, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound athlete did not participate. Craig-Myers did, however, take a few minutes to give an update on his recruitment.

Craig-Myers, the 10th-ranked player overall in the ESPN Junior 300, has been committed to Auburn since last July, but it is no secret that he continues to look at other programs. The talented pass-catcher took a visit to FSU on Saturday and came away impressed with his time in Tallahassee.


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The contrast at quarterback in the ACC between this spring and last spring is pretty easy to quantify.

Last spring: Six teams had quarterbacks with zero career starts.

This spring: Two teams have quarterbacks with zero career starts.

Last spring: ACC teams combined for 76 returning career starts at quarterback.

This spring: ACC teams combined for double that mark, with 155 returning career starts at the position.

Last spring: Four ACC teams returned their starter from the previous season.

This spring: 10 ACC teams return their starting quarterback.

So even with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston gone, it is pretty safe to say the ACC will be leaps better at quarterback in 2015. More experienced players return, though interestingly enough, the two most experienced teams at quarterback a year ago are now the least: Florida State and Duke.

Winston showed exceptional talent can make up for inexperience. So did three first-time starters a year ago, players that blossomed into bona fide stars: Brad Kaaya at Miami, Justin Thomas at Georgia Tech and Deshaun Watson at Clemson.

Add in Marquise Williams at North Carolina (who will miss the spring with a hip injury), and four quarterbacks have the potential not only to be selected preseason All-ACC quarterback, but one could very easily be preseason ACC Offensive Player of the Year.

Kaaya and Williams each threw for 3,000 yards. Kaaya led the ACC in pass efficiency and passing yards per completion; Thomas ranked No. 4 in the ACC in rushing. Watson threw 14 touchdowns to two interceptions and completed 68 percent of his passes in his injury-shortened year (while also being a valuable rusher).

In Williams’ case, he had to survive a heated quarterback competition last spring that went into the season, when coach Larry Fedora decided to play him and Mitch Trubisky. But once Williams became the full-time starter after the first month of the season, his play blossomed. As our David Hale pointed out, only five Power 5 quarterbacks had more total touchdowns (20) than Williams from game 7 until the season ended. Though Trubisky will get the first-team reps this spring, Williams is expected to return as the starter when he is healthy come fall camp.

Even beyond the top tier, a quarterback such as Chad Voytik will have a chance to improve under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

“He’s probably one of the most impressive guys in our morning runs,” coach Pat Narduzzi said of Voytik. “People talk about Tyler Boyd and James Conner. That’s maybe one of the forgotten guys. Chad Voytik is a heck of a football player. He’s a competitor.”

And at Virginia, the Hoos are going into the spring without a quarterback controversy for the first time in five years. Greyson Lambert returns as the starter, with Matt Johns right behind him.

“This is the first time in a long time you have two guys who have played, and they played pretty good opponents, kept us in some close games and they both have stats,” London said. “If you look at the rest of the league, we probably have the most experienced 1-2 quarterback duo coming back, and that has to be a positive for us.”

London is close. Louisville and Syracuse have three players with at least one career start, thanks to injuries at the position a year ago. But unlike Syracuse, which will go with healthy Terrel Hunt as its starter, Louisville has declared an open quarterback competition.

Will Gardner (seven starts) will miss the spring, leaving Reggie Bonnafon (five starts), Kyle Bolin (one start) and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson to get the majority of the reps.

Two more teams will have open competitions this spring: Florida State (Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino, De'Andre Johnson) and Boston College (Darius Wade, Troy Flutie). The Seminoles have at least had stability at the position under Jimbo Fisher, who is on the verge of producing his third straight first-round pick at quarterback.

BC, meanwhile, will start its third quarterback in three seasons under Steve Addazio.

“No matter what you do, your quarterback doesn’t have any experience, and that’s our job. We have to find the guy that’s going to be the best leader for this football team,” Addazio said. “For me to tell you I know that’s going to happen at a high, high level next year? I can’t say that because that position is tough. But that’s our job. To get the next guy in line and to get the most out of that guy. Whoever that guy is, we’re going to make the most mature that we can make him in the shortest amount of time.”

