Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: It all starts up front, and that was the cause of the biggest problems for the Demon Deacons this season. It is hard to run the ball or make big plays in the pass game when the men in the trenches have a difficult time sustaining blocks. The offensive line has been an issue for years at Wake Forest, so it was not a huge surprise that this unit struggled. Especially when you consider the Deacs had started a true freshman at center for the first seven games of the season to pair with a true freshman starting quarterback. Add in next to no experience or depth at running back, and you get one of the worst offenses in the country. Wake Forest finished No. 124 in rushing offense (out of 125) with an average of 39.9 yards per game (and 1.25 yards per carry). Yards were taken off those rushing numbers because the Deacs gave up so many sacks -- 48 in all, to rank tied for last in the country.
How it can be fixed: Wake Forest only had one senior listed on its two-deep from a year ago, so the hope is that this group will come back not only with more experience, but with a deeper knowledge of the new offensive scheme and systems. The Deacs also redshirted several freshmen offensive linemen a year ago, so they should have more depth and more competition during practices. During recruiting, Wake Forest heavily targeted skill position players as well to help provide added depth and competition at running back, quarterback and receiver. Three of the four early enrollees this year are skill players.
Early 2015 outlook: Coach Dave Clawson expects every unit to step up its play this season, most especially the offensive line since that is the unit that takes the longest to develop. Though Cory Helms decided to transfer, three starters are expected back, including veteran tackle Dylan Intemann, with 28 career starts. Wake Forest also expects to sign two more offensive tackles next week. Keep in mind Wake Forest would also like to use more two-tight end sets. Cam Serigne emerged a year ago; now the Deacs have added ESPN 300 tight end Bowman Archibald into the mix. They have the potential to help with blocking as well. There is little doubt the offensive line is a work in progress, but this group should be improved in 2015.
The bad: North Carolina and Boston College are saddled with two FCS games apiece, a fact that did not go unnoticed Thursday. There is a simple explanation: previously scheduled games fell through and both schools were left scrambling. North Carolina had initially scheduled Ohio State for 2015. The game was moved, then subsequently canceled when the Big Ten voted to play nine conference games. Two more factors were at play: the ACC reversed course on a nine-game league schedule when it agreed to a partnership with Notre Dame. North Carolina wanted to wait on that schedule rotation to see how it would shake out. While having two FCS teams on the schedule is far from ideal, North Carolina does play two power-five teams with Illinois and South Carolina. As for Boston College, New Mexico State recently backed out of a 2015 game against the Eagles because it overscheduled. That left a hole the Boston College had to fill on very short notice. So Howard was added. Nobody is running around throwing a party over the FCS opponents. Sometimes these dilemmas happen. (Remember when Florida State had to replace West Virginia with Savannah State?)
The ugly: Poor Syracuse. Not only do the Orange get LSU in nonconference play, they also have the toughest three-game conference stretch of anybody in the ACC: at Florida State, at Louisville and Clemson on three straight weekends spanning the end of October into November. Nobody else in the Atlantic has to face the division's top three teams consecutively. Miami also faces a tough three-game stretch in October that could make or break Coastal Division hopes: at Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson. Nope, the Canes got no favors when they traded Louisville from the Atlantic for the Tigers. But there might not be anything uglier than the NC State nonconference schedule: Troy, Eastern Kentucky and then road games (yes, road games) against Old Dominion and South Alabama.
The byes: A 13-week scheduling window wreaked some havoc with the way the schedules were created because there was only space for one open week. ACC senior associate commissioner of football operations Michael Strickland had some good insight into how that was handled. Some teams are going to suffer more than others. Boston College has 10 straight games before its open date. Opening with the two FCS games might not serve as any consolation. Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech each have to play nine straight games to open the season; Florida State, Miami, Pitt and Clemson have to play nine straight games to end the season. The bye week is placed at an odd time for Clemson. The Tigers play Louisville on Thursday, Sept. 17 then go 15 days until they play again, Oct. 3 against Notre Dame. That is the longest regular-season layoff in school history.
