ACC: Virginia Tech Hokies
The ACC is at its spring midpoint. Miami, Boston College and Duke are done. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Louisville just got started. But for most of the league, the biggest storylines are still playing out.
With that in mind, here's a quick rundown of a few of the biggest issues worth monitoring in the ACC so far this spring:
The injured QBs: Any discussion of the conference's top quarterbacks for 2015 promises to include Deshaun Watson and Marquise Williams, yet neither is taking snaps this spring. Watson tore his ACL late in the regular season, so his absence was no surprise. Instead, it's been his quick recovery that's been newsworthy. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says Watson is already at 80 percent and should be ready to run summer drills with the rest of the Tigers' offense. Williams, on the other hand, is dealing with a hip injury, and his absence from spring practice was late-breaking news. Still, the QB situation appears far more established at North Carolina than it was a year ago, with Williams clearly the starter once healthy. Nevertheless, the Tigers and Tar Heels have used the spring to develop their backups, and, given that the reigning national champions needed three starters to get through the season, that might end up being a blessing.
The emerging QBs: There weren't many quarterback battles entering the spring, but the few places where jobs were up for grabs appear to have decisive front-runners. At Florida State, the task of replacing Jameis Winston won't be an easy one, but thus far senior Sean Maguire appears to have separated himself from the pack. Redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino likely will push the competition into the fall, but for now Maguire looks like the favorite. At Boston College, there might be even less drama, with Darius Wade the obvious front-runner. He wrapped up spring practice last weekend with a relatively forgettable performance, but coaches still love his arm and pocket presence, which could bring an added dimension to the Eagles' run-heavy offense. And at Duke, David Cutcliffe gave lip service to an open job, but it appears clear that Thomas Sirk is the heavy favorite. He has just 14 pass attempts to his credit, but he looked like the veteran presence Duke needed this spring, and it's unlikely he'll be unseated atop the depth chart by fall.
FSU's thin linebacking corps: The defense took a big step back for Florida State in 2014, and Charles Kelly's rebuilding job hasn't been made any easier this spring with the departure of four underclassmen for the NFL draft and a litany of injuries -- particularly among the linebackers. Terrance Smith is dealing with turf toe. Reggie Northrup tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl. Matthew Thomas is now out with a shoulder injury. E.J. Levenberry and Kain Daub decided to transfer. That has Kelly plugging in bodies wherever he can find them, and it likely means FSU won't get a real feel for how its defense will look until the fall. That's a big concern for a team that mustered just 17 sacks last season -- ranking 118th nationally.
Notable position swaps: Spring is always a time when we see teams tinker with personnel at some new positions. That's the case at Florida State, where Jalen Ramsey moves from safety to corner, a move that worked well for Lamarcus Joyner two years ago. Running back Ryan Green also moved to corner, giving FSU ample athleticism in the secondary. At NC State, Airius Moore moves from middle linebacker to the weak side, allowing the Wolfpack to showcase their two talented sophomore linebackers, along with Jerod Fernandez. Dane Rogers moved from end to tackle at Clemson in hopes of finding a steady replacement for Grady Jarrett. Dan Crimmins, BC's second-leading returning receiver, could develop into a more dynamic tight end for the Eagles.
More drama at Miami: Brad Kaaya remains an emerging star, but there are ample questions surrounding him at Miami. Stacy Coley remains something of a mystery after an awful 2014 campaign. The options at tight end were inconsistent at best. The revamped offensive line had its share of spring struggles. Tailback Joseph Yearby was suspended for the spring game, and Gus Edwards saw only limited action. Not surprisingly, the spring game ended with a solid defensive performance that included four interceptions.
Hokies' defensive injuries: Virginia Tech promises to have one of the ACC's top defenses in 2015, but it's tough to get much of a read on it this spring. Brandon Facyson, Kendall Fuller, Luther Maddy, Corey Marshall and Ken Ekanem -- all established starters -- are out with injuries. Virginia Tech is using the time to develop depth, but, particularly in the secondary, Bud Foster would love a chance to get things a bit more settled.
Hunt-Days returns for Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets' pass rush was a work-in-progress throughout much of last season, but the development of KeShun Freeman and the return of Jabari Hunt-Days this spring could make it an asset in 2015. Hunt-Days missed all of last season because of academic issues, but he's settling back in nicely this spring and could be a wrecking ball for a Tech defense that's looking to make some major strides.
A combination of injuries and departures have left Virginia Tech’s secondary sparsely populated this spring -- at least when it comes to veterans. And after Thursday’s practice, defensive coordinator Bud Foster told the Roanoke Times, he was doing a lot of mixing and matching.
