Previewing key storylines around the ACC for spring practice.
The ACC finished 2016 on a high note and the momentum for this league should carry into 2017. Clemson is the reigning national champions, and even though coach Dabo Swinney has plenty of holes to fill this spring, the Tigers should be a threat to make the CFB Playoff. Florida State is the early favorite in the Atlantic Division, and coach Jimbo Fisher’s team should get an early look at how it stacks up with a Week 1 matchup against Alabama. Quarterback Lamar Jackson returns to defend his Heisman Trophy at Louisville, while the Coastal Division is a wide-open battle at the top.
Spring practice is set to begin around the nation for all 130 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 and a pre-spring ranking facing the 14 teams in the ACC this spring:
ACC 2017 Spring Preview and Power Rankings
1. Florida State
Key Spring Goal: Find the Right Mix on the Offensive Line
Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team is loaded for a run at the national title, but the Seminoles have a few preseason question marks surrounding the offense. Depth at receiver, replacing running back Dalvin Cook and the offensive line all top the priority list for the coaching staff. The offensive line must replace standout left tackle Roderick Johnson, but a handful of players with experience return. How will this group mesh in the spring? And how quickly will talented redshirt freshmen Baveon Johnson, Andrew Boselli, Josh Ball and Jauan Williams push for snaps?
Key Spring Goal: Replace Deshaun Watson
The defending national champs open spring practice with key question marks on both sides of the ball. However, none are bigger than finding a replacement for Watson. Junior Kelly Bryant is the early frontrunner after completing 6 of 9 passes for 48 yards and one score last year. Redshirt freshman (and former four-star recruit) Zerrick Cooper is next in line, while true freshman Hunter Johnson is also in the mix. The Tigers have talent at quarterback. It’s just a matter of finding a starter and developing him within the offense.
Key Spring Goal: Address the Offensive Line
Despite the playmaking skills of quarterback Lamar Jackson, Louisville ranked last in the ACC in sacks allowed. This unit surrendered 47 in 13 games in 2016, prompting coach Bobby Petrino to make changes. Veteran assistant Mike Summers is back at Louisville, and he inherits a group that returns two starters – Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil. Christian is the anchor at left tackle, but McNeil could slide to guard this offseason. Junior college recruit Ronald Rudd and freshman Cole Bentley are expected to push for time.
4. NC State
Key Spring Goal: Replace RB Matt Dayes
The secondary loses a couple of key players, but all eyes in Raleigh will be on the battle to replace running back Matt Dayes this spring. Dayes rushed for 1,166 yards and 10 scores last season and added 32 receptions for 267 yards. Reggie Gallaspy is the top returning rusher (234 yards), but he will be pushed for time by sophomore Johnny Frasier and converted receiver Nyheim Hines. Frasier ranked as a four-star recruit out of high school and missed most of 2016 due to a shoulder injury.
5. Wake Forest
Key Spring Goal: Development on Offense
Coach Dave Clawson’s program is headed in the right direction, and the Demon Deacons should be a good bet to reach a bowl game for the second year in a row. While the defense has a few key voids to fill, the top priority for Clawson remains the offense. Wake Forest has ranked 12th or worse in the ACC in scoring in five consecutive seasons and has not averaged more than four yards per carry since 2010. Kendall Hinton will get the first opportunity to claim the starting quarterback job, and there’s work to be done in the trenches after giving up 39 sacks in 2016. The Demon Deacons need better play from their quarterbacks, but it’s also essential to develop and generate improvement from the offensive line.
Key Spring Goal: Fix the Defense
Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Syracuse in 2017, but the Orange won’t push for a bowl trip without improvement on defense. This unit surrendered 38.6 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in 2016. Additionally, Syracuse struggled to generate pressure on the quarterback (16 sacks), allowed 23 plays of 40 yards or more and forced only 19 turnovers. The good news? This unit returns 10 starters and improvement should be a reasonable expectation with few personnel losses. The linebacker duo of Parris Bennett and Zaire Franklin is the strength of this defense, but more help is needed in the secondary and in the trenches.
7. Boston College
Key Spring Goal: The Passing Attack
The Eagles averaged just 109.5 passing yards in ACC contests last year. Additionally, coach Steve Addazio’s team tossed only four touchdown passes in conference play and ranked last in the league by completing 46.5 percent of its throws. Quarterback Patrick Towles has expired his eligibility, leaving Darius Wade (9 of 19 for 100 yards in 2016) as the No. 1 quarterback. Redshirt freshman Anthony Brown is another name to watch at quarterback. The Eagles return a couple of solid targets on the outside, including receivers Michael Walker, Jeff Smith, Charlie Callinan and tight end Tommy Sweeney. Can Wade (or Brown) and the passing attack take a step forward this spring?
