The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
14 ACC Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Boston College Offensive Line
This unit has been a strength in coach Steve Addazio’s two-year tenure. But the Eagles lost all five starters off last season’s unit, and there’s very little returning in the way of starting experience. Senior Harris Williams is back after missing nearly all of 2014 with an ankle injury and returns in 2015 as the leader for this group. With a talented backfield returning, Boston College needs this unit to mesh early in the year to exceed last season’s seven wins.
Clemson Offensive Line
Protecting quarterback Deshaun Watson is priority No. 1 for coach Dabo Swinney in 2015. The line was the biggest issue following spring practice, and the concerns about this unit only increased after Isaiah Battle left for the NFL supplemental draft. The Tigers allowed 27 sacks in 13 games last year and return only one starter (center Ryan Norton). The projected starting five have just 29 career starts, and true freshman Mitch Hyatt is expected to start at left tackle.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
Duke Defensive Line
With five returning starters in the secondary, stopping the pass shouldn’t be an issue for co-defensive coordinators Jim Collins and Jim Knowles. But the Blue Devils have to be better against the run. Duke allowed 192.9 rushing yards per game in 2014 and only one starter – tackle Carlos Wray – is back up front. Converted linebackers Kyler Brown and Britton Grier are expected to play a hybrid linebacker/end role, and junior A.J. Wolf replaces Jamal Bruce on the interior. The development of the offensive line is also something to watch in 2015.
Related: Ranking the ACC Coaches for 2015
Florida State Linebackers
The offensive and defensive lines are also worth mentioning here, but the linebacker position has been depleted by departures and injuries. Senior Terrance Smith was injured off and on in 2014 and finished the year with 87 stops and two interceptions. He should be an all-conference performer (if healthy) in 2015. After Smith is where the questions begin for coordinator Charles Kelly. Senior Reggie Northrup is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Rose Bowl, and sophomore Matthew Thomas is questionable to start the opener after offseason shoulder surgery. If Thomas and Northrup aren’t ready by September, the pressure builds on junior college recruit Lorenzo Phillips, sophomore Ro’Derrick Hoskins and redshirt freshman Delvin Purifoy.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
Georgia Tech Wide Receivers
It seems odd to mention this position for a team that averages only 14.5 pass attempts a game. However, even though Georgia Tech will have one of the nation’s top rushing attacks, the threat of the pass is still needed. DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller accounted for 61 of the Yellow Jackets’ 106 receptions last year. Will coach Paul Johnson find a couple of targets for quarterback Justin Thomas?
Related: ACC 2015 All-Conference Team
Louisville Offensive Line
While Louisville must replace all four starters in its secondary, there is plenty of talent waiting to step in for coordinator Todd Grantham. The offensive line had its share of ups and downs in 2014, allowing 40 sacks and clearing the way for rushers to average just 3.7 yards per rush in ACC games. Adding to the concerns about this group was the departure of three key seniors. Junior Tobijah Hughley and senior Aaron Epps are back as returning starters, but this unit is a position of concern for coach Bobby Petrino headed into fall practice.
Miami Offensive Line
The defensive line and linebacker units are also worth a mention here, but Miami’s offense won’t take off unless quarterback Brad Kaaya has enough time to throw. The Hurricanes return just one starter up front (guard Danny Isidora) and projected starter Taylor Gadbois was recently dismissed from the team. Even though there’s new faces stepping into the lineup, this group has potential and talent with sophomores Kc McDermott, Trevor Darling and Nick Linder competing for starting spots.
NC State Wide Receivers
With 14 returning starters, along with another year for quarterback Jacoby Brissett to develop, NC State is a sleeper team to watch in the Atlantic Division. Brissett threw for 2,606 yards and 23 scores in his Wolfpack debut, but the senior quarterback needs help from his supporting cast to elevate this team into division title contention. The receiving corps lost leading target Bo Hines (45 catches) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (22 receptions), leaving tight end David Grinnage (27 catches) as the top returning option. This unit isn’t totally depleted, as Bra’Lon Cherry, Johnathan Alston and all-purpose threat Nyheim Hines should give Brissett options in the passing attack.
North Carolina Defensive Line
The Tar Heels need better play from their offensive line, but improving the defense was the top priority for coach Larry Fedora in the spring. Hiring Gene Chizik as the team’s new coordinator was a step in the right direction, and the former Auburn coach inherits six returning starters. Getting better play from the defense starts up front, as this unit has to stop the run better after giving up 240.5 yards per game in 2014. Additionally, generating a better pass rush is a must after recording only 22 sacks in 13 games. Sophomores Nazair Jones and Dajaun Drennon are good building blocks for Chizik in 2015.
Pittsburgh Defensive Backs
Pittsburgh finished 2014 ranked fourth in the ACC in pass defense, but a deeper look at the numbers shows why coach Pat Narduzzi wants to improve this unit for the 2015 season. The Panthers allowed 12 plays of 40 yards or more and six of 50 yards or more. Both of those totals were near the bottom of the ACC. Eliminating some of the big plays allowed by the defensive backs could be helped by a better pass rush, which is where the influence of Narduzzi and coordinator Josh Conklin should pay off. Pittsburgh has to improve on defense to win the Coastal, and there’s reason to be optimistic in the Steel City going into the 2015 season.
Related: All-America Team for 2015
Syracuse Defensive Line
A couple of positions deserve a mention here, but Syracuse’s defensive line has been depleted by departures since last season. Junior Ron Thompson is a candidate for All-ACC honors, but how will the rest of this group look by the season opener? Converted linebacker Luke Arciniega could help at defensive end, and Thompson may have to play inside with the concerns on the interior. Senior Wayne Williams recently left the team, leaving redshirt freshmen Kayton Samuels and Chris Slayton has two of the top three options at tackle. Coach Scott Shafer will have a use a few incoming freshmen just to build a rotation up front.
The Cavaliers were hit hard by departures on defense, as end Eli Harold and linebacker Max Valles left early for the NFL Draft. Additionally, senior linebackers Henry Coley and Daquan Romero expired their eligibility, leaving just two returning starters up front. Linebacker is generally one of the easier positions to reload each year, but this will be an inexperienced group for coach Mike London. True freshmen C.J. Stalker and Jahvoni Simmons could start, while Zach Bradshaw, Mark Hall and Micah Kiser are also pushing for snaps.
Related: All-Freshman Team for 2015
Virginia Tech Offensive Line
This unit has been a question mark in recent years, and the Hokies need better play in the trenches on offense to get back to the ACC Championship. This unit allowed 34 sacks last season, and the rushing attack averaged only 3.2 yards per carry in ACC games. Improvement for this group rests on the development of junior left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin and sophomore guard Wyatt Teller. Both players should be in the mix for All-ACC honors and could develop into one of the ACC’s top pairings on the left side of the line. Promising pieces are in place for line coach Stacy Searels. How much will this unit improve by the fall?
Wake Forest Offensive Line
It’s no secret the offensive line was Wake Forest’s biggest weakness last year. The Demon Deacons allowed the most sacks in the nation (48), and rushers generated only 1.3 yards per rush. Coach Dave Clawson hopes another offseason helps this unit improve, and three freshmen – Phil Haynes, Ryan Anderson and Justin Herron – could crack the starting lineup. This unit won’t be as bad as it was in 2014. But how much can it improve?