ACC: North Carolina Tar Heels

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Wishing everybody a great holiday weekend!
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.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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Never forget.
North Carolina safety Tim Scott is well aware of the surging expectations surrounding his offensive teammates this spring -- further motivation for the Tar Heels’ defense to catch up this fall.

“We feel as if we’re not talked about or we’re not even respected,” Scott said. “Everyone talks about our offense and how explosive they are, but we also have an explosive, physical, fast defense, and that’s really what our main point is to prove this year.”

They’ve got some work to do.

While North Carolina is considered by many to be a team on the rise in the ACC’s Coastal Division, much of that confidence is rooted in the Tar Heels’ offensive potential. North Carolina gave up 55 points in an embarrassing loss to East Carolina last year -- at home -- before improving in the second half of the season. UNC ranked 64th in the country last year in total defense and Scott said the biggest problem was miscommunication, a result of transitioning to a 4-2-5 defense.

“When coach Vic [Koenning] and coach [Larry] Fedora came in with the new 4-2-5, everyone knew their part, but in the 4-2-5 defense, you have to know what everyone is doing,” said Scott, now a leader in UNC’s secondary. “Everyone has to speak to everybody. That’s really what we didn’t get down and that’s what we’re taking the time to do this spring.

“It’s improved a lot,” he said. “Everyone can play at this level, but once you get the mental part down -- which we didn’t have down, of course, for the first six games of the season, when we went 1-5 -- we took the time after that Miami game, and we really wanted to improve in that and make sure we can show the world that the defense we’re playing is the defense that can be successful. That’s what we proved the last couple games of the season going into the bowl game and now the defense is really transitioning to keeping that up during the spring.”

UNC’s defense made significant strides in the second half of the season. Through the first six games, UNC allowed 456 yards per game, including 203.3 on the ground, and allowed 30.7 points per game. Through the final seven games (a 5-2 record), UNC allowed 357.9 yards per game, including 164.6 on the ground, and 19.1 points per game. Five of the final seven opponents were held to 20 points or fewer.

Scott said the best is yet to come -- for the defense and the offense.

“I think honestly we can be better than what we’ve been since I’ve been here,” he said. “… I know last year wasn’t the year we wanted. We had a chance to have a three-way go for the Coastal. This year our objective is to win it outright and prove to everyone that we don’t just have draft picks. We have people who can come together as a team and win games.”

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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Bo Pelini is the cat's meow.

ACC spring games recap

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:00
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Eight ACC teams wrapped up their spring seasons this past weekend, with games and open practices taking place from Pittsburgh all the way down to Miami. Here's a look at the biggest storylines from all of the action surrounding six of those teams. (Colleague Jared Shanker has plenty of Florida State content over on our Seminoles site, while our David Hale was in the house for the second spring of the Dave Doeren era at NC State.)

CLEMSON
The Tigers entered their spring game down one quarterback after Deshaun Watson injured his collarbone five days earlier, and fellow signal caller Chad Kelly might have simplified the QB battle for the coaching staff down the stretch -- just not in a good way. Kelly got himself benched for the second half after questioning a punting decision on fourth down in the second quarter. Cole Stoudt took advantage of the opening, completing 15 of 23 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns on a day that certainly did not hurt his chances at emerging atop the three-man race come August. Kelly, meanwhile, went 10-for-18 for 118 yards with two interceptions. The defense was credited with 14 sacks, though the quarterbacks weren't live. The White team beat the Orange team, 23-5, in front of a record 33,000.

LOUISVILLE
It's often too easy to draw general conclusions and overreact to what we all see during a team's main public display at the end of each spring. That is probably the case when looking at the Cardinals' Friday night fireworks. Redshirt sophomore Will Gardner threw for 542 yards and four touchdowns, leading the offense to 951 total yards and 11 touchdowns. Most of it came against the second-team defense, which underscored the feeling exiting 2013: The secondary is in need of some depth, especially after losing Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Is Bobby Petrino's first offense that good? Is his secondary that bad? Probably somewhere in between, though roughly 27,500 were entertained.

