ACC: North Carolina Tar Heels

While Big Ten and other NCAA officials discuss rules limiting eligibility for first-year players in football and men’s basketball, ACC football coaches are nearly unanimous in wanting to move in the opposite direction.

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.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDavid Cutcliffe coaches at a school known for stellar academics, and he doesn't see a need to restrict freshman eligibility.
“My case study is watching young people, and the people who do redshirt that had been stars really struggle with their identity and happiness,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who has 33 years of experience coaching in the SEC and ACC.

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.”

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonNorth Carolina's Larry Fedora and other coaches would certainly want to ease the 85-scholarship limit if freshmen weren't eligible.
Instead, coaches pointed to two distinct areas that could address academic concerns without eliminating eligibility.

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.”
Perhaps no ACC team has as much intrigue this spring as North Carolina, which brought in Gene Chizik to revamp the defense and will go to battle without starting QB Marquise Williams, who is out for the spring with a hip injury. To get a feel for where the Heels are at, we talked with coach Larry Fedora about some of the biggest spring storylines.

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.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeCoach Larry Fedora, who guided the Tar Heels to a 6-7 overall record last season, enters spring practices with a new coordinator and more experienced players.
Hale: Obviously bringing Chizik in changes a lot on defense. Have you seen a palpable sense of excitement from the D with him on board?
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.

ACC morning links

March, 3, 2015
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There has been no shortage of talk about ACC players in the lead-up to the NFL Draft. Look no further than the debate over the first pick, which currently looks to be leaning in the favor of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The former Heisman Trophy winner filed a trademark for "Famous Jameis," our Darren Rovell reported Monday, putting himself in position to capitalize on a nickname that has followed him from early on during his career with the Seminoles.

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."

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The contrast at quarterback in the ACC between this spring and last spring is pretty easy to quantify.

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.
Spring football is off and running at several ACC schools, with many more set to kick things off in the coming days and weeks. There is no shortage of storylines throughout the league, but here are the questions that stand out above all else:

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.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPat Narduzzi spent the past eight seasons as Michigan State's defensive coordinator.
4. What does Narduzzi bring to Pitt? There is just one new head coach in the ACC this time around. And, once again, he resides in the Steel City. Pat Narduzzi is the fourth different head coach to open a spring in Pittsburgh since 2010, but he walks into a pretty good situation. The Panthers boast junior studs in James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense, and Narduzzi's defensive roots should prove valuable to a Panthers unit that struggled down the stretch last season.

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.

ACC morning links

March, 2, 2015
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Spring is more than two weeks away. Spring practices have yet to begin at a number of schools across the country. But in Durham, the main event of spring football has already come and gone.

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.

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ACC's most intriguing Nos. 1-5

February, 27, 2015
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We’re still 26 long weeks away from the start of the 2015 season, but there promises to be plenty of twists and turns for ACC teams before the action kicks off. While some of the drama will come as a surprise, there are a number of key figures around the ACC that are already big stories. With that in mind, we’re counting down the 25 most intriguing figures in the conference this offseason -- from players to coaches to administrators -- and digging into the impact they might make on how 2015 unfolds once the games finally begin. Last up, Nos. 1 through 5.

1. Jimbo Fisher

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Orlando Sentinel via Getty ImagesThe loss of numerous impact players on offense will likely test Florida State's Jimbo Fisher in 2015.
Role: Head coach, Florida State

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.
When the time came for North Carolina coach Larry Fedora to make defensive staff changes, he figured he would try the biggest long shot on his list of potential hires.

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.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
AP Photo/Dave MartinNorth Carolina brought in Gene Chizik in hopes that he can revive a defense that ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense.
Still, this was no slam-dunk decision. Not with twin daughters set to graduate from high school in Auburn, Alabama, in 2016. Chizik consulted with his family, and they all determined the defensive coordinator job was a good one for him to take. He would move to North Carolina; his wife and kids would stay in Alabama until the girls graduated. In between, they plan on seeing each other as often as their schedules allow.

“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.”

ACC morning links

February, 27, 2015
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Athlon put together a list of 20 running backs on the rise for 2015, and it’s an ACC-heavy club.

