ACC: Pittsburgh Panthers

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:

ACC's most intriguing Nos. 6-10

February, 26, 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. First up, numbers 6 through 10.

6. Dalvin Cook

Role: Running back, Florida State

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDespite spending half the season as a backup, Dalvin Cook finished his true freshman season with 1,008 yards.
Intrigue: There’s no doubting Cook’s talent. Despite playing a supporting role through half the season, he topped 1,000 rushing yards as a true freshman and came up with one big play after another in close games when the Seminoles needed him most. But the final impression of Cook for the 2014 season was an ugly one. He played well in the Rose Bowl, but he fumbled twice in the second half -- both on plays that would’ve been first downs -- and that led to FSU’s undoing. Now he returns hoping to erase those bad memories, and he’ll have to do it as the Noles’ offensive leader now that Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene and four-fifths of the offensive line have moved on.

Possible impact: There’s a long history across the sports landscape of memorably bad plays undermining an entire career, but Cook is too young, too tough and too talented to allow that to happen. The bigger question is whether Cook can find as much running room behind a revamped line without the downfield threat of Winston at quarterback. Defenses will be focused on Cook early in the year, but he’ll still need to find some running lanes while a new quarterback gets comfortable.

7. Frank Beamer

Role: Head coach, Virginia Tech

Intrigue: Beamer is an institution in Blacksburg, but after a third straight disappointing season, there’s a hefty contingent of the fan base wondering if it’s time to make a change. AD Whit Babcock has certainly considered a similar possibility, issuing a joint statement with Beamer after the season promising improvement. Beamer has plenty of young talent to work with, the pressure is on like never before to maximize their talents.

Possible impact: Virginia Tech only lost one game by more than a touchdown last year in spite of all the youth on offense, and that has to be a cause for optimism for the Hokies. If Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford continue to grow, Michael Brewer takes a step forward, the running game comes together -- if all those things can happen, Virginia Tech has a chance to win the ACC. It’s a lot of “ifs” though, which means there’s a ton riding on Beamer’s ability to bring the team together this offseason.

8. Brad Kaaya

Role: Quarterback, Miami

Intrigue: Kaaya was thrown to the wolves as a true freshman, and he acclimated himself nicely. He led the ACC in yards-per-attempt and passer rating, and he’s certainly aimed at improving in 2015. But while last year was a learning season for him, this year, Kaaya is the focal point of Miami’s offense. Duke Johnson, Clive Walford and Phillip Dorsett are all gone, which means Kaaya will go from student to mentor on offense, despite this being his first spring practice as a college quarterback.

Possible impact: Kaaya’s skill set is tremendous, and he could be the ACC’s best pocket passer in 2015. But he’s got to pick up a lot of slack with so much talent departing around him. He’s already shown a willingness to take on a leadership role, and he’s spoken out about some of the problems Miami faced in the locker room last year. And as much as Miami needs a quarterback to star on the field, it may need some locker room stability even more.

9. Pat Narduzzi

Role: Head coach, Pitt

Intrigue: Narduzzi had been rumored for head-coaching jobs for years after building Michigan State’s defense into a juggernaut, and Pitt looks to have hit a home run by nabbing him after Paul Chryst bolted for Wisconsin. Narduzzi inherits plenty of talent on offense, but Pitt’s problems were on D, and all eyes will be on that side of the ball as he looks to build another winner.

Possible impact: Last year, Pitt scored at least 28 points in each of its final six games, and it still lost four of them. For perspective, only four other Power 5 teams lost more such games all season. In other words, the D is a huge concern for the Panthers, and Narduzzi has his work cut out for him. It needs to start with the pass rush. Pitt finished 105th nationally in sacks last season, while Narduzzi’s Michigan State team finished eighth.

10. Bobby Petrino

Role: Head coach, Louisville

Intrigue: Year 1 of Petrino’s return went relatively well, but the task gets tougher now. He’s got a trio of QBs who could start, but none that’s a definitive call. His defense was dominant last year, but he’s lost a number of Charlie Strong’s holdovers. Gone is superstar receiver DeVante Parker. In are a host of transfers that Petrino has been willing to gamble on after they slipped up in other locations. And through it all, there are still plenty of people simply waiting to see Petrino fail.

Possible impact: Last year, Petrino took over a team that had lost just three games in the past two years and had ample talent on the roster. He succeeded with that talent. This year, things are different. This isn’t Strong’s team anymore. It’s Petrino’s, and he has a long history of winning, too. Still, he’s gambled on transfers -- and it’s a bet that could pay off big or it could blow up in his face if those players -- Josh Harvey-Clemons, Shaq Wiggins, Devonte Fields and others -- haven’t learned from past mistakes.

ACC morning links

February, 24, 2015
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First, the better of the good news: Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer is doing well. The dean of FBS coaches -- no head coach has been at his current program longer than Beamer (29th season) -- is recovering from throat surgery but is progressing fine, Beamer's son, Shane, said.

