ACC: Duke Blue Devils

Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.
Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery described his final meeting with quarterback Brandon Connette as one of the most emotional meetings of his career.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDuke will be looking for experienced quarterback depth after Brandon Connette decided to transfer.
Understandably so. Playing thousands of miles away from his ailing mother had weighed heavily on Connette for months. Finally, he decided he could not take the burden any longer. Connette was granted a transfer to be closer to his mother in California.

It was the right decision to make on all fronts. Now, Duke has to try and defend its Coastal Division crown without a key part of its offensive game plan. The good news is veteran starter Anthony Boone returns. The bad news is there is no experienced depth behind him, and nobody ready to take all the snaps Connette would have received in 2014.

“It never is our approach to train a guy for a certain role,” Montgomery said in a phone interview. “What we're going to do is train the quarterback position, and it has nothing to do with splitting time or roles. We’re just trying to get the best possible quarterbacks we can have, one behind another or one adjoined or aligned with each other. Anthony is our starter, no question about that, and we're trying to develop young men behind him.”

What made Duke function so well as an offense last fall was the way Boone and Connette effectively split time. Connette proved he was more than just a Wildcat quarterback, too, when Boone was out with an ankle injury and missed a few games.

In 13 games, Connette was in on 246 plays -- 101 rushing and 145 passing. He finished second on the team in total offense (119.2 yards per game), right behind Boone (224.9). He led the team with 14 rushing touchdowns and was second in scoring. He leaves school as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 31.

All that production will have to come from somewhere else now, whether from the running backs or other quarterbacks. Thomas Sirk and Parker Boehme will now be put into “more of a heated situation” Montgomery says, in order to get them prepared for more competition.

“Thomas Sirk may be one of the better athletes we have on our team,” Montgomery said. “He has to be more consistent with who he is as a player. He's a young quarterback, and he had a good spring. He developed in a lot of ways, but when you’re at the No 3. spot, it's a lot different than when you're at the No. 2 spot.”

Boehme was injured for a good portion of the spring, so Montgomery wants to see more from him during fall practice. Duke also has true freshman Johnathan Lloyd, an early enrollee who went through spring practice, and welcomes four-star dual-threat freshman quarterback Nico Pierre this summer.

“We're prepared to move forward and get guys ready,” Montgomery said. “There may be a guy who comes out of the middle of nowhere at the quarterback position and plays lights-out and moves into that role, not necessarily fill the shoes of Brandon, but also create their niche in the offense.”

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
Never forget.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
Bo Pelini is the cat's meow.
This is a bittersweet parting for Duke.

Quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for a school-record 27 touchdowns last year, has been granted his release to transfer to a school closer to his home in Corona, Calif. Connette wants to be -- and should be -- near his mother, Nancy, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke will miss Brandon Connette's ability to run as well as pass.
While it’s a huge loss for Duke -- significant enough to diminish the Blue Devils' chances of defending the ACC’s Coastal Division title -- it’s a monumental win for Connette, who has had to endure his mother’s struggle against cancer from a distance.

“Being away from my family during my mother’s illness has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to endure,” he said.

Connette, though, remained the consummate teammate, lining up at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and even safety during his redshirt junior season in 2013. He was clutch, accounting for five game-winning touchdowns (against Memphis, Troy, Virginia, NC State and Wake Forest). As a fourth-year junior, his experience alone was invaluable to the offense. He also led Duke in rushing touchdowns in three of the past four seasons.

This spring, he finally took every snap at quarterback and was relishing the opportunity to focus on one position alongside starter Anthony Boone. Now Boone is the undisputed starter, and redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk will be No. 2.

Boone should be even better in 2014 as he will be in his second season as the starter, and he’s 10-2 in that role. He completed 64 percent of his passes last season and put on a thrilling performance against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Not bad, but it’s like Batman without Robin.

Even without Connette, Duke can still win the Coastal Division -- the Blue Devils return 17 starters, including eight on offense -- but it’s impossible to ignore the offensive production that will have to be replaced. The fact that Connette wasn’t a full-time starter makes his numbers even more impressive.