MIAMI
The defense was the main storyline ever since the end of the 2013 season, though Ryan Williams' ACL tear last week brought a new concern to the forefront. Still, the Hurricanes had to be pleased with how Mark D'Onofrio's unit performed on Saturday, with safeties Jamal Carter and Dallas Crawford leading the way with five tackles apiece. The defense won the game, 61-60, thanks to an unconventional scoring system. And, more importantly, it held Miami's new quarterbacks in check, with Kevin Olsen going just 7-of-21 for 65 yards and a pick and Gray Crow going 9-of-20 for 63 yards and a pick. Juwon Young and Tracy Howard came up with the interceptions.

NORTH CAROLINA
Quarterbacks took center stage in Chapel Hill as well, with neither incumbent Marquise Williams nor challenger Mitch Trubisky offering much in way of clarity. Williams completed 22 of 32 passes for 135 yards and an interception. Trubisky went 20-for-32 for 183 yards and an interception. Larry Fedora liked the decision-making from both of his signal callers on Saturday and knows he has two capable signal-callers, but he isn't offering any public hints about who his guy will likely be come this fall. The Blue team, by the way, beat the White team, 38-17.

VIRGINIA
The defense (Blue) dominated the injury-depleted offense (White), coming up with four interceptions and nine total sacks (albeit two-hand touch sacks). Greyson Lambert looked like the best of the Cavaliers' quarterbacks, completing 18 of 31 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. Incumbent David Watford went just 4-of-14 for 31 yards with two picks, while Matt Johns completed 6 of his 19 throws for 43 yards. Lambert and the Virginia coaching staff attributed the redshirt sophomore's improved play to a clear head, as he has taken pressure off himself this time around and looks like the front-runner, as he was voted one of four captains by teammates, along with Anthony Harris, Henry Coley and Kevin Parks. He was also one of 13 players -- and the only quarterback -- named to the leadership council.

PITT
The Panthers drew plenty of attention early for announcing that they would not hold a traditional spring game. Still, their "Field Pass" event on Sunday at its South Side headquarters drew more than 3,000 who came and listened to presentations from defensive coordinator Matt House, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej and recruiting coordinator Dann Kabala. A big theme around Pitt this spring has been the program's youth, but that storyline moved closer and closer toward its depth, which has been tested lately with injuries to running backs James Conner (sprained left knee) and Isaac Bennett (sprained left shoulder), who will have surgery but is expected to return in time for fall camp. Pitt held its 14th spring practice before Sunday's fan event and will conclude its spring season Tuesday.

ACC spring games preview

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Seven ACC teams will play their spring games this weekend, and eight will officially close spring practices in the coming days, as Pitt has opted to have a more fan-friendly event instead of an actual spring game on Sunday before closing practice on Tuesday.

For all of these teams -- including Florida State -- the quarterbacks will be among the most-watched players on the field. In Tallahassee, fans will get a chance to see the Heisman Trophy winner, returning starter Jameis Winston. At every other school, there is an ongoing storyline and competition with the quarterbacks. We’re giving you one additional thing to keep an eye on that might not be so obvious.

Check it out, and enjoy the games this weekend!

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. on Saturday (ESPNU) and on WatchESPN

Where: Death Valley

One thing to watch: The true freshman wide receivers. Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester were all highly touted recruits who enrolled early to help Clemson try to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant (a combined 2,292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013).

FLORIDA STATE

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN) and on WatchESPN

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium

One thing to watch: The wide receivers. They haven’t exactly earned high praise from coach Jimbo Fisher, who called the receivers out last week for not getting open and making catches. Rashad Greene is the most experienced option as the Noles try to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but the staff also needs to see more from players like Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield.

