ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack
In this era of accelerating expectations following coaching turnover, some staffs fail to make it to a third year at the program.
NC State coach Dave Doeren and his offensive staff weathered the storm in 2013 as transfer quarterback Jaocby Brissett sat out a year. What followed in 2014 were dramatic improvements in their second season last fall with Brissett orchestrating the offense.
Now in their third year, the Wolfpack passing offense is focused on fine-tuning the unit and ironing out the details.
“I think now everyone understands what we want to do,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “There’s familiarity and every knows each other well.”
The offensive numbers were not overwhelming last year. The Wolfpack were 67th in yards per attempt, and Brissett, as a redshirt junior, completed less than 60 percent of his passes. Those are surface statistics, though, which do not tell the full story of a program and player adjusting to the new outfit at NC State.
Brissett was a fourth-year player but had minimal on-field experience. He lost out on the starting quarterback position at Florida and then was forced to sit out a year after transferring to NC State before the 2013 season.
“Jacoby is getting the ball where it needs to go. He does a good job of that,” Canada said. “You have to remember he hadn’t played a lot, but he’s blessed with talent. We saw him mature last year.”
The Wolfpack will need Brissett to continue to mature and lead the offense as NC State has suffered significant personnel losses at receiver. Leading receiver Bo Hines elected to leave school to pursue an Ivy League education. As a true freshman, Hines had 13 more catches and close to twice as many yards as the Wolfpack’s next leading receivers, and he averaged 17 yards per catch on third down.
Sophomore receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who hauled in 22 passes a season ago, is not on the 2015 roster either. Tight end David Grinnage, who showed major promise the second half of 2014, has been sidelined much of spring practice though his health continues to improve.
Canada doesn’t sound too concerned with the receiving corps, however, and said he’s “pleased” with the group he has. Bra'Lon Cherry, who finished second among wide receivers with 27 catches last season, could become the top receiving target in 2015. Canada said the junior is “unbelievably talented” and has played well this spring.
Cherry said his connection with Brissett is getting stronger with each practice and 7-on-7 workout. The timing is almost to the point where each knows where the other will be, and when Cherry turns for the ball Brissett already has the throw en route to the 5-foot-11, 188-pound receiver.
The next step is for Cherry to turn a short reception into an exceptional gain once the ball is in his hands. NC State was a middle-of-the-pack team in explosive plays last season, and Cherry said his personal goal is to increase his 20- and 30-yard catches.
Those plays can ignite an offense, and it’s much easier to put together a four-play touchdown drive than a 12-play drive, especially as a quarterback continues to learn the nuances of the position.
“You just catch the ball and make one guy miss and make the best of every catch you get. That’s the big thing,” Cherry said. “… That’s what’s going to separate the good from the great -- having big, explosive plays.”
Ask NC State running back Matt Dayes about his breakout year in 2014, and he quickly issues a correction.
"I wouldn’t call it a breakout year for me," Dayes says.
A double-check of the stats shows Dayes was one of just three players nationally with more than 300 yards rushing, receiving and in returns; he led the Wolfpack with 1,278 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns; and he won team Offensive MVP honors.
If that doesn’t qualify as a breakout season, what does?
"Make it to an ACC championship and individually, I would love to have 1,000 rushing yards this season and 1,000 receiving yards -- if that’s even possible," he said. "Those are my personal goals and team goals."
To do that, Dayes would have to accomplish the nearly impossible. Brian Westbrook is the only player in Division I history (FBS or FCS) to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in one season, accomplishing the incredible feat at Villanova in 1998.
Plus, he shares running back duties with Shad Thornton -- not to mention quarterback Jacoby Brissett getting carries of his own. But Dayes says he always has had high standards for himself, going back to his days in high school.
For him, being good is not good enough. Though he played as a true freshman and ran for 252 yards, he called that season a bad time in his life because he came into camp out of shape, did not produce enough, and he had a hard time juggling his schoolwork.
He rededicated himself last spring and became an integral part of the offense, helping NC State average 204.5 yards rushing, its highest average since 1992. With Dayes, Thornton, and Tony Creecy in the backfield -- and Brissett a big part of the run game as well -- the Wolfpack became one of the most balanced offenses in the ACC.
Dayes had hoped for a 1,000 yard season, but ended up with 573 yards on the ground to rank third on the team. He was second with 32 receptions, which went for 321 yards; and he added 384 yards in returns.
Among the players who hit 300 yards in all three categories, Dayes is the only player with five or more touchdowns rushing and receiving. He ended up ranking No. 3 in the ACC in scoring, with 80 points.
"I thought it was down year for me because I expected so much more," Dayes said. "I’m happy with what the team did, but I’m not really happy with what I did. I always want more."
Why does he put so much pressure on himself?
