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Florida State and Jimbo Fisher have a few holes to fill in spring practice.
The ACC has experienced a few changes through realignment over the last couple of years, and the final piece of the puzzle appears to be the addition of Louisville as the No. 14 team in the league. Maryland is off to the Big Ten, and the Cardinals will slide into the Atlantic Division in 2014. Stability is crucial for the ACC, as the conference seems to have momentum after what transpired on the gridiron last season.
Florida State ended the SEC’s national title streak with a last-minute victory over Auburn in Pasadena in the BCS Championship. The Seminoles are loaded for another national championship run, and coach Jimbo Fisher continues to bring in elite talent on the recruiting trail. Florida State is clearly the class of the conference heading into 2014, but Clemson should be a top 15-20 team. The Tigers return 11 starters, and three options will battle to replace Tajh Boyd under center this spring.
The pecking order in the Atlantic Division is clear, but things are murky in the Coastal. Miami is likely to open 2014 as the favorite, and it’s time for Al Golden to take this team to the conference championship game. If the Hurricanes aren’t the favorite, North Carolina or Duke can make a compelling case for the top spot. The Tar Heels are loaded on offense, and the Blue Devils return most of the core from last year’s team. Virginia Tech is a wildcard heading into spring practice. As usual, the Hokies should be strong on defense. However, the offense remains a work in progress and may struggle to top last season's totals.
|Lost Early to the NFL||Returning Offensive Starters||Returning Defensive Starters|
Atlantic Division Spring Outlook
Starting over on offense:
With quarterback Chase Rettig, running back Andre Williams and receiver Alex Amidon expiring their eligibility, Boston College’s offense is essentially starting over in 2014. Williams and Rettig combined for 4,243 of the Eagles’ 4,774 yards last season, while Amidon caught 77 of the team’s 164 receptions. Needless to say, coach Steve Addazio and coordinator Ryan Day will be busy this spring. The news isn’t all bad for Addazio and Day, as Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse are a good foundation at running back. At quarterback, Florida transfer Tyler Murphy has experience, and the staff was able to redshirt James Walsh last year. Spiffy Evans and Harrison Jackson are back at receiver, and the offense can build around a solid line that returns three starters. This spring is Addazio’s first look at the replacements, and the offense can begin to develop some clarity at quarterback, running back and receiver.
Life without Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd begins this spring:
The offseason was a mixed bag of news for Clemson. There was good news: Offensive coordinator Chad Morris didn’t leave Death Valley. But there was also plenty of bad news, as quarterback Tajh Boyd and running back Roderick McDowell expired their eligibility, and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant left early for the NFL Draft. Morris and coach Dabo Swinney have a rebuilding effort ahead on offense, but there shouldn’t be too big of a drop-off in production. Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson will compete for the starting quarterback job. Stoudt has the edge in experience, but Watson is a star in the making. The receiving corps also has talent, headlined by Adam Humphries, Mike Williams and Gerome Hopper. Charone Peake also returns to the lineup after missing most of last season with an injury. The first priority for Clemson is the quarterback battle. Is this Stoudt’s job to lose? Or do all three candidates have a shot to open the year as the No. 1 quarterback? This spring will be the first opportunity for Swinney and Morris to sort out their options on offense.
Restocking at defensive tackle:
With 13 starters returning, the Seminoles are in good shape to defend their national championship. Repeating as college football’s national champion won’t be easy, but Florida State has no shortage of talent waiting to step onto the field. New coordinator Charles Kelly should ensure there’s little drop in production on defense, but there’s a big concern at defensive tackle. Timmy Jernigan was one of the nation’s best last season, and he bolted early for the NFL. Additionally, Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. With Jernigan, McDaniel and McAllister gone, the depth is thin at tackle. Nile Lawrence-Stample is the top returner on the interior, with Desmond Hollin, Justin Shanks, Eddie Goldman and Keith Bryant battling for snaps this spring. The Seminoles will add more talent to the mix in the fall when Adam Torres, Arthur Williams, Derrick Nnadi, Fredrick Jones and Demarcus Christmas arrive for their freshman season. Not all of the incoming freshmen will compete for time, but some could be needed for depth in 2014. Finding answers at defensive tackle is even more critical when you consider the losses at linebacker (Telvin Smith and Christian Jones), along with active defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks.