"He’s working on getting that speech back to normal," Shane told BeamerBall.com. "We had a couple of guys who, let’s say, upset the head coach a bit, and I can tell you his voice sounded more than okay when he was in there getting his point across to those guys. He’s on the right track. Is his voice back to where he wants it? No. But he’s a lot farther along than where he was. The doctors have said he’d be back to normal by the spring practices and so far it looks like they’re right."

The other good news is the offensive backfield is recovering from the bevy of injuries it suffered in 2014. Rising sophomores Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams suffered ACL injuries during the season, and Trey Edmunds battled injuries throughout 2014, too.

It's no secret 2015 could be a make-or-break year for Beamer, and another disappointing season could lead to a coaching change. Beamer probably deserves the benefit of the doubt based on his career record and the fact the team was devastated by injuries a season ago. Offensively, Beamer would like to rely on a running back group that is not short on talent. And quarterback Michael Brewer is a much better player when the pressure does not rest solely on his shoulders and has shown he can be a capable quarterback with the backing of a solid rush attack.

So as the Hokies get ready for spring practice in about a month, there is positive news on several fronts.

Here are a few more links for your Tuesday:

Q&A with Pitt OC Jim Chaney

February, 23, 2015
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There’s a brand new staff at Pitt this spring, but new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has the luxury of inheriting some top talent in James Conner, Tyler Boyd and Chad Voytik. We caught up with him to discuss the roster, how his game plan will differ from Paul Chryst’s, and what’s in store for the Panthers once spring practice begins.

David Hale: I’m sure it has been a whirlwind so far, but what are your early impressions of what you have to work with on offense?

[+] EnlargeJim Chaney
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJim Chaney had no prior relationship with new Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi before coming over from Arkansas.
Jim Chaney: The kids are working hard. Every coach will say the same thing that in the morning workouts, the kids are doing what we’ve asked them to do, get bigger and stronger in the weight room, and it seems like we have a bunch of kids that are hungry to have a lot of success. And it looks like I’ve got a big running back to hand the ball to and a good wide receiver to catch the ball, so those are good qualities thus far. So, so far, so good.

Hale: The combo of Conner and Boyd is about as good as any team has. Is that part of what attracted you to the job?

Chaney: There’s no question about that. These two young men are good football players, and I hope they can be as productive for us next year as they’ve been in the past. They’re both very hungry and they work very hard. I’m tickled to death with those guys, and there’s a bunch of big linemen up front who have done a good job, and with Chad returning, I’m extremely optimistic.

Hale: What was your prior relationship with new head coach Pat Narduzzi? What interested you about the Pitt job?

Chaney: I had no previous relationship with Coach other than knowing he was a really good defensive guy. I wanted a change for me and my family, we got in contact with Pat, had some good conversations, and next thing you know, I’m here. As a coach, you look around and try to keep a smile on your face and a good attitude, and when you feel like you need to make some changes, you do it. I came up for a day, talked philosophy, got to know one another, and he offered me the job. I was thankful he did, because I was excited about it. And once you get here, you realize it’s a wonderful spot. Pitt has a hell of a tradition for football, it’s a neat town, the city is awesome, the people are friendly. It’s been great so far.

Hale: It seems like what you did at Arkansas wasn’t vastly different than what Pitt did last year. Do you see the offensive philosophies being similar?

Chaney: I think Paul is a wonderful coach, and he understood to get the ball to those players. Ultimately, that’s who I am also. I’m not going to do one style over any other style. I could care less about one style over any other style. The key is making sure your playmakers get a chance to do that. I think Coach Chryst did that when he was here and I hope we continue to do that. Ultimately, that will be our philosophy, and trying to maintain a physical style of play — which I think coincides with this city and who we are and what we want to become.

Hale: How much of a chance have you had to really evaluate your roster?

Chaney: Right now, it’s about teaching them our language, learning what we call things. As far as who is who, I’ll figure that out as spring practice goes through. You get a chance to watch them run around cones and things now, but you don’t get to go out and work with them in a football manner right now. So those questions will be asked later. Right now we’re just trying to get in their brains and let them know what we’re calling this and that and working our way through a new language. I’ve watched some tape and I’m comfortable what we’re dealing with, but until you get them out there on the field, it’s hard to judge.

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner returns after leading the ACC in rushing with 1,765 yards.
Hale: How much tape have you been able to watch of Voytik? Do you see him as a good fit for what you want to do?

Chaney: I’ve watched a lot of tape on him and spent a lot of time with him. He’s a football junkie, a gym rat. He loves the game of football, he’s very knowledgable, he works his hind end off at it. Nothing is surprising me about Chad. He’s a very good student and understands through hard work is how things come. He plays with a lot of moxie. He’s a tough kid. He does what he has to do to get the team in the end zone. There are certain things I’ve watched I want to work with him to get better at, but I like his competitive spirit.