"I always try to be the best at everything that I do," he said. "Someone else is always working hard, so I have to work harder and outperform someone else."
Dayes already has set sky-high goals for himself, but he also wants to make sure he slims down a little more and stays in the 203-205 pound range while building muscle. So far this spring, his teammates have noticed a renewed energy out of him.
"He’s always been fast and explosive," receiver Bra'Lon Cherry said. "He’s being more of a leader, and everybody is looking up to him to make big plays. He’s another big playmaker on our team. We’re going to make sure that he does all he can and plays to his best, and he’ll make us play to our best."
There should be plenty of opportunities. Not only is Dayes expected to get a few more carries, the NC State receiver group is young and trying to build depth, so it would not be a huge surprise if the Wolfpack uses Dayes more out of the backfield to help out the passing game.
"He’s very versatile," offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "He has great hands, he’ll catch it and find a hole. He’s a great football player. He was our offensive MVP because of his versatility."
If he has an even bigger year, Dayes could be a repeat winner.
ACC reporter Jared Shanker contributed to this report.
The race to replace Jameis Winston as Florida State's starting quarterback was always going to be crowded enough. But De'Andre Johnson has no problem adding to the confusion early on.
Johnson has drawn early praise from the Seminoles' coach Jimbo Fisher through the early part of spring practice. The early enrollee made a number of impressive plays during Saturday's scrimmage, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone.
From the Sentinel:
“I thought De’Andre Johnson had a really nice day today – does a lot of things very instinctively, man, I think that guy’s gonna be a really good player,” Fisher said after Saturday’s practice. “J.J. and John, they responded well.”
As Sonnone notes, it's always worth reading between the lines, especially when a player is mentioned unprovoked. But Johnson seems to be doing something right so far, and he may force us all to think beyond Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino and John Franklin if he keeps growing throughout the spring and summer.
Here are the rest of your Monday links:
- Andy Gallik impressed scouts at BC's pro day, Adam Kurkjian writes in the Boston Herald.
- Miami's second scrimmage was a sloppy affair, Matt Porter writes in the Palm Beach Post.
- Funny stuff from the NC State football Twitter feed.
- Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick shares some interesting thoughts on the future of college sports with CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd.
- Pitt's spring practices are getting more physical under Pat Narduzzi, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- Syracuse quarterback A.J. Long clarifies recent comments he made about redshirting, Nate Mink writes in the (Syracuse) Post-Standard.
NC State made some strides on defense last season, and the marked improvement on that side of the ball coincided with a strong finish to the year overall. This spring, however, the Wolfpack need to replace several key starters up front, so defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has his work cut out for him. We caught up with him to see how far along the D is this spring.
David Hale: How has the defense looked overall so far this spring?
Dave Huxtable: I've seen our unit do some good things. We're young at some positions up front, but we've got good young players that I know throughout the spring are going to continue to improve and get better fundamentally and with technique and understanding the scheme. So I'm excited about the group and very encouraged.
Hale: You lost a bunch of veterans -- Art Norman, Thomas Teal, T.Y. McGill -- up front. How big a job is it to replace those guys?
Huxtable: Those guys, all seniors and had played a lot of football here, and played like seniors for us, so we're surely going to miss them. But we've got a good group of young players now who have to fill those shoes, and football's a game of repetition, so through the reps in the spring and summer and fall camp, we have to get them season-ready.
Hale: It's early yet, but is there anyone who's jumped out to you as having added some good weight or made some big strides since last season ended?
Huxtable: Kentavius Street had an awesome offseason program and has just gotten bigger and stronger. I'm really excited about the things he's going to be able to do for us. B.J. Hill up front was a true freshman who started several games for us last season and had a really good offseason program and has gotten bigger and stronger and put some weight on. A lot of those young guys will continue to do that. Darian Roseboro was a kid who enrolled early, and between January when he got here and the start of the season, he's got several months to get bigger and stronger in the weight room and to be with our defensive line coach and get better as a football player. So there's a lot of guys up there we're really excited about, but we know we've got some work to do with them.
Hale: One other guy on the line that is always the subject of a lot of speculation due to his physical attributes is Pharoah McKever. How's he progressing?
Huxtable: He worked very hard in the offseason. He's gotten stronger, put on a little weight and gotten bigger, but he's still got a long way to go in the weight room in gaining some strength. He's a wide receiver we moved to defensive end, and he did a nice job for us in certain situations last year. We're looking forward to seeing improvement from him this spring and summer to be a player for us in the fall.
Hale: You got a lot of quality reps from freshmen at linebacker last season. How big of an asset is that now?