The different: Friday night is the new weekday favorite in the ACC, with more announced dates than Thursday night, the former go-to spot. David Teel of the Daily Press has a great explainer piece on the topic, but it all comes down to television. The ACC will feature its top four teams from 2014 on either Thursday or Friday night this upcoming season. Strategery is definitely involved there.
The impossible: Once again, Virginia has the toughest schedule in the ACC, facing 10 teams that made bowl games in 2014. The move to overschedule is an interesting one, especially when you look at the nonconference scheduling models that NC State and Duke have followed. Both those programs have the worst nonconference schedules in 2015, choosing an easier route toward bowl eligibility. Last season, for example, Virginia was vastly improved, but still finished 5-7 with a backbreaking nonconference schedule. NC State finished 8-5 with a bowl victory, thanks to a cupcake nonconference schedule. NC State has scheduled up in the future to meet the requirement that ACC teams play at least one Power 5 opponent. But for right now, this schedule is hugely beneficial in the wins column. In the case of Virginia, the Hoos would be pleased if they make it out of their first four games against UCLA, Notre Dame, William & Mary and Boise State 2-2.
As former Virginia offensive lineman Luke Bowanko tweeted Thursday after the schedule was released:
If @UVa_Football wins out next year, they may have legitimate argument to play in the Super Bowl.— Luke Bowanko (@Lbow70) January 29, 2015
Virginia Tech Hokies
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: The reactions came swift after Michael Brewer led the Hokies to a road upset of Ohio State that the transfer quarterback was going to solve the QB issues in Blacksburg. However, that game was probably the highlight of Brewer’s season as the newcomer was up and down over the final 10 games. Brewer ranked eighth in the conference and 88th nationally in passer rating. The biggest issue for Brewer was ball security, as he threw 15 interceptions, many of which came in close losses. He threw two in a seven-point loss to ECU and three (and no touchdowns) in a three-point loss to Georgia Tech. With so many injuries, especially at running back, the Hokies needed Brewer to protect the football, and he did not do that, especially early in the season.
How it can be fixed: Before moving on to any other part of his game, the Hokies need to drill into Brewer’s mind how important the football is to an offense built on the back of a strong defense. It wasn’t just that Brewer was throwing interceptions, it’s that they came in bad situations and on poor decisions. Seasoning with the Virginia Tech coaches this offseason could help that, especially now that there should be some pressure off Brewer this fall with the offense getting healthy. The Hokies need to work on Brewer’s accuracy, too. Twice he finished with a completion percentage below 50 percent, and seven times he fell below 60 percent.
Early 2015 outlook: Brewer played well in spots last year, and he made several big plays when asked. Against Virginia, despite struggling all game long, Brewer orchestrated a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. So it’s not as if Brewer cannot get the job done. He’ll have the rest of his backfield with him, too, so he won’t be asked to do as much in his second year as the starter. And of course, the Hokies should be very good on defense once again, which could give Brewer short fields to work with. Virginia Tech can win with Brewer as long as he grows from the mistakes of a season ago.
"Byron has committed to eight schools in his mind since this process begun," said Woodrow Grady, Cowart's mentor and 7-on-7 coach. "There was Auburn, Florida, FSU, Alabama, Oregon and so on. Byron finds the best in every school. That's what he looks for. He's not looking for the speed traps. That's why he's been all over the place in where he may go."
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It's down to this. There is just one official visit weekend remaining until national signing day Feb. 4. That means it's the last chance to make a statement with campus visits, and add key pieces to classes. In the case of some, it's also about holding onto verbals that are making visits other places as well.