Hale: You also have a QB transfer coming in, and you worked with Nathan Peterman previously at Tennessee. What does he bring to the table, and do you view that as an open competition?

Chaney: Smart kid, intelligent and accurate. When I looked at this roster, I didn’t feel like we had anybody in the older group. Chad is the only guy that’s not a redshirt freshman. I wanted to add a little experience, and we were able to do that. … We were glad to bring [Nate] up here, he spent a lot of time with Chad, and they understood we weren’t trying to screw anybody. We’re just trying to get the most competitive environment we can, which will make us better. They’re both good with that, so get them up here and we’ll see what happens.

Hale: Given how much holdover there is from last year’s relatively successful offense, will you try to keep as much the same as possible or just install your game plan from scratch?

Chaney: I think what we’ll do is do it my way, shake things up, and they’ll figure it out. I’ve tried to merge two systems before, and there are some common things I’ve done that Paul did prior to us getting here, but at the end of the day, my history says to just go ahead and teach a new thing. It tends to work out better that way.

Hale: Given all that, how crucial does it make this spring for you to get the veterans acclimated with the language and the playbook?

Chaney: It’s everything. The teaching, the methodology, the lesson plans are critical. We’re on top of that. We’ve got a veteran offensive staff, and we know how to go about training and teaching them. That process has started, and hopefully it’s not different than any other teacher getting a lesson plan set. You put in the lesson plan, at the end you hand them a final, and they pass the darn thing. That’s where we’re at.
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.
Though Pittsburgh hired Pat Narduzzi as its head coach in December, he has spent all of two weeks in his office.

Yet, his world has not slowed down. Not even close. Not with so much to do.

Between the time he was hired until now, Narduzzi coached his old Michigan State defense in a bowl game; scrambled from city to city to sign his first recruiting class; hired his first full staff; set up early morning workouts; attended speaking engagements; sat in on various facilities meetings; met with staff to discuss offensive and defensive playbooks; and began meeting individually with each of his new players. On the docket for Wednesday: quarterback Chad Voytik.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPat Narduzzi will try to get Pitt's defense to the same level as his Michigan State defenses.
It is a never-ending cycle, but it also is one Narduzzi is happy to spin on as he tries to put his stamp on a program eager to make a return to prominence. When discussing early workouts, Narduzzi said, “We’re focused on toughness and attitude.”

Those are two important attributes Narduzzi wants to instill, trademarks that his Michigan State defenses played with for so many years. Expect the same aggressive defensive philosophy to take hold with the Panthers in due time.

Narduzzi plans on continuing his work on that side of the ball with his new defensive coordinator, Josh Conklin. Though the two have not worked together previously, Narduzzi first got to know him one year ago.

Conklin, the FIU defensive coordinator at the time, called up Narduzzi looking for some advice.

“He said, ‘Listen, we’re struggling on defense. I love what you guys do defensively.’ That’s probably one of the best compliments you can get,” Narduzzi said in a recent phone interview. Narduzzi said Conklin went on to tell him: “We have a linebacker job open, and I want someone who’s worked in your defense who knows what you do and how you do it.”

Narduzzi gave him two names. Conklin hired one: Rob Harley, who served as a graduate assistant under Narduzzi at Michigan State. With Harley on board, FIU installed about 90 percent of the Michigan State defense last spring and fall.

The end result? A radical turnaround for the Golden Panthers’ defense in 2014. FIU ranked No. 1 nationally in fumble recoveries (19), second in defensive touchdowns (six), fourth in turnovers gained (33), eighth in turnover margin (plus-11) and No. 35 in total defense.

Compare that to the numbers from 2013: FIU ranked No. 94 in total defense, tied for No. 112 in turnovers gained (14), tied for No. 97 in turnover margin (minus-6) and tied for No. 93 in fumble recoveries (seven).

When he got the job at Pitt, Narduzzi decided to make a run at Conklin and Harley. Both are on staff now. Though Narduzzi will keep working with the defense, Conklin will make the defensive play calls on game days. Creating turnovers is one major area that needs improvement on a Pitt defense that has been sorely lacking in that department.

“It doesn’t matter what their problems were in the past, we’ve got our system we need to put in and focus on that,” Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi has never worked with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, either. But Chaney came highly recommended. “When you look at running our style of offense and what we’ve done here in the past, he’s one of the top names that comes to mind,” Narduzzi said. “He’s a perfect fit.”

The fun truly starts mid-March, when Pitt opens spring practice and Narduzzi can get a good look at the players he has and what they can do. But the work will not slow down.

Not even close.