Huxtable: Jerod [Fernandez] and Airius Moore got valuable reps as freshmen, and already this spring are much more comfortable in understanding the defense and the speed of the game at this level. The two of those guys combined will get better and give us good play at that Mike linebacker position. At the Will, we lost Rodman Noel and Brandon Pittman, so we've got a new group of Will linebackers that had great offseason programs in the weight room, but now every rep is so valuable in the spring and summer to get ready. Dravious Wright is back at our nickel position, and he really played well for us the middle to latter part of last season. He's had really good practices this spring. And we've got Tim Buckley back at that position and James Smith-Williams and Freddie Phillips, who just enrolled in January -- two young kids who have shown some promising things. We're very excited about that linebacker group and the nickels.
Hale: You're in your third spring with NC State now. Does it feel like, even with the younger guys up front, there's more of a comfort level on defense than there had been in years past?
Huxtable: It is more comfortable. The guys who have been here with us understand the philosophy and exactly what we're looking for. But with several new and young players, our older players have to provide great leadership for them, teach them the way, and I think our older guys right now are doing a good job of that.
From Florida State and Clemson to Miami and Boston College, offensive lines will be a big talking point for many ACC offenses this spring. But in Blacksburg, Virginia, Frank Beamer’s crew is actually feeling a bit optimistic.
As the Roanoke Times writes in its preview of the position, this marks the first time in the past four years that Virginia Tech has had the same O-line coach -- and recruiting, development and scheme philosophies -- which once again has the line firmly in the spotlight.
From the Times:
This group has been treading water for a few years, trying to dig out of a numbers deficiency and talent gap that's been been apparent whenever the Hokies played against even decent defensive lines.
It’s no secret that Virginia Tech hasn’t met expectations for the past three years, and while there have been plenty of areas that needed improvement, it’s hard to argue that the offensive line hasn’t been the most overwhelming problem.
For example, here are some crucial line-related numbers for Virginia Tech since 2012:
- 42nd among 65 Power 5 teams in sack rate (6.4 percent)
- tied for 62nd in yards per carry (4.27, not counting sacks)
- 60th in touchdowns per rush (3.3 percent)
- 60th in percentage of rushes going for a loss or no gain (21.5 percent)
- 54th in yards per play on first down (5.32)
- 60th in third- and fourth-and-short conversions (54.5 percent)
Those are all pretty atrocious results, which might explain why a line that figures to look quite a bit different in 2015 is also one that has a lot more enthusiasm surrounding it.
Stacy Searels has a track record of success building lines. Wyatt Teller was a revelation in the second half of 2014. Depth, for the first time in years, is an asset. And, of course, this year might also represent the best cast of skill-position players surrounding the line in years.
In other words, while FSU is hoping Wilson Bell can emerge as a star and Miami is excited to have Kc McDermott back in the fold, there may not be any ACC team with more focus on the offensive line this spring. And if that unit really does take a big step forward, there’s reason to think that Virginia Tech can, at long last, return to that 10-win plateau that had once been the norm.
A few more links:
- It’s going to be a fresh start at cornerback for Florida State, writes Tomahawk Nation.
- The competition at quarterback is a boost for Wake Forest’s offense, writes the Winston-Salem Journal.
- The Orange have parted ways with senior receiver Quinta Funderburk, writes Syracuse.com.
- The first day of spring practice at Virginia was about getting back into the groove for the Hoos, writes the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
- A former NC State receiver is under investigation by the federal government on fraud charges, writes the Raleigh News & Observer.
Ten starters return, making the group heavy on experience. Five rank among the Top 25 players at any position this spring, making the group deeper than a year ago.
Put Deshaun Watson, Justin Thomas, Brad Kaaya, Marquise Williams and Jacoby Brissett up against the top five quarterbacks in any other Power 5 league, and the ACC looks better than just about everybody.
No surprise, especially when you consider recent history. The ACC seems to go in three-year cycles when it comes to its quarterback breadth and depth. In 2012, the ACC had one 4,000-yard passer and six 3,000-yard passers, including Tajh Boyd, EJ Manuel and Mike Glennon. All three players ended up getting drafted -- Manuel went in the first round.
Rewind three years before that, and the ACC had standouts Christian Ponder, Russell Wilson, Kyle Parker, Tyrod Taylor and Josh Nesbitt.
Since 2005, the ACC has had 13 quarterbacks drafted, including three in the first round. Winston is poised to become the fourth.
Why this has gone in three-year cycles is more coincidental than anything. The stage has been set for a quarterback revival this year because the ACC was extremely young at quarterback last year: Ten schools were forced to replace starters.
It is rare to see so much turnover at the most high-profile position on the field at so many schools at once. Even in the year that preceded 2012, only half the schools in the league had to replace their starting quarterbacks.
So there were many opportunities. Now add in another unique situation: Mostly underclassmen filled the open positions. Of the 10 first-year starters, only three were juniors or seniors. All happened to be transfers -- Tyler Murphy at Boston College, Brissett and Michael Brewer at Virginia Tech.