Adjusting to the new 3-4 defense:
Replacing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is no easy task, but Will Gardner has potential and played well in limited action last year. While the quarterback situation is something to watch, Bobby Petrino should push the right buttons on offense. With Petrino back on the sidelines in Louisville, the focus of spring practice should shift to the defense. The Cardinals led the nation against the run last season and finished second in points allowed. However, only four starters return from last year’s unit, and there’s a transition period as new coordinator Todd Grantham shifts the personnel to a 3-4 scheme. Lorenzo Mauldin is expected to be an All-ACC performer, and the senior will move from end to linebacker this spring. Other personnel moves are anticipated, especially as Louisville looks for replacements at safety with the departure of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Charlie Strong isn’t leaving the cupboard bare on defense, but it may take some time for the players to adjust to a new 3-4 approach.
Jacoby Brissett’s time to shine:
The Wolfpack had a revolving door at under center last season, with five quarterbacks attempting passes. But 2014 is expected to be a different story in Raleigh. Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is clearly NC State’s No. 1 quarterback and is an upgrade over last year’s options. Brissett has talent (No. 75 player by Rivals in 2011 signing class) but has thrown only 74 passes in two seasons at Florida and completed 4 of 10 passes for 59 yards and one touchdown in NC State’s 2013 spring game. The Wolfpack have a solid supporting cast in place to help Brissett, including running back Shadrach Thornton and receivers Bryan Underwood and Jumichael Ramos. As a first-year starter, Brissett is going to have his share of ups and downs. However, he should be an upgrade over last year’s options. This spring is all about getting him ready to take the first snap of 2014.
The front seven on defense:
The Orange have a few question marks on both sides of the ball, but this team is positioned to make another bowl in Scott Shafer’s second season. Quarterback Terrel Hunt grew more comfortable as the starter late in the year, and there are promising receivers with Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime. With the offense expected to take another step forward in 2014, the focus of spring practice should on defense. Seven starters are back, but this unit loses tackle Jay Bromley and linebacker Marquis Spruill. Bromley was one of the ACC’s underrated defenders last season and recorded 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss. Without Bromley, who steps up to be the difference maker in the trenches? Senior Eric Crume is an option, and massive junior college recruit Wayne Williams (335 pounds) could be a name to watch on the interior. In addition to securing the interior of the line, Spruill’s production at middle linebacker must be replaced. Luke Arciniega was listed as his backup last season, but the defense also needs more from Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch.
Rebuilding from scratch:
New coach Dave Clawson has plenty of experience in rebuilding. After going 3-19 in his first two years at Fordham, Clawson guided the program to a 26-10 mark over the final three seasons. Clawson used the same blueprint at Richmond, taking the Spiders from 3-8 in 2004 to 9-4 in 2005. At Bowling Green, Clawson went 14-23 in his first three seasons but finished with an 18-8 mark over the final two years with a MAC Championship in 2013. Clawson has his work cut out for him this season, as Wake Forest returns just eight starters and loses quarterback Tanner Price and standout receiver Michael Campanaro. This spring is all about finding playmakers on offense, along with developing Tyler Cameron at quarterback. The defense returns five starters but nose guard Nikita Whitlock must be replaced. The Demon Deacons have a handful of question marks and concerns, but this spring is the first step in Clawson’s rebuilding plan to get the program back on track.
Coastal Division Spring Outlook
Starting over on the defensive line:
After going 10-4 and playing in the ACC Championship last year, Duke is coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The Blue Devils return 14 starters in 2014, but there are a few concerns heading into spring practice. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper left for Florida, and Cutcliffe promoted from within, giving the play-calling duties to Scottie Montgomery. Considering Cutcliffe’s track record on offense, this unit shouldn’t suffer too much on the stat sheet. But a concern for Duke is the departure of three key players on the line, including standout end Kenny Anunike. In addition to Anunike, end Justin Foxx and tackle Sydney Sarmiento depart after starting up front in 2013. Cutcliffe and co-coordinators Jim Knowles and Jim Collins shifted Kyler Brown from linebacker to end to help alleviate the losses there. The Blue Devils are also counting on Dezmond Johnson, Jonathan Jones and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo to step up their production this season. The spring will be the first look at a rebuilt defensive line, which will be a critical unit to watch as Duke hopes to repeat as the Coastal Division champion.
New faces in the backfield:
Despite having winning ACC records in five out of his six seasons at Georgia Tech, coach Paul Johnson is starting to feel a little heat from the fanbase. The Yellow Jackets are 14-13 over the last two years and will be picked near the bottom of the Coastal in 2014. In order for Georgia Tech to contend for a division crown, Johnson has to find new playmakers in the backfield. Quarterback Vad Lee left for James Madison at the end of the year, leaving Justin Thomas as the team’s No. 1 option under center. Thomas is a good athlete and should be a good fit in Georgia Tech’s offense. At running back, David Sims and Robert Godhigh depart after each player rushed for over 700 yards last year. Zach Laskey is the team’s leading returning rusher (485 yards), but the Yellow Jackets need to find more playmakers on the ground.