Rival North Carolina, meanwhile, is quickly closing the gap, especially offensively. Duke will have home-field advantage against the Tar Heels this year, and it was Boone who led the game-winning touchdown drive against UNC in last year’s Coastal-clinching 27-25 win.

Connette’s departure is going to be tough to overcome, but it would be foolish to count the Blue Devils out because of it, especially considering the mediocrity that pervades throughout the rest of the division. Don’t forget, Duke was picked to finish last in the division in 2013. The Blue Devils are making a habit out of proving people wrong.

First, though, they have to prove they can overcome the transfer of one of their veteran playmakers.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
Thoughts with all those affected Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

Reviewing the ACC pro days

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
Pro days are now in the rearview mirror, with a month remaining between now and the NFL draft. With that, let's take a look back at some notable performances from ACC pro days this year.

Boston College (March 12)
Big name: RB Andre Williams. Representatives from 29 NFL teams were on hand to see the nation's top running back from last season. Williams says he improved on his combine 40-yard-dash time of 4.56. Also of note: Nate Freese, who went 20 of 20 last season on field goal tries, did not disappoint in front of his future employers, hitting a 60-yard try.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Michael ConroyClemson WR Sammy Watkins in all likelihood will be the first ACC player drafted in May.
Clemson (March 6)
Big name: WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins stood on his 40 time of 4.43 from the combine but was there to help out quarterback Tajh Boyd, doing little to change the general consensus that he is the top receiver in this year's draft. Boyd said scouts told him his performance was much better than his showings at the combine and Senior Bowl, as he connected on short, intermediate and deep routes with familiar receivers in familiar environs.

Duke (March 26)
Big name: CB Ross Cockrell. Cockrell improved on his combine results, with Duke saying that his 40 time was sub-4.4, which is better than what he ran in Indianapolis (4.56).

Florida State (March 17)
Big name: Where to begin? DL Timmy Jernigan slightly improved his combine 40-time from 5.06 to 5.03. S Terrence Brooks, LB Telvin Smith, DB Lamarcus Joyner and LB Christian Jones all drew a crowd, but they declined to run the 40 in front of reps from all 32 NFL teams, content to sit on their combine performances.

Georgia Tech (March 28)
Big name: LB Jeremiah Attaochu. Attaochu ran drills at both linebacker and defensive lineman, recovering nicely from a hamstring injury in the Senior Bowl that forced him out of the combine. He said his 40 time was in the 4.5s. DB Jemea Thomas also impressed, reportedly running a 4.38 40.

Louisville (March 17)
Big name: QB Teddy Bridgewater. With scouts from 29 teams watching, Bridgewater was off target with several of his throws. He ran an unofficial 4.78 40 time, but the potential No. 1 pick misfired on at least 10 passes, leaving some questions lingering heading into the draft.

Miami (April 3)
Big name: OT Seantrel Henderson. This is the name that is going to stick out, as Henderson did not finish his workouts. His agent later told reporters that it was due to dehydration. With 30 NFL teams represented, quarterback Stephen Morris took a strong step forward, reportedly completed almost all of his 67 throws.

North Carolina (March 25)
Big name: TE Eric Ebron. Ebron stood on his 40 time from the combine of 4.60, but his pro day was marred by several dropped passes, though the always upbeat tight end was not stressed about the drops when speaking to reporters afterward.

NC State (March 25)
Big name: CB Dontae Johnson. Johnson showed his versatility, as he can play corner or safety, and he said he felt better than he did at the combine, where he ran a 40 time of 4.45 and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical.

Pittsburgh (March 3)
Big name: DT Aaron Donald. College football's best defensive player rested on his combine numbers in the 40 (4.68) and bench press (35 times), but teammates Tom Savage and Devin Street helped themselves. Savage impressed during a scripted 100-throw workout while Street said he ran a sub-4.5 40.

Big name: LB Marquis Spruill. Spruill recovered nicely from a combine snub, weighing in at 231 pounds, nine pounds heavier than his playing weight. He did not disclose numbers. Running back Jerome Smith, meanwhile, said he ran in the 4.5-4.6 range, which would be an improvement over his combine time of 4.84.