LOUISVILLE

When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday

Where: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium

One thing to watch: The safeties. Louisville lost Hakeem Smith, who started 51 straight games, and projected first-round draft pick Calvin Pryor. Jermaine Reve, Gerod Holliman and Chucky Williams are the leading candidates for those spots, but Reve is out for the spring with an injury. Reve and Holliman are the only players with game experience.

MIAMI

When: 6 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Sun Life Stadium

One thing to watch: Defense, defense, defense. It’s been an area of concern, but the defense showed signs of progress this spring. The Canes return eight starters and 16 players from the two-deep depth chart. Denzel Perryman is now playing middle linebacker, and Dallas Crawford moved to safety to give that position a boost. Those within the program have said repeatedly that the defense has made strides since last season, and overall it was a good spring for the defense. We’ll see if they can punctuate it in the spring game.

NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Kenan Stadium

One thing to watch: True freshman running back Elijah Hood. The four-star recruit was rated the nation's No. 9 running back in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com and No. 80 overall in the ESPN 300. The early enrollee has had such a good spring that he could see some immediate playing time, even though the Tar Heels are deep at the position.

NC STATE

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium

One thing to watch: More young wide receivers. NC State has to replace Quintin Payton and Rashard Smith, both starters from last year. The talent pool to choose from includes a host of sophomores and freshmen, including two early enrollees. The leading sophomore candidates are: Jumichael Ramos, who finished the last three games of 2013 strong; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who led the team in receiving at one point last year as a true freshman; and Bra'lon Cherry, who suffered a season-ending injury against Duke. Freshmen Bo Hines and Stephen Louis enrolled early, and redshirt freshman Gavin Locklear is also in the mix.

VIRGINIA

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Scott Stadium

One thing to watch: Improved wide receivers. This is a group coach Mike London has praised this spring, for both its height and athleticism, as the staff has moved toward a longer, leaner look. London recently singled out Miles Gooch, Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins -- all listed at 6-foot-3 -- as players who have excelled this spring. Unfortunately, fans won’t be able to see starter Jake McGee, the Hoos’ star tight end who moved to receiver this spring, as he’ll be sidelined with a hamstring injury.

PITT (No spring game)

When: From 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Pitt will host its “Pitt Football Field Pass”

Where: The UPMC Sports Performance Complex

One thing to watch: Instead of a game, Pitt will hold a public event that will include a kids’ clinic, an offensive strategy session with coordinator Joe Rudolph, a defensive strategy session with coordinator Matt House, a recruiting session with coordinator Dann Kabala and a strength and conditioning session with assistant coach Ross Kolodziej.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
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Thoughts with all those affected Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
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First prediction I've gotten right all tourney.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Music blared through speakers above North Carolina’s practice fields as players moved through conditioning drills on a brisk, gray afternoon last month, and Marquise Williams couldn’t ignore the beat.

He sprinted through a drill, bounded back to the group and began to dance. One by one, teammates followed suit, until a huddle of Tar Heels was bouncing and singing, with Williams slapping each on the back as encouragement. When a horn sounded to end the period, Williams quickly broke character and darted to the next drill, his teammates still following in unison.

“When they see me excited, they see me ready to go for practice, they’re going to be excited and ready to go,” Williams said. “I have to try to bring that energy every day.”

Just a year ago, practice was a slog for Williams, but he’s a different man now, and this is a different team. It’s his team, he said, even if his coach hasn’t made that distinction official.

In the midst of a quarterback competition Larry Fedora still insists is too close to call, Williams is enjoying every moment of the battle. He’s not simply interested in winning the job, he said. He wants to own the team, and that starts with the attitude.

[+] EnlargeMarquis Williams
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsMarquise Williams stepped in as UNC's starter last season as the Tar Heels won four of their final five games, including a bowl game victory.
“I’m going to lead the guys, and they’re going to rally behind me,” Williams said. “I’ve been waiting around here for a long time for my chance, and I’m not going to let it pass.”