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:

The 2015 ACC Oscars

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
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Congratulations to “Birdman” and all of the winners from Sunday night’s Oscars, and thank you for the intriguing undercard leading up to this afternoon. That is when we release the highly anticipated ACC Oscars, which pays homage to the greatest films and on-field thespians from the 2014 football season.

So as not to overlap with the end-of-the-season ACC awards, these ACC Oscars categories are, for the most part, based on single-game performances. So, while Pittsburgh’s James Conner played the lead role in the league from August to November, it doesn’t guarantee he will go home with any hardware Monday.

Without further ado, let’s open the envelopes.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston saved his best game of the season for the ACC title game, throwing for 309 yards and three touchdowns.
Actor: Florida State QB Jameis Winston vs. Georgia Tech
Coming off one of his worst performances of his career, there was talk of whether Winston would be able to lift the Seminoles past 10-2 Georgia Tech in the ACC title game and into the inaugural College Football Playoff. The week prior, Winston tossed four interceptions against Florida and had an 87.92 rating. He had arguably his best game of the season against the Yellow Jackets, though, in a bounce-back performance. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns in a two-point win. Every toss was on target, and the Seminoles had the right momentum heading into the playoff.

Supporting actor: Louisville safety Gerod Holliman vs. Boston College
Holliman wasn’t a nationally known name among college football fans, which puts him in the supporting actor category. As far as defensive backs, however, Holliman did not play second fiddle to anyone in the ACC. He showed why against the Eagles. He picked off Tyler Murphy on the first play of the game, and he hauled in two more errant Murphy throws in the fourth quarter as the Eagles tried a comeback.

Director: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables vs. Oklahoma
If there were still any doubters about the Clemson defense before the bowl game, Venables converted them against Oklahoma. The Tigers’ defense was pitching a shutout until late in the fourth quarter, and the unit kept Oklahoma to just 275 yards of total offense in a 40-6 blowout. That performance sparked the Tigers to the No. 1 total defense unit in 2014, and it really was not all that close.

Best picture: The fourth-down play(s) in Notre Dame at Florida State
It looked as if the Seminoles’ playoff hopes were dashed in the final seconds against the Fighting Irish. On a play similar to one the Irish ran in the first half, Everett Golson threw a go-ahead touchdown on fourth down from the FSU 3-yard line with 13 seconds remaining. However, the rare offensive pass interference was called, a decision Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly berated for the next week. Now backed up to the 18-yard line, Golson threw for the end zone but was intercepted. The Irish had a chance to win the game late because earlier on the drive on a fourth-and-18 play, Golson scrambled and found an open receiver, who had to work for the final few yards to get the first down.

Costume design: North Carolina.
I’m a fan of the Carolina blue, so any uniform combination that incorporates that blue hue is going to rule this category. Whether it’s the more traditional UNC uniform or some of the newer looks with the black, the Carolina colors and wardrobe is usually spot on.

[+] EnlargeDeVante Parker
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsDeVante Parker amassed 43 catches and 855 receiving yards in just six games.
Short film: Louisville WR DeVante Parker
After suffering a broken left foot during the preseason, Parker did not haul in his first reception of the season until Oct. 18. He finished that game with nine catches for 132 yards. It turned out that it was one of his worst games of the season as his 14.67 yards per catch average was the lowest of the season. He tallied more than 100 receiving yards five times and caught at least eight passes four times. Against Florida State, he broke the 200-yard mark. In six games, Parker finished with 43 catches for 855 yards and five scores.

Original screenplay: The 2014 Florida State season
This past season for the Seminoles can definitely be considered original. There were not too many seasons like it before and there likely won’t be too many more. It began with the reigning national champions returning some of their most important pieces for a second title run. Shortly after spring practice ended, though, Winston was cited for shoplifting seafood from a grocery store. In the summer, receiver Jesus Wilson was charged with stealing a scooter. Then the season began and the Seminoles had close call after close call. In between was Winston screaming an obscene phrase and being suspended against Clemson, questions whether Winston received money for autographs, the Winston Title IX investigation into an alleged sexual assault and running back Karlos Williams being investigated for a domestic incident. The wins kept piling up, and so did the critics -- about FSU’s play and its handling of off-field issues. The Seminoles still finished undefeated and made the inaugural playoff, but they were blown out in the Rose Bowl.