Virginia (March 17)
Big name: OT Morgan Moses. A considerably different-looking Moses showed up at 311 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter from his playing days with the Cavaliers. After clocking in at 5.35 in the 40 at the combine, he unofficially ran between 4.9 and 5.06 at his pro day, though he pulled a hamstring during one of the runs, forcing him to miss the remainder of his drills.

Virginia Tech (March 19)
Big name: QB Logan Thomas. Thomas remains a fascinating prospect to keep an eye on in the NFL, and he threw well in front of NFL scouts at pro day. Corner Antone Exum impressed as well, running 40 times of 4.53 and 4.55.

Wake Forest (March 17)
Big name: WR Michael Campanaro. After seeing his final year end prematurely because of a shoulder injury, Campanaro, the only Demon Deacon to have garnered a combine invite, again impressed in receiver drills, making his case to become a potential mid-round pick. Nose guard Nikita Whitlock, meanwhile, saw himself lining up as a fullback for the first time in his career. Weather conditions were less than ideal for the NFL hopefuls.
The theme throughout this spring across the ACC has been turnover and uncertainty at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesWith Anthony Boone (and Brandon Connette), Duke has plenty of experience at the QB position in 2014.
But what about those schools that return a good amount of starting experience? Duke returns more career starts than any team in the ACC, just ahead of Florida State. Quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have combined to start 16 games for the Blue Devils, while Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has 14 starts for the Noles.

That should give both teams and edge when it comes to defending their respective division crowns. How much of an edge? Depends on the viewpoint. Relying on returning quarterback data alone to predict how a team will do often fails to look at the big picture.

Go back to last season. Duke and Florida State went into 2013 having to replace veterans at quarterback — EJ Manuel had 31 career starts for the Noles, while Sean Renfree had 35 career starts for the Blue Devils. Questions about experience at quarterback followed both teams into the season. Indeed, Clemson was picked to finish ahead of Florida State thanks in large part to returning starter Tajh Boyd, going into his third season behind center.

Those questions, however, were quickly answered as both Duke and Florida State went on to play for the ACC championship. Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina -- all picked to finish ahead of Duke -- returned multi-year starters at quarterback but that was not enough to win the division. Boyd did not help Clemson win an ACC title, but the Tigers did make a BCS game and won 11 contests. Tanner Price, one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the ACC last season, could not help Wake Forest get back to a bowl game.

Still, returning a starting quarterback is almost always preferable. Not every redshirt freshman is going to win the Heisman the way Winston did in Year 1 as a starter. Boone, who had his share of ups and downs early last season as he transitioned to a starting role, has now been on both sides.

“You’re obviously going to have some growing pains with quarterbacks who haven’t played many snaps, young quarterbacks going into their first year as a starter,” Boone said recently. “I just feel like that’s something we’re capable of avoiding, that’s something that should be to our advantage, having the knowledge of different teams in our league, just knowing tendencies of what team plays what kind of defense, just having that knowledge going into next year. I feel like it’s good to if you have one, but we have two who have been there. It’s a good feeling. It lets our offensive coordinator be at ease because we have the ability to fix a lot of play calls that have been called, if something happens. I feel that knowledge is a huge winning edge for us, compared to guys who may not know the system as well.”

Returning career starts at quarterback:

Duke: 16
Florida State: 14
Virginia: 12
Syracuse 10
Miami: 10*
Boston College: 6*
North Carolina: 5
NC State: 3*
Clemson: 0
Georgia Tech: 0
Louisville: 0
Pittsburgh: 0
Virginia Tech: 0
Wake Forest: 0

*-QBs at these schools made their starts while playing for other programs.

Change in W-L record for teams that returned starting quarterbacks in 2013.

Boston College: +5
Miami: +2
Louisville: +1
Virginia Tech: +1
North Carolina: -1
Clemson: No change
Wake Forest: -1

Change in W-L record for teams that started first-time quarterbacks in 2013.