ACC morning links

February, 19, 2015
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Mel Kiper Jr. released his latest Big Board on Wednesday, Insider and while Florida State's Jameis Winston saw his status at the No. 1 spot eclipsed by USC's Leonard Williams, the board sure does reflect well on the available talent from ACC schools this year.

The ACC leads all leagues with seven players on the board, one more than the Pac-12. The SEC and the Big Ten each have five players listed, while the Big 12 has just two.

Winston is still the No. 1 quarterback listed, coming in at No. 2 overall. It's worth remembering that Kiper's board consists of just 25 players, and that the rankings are based purely on the players' evaluations, and do no reflect the teams drafting in those spots (or their needs).

Joining Winston in the top-10 is Louisville receiver DeVante Parker. Winston has just one teammate on the board in defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, but FSU's two players do tie Miami for the most among ACC schools. (And neither of those Hurricanes players is named Duke Johnson.)

Three other schools placed two players apiece on the board as well: Alabama, Oregon and Washington.

The ACC actually shares the record for most first-round selections in a single draft, landing 12 players in 2006. (The SEC also had a dozen players selected in Round 1 in 2013.) And while matching that will be a tall order come this May, the league does appear to be putting on a favorable showing so far in what is just the start of pre-draft evaluations and all of the craziness that comes with them.

Here are the rest of your Thursday links:

ACC morning links

February, 18, 2015
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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:
Last week, we looked at how each of the ACC's returning quarterbacks performed down the stretch last season, and one name in particular stood out: Pitt's Chad Voytik.

It's not that Voytik was the best quarterback in the league as last season progressed, but the improvement he made from September to December was dramatic.



In the month of November, there's actually a case to be made that Voytik was the ACC's top QB -- at least statistically. Of course, those stats simply translated into a 2-3 record during that stretch, but the big takeaway for Pitt fans is that the QB wasn't the problem. In fact, Pitt's offense scored at least 30 points in every one of those games -- the 12th-highest scoring offense among all Power 5 teams.

So what exactly changed for Voytik that he went from deer-in-headlights to one of the ACC's best marksmen over the course of a season?

"The things that I had to learn this season weren't the X's and O's," Voytik said. "That playing time and feeling comfortable with my surroundings, that's what changed in my performance. It happens with any young player. Your first time out there, you just don't want to mess things up -- especially at quarterback. You kind of play scared. I got to that point where it was time to just let it all out there, trust in my ability and play."

The trust had to come on both ends, too. Voytik had to learn to trust his own ability, but he also had to convince his coaches. And with tailback James Conner quickly establishing himself as the ACC's top runner, the offensive game plan tended to avoid putting Voytik in too many stressful situations.

[+] EnlargeChad Voytik
Ray Carlin/USA TODAY SportsThe future is bright for Pitt as QB Chad Voytik returns with more experience and better decision-making learned throughout the 2014 season.
As the season progressed, however, Voytik said that began to change, too. The game plan still largely revolved around Conner, but Voytik became a legitimate weapon -- particularly with standout wide receiver Tyler Boyd on the receiving end of so many of his throws.

"Throughout the year, the coaches gained that trust in me," Voytik said. "James continued to dominate, Tyler was our No. 1 target, and I know on scramble plays, I could get out of the pocket and he'd find room to get open."

That latter point is another area where Voytik became a legitimate weapon.

In the first half of the season, Voytik did make some big plays downfield when on the move, but he also made plenty of mistakes. He completed 57.7 percent of his throws outside the pocket, but failed to toss a touchdown while throwing two picks. In the second half of the season, his completion percentage jumped to 64.3 percent, he threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The big difference there was simply better -- and safer -- decision-making. Voytik averaged 10.6 air yards per throw during the first half of the season, and just 7.9 in the second half. He also managed to cut his sack rate dramatically in the process.

But the interesting thing is, while Boyd was his most targeted receiver on the run in 2014, Voytik's targets outside the pocket were much different than when he was settled in the pocket.

Perhaps the most glaring takeaway from Pitt's passing game in 2014 was just how significant Boyd's role was. He was responsible for 52.2 percent of the Panthers' receiving yards (easily the highest rate in the nation) and 41.5 percent of its receptions (trailing only Alabama's Amari Cooper). But when Voytik was on the run, things changed a bit.

Outside the pocket, Boyd was the target of just 13 of Voytik's 54 throws (24 percent). That's less than half Boyd's target rate when Voytik was inside the pocket. That provides two important takeaways. The first is that, thanks largely to the play-action, when Voytik had time to throw, Boyd -- his first read -- was usually open. The second is that when he was forced to move beyond his first read, Voytik did a solid job of moving the pocket and finding other receivers.

And if that's not enough for Pitt fans to be enthusiastic about their QB situation heading into 2015, there's one other bit of positive news. Former Tennessee quarterback Nathan Peterman is set to transfer to Pitt, giving the Panthers some much-needed depth at the position. Peterman worked with new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney at Tennessee, and while Chaney isn't looking at his new arrival as an alternative to Voytik, he is hopeful that having a veteran presence in the QB meeting rooms can push his young starter.