Looking for improvement on defense:
Sure, there’s a quarterback battle set to take place in Coral Gables this spring, but most of the attention for the coaching staff should be on the defense. The Hurricanes ranked 13th in the ACC in total defense last season, which came one year after finishing last in the conference. The numbers weren’t pretty for Al Golden’s defense, which allowed 6.2 yards per play in ACC-only games and gave up 32.8 points per game in eight conference contests. For a team that has the No. 2 ranked roster in the ACC, the ongoing defensive struggles are a mystery. While the numbers from last year are ugly, there’s hope for improvement with seven starters returning, while another solid recruiting class will help with overall depth. Each level of the defense has a potential impact player, starting with Anthony Chickillo at defensive end, Denzel Perryman at linebacker and Tracy Howard at cornerback. But can coordinator Mark D’Onofrio develop or find more difference makers on defense this spring?
Replacements on the offensive line:
The top spot in the Coastal Division is expected to be up for grabs once again next year. The Tar Heels finished 2013 by winning six out of their final seven games, and with seven starters back on both sides of the ball, Larry Fedora’s team is positioned for a run at the division title. Marquise Williams will have to compete with Mitch Trubisky for the starting quarterback job, but the promising junior is expected to win the No. 1 spot. The Tar Heels are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including receiver Quinshad Davis and running back T.J. Logan. If there’s a concern on offense, it’s a line that loses two standout players in left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. Guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle Jon Heck provide a solid foundation, but left tackle and center are arguably the two most-important positions on the line. Can Fedora and new coordinator Seth Littrell find answers in the spring? One name to watch is incoming freshman Bentley Spain – the No. 115 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – who enrolled early to compete this spring.
Filling the voids on defense:
With a favorable schedule and promising young talent on offense, the Panthers are a team on the rise in the Coastal Division. But in order for Paul Chryst’s team to jump into division title contention, the defense has to fill a few holes to fill. Tackle Aaron Donald will be difficult to replace after earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, and the Panthers also lose fellow tackle Tyrone Ezell, linebacker Shane Gordon, cornerback K’Waun Williams and safety Jason Hendricks. Pittsburgh’s defense ranked a respectable fifth in conference-only games in fewest yards allowed. However, the Panthers gave up 27.2 points per game and struggled on defense inside the red zone and on third downs. With Matt House calling the plays for the second season, will this defense show improvement despite losing its best player? This spring is a big opportunity for players like tackle Darryl Render and end Shakir Soto as Pittsburgh looks to replace Donald’s production and improve off last year’s totals.
Quarterback play under the spotlight:
Talent certainly isn’t an issue at Virginia (No. 6 roster in the ACC), but the Cavaliers have won just six games over the last two years. Coach Mike London enters 2014 on the hot seat, and a tough schedule is on tap for his team once again. For Virginia to surpass last year’s two victories, it needs more from quarterback David Watford. In eight ACC contests, Watford threw only five touchdowns and tossed eight interceptions on 203 attempts. Backup Greyson Lambert didn’t fare much better, completing only 44 percent of his throws and tossing two picks on 75 attempts last year. Watford should enter spring with an edge on Lambert to start, but this battle could extend into the fall once freshman Corwin Cutler arrives on campus. With Kevin Parks returning at running back and an experience at receiver and tight end, there’s potential with this offense. However, Virginia’s passing game won’t improve unless the quarterback play is better in 2014.
Finding a spark on offense:
The final numbers for Virginia Tech’s offense weren’t pretty last season. The Hokies finished 13th in the ACC in total offense and averaged just five yards per play. Under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech managed just 28 points in its final two games and scored under 20 points seven times in 2013. This unit enters spring practice with a myriad of question marks, starting under center where Logan Thomas expired his eligibility after the Sun Bowl loss to UCLA. Mark Leal is the favorite to replace Thomas, but he has just 48 pass attempts in his career. Leal needs to prove he has control of the No. 1 spot this spring, while Loeffler has to provide the senior with more help in the supporting cast. The Hokies averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season, while inconsistency was a concern in the receiving corps and on the offensive line. Virginia Tech will be fine on defense, but it’s hard to see improvement off last year’s 8-5 mark without significant growth on offense.