Duke: +4
Florida State: +2
Pitt: +1
Georgia Tech: No change
Syracuse: -1
Virginia: -2
NC State: -4
This question came into the mailbag the other day, and we thought it was worth a deeper discussion.
Ricky in Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Hi, Andrea. Mark Schlabach did a piece on five nonconference games he would like to see and I was wondering which five nonconference games involving an ACC team would make your list? As an FSU fan and alumnus, here are the five nonconference games I would like to see for FSU: 1. FSU-Alabama: So many storylines. We came SO close to this happening for the national title. FSU won the last meeting (Jacksonville, 2007) even though it was later vacated. 2. FSU-LSU: Would love to play the "other" Tigers in Deaf ... um ... I mean the "other" Death Valley. (Clemson-LSU would be great as well.) 3. FSU-USC: Classic East Coast vs. West Coast. 4. FSU-Ohio State: Last time Urban Meyer played FSU, he lost and then "retired." Wonder what he'd do if he lost again with a different team ... 5. FSU-Texas: Would have been better had Mack Brown stayed since he's an FSU alumni, but this would still be fun to watch regardless.

What say you, Andrea?

Ricky, ask and you shall receive! We have come up with our top five "dream" nonconference matchups involving the ACC. We tried to come up with compelling matchups that featured good storylines for multiple league teams. Not an easy task to be sure. While Schlabach has Florida State-Georgia at No. 5 on his list, that matchup did not make the cut on ours. Our clear No. 1 choice has to be ...

1. FSU vs. Alabama. As Ricky referenced above, there were so many people rooting for the juiciest national championship game possibility of all last season -- Jimbo Fisher taking on his mentor Nick Saban in a clash of two college football powers. FSU vs. Auburn turned out to be a heck of a game, but oh the connections between the Noles and Tide. Aside from Fisher and Saban, you have Jameis Winston vs. the home state team he spurned; now you have former Nole Jacob Coker trying to win the starting quarterback job with the Crimson Tide; you have some of the best recruiting classes lining up against each other; you have speed vs. speed, athleticism vs. athleticism; future NFL draft picks vs. future NFL draft picks. The chess game on the sideline would be fascinating to watch.

2. Clemson vs. Oregon: This is an intriguing offensive matchup that we were teased with last November, when there was a possibility that they might play in the Discover Orange Bowl. Oregon was No. 4 in the country in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game, while Clemson was No. 8 at 40.2 points per game. With quarterback Marcus Mariota back, the Ducks should again have one of the top teams in the country, but Clemson’s defense could finally reach an elite level this fall. If Clemson finds some dependable offensive leaders this offseason, there’s no reason the Tigers can’t continue their offensive success and reload under coordinator Chad Morris.


Which dream ACC nonconference matchup would you like to see?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,659)

3. Louisville vs. Texas or Arkansas: Take your pick, because we couldn’t decide. Both are equally intriguing because of the timing and the relationships between the head coaches, the staffs and their former players and schools. With former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino now at Louisville, there would be no shortage of plot lines if he faced his former team a year after he was fired for a humiliating scandal that included a mistress and a motorcycle. It would also be interesting to see how former Louisville coach Charlie Strong, now at Texas, could do against his former team, given all of the changes that both Louisville and Texas have undergone.

4. Miami vs. USC: Miami and USC have combined to win a multitude of national championships and send hundreds of players into the NFL, but have fallen on hard times recently thanks to NCAA sanctions and probation. Shall we call this the "pro-bowl" for short? We kid, we kid. In all seriousness, these are two of the glamour programs in college football, right in the middle of two of the best recruiting territories in the nation. Both just finished in the top 15 in the 2014 recruiting rankings -- Miami at 10 and USC at 14, and both have young, rising coaches at the helm, with the expectation they can lead their respective programs back to a championship game. Unfortunately, these teams have only played twice -- and the last meeting was in 1968.