"He's a smart kid, intelligent, athletic and accurate," Chaney said of Peterman. "When I looked at the roster, I didn't feel like we had anybody in the older group. He spent a lot of time with Chad, and I wanted to make sure we weren't trying to screw anyone. We just want to get the most competitive environment as possible."

Chaney's job this spring is a big one as he tries to install his offensive game plan, but his task should be made much easier now that he has an established QB to go with his all-ACC receiver and running back.

Spring reset: ACC quarterback

February, 17, 2015
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This could be the year of the quarterback in the ACC with starters returning at the majority of schools across the league.

But there are some programs that will have a bit of intrigue at the quarterback spot this spring. Here is a quick spring reset at where the signal-callers stand at each ACC school.

The incumbents
The skinny: These six are the unquestioned starters at their respective schools. Even Lambert, marking the first time in five springs Virginia has a set quarterback headed into the spring. Though Matt Johns is sure to get a look, Lambert is expected to start the season if healthy. Same goes for the other five, who appear to have a stronghold on their respective starting jobs.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe backup quarterback position is key to watch during Clemson's spring practices as Deshaun Watson sits out to rehab his injured knee.
The injured incumbent
The skinny: With Watson out during spring practice while he rehabs a knee injury, true freshmen Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel will get reps with Nick Schuessler as they compete to become the backup to Watson. Schuessler, a former walk-on, was the No. 3 quarterback last season. Bryant and Tucker enrolled early and are in for spring, great news for a program that has faced depth issues at the position since last fall. The backup job is an important one at Clemson, with Watson coming off a major knee injury. Whomever wins the backup job could be pressed into action early.

The returning starters*
The skinny: Why an asterisk? There is a chance some of these players end up losing their starting job if the competition is fierce enough during the spring and into the fall. All three go into the spring as the starter. They each are the most experienced quarterbacks on their respective rosters. But ...

At Syracuse, Hunt is coming off a broken leg and will face competition from AJ Long and Austin Wilson. Long and Wilson both played last season after Hunt went out, giving the coaching staff much more to work with this spring.

At Wake Forest, coach Dave Clawson said Wolford will get the first-team reps but his quarterback will have to win the starting job again after the Deacs signed two highly touted prep quarterbacks -- Kendall Hinton and Kyle Kearns.

At Pitt, Voytik will have to learn a new system and face new competition from Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman. While Voytik is expected to keep his starting job, there are no guarantees here, either.

The new starter
The skinny: Sirk has taken first-team reps so far this spring as he works to replace two-year starter Anthony Boone. Parker Boehme and Nico Pierre have provided competition but coach David Cutcliffe has already declared Sirk the starter.

The open competitions

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSean Maguire will enter the spring practice session as the backup QB with the most experience at FSU.
Boston College: Darius Wade, Troy Flutie. Wade is the favorite to win the starting job, but Flutie is expected to get a fair shake. This is what coach Steve Addazio had to say about both during his signing day news conference: "Darius Wade has got a great arm and he throws the ball extremely well. Troy Flutie is a great anticipator, which is a unique quality to have as a quarterback. He does a great job anticipating guys coming out of their breaks. He doesn't have to see them open. So both of those guys have unique tools and both are very athletic."

Florida State: Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino. One of the most anticipated competitions in the entire country will take place in Tallahassee, where Jimbo Fisher must replace Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Maguire served as the backup last season, but that does not necessarily make him the favorite to win the job. Cosentino came in last year as an ESPN 300 prospect and redshirted. Fisher said true freshmen De'Andre Johnson and Deondre Francois -- both ESPN 300 players -- will also get a shot. Johnson is already in for spring.

Louisville: Reggie Bonnafon, Tyler Ferguson, Kyle Bolin. With Will Gardner out for spring and no timetable set for his return after another major knee injury, the Cardinals are expected to have a heated open competition in the spring between Bonnafon, Ferguson and Bolin. Bonnafon played as a true freshman last season and showed some promise before getting injured late in the year. Bolin was then forced to play with Bonnafon and Gardner out. Though he led a comeback win over Kentucky, he was not nearly as effective in the bowl game against Georgia. Ferguson transferred from Penn State and sat out last season, and could end up being the wild card in the group.
RecruitingNation released its Ultimate ESPN 300 this week, a ranking of the best prospects since we began evaluating high school talent, in 2006.

One of the more interesting pieces of the package is the newcomers list Insider, a group of 37 players added to the rankings. The SEC led the way with 14 newcomers, but the ACC made a strong showing as well, coming in second, with nine players. (The Big Ten and Pac-12 had five newcomers apiece, while the Big 12 had four.)