This weekend is huge for Louisville. Not because of a jam-packed visitor list full of nationally ranked prospects, but because one big time difference-maker will be on campus. That player is former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields, who spent last year at Trinity Valley Community College and plans to play one season at the FBS level before heading to the 2016 NFL draft. With Fields scheduled to visit Louisville this weekend, the Cardinals are the heavy favorite to land the Under Armour All-American Game alumnus. Fields is No. 3 in the ESPNJC50.
Two other visitors of note are Vanderbilt three-star offensive guard commit Darion Debrossard. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder is a raw prospect with otherworldly natural strength to the tune of a 475-pound bench press. Joining Fields and Debrossard on the visit list is cornerback Rashad Fenton, who visited South Carolina last week and is considered a lean to the Gamecocks headed into the weekend.
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Let's just stick with what Donald has done at the collegiate level before even entertaining his first-year NFL dominance. As a senior, Donald cleaned up on the awards circuit. He was named the winner of the 2013 Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award and Chuck Bednarik Award. He was also a unanimous All-American after securing 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss and forcing four fumbles in his final season.
In only his first season in the NFL, Donald is a defensive rookie of the year candidate. Colleague Nick Wagoner states his case for Donald, noting the his nine sacks, the most by any rookie over the last three years and second most among all defensive tackles in 2014. His 17 tackles for loss are a league record for a rookie defensive lineman, too.
Donald is not the only former ACC player on the list. Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, who just finished his final season, is ranked ninth. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and ESPN.com listed him as an athlete, but Athlon had him as a tight end.
As a senior, Beasley led the ACC with 12 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. He also led the country's best defense as Clemson finished No. 1 in yards allowed per game.
Year after year, the ACC puts dozens of players in the NFL even though its recruiting classes don't compete with those of the SEC. It's a tribute to the league's talented coaches.
A few more links to kick off the weekend, which is the last visit weekend before signing day:
- BYU will now count as a Power 5 opponent for ACC schools.
- Somewhat ACC football related: A strength coach for Clemson's baseball team will become an assistant strength coach with the Denver Broncos. It could be a good thing for Denver, whose Super Bowl window is closing. In his first year working with the Clemson baseball team, the Tigers made it to the College World Series.
- One Clemson outlet expects the Tigers to finish 11-1 and possibly play in the College Football Playoff.
- North Carolina State punter Wil Baumann will compete at the NFL combine.
- Boston College replaced New Mexico State with FCS Howard on its 2015 schedule. The Eagles were in a tough spot after New Mexico State withdrew from the game. The second FCS opponent will have an impact on the Eagles' bowl chances, too.
- Three immediate takeaways from the release of Georgia Tech's schedule.
- More interesting comments from North Carolina rising junior Ryan Switzer, who has been outspoken in the wake of a disappointing 2014 season.
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Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: Injuries and inexperience plagued the Hoos all season long. It started in the fall, when projected starting tackle Jay Whitmire injured his back, forcing him to miss all of 2014. Without Whitmire, Virginia had a combined 36 career starts entering the season, seventh-fewest among Power 5 schools. The injuries kept piling up: versatile Jackson Matteo was lost for the year against Kent State; tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju missed four games with injury; guard Ryan Doull started the first six games at left guard before missing five of the final six games. The Hoos ended up with five different starting offensive lines and struggled in the run game as a result, ranking No. 13 in the ACC in rushing offense. Backs averaged 3.7 yards per carry, fourth worst in the league. On the bright side, Virginia did well at pass protection despite the juggled lines, allowing just 16 sacks.
How it can be fixed: The hope, of course, is the Hoos stay healthy. The biggest hope of all is for Whitmire to return to form, but there are no guarantees that will happen at this point. But there should be a little more experience with this group in 2015. Six players with at least one start return. Virginia also has a new offensive line coach in Dave Borbely, in his second stint with the Hoos. His experience as run game coordinator in his last two stops should be a positive. The Hoos also have targeted offensive linemen on the recruiting trail, with four commitments so far.