5. Duke vs. Tennessee: The ties between Duke coach David Cutcliffe and Tennessee still run strong, and in 2010, he withdrew his name from consideration for the head coaching job there. Cutcliffe, the Vols’ former offensive coordinator, was once a candidate to replace Lane Kiffin, but he made it clear his loyalties lie in Durham now. While an assistant with Tennessee from 1982-98, Cutcliffe helped the Volunteers to five SEC championships, 16 bowl games in 17 seasons and the national title in 1998. The former SEC Coach of the Year has built Duke into a respectable program, and he knows what it takes to win at the highest level. Considering what a great game the Chick-fil-A Bowl was this past season, we think it would be just as interesting to see Cutcliffe get another shot at the SEC and a program he was once so close to.
A week ago, Jameis Winston skipped a day of spring practice and headed to Clemson with Florida State’s baseball team, leaving the Seminoles football squad with Sean Maguire running the first-team offense in what was part practice session, part disaster drill.

As our Florida State beat writer Jared Shanker wrote afterward, as adept as Maguire might be, the Seminoles simply don’t have a solid Plan B if Winston went down. How could they? Heisman Trophy winners don't grow on trees, and Winston is, without question, the most irreplaceable player in the ACC -- and perhaps in all of college football.

While the Heisman winner sets the bar, however, Florida State is hardly the only program that would be declaring a state of emergency if its star went down with an injury. With that in mind, these are the next five most indispensable players in the ACC.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsDuke's Jamison Crowder had seven 100-yard receiving games last season.
Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke

Duke shocked the college football world last season by winning the ACC Coastal Division and nearly knocking off Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl behind one of the conference’s most explosive offenses, and no one was more integral to that success than Crowder.

The rising senior was targeted a whopping 174 times last year, meaning he was on the receiving end of nearly 40 percent of all of the Blue Devils’ passing plays. His 108 catches were more than triple the number hauled in by any other returning receiver on Duke’s roster, and combined with his role as Duke’s top punt returner Crowder finished with 1,832 all-purpose yards for the season -- fourth most in the ACC.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

Johnson was Miami’s best playmaker as a sophomore in 2013, and after he went down with an ankle injury against eventual national champion Florida State on Nov. 2 (having racked up 97 rushing yards in the first three quarters), the Hurricanes’ offense simply wasn’t the same. In the first seven games of the year with a healthy Johnson, Miami was 7-0 and averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a team. In the five full games without Johnson to end the year, the Hurricanes limped to a 2-3 finish, averaging just 3.5 yards per rush, culminating with an ugly 28 carries for 14 yards in the bowl game against Louisville. Johnson is out for spring practice as he continues to rehab his ankle, but he’ll likely shoulder an even bigger burden offensively this fall with a new QB taking over the offense and last year's backup, Dallas Crawford, moving to safety.

Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB, Louisville

If nothing else, Louisville’s new defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, will know just how tough things can be without Mauldin by the time the spring is done. Mauldin, one of just two returning starters in the Cardinals’ front seven, is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, but he remains an integral part of Grantham’s new 3-4 scheme. Mauldin started all 13 games for Louisville last season, finishing with 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, but he’ll move from defensive end to outside linebacker this year. If all goes well, he could develop into one of the league’s top pass rushers. If the injury lingers or Mauldin can’t play catch-up in Grantham’s system during fall camp, however, Louisville’s revamped defensive front could be in for a long season.

Shaq Mason, OG, Georgia Tech

For Georgia Tech, the most crucial cog is probably Paul Johnson’s triple option system, and that certainly won’t change this year. But the rest of the offense? There’s going to be a major overhaul in 2014. Gone are three of Tech’s starting linemen, its two leading rushers and its starting quarterback (the latter trio accounting for 60 percent of the Yellow Jackets’ rushing attempts in 2013). Still, the Tech running game has found success year after year because Johnson has continued to have linemen get the job done, and Mason is one of the best he has had on the Flats. A first-team All-ACC performer last year, Mason has 26 starts under his belt -- seven more than the rest of the Jackets’ linemen combined — and was the conference’s lineman of the week in each of Tech’s biggest wins in 2013 (Duke and UNC).

Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson

In the past two years, Clemson has lost just two ACC games -- both to Florida State, and both keeping the Tigers from playing for a conference title. In those two games, Beasley -- the team’s leader in sacks each season -- combined for just two tackles and no sacks. As Clemson looks ahead to a 2014 season without its signature offensive stars in Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and its two starting cornerbacks, the focus is squarely on a defensive line that returns four starters, including Beasley, an All-American. If the Tigers are going to compete with FSU for the Atlantic Division crown, it likely means Beasley not only has to be healthy but also productive, including far more effective against the Seminoles’ veteran offensive line.