Several schools were forced to turn to true freshmen. Two succeeded immediately: Kaaya -- the ACC rookie of the year -- and Watson, who showed flashes of brilliance when he was healthy enough to play.
In all, five true freshmen ended up starting at least one game in the ACC -- more than any other Power 5 conference. Though Kaaya and Watson are the only two definitive starters returning, Reggie Bonnafon at Louisville and John Wolford at Wake Forest will have an opportunity to earn starting jobs back. The other, AJ Long at Syracuse, plans to redshirt now that starter Terrel Hunt is healthy.
To put the freshman numbers into further context, last year also was the first time in league history two true freshmen started on opening day -- Kaaya and Wolford ended up starting every single game for their respective teams last season.
So the growing pains from 2014 have led to what should be a big moment for the ACC in 2015. All five top-tier quarterbacks -- Watson, Kaaya, Thomas, Brissett and Williams -- already have way-too-early Heisman odds posted.
Others have an opportunity for big years as well. Pitt coaches are excited about the potential for Chad Voytik; the same goes for Duke coaches and Thomas Sirk. Florida State has been able to develop quarterbacks at will under coach Jimbo Fisher, so whoever earns the starting job there will have an opportunity to join in the top-notch quarterback club. Bobby Petrino has not been a wall flower at developing his quarterbacks, either.
When it comes down to it, Boston College is the only school that has no quarterbacks with any career starts.
So experience is nearly everywhere. So are good players.
All that is setting up to lead to a quarterback bonanza in 2015.
A look back at strong quarterback play across the ACC:
McDonald coached receivers; Canada coached quarterbacks before becoming offensive coordinator. They spent three seasons together, building a good relationship before going their separate ways. But oftentimes in coaching circles, connections made lead to opportunities down the road.
The NC State receivers are the most inexperienced part of the offense, and it's a group that needs to grow up in a hurry to help improve the deep-pass game that is a priority for the Wolfpack this season. McDonald has a long track record of mentoring receivers, both in the NFL and college. His ability to teach is what appealed to coach Dave Doeren the most.
“During the interview, I was incredibly excited about the information I was getting and how he puts it out there as a teacher,” Doeren said recently. “That’s where we’re at with a young receiver corps.”
For McDonald, the move was almost a natural landing spot after last season, when he was stripped of his offensive coordinator duties at Syracuse midway through the season and ended up focusing on the receivers.
McDonald knew it was time to move on, and NC State was a perfect fit. When asked to reflect back on what happened at Syracuse, McDonald said in a recent phone interview, “It was a challenge, but I was fortunate to work with a great group of receivers. They told me all the time, ‘We have your back,’ and I had theirs.”
Doeren had no reservations about hiring McDonald, either. “Calling plays with three quarterback injuries is tough,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish that on any playcaller. We played them the year before; they went to a bowl game. He was calling the plays and they beat us. Other than Ohio State, I can’t think of many people who have won a lot of games with their backup quarterbacks. It just doesn’t work that way for most people.”
Though NC State has only had a handful of spring practices so far, there has already been an emphasis on the downfield passing game during drills. Last season, NC State only had 26 pass plays that gained 20 yards or more. Jacoby Brissett averaged just 7.04 yards per attempt, behind five other top returning quarterbacks.
Only three players return who had at least one big-play reception. To make up for the losses of leading receiver Bo Hines and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, NC State will rely more heavily on Bra'Lon Cherry, Jumichael Ramos and Johnathan Alston. McDonald said redshirt freshman Maurice Trowell also has shown flashes of potential during the first few practices.
But it’s still early. Given the inexperience and lack of depth, McDonald has to manage his group a little bit differently. He’s still getting a feel for what each player can do. He knows the talent is there, but there still is plenty of work ahead.
“We are young and talented,” McDonald said. “We just started working, so I am excited to see what all these guys can do once we get more practices under our belts.”
In a poll of ACC football coaches, 12 of the 13 who responded said they favored or would consider expanding eligibility to allow players to play five years — eliminating the redshirt completely — and every coach expressed significant reservations about potentially redshirting all freshmen.
The debate has become a talking point after the Big Ten opened discussions on the subject of improving academics for freshmen by taking them off the field to focus more on the classroom, but every coach polled said they’d seen no firm correlation between grades and playing time, and many suggested redshirting freshmen can actually have a detrimental effect on their overall college experience.
Indeed, most coaches suggest the athletes with the greatest deficiencies in the classroom are also the ones who would be hurt the most by taking away their on-field experience, while the ones with the best time-management skills away from coaches are typically flourishing academically already.
