It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams bulletin board material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2021, Athlon asked coaches in the ACC to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
ACC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2021
"It’s not going to show up in the win column just yet, but this is the team in our conference that’s secretly building, at least in terms of media attention. If you pay attention as a coach, you can see they’re doing some really smart stuff. Schematically they’re night and day better with this staff than the previous one, especially on defense. They’re recruiting the entire country right now, and pushing hard in private and Catholic schools."
"They have a unique pitch we’ve heard about, where they’re looking to push the NFL experience for players, boasting about the NFL experience on the staff."
"Right now they’re still below average overall in terms of talent. I bet Notre Dame wishes they had that quarterback [Phil Jurkovec] back, though."
"They’re poor in terms of ability on defense, but he’s [coach Jeff Hafley] just starting there. Not a lot of time last season to really implement what they want to do there, at least if it’s the Ohio State packages he ran."
"When you look at their record and look at who they played really hard, Clemson and UNC specifically, you can see it starting to take hold."
"They need to fit to the defensive scheme better, recruit better talent overall, and I think they probably want to balance the run/pass a little bit more, but they just went heavier with Phil because he can make those throws.”
"They’re losing the top pick in the draft and they’re still a national title favorite."
"The next man up at QB [D.J. Uiagalelei] is really, really good. I’m not sure if he’s the same sort of running threat that Trevor [Lawrence] was, which is something to watch. I think it’s going to be a different offense, because whenever they got in trouble or got outschemed they’d just run Trevor. This kid is a giant, a very different athlete."
"I don’t feel like they’re quite as good at receiver as in years past, and whoever gets the majority of snaps at RB will be really interesting, I think they’re really competitive there."
"They’ll be better on defense, because they’re going to be older. ‘20 was the year for them to learn and break in a lot of those guys. The defensive line was really good for how young they were. Those younger edge guys are coming back better, same with the secondary."
"[Defensive coordinator] Brent [Venables] does an exceptional job rebuilding his scheme around personnel. It’s never really the same thing year to year, I wouldn’t expect that to change this year."
"They’re still the standard, still miles ahead of the Florida schools, still the best in our league top to bottom. They’re at a level that really skews the curve for our league, because there are teams improving, like UNC, but you can’t tell over the course of a year when you compare them to these guys.”
"We’re not really sure what to expect out of these guys. It could be a really interesting year in a good or bad way."
"You look at their roster and the majority of teams in this league would trade their 11 for FSU’s 11, and then some of those teams end up beating them."
"I think you’re seeing a lot of talent leaving for internal reasons. It’s just inconsistency in culture, going from one polarizing head coach to another to another. And yet they have, on paper, a team that can win 10 games this year."
"How do they backstop all these losses? Do they try what Miami did a while back and just go all-in on the transfer portal? Right now they’re not recruiting well enough to keep things going without seeing a dip in the next few years."
"They have to get better on both lines. They have some nice young players on offense and if McKenzie Milton is the starter they could be explosive, but you can push them around on both sides of the ball."
"Defensively they’re strong on the back end, so they’re hoping the transfers can plug and play and work out their run defense."
"If Milton is the guy and he’s pre-injury mobile, they can do a lot in that Memphis offense."
"It’s a really strange situation, they’re still recovering from Willie [Taggart] getting fired quickly, and you don’t build consistency with transfers. They need an identity of their own, and you can’t rush that.”
"It’s too early to throw up a red flag, but there are some alarming things you can see from the outside."
"They had a very interesting 2020. It seems like they’re losing more players and coaches than you’d expect. From a pure evaluation standpoint, they’ve lost a lot of their most talented guys and we haven’t seen or heard anything about them competing in recruiting in that state."
"The easy way to look at it is that they’re running the same offense and basically the same defense they had at App, but now they’re playing teams with equal or better talent, which almost never happened there. They’re not used to seeing a counter-punch, and it shows."
"The biggest issues here seem off the field, I think they haven’t really established who they are as a culture with those players. I think they tried to bring Appalachian State to Louisville, and that hasn’t worked out. Scott [Satterfield] talking to South Carolina didn’t help, either. When this program is good it’s because they bring in a lot of raw talent and let them play. He’s trying to create something different.”
"They surprised a lot of folks, but it might’ve been a dead cat bounce last year. Look at their schedule and their wins and you get a better picture of who they probably are. They’ll beat the bad teams and lose to the good teams, and do both convincingly. A lot of places in this league that’s probably OK, but they’ve always expected more out of this program."
"QB Devin Leary is a good player, the kind that brought everyone else up. When he got hurt you could see it across their offense, like they didn’t believe as much in themselves without him. The upside of that is you want that effect from a QB, the downside is that you need more talent around him."
"Getting the one senior receiver [Emeka Emezie] back is a big deal for them, but they don’t have anyone else that jumps out at you."
"Defensively they’re below average when you break it down by unit, and I thought you could tell they knew it, that they had to score in bunches to beat you."