Key Spring Goal: The Quarterback Battle
Quarterback question marks surround nearly all of the teams in the Coastal Division this spring. With Brad Kaaya off to the NFL, the Hurricanes are one of the teams opening offseason workouts with uncertainty under center. Malik Rosier (one career start) has completed 31 of 61 passes for 370 yards and two scores in two seasons with the Hurricanes. He’s the frontrunner to start, but redshirt freshman Jack Allison, sophomore Evan Shirreffs, junior Vincent Testaverde and incoming freshmen Cade Weldon and N’Kosi Perry are all in the mix. Weldon enrolled in time to compete this spring, while Perry will arrive later this offseason.
2. Virginia Tech
Key Spring Goal: Reload on Offense
Even though each unit on offense has its share of question marks, it’s hard to doubt coach Justin Fuente. After all, the Hokies averaged 35 points a game last season with a first-year starter (Jerod Evans) at quarterback. With Evans departing for the NFL, redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker will battle for the No. 1 spot. In addition to the quarterback battle, finding new receivers to replace Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford is a must. Starting linemen Augie Conte and Jonathan McLaughlin also expired their eligibility.
3. Georgia Tech
Key Spring Goal: Fill the Voids on Defense
The offensive line and development of new quarterback Matthew Jordan are two other storylines to watch in Atlanta this spring. However, the defense loses a couple of key contributors, including standout linebacker P.J. Davis and tackle Patrick Gamble. Coordinator Ted Roof returns eight starters, so there’s a solid core in place to build around in the spring. Georgia Tech limited opponents to 24.5 points a game last season, and the secondary ranked 50th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Can Roof quickly fill the voids left behind by Gamble and Davis and help this unit take the next step in its development?
Key Spring Goal: Max Browne’s Development at QB
In addition to the departure of coordinator Matt Canada, the Panthers must replace standout quarterback Nathan Peterman, linemen Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty and running back James Conner. The cupboard isn’t bare for new coordinator Shawn Watson, but how quickly will the returning talent adapt to his offense? USC graduate transfer Max Browne takes over at quarterback, and the Washington native will spend the spring working to get acclimated to his new surroundings. Browne ranked as a five-star recruit by the 247Sports Composite coming out of high school. If Browne lives up to the hype, Pitt can push for the Coastal Division title this fall.
5. North Carolina
Key Spring Goal: Rebuild the Offense
Both sides of the ball feature significant question marks for coach Larry Fedora, but the Tar Heels suffered extensive personnel losses on offense. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and running back Elijah Hood left for the NFL, while receivers Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins, and offensive linemen Jon Heck, Lucas Crowley and Caleb Peterson expired their eligibility. Sophomore Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd are competing for the starting quarterback job, while sophomore Jordon Brown is the favorite to handle the workload in the backfield. Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt will help a receiving corps that returns Austin Proehl (43 grabs), and the line will build around left tackle Bentley Spain. Will the Tar Heels add a graduate transfer at quarterback to compete for time by this summer?
Related: North Carolina 2017 Spring Preview
Key Spring Goal: Reload in the Trenches
The Blue Devils held their spring game on March 4, so most of the heavy lifting for coach David Cutcliffe is already completed. However, the quest to reload in the trenches is likely to continue into the fall. Duke loses three starters on the offensive line, including tackles Gabe Brandner and Casey Blaser, along with guard Tanner Stone. The situation on defense is similar. The Blue Devils lose three starters, including Marquies Price after a spring dismissal. Tackle Mike Ramsay should be the leader of this unit, but who will step up to fill the voids left behind by Price, A.J. Wolf, and Dominic McDonald?
Key Spring Goal: Develop a Rushing Attack
After a 2-10 debut, it’s no secret coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have a lot of work ahead this spring. The offense is more of a pressing need after averaging only 20.6 points a game in 2016. The ground attack was stuck in neutral for most of last season, as the Cavaliers ranked last in the ACC (113.6 yards per game) and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Adding to the concerns is the departure of running backs Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid. Jordan Ellis (61 yards) is the top returner at running back. He will be pushed for time by Daniel Hamm and incoming freshmen Jamari Peacock and Lamont Atkins. Additionally, the offensive line has to improve after giving up 36 sacks in 2016.