ACC's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

Is EJ Manuel ready to lead Florida State back into national title contention?

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks. 

The ACC's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

1. Can Brent Venables fix Clemson’s problems on defense?
If Clemson’s Orange Bowl performance were an isolated incident, maybe it would be easier to accept (or maybe not, ask a Clemson fan or Kevin Steele). The 70 points allowed to West Virginia was the worst of the season by far, but Clemson’s defensive shortcomings were apparent all season. The Tigers ranked 70th or lower in six major defensive categories. Now, here comes Oklahoma’s Brent Venables to fix the Tigers’ D. Though Oklahoma fans may have grumbled, the Sooners finished in the top four in the Big 12 in total defense in each of Venables’ eight seasons as defensive coordinator. Clemson has eight returning starters on defense, but seven are at linebacker and defensive back. Inexperience and a lack of depth are major concerns on the defensive line. Venables might need to get creative while his defensive front grows up.

2. Is EJ Manuel the right quarterback to lead Florida State back to prominence?
Florida State fans have held high hopes for Manuel since he arrived on campus in 2008. After spending 2009 and 2010 as a backup to Christian Ponder, Manuel received the keys to the Seminoles’ offense last year, throwing for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns. He completed 65.3 percent of his throws and tossed only eight interceptions on 311 attempts. Although Manuel’s numbers weren’t eye-popping, it’s unfair to pin Florida State’s offensive concerns on him. The Seminoles struggled to establish the run, and the offensive line never found the right combination. Manuel was also bothered by a shoulder injury throughout the year and did not play in the 35-30 loss to Clemson. With a deep receiving corps returning and experience coming back on the line, Florida State’s offense should be improved in 2012. Manuel has all of the physical tools to succeed and should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter. While the Seminoles underachieved last season, Manuel is the right quarterback to lead Florida State back to a national title – provided his offensive line and rushing attack step up in 2012. 

3. Which contender will find the right mix on the offensive line?
Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech are expected to be the ACC’s best teams in 2012. However, neither of the three should feel particularly good about its offensive line. Virginia Tech must replace four starters, including standouts Blake DeChristopher and Jaymes Brooks. Center Andrew Miller is a solid place to start rebuilding but there’s very little experience around him. Florida State returns a handful of experienced players, but the starting five could all be sophomores. Clemson loses three starters but returns center Dalton Freeman. The Tigers have one of the college football’s top trios coming back (Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and Sammy Watkins), but the offense could sputter without better performance from the line. It’s possible that none of the three teams will find an answer during the year. However, whichever team can sort out its offensive line question marks the earliest could have the inside track at winning the ACC title. 

4. How will Logan Thomas handle the spotlight?
Rarely has a Virginia Tech quarterback entered the season with as much fanfare as Logan Thomas. That’s with good reason. He’s a top-notch NFL prospect who set the Hokies’ record for total offense (3,482 yards) last season while accounting for 30 touchdowns. Beyond the numbers, Thomas will be the focus due to more than just his performance last season. Unlike past season, Virginia Tech doesn’t have an heir apparent at running back with redshirt freshman Michael Holmes leading a committee of ballcarriers. The Hokies’ always-underrated receiving corps also takes a hit without Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Thomas will have senior receivers ready to step into bigger roles, but they’re not entirely proven. Even the line has major holes to fill with center Andrew Miller the only returning starter. In other words, Thomas has little choice but to take charge of the Hokies’ offense in production and leadership.

5. Who will catch passes from Mike Glennon?
T.J. Graham, Jay Smith and tight end George Bryan accounted for 119 receptions, more than 40 percent of Mike Glennon’s completions last season. That leaves running back James Washington as the top pass-catcher on the team, along with a handful of questions. If NC State is going to threaten for an ACC Atlantic title, the Wolfpack will need receivers to emerge. NC State may lack proven commodities, but it does have an interesting skill set at receiver with Tobias Palmer and Byran Underwood’s ability to stretch a defense and good size from Quintin Payton and Hakeem Flowers, who are both at least 6-foot-3.