ACC mailblog

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
Back in the home office. Let's get to your questions.

Robert in Amarillo, Texas, writes: North Carolina really closed out strong in 2013. Would they be considered the favorites in 2014 to win the ACC Coastal?

Andrea Adelson writes: North Carolina is absolutely one of the favorites to win the Coastal in 2014. In fact, Heather and I have gone back and forth on who we think will win the division. When the season ended, my first reaction was North Carolina. Now that we have gone through spring a little bit, I have started leaning more toward Duke -- the Blue Devils return eight starters on offense and -- more importantly -- have the easier schedule. Projecting out through the schedules plays a factor when I start deciding who will win the division. North Carolina has to play Clemson. Duke does not. Plus, the game between them is in Durham. To me, these are the front-runners to win the division.


Sam in Belle Isle, Fla., writes: Andrea, do you think that Karlos Williams could be in the running for ACC POY this year? With Jameis Winston as the clear favorite, he obviously won't even be the favorite on his own team, but he ran for more than 700 yards last year and 12 TDs, and that was with only a few weeks of experience. So if he develops nicely over the offseason, do you think he'll be another record-breaking back?

Adelson writes: Sam, not only is he behind Winston on his own team, he also is behind Miami running back Duke Johnson at his position. Having said that, I do believe Williams has the potential to have a breakout season and could end up being one of the best backs in the league. I am interested to see how the Noles will rotate their backs this year, especially with some inexperience at the position. There are some terrific backs returning to the league, and I am excited to see how they all do. I truly believe this is a position that will be much better across the ACC in 2014 than it was a season ago.


Jay Wise in Auburn, Ala., writes: I know what you're thinking, "How come there is an ACC blog question coming from Auburn, Alabama?" Well, I'm an FSU fan in the dead center of SEC country and couldn't have been happier with the BCS National Championship game. Anyway, to the question I have. Besides a couple of games last year, the majority of Jameis Winston's playing time was in the first half and maybe a drive or two in the second half. What do you think are the chances of Jameis winning the Heisman again? Just blows my mind that he could have the numbers mostly coming from one half. Understandably, he loses some key seniors on the offense but with four out of five offensive linemen returning and a pretty good TE with some solid WRs (Rashad Greene, of course, No. 1), what would you say his chances are to win it again and put up better numbers? Thanks again for the blog. I love checking it every day and really love reminding these Auburn fans which team slipped up to lose the SEC streak and which team took the crown!

Adelson writes: Great question, Jay. Winston goes into the season as the No. 1 candidate to win the Heisman, but history is not on his side. Johnny Manziel didn't win a second one, even though he went into last season as the favorite. Tim Tebow never won a second one. To this day, there has only been one repeat winner. Having said that, I do expect Winston to be better this season, because he is a year older. Some playmakers are gone, but he has plenty of talent around him. Plus, the schedule is a little more difficult so he will have an opportunity to play more than just the first half in many more games this season. Whether that means he wins another Heisman is the ultimate question. If another player has a season that is equal to Winston's, would voters select the other player to spread around the wealth? I think that is a question to ponder as the season goes on.


Preston in SC writes: Do you see another elite team emerging from the pack to finally make people respect the ACC? Was lovely seeing FSU bring the title back to Tallahassee, and Clemson also made some noise in the BCS. But if you had one pick of a team to emerge, who would it be? My picks would be between Miami and VT (only reason I left UL out was because they are in a division with FSU and Clemson). I would choose Miami. How about you?