Visual effects: NC State QB Jacoby Brissett's scrambling touchdown pass vs. Florida State
Looking to expand on their lead over No. 1 FSU at the end of the first quarter, Brissett took a third-down snap and was immediately pressured on a blitz. He spun out of a sack in the pocket and was flushed right. He then gave a stiff arm to a defensive lineman that caused his helmet to pop off, and just as Brissett was about to step out of bounds he fluttered a pass across his body for an 8-yard touchdown to give the Wolfpack a 24-7 lead.

video
Sound editing: FSU coach Jimbo Fisher after defeating rival Florida 24-19 to finish the regular season undefeated.
Criticized for close wins all season long and sitting behind two one-loss teams in the College Football Playoff rankings, Fisher reminded the selection committee and fans that, ultimately, the goal of football is to win. In his on-field, postgame interview, Fisher said “The object of the game is to win. It’s not figure skating.”
When Dave Clawson took the head-coaching job at Wake Forest last year, he knew it would be a massive rebuilding project Insider. His roster lacked any experienced talent at the offensive skill positions. His offensive line was woefully undersized. His recruiting base was dominated by bigger schools, spending more money. There was, he believed, a plan to turn Wake into a winner, but it would be a long and treacherous road. When the Demon Deacons finished 1-7 in ACC play in 2014, most chalked it up as a surprisingly successful first step.

When Jimbo Fisher took over for legendary Bobby Bowden at Florida State in 2010, the path to rebuilding a winner wasn’t nearly as tough. The Seminoles had tradition and money and a passionate alumni base, and once Fisher got the right staff in place he made an instant impact on the recruiting trail and won a division title in his first season. Still, by the time he finished the 2012 campaign with FSU’s first ACC championship in seven years, a vocal contingent of the fan base remained dubious that Fisher was the right man for the job. They’d hoped for more, and a 12-2 record was labeled something of a disappointment.

[+] EnlargeDave Clawson
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsIs Dave Clawson's job at Wake Forest tougher than Jimbo Fisher's at Florida State? Depends on your perspective.
Pinpointing the toughest coaching job in the ACC is really a matter of semantics. At Wake, resources are thin but expectations are modest. A coach gets time to build. At Florida State, there are ample tools to create a juggernaut, but the fan base doesn’t accept excuses when winning doesn’t come quickly. The difficulty of the job is really in the eye of the beholder.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for debate between those two counterpoints, too.

David Cutcliffe took over a Duke program that had spent the previous 15 years as one of the worst teams in the FBS, but he slowly rebuilt the on-field product, pushed for more investment and led the charge for stadium upgrades and now the Blue Devils have played in three straight bowl games. What was once universally considered one of the toughest jobs in college football now looks like a pretty cushy gig.

At Miami, Al Golden is living the alternate side of that story. The Hurricanes were a powerhouse for two decades, but, after an extended dry spell marred by an NCAA investigation, piecing together a consistent winner at Miami has proved to be an arduous project. The Canes have brought in talent, including potentially three first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft, but Golden has just a .500 record in ACC play to show for it, and the fan base is understandably restless.

Places such as Syracuse and Boston College have rich football traditions, but geography makes recruiting a tougher task. North Carolina and Virginia have resources and more fertile recruiting bases, but they’ve combined for just three ACC titles since 1980, and none in the past 20 years.

Deciding on the ACC’s toughest job is really about where the line between expectations and opportunity converge. At places such as Wake and Syracuse, no doubt more legwork is required to simply get to a bowl game. At Florida State and Miami, finding the talent is easy but meeting the lofty expectations that come with it can be a challenge.

It’s fair to say most coaches would prefer the latter problem, of course, and there’s a reason FSU is a destination job while Syracuse is more likely a place to get fired or a steppingstone to a better gig. But sometimes it’s simply about finding the right fit. Cutcliffe has said he hopes never to leave Duke -- a job most coaches would’ve run from screaming a decade ago. Meanwhile, Dabo Swinney has led Clemson to four straight 10-win seasons, but when he was rumored to be a candidate for the Florida job in December, he didn’t deny he might someday move on from Death Valley for the right opportunity elsewhere. The best jobs are often a matter of perspective, too.

