ACC: North Carolina Tar Heels
The ACC is at its spring midpoint. Miami, Boston College and Duke are done. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Louisville just got started. But for most of the league, the biggest storylines are still playing out.
With that in mind, here's a quick rundown of a few of the biggest issues worth monitoring in the ACC so far this spring:
The injured QBs: Any discussion of the conference's top quarterbacks for 2015 promises to include Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams, yet neither is taking snaps this spring. Watson tore his ACL late in the regular season, so his absence was no surprise. Instead, it's been his quick recovery that's been newsworthy. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Watson is already at 80 percent and should be ready to run summer drills with the rest of the Tigers' offense. Williams, on the other hand, is dealing with a hip injury, and his absence from spring practice was late-breaking news. Still, the QB situation appears far more established at North Carolina than it was a year ago, with Williams clearly the starter once healthy. Nevertheless, the Tigers and Tar Heels have used the spring to develop their backups, and, given that the reigning national champions needed three starters to get through the season, that might end up being a blessing.
The emerging QBs: There weren't many quarterback battles entering the spring, but the few places where jobs were up for grabs appear to have decisive front-runners. At Florida State, the task of replacing Jameis Winston won't be an easy one, but thus far senior Sean Maguire appears to have separated himself from the pack. Redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino likely will push the competition into the fall, but for now Maguire looks like the favorite. At Boston College, there might be even less drama, with Darius Wade the obvious front-runner. He wrapped up spring practice last weekend with a relatively forgettable performance, but coaches still love his arm and pocket presence, which could bring an added dimension to the Eagles' run-heavy offense. And at Duke, David Cutcliffe gave lip service to an open job, but it appears clear that Thomas Sirk is the heavy favorite. He has just 14 pass attempts to his credit, but he looked like the veteran presence Duke needed this spring, and it's unlikely he'll be unseated atop the depth chart by fall.
FSU's thin linebacking corps: The defense took a big step back for Florida State in 2014, and Charles Kelly's rebuilding job hasn't been made any easier this spring with the departure of four underclassmen for the NFL draft and a litany of injuries -- particularly among the linebackers. Terrance Smith is dealing with turf toe. Reggie Northrup tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl. Matthew Thomas is now out with a shoulder injury. E.J. Levenberry and Kain Daub decided to transfer. That has Kelly plugging in bodies wherever he can find them, and it likely means FSU won't get a real feel for how its defense will look until the fall. That's a big concern for a team that mustered just 17 sacks last season -- ranking 118th nationally.
Notable position swaps: Spring is always a time when we see teams tinker with personnel at some new positions. That's the case at Florida State, where Jalen Ramsey moves from safety to corner, a move that worked well for Lamarcus Joyner two years ago. Running back Ryan Green also moved to corner, giving FSU ample athleticism in the secondary. At NC State, Airius Moore moves from middle linebacker to the weak side, allowing the Wolfpack to showcase their two talented sophomore linebackers, along with Jerod Fernandez. Dane Rogers moved from end to tackle at Clemson in hopes of finding a steady replacement for Grady Jarrett. Dan Crimmins, BC's second-leading returning receiver, could develop into a more dynamic tight end for the Eagles.
More drama at Miami: Brad Kaaya remains an emerging star, but there are ample questions surrounding him at Miami. Stacy Coley remains something of a mystery after an awful 2014 campaign. The options at tight end were inconsistent at best. The revamped offensive line had its share of spring struggles. Tailback Joseph Yearby was suspended for the spring game, and Gus Edwards saw only limited action. Not surprisingly, the spring game ended with a solid defensive performance that included four interceptions.
Hokies' defensive injuries: Virginia Tech promises to have one of the ACC's top defenses in 2015, but it's tough to get much of a read on it this spring. Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller, Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall and Ken Ekanem -- all established starters -- are out with injuries. Virginia Tech is using the time to develop depth, but, particularly in the secondary, Bud Foster would love a chance to get things a bit more settled.
Hunt-Days returns for Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets' pass rush was a work-in-progress throughout much of last season, but the development of KeShun Freeman and the return of Jabari Hunt-Days this spring could make it an asset in 2015. Hunt-Days missed all of last season because of academic issues, but he's settling back in nicely this spring and could be a wrecking ball for a Tech defense that's looking to make some major strides.
Could an immediate reinforcement be on the way for Florida State's re-tooling offensive line? This weekend may go a long way toward determining that.