Early 2015 outlook: Olanrewaju, Matteo and Doull are expected back and healthy. Virginia is keeping its fingers crossed on Whitmire. Starting guards Conner Davis and Cody Wallace are gone to graduation, but Burbank, tackles Michael Mooney, Jack English, Eric Smith and Sean Karl are back. Finding starters at guard, and backups, too, is paramount. Burbank, as one of the few seniors in the group, will also be expected to take the next step.
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: Syracuse averaged just 5.8 yards/pass attempt in 2014 (118th nationally), had just six passing touchdowns (only run-heavy Army had fewer), and threw 17 interceptions (sixth most among Power 5 teams), while using three different starting quarterbacks along the way. Against Power 5 foes, Syracuse had four touchdown passes, 17 interceptions and a QBR of just 23.1.
How it can be fixed: This is a mess. Since Ryan Nassib and Doug Marrone departed for the NFL two years ago, Syracuse has thrown just nine touchdowns vs. Power 5 opponents compared with 34 interceptions, while averaging a woeful 5.5 yards-per-attempt. In 2014, the Orange cycled through three different starting QBs and two offensive coordinators, and no combination really seemed to show much consistent promise. Tim Lester, the QB coach-turned-coordinator will be back for 2015, and that could add some stability to the position, but the Orange still must identify a starter. Terrel Hunt ended 2013 with ample promise, but injuries and inconsistency sabotaged his 2014 campaign. Freshman A.J. Long showed flashes of potential during his stint as starter, too, but he also played miserably at times and was sidetracked by injuries as well. The Orange added JuCo QB Zack Mahoney and their top commitment for 2015, Eric Dungey, is also a QB. Finding one that can be a steadying influence on the offense would be a start in the right direction.
Early 2015 outlook: An optimist might point out that there’s really nowhere to go but up at the QB position for Syracuse, but that would miss the point that things could simply remain just as bad as they’ve been the last two years. Maybe Hunt comes back and shows improvement in 2015. He certainly appeared to have the confidence of his coaches and teammates last offseason, but there are still big questions about his accuracy and decision-making. Maybe Long learned a lot from his brief stint as starter and will be a bigger factor in 2015, but it will still be an uphill climb. Syracuse has had a strong defense and solid running game in each of the past two years, but it hasn’t been able to figure things out at quarterback. It’s priority No. 1 for the Orange, but there really don’t appear to be many easy answers.
The Tigers and Seminoles will play Nov. 7, and the winner very well could have the inside track to represent the ACC in the playoffs.
That is, of course, if either team can get through an October date with Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, who dismantled Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, might just be the ACC’s best team in 2015 and favorite to make the playoff. Georgia Tech travels to Clemson on Oct. 10, then hosts Florida State on Oct. 24.
If Clemson, Florida State, and Georgia Tech all live up to preseason billings, the ACC has positioned itself to be in the national conversation from September to November, which ends with feature games against SEC teams. By mid-October last season, Florida State was the only ACC school in contention. By comparison, the SEC West had three of the top four teams in the playoff and dominated playoff talk for several weeks.
For a conference that has regularly been called the worst among the Power 5, it’s important for the ACC to have showcase games throughout the season, and especially in the later months. Florida State at Clemson will do that on Nov. 7, completing the Clemson-FSU-Georgia Tech round robin that should decide the conference if preseason predictions hold up. They are marquee games that will capture the attention of the selection committee, and the winners will likely be adding late-season quality wins to boost their résumés.
Of course, those games will mean little if those teams cannot make it through the rest of the league schedule relatively unscathed. Louisville is regarded as the fourth-best team in the league heading into 2015, but as an Atlantic team it will have its opportunity to emerge as a playoff contender. The Cardinals travel to Florida State a month after hosting Clemson on Sept. 17, and then the schedule sets up nice for a 6-0 finish. If the Cardinals can go 2-1 in the games against Auburn (Sept. 5 in Atlanta), Clemson, and Florida State, they will be in position to make a playoff run. That’s a big if, as the Cardinals must still settle on a quarterback and overhaul the defense. They might have been better off with those games being played late in the season, although Auburn and Florida State will be breaking in new quarterbacks, too.