"The secondary is the worst unit, you can really expose them there because they were so thin. I do think a lot of that was injury-based and not scheme, Gibby [DC Tony Gibson] knows what he’s doing, they were just really hit hard there."
"If they want to change minds they need a signature win. They didn’t play Notre Dame or Clemson, so flip their schedule and Wake’s and see how they’d finish last season.”
"If you had to pick one program that falls apart this year, it’s probably here or Duke. Right now it’s a train wreck, at least externally. Dino [Babers] has a lot of respect in our league, I’m not trying to say the issues are internal, it’s just that the era of ‘go real fast and throw verts’ has sort of run its course for the moment, compounded by the fact that other teams in this league run that system better, and with better players."
"The offensive line is probably the worst in the league, maybe worse than Georgia Tech’s after two years since the triple. You don’t have to blitz to get home on them, so you don’t really have to disguise much of what you’re doing."
"They struggle up front on defense, that’s where you notice the lack of talent compared to the top half teams in the league."
"I don’t see things getting much better for them because the offensive scheme is really the identity, and recruiting to it when you’re up in New York just isn’t going to work."
"I think their situation is a lot like Duke’s success a few years ago — it’s possible to have one or two really good years in this league if the division is down. They’re on Clemson’s side, but I think they feasted on programs dealing with their own down years and now that’s not the case. Boston College is better, NC State is better."
"It would be surprising if they were able to make another run.”
"This is a really quiet program, and I think [Dave] Clawson likes it that way. They’re about development, about consistency and serving their system. They had a pretty nice season last year."
"The back who went to Michigan State [Kenneth Walker III], was a good kid."
"The offensive scheme is always tricky to defend against. The QB [Sam Hartman] is an accurate, tough kid, and wide receiver might be their best position on the entire team. Jaquarii Roberson is legit and the other kid [Donavon Greene*] is pretty good, too. That’s the strength of the team, for sure."
"I’m sure they’ve got some development guys coming up at O-line, so they should be good on that side of the ball."
"Defensively they’re about as vanilla as you can get, which sort of works for them. Philosophy-wise, they want to keep you in front of them, be risk-averse, bend but don’t break kind of thinking. They need to get better play up front, their linebackers are mediocre and they lose their best pass rusher."
"The offense has a chance to be pretty good, so it’s a question of how far they can go with their defense in place. They’re never going to blow you away on film, but they’re always a competent, well-coached team that doesn’t blink against the elite programs.”
* Editor's Note: Greene was ruled out for the 2021 season in July after the coach scouting was compiled.
“This might be the year someone has to have the uncomfortable conversation with David Cutcliffe. He’s one of the most well-respected coaches in our game, but it might be time. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but you’re seeing things that are uncharacteristic specifically to a Cutcliffe program."
"The QB [Chase Brice[ transferred, and he was supposed to be the saving grace for their offense."
"I think the entire DL left? This is a roster that wasn’t good last year but the good players they did have are gone. So you’re not building off experience and you don’t have areas of strength."
"The offensive staff got shuffled last year but they still look sort of rudderless, and without an effective pass game and good QB play, man, it’s tough on that defense."
"The best players on the team were probably the defensive linemen, and two transferred and two left early. Without them I’m not sure how they’re going to attack. They haven’t recruited well enough, especially on that side of the ball."
"They haven’t been active in recruiting like we expected; they’re not winning in the Carolinas and they’re not creating any noise nationally. They pick guys off up and down the east coast."
"Cutcliffe should finish on his own terms but they could really struggle this year. Best-case scenario is they find a QB immediately, which Cut has an eye for, and those young offensive players break out.”
"Probably another long year for them, but you can see the progress."
"The big question is if the school is still committed to the vision Geoff [Collins] is selling, because this is the point where it gets harder to get people excited, especially if they have another losing year."
"The freshman running back [Jahmyr Gibbs] is a really good player. The quarterback [Jeff Sims] played better than most people thought he would. They’re definitely gonna ride those two on offense. You would assume they’ll turn it over less than they did last year because they’re more experienced, but that really hurt them."
"The good news is the offensive line will get better because it can’t get much worse. There’s progress, but it’s the one position group that takes the longest to change from the triple."
"Defensively they were sort of a train wreck, honestly. You saw glimpses of good stuff, then they’d fall apart. The line was a mess, and they really fell apart late in the year."
"They’re taking on transfers, but that makes more sense for them because of their lack of depth on the line. The issue for them is that they’re not making that big dent in recruiting we thought they would. Maybe it’s coming, but it hasn’t happened yet. They’re taking a lot of the best-of-the-rest guys that programs in our league or the SEC have passed on for one reason or another."
"This is an important year for them to show proof of concept.”
"Maybe the most impactful injury in the country was D’Eriq King going down. Him tearing up his knee was just awful because everything went as he went. The pieces around them were good but not great. The backs were good, but not special, same at wide receiver, same all over the offense. He really elevated them to something special. We were shocked he came back, that’s a huge decision and it helps them tremendously."