Former Notre Dame center Matt Hegarty is visiting Tallahassee on Friday through Sunday, the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone reports. Hegarty confirmed his planned FSU visit to ESPN.com.
Hegarty started 11 of 13 games last year for the Fighting Irish, at center and at guard. He had told ESPN.com earlier this month that he planned to play football elsewhere upon receiving his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame this May. Hegarty will be immediately eligible to play wherever he ends up.
Hegarty had said that he was asked to switch positions, and Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that Hegarty would have had the opportunity to be the team's starting left guard. He is presumably looking to play center at his next stop, and that is one of several positions up for grabs on the Seminoles' offensive line, which lost four of five starters from last season.
Ryan Hoefield is currently the projected man in the middle of the Noles' line, though he struggled last season in limited action as a redshirt freshman.
As for who Hegarty or any other center would be snapping the ball to at FSU in 2015, well, that storyline figures to dominate the conversation throughout the spring and likely the summer.
Here are the rest of your Friday links:
- Grantland's Matt Hinton has an interesting article on all of the quarterback movement around the country, starting with former Clemson QB Chad Kelly, who is now at Ole Miss.
- Steve Addazio thinks Tyler Murphy is ready to take on the NFL as "an elite athlete," Mike Petraglia writes on WEEI.com.
- Former Georgia Tech safety Isaiah Johnson is gaining notice after pro day, Ken Suguira writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Malik Rosier stepped up Thursday in Brad Kaaya's absence (illness), Matt Porter writes in the Palm Beach Post.
- UNC's Twitter feed had some fun with a pair of ESPN personalities on #tbt.
- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly thinks Jameis Winston was the best QB in college football.
- Pitt started slow in its first spring practice with pads, but it ended with emotion, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Given that the quarterback of the defending national champs had just one career start under his belt when he took the field in Dallas in January, let's go ahead and acknowledge that experience isn't necessarily a necessity for a championship team these days. But it probably helps, and that brings us to the following statistical nuggets:
- [+] EnlargeGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Tar Heels will bring quarterback Marquise Williams and nine other starters on offense next season.
North Carolina's Marquise Williams is one of just seven Power 5 quarterbacks -- and the only ACC quarterback -- with at least 35 total touchdowns last season returning for 2015.
- North Carolina is one of just eight Power 5 teams -- and the only ACC team -- to return all five starters on the offensive line. The Heels actually bring back their entire two deep on the line.
- There are 16 returning receivers in the ACC who had at least 400 yards last season. Four of them play for North Carolina.
- North Carolina returns 100 percent of its rushing yards from last season. Virginia Tech and Pitt are the only other teams to bring back at least 85 percent.
- North Carolina returns 10 offensive starters overall. Only UCLA and Tennessee return as many among Power 5 teams. The Bruins lost their QB. Tennessee lost a lineman. UNC lost its tight end.
In other words, no team in the ACC -- and arguably, no team in the country -- is going to bring back as much talent on offense from last season than North Carolina. Given that the Heels ranked fifth in the ACC in total offense and 26th nationally in yards above opponent average (per Phil Steele) last season, that should have folks in Chapel Hill pretty darned excited.
In fact, it's not going too far out on a limb to predict North Carolina might have the ACC's best offense in 2015.
OK, OK, we know the obvious criticism. The media jumps on the UNC bandwagon every spring only to have the Tar Heels disappoint once the season begins. This is old news, and no statistical evidence is likely to create a lot of converts until Larry Fedora's crew wins some games in September. (He's 3-9 in the first halves of the last two seasons. Yikes.)
But just for fun, let's take a look at recent historical context.
From 2011 through 2013, there were 20 Power 5 conference teams that returned at least nine offensive starters the next season.
A few things to note about this group:
- Twenty teams accounts for about 10 percent of all Power 5 teams during that span, which is actually a little more than I expected. More interestingly, however, there are a whopping 16 teams from 2014 that are returning at least nine offensive starters for 2015, including UNC, Pitt, Wake Forest and NC State in the ACC. (Notre Dame, too, if you're counting the Irish as league members.)
- Many of these teams were really bad in Year 1 offensively. Eleven of the 20 averaged fewer than 370 yards per game. The Power 5 average during that span was 418. This shouldn't come as much surprise since, in order to return nine starters the next year, you have to be both young and not have stars departing early for the pros.