From the Times:
Foster and secondary coach Torrian Gray wanted to keep Chuck Clark at cornerback, rather than move him to what they’ve said is his more natural position at safety, although he’ll play there some this spring too.
That led to more shuffling. Foster didn’t think the top free safety candidates, C.J. Reavis and Desmond Frye, had the straightaway speed to handle the coverage responsibilities required of the position. Enter Donovan Riley, a senior who has played corner his entire career but will get a look at both free safety and rover this spring.
The Times notes that Clark, Facyson and Fuller likely have starting jobs nailed down, but the extra reps for the rest of the group could be helpful in finding safeties ready to perform and depth behind the veterans.
Why is that important? Well, for the first time in a long time, the secondary wasn’t exactly rock solid for Virginia Tech last season.
It’s no secret Foster likes to be aggressive on D. He brings the blitz often -- 47.1 percent of the time in 2014, second in the ACC -- forcing his DBs to hold up in coverage.
Usually, it’s worked. Last season, not so much.
The Hokies allowed 79 plays of 20 yards or more last season, the sixth-most in the nation. Overall, more than 9 percent of their defensive snaps resulted in a gain of 20 yards or more, which was the worst by any Power 5 team by a fairly large margin.
So perhaps some changes at safety aren’t a bad thing. Facyson also missed most of last season, which caused some problems in the secondary. Clark’s move to safety or nickel could help corral some of those long runs, many of which came from opposing QBs, and Fuller remains a star that’s apt to improve in Year 3 in Foster’s system.
The flip side to those numbers, of course, is that the Hokies had as good a pass rush as there was in the ACC. That’s certainly enough to remind Foster where his bread is buttered (as if the win over Ohio State hadn’t already done that), but it would certainly make those gambles on D a little easier to call if the secondary was back to its usual standard.
We at the ACC blog would like to welcome Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer back to the sideline. Beamer, in his 29th season as the Hokies' coach, spent the December bowl game coaching from the press box following throat surgery.
The Daily Press writes Beamer's voice is still working its way back, but he still possessed the same fervor while talking about his team.
Here are a handful of links around the ACC for your morning:
- A search firm will present a list of candidates for the Pittsburgh athletic director position to the school's search committee in the coming weeks.
- Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson feels comfortable filling the shoes of departed leader Stephone Anthony.
- Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and son Tommy, who coached Clemson, will be part of a new travel show called "Bobby Bowden Goes to War." The documentary brings the Bowdens to Europe to highlight World War II stories.
- Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said he is confident the school will make a strong athletic director hire.
- With hardly any experience returning at A-back, it feels like the beginning of the Paul Johnson era in Atlanta all over again for the unit.
- Here are 10 Miami players that could become much bigger factors in 2015.
- Louisville is splitting first-team reps at quarterback as spring practice gets underway. The Cardinals have a major question mark at quarterback.
- The defense was a little ahead of the offense at NC State on Tuesday, due in part to numbers.
- Prized signee C.J. Stalker is looking to adjust quickly for Virginia.
Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler has never sounded this sure about what he returns for 2015: four times during 20-minute conversation he used the phrase "no excuses."
He speaks the truth. There cannot be any now that Loeffler and the Hokies open spring practice with just about every significant contributor back from last season, including starting quarterback Michael Brewer.
It’s a position Loeffler hasn’t been in since he arrived on campus. So it’s one he plans on taking full advantage of, starting with his determination to turn Brewer from an inconsistent player into a more refined, much better quarterback. He plans to do the same with backup Brenden Motley, too.
"I am going to apply more pressure on both of them than I have on a quarterback since 2005," Loeffler said, referring to the year he worked with Chad Henne at Michigan. "For what Michael Brewer had to do last year, God bless him. He got an offense crammed down his throat in one month and had to run out there and couldn’t visualize things the way you’re supposed to. There were some things he did really well, and there were some things that were absolutely horrific. We’re going to eliminate the horrific items we had."
- Brewer was sacked 34 times, ranking No. 12 in the ACC. "Everybody points the finger at the line," Loeffler said. "Half the times we took sacks was on us at that position."
- Penalties. "We had an astronomical amount of penalties at the beginning," Loeffler said. "We’re going to handle that."
- Turnovers. "You look at the interception that was thrown in the Georgia Tech game, when we had a chance to go down and win the game," Loeffler said. "The ball was on the left hash. We had Cover 2. We take the wrong footwork on a simple smash route and it cost us."