Adelson writes: I would counter with this -- doesn't Louisville already count since it has been a top-15 program over the last two years? Florida State and Clemson are in the same division and are both elite. The SEC West has more than two elite teams in its West division. So I think there is room in the Atlantic for three elite teams. Louisville may take a step back this season as it transitions into a new league with a new coaching staff, but I still think everything is in place for this to be a Top 25 program consistently. We have all been waiting on Miami to be "back," but the Canes are still a few years away from being a consistent Top 25 team. I think they will get there eventually, but not in 2014. I would say that is the program the ACC needs most to return to an elite level. Duke was a Top 25 team last year but that did not really generate a wave of "new national respect" for the league. But when Top 10 Florida State played Top 10 Miami, national interest was higher in that game than it had been in years.


Paul in Chicago writes: Which of the former Big East/AAC teams will be the first to win its ACC division? Conference? Louisville may be the best of the bunch, but it may be tough sledding in the Atlantic. So you gotta go with Pitt, right?

Adelson: Well, technically speaking, we could go with Miami as a former Big East team, right? But if I have to choose among Louisville, Syracuse and Pitt, then yes, Pitt has the easiest road to winning its division. I have said the Panthers are a dark horse this year, a team I am very eager to see play in Year 3 under Paul Chryst. Louisville and Syracuse just had the bad luck to be in the stronger division right now.

Video: Duke coach David Cutcliffe

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
David Hale interviews Duke coach David Cutcliffe on his team wrapping up spring early and the importance of veteran leadership over the offseason.
En route to its recent success, Duke completely transformed itself on the offensive line, where its players are much bigger, way more physical and -- perhaps most important of all -- able to shoulder much more responsibility.

[+] EnlargeLucas Patrick
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMILucas Patrick will get his shot to earn a starting spot on Duke's offensive line.
That is a big reason why 2014 presents such a huge challenge. The two most veteran starters on the offensive line must be replaced, testing Duke in a way it has not been tested in years. Left guard Dave Harding and right tackle Perry Simmons started a combined 91 games and laid the foundation for the improvement the offensive line has made.

Without them, Duke plans on turning to promising Lucas Patrick at guard and Tanner Stone at tackle, both having been groomed for the moment that awaits.

“It’s hard losing guys of that caliber on the offensive line, but I believe we have the talent that we need to replace Perry Simmons and Dave Harding,” All-ACC guard Laken Tomlinson said in a recent phone interview. “We have athletes coming up, young guys who have been a part of our system for a while, and they’re biting at the chance to show the coaches what they’ve got.”

Patrick and Stone took the majority of first-team reps during spring practice. Stone, slated to be the backup to Simmons last season, missed all of 2013 with a broken ankle. When Simmons got hurt in the ACC championship game, Patrick played out of position and started at tackle.

That at least gives him some starting experience, though he did see playing time rotating with Harding last season. Quarterback Anthony Boone described Patrick as “a big, mean nasty offensive lineman.”

“He’s the one offensive lineman you want on your O-line to keep it balanced,” Boone said. “You might have your fundamentally sound ones, but then you have that one who’s a little edgy, a little chippy. That’s who he is, and he’s a great addition to our offense.”

Boone noted the “huge, tremendous progress” the line made throughout spring. Where Patrick was not much of a question mark to teammates because he got playing time a year ago, there was more uncertainty about Stone because he was getting back on the football field for the first time in months. But Boone said, “He’s big, he’s physical, and he understands what we’re trying to get done.”

Indeed, that seemed to be a huge difference throughout the course of the spring. Though offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery did not want to discuss potential new starters by name, he did say: “The biggest difference with our team over the last few years has been what coach John Latina has been able to do on our offensive front. Our offensive front has grown tremendously. You can lean on your offensive front more than we have in the past, and that gives you a good feeling.”

Tomlinson explained when he first arrived on campus in 2010, Duke did not have the depth necessary to be as physical as it wanted to be.

But now?

“We have depth and we have experience and we have necessary talent on the offensive line. Now all you can do is coach toughness and go out there and be a nasty offensive line,” he said. “I like being a part of this offensive line. I think we’re one of the best offensive lines in the nation, going out there and taking care of business every snap, letting the team know that we can handle whatever is out there.

“I think that gives our offensive players, our quarterbacks and receivers. a sense of confidence to go out there and compete at the highest level and not worry about are we getting beat around the corner, are we giving up sacks.”

