ACC spring football primer: Power Rankings, burning questions for every team
- Florida State tops the ACC Power Rankings entering spring practices, but the league boasts plenty of depth to challenge the Seminoles.
The ACC, home to two of the past four national champions, felt especially top-heavy when Florida State and Clemson re-emerged in the early part of this decade as the league’s best teams. While the Seminoles and Tigers have continued to dominate, the rest of the league has gotten deeper in an attempt to catch them. The Coastal Division still feels wide open, but instead of being stocked with mediocre teams, it’s got contenders such as Pittsburgh who can beat the eventual national champ on the road and still not win the division. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Division title isn’t guaranteed to run through Tallahassee or Clemson. Louisville returns a Heisman Trophy winner, and NC State will have one of the nation’s best and most experienced defensive lines.
It used to be an insult to be ranked near the middle of the ACC. Come November, the seventh best team in the ACC might still find itself in the top 25.
We’ll know how the Seminoles’ national title aspirations stack up when they face Alabama in the season opener in Atlanta. But before they worry too much about a national title, they need to worry about reclaiming the ACC in a year when the league feels deeper than ever.
The defending national champion could have the nation’s best defensive line in 2017, but the Tigers have a lot to replace on offense. After Clemson loses QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams and RB Wayne Gallman, which new names will produce the points?
Mark Richt has the U moving in the correct direction, but it’s still too early to determine whether this will be the year the Hurricanes finally break through in terms of beating Florida State or winning an ACC title.
The Hokies looked like the favorite to repeat as Coastal Division champs until QB Jerod Evans turned pro. Could year two for Justin Fuente be tougher than year one?
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson returns, but it will be up to new offensive line coach Mike Summers to make sure Jackson gets better protection than he did when things fell apart at the end of last season.
This is a make-or-break year for Dave Doeren. The defensive line is great. The offense returns eight starters, including QB Ryan Finley. Unfortunately, the division remains brutal. The Wolfpack need to take another step, but who can they step over?
The Yellow Jackets must replace three-year starter Justin Thomas at quarterback, but Matthew Jordan seems capable. Georgia Tech should be able to contend for the Coastal Division title this year.
Year three of the Pat Narduzzi era will start with a third different offensive coordinator—this time it’s former Nebraska, Louisville and Texas coordinator Shawn Watson—and another graduate transfer quarterback (Max Browne, late of USC). But the biggest question is whether the Panthers’ defense can become more like the ones Narduzzi ran at Michigan State.
The Blue Devils snapped their string of four consecutive bowl games last year, but year two with Daniel Jones at quarterback should bring a return to postseason play.
The Demon Deacons have climbed steadily under Dave Clawson. After reaching a bowl in ’16, they have the personnel to avoid a step backward.
The Tar Heels must replace their quarterback, top three rushers and top two receivers. Considering the improved depth of the league, this is a tough year to have to rebuild an offense.
The Orange got better in their first year under Dino Babers. Will a unique offense become a true differentiating factor this year?
The Eagles took a leap last season, but with a new athletic director coming in, Steve Addazio can’t afford a slide back toward 2015 levels.
The Cavaliers should improve in Bronco Mendenhall’s second year, but with depth and class balance issues that can be solved only through recruiting, that improvement may only be incremental.
ACC burning questions
Can a homegrown quarterback help the Eagles keep improving?
Kentucky graduate transfer Patrick Towles helped Boston College go from 3–9 (and 0–8 in the ACC) in ’15 to bowl eligibility and conference wins—two, but that’s a lot better than zero—in ’16. Florida graduate transfer Tyler Murphy helped the Eagles go 7–6 and 4–4 in the ACC in ’14. There don’t appear to be any graduates of SEC schools willing to head north and play quarterback at the moment, so Steve Addazio will have to figure out how to succeed with a quarterback who has been on campus.
One reason for the struggles in ’15 was the season-ending ankle injury starting quarterback Darius Wade suffered that September. Wade waited patiently behind Towles last season, and now he’ll get his chance this spring to win the job back against sophomore Anthony Brown.
Who replaces Deshaun Watson at quarterback?
In his final two seasons, Watson led the Tigers to two ACC titles and a national title. So there will be significant pressure on his successor to continue that success. But who is that successor? Dabo Swinney said last week that if the season started immediately, junior Kelly Bryant, Watson’s backup the past two seasons, would be the starter. But Bryant will compete in spring practice and preseason camp with redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson. Cooper has the biggest arm of the group. Kelly has the best legs. Johnson may have the highest ceiling.