"At the end of the day, if I’m going to force them to know it like I know it, and if they can get to that level, which I think both can, we have a chance to be a really good football team, because we’ll upgrade our play at that position. We did not play well enough last year at the position, and there’s a lot of great excuses out there, and probably some of them have some validity, but there is no excuses anymore. We’re older, we’ve got it, now let’s get to the details, let’s make sure we know this stuff inside and out and be the coach on the field and play better."
Quarterback is only the start. Though Virginia Tech returns Isaiah Ford and Cam Phillips at receiver, the Hokies must develop depth here and become a better perimeter blocking team. Carlis Parker, Deon Newsome, and Demitri Knowles will be expected to take the next step.
At running back, Marshawn Williams will miss the spring while he recovers from a knee injury, and Shai McKenzie remains suspended indefinitely after an offseason arrest. But there is plenty of depth here (when healthy), with Trey Edmunds, J.C. Coleman, Travon McMillian, and D.J. Reid among the many who will be practicing this spring.
"I think the receivers will respond but, if they don’t we’ve got enough tight ends that heck with it, if we play four wide, we’ll plays with two receivers and two tight ends and let’s go," Loeffler said. "We need to get that room to contribute more than it did last year."
Virginia Tech does have to replace three starters on the offensive line, but Loeffler is adamant the Hokies will absolutely be able to run the ball this season. Injuries to the running backs and offensive line hampered those efforts a year ago, but there is renewed confidence now that a new season has arrived.
"For the first time walking into spring, we’re going to know exactly who we are, we know what we can do, we know what we can’t do, and it’s refreshing because we’re going to have an identity," Loeffler said. "The only way we won’t is if the whole world falls apart again. You hope what we went through last year never happens again. We should be a lot better. We must be better and we will be better."
The Big Dance as we know it kicks off Thursday, marking the time of the year when Cinderellas from different regions of the country win us all over, bust our brackets and watch their NCAA tournament dreams become reality.
Naturally, we're turning our attention to the gridiron here, as we take a look at a few ACC players and teams capable of having Cinderella seasons themselves if things break right in 2015. You can even argue that Georgia Tech just had a Cinderella season, going 11-3 and winning the ACC Coastal division and the Capital One Orange Bowl, this after being picked as the preseason No. 5 team in its own division.
Kelby Brown: A sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA does not come easily. But Brown earned one after battling back from three ACL tears (2010, 2012, 2014) in his first five years at Duke. The most recent tear -- the first one to occur in his left knee -- came in August camp, ending a promising campaign before it even began. Brown was a preseason all-ACC selection for last season, this after a 2013 campaign that featured 114 tackles. The linebacker is also a two-time all-academic ACC performer (2011, 2013). His veteran presence and versatility in the heart of the Blue Devils' defense will be valuable in 2015, and who doesn't love a comeback?
Troy Flutie: Find someone who doesn't love Doug Flutie. (OK, outside of Miami.) That's what I thought. The 5-foot-10 former Boston College and NFL quarterback was a fan favorite, and he had a penchant for clutch moments. The 1984 Heisman Trophy winner's nephew, Troy, is now looking to follow in Doug's footsteps. Troy Flutie is a 6-foot, 182-pound redshirt freshman embroiled in a quarterback battle at BC, along with Darius Wade and Elijah Robinson. Wade is the favorite, but as we have seen before with competitions that involve a Flutie, that can often mean little.
Pitt: The Panthers are currently working under their fourth different head coach over the last six springs. And their name is hardly ever thrown around when talking about Coastal contenders, especially now with Georgia Tech returning plenty of players from its 11-win campaign. But first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi brings a defensive mindset to the program, and he has as good of a starting point on offense as anyone else in the league, with James Conner and Tyler Boyd back for their junior years. Who's to say Pitt can't compete for the Coastal crown next year, despite all of the turmoil of recent years?
Broderick Snoddy: Georgia Tech may have gone on an unexpected run to great heights last fall, but one of its best players was not around to join in on all of the fun. The A-back suffered a broken left leg in last November's win over Clemson, this after rushing for 283 yards and three touchdowns on just 28 carries, while adding 100 yards on three catches and averaging 22.4 yards on five kick returns. The jack-of-all-trades had been coming into his own for the Yellow Jackets late last season, but with so much turnover in the backfield entering 2015, Snoddy will have the chance to seize the moment in his fifth and final season, something that would be all the more rewarding after overcoming a nasty injury at one of the most inopportune times.
