ACC 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

Previewing key storylines around the ACC for spring practice.

It’s hard to declare any team or conference the winner of an offseason, but things have been going well in the ACC since the end of the regular season. Syracuse (Dino Babers), Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall), Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente) and Miami (Mark Richt) all hired excellent coaches, which should help each of those programs take a step forward over the next few seasons. Florida State and Clemson inked standout recruiting classes, adding to the depth and talent level for the league’s top two programs. The Tigers and Seminoles should be in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2016.

 

Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 128 teams over the next few weeks. While spring ball is just practice sessions and it’s hard to glean much information, it’s never too early to look at some of the biggest storylines facing teams this offseason.

 

Here’s a look at the biggest questions facing the 14 teams in the ACC this spring:

 

ACC 2016 Spring Football Preview and Power Rankings

 

Atlantic Division

 

Boston College

2015 Record: 3-9, 0-8 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Answers on Offense

Boston College earned back-to-back bowl appearances in coach Steve Addazio’s first two years, but the program took a step back last season with a 3-9 record. The offense was the primary culprit in the three-win season, especially after injuries to starting quarterback Darius Wade and running back Jon Hilliman. New coordinator Scot Loeffer is tasked with generating improvement from an offense that averaged only 9.1 points a game in ACC contests last year. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles will push Wade at quarterback, and the Eagles need to develop more playmakers at receiver. 

 

Related: Boston College 2016 Football Spring Preview

 

Clemson

2015 Record: 14-1, 8-0 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 4

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Find the Next Standouts at DE

Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd accounted for 24.5 of Clemson’s 48 sacks last season and leave big shoes to fill after the talented duo decided to leave Clemson for the NFL Draft following the national championship. The Tigers faced a similar scenario in last year’s spring session in replacing Vic Beasley and easily reloaded behind Lawson and Dodd. Can coordinator Brent Venables and ends coach Marion Hobby find the next stars at end this spring? Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin, Sterling Johnson, Chris Register and Clelin Ferrell will battle for snaps.

 

Related: Clemson Tigers 2016 Football Spring Preview

 

Florida State

2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 10, Defense: 6

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Quarterback Play

Replacing Jameis Winston wasn’t supposed to be easy, but Florida State struggled to get consistent production from its quarterbacks last year. Everett Golson was benched midway through the year in favor of Sean Maguire, who threw for 1,520 yards and 11 scores. Maguire is the frontrunner based on experience, but he is out for spring practice after an ankle injury suffered against Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. With Maguire sidelined, this spring is a good opportunity for redshirt freshman Deondre Francois or true freshman Malik Henry to state their case for the starting job.

 

Related: ACC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Players for 2016

 

Louisville

2015 Record: 8-5, 5-3 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 10, Defense: 8

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Improving the Offensive Line

With Lamar Jackson firmly entrenched at quarterback and eight returning starters on defense, Louisville should be a top 25 team in 2016. But taking the next step and pushing Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic Division will require better play from the offensive line. The Cardinals surrendered 44 sacks last season – worst in the ACC – and averaged just 4.5 yards per carry. The good news? Four starters are back, including rising star Geron Christian at left tackle. Will this unit take a step forward in spring practice?

 

NC State

2015 Record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 8

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Passing Attack

New coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz inherits six starters on offense, but this unit loses a standout quarterback in Jacoby Brissett and is looking for more big plays from an offense that managed only nine passing plays of 40 yards or more in 2015. Sophomore Jalan McClendon is considered the favorite to replace Brissett, but redshirt freshman Jakobi Meyers is also in the mix. McClendon is an intriguing prospect for coach Dave Doeren, and he completed 8 of 14 passes for 69 yards in limited work last season. Tight end Jaylen Samuels is the go-to option (65 catches in 2015), but who will emerge as big-play threats at receiver? Jumichael Ramos (13.4 ypc in 2015) and Bra’Lon Cherry (22 catches) are back, while redshirt freshman Freddie Simmons is a name to watch.

 

Related: NC State Wolfpack 2016 Spring Football Preview

 

Syracuse

2015 Record: 4-8, 2-6 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Adjusting to the New Staff

Syracuse hit a home run by hiring Dino Babers to replace Scott Shafer. In two stops as a head coach (Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green), Babers is an impressive 37-16 and is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. The Orange are a team in transition on both sides of the ball, with the offense appearing in better shape to adapt to the new staff this spring. Quarterback Eric Dungey is promising, and there is talent at running back and receiver. The biggest concern for Babers’ offense is the line with three starters leaving. After giving up 31 points a game last season, the defense is probably going to give Babers the most headaches in spring ball. The Orange are thin on proven options at defensive end and need to adapt to a new scheme.

 

Related: Syracuse Orange 2016 Spring Football Preview

 

Wake Forest

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 7

Atlantic Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Improvement on Offense

Scoring points has been an issue for the Demon Deacons in recent years. Since 2012, Wake Forest has ranked 12th or worse in the ACC in scoring. Coach Dave Clawson went with a youth movement in his first year in 2014, and this unit showed slight improvement last season, recording 4.8 yards per play (up from 3.4 in 2014). For this unit to take a step forward, quarterback play and offensive line has to take a step forward. The line has allowed 88 sacks over the last two seasons but returns four starters from 2015. Additionally, John Wolford and Kendall Hinton have showed promise at quarterback. Will a clear frontrunner emerge at quarterback this spring? And will the Demon Deacons finally find the right mix in the trenches?