Louisville hosts Clemson on Thursday, Sept. 17, and that midweek prime-time showdown could be a jumping off point for a Louisville playoff run.
A day after that midweek showcase game, Florida State has to survive a Friday road trip to Boston College, which narrowly missed an upset of the Seminoles in 2014 (although, who didn’t almost beat FSU in 2014?) and bludgeoned a top-10 USC team.
Then on the following day, Sept. 19, Georgia Tech travels to Notre Dame, which could be poised to make another playoff run with a number of players returning.
When it was announced Notre Dame would be kinda-sorta-half joining the ACC, one of the worries was whether the Fighting Irish would eliminate the league members in the playoff picture. It almost happened last season when the Irish were an offensive pass interference call away from knocking off undefeated Florida State. Well, it could happen this season as the Irish play host to Georgia Tech, then head south to play Clemson two weeks later.
Of course, if Georgia Tech and/or Clemson beat Notre Dame and the Irish go on to have a successful season navigating a decently tough schedule, it will check off another box with the committee for the Yellow Jackets and Tigers.
In this new era, ultimately, that is what it’s all about: getting to the playoffs. This ACC schedule should keep that conversation alive deep into the season.
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: Though there were a lot of question marks surrounding the quarterbacks in the ACC before the 2014 season, the league returns a number of talented signal-callers in 2015. So maybe more so than in other years, teams will need strong play from their quarterbacks to remain in the division races. Chad Voytik was hardly the biggest issue for the 6-7 Panthers, and in fact he progressed throughout the season. His passer ratings were significantly better in the second half of the season. But there was still some inconsistency in Voytik’s play, and he still might be a better runner than passer at this point in his career. With All-American talents at running back and receiver, if Voytik elevates his performance in his second year starting, the Panthers could have one of the conference’s best offenses. The most glaring holes are on defense, as only NC State and North Carolina allowed more points to conference opponents in 2014, but the Panthers hired celebrated defensive mind Pat Narduzzi as head coach. Narduzzi should help turn around the unit quickly.
How it can be fixed: This isn’t so much as a fix as it is a molding of Voytik into a player who, at the very least, is equally dangerous with his arm as his legs. Voytik was already showing signs of his maturation as a passer through the second half of last season, so there is reason to feel confident the Panthers will see Voytik jump into the upper half of the league’s quarterbacks. He also has the advantage of being a dual-threat option, which can help get him into an early rhythm and keep drives alive on third downs. Accuracy was an issue for Voytik early in the season, and it showed up again during a rainy bowl game, so if he can be a little more accurate, it will do wonders for the offense.
Early 2015 outlook: With reigning ACC player of the year James Conner at running back and a dominant downfield threat in Tyler Boyd, the offense has the potential to be one of the ACC’s most explosive units. Voytik was a very respectable 29th in yards per attempt nationally, so he already is taking advantage of Boyd and creating big plays through the air. Voytik is also very judicious with the football, throwing only six interceptions a year ago. With the marked improvement Voytik showed as the 2014 season went along, there should be optimism among Pitt fans that Voytik will continue to grow and end the season as one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC.
That has become par for the course.
In what has become an annual rite of passage, the ACC has four blockbuster meetings against Power 5 opponents set for Week 1:
- North Carolina vs. South Carolina on Thurs., Sept. 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina
- Louisville vs. Auburn on Sat., Sept. 5 in the annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. On the same day, Virginia travels to face UCLA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
- Then, perhaps the most anticipated game of the weekend: defending national champion Ohio State travels to play Virginia Tech on Labor Day Night. This marks the Hokies' third appearance on Labor Day Monday; the game will be nationally televised by ESPN.