“The kids that are mature and make good decisions, a redshirt year can be good for them,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “But the at-risk student is better off if he’s playing right away and engaged with the team all the time.”
While the specifics of freshman eligibility have not yet been a topic discussed among ACC coaches formally, Doeren said he was hopeful those conversations would begin soon, so that the concerns shared by the coaches can be addressed.
ACC commissioner John Swofford appeared open to restricted eligibility when asked by the Louisville Courier-Journal last month, though he conceded the logistics would be challenging.
“It's not a new topic,” Swofford told the paper. “It's been talked about in our league, as well as others, periodically. I'm old enough to have played in that system, and it was a good one. I think it's very educationally sound, and I think we should think about and consider anything that's educationally sound. Whether we get back to that, I don't know. I don't know if it fits the times in today's world. We haven't taken any votes in our league in regard to it in recent years.”
While the ACC does not specifically track league-wide academic performance of freshmen compared with older student-athletes, the conference does have the highest academic rating overall among Power 5 leagues, according to U.S. News and World Report, and 11 of the 14 institutions had an APR better than the FBS average. It's noteworthy, too, that of the 65 members of the league's academic All-ACC team, 12 were true freshmen.
On the NCAA level, eligibility restrictions for the most at-risk athletes are already set to go into effect beginning in 2016. Students who fail to meet core course requirements, GPA and ACT or SAT scores will be forced to redshirt or grayshirt their first year.
Extending eligibility restrictions to all freshmen would be a knee-jerk reaction, however, Cutcliffe said.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish other than getting better grades out of it, and that’s just not going to happen,” he said.
What it clearly would accomplish, however, is a huge strain on the remaining rosters for all teams.
Until 1972, freshmen were ineligible for competition. But at that time there were no scholarship limits in place, and programs could easily field a team without the newcomers. Moreover, seasons were shorter, with the majority of programs playing just 11 games until the early 2000s. This past season, Oregon and Ohio State played 15 games — one shy of an NFL season — and if freshmen hadn’t been eligible to play, they might have been limited to a roster of just 60 scholarship athletes.
“That’s basically an NFL roster, but we don’t get to pick up anybody off waivers, have free agency, make trades,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I’m not sure how that would work, and I don’t think they have any intention of giving us more scholarships.”
First, schools need to do a better job of developing programs to ensure a smoother transition for incoming freshmen to the rigors of college life. As Doeren suggested, time management and study skills differentiate students who succeed from the ones who fall behind, and instilling those in freshmen upon arrival in the summer is crucial.
Virginia’s Mike London said he shared some of the Big Ten’s concerns regarding academic performance and would be open to further discussion of potential solutions, but he said those answers should start with an in-house focus on supporting students in the classroom.
“We all know the biggest transition is from high school to college,” London said. “It’s important to me that the structures you have in place — academic advising, mentoring, tutoring — that’s as critical as anything else, and if you’re successful there, you allow the student-athletes — particularly the freshmen — to come in and have success.”
Moreover, Fedora said he’d like to see schools raise their admissions standards for athletes to weed out those who would be most likely to struggle with academics.
“Raise your standards,” Fedora said. “Don’t just let anybody in. If they’re not academically ready, then don’t let them in.”
All but one coach polled suggested five years of eligibility on the field would allow coaches more wiggle room in developing their freshmen.
“I would make everybody eligible, and then your team will be a lot healthier,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “There would never be a situation where a kid would feel like he’s letting his teammates down. The communication would improve. Health and safety would improve, and I bet our graduation rates and the number of student-athletes leaving with postgraduate degrees would increase sharply, too.”
It’s a plan that was reiterated again and again by ACC coaches concerned with player safety, academics and, of course, winning.
The bottom line among all coaches, however, is that more discussion of these issues is required, and that input from the coaches dealing with student-athletes on a daily basis should be weighed as strongly as any broad statistics being used to tout academic struggles for freshmen.
“A lot of things we do, we change before they’re truly broken,” Cutcliffe said. “I hope they listen to reason. I’d hate to see [eligibility restrictions] happen.”
USA Today is the latest with its prospectus, covering the usual ground. But one particular item stood out. Scroll to the bottom and there are five impact newcomers listed. One is tight end Jerome Washington, a junior college transfer who played club football for Gattaca last year.
Miami coaches have been pleased what they have seen out of Washington so far in camp, but he is not the only tight end who has drawn praise. The Canes believe they are deep enough and talented enough at tight end to make up for the loss of Clive Walford, who finished second on the team with 676 yards receiving and seven touchdowns a year ago and is one of the highest-rated tight ends available for the NFL draft.
"Clive left us in a really good position because everybody in that room saw how much he grew as a player and a person," coach Al Golden told ESPN.com recently. "I'm really excited about that group."