 

Coastal Division

 

Duke

2015 Record: 8-5, 4-4 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 6

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get QB Parker Boehme Ready

Duke’s offense already suffered a big setback this offseason with starting quarterback Thomas Sirk sidelined indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Sirk’s status for 2016 is unsettled, and all signs point to Parker Boehme taking the first snap of the season. Boehme started one game (Pittsburgh) last year and finished the 2015 campaign with 579 passing yards and two touchdowns on 43 completions. He’s also showed promise as a runner, averaging 4.02 yards per carry on 45 attempts last season. With Sirk’s status uncertain for 2016, this spring is a good opportunity for Boehme to get comfortable as the No. 1 quarterback with new coordinator Zac Roper.

 

Related: Duke Blue Devils 2016 Spring Football Preview

 

Georgia Tech

2015 Record: 3-9, 1-7 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 6, Defense: 5

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 5

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Get the Offense Back on Track

A year after winning the Coastal Division, Georgia Tech took a major step back in 2015. The Yellow Jackets won just one game (Florida State) in ACC play, struggled to find consistency on offense and surrendered 31.3 points a game in league contests. The defense opens spring ball with question marks at each level, but coach Paul Johnson has to get the offense back on track. Georgia Tech averaged only 5.8 yards per play last season, which was the program’s lowest mark since 2010. Quarterback Justin Thomas is capable of contending for All-ACC honors, and his supporting cast will receive a boost from the return of running back C.J. Leggett after missing all of 2015 due to injury. Can Johnson start to put the pieces together up front and generate more consistency from the receiving corps and running backs? The pieces are in place for a quick turnaround for the Yellow Jackets in 2016.

 

Miami

2015 Record: 8-5, 5-3 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 9, Defense: 7

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 2

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Finding Answers on Defense

Miami has work to do on its offensive line and must develop a few additional options outside of Stacy Coley at receiver for Brad Kaaya, but the offense is in relatively good shape entering spring practice. The defense? Not so much. New coordinator Manny Diaz inherits a unit that allowed 5.78 yards per play last season and returns seven starters for 2016. The secondary is a huge concern after the loss of Tracy Howard and Artie Burns and safety Deon Bush. Better play is needed in the trenches after surrendering 201 rushing yards per game in 2015.

 

Related: ACC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Players for 2016

 

North Carolina

2015 Record: 11-3, 8-0 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 7, Defense: 6

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 1

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Revamping the Front Seven

Most of the attention in Chapel Hill this spring will reside with new quarterback Mitch Trubisky and his adjustment into the starting lineup. However, there’s a glaring concern up front for the Tar Heels after surrendering 247.4 rushing yards a game last season. The defensive line loses tackle Justin Thomason, and the linebacking corps must replace Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad. Junior Dajaun Drennon and sophomore Jalen Dalton are two names to watch in the trenches. Can coordinator Gene Chizk start to find the right pieces up front this spring?

 

Related: North Carolina Tar Heels 2016 Spring Football Preview

 

Pittsburgh

2015 Record: 8-5, 6-2 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 8

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 4

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Generating More from the Passing Attack

New coordinator Matt Canada doesn’t need to change the formula for success in the Steel City. The Panthers should build their offense around a strong ground attack with running backs James Conner and Qadree Ollison and a standout offensive line. However, for Pittsburgh to challenge for the Coastal Division title, the passing attack needs to take a step forward. The Panthers ranked 11th in the ACC in pass offense last year and generated only four plays of 40 yards or more. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is back after a solid debut with the Panthers in 2015, but the receiving corps loses standout Tyler Boyd (91 of the team’s 212 catches last year), and there’s not a ton of proven options outside of Dontez Ford at receiver. 

 

Virginia

2015 Record: 4-8, 3-5 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 5, Defense: 5

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 7

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: Developing Playmakers at Receiver

New coach Bronco Mendenhall will have a busy spring implementing new schemes and getting to know the roster in his first season in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers return 10 starters from last year’s 4-8 team, and there’s work to do on both sides of the ball at each level. One of the glaring issues for Mendenhall is at receiver with the departure of standout Canaan Severin (54 catches) and T.J. Thorpe (23 grabs). The team’s top returning receiver is running back Taquan Mizzell (75 catches), with Keeon Johnson (13 receptions) as the top statistical wide receiver from last season. Quarterback Matt Johns returns after a solid 2015 campaign (20 TDs, 2,810 yards), but the supporting cast has to improve if Virginia wants to challenge for a bowl.

 

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2016

 

Virginia Tech

2015 Record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC

Returning Starters: Offense: 8, Defense: 6

Coastal Division Pre-Spring Power Ranking: 3

 

Top Priority in Spring Practice: The Quarterback Battle

Virginia Tech won the coaching carousel with its hire of Justin Fuente, and the spring is the first opportunity for the new staff to put its stamp on the program. Restocking the trenches on defense is another area to watch, but the biggest storyline in Blacksburg is the quarterback position. Junior college recruit Jerod Evans enrolled in time to compete in spring practice with Brenden Motley, Dwayne Lawson and Chris Durkin for the starting job. Evans was a touted – and rare junior college prospect signed by Virginia Tech – while Lawson was regarded as a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class. Motley has the edge in experience (167 career pass attempts). 

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