- North Carolina averaged 430 yards per game last season, which would've ranked as the eighth-best among the group we're looking at.
- So, with all that in mind, here's how the data stacked up for the 20 teams in our study.
What we find from looking at the numbers is that, for most teams bringing back nine or 10 offensive starters, there's a legitimate uptick in production.
On average, the group saw an 11 percent rise in yards-per-game and a 9 percent increase in yards-per-play. Individually, 16 of the 20 saw an increase in offensive production and five teams saw an increase of at least 20 percent. Only one team -- 2013 Nebraska -- had a noticeable dip in total offense, and that was likely a product of starting quarterback Taylor Martinez playing in just four games because of injuries.
It's probably fair to say then that North Carolina's offense, which was already good, has a strong chance to become great next season. Even if we simply apply the average of our group's offensive improvement (11 percent) to UNC, we can estimate the Heels should rack up about 477 yards of offense per game in 2015. Last year, Georgia Tech led the ACC at 476 yards per game.
Add in the fact that FSU loses a ton of offense, Clemson is replacing the bulk of its offensive line, and Georgia Tech lost 65 percent of its rushing yards from a year ago, and the case for North Carolina as the league's top offense in 2015 is compelling.
Of course, for the doubters, there are caveats here. Remember, Pitt returns most of its offense, too, and it actually averaged 6 yards per game more than UNC last year. And overall, 10 of the other 13 teams in the league bring back their quarterback, so there figures to be some offensive fireworks in 2015 in the ACC. Of course, there's that pesky North Carolina defense, which is the reason the Heels struggled so badly last season in the first place.
So we won't start predicting a Coastal title for the Heels just yet, but it's probably a fair guess to assume that offense will be a lot of fun to watch next year.
Boston College fans who'd been eagerly anticipating the team's annual spring game are probably a bit disappointed with news that the team has nixed the exhibition in favor of an open scrimmage. Most fans, on the other hand, probably aren't sure what the difference is regardless.
For the second time in three years, the Eagles have opted against holding a traditional spring game, a decision coach Steve Addazio explained as a necessity to get his team ready:
"These adjustments are meant to best serve our team," Addazio said in a statement released by the school. "We understand that our fans have received this information on short notice, but we know that ultimately they are dedicated to support us as we strive to win as many games as possible this coming season."
While the move comes a bit late in the spring for BC, the Eagles are hardly the only team making changes to their spring calendar.
Repairs to Kenan Stadium meant North Carolina had two separate spring "events" -- including one in Charlotte, North Carolina -- rather than a traditional spring game.
Last year, it was Pittsburgh cutting the spring game from its schedule as former coach Paul Chryst suggested more practice time benefited a young team.
In the big picture, it's easy to wonder why any of it matters in the first place.
Yes, there are some fans who enjoy the game — which is usually a chance to get an early look at the team for free. And some schools pack out the stadium for these spring exhibitions, too. But the vast majority of programs could probably add up the costs and benefits and come to the same conclusion Addazio has this year: There's just not much reward for the investment.
On the plus side, spring games are good recruiting tools, as Syracuse.com notes in its story about the hefty number of recruits planning to be on campus for the Orange's spring game this season. And more and more, these exhibitions are broadcast -- either online or on TV -- to give schools even more of a wide net for recruiting.
But for the players already on the field, the spring game isn't much help. Because it's played under game-like conditions, there's limited opportunity for coaches to work on nuanced issues. Because the crowd is in the stands, coaches typically water down the playbook and stick to vanilla schemes. And because of injury concerns, plenty of stars never take the field in the first place -- limiting depth and setting up the game as a showcase for walk-ons as much as next year's key players.
With practice time limited by NCAA rules and coaches forced to limit hands-on contact with players once spring practice ends, Addazio's plan to maximize his opportunities to get his team better makes a lot more sense from a practical standpoint. And for the fans, the rare spring-game highlight probably doesn't make up for the often monotonous conditions that drain any drama from the exhibition.
Certainly there could be tweaks made to improve the spring games — whether it be playing other teams or adding some celebrity entertainment value — but really, these are relics that seem unnecessary at best and wastes of time and money at worst. So don't be too surprised if Addazio's plan becomes the norm at more than a few schools moving forward.
A few more links:
- Tomahawk Nation takes a look at Florida State's linebacking situation this spring, noting that Matthew Thomas could be a key for the Seminoles' defense.