6. How will Miami reload in the backfield?
With 10 returning starters and NCAA trouble hanging over the program, the Hurricanes are a longshot to win the ACC in 2012. Losses were heavy on both sides of the ball, but the offense has to replace quarterback Jacory Harris and running back Lamar Miller. Harris wasn’t an All-ACC passer, but he had a solid senior year, throwing for 2,486 yards and 20 touchdowns. Miller ranked second in the ACC in rushing yards per game last season, averaging 106.0 on 227 carries. Stephen Morris is expected to win the Miami starting quarterback spot, but he will be challenged by Memphis transfer Ryan Williams in the fall. Miami should feel more secure about its running back depth, as senior Mike James is back after recording nearly 300 yards last season. James won’t be the only option in the backfield, as Eduardo Clements and Duke Johnson will see carries. The Hurricanes finished seven in the conference in scoring last year and a similar result can be expected in 2012. 

7. How does Maryland pick up the pieces from last season?
The preseason party line is that Randy Edsall and his players understand each other better this time around. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too much of a stretch after a glut of players transferred since Edsall took over. Not to mention the Terrapins have yet to play a game after losing the final seven games last season, six by double figures. Even if communication among Edsall and the players has improved, the Terrapins still have two new coordinators in Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart. Locksley was a successful offensive coordinator at Illinois when the Illini went to the Rose Bowl in 2008, and Houston showed marked improvement on defense under Stewart last season. A healthy Kenny Tate should improve the defense, while C.J. Brown (five starts last season) begins 2012 entrenched as the starter. The instability in College Park has to come to a stop soon, doesn’t it?

8. How will Georgia Tech replace Stephen Hill at receiver?
The Yellow Jackets will always rank among the nation’s best in rushing offense, but the passing attack needs to be better if this team wants to win the ACC in 2012. Quarterback Tevin Washington had his moments last year (10 of 14, 184 yards, one TD against North Carolina) but completed only 49.3 percent of his throws and tossed eight picks. The senior isn’t asked to throw for 300 yards every game, but the offense needs Washington to be more accurate and careful with the ball. Improving Georgia Tech’s passing attack won’t get any easier with the losses in the receiving corps. Stephen Hill and Tyler Melton were the team’s top two receivers last year but have expired their eligibility. The Yellow Jackets do not return a receiver with a career catch and will have to lean on inexperienced sophomores Jeff Greene and Darren Waller. Alabama transfer Chris Jackson will also figure into the mix, but Georgia Tech needs one to emerge as the clear go-to threat. Without Hill and Melton, the Yellow Jackets could struggle to top last season’s 142.3 yards per game average.

9. Will Michael Rocco hold off Phillip Sims?
Virginia’s season turned around when the Cavaliers stopped rotating David Watford and Michael Rocco. With Rocco as the starter, the Cavs went on a four-game winning streak to clinch a bowl appearance. Rocco’s does not have a firm grip on the quarterback job, however. Alabama transfer Phillip Sims was granted a hardship waiver and will be eligible this season. A year after challenging AJ McCarron for the starting quarterback job with the eventual national champions, he’ll contend to start for the Cavs.

10. What Can Be Expected of North Carolina in 2012?
With a ban on postseason play, it’s fair to wonder how motivated North Carolina will be this season. New coach Larry Fedora was a solid hire, but his arrival also brings new schemes on both sides of the ball. The Tar Heels will employ a no-huddle spread attack on offense, which should score plenty of points. Quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard are two of the best offensive players in the ACC and will be playing behind one of college football’s top 10 offensive lines. The defense loses some key contributors, but landing Vic Koenning as a co-coordinator was a huge catch for Fedora. The Tar Heels have a favorable schedule and if motivation isn’t an issue, this team could push for nine victories in 2012.

by David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

 

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