In the end, a great coach finds a way to mine for resources, even in less fertile areas. He wins enough that expectations climb, even in places where winning had been an afterthought for years. At Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer is an institution -- the man responsible for building the program over the course of three decades. That success helped him snag a top-25 recruiting class this year, and it also has the fan base up in arms after three straight subpar seasons.

In other words, it’s not as much about the job as it is about the coach. Clawson hasn’t shied away from the task at hand. Instead, he has embraced the difficulty of winning at Wake Forest. And one year after Fisher was criticized for failing to meet expectations in 2012, he won a national title at Florida State with one of the most dominant teams in recent history.

Every job has its challenges, but the right coach finds a way to meet them regardless.

ACC morning links

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
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Over the last five NFL drafts, the ACC has the second-most picks (169), second only to the SEC. Based on the showings of several players from the ACC at the NFL combine over the weekend, the conference has a chance at a half-dozen first-round picks in 2015, if not more.

Former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was the most anticipated combine participant from the ACC since, well, last year. The 2013 Heisman Trophy winner opened his news conference with reporters admitting he made mistakes at FSU, but he reportedly impressed several teams during his interviews -- with both his answers to questions about his past and his football intellect in whiteboard sessions. It's hardly a surprise Winston excelled, as he has lost a public speaking engagement about as often as he lost games.

Winston was spectacular as a passer Insider and left no doubt his skill set translates well to the NFL.

While Winston stole the headlines, there were several other former ACC stars who improved their draft stocks as well. Former Clemson defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley was the big winner Sunday, putting together one of the best performances for a linebacker. There has been talk that Beasley is a fringe NFL defensive end and fringe NFL linebacker. Beasley added weight and measured at 246 pounds, but he did it while keeping his athleticism and speed. He ran a 4.53 40-yard dash and benched 225 pounds 35 times, which were tops among both defensive linemen and linebackers. According to Clemson's athletic department, no linebacker has done that since NFL.com began listing combine results in 2006.

Former Virginia defensive end Eli Harold, like Beasley, is looked at as a hybrid, too. He posted a 4.60 in the 40-yard dash. Mario Edwards Jr., formerly of Florida State, showed he could also play two positions: defensive end and defensive tackle.

The 6-foot-3, 209-pound DeVante Parker, formerly of Louisville, made a case to be the top receiver taken with a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash.

Once again, Apr. 30 could be a solid showing for the ACC.

Here are a few more links for your Monday.

ACC morning links

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
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Athlon Sports' David Fox took on the fun task of ranking the ACC's football/men's basketball coaching duos, and it should come as little surprise to see Duke at the top.

David Cutcliffe has turned around the culture of Blue Devil football, leading his team to three straight bowl games and winning multiple national coach of the year awards in 2013. His hardwood counterpart, of course, is arguably the greatest to ever walk the collegiate sidelines, Mike Krzyzewski.

The real debate comes after the top, as Fox has Louisville and Notre Dame at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. While the jury may still be out on Bobby Petrino's redemption tour after Year 1 back with the Cardinals, his success is likely enough to help lift the Cards to the No. 2 spot, considering Hall of Famer Rick Pitino is his counterpart. The Irish have a nice showing as well, as Brian Kelly is easily the school's best football coach since Lou Holtz and Mike Brey has turned the hoops squad into a consistent tournament team, after years of mediocrity before his arrival.

The legitimacy of the rest of the list is really in the eye of the beholder, especially given the cyclical nature of the ACC's football and men's basketball programs. I, for one, can easily see Virginia Tech moving up from No. 6 in the near future if Frank Beamer can turn things around on the gridiron. And Buzz Williams was definitely a home run hire this year for the hoops program.

I'd probably move No. 11 Clemson a few spots up, and No. 8 Syracuse and No. 10 Pitt could certainly see their profiles grow if their relatively new football coaches can make names for themselves to go with Jim Boeheim and Jamie Dixon.

I'd also put stock in 15th-place Wake Forest, which is in Year 1 of both the Dave Clawson and Danny Manning eras. The Demon Deacons have shown early signs in both regimes that they don't plan on going away quietly, regardless of their limitations.