- USA Today writes that Sean Maguire remains the frontrunner to replace Jameis Winston as FSU's starting QB.
- Clemson's Dabo Swinney was the target of some of John Oliver's NCAA-related ire on his show "Last Week Tonight," as Yahoo! notes.
- With Virginia set to open spring practice Tuesday, Demetrious Nicholson is making a long-awaited return to work, writes the Daily Progress.
- The Roanoke Times takes a deeper look at Virginia Tech's young receiving corps with an eye toward 2015.
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:
Off a thoroughly impressive performance at the NFL combine, Beasley turned heads once again at Clemson's Pro Day on Thursday. Though he did not run or lift, Beasley showed the record 72 team reps that he can also play linebacker, too. Beasley did not look out of place doing linebacker drills with two more established Tigers -- Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
Though he starred at defensive end at Clemson, Beasley projects as an outside linebacker on the next level because of his size and pass rush ability.
Beasley told reporters afterward, "I came out here with the right mind set and I wanted to show these teams that I can play in space and drop back as a linebacker," Beasley said.
There was an all-star group in attendance to watch Beasley and his former teammates. New England coach Bill Belichick, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and Buffalo coach Rex Ryan were all there. All 32 NFL teams were represented.
latest mock draft, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Beasley going No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons. Kiper writes:
Beasley isn't just an athletic freak because he's been a one-man production line at Clemson, with 44.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He can flat out create disruption and get to the quarterback, and that's exactly what Atlanta needs.
Beasley is one of nine ACC players Kiper has in the first round:
1. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
8. Beasley, Atlanta
14. DeVante Parker, Miami
19. Ereck Flowers, Cleveland
21. Eli Harold, Cincinnati
23. Eddie Goldman, Detroit
27. Kevin Johnson, Dallas
28. Cameron Erving, Denver
29. T.J. Clemmings, Indianapolis
Elsewhere around the ACC:
- Clemson's defense doesn't want to take a backseat to anybody.
- Former Duke standout Laken Tomlinson wants to be a neurosurgeon when his playing career is over.
- A murder allegation has divided a town and sidelined the career of Brian Bell, who had his scholarship from Florida State pulled before signing day.
- Florida State running back Ryan Green is moving to cornerback.
- New York Times reporter Juliet Macur details the devastating story of former North Carolina offensive lineman Ryan Hoffman, now homeless. He blames too many hits to the head during his football career.
- Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigham is looking forward to his chance at redemption, after he says he wasted his junior year.
- Virginia will convert backup quarterback Brendan Marshall to tight end.
- Good news for Virginia Tech: Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson had their medical hardship waivers approved.
- Bonus link! I am very disappointed to live in Orlando right now.
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.”
David Hale: Last year, you talked a lot about how young your team was. Now those guys have a year of experience under their belts, can you tell a major difference?
Larry Fedora: It's interesting because as we talked about through our [morning] workouts, the guys who were struggling were always the newcomers who just entered school and the freshmen who hadn't been through the offseason workouts. The other guys are veterans. I see those guys have experience, they're comfortable, they're not feeling their way. They understand the expectation level and the amount of energy and work we're asking for them.
Fedora: In our whole team -- not just the defense. The entire team is excited about it, and the new guys on that defensive side of the ball -- they're just really, really excited about the new blood and basically starting from scratch with that.
Hale: How big of a transition from the previous system to Chizik's do you expect?
Fedora: I don't think there'll be a whole lot of carryover. It'll be quite a bit of newness for them, and that's one of the things they're excited about. Everybody has a clean slate and everybody gets to build their resume on a daily basis, from the time they step on campus.
Hale: Given the up-tempo style you run on offense, were you looking for a guy who could tailor a defense around that?
Fedora: For me, it was about finding the best defensive coordinator there is. A guy who could come in and I could turn it over and not be worried about what's going on on that side of the ball. Gene is obviously a proven defensive coordinator, who has had success everywhere he's been. That was an easy decision for me. The tempo and the amount of plays we run were not a factor for me.
Hale: How did the hire come about?
Fedora: After the season was over, I started looking into people. Gene was a guy I'd always had on my list, and I think a lot of people, it surprised them because Gene was working in TV at the time. But he's a guy I knew eventually would want to get back in, and I was hoping we were the right time and place for him. And we were.
Hale: What do you see as the biggest challenges for Chizik this spring?