Here are the ACC's newcomers, and their Ultimate ESPN 300 ranking:

64. Dalvin Cook
78. Eddie Goldman
80. Quin Blanding
100. Gerod Holliman
151. Tyler Boyd
152. Stephone Anthony
161. P.J. Williams
179. Brad Kaaya
298. Vic Beasley

What's encouraging here is the number of freshmen and underclassmen making up the ACC's group. The highest-rated newcomer, Cook, is coming off a standout freshman season. So, too, is Blanding, along with Kaaya. Boyd will be back next year as well, for his junior season.

While players from the 2015 class were not included, RecruitingNation allowed 2014 players who "who we felt had significant roles and their placement was based on forecasting similar production over the next three years."

That is a testament to the ACC's upswing, especially on the recruiting trail. And it can be looked at as a good sign that a pair of ACC rookies of the year (Blanding and Kaaya) aren't even the ceiling for this recent ACC freshman class.

ACC morning links

February, 16, 2015
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A pair of ACC staffs underwent a reshuffling this weekend, as Boston College and Virginia divvied up duties with spring practices approaching.

BC promoted Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and hired Brian White to replace Fitch as its receivers coach. White spent the last six years at Florida, most recently coaching running backs.

UVa, meanwhile, announced that associate head coach for defense/defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will coach safeties, while Mike Archer will move from safeties to linebackers and be promoted to associate head coach. Volunteer assistant Brian Wetzel was named a graduate assistant as well.

“In making my evaluations of the program since the end of last season and discussing this with the coaching staff, we all felt these moves would benefit our defense, particularly with the makeup of the returning players,” Cavaliers coach Mike London said in a release. “It also benefits our program by placing Jon and Mike with position groups they have spent the majority of their careers coaching.”

The Hoos had previously hired Chris Beatty (running backs) and Dave Borbely (offensive line). Larry Lewis moved from running backs to tight ends and will continue coordinating special teams.

At BC, Fitch succeeds Ryan Day, who left for the Philadelphia Eagles. White, a Massachusetts native, had coached with Steve Addazio and Justin Frye for two years with the Gators.

"I am very excited to promote Todd as our quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator," Addazio said in a release. "Trust and continuity are two very important factors that went into my decision. It is my belief that our program needs to continue to grow and develop within the same system, continue to improve the areas of strength and to attack the areas that need improvement. I have always had great involvement in the offense and will continue to do so. Therefore, it is extremely important for me to be on the same page as the rest of the offensive coaches. With Todd's leadership and tremendous experience as an offensive coordinator in three different coaching stops, I am confident that he will help us continue to develop and bring us to new heights."

Here are the rest of your Monday links:

ACC morning links

February, 13, 2015
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Because most teams won’t start spring practice for a few more weeks, we’re in the season of list-making, and Bleacher Report has an interesting rundown of its top weapons in college football.

The list includes 25 players, with just three coming from the ACC: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas and Florida State RB Dalvin Cook.

It’s tough to argue with those selections. If we’re making a list of ACC player of the year candidates, those would certainly be among the favorites. Having said that, there are plenty of other big-time playmakers around the league.

Obviously Pittsburgh’s James Conner and Tyler Boyd warrant mentioning, while Miami’s Brad Kaaya, UNC’s Ryan Switzer and Clemson’s Artavis Scott and Mike Williams all are emerging stars.

But looking a bit deeper, here are a few more names who figure to be legitimate weapons around the ACC in 2015…

QB: North Carolina’s Marquise Williams was terrific last season, and he’s poised to be even better this year with a more established O-line and some talented receivers to work with. After Mitch Trubisky was shuffled to the bench full-time starting in October, Williams racked up 25 touchdowns. Only five Power 5 QBs had more, and four of them finished in the top 10 in Heisman balloting.

RB: NC State’s Matt Dayes didn’t get a full workload last season, and that might not change dramatically in 2015, but when it comes to all-around weapons, he’s one of the ACC’s best. Dayes was the only player in college football last season to tally at least 300 yards rushing, receiving, and on returns while scoring at least 10 touchdowns. In the last decade, just 14 others have done that, and the list includes some big names such as Reggie Bush, DeMarco Murray, C.J. Spiller, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jeremy Maclin.

WR: Florida State’s Travis Rudolph averaged 15 yards per catch last season, the sixth-best total among returning ACC receivers, as a true freshman. He improved dramatically as the year went along, catching 11 passes for 136 yards in the ACC Championship Game and Rose Bowl.

TE: Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges is as big a mismatch on offense as any team will have this season. The Hokies used him as a traditional tight end, split him out wide and lined him up in the Wildcat routinely last year. He was among the ACC’s top red-zone targets, and only Wake’s Cam Serigne had more catches among returning Power 5 tight ends.

And while Bleacher Report’s list included just one full-time defensive player, FSU’s Jalen Ramsey, Duke's Jeremy Cash, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Virginia’s Quin Blanding, Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller and Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins all warrant discussion, too.