Unlike last year, that is a problem only a few teams have to deal with this spring.
Spring football is off and running at several ACC schools, with many more set to kick things off in the coming days and weeks. There is no shortage of storylines throughout the league, but here are the questions that stand out above all else:

1. Does the ACC have an embarrassment of quarterback riches? It's not every day a league can withstand losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the pros (more on FSU later), but the ACC has a ton of talent coming back under center in 2015. Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all return players who started at quarterback in 2014. Thomas Sirk is the frontrunner at Duke, and he saw extended time last year as a change-of-pace quarterback, too. Then there's Clemson and North Carolina, whose talented signal-callers from last fall will miss this spring, giving others a chance to prove themselves and build depth. Which brings us to …

2. What about the No. 2 quarterbacks? Deshaun Watson may be way ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, as Dabo Swinney said Friday, and we all know what the sophomore is capable of when he is healthy. But this spring will see others get a chance at Clemson, as last year's No. 3 signal-caller, Nick Schuessler, leads a trio of quarterbacks that includes early enrollees Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel. At North Carolina, meanwhile, the Tar Heels will have to go through spring drills without starter Marquise Williams, who is sidelined with a hip injury. That means Mitch Trubisky, who split time with Williams in the early part of the 2014 season, will run the first team this spring.

3. How does FSU replace Jameis? More quarterback talk, you say? Why of course! Florida State lost just one game in two years with Jameis Winston as its starter, so replacing him is no easy task. Sean Maguire is back after an uneven performance in his lone start last year, but he will have to battle it out with redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino, a former ESPN four-star prospect, and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson, another four-star prospect.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPat Narduzzi spent the past eight seasons as Michigan State's defensive coordinator.
4. What does Narduzzi bring to Pitt? There is just one new head coach in the ACC this time around. And, once again, he resides in the Steel City. Pat Narduzzi is the fourth different head coach to open a spring in Pittsburgh since 2010, but he walks into a pretty good situation. The Panthers boast junior studs in James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense, and Narduzzi's defensive roots should prove valuable to a Panthers unit that struggled down the stretch last season.

5. How will BC's offensive makeover look? Few coaches have had as much early success at new stops as Steve Addazio has had at Boston College, taking a two-win team from 2012 to consecutive 7-6 seasons. In 2013, he rode Heisman finalist running back Andre Williams to a strong finish. In 2014, he relied on dual-threat transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy. This season Addazio promoted receivers coach Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator after Ryan Day left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he is looking for a more balanced attack. This could be more challenging considering he'll be without a senior signal-caller for the first time.

6. Will early enrollees make an impact? We already mentioned Johnson at FSU, but five-star safety Derwin James could have an easier path to the field, given the Seminoles' openings in the secondary. So, too, could five-star receiver George Campbell. Similar circumstances at North Carolina could allow four-star linebacker Andre Smith to start early, especially on a Tar Heels defense that had a staff makeover and is in need of a massive turnaround from 2014.

7. Can Clemson's defense again be dominant? The Tigers boasted the nation's No. 1 defense last season, but they said goodbye to plenty of talent. Coordinator Brent Venables will have his work cut for him, but bringing back Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Ben Boulware, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse is certainly a good starting point for a team that appears to be the early league frontrunner in 2015.

8. Will Louisville keep it going defensively? The Cardinals' defense was one of the bigger surprise of 2014, Bobby Petrino's first year back with the program. But all of those playmakers came from the past regime, and Petrino will be counting on transfers with troubled pasts to pitch in this year: former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, former Georgia corner Shaq Wiggins and former TCU linebacker Devonte Fields.

9. Can Miami take advantage of the talent at its disposal? Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Stacy Coley give the Hurricanes a great starting point this spring. But Miami likely has to figure out its retooling offensive line in order to take advantage of its weapons. Questions on how this team went 6-7 last year continue to mount, and now will be as good of a time as any for the Canes to get things going and change the conversation.

10. Will Notre Dame get a quarterback answer? The Irish's inaugural year of quasi-ACC membership helped bring us arguably the game of the year, at Florida State. This year the Irish, who return 19 starters, will face six ACC teams, including contests against potential division frontrunners Clemson and Georgia Tech. But who is directing the offense under center will likely be determined this spring, as Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will battle it out after splitting reps in Notre Dame's bowl win over LSU. There is also always the chance that Golson, who said he graduates this spring, could transfer and play his fifth season elsewhere this fall.

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