Fedora: One of the things is we had two hybrid positions. Our bandits were a defensive end/linebacker that could rush and drop into coverage. We have to make a decision with those guys whether they're going to linebacker or D-end, and some of them are kind of 'tweeners, because that's what we were recruiting for. Same thing with our ram position. Those guys were safeties/linebackers. We have to find out where they're going to fit best also. There'll be some issues recruiting-wise we have to do to correct those things and recruit toward the philosophy where we're going now.
Hale: You probably want to make some quick decisions there to get guys into the weight room to prep for those new roles, right?
Fedora: Right. Some guys we've already talked about we need to add some weight, some need to drop some weight. But at the same time, Gene has to find where's the best fit for those guys. Where are they going to help us the most? Then we have to mold the defense and the system around what these guys can do because, no matter what, this is who's playing for us, and we've got to get the most out of them.
Hale: Last year, you didn't want to name Williams as your starting QB in the spring, but he turned in arguably the best statistical season of any ACC QB when the season began. How has your opinion of him changed?
Fedora: Marquise is our starting quarterback. That doesn't mean -- we still want competition. But he comes back as a starter in that position. We're still going to have somebody try to push him, but I think Marquise played very well last year, and we need to get him where he's completely healthy and playing at a high level consistently throughout the entire season.
Hale: You got some criticism for playing backup Mitch Trubisky a lot early in the season. Looking back, was that the right decision?
Fedora: I would not have changed the way we did that. It still benefited both players and benefited our team. If you go all the way into the Virginia game, it was a fourth-down call and on third down, Marquise's helmet got knocked off. Mitch came in and threw a touchdown pass on fourth down. If he hadn't had those reps, who knows? You always want your guys prepared. I think the way we did it last year was really good -- for Marquise, for Mitch and for our football team.
Hale: How much has Mitch improved?
Fedora: I think Mitch progressed throughout the entire year. He got better as we went and is doing a good job right now. He knows he's a play away.
Hale: The other big issue for you last season was on the offensive line, where you were especially young. Could that become an area of strength this season?
Fedora: We struggled. I don't mean to put everything on the offensive line, but being young, there were some games we were able to run the ball more effectively, and some we weren't, and a lot of that had to do with the youth up front. When you're trying to develop that many young kids, it's tough. When you're in the trenches, it's hard to play when you're really young. As far as the way those guys developed all year, I'm excited going into the spring. They all have experience. They're still developing, but they're not going to be wide-eyed. They're going to know what to do and I think you'll see them start to really excel up front.
But it's a rather off-the-radar former ACC player who has experienced a rapid rise in the early months of pre-draft evaluation: Kevin Johnson.
The former Wake Forest cornerback drew representatives from 23 NFL teams Monday to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for his pro day, and he has little doubt about about his abilities.
"I think I'm the best cornerback," Johnson said, according to our David Newton.
Newton, who covers the Carolina Panthers, says Carolina could be in the hunt for a corner like Johnson in the first round with the No. 25 pick. Another team with interest appears to be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who sent a league-high four reps to Wake Forest.
In his most recent mock draft, Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay has Johnson going 14th overall, to the Miami Dolphins.
Johnson rested on his Combine numbers Monday -- namely a 4.52 40-yard dash -- and both he and Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson believe that Johnson can be a shutdown corner at the next level despite notching just one interception this past fall.
"He's a tall corner that can run," Clawson said. "And he has the loosest, quickest hips of anybody I've ever seen."
Here are the rest of your Tuesday links:
- The Orlando Sentinel's Matt Murschel takes a look at ACC QB battles to watch this spring.
- The (Charleston) Post and Courier's Aaron Brenner looks at Clemson's to-do list this spring.
- Miami has added corner Terrance Henley to its 2015 class, Matt Porter writes in the Palm Beach Post.
- North Carolina has made the hiring of DBs coach Charlton Warren official.
- Pat Narduzzi and Pittsburgh embrace being the tough guys on the block, Paul Myerberg writes in USA Today.
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.
Duke got an early start on its spring season again this year, hoping to keep the momentum going from another strong campaign this past fall. And if Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, the Blue Devils' defense is ahead of the offense at this point.
“The defense definitely won,” defensive tackle Carlos Wray said, according to the (Raleigh) News & Observer's Laura Keeley. “They got behind the sticks (tackled for loss), they didn’t convert a fourth down, they missed the two-point conversion, which is what we call a game-winner, and the referees deemed that the pass over in the left corner of the end zone was incomplete, which gave us the W."