A few more links:
The number is already engrained in the minds of every player at Pitt: 20.

That’s how many points separated the Panthers, who finished 6-7, from being 11-2 last season. It’s a number that defines their failures in 2014 and their motivation for 2015.

"Our new strength coach actually wrote it up on the board," Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik said. "So we’re using that as fuel for the offseason. If we don’t finish a drill or finish team conditioning, we’re saying, 'If you don’t finish a spring, you’re not finishing a game either.' But there’s a level of frustration, too. We know we could’ve been a whole lot better, and we’re looking to change that."

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsCoach Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech joined Pitt as teams that dropped five games by a touchdown or less last season, the most by any Power 5 team.
Pitt and Virginia Tech each dropped five games by a touchdown or less last season, the most by any Power 5 team in the nation, and it’s a stat that serves as the ultimate glass-half-full or half-empty test.

On the one hand, it has to be utterly frustrating as a fan of either team to know how close they both came to being contenders for division titles or New Years Six games. On the other hand, it’s a reminder that success might not be that far off. And at both programs, it’s already been a frequent offseason topic of conversation.

"We really only lost one football game," Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer said. "We got beat by Miami, but every other game we were right there at the end and had a chance to win. It just didn’t work out for us. With the youth and inexperience and lack of consistency we had, that’s encouraging for us. Because if we can get those things right, those close games, we can win them next year. That’s a big motivating factor going into the offseason."

Indeed, 12 of Virginia Tech’s 13 games resulted in either a win or a loss by seven points or less. Over the past five years, 71 other teams could make that same claim, but only one -- Ohio State in 2011 -- finished with a worse record than the Hokies did in 2014. Fifty-eight of those 71 teams, meanwhile, won at least 10 games.

It makes sense that teams would use the narrow margin between success and failure as offseason motivation then, but does a hefty total of close losses really predict a great season on the horizon?

From 2003 to 2013, there were 26 Power 5 teams that lost at least five games by seven points or less in a season -- an average of 2.6 per season -- and the results in the subsequent seasons for the group should provide ample optimism at both Pitt and Virginia Tech.

Overall, 20 of the 27 teams to lose at least five games by 7 points or less won more games the following season, and on the whole, this group increased its winning percentage from .405 to .573 from one year to the next.

But let’s start by looking at the seven who didn’t fit the mold.

.
Of that group, two teams maintained the same record, which at Virginia Tech probably won’t be enough to encourage many fans who are already sick and tired of 7-win seasons.

Three others -- 2007 Washington, 2009 Wake Forest, and 2009 Purdue -- were teams clearly trending downward with a dearth of talent on the roster. At Virginia Tech, the trajectory of the program is similar, but the Hokies have much better recruiting classes in recent years to make that an especially fair comparison.

The 2010 Iowa team won eight games, so adding much to that win total might have been asking a lot anyway, however the style of play probably does match Pitt relatively closely. In fact, over the past five seasons, the only program to lose more games by a touchdown or less than Pitt (17) is Iowa (18).

The 2004-05 Purdue comparison is probably the outlier, but the Boilermakers had also just lost one of their most productive quarterbacks in program history in Kyle Orton.

Still, it’s relatively safe to say the Hokies and Panthers aren’t particularly similar to the six teams to buck the trend. So now let’s look at the 20 who offer hope.

Of the 20 teams to improve their records the year after losing at least five games by a touchdown or less, 13 added at least three wins to their total, which in Virginia Tech’s case would make for a long-awaited 10-win campaign in 2015. Five of those teams added at least five wins to their totals, including 2012 Ohio State (which went undefeated), 2013 Michigan State (which won a Rose Bowl) and 2008 Alabama (which won the SEC West). That Pat Narduzzi was one of the architects of that 2013 Michigan State squad should also be a nice feather in Pitt’s cap this offseason.

Beyond that, there aren’t a whole lot of statistical through-lines to conclude that one or two areas directly correlate to future success among the group. There are some random outliers, like 2009 Maryland, which improved by seven wins the next year, only to regress again after that. There are others, like the 2007 Minnesota team, that had a woeful -12 turnover margin, which alone could account for the six-game increase in wins the following season.

Mostly though, the teams that lost close games and then jumped markedly in wins the next season were programs that were quite clearly on the rise already. That 2007 Alabama team was Nick Saban’s first. Those 2011 Buckeyes brought Urban Meyer on board the following season. Clemson’s 2010 team was a unit just taking shape, with Chad Morris coming aboard to coach the offense the following season; the 2011 Texas A&M team had Johnny Manziel take over quarterback the next year.

In other words, it’s probably not simply about close losses one year turning into wins the next. It’s a matter of talent on the roster and coaching on the sidelines making that happen.