Virginia Tech: It's no secret that the program has dropped off a bit in recent years, going just 22-17 the past three seasons after eight straight seasons of 10 or more wins. Still, the Hokies were derailed by injuries last year like few others. And almost all of its offensive production came from talented freshmen who will only get better. Can they unseat Georgia Tech from the Coastal throne? It is hard for many to root against Frank Beamer, and a late-career surge would be quite the showing for a coach who has given so much to the game.
Jalen Ramsey is on the move again.
The junior standout at Florida State, who has started all 28 games of his career, is moving to cornerback this season. Ramsey began his career at cornerback and was the first true freshman to start at cornerback since Deion Sanders, but he then moved to free safety and then nickelback as a sophomore.
Regardless of where Ramsey plays, he is going to play a significant role in Florida State's defense again. Ramsey is one of the country's elite athletes -- he finished fourth nationally in the long jump last week -- and he will continue to cover, blitz and even do a little freelancing regardless of where he is on the field.
The question is whether the Seminoles will have the productivity around Ramsey on a defense that could be tasked with carrying much of the load, a contrast to the 2014 season. The offense is being overhauled, and while the defense did lose several key contributors and former five-star prospects, it does return a good deal of experience at every level. Florida State has to improve its pass rush, and the linebacker group will have to overcome depth issues.
As for Ramsey's future, the move back to cornerback would seemingly help his draft stock, whether he enters the NFL draft after this season or 2016. More cornerbacks (nine) have been drafted in the first round the last two years than any other defensive position. Corners are annually among the highest-paid defensive players, too. Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman have all signed lucrative contracts recently.
Other links around the ACC for your morning (assuming the afternoon and evening will be dedicated to the NCAA Tournament, which begins in earnest Thursday).
- I think the ACC blog could use a selfie stick (and a jet ski).
- Virginia Tech had its pro day, and father was there to once again coach his son.
- Miami received some good news and some bad news on the recruiting trail. Kc McDermott, already a member of the Canes, said he will not accept anything short of a conference championship. Miami has yet to win an ACC title since joining the league.
- Daryl Gross said it was his decision to leave his post as Syracuse athletic director. This NCAA tournament eve (in the traditional sense) will be remembered for a long time in central New York.
- Pitt and Tennessee announced a home-and-home series for 2021 and 2022. The first game will be played at Tennessee.
- An interesting interview with Boston College AD Brad Bates about his thoughts on the evolving collegiate model and BC's dissenting vote to recent legislation.
- Six takeaways from Georgia Tech's pro day includes notes on Shaq Mason and DeAndre Smelter. And Georgia Tech's Chaz Cheeks and Thomas O'Reilly are no longer listed on the roster.
From Florida State and Clemson to Miami and Boston College, offensive lines will be a big talking point for many ACC offenses this spring. But in Blacksburg, Virginia, Frank Beamer’s crew is actually feeling a bit optimistic.
As the Roanoke Times writes in its preview of the position, this marks the first time in the past four years that Virginia Tech has had the same O-line coach -- and recruiting, development and scheme philosophies -- which once again has the line firmly in the spotlight.
From the Times:
This group has been treading water for a few years, trying to dig out of a numbers deficiency and talent gap that's been been apparent whenever the Hokies played against even decent defensive lines.
It’s no secret that Virginia Tech hasn’t met expectations for the past three years, and while there have been plenty of areas that needed improvement, it’s hard to argue that the offensive line hasn’t been the most overwhelming problem.
For example, here are some crucial line-related numbers for Virginia Tech since 2012:
- 42nd among 65 Power 5 teams in sack rate (6.4 percent)
- tied for 62nd in yards per carry (4.27, not counting sacks)
- 60th in touchdowns per rush (3.3 percent)
- 60th in percentage of rushes going for a loss or no gain (21.5 percent)
- 54th in yards per play on first down (5.32)
- 60th in third- and fourth-and-short conversions (54.5 percent)
Those are all pretty atrocious results, which might explain why a line that figures to look quite a bit different in 2015 is also one that has a lot more enthusiasm surrounding it.
Stacy Searels has a track record of success building lines. Wyatt Teller was a revelation in the second half of 2014. Depth, for the first time in years, is an asset. And, of course, this year might also represent the best cast of skill-position players surrounding the line in years.
In other words, while FSU is hoping Wilson Bell can emerge as a star and Miami is excited to have Kc McDermott back in the fold, there may not be any ACC team with more focus on the offensive line this spring. And if that unit really does take a big step forward, there’s reason to think that Virginia Tech can, at long last, return to that 10-win plateau that had once been the norm.
A few more links:
- It’s going to be a fresh start at cornerback for Florida State, writes Tomahawk Nation.