With construction taking place at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke had only a 25-minute scrimmage, which followed 90 minutes of drills. And the results could very well turn out to be a pleasant surprise for a team that has won 19 games these past two seasons.
As colleague David Hale wrote last week, defensive line has been the one big missing piece for the Blue Devils these past two seasons. Wray is the only returning starter to the defensive line in 2015, but the continued growth and development of the unit is a positive sign.
Defensive tackle A.J. Wolf was honored as most improved defensive player this spring, sharing the distinction with defensive back Alonzo Saxton II. Offensively, receiver Terrence Alls and tackle Gabe Brander earned the accolades. Corner Jamie Cockey earned the Blue Devil Heart Award.
Saturday was Duke's 11th practice this spring.
Here are the rest of your Monday links:
- UNC will be without Marquise Williams for spring practice due to a hip injury, our Andrea Adelson writes.
- Bobby Swigert is back for BC after two years and 11 surgeries, Eric Avidon writes in the MetroWest Daily News.
- Dabo Swinney vows to fix Clemson's red-zone offense this spring, Aaron Brenner writes in the (Charleston) Post and Courier.
- Former Georgia Tech guard Shaq Mason is learning how to play center before the NFL draft, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Conditioning drills at 5:30 a.m. have given Pitt players chances to make first impressions with new coach Pat Narduzzi, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- Condolences to the Notre Dame family on the passing of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh.
1. Jimbo Fisher
Intrigue: Fisher won a national title in 2013 and took FSU to the College Football Playoff last year, but now he’ll be presiding over an offense without Jameis Winston. Finding his next quarterback will be job No. 1, and it also figures to be the most discussed storyline of the spring. Winston set a standard that no one is likely to match, but J.J. Cosentino and Sean Maguire will do battle to get a chance to try. Adding more pressure to the decision, Fisher will also need to find four new starters on the O-line and replace the most prolific receiver and tight end in program history.
Possible impact: There’s no such thing as rebuilding in Tallahassee. The expectation is for Florida State to reload. But is that realistic this year? The defense was already a concern, and four underclassmen have left for the NFL draft. Meanwhile, the offense won’t be there to cover up many mistakes this time around, and Fisher’s ability to develop his inexperienced QBs and find the right man for the job will likely be the biggest differentiator between a fourth straight ACC title for Florida State or making that 29-game winning streak a distant memory.
2. Deshaun Watson
Role: Quarterback, Clemson
Intrigue: There are no more questions about how good Watson will be, how well he’ll acclimate himself to the college game or what could be in store for the Tigers once he gets on the field. As a freshman in 2014, he provided resounding answers to those concerns. Now, it’s a matter of whether the future star can simply stay on the field. He suffered three different injuries that cost him time last year, and he’s now rehabbing an ACL tear this offseason. Add to the intrigue, Watson said goodbye to coordinator Chad Morris -- the man who recruited him to Clemson -- after Morris took the head coaching job at SMU.
Possible impact: Last year was a rebuilding season on offense for Clemson, but the Tigers identified a host of young talent, including Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman and Mike Williams. But Watson was the key ingredient, and when he was on the field, the Tigers were difficult to slow down. The ACL injury ended his season before the bowl game, but he’ll also have nine months to rehab before the 2015 season begins. If he’s at 100 percent or close to it, Clemson could easily have the most dangerous offense in the ACC.
3. Al Golden
Role: Head coach, Miami
Intrigue: It’s been four years at Miami for Golden, and patience is wearing thin among the fan base. The front-level talent on the roster has been solid, but depth and consistency have been hard to come by. Last year’s team fell apart down the stretch, and the Canes are now just 8-11 since starting the 2013 season with seven straight wins. It may well be now or never for Golden to get Miami back into the national conversation.
Possible impact: With Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby and a host of talented young offensive players, Miami has weapons. But there’s also a ton of talent walking out the door from last year’s squad that finished 6-7. If all the chips fall into place, Miami has a shot to win its first ACC Coastal title and take the heat off its head coach, but it certainly seems like the Canes might have been better positioned to do that in each of the past two seasons and couldn’t finish the job.