Even still, there could be some bumps early in 2014 with two new starters on the line.
The jokes started popping up on Twitter seconds after Duke lost to Mercer in the NCAA tournament.

"Guess Duke is a football school now!"

"Maybe the ACC should stick to football!"

On and on they went over the course of the weekend, as the ACC kept dropping schools out of the NCAA tournament until Virginia was the last league school standing.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIWith Duke's success under David Cutcliffe and the bowl wins from Florida State and Clemson, ACC football is on the rise.
Yes, Virginia -- one of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball -- is the lone league representative in the Sweet 16, the first time only one ACC team has made it to the regional semifinals since 2010. Meanwhile the football-dominant SEC, an afterthought in basketball circles, has three.

Is this a bizarro world?

It certainly feels that way today, especially when you consider recent additions Pitt and Syracuse were supposed to make the ACC a formidable, unstoppable, all-encompassing basketball force. Louisville, which will come into the league in July, is in the Sweet 16 but the American conference gets credit for that in 2014. The fact remains the traditional hoops powers -- Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina -- all failed to deliver.

But on the football side, traditional football powers finally came through. Indeed, the ACC has the reigning national champs in Florida State and another top-10 presence in Clemson. Both made BCS bowl games -- the rough equivalent of the Elite 8 perhaps -- and helped tidy up ACC football perception. The aforementioned Duke Blue Devils, meanwhile, made the ACC championship game and finished with 10 wins for the first time ever. Yes, Duke football ended up with a better year than Duke basketball. Let that one sink in.

None of this happened overnight. For years, we have heard about the need for the ACC to raise its football profile. People may want to associate the ACC with hoops, but football pays the bills and -- to a large extent -- frames the national narrative about what you should believe about a specific conference. When the ACC failed to place teams in the national championship game, it was painted as a step behind the SEC.

That was not the case this past season, as Florida State beat a team from the SEC to win its third national championship. The Seminoles, and the Tigers, show no signs of slowing down, either. Meanwhile Louisville and Miami, along with Duke at the very least, appear to be on the rise.

We can draw one conclusion, then. Say it with me: 2013-14 is the season of ACC football.

None of this is to say this is a permanent changing of the guard. The ACC will always have Tobacco Road, and it will always have basketball. Virginia still has a very real chance at winning a national championship in hoops -- an incredible story in itself. That would give the ACC football and basketball national champions. And that goes back to the ultimate hope, somewhere down the line: Football and basketball dominating equally.
You guys aren’t even giving Georgia Tech a fighting chance against Georgia.

Did any Miami fans even vote in this poll?!

And there was zero faith in the Hoos against the Hokies. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Over the past week, we’ve taken a look at some of the ACC’s most intriguing -- and recently lopsided -- series, projecting whether or not those streaks will be snapped in 2014. For the most part, you agreed with our votes. Here’s a look back at the five rivalries we focused on, and whether or not the fans thought those streaks would end:

WHO WINS in 2014??

Virginia vs. Virginia Tech:

Our vote: Virginia Tech
Your vote: Virginia Tech

Florida State vs. Miami:

Our vote: Florida State
Your vote: Florida State

Georgia Tech vs. Georgia:

Our vote: Georgia
Your vote: Georgia

Duke vs. North Carolina:

Our vote: Duke
Your vote: North Carolina

Clemson vs. South Carolina:

Our vote: Clemson loses
Your vote: Clemson loses

Based on these predictions, 2014 is not the year the tables are turned in the ACC, and that’s not a good thing for Clemson and Georgia Tech. It’s also an indictment of the gap that remains between Florida State and rival Miami. The Canes still have much to prove and the on-field results have to catch up with the recruiting. Once again, Duke is perceived as the underdog, in spite of winning the Coastal Division title last year, and having home-field advantage against the Tar Heels this fall. That should be a terrific game, though, and Andrea Adelson and I will probably change our minds a few hundred times on who will win before we have to make the official prediction during the season.

This is the script ACC fans have grown accustomed to, and clearly many aren’t convinced it’s going to change this fall. It’s up to Virginia, Miami, Georgia Tech, Duke and Clemson to prove otherwise.