Thursday March 1st, 2012

The ACC is in transition, with Syracuse and Pittsburgh set to join the fold within two years, but most likely next year. In the meantime, several current ACC programs enter spring practice facing their own crossroads.

Clemson is the reigning champ, Virginia Tech is still the league's bedrock and Florida State is still seemingly on the brink of joining them. Elsewhere, however, North Carolina and Miami are dealing with the fallout of NCAA allegations, Maryland is trying to recover from Randy Edsall's first year and Boston College's Frank Spaziani may be down to his last days. Most other teams are right on the fence of either breaking out or falling back in 2012. Much will depend on the emergence of key contributors this spring.

Boston College: Are the Eagles more than Montel? Running back Montel Harris, the ACC's 2011 preseason player of the year, missed all but two games last season with a knee injury. BC suffered along with him, finishing 82nd nationally in rushing en route to a miserable 4-8 season. Harris returned for the Eagles' first practice Feb. 18, but immediately re-aggravated the injury and will miss the rest of spring. It's possible the school's all-time leading rusher (3,735 yards) will return to form come August, but it would behoove BC to develop Plan B in the meantime. Juniors Rolandan Finch and Andre Williams got the majority of carries last season, but sophomore Tahj Kimble could become a bigger part of the rotation. None averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry last year.

Clemson: Which are the real Tigers? Schizophrenic Clemson achieved its first ACC title in 20 years last season, but not without two lopsided late-season losses (NC State and South Carolina) and a historic Orange Bowl blowout (70-33 to West Virginia). Coach Dabo Swinney will look to rekindle the good vibes of last fall's 8-0 start, and the return of quarterback Tajh Boyd, superstar receiver Sammy Watkins and counterpart DeAndre Hopkins and running back Andre Ellington will certainly go a long way. But Clemson will spend the spring looking to identify three new starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, without which all that skill talent will be for naught. One notable development: The coaches moved potential starting defensive tackle Tyler Shatley to offense, indicating there may be more need on that side of the ball.

Duke: Can the Devils fix the details? David Cutcliffe's team is coming off consecutive 3-9 seasons (after going 5-7 in 2009), but he believes Duke is closer to respectability than those records indicate. The Devils return 16 starters, including established quarterback Sean Renfree, but need to become more consistent to pull out close games like last year's 14-10 loss to Virginia Tech. Cutcliffe challenged his players to "go take somebody's job" this spring, particularly on defense, which is itching for more quality depth on the line and must replace first team All-ACC safety Matt Daniels (126 tackles). To that end, receiver Brandon Braxton (54 catches, 532 yards in two seasons) moved to safety. "I think [Braxton] can change a game better at safety than at receiver," said Cutcliffe.

Georgia Tech: Can Al Groh find three for his 3-4? At this point, we can count on two things with Paul Johnson's teams: They will run all day on opponents (No. 2 nationally last season with 316.5 yards per game), but many offenses will run over them as well. The problem has been an overmatched defensive line that contributed to the nation's No. 66 rushing defense and helped produce just 22 sacks in 13 games. And that was before losing starting end Jason Peters and starting tackle Logan Walls. The biggest concern is tackle, an incredibly important position in coordinator Groh's 3-4 defense. Huge senior T.J. Barnes (6-foot-7, 347 pounds) will get the first crack but has yet to exhibit the endurance for full-time duty, which means Izaan Cross, Emmanuel Dieke and Euclid Cummings -- formerly ends -- could see time there.

Florida State: Where are the playmakers? On paper, Jimbo Fisher's team looks loaded (again), particularly on defense. But it finished a disappointing 9-4 in 2011, finishing with an 18-14 win over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl. That game typified a season in which the offense never got rolling, due in large part to mass injuries on the offensive line and to quarterback E.J. Manuel. Running back Devonta Freeman and receiver Rashad Greene emerged as budding stars as freshmen, but the 'Noles still need to find more playmakers at the skill positions. Potential candidates include 6-6 redshirt freshman receiver Kelvin Benjamin; early enrollee Mario Pender, a four-star running back; and sophomore Karlos Williams, a speedy kick returner who practiced at safety last season but may soon move to offense.

Maryland: Can Edsall stop the bleeding? It's been a nightmarish first year-plus for the Maryland coach, what with a 2-10 debut season, the premature departure of 24 players since his arrival, his controversial attempt to block quarterback Danny O'Brien's transfer to Vanderbilt and a torrent of negative media coverage. While many have begun counting the days until his inevitable ouster, Edsall presumably now has a more tight-knit, trusting roster to work with. The question is whether there's enough talent to show the necessary improvement. Following O'Brien's exit, C.J. Brown is Edsall's hand-picked quarterback; now the Terps need to find some consistent receivers. (Five-star recruit Stefon Diggs arrives this summer.) Meanwhile, Maryland's defense will spend the spring shifting to a new 3-4 scheme.