Veteran Stan Dobard leads the group, but Golden also mentioned Chris Herndon, Jake O'Donnell, David Njoku and Washington. There is no doubt Miami has a group of big guys who are athletic. Dobard was a four-star recruit out of high school; Njoku competes in the high jump for the track team and just placed sixth at the ACC Indoor Track and Field championships. Washington, the No. 1 rated junior college tight end, certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds, he has impressed his coaches in the early going.
"His ceiling is through the roof," tight ends coach Larry Scott told reporters in South Florida earlier this week. "He's already 260-plus pounds and you go 'Wow.' You get him out here and work with him and see him stride, see him do movements that big guys typically have a hard time doing or have to over years develop. He does it naturally. You look at yourself and shake your head and go, 'We've got a special one here.'"
But Scott cautioned that Washington is still a freshman and has much learning to do. Whether or not he can make an impact this season remains to be seen. But Miami will be asking its tight ends to step up with Walford gone. So a big opportunity awaits.
Elsewhere around the ACC:
- A few Syracuse news items of interest. Defensive tackle Ryan Sloan has decided to leave the program after several incidents over the last few years made him realize Syracuse was not the right place for him. The Orange are really hurting for depth at the defensive tackle spot this spring. Marcus Coleman is also gone, thanks to foot injuries that cut his career short. Meanwhile, backup quarterback AJ Long told a local television station he expects to redshirt the 2015 season. Long was supposed to redshirt last year, but was forced to play when starting quarterback Terrel Hunt got hurt. Now that Hunt is healthy, it makes sense for the staff to try and get Long a redshirt year back.
- Florida State picked up a commitment from a junior college linebacker for the class of 2016.
- Louisville picked up a commitment from a 380-pound defensive tackle nicknamed "Big Snack."
- NC State wants to continue to build on its recent success.
- Virginia Tech running back Shai McKenzie has been suspended indefinitely after he was charged with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
- Wake Forest is going to be without the two cornerbacks expected to take over starting roles all spring.
- This is not football related, but it is a must-read for anybody who uses the Internet. Bravo, Curt Schilling. Bravo.
- We'll leave you with this quick video showing Clemson unveiling its latest tombstone, a tradition that pays tribute to each road win against a ranked opponent. Oklahoma was the latest "victim."
WATCH || Beat a ranked team away from home? Time for a tombstone. We put another one in the ground today: pic.twitter.com/DtLwUMGnKG— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) March 4, 2015
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.
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.
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.
The top 20 includes FSU’s Dalvin Cook, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, BC’s Jon Hilliman, Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell and Miami’s Joseph Yearby. Georgia Tech’s C.J. Leggett also cracks the “others to watch” list. So that’s six running backs from the conference’s 14 teams, but it’s possible the list could’ve been even longer.
NC State’s combo of Shad Thornton and Matt Dayes was exceptionally good last season. Had their combined stats belonged to just one runner, their 23 touchdowns and 1,934 scrimmage yards would’ve ranked second in the ACC.
North Carolina’s T.J. Logan has been a reflection of his team the past two years -- slow starts followed by strong finishes, but he topped 92 yards in three of his final four games last year, and from Nov. 1 on, 43 percent of his rushes gained at least 5 yards.
Louisville’s Brandon Radcliff had to share the backfield with a trio of other productive runners throughout last season, but he still ran for 12 scores (third in the ACC) and had 22 carries of 10 yards or more, trailing only James Conner of Pittsburgh and Cook among returning ACC runners.
Duke’s Shaun Wilson will likely still share plenty of snaps with Shaq Powell, but no Power 5 back in the nation with at least 75 carries had a higher yards per carry average than the freshman last year.
At Virginia Tech, J.C. Coleman will be No. 1 on the depth chart after a strong finish to the season, but Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams both showed flashes of brilliance as true freshmen last year behind a lackluster offensive line.
And since this was an “on the rise” list, it didn’t even include the ACC’s player of the year in Conner.
In other words, the ACC should have a really strong corps of runners next season, and it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to end up with a half-dozen 1,000-yard backs or more.
A few more links:
- Syracuse.com has a terrific piece on the struggles of Orange signee Dontae Strickland, who was living in a motel room at the time of his recruitment.
- Virginia Tech got its first in-state commitment for 2016, writes the Roanoke Times.
- SB Nation has an interesting map of where the most first-round NFL picks who weren’t blue-chip recruits come from, and Boston College leads the charge.
- A pair of Miami legacies are hoping to anchor the Canes’ offensive line in 2015, writes the Miami Herald.
- One-time FSU great and Tampa Bay legend Derrick Brooks has given his full endorsement to Jameis Winston in advance of the Bucs making the first pick of the NFL draft, writes the Tallahassee Democrat.