Here are the rest of your Friday links:

UNC puts dismal season in the past

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
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After an uninspired bowl performance punctuated a disappointing season, several North Carolina players lashed out in frustration, describing a locker room divided between players who cared, and players who did not.

In the aftermath, coach Larry Fedora held a team meeting when the players returned to campus following winter break. He asked each player and coach to write down what he thought the biggest problems were on the 2014 team. Then he asked them to discuss in one big, group vent session.

“I wanted to make sure every guy in that room had a voice, that every guy in that room got to say what he believed the problem was, and there was a variety of problems,” Fedora said in a telephone interview with ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeLarry Fedora's team needed to resolve it's issues from 2014 before it could turn the page to next season.
Fedora declined to discuss the specific problems that were addressed, but admitted the team had issues to resolve before it could look ahead to 2015.

“Any time you don’t have success, it magnifies the issues that you have,” he said. “It was very important we talk about them, and recognize the problems and the issues that each guy on the team felt like we had, and then we felt it was very important to own those problems and try to recognize what caused those problems, so they don’t happen in the future.

“There were some guys that were very frustrated at the end of the season and rightly so because we weren’t playing the type of ball we needed to be playing.

North Carolina went into 2014 as favorites to win the Coastal Division. But instead, the Tar Heels finished 6-7 and ended up with one of the worst defenses in school history. They were maddeningly inconsistent. Example: They showed up big against Duke, but failed to show against NC State the following week.

“I’m responsible for the whole thing, so I had to own all the problems that all our players and staff felt like we had last year,” Fedora said. “I was not successful last year. But I owned all those problems and put them to bed and we’re moving forward trying to make sure we don’t have those same problems this year.”

Fedora made big changes to his defensive coaching staff as a big step toward fixing the biggest on-field issues. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik is in as defensive coordinator, leaving his job as a television and radio broadcaster for a shot to revitalize a talented but underachieving group.

Former Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis has also joined the staff. Fedora also has reportedly hired former Nebraska assistant Charlton Warren, and could be losing defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to Notre Dame.

North Carolina will switch to a base 4-3 defense, hoping that alignment will provide better results. The Tar Heels return 10 starters on offense, so if the defense shows improvement, North Carolina could be a team to watch. Plus, Fedora believes the vent session lifted a weight off his players. "It was really good for everybody," he said. "We worked through all those issues, and I think they’re just excited about getting started again in this new year.”

Will a new year mean heightened expectations but disappointing results? This team must prove it knows how to play -- and win -- consistently. That has not been the case the last two seasons. A unified locker room and defensive staff changes are two major steps toward getting there.

“I don’t know what everybody on the outside world is going to think,” Fedora said. “I know inside, we believe we have the ability to win the Coastal Division and that’s going to be our goal for this upcoming year.”

ACC morning links

February, 18, 2015
Feb 18
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This may be the offseason, but nobody is off in college football.

As proof, schools have taken to social media to show us exactly what their players are up to.

Clemson posted a video on its Instagram account showing a 5:30 a.m. workout.

#ALLIN #Clemson

A video posted by Clemson Football (@clemsonfb) on



At North Carolina, Blue Dawn is back -- the catchy phrase given to early conditioning workouts under Larry Fedora.



Wake Forest and Syracuse had their players up before dark, too. Syracuse even tagged its tweets #6AM.



Meanwhile, Pitt offensive line coach John Peterson reminded everybody via Twitter that players were set to begin their mat drills early Wednesday morning.

Of course, a few teams already have opened spring practice. Miami became the latest Tuesday. Though the practice was closed, quarterback Brad Kaaya told The Miami Herald in an interview last week that his main goal is to make sure he is leading a united team. There are now signs in the Miami locker room that read, "Cliques Kill."

Though nobody inside Miami has gone into much detail about team chemistry last season, dealing with a fractured locker room may help explain some of the issues the Hurricanes encountered toward the end of the season. It is not too difficult to read between the lines in the Kaaya comments to understand the team was splintered. This quote says it all: “You can’t have guys being outliers and kind of keeping to themselves or saying things under their breath. ... I feel like at times last year it was an offense and defense playing against our opponent, as opposed to the Miami Hurricanes playing against them."

Miami, it seems, has more than X's and O's to figure out.

Elsewhere across the ACC:

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