Miami: Where does one begin? After losing both a large senior class and a national-high eight NFL early entrants, second-year coach Al Golden will be breaking in new faces across the board. First, the good news: Projected starting quarterback Stephen Morris has game experience, though he's out this spring following back surgery. Also, last year's slew of NCAA suspensions allowed for several projected 2012 defensive starters to gain experience. And eight members of Golden's acclaimed 2012 recruiting class will get a head start this spring. Now, the bad news: The 'Canes are all but starting over at running back, receiver, defensive line and linebacker and lack depth on the offensive line. With such a massive rebuilding project, it will be interesting to see whether Golden goes all-in on the youth movement, relying heavily on his touted first- and second-year players.

North Carolina: What does Larry Fedora have in store? The Tar Heels can finally turn the page on the scandal-ravaged Butch Davis era this spring (though further NCAA sanctions could be announced at any moment). Fedora, the former Southern Miss head coach and Florida and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator before that, will look to inject life into a long-stagnant UNC offense with his version of the spread. He inherits the ACC's top-rated passer, Bryn Renner, and a standout running back in Gio Bernard. If Fedora can develop a deep corps of promising receivers, led by sophomore T.J. Thorpe, it's possible the Tar Heels' offense could become more explosive. Meanwhile, accomplished coordinator Vic Koenning will install a 4-2-5 defensive look, but he may be working with a depleted cupboard after Davis' staff churned out an extraordinary number of NFL exports the past two years.

NC State: Who wants to be a starting linebacker? The Wolfpack dearly missed former star Nate Irving the first part of last season, as foes gashed their defense during a 2-3 start. Tom O'Brien's team rallied to an 8-5 finish -- including a 37-13 upset of eventual conference champ Clemson -- but is now starting over again at linebacker after one starter (Audie Cole) graduated, another (Terrell Manning) turned pro and the third (D.J. Green) was ruled ineligible after testing positive for a banned substance. Senior Sterling Lucas, who missed last season with a knee injury, will compete with inexperienced players Ryan Cheek, Michael Peek and Brandon Pittman. If it can find some replacements at linebacker, NC State could be pretty good on defense, led by the return of All-America cornerback David Amerson (13 interceptions).

Virginia: Can Mike London regain momentum? The Cavaliers were one of the nation's biggest surprises in London's second season, at one point sporting an 8-3 record and playing for a spot in the ACC championship game. They ended on a sour note, however, falling 38-0 to rival Virginia Tech and 43-24 to Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The next step for UVa is to develop a more dynamic offense, which will depend in large part on the continued improvement of junior quarterback Michael Rocco or a breakout spring from sophomore David Watford. The Cavs must replace six starters on defense, including standout cornerback Chase Minnifield. Defensive backs Anthony Harris, Kameron Mack and Brandon Phelps, who saw game action as true freshmen, figure to take on more prominent roles this spring.

Virginia Tech: Who's the next great Hokies running back? Brandon Ore. Darren Evans. Ryan Williams. David Wilson. Frank Beamer's program rarely misses a beat at tailback, but it will certainly be challenged this year after 1,846-yard rusher Wilson bolted for the NFL. Multi-dimensional quarterback Logan Thomas figures to be a factor in Virginia Tech's running game, but no returning tailback had more than 16 carries last season -- and that guy, junior Tony Gregory, is out with a knee injury. Therefore, the Hokies' backfield could be very young in 2012. The coaches will take a close look this spring at touted redshirt freshman Michael Holmes and early enrollee J.C. Coleman, but might not know their full array of options until more recruits arrive in August.

Wake Forest: Will the Deacons get lined up? Jim Grobe's team returns some nice pieces from last year's Music City Bowl squad, led by productive quarterback Tanner Price and All-ACC nose tackle Nikita Whitlock, but is undergoing major rebuilding on its offensive line. The Deacons must replace four starters, and they've got a new position coach, former USC center and CFL assistant Jonathan Himebauch, to oversee the transition. "We've got some unproven but very athletic guys, but I'm excited about the talent level there," said Grobe. The newbies hope to be blocking for junior running back Josh Harris, who is attempting to return from a hamstring injury that severely limited him the second half of last year. "It would be nice to see Josh Harris come on and have a nice spring," said Grobe.

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