- The competition at quarterback is a boost for Wake Forest’s offense, writes the Winston-Salem Journal.
- The Orange have parted ways with senior receiver Quinta Funderburk, writes Syracuse.com.
- The first day of spring practice at Virginia was about getting back into the groove for the Hoos, writes the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
- A former NC State receiver is under investigation by the federal government on fraud charges, writes the Raleigh News & Observer.
When Virginia Tech opens spring practice next week, the Hokies will do so with many of their key starters on the sideline.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said Tuesday that he expects cornerbacks Kendall Fuller (wrist) and Brandon Facyson (leg), along with defensive linemen Corey Marshall (ankle), Luther Maddy (knee) and Ken Ekanem (shoulder) to be held out this spring. Fuller, Facyson, Maddy and Ekanem are all recovering from surgery and were not expected to fully participate; Marshall has been hobbled with an ankle injury.
"Corey Marshall -- we’ll just play that one by ear but I really think we’re probably looking at holding him out and just getting those guys healthy and ready to attack this thing in the summer and have a great summer offseason strength program," Foster said.
"We have a chance to be pretty good, if we stay healthy. We return a good number of people who played a significant role last season so when we can create a little bit of depth to spell some people, particularly up front, that’s when we’ve been able to play at a high level. That’s one thing I’m hoping we can do."
Facyson and Maddy missed most of last season with injuries, but had medical hardship waivers approved and are expected to be ready for fall camp. Foster said Facyson is doing really well right now but is not ready to play.
"We need to get him back healthy. If he can go back and play like he did his freshman year, we’re getting a dynamic player back," Foster said.
Fuller -- the team's best cornerback -- played through a wrist injury last season and had surgery in January. Ekanem, who had a team-high 9.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss last year, will be ready for the summer.
On offense, running back Marshawn Williams (knee) and center Kyle Chung (shoulder) are also out. Running back Shai McKenzie, rehabbing a knee injury, has been suspended indefinitely after he was arrested earlier this month.
Boston College fans who'd been eagerly anticipating the team's annual spring game are probably a bit disappointed with news that the team has nixed the exhibition in favor of an open scrimmage. Most fans, on the other hand, probably aren't sure what the difference is regardless.
For the second time in three years, the Eagles have opted against holding a traditional spring game, a decision coach Steve Addazio explained as a necessity to get his team ready:
"These adjustments are meant to best serve our team," Addazio said in a statement released by the school. "We understand that our fans have received this information on short notice, but we know that ultimately they are dedicated to support us as we strive to win as many games as possible this coming season."
While the move comes a bit late in the spring for BC, the Eagles are hardly the only team making changes to their spring calendar.
Repairs to Kenan Stadium meant North Carolina had two separate spring "events" -- including one in Charlotte, North Carolina -- rather than a traditional spring game.
Last year, it was Pittsburgh cutting the spring game from its schedule as former coach Paul Chryst suggested more practice time benefited a young team.
In the big picture, it's easy to wonder why any of it matters in the first place.
Yes, there are some fans who enjoy the game — which is usually a chance to get an early look at the team for free. And some schools pack out the stadium for these spring exhibitions, too. But the vast majority of programs could probably add up the costs and benefits and come to the same conclusion Addazio has this year: There's just not much reward for the investment.
On the plus side, spring games are good recruiting tools, as Syracuse.com notes in its story about the hefty number of recruits planning to be on campus for the Orange's spring game this season. And more and more, these exhibitions are broadcast -- either online or on TV -- to give schools even more of a wide net for recruiting.
But for the players already on the field, the spring game isn't much help. Because it's played under game-like conditions, there's limited opportunity for coaches to work on nuanced issues. Because the crowd is in the stands, coaches typically water down the playbook and stick to vanilla schemes. And because of injury concerns, plenty of stars never take the field in the first place -- limiting depth and setting up the game as a showcase for walk-ons as much as next year's key players.
With practice time limited by NCAA rules and coaches forced to limit hands-on contact with players once spring practice ends, Addazio's plan to maximize his opportunities to get his team better makes a lot more sense from a practical standpoint. And for the fans, the rare spring-game highlight probably doesn't make up for the often monotonous conditions that drain any drama from the exhibition.
Certainly there could be tweaks made to improve the spring games — whether it be playing other teams or adding some celebrity entertainment value — but really, these are relics that seem unnecessary at best and wastes of time and money at worst. So don't be too surprised if Addazio's plan becomes the norm at more than a few schools moving forward.
A few more links:
- Tomahawk Nation takes a look at Florida State's linebacking situation this spring, noting that Matthew Thomas could be a key for the Seminoles' defense.