Williams entered 2013 — his sophomore season — as the clear No. 2 on the depth chart, with occasional work as a running threat to whet his appetite. But when veteran Bryn Renner went down with a shoulder injury midway through the season, Williams stepped in as the starter, winning four of UNC’s final five games, including a 39-17 blowout over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.

The late-season heroics still weren’t enough to earn Williams a full-time job. There was no heart-to-heart meeting with Fedora when the season ended, but Williams said it was understood that he’d enter the spring with a mandate to get better.

Nipping at his heels is Mitch Trubisky, a highly touted redshirt freshman with exceptional mobility and a bit more zip on his throws. Through the first month of spring, Fedora has fed each quarterback a roughly equal share of first-team reps, and the UNC coach said he’s in no hurry to name a starter.

“At every position, you have to earn your position,” Fedora said. “Marquise stepped in because Bryn went down. When he was put in that position, he did a phenomenal job, led us to a bowl game and won. He did a tremendous job. Now I want him to go to another level.”

For Williams, that’s meant refining his game. His legs have always made him a valuable weapon, but his arm is a work in progress. Much of Williams’ mechanics are self-taught, and he knew the details needed work.

During his spring break, Williams traveled to San Diego to work with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. It took just a few quick lessons to convince Whitfield he had a star in the making, but it would take some work before Williams could embrace his potential. Whitfield worked with Williams on shortening his strides, minimizing his motion with his nonthrowing arm, working efficiently in the pocket.

“As I was watching him, I kept telling him that you’re much, much stronger than the ball says,” Whitfield said. “We just kind of set about trying to bring some of those adjustments into play.”

But more than just mechanics, Whitfield challenged Williams to practice with more confidence, comparing it to Justin Timberlake taking the stage for a concert -- never timid, embracing the moment.

Williams had that same power to galvanize an audience, Whitfield said, but he had a tendency to hide in the shadows.

“Whether you call it confidence or swagger or energy, it’s there,” Whitfield said. “But I didn’t want him to try to feel it out. I wanted him to kick that door on open and come through.”

So that’s what Williams has been doing this spring. Whitfield sends him the occasional text message as a reminder, but Williams doesn’t need it. He’s dancing, he’s encouraging, he’s leading. He’s taking the stage like he owns it, even if Trubisky is waiting in the wings to stake his claim.

“I love the word competition because that’s been part of my whole life,” Williams said. “To be that leader, I have to perform. When you say competition, I like that. I laugh at it. That’s my name: Marquise Competition. I’m ready to go get it.”

Fedora said he’s been impressed by Williams’ approach this spring, and it’s clear his teammates respect him. Williams’ game experience gives him a leg up in the battle, and if there’s one thing separating the two quarterbacks right now, it’s the confidence and comfort exhibited by the incumbent.

But the job is still open, and Williams is still charging onto the stage believing he’ll finally win over his coach. If he doesn’t, he said, it would be devastating, but there wouldn’t be regrets. That’s what this spring is all about.

“I’ll determine if he’s going to beat me out because it’s me that’s out there,” Williams said. “It’s not Coach Fedora or Coach [Gunter] Brewer. If he deserved the spot, he’s got the spot. Me, I’m going to keep working and keep going to get it because I feel like this is my team. I’m in the driver’s seat with those guys behind me.”

Reviewing the ACC pro days

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
2:30
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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.

Syracuse
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
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora and Pitt coach Paul Chryst are each entering their third seasons at their respective schools, typically benchmark years during which the direction of the program becomes more clear. Both Coastal Division coaches inherited messy situations but have since been able to stabilize them and put their teams in position to win. Expectations should be higher this fall for both programs -- and it's anybody's game in the division race -- but which coach has more to prove in Year 3? Andrea Adelson and Heather Dinich debate ...