At Virginia Tech, there’s certainly enough talent to make that happen, and Frank Beamer has proven he can be a winner. Or, perhaps, the Hokies will more closely resemble those 2006-07 Florida State teams.

At Pitt, Narduzzi was hired to engineer the same turnaround he helped create at Michigan State, and with James Conner and Tyler Boyd, the Panthers have stars to build upon. But maybe they are more like those Big Ten teams at Iowa and Purdue that tended to languish in close games without ever turning the corner.

This is the type of debate that’s bound to separate optimists from pessimists, but there’s at least room for encouragement regardless of what camp you’re in. And since it’s still the offseason, and since the vast majority of the teams we’ve just studied made real strides, it’s probably a lot more fun to look at the glass as half full for now.
The ACC bucked the odds this offseason, with just one program changing head coaches -- and that one came because Paul Chryst landed a better gig at Wisconsin. In other words, none of the league's 14 coaches were axed, which is really an accomplishment.

Football Scoop looks at the tenure of each FBS head coach, and it’s noteworthy that 15 of the 128 schools have hired new coaches in the last three months, and 82 of them have hired a new head coach in the last three years. Just 36 coaches in the country will be entering Year 6 at the same school in 2015, and six of them are in the ACC.

Here’s the conference breakdown on FBS coaches who have survived beyond five years:

ACC: 6
SEC: 6
Big 12: 6
Conference USA: 5
Big 10: 3
Independent: 3
American: 2
Sun Belt: 2
Pac 12: 1
MAC: 1
Mountain West: 1

(*Coaches whose teams have switched leagues since being hired are listed in their current conference)

The Roanoke Times puts the tenure of Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer in graph form, and it’s pretty jarring.

Beamer was hired to coach the Hokies in 1986. The next longest-tenured coaches were hired 12 years later. Twelve! And he’s one of just three coaches that were hired in the 20th century.

Of course, Beamer’s job security is a growing concern in Blacksburg, but he’s not the only ACC coach with pressure building.

The Times’ graph reveals something pretty interesting: Current coaching tenures peak at three years, with a relatively stark drop-off after that and a huge drop-off after Year 5.

It used to be that five-year plans were the norm for coaches. It gave them a year to take stock of a program and four years to get recruits through the ringer. But these days, three years is more of the status quo, with the pressure being ratcheted up big time in Year 4. Year 5 is essentially do-or-die.

And that brings us to our ACC hot seats.

Chryst would’ve been entering his fourth season, and while he brought some talent into Pitt, he didn’t exactly reinvigorate the program. He may have been wise to get while the getting was good.

Larry Fedora is in Year 4 at North Carolina, and his tenure has been a mixed bag. He’s gotten the Heels off to a brutal start in each of the last two years, and his 2014 defense was abysmal. He brought in Gene Chizik to fix those problems this year, but another 6-6 regular season for UNC — even with the NCAA investigation ongoing — could be a big problem.

At Miami, Al Golden is in Year 5, and he’s trending in the wrong direction. Yes, Miami has weathered the NCAA storm, but after a 20-11 start to his career, Miami is just 8-11 in its last 19 games, and fans are growing frustrated.

In other words, patience is thinner than it’s ever been in college football, and while the ACC has largely bucked that trend with Beamer, Dabo Swinney, Paul Johnson, Mike London, Jimbo Fisher and David Cutcliffe — all on the job more than five years now — no one is immune to the changing landscape.

A few more links:
  • Football Scoop also has a story on coaches looking to do away with signing day altogether, with Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson helping to lead the charge.
  • Bleacher Report has a story on the emergence of “free agency” in college football, with former FSU QB Jacob Coker highlighted. ESPN’s Andrea Adelson looked at a few transfers poised to make an impact in the ACC this coming season.
  • Former FSU quarterback Jameis Winston is Mel Kiper’s No. 1 overall pick in his latest mock draft, with seven other ACC players going in the first round — including three from Miami.
  • Rick Trickett has his work cut out for him in rebuilding Florida State’s O line this year, but the Tallahassee Democrat writes that he’s already built the relationships to make it happen.
  • David Cutcliffe is searching for playmakers on both sides of the line of scrimmage, writes the Charlotte Observer.
  • Matt Colburn calls his chance to play at Wake Forest “a blessing” after being spurned by Louisville, writes The State.
  • Boston College is stealing a bit from our favorite sports doc series for its online recruiting, writes BC Interruption.
  • Syracuse.com discusses whether it’s smart to install Terrel Hunt, once again, as the Orange’s starting quarterback. As we noted in our quarterback column this week though, it’s not as though any of his back ups offered much reason for change in 2014.
  • Georgia Tech got its first commitment for 2016, as From the Rumble Seat notes.
  • Former Maryland head coach and ACC coach of the year, Ralph Friedgen, has stepped down as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator, writes USA Today.

 

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