4. Gene Chizik
Role: Defensive coordinator, North Carolina
Intrigue: Just five years removed from coaching a national champion at Auburn, Chizik takes over the ACC’s worst defense with a huge job ahead of him. Last year, North Carolina allowed at least 30 points in nine games and finished last in the ACC in both rushing and pass defense. Chizik has coached up his share of exceptional defenses, however, and if anyone is capable of reshaping what’s been a dismal unit for the Heels, it’s him.
Possible impact: Chizik will completely revamp the scheme, and the spring will be about identifying which players are best equipped for his new defense. If the scheme takes root quickly, UNC has a strong offense and more returning starters than any team in the ACC. It seems like every year, the Heels get some preseason love as a possible Coastal favorite, only to disappoint. But with Chizik in the fold, this could potentially be the year UNC finally pulls it all together.
5. Brent Venables
Role: Defensive coordinator, Clemson
Intrigue: Venables took over Clemson’s D in 2012 and the unit improved every year, culminating with a No. 1 ranking nationally in total defense in 2014. But now the foundation of that rebuilding project are moving on, and Venables will be looking for replacements for departing stars like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony.
Possible impact: Venables knew this day would come, of course, and he’s made a habit of getting his backups plenty of snaps. Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins and others have seen plenty of action, and the secondary already promises to be sensational. If Venables can manage the transition, Clemson has an exceptional chance to be the best team in the ACC in 2015.
Though he had never worked with Gene Chizik, the two competed against each other at various stops throughout their careers. Fedora the offensive coordinator, going against Chizik, the defensive coordinator.
Fedora had no idea whether Chizik would even listen. Chizik had settled into a role as a television and radio analyst and had no plans to leave his job. But when the phone rang, Chizik listened long and hard. He missed football. He missed coaching. He missed game planning. He missed being around the players.
“It took a while,” Chizik said in a recent phone interview. “It was not something that I just overnight said, ‘Oh yeah.’ My family is extremely important to me, so this was a big leap of faith for me in terms of family situation because it’s the first time I’ve ever been away from them. I was a little apprehensive at first just because I didn’t want to be away from them.
“That was probably the most challenging part of this and that’s why it took me a while to work through that in my mind, but in the end this was a great move. I’m happy. We’ve got great kids, and I like being a part of the competition part of football again. I missed that.”
Chizik has plenty to keep him busy when spring practice opens Sunday. North Carolina got progressively worse in the first three seasons under Fedora, until it reached a low point last season -- ending as one of the worst defenses in ACC history. North Carolina ranked last in the league in scoring defense (39 points per game), rushing defense (240.5 ypg) and total defense (497.8 ypg).
Fedora does not have an easy explanation for why the Tar Heels defense failed to deliver under Vic Koenning. The two sides mutually parted ways before the bowl game. Koenning is now defensive coordinator at Troy.
“There was too much inconsistency,” Fedora said. “There were games we played well on defense, and there were a lot of games we didn’t play well on defense. I just felt like a change was needed to infuse some new blood on that side of that ball and to start over philosophy-wise.”
The philosophy change means North Carolina will now run a 4-3 base defense, requiring personnel shifts from linebackers and safeties. The new defensive staff has spent the time since they arrived evaluating tape, and watching players during their morning “Blue Dawn” workouts to determine who will fit best where.
But in addition to that, Chizik has to work on changing the mentality of a defense that gave up way too many big plays over the last three years. There was tough talk involved when he met with his players for the first time.
“I said, ‘Low expectations will never survive high standards,’” Chizik said. “We’re not coming down to anybody’s lower expectations. These are the standards that we set. If your expectations are lower than that, then you’re not going to play or you won’t be here. One or the other.
“To play in this defense, there are three things that are going to happen: Number one, you’re going to be selfless. Two, you’re going to be tough. Three, you’re going to be disciplined,” Chizik said. “If you’re not all three of those, you probably don’t have a good chance of playing for us.”
Chizik has gotten results out of his defenses at all of his stops, the biggest reason why Fedora wanted him on board. “He sees the opportunity and the potential for what this defense can be here and that we’re very close to being a Coastal Division champion,” Fedora said. “We just need to push a little bit harder to get over that hump.”
Can the defensive transformation happen right away?
“I did my homework in regards to trying to dissect why the success they had envisioned wasn’t necessarily happening, and I feel good that we can come in here and get things changed around and revamped,” Chizik said. “When I evaluated everything, I saw we’ve got a chance to be a good defense.”
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.