So as not to overlap with the end-of-the-season ACC awards, these ACC Oscars categories are, for the most part, based on single-game performances. So, while Pittsburgh’s James Conner played the lead role in the league from August to November, it doesn’t guarantee he will go home with any hardware Monday.
Without further ado, let’s open the envelopes.
Coming off one of his worst performances of his career, there was talk of whether Winston would be able to lift the Seminoles past 10-2 Georgia Tech in the ACC title game and into the inaugural College Football Playoff. The week prior, Winston tossed four interceptions against Florida and had an 87.92 rating. He had arguably his best game of the season against the Yellow Jackets, though, in a bounce-back performance. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns in a two-point win. Every toss was on target, and the Seminoles had the right momentum heading into the playoff.
Supporting actor: Louisville safety Gerod Holliman vs. Boston College
Holliman wasn’t a nationally known name among college football fans, which puts him in the supporting actor category. As far as defensive backs, however, Holliman did not play second fiddle to anyone in the ACC. He showed why against the Eagles. He picked off Tyler Murphy on the first play of the game, and he hauled in two more errant Murphy throws in the fourth quarter as the Eagles tried a comeback.
Director: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables vs. Oklahoma
If there were still any doubters about the Clemson defense before the bowl game, Venables converted them against Oklahoma. The Tigers’ defense was pitching a shutout until late in the fourth quarter, and the unit kept Oklahoma to just 275 yards of total offense in a 40-6 blowout. That performance sparked the Tigers to the No. 1 total defense unit in 2014, and it really was not all that close.
Best picture: The fourth-down play(s) in Notre Dame at Florida State
It looked as if the Seminoles’ playoff hopes were dashed in the final seconds against the Fighting Irish. On a play similar to one the Irish ran in the first half, Everett Golson threw a go-ahead touchdown on fourth down from the FSU 3-yard line with 13 seconds remaining. However, the rare offensive pass interference was called, a decision Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly berated for the next week. Now backed up to the 18-yard line, Golson threw for the end zone but was intercepted. The Irish had a chance to win the game late because earlier on the drive on a fourth-and-18 play, Golson scrambled and found an open receiver, who had to work for the final few yards to get the first down.
Costume design: North Carolina.
I’m a fan of the Carolina blue, so any uniform combination that incorporates that blue hue is going to rule this category. Whether it’s the more traditional UNC uniform or some of the newer looks with the black, the Carolina colors and wardrobe is usually spot on.
After suffering a broken left foot during the preseason, Parker did not haul in his first reception of the season until Oct. 18. He finished that game with nine catches for 132 yards. It turned out that it was one of his worst games of the season as his 14.67 yards per catch average was the lowest of the season. He tallied more than 100 receiving yards five times and caught at least eight passes four times. Against Florida State, he broke the 200-yard mark. In six games, Parker finished with 43 catches for 855 yards and five scores.
Original screenplay: The 2014 Florida State season
This past season for the Seminoles can definitely be considered original. There were not too many seasons like it before and there likely won’t be too many more. It began with the reigning national champions returning some of their most important pieces for a second title run. Shortly after spring practice ended, though, Winston was cited for shoplifting seafood from a grocery store. In the summer, receiver Jesus Wilson was charged with stealing a scooter. Then the season began and the Seminoles had close call after close call. In between was Winston screaming an obscene phrase and being suspended against Clemson, questions whether Winston received money for autographs, the Winston Title IX investigation into an alleged sexual assault and running back Karlos Williams being investigated for a domestic incident. The wins kept piling up, and so did the critics -- about FSU’s play and its handling of off-field issues. The Seminoles still finished undefeated and made the inaugural playoff, but they were blown out in the Rose Bowl.
Visual effects: NC State QB Jacoby Brissett's scrambling touchdown pass vs. Florida State
Looking to expand on their lead over No. 1 FSU at the end of the first quarter, Brissett took a third-down snap and was immediately pressured on a blitz. He spun out of a sack in the pocket and was flushed right. He then gave a stiff arm to a defensive lineman that caused his helmet to pop off, and just as Brissett was about to step out of bounds he fluttered a pass across his body for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Wolfpack a 24-7 lead.
Sound editing: FSU coach Jimbo Fisher after defeating rival Florida 24-19 to finish the regular season undefeated.
Criticized for close wins all season long and sitting behind two one-loss teams in the College Football Playoff rankings, Fisher reminded the selection committee and fans that, ultimately, the goal of football is to win. In his on-field, postgame interview, Fisher said “The object of the game is to win. It’s not figure skating.”