"If you’re looking for a how-to on the portal, they might be it. They do a really nice job evaluating guys and fitting them to what they do. I’m not sure how they handle that internally with the roster, but it seems to work."
"Manny Diaz is calling the defense now so they’re going to be more aggressive. They were bad last year, by their own standards, by league standards too. If not for the offense they really would’ve fallen apart. They’re like FSU, strongest in the secondary and underperforming in run defense. If they can work the line of scrimmage better that would allow Manny to do his thing."
"Everything rides on King being healthy and mobile. They call some great stuff with him and they’re starting to recruit better high school kids. This is a crucial year for them to stay relevant nationally with the offense while bringing along their recruiting back to their old standards.”
"They’re climbing up the ranks. Are they going to catch Clemson? Not right now, but they’re getting better in almost every area."
"The QB [Sam Howell] is a real difference-maker. He’s elite, maybe one of the best in the country and will be a first-round pick when he goes out. The talent around him was pretty young, having him around them for a functional offseason will be huge."
"The entire offense is back except for a few backs and maybe one WR? They could explode with Phil [Longo]’s offensive play-calling. They want to throw daggers every play, now they’re getting to where they can do it."
"The transfer from Tennessee [Ty Chandler] is a nice piece, a nice plug-and-play guy."
"Defensively, they gave up a lot against Notre Dame but really played them well. Same as the offense, they’ve recruited really well and they’re bringing on a lot of guys you could see have a breakout season. Losing Chazz Surratt hurts them but they’ve got a lot of guys returning up front."
"What you’ve seen so far is Mack [Brown] working the external stuff around the program and helping finish off big recruiting gains, and then the coordinators are doing their thing. This is the year you should see the payoff, especially if the defense takes a step forward and they replace their running backs.”
Related: ACC Predictions for 2021
"They’re consistently inconsistent. It’s weird, you want to say they’ve shown who they are under Pat Narduzzi, but they can always sneak up and punch you in the face. You expect them to play predictable but play hard. They’re not gonna scheme you to death but they’re always really sound. This is the team in our league who wins one game they have no business winning and loses three they shouldn’t. That’s their identity right now."
"They have a talented quarterback [Kenny Pickett] they don’t really seem to know what to do with. Their passing game is bad and it shouldn’t be, they got away from the run game and it hurt them. They don’t know what they want to be on offense, or maybe it’s just too many ideas."
"They had some really nice players on the defensive line and in the secondary that they’re losing, and it’s going to be a regression year replacing those guys, because this is not a program that recruits particularly well. That compounds the problem for the offense. For them to have a better year, or maybe just to keep their standard, they’re going to need an offensive identity. I think [offensive coordinator] Mark Whipple’s a really smart guy, they just haven’t found the one thing they do best and built around it. It could be a really long year if they don’t figure that out.”
"They’re the polar opposite of the popular idea of a modern program - ‘go out and get the best dudes possible and let them play.’ It’s not that they can’t recruit, I think a lot of coaches in the league would tell you they’re out and about in areas you’re not used to seeing Virginia. But they’re really well-coached, schematically diverse and very disciplined. They have no illusions about out-talenting anyone, but they can outwork you.
"I think Bronco [Mendenhall] is one of the most underrated coaches in the country, maybe because BYU is such a specific and unique situation."
"They’re going to hit you on defense. They’re sound, they’re smart, but they can still fly around."
"They’re weak on the back end, and they lose a lot from the front, especially their linebackers. That could hurt them. The linebackers were their agenda-setters, their tone-setters if you will."
"I think Brennan Armstrong is the starter at quarterback even with the injury last year. Keytaon Thompson is a better athlete, but that’s the story on Thompson. He went through the same thing at Mississippi State."
"The transfer tight end [Jelani Woods] was big for them, but they need more weapons on offense in general."
"I think this is the league’s hard-out team now. They’re not going to win the conference but they’ll wear you out, and they can hang with almost anyone on a given Saturday because they play very smart.”
"This is definitely the make-or-break year for Justin Fuente. I think they have to do something really big here to win back the fan base and the culture. On film they still show some of that talent, some of that old magic. They’re good on defense, not really spectacular. The issue for them is that they haven’t recruited well, so it gets thin really fast. They have ones who can play with anyone, but that’s it. Depth is a major issue for them."
"You cannot survive on the portal. You have to sign and develop players. Their reliance on transfers is the big warning sign. I don’t think they have the same presence in Virginia and the DMV they had even when things slid off in Frank [Beamer]’s last years."
"It’ll be interesting to see the offense, interesting to see how much they can get out of the quarterback. It’s really never been anything like what he promised, the Big 12 stuff, since he got to Tech."
"Schematically the defense is a mess. They’re trying to marry multiple schemes. You can see some of Bud [Foster]’s stuff, then other stuff, then back to Bud."
"It looks like the absence of a decision, honestly. Bud would sell out and get you. You couldn’t run because the box was stuffed and he’d dare you to beat his back-end guys. Now it’s just a jumbled mess."
"They need a breakout offensive campaign to keep this thing going.”
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