- USA Today writes that Sean Maguire remains the frontrunner to replace Jameis Winston as FSU's starting QB.
- Clemson's Dabo Swinney was the target of some of John Oliver's NCAA-related ire on his show "Last Week Tonight," as Yahoo! notes.
- With Virginia set to open spring practice Tuesday, Demetrious Nicholson is making a long-awaited return to work, writes the Daily Progress.
- The Roanoke Times takes a deeper look at Virginia Tech's young receiving corps with an eye toward 2015.
Sam Werner at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a very interesting piece on the eve of Pat Narduzzi's first practice as Pitt's head coach. Werner dives into Narduzzi's Youngstown, Ohio, upbringing and his fiery emotions -- which isn't meant as a negative -- on the sideline.
Early on, Werner brings up an interesting point on how Narduzzi's sideline excitability will affect his ability as a head coach and whether Narduzzi will need to rein it in. That passion is what helped him climb the ladder from assistant at Rhode Island to architect of one of college football's stingiest defenses at budding power Michigan State.
"[B]eing a head coach requires an even more delicate balance. At one instant, Narduzzi must be calm and thoughtful to make rational decisions. At the next, he has to spark his players with the same sort of motivation he has used throughout his entire career," Werner writes.
Narduzzi told Werner he will have to "change a little bit probably" but that he has no intentions of losing his enthusiasm.
At the college level, head coaches are required to double as CEO and face of the program. That has proven to be a tough and unexpected requirement that some talented assistant coaches struggled with in the past. No one would ever question Narduzzi's coaching chops -- he was considered a home-run hire for Pitt -- but it will certainly be worth watching if and how his sideline demeanor changes as Pitt's head coach.
- Five questions heading into the spring season for Pittsburgh, and the first has to do with Narduzzi and the defense.
- This is a nice feature from Corey Clark on the longevity Florida State football and basketball play-by-play voice Gene Deckerhoff. The first time I spoke with Deckerhoff, a few questions turned into a 30-minute conversation. The last time I spoke with him, he was explaining how his interest in The Grammys was reignited because of his affection for the latest pop music. He's a big fan of Meghan Trainor's single "All About That Bass."
- Here is an in-depth timeline of events from the NCAA's case on Syracuse.
- Former Georgia Tech back Zach Laskey performed well at the school's pro day.
- It won't be answered this spring, but it will be worth watching who emerges from Virginia Tech's group of young, talented (and injury-riddled) running backs.
- Facility changes are coming to Clemson, and Dabo Swinney is starting to see his dreams put into action.
1. Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler gave an extensive interview to Roanoke Times beat reporter Andy Bitter, and discussed how much better he feels about the offense headed into Year 3. Primarily, that has to do with so many returning players -- especially quarterback Michael Brewer. Rather than install his offense and run a quarterback competition, this spring the focus can be on getting the entire offense vastly improved. Loeffler told Bitter: "Year 3 you know exactly what you’ve got. There’s no walking into spring football and walking into training camp trying to figure out who you are, what you want to do. You’ve got an idea of exactly who you are. ... It’s a refreshing feeling in comparison to [Years] 1 and 2." Given all the experienced players returning, pressure will be much higher to produce on offense. Loeffler knows all that. "We should be much, much, much improved." There is plenty more insight in the interview about competition across each position.
2. Florida State opens practice next week, and one of the big areas to watch will be on the offensive and defensive lines, which suffered heavy attrition. The Seminoles lose four starters from the offensive line and two from the defensive line -- two groups that did not really live up to expectations a season ago. But there is some good news. Florida State returns Rod Johnson to anchor the offensive line, and he has the potential to have an All-ACC season as a sophomore. The defensive line is where Florida State must make significant improvement, even with Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman gone. There was nothing to brag about for that unit last season as it struggled to contain the run and get a pass rush going. There are some players with experience here, including Nile Lawrence-Stample, Derrick Mitchell and Chris Casher.
3. Georgia Tech holds its Pro Day today. Here are Synjyn Days and Shaq Mason getting measured. You can watch on ESPN3.
Here are a few more links:
- Clemson quarterback Nick Schuessler has impressed in the early part of spring.
- New Jersey's Anthony Brown is Syracuse's top quarterback target in 2016.
- Meet Lorenzo Mauldin, Kentucky Colonel.
- ICYMI: Virginia signee Juan Thornhill made SportsCenter for his ridiculous dunks.
- Bonus video, just because: This Dean Smith painting is remarkable.
Ten starters return, making the group heavy on experience. Five rank among the Top 25 players at any position this spring, making the group deeper than a year ago.