Those were among the big games spotlighted when the ACC released its schedule on Thursday. In all, ACC teams will play more games against teams that are ranked in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early 2015 Top 25 rankings (12) than any of the other Power 5 conferences. ACC teams also are playing a higher percentage of Power 5 teams (38 percent) than any other Power 5 conference.
None of this comes as a surprise, considering how strongly the ACC has scheduled nonconference opponents in recent years. For the ACC to continue to make inroads toward changing national perception, it will have to keep winning the spotlight games. As it stands, the ACC most likely will be the underdog in those four opening -weekend contests. And many people believe the only way an ACC team can make it into the playoff is with an unblemished record.
In addition to those marquee nonconference games, all eyes will be squarely on Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech as prime playoff contenders.
We should know more about their ACC and College Football Playoff fates over a four-week period spanning October and November.
Circle your calendars for:
- Georgia Tech at Clemson, Oct. 10
- Florida State at Georgia Tech, Oct. 24
- Florida State at Clemson, Nov. 7
As for the always important mid-week games, Virginia Tech might not be hosting a Thursday night contest in 2015, but it does have Labor Day against the Buckeyes and a Friday night home game against NC State on Oct. 9. The Hokies also travel to play Georgia Tech on Thurs., Nov. 12.
Florida State and Clemson have mid-week games as well: Louisville will host the Tigers on Thurs., Sept. 17 in a game that should have Atlantic Division implications, while Florida State plays at Boston College the next day. Boise State at Virginia (Sept. 25); Louisville at Wake Forest (Oct. 30); and Miami at Pitt (Nov. 27) round out the Friday night slate. North Carolina at Pitt on Oct. 29 is the only other Thursday night game.
Hard to put much stock in that innuendo when you consider what happened Wednesday. Grantham turned down an opportunity to become Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator to stay with Petrino for another season. Does that sound like the move of a man desperate to get away?
Just a few weeks earlier, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee turned away Oklahoma, where he played quarterback in the 1990s.
Petrino must be doing something right. Keeping both his coordinators in place after overtures from the NFL and a blue-blood college program is a bigger win than anything that happens next week on national signing day. A year into the job, with a host of skeptics remaining, Petrino absolutely needed this.
So did Louisville. The school is finally making people take notice it is no longer an afterthought. This is a program with one of the highest athletic budgets in the league. It is led by a risk-taking athletic director with a vision, completely willing to shell out the cash for coaches and facility upgrades.
With that perspective, it should not come as a shock that both coordinators elected to stay. McGee and Petrino have as close a relationship as you will find between head coach and assistant. McGee left his job as UAB head coach to become Louisville's offensive coordinator, a job he believes is among the best in the country.
His decision to stay did surprise those who know him best. His next move could very well end up being for another head coaching job.
The decision Grantham made may have been a little more surprising to some, considering his NFL background. He spent 11 years as an NFL assistant and does have a desire to be a head coach one day, on either level.
But in the end, there were several factors at play. The Raiders are not exactly built to win now. Louisville is. He already is one of the highest paid coordinators in the country at almost $1 million per season. Plus, the Grantham family has made a home in Louisville and wanted to stay. He was not ready to walk away after just one year on the job.
It was, in fact, a year ago this month that Grantham decided to leave Georgia for Louisville. Since then, Grantham has been asked repeatedly why he would leave the SEC. Each time, he said he truly believed Louisville was a school that could win a national championship.
McGee believes the same. Petrino believes the same. For the next year at least, they will work together to try and make that happen.
In Florida, the current recruiting landscape is run by Florida State coming off the last BCS National Championship a season ago, a College Football Playoff appearance this season and the success of many players in the past few years. For Miami -- and Florida, for that matter -- it’s a fight not only to keep the best at home from the two most talented counties in the country, Dade and Broward, but also to gain momentum on the recruiting trail in a region where battles with Alabama, Auburn and Florida State are the norm.
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