When Jimbo Fisher took over for legendary Bobby Bowden at Florida State in 2010, the path to rebuilding a winner wasn’t nearly as tough. The Seminoles had tradition and money and a passionate alumni base, and once Fisher got the right staff in place he made an instant impact on the recruiting trail and won a division title in his first season. Still, by the time he finished the 2012 campaign with FSU’s first ACC championship in seven years, a vocal contingent of the fan base remained dubious that Fisher was the right man for the job. They’d hoped for more, and a 12-2 record was labeled something of a disappointment.
Of course, there’s plenty of room for debate between those two counterpoints, too.
David Cutcliffe took over a Duke program that had spent the previous 15 years as one of the worst teams in the FBS, but he slowly rebuilt the on-field product, pushed for more investment and led the charge for stadium upgrades and now the Blue Devils have played in three straight bowl games. What was once universally considered one of the toughest jobs in college football now looks like a pretty cushy gig.
At Miami, Al Golden is living the alternate side of that story. The Hurricanes were a powerhouse for two decades, but, after an extended dry spell marred by an NCAA investigation, piecing together a consistent winner at Miami has proved to be an arduous project. The Canes have brought in talent, including potentially three first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft, but Golden has just a .500 record in ACC play to show for it, and the fan base is understandably restless.
Places such as Syracuse and Boston College have rich football traditions, but geography makes recruiting a tougher task. North Carolina and Virginia have resources and more fertile recruiting bases, but they’ve combined for just three ACC titles since 1980, and none in the past 20 years.
Deciding on the ACC’s toughest job is really about where the line between expectations and opportunity converge. At places such as Wake and Syracuse, no doubt more legwork is required to simply get to a bowl game. At Florida State and Miami, finding the talent is easy but meeting the lofty expectations that come with it can be a challenge.
It’s fair to say most coaches would prefer the latter problem, of course, and there’s a reason FSU is a destination job while Syracuse is more likely a place to get fired or a steppingstone to a better gig. But sometimes it’s simply about finding the right fit. Cutcliffe has said he hopes never to leave Duke -- a job most coaches would’ve run from screaming a decade ago. Meanwhile, Dabo Swinney has led Clemson to four straight 10-win seasons, but when he was rumored to be a candidate for the Florida job in December, he didn’t deny he might someday move on from Death Valley for the right opportunity elsewhere. The best jobs are often a matter of perspective, too.
In the end, a great coach finds a way to mine for resources, even in less fertile areas. He wins enough that expectations climb, even in places where winning had been an afterthought for years. At Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer is an institution -- the man responsible for building the program over the course of three decades. That success helped him snag a top-25 recruiting class this year, and it also has the fan base up in arms after three straight subpar seasons.
In other words, it’s not as much about the job as it is about the coach. Clawson hasn’t shied away from the task at hand. Instead, he has embraced the difficulty of winning at Wake Forest. And one year after Fisher was criticized for failing to meet expectations in 2012, he won a national title at Florida State with one of the most dominant teams in recent history.
Every job has its challenges, but the right coach finds a way to meet them regardless.
But there are some programs that will have a bit of intrigue at the quarterback spot this spring. Here is a quick spring reset at where the signal-callers stand at each ACC school.
- Michael Brewer, Virginia Tech
- Jacoby Brissett, NC State
- Brad Kaaya, Miami
- Greyson Lambert, Virginia
- Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
- Marquise Williams, North Carolina
- Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The returning starters*
At Syracuse, Hunt is coming off a broken leg and will face competition from AJ Long and Austin Wilson. Long and Wilson both played last season after Hunt went out, giving the coaching staff much more to work with this spring.
At Wake Forest, coach Dave Clawson said Wolford will get the first-team reps but his quarterback will have to win the starting job again after the Deacs signed two highly touted prep quarterbacks -- Kendall Hinton and Kyle Kearns.
At Pitt, Voytik will have to learn a new system and face new competition from Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman. While Voytik is expected to keep his starting job, there are no guarantees here, either.
The new starter
- Thomas Sirk, Duke
The open competitions
Florida State: Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino. One of the most anticipated competitions in the entire country will take place in Tallahassee, where Jimbo Fisher must replace Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Maguire served as the backup last season, but that does not necessarily make him the favorite to win the job. Cosentino came in last year as an ESPN 300 prospect and redshirted. Fisher said true freshmen De'Andre Johnson and Deondre Francois -- both ESPN 300 players -- will also get a shot. Johnson is already in for spring.
Louisville: Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson, Kyle Bolin. With Will Gardner out for spring and no timetable set for his return after another major knee injury, the Cardinals are expected to have a heated open competition in the spring between Bonnafon, Ferguson and Bolin. Bonnafon played as a true freshman last season and showed some promise before getting injured late in the year. Bolin was then forced to play with Bonnafon and Gardner out. Though he led a comeback win over Kentucky, he was not nearly as effective in the bowl game against Georgia. Ferguson transferred from Penn State and sat out last season, and could end up being the wild card in the group.