Put Deshaun Watson, Justin Thomas, Brad Kaaya, Marquise Williams and Jacoby Brissett up against the top five quarterbacks in any other Power 5 league, and the ACC looks better than just about everybody.
No surprise, especially when you consider recent history. The ACC seems to go in three-year cycles when it comes to its quarterback breadth and depth. In 2012, the ACC had one 4,000-yard passer and six 3,000-yard passers, including Tajh Boyd, EJ Manuel and Mike Glennon. All three players ended up getting drafted -- Manuel went in the first round.
Rewind three years before that, and the ACC had standouts Christian Ponder, Russell Wilson, Kyle Parker, Tyrod Taylor and Josh Nesbitt.
Since 2005, the ACC has had 13 quarterbacks drafted, including three in the first round. Winston is poised to become the fourth.
Why this has gone in three-year cycles is more coincidental than anything. The stage has been set for a quarterback revival this year because the ACC was extremely young at quarterback last year: Ten schools were forced to replace starters.
It is rare to see so much turnover at the most high-profile position on the field at so many schools at once. Even in the year that preceded 2012, only half the schools in the league had to replace their starting quarterbacks.
So there were many opportunities. Now add in another unique situation: Mostly underclassmen filled the open positions. Of the 10 first-year starters, only three were juniors or seniors. All happened to be transfers -- Tyler Murphy at Boston College, Brissett and Michael Brewer at Virginia Tech.
Several schools were forced to turn to true freshmen. Two succeeded immediately: Kaaya -- the ACC rookie of the year -- and Watson, who showed flashes of brilliance when he was healthy enough to play.
In all, five true freshmen ended up starting at least one game in the ACC -- more than any other Power 5 conference. Though Kaaya and Watson are the only two definitive starters returning, Reggie Bonnafon at Louisville and John Wolford at Wake Forest will have an opportunity to earn starting jobs back. The other, AJ Long at Syracuse, plans to redshirt now that starter Terrel Hunt is healthy.
To put the freshman numbers into further context, last year also was the first time in league history two true freshmen started on opening day -- Kaaya and Wolford ended up starting every single game for their respective teams last season.
So the growing pains from 2014 have led to what should be a big moment for the ACC in 2015. All five top-tier quarterbacks -- Watson, Kaaya, Thomas, Brissett and Williams -- already have way-too-early Heisman odds posted.
Others have an opportunity for big years as well. Pitt coaches are excited about the potential for Chad Voytik; the same goes for Duke coaches and Thomas Sirk. Florida State has been able to develop quarterbacks at will under coach Jimbo Fisher, so whoever earns the starting job there will have an opportunity to join in the top-notch quarterback club. Bobby Petrino has not been a wall flower at developing his quarterbacks, either.
When it comes down to it, Boston College is the only school that has no quarterbacks with any career starts.
So experience is nearly everywhere. So are good players.
All that is setting up to lead to a quarterback bonanza in 2015.
A look back at strong quarterback play across the ACC:
1. Florida State will not have an answer at quarterback. The last time Florida State had a quarterback competition, the spring ended without an announced decision in the race between Jameis Winston, Clint Trickett and Jacob Coker. Even after Trickett announced his decision to transfer, coach Jimbo Fisher maintained Winston and Coker would go into the fall competing for the starting job -- though it was generally assumed Winston would win it. So why should anything be different this spring, with Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino and De'Andre Johnson? Add freshman Deondre Francois into the mix in the summer and there’s little upside in Fisher making an announcement when spring practice ends in April.
3. The Miami defensive line will be better. The Hurricanes have had no significant pass rush since Al Golden arrived in Miami, but that will change this year. Miami has made big strides toward upgrading its tackle and end positions, and coaches feel good about the depth they have been able to develop because they were able to redshirt players last year for the first time under Golden. Miami is noticeably much bigger up front, which cannot be understated. Coaches are high on guys like Michael Wyche, Ufomba Kamalu, Trent Harris and Chad Thomas. Quan Muhammad is back at rush end and has had a good camp. The expectation is for this group to bump up the sack totals compared to the past several years.
4. Watch for Andrew Brown. The highly touted defensive tackle enrolled early last year at Virginia, but injuries cut his spring and freshman season short. Now, coach Mike London says Brown is in better shape and ready to take on a starting role. If he can make an impact the way Quin Blanding did last year, the Virginia defense should be in good shape.