AA says: Paul Chryst

Chryst knew he was walking into a tough situation at Pitt because of all the coaching instability that preceded him. That instability had a ripple effect throughout the program, not only making an impact on players already on campus but recruiting classes as well.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesPaul Chryst and Pitt will try to turn a favorable schedule into a breakthrough season in 2014.
All that has been evident in two seasons. Chryst has gone 13-13, and his teams have looked as average as that record indicates. The results have been understandable, given the challenges he inherited. Pitt, after all, had zero players drafted in the last two years -- a clear reflection of the dysfunction that existed.

Note the past tense there. Because Pitt football is not dysfunctional anymore. Headed into Year 3, it is time for Chryst to prove why he was hired. Not to be average but to bring this program back to an elite level.

The pieces are in place for a turnaround. For starters, Pitt has some bright, young talent at the skill positions in receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner. Quarterback Chad Voytik, one of the headliners in the first class Chryst signed in 2012, showed flashes in the Panthers' bowl game last season and is expected to elevate the play Pitt has received at that position over the last several years.

Four starters return to the offensive line. The defense, which needs to replace All-American Aaron Donald, does have some talent returning at key positions. The nonconference schedule is not incredibly difficult, either. The toughest game is against Iowa at home. The Panthers also avoid playing the top three teams in the Atlantic Division.

The Coastal is, how shall we say this, not exactly the same as the SEC West. Easily the more winnable of the ACC divisions, it is hard to label anybody a prohibitive front-runner. No team has an undisputed edge over another when it comes to talent. If Duke -- a team that signed one four-star player between 2010-13 -- can win the Coastal, surely Pitt can, too.

This takes us back to coaching. Pitt is chasing Duke in large part because of the work David Cutcliffe has done building the Blue Devils' program. Chryst did not have experience as a head coach before taking the Pitt job, but now he should be considered a veteran. Six coaches in the ACC have been with their programs for less time than Chryst.

There is no doubt patience has been required as Chryst has had to essentially build this program from scratch. But now he has talent, a favorable schedule and a favorable division breakdown. It's time for Chryst to prove himself.

HD says: Larry Fedora

For years, North Carolina’s program has been on the brink of pushing through to the top of the Coastal Division standings, even in the face of NCAA sanctions and a coaching change. Butch Davis hit an eight-win plateau in his final three seasons before he was fired. Fedora hit the eight-win mark in his first season before leading the program to seven wins in 2013.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY SportsLarry Fedora and North Carolina enjoyed a strong finish in 2013, winning six of their final seven games.
Now, as Fedora prepares to enter his third season in Chapel Hill, UNC fans should feel free not only to embrace the hype but to expect Fedora to deliver on it.

Fedora will caution that the Tar Heels are young, that the program still isn’t quite where he wants it to be. The youth on his roster, though, might be the greatest asset. At this point, there has been enough time to recruit, time to establish a culture, expectations and some staff consistency. The dust has settled from the NCAA sanctions, and UNC made the most of it with a victory over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl last year. There’s no denying the program is ahead of Wake Forest and NC State, which are both still fledglings in the rebuilding process. In what should be yet another watered-down season for the ACC’s Coastal Division, this is the perfect opportunity for North Carolina to leapfrog Duke at the top of the standings.

One of the biggest reasons for optimism in Chapel Hill is how well Fedora and his staff have recruited. Last year, Fedora pulled in the No. 21 class in the country for his first full signing class. It was a group that included Ryan Switzer, who quickly emerged as one of the top punt returners in the country and should continue to be one of the ACC’s most dynamic return specialists. He should also have a bigger role in the offense in 2014.

In the past two recruiting classes, UNC has signed eight players ranked in the ESPN 300, including highly touted running back Elijah Hood this year. With T.J. Logan, Khris Francis, and Romar Morris all returning, expect UNC’s running game to improve this fall.

The entire team should.

North Carolina enters this fall 15-10 in two seasons under Fedora. He has yet to beat rivals Duke or Georgia Tech -- a must to win the division, especially considering the recent rise of Duke.

North Carolina, though, didn’t have nearly as far to climb.

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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.

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