5. The Clemson defense will remain elite. Despite losing the bulk of their defense, the Tigers should remain one of the best groups in the ACC and a top-10 defense nationally for a few reasons. First, the new players stepping into starting roles have game experience. Guys like Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins have played in big games before. Linebacker Ben Boulware has terrific upside. And the secondary is on track to be one of the strongest groups in the league behind potential All-American Mackensie Alexander.
6. Don’t be surprised if Marshawn Williams redshirts. The Virginia Tech running back was having an outstanding freshman season before a torn ACL sidelined him in mid-November. He is out for spring, and his status for the start of fall practice remains up in the air. Each player recovers differently from ACL injuries, so there’s no telling how Williams will come back. But if J.C. Coleman, Trey Edmunds and Joel Caleb can handle the back duties adequately, there’s no sense rushing Williams back.
7. Florida State will win 10 games, but it will be a “down” year. It’s all about perspective. The Seminoles will keep their streak of 10-win seasons going despite breaking in new starters at virtually every position. The schedule is forgiving enough for another double-digit victory total, though. But they won’t be in the national championship conversation. Whether that should be considered a “down” year is up to your interpretation. Wait for 2016 to arrive. Florida State should be back in the hunt then.
8. Georgia Tech will make history in July. For the first time, Georgia Tech will be picked as the preseason Coastal Division champions. The Jackets return enough talent and were impressive enough in 2014 to make believers out of the usually skeptical voters. Since the ACC split into divisions in 2005, Georgia Tech has finished atop the Coastal five times but has never been picked to win. That changes in 2015.
9. No ACC team in the playoff. I’m probably not going out on a limb with this one, but this would mark the first time in three years the league won’t have a chance to compete for a national championship. Florida State will be young, with a new starting quarterback, four new offensive linemen and new starters at tight end, receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle and in the secondary. Clemson and Georgia Tech play tough schedules and have questions of their own to answer. Louisville also is rebuilding on defense and has uncertainty at quarterback, receiver and offensive line.
10. Dabo Swinney joins Twitter! Can Swinney really let Steve Spurrier get the best of him on Twitter? Now that the HBC is all aboard, time for the Clemson head man to join up too. If their verbal jabs are any indication, the potential of their back-and-forth tweets is nothing short of epic.
Significance of impact: Keeping the best at home is something that has been a challenge for both the Hokies and rival Virginia Cavaliers in recent years. Though Floyd's verbal might not resonate nationally, it’s a key in-state win for Virginia Tech in the fight to keep the top prospects home.
Off a thoroughly impressive performance at the NFL combine, Beasley turned heads once again at Clemson's Pro Day on Thursday. Though he did not run or lift, Beasley showed the record 72 team reps that he can also play linebacker, too. Beasley did not look out of place doing linebacker drills with two more established Tigers -- Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
Though he starred at defensive end at Clemson, Beasley projects as an outside linebacker on the next level because of his size and pass rush ability.
Beasley told reporters afterward, "I came out here with the right mind set and I wanted to show these teams that I can play in space and drop back as a linebacker," Beasley said.
There was an all-star group in attendance to watch Beasley and his former teammates. New England coach Bill Belichick, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and Buffalo coach Rex Ryan were all there. All 32 NFL teams were represented.
latest mock draft, ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Beasley going No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons. Kiper writes:
Beasley isn't just an athletic freak because he's been a one-man production line at Clemson, with 44.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He can flat out create disruption and get to the quarterback, and that's exactly what Atlanta needs.
Beasley is one of nine ACC players Kiper has in the first round:
1. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
8. Beasley, Atlanta
14. DeVante Parker, Miami
19. Ereck Flowers, Cleveland
21. Eli Harold, Cincinnati
23. Eddie Goldman, Detroit
27. Kevin Johnson, Dallas
28. Cameron Erving, Denver
29. T.J. Clemmings, Indianapolis
Elsewhere around the ACC:
- Clemson's defense doesn't want to take a backseat to anybody.
- Former Duke standout Laken Tomlinson wants to be a neurosurgeon when his playing career is over.
- A murder allegation has divided a town and sidelined the career of Brian Bell, who had his scholarship from Florida State pulled before signing day.
- Florida State running back Ryan Green is moving to cornerback.
- New York Times reporter Juliet Macur details the devastating story of former North Carolina offensive lineman Ryan Hoffman, now homeless. He blames too many hits to the head during his football career.
- Syracuse cornerback Julian Whigham is looking forward to his chance at redemption, after he says he wasted his junior year.
- Virginia will convert backup quarterback Brendan Marshall to tight end.
- Good news for Virginia Tech: Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson had their medical hardship waivers approved.
- Bonus link! I am very disappointed to live in Orlando right now.