It will be interesting to see if what happened in Watson’s freshman season (2014) will inform how Swinney chooses a starter this year. Three years ago, Swinney started Cole Stoudt even though Watson had shown that he was as good as advertised. Stoudt started the Florida State game, but Watson finished it and won the starting job. Clemson lost that game in overtime, but it probably would have won the game—and eventually the ACC title—had Watson started. So if Cooper or Johnson flashes in spring or in camp, will Swinney still go with experience or will he roll the dice on an unproven freshman?
Will the offensive line continue to get better, and for whom will it open holes?
The Seminoles’ line looked like a liability at the start of last season and a strength by the end. This probably also had something to do with the maturation of quarterback Deondre Francois. Rick Leonard, a converted defensive lineman who lost and reclaimed the starting right tackle job last season, is the favorite to replace Rod Johnson on the left side. Brock Ruble, who started at right tackle at various points the past two seasons, should get the first crack at that spot.
The question is which back will run behind this line. Dalvin Cook was the best back in school history, and no one player can replace him. Jacques Patrick averaged 5.7 yards a carry as Cook’s backup, so he should get his share of carries. But if the recruiting hype around Cam Akers is even close to true, the early enrollee from Clinton, Miss., might win Cook’s old job either this spring or in preseason camp. If Akers is as good as advertised, the Seminoles might not miss a beat on offense.
Will Lamar Jackson get better protection?
There’s a noticeable lack of buzz around the Cardinals in spite of the fact that they return a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Perhaps it’s because no amount of Lamar Jackson magic can get Louisville to the top of the ACC Atlantic Division unless the Cardinals can shore up the issues that left Jackson running for his life during a disastrous home stretch last year that included losses to Houston, Kentucky and LSU. The Cardinals ranked No. 126 in the nation in sacks allowed (47) and last in the nation in sack yards allowed (334). The responsibility for fixing that will fall to Mike Summers, who left Florida in January to rejoin Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, whom Summers previously worked for at Louisville, the Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas.
Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil return at offensive tackle, but all of the positions in the middle are open. It’s also possible McNeil could work some at guard to allow Louisville to put its best five on the field. The Cardinals loaded up on offensive linemen in the 2017 recruiting cycle, but only one signee (Cole Bentley) is on campus for spring practice.
How will the last few holes be filled in on an experienced team?
The Wolfpack assured Dave Doeren he’d get a fifth season by beating North Carolina at the end of last season, and now Doeren will get his best chance to make NC State an ACC title contender. (If NC State remains an also-ran with this roster, that’s not great for Doeren’s future prospects in Raleigh.) Eleven of the 17 returning starters are seniors. That group includes defensive end Bradley Chubb, defensive end Kentavius Street, defensive tackle Justin Jones and defensive tackle B.J. Hill.
The defensive line is the best overall position group, but the biggest question remains on offense. Who will carry the ball in place of Matt Dayes? That question may not get answered this spring. Senior Dakwa Nichols will get the bulk of the work as Reggie Gallaspy and Johnny Frasier recover from surgeries. Receiver/returner Nyheim Hines will get some work at tailback too, but he’s also running track for the Wolfpack this spring. Jaylen Samuels, a tight end/fullback/H-back who is NC State’s most versatile offensive weapon, may also get some of those carries.
Can the Orange’s offensive line allow Dino Babers’ offense to flourish?
Orange quarterback Eric Dungey told the Syracuse Post-Standard that he thought he could have played the last three games of the season, but the Syracuse medical staff held him out after he took a high hit against Clemson on Nov. 5. Dungey was frustrated because he believes that if he had played, Syracuse could have won at least one more game and would have made a bowl game. Dungey is a great fit in the Dino Babers offense, and he averaged 297.7 passing yards a game in the nine games he played.
The key for the Orange in 2017 is keeping Dungey healthy, and that's up to an offensive line that returns the five linemen who played the most snaps last season (counting returning starters is tough when a group got as banged up as the Syracuse line did last year) as well as a sizable group of younger linemen with time in the program. The Orange have to be hoping this will create some competition for positions this spring because this line needs to protect Dungey better and begin opening some holes for the rushing attack.
When this offense works, it’s nearly impossible to shut down the run game and the pass game simultaneously because the defense is stretched the width of the field. Yet Syracuse finished No. 115 in the nation in rushing yards per game. That means linemen were getting physically dominated at the point of attack. The offense creates a numbers advantage in the run game, so as long as the quarterback counts the box correctly and makes the correct give/keep decision, the play should gain four or five yards unless a lineman gets blown up. That’s going to happen against Clemson and its future first-rounders, but it shouldn’t happen against everyone.
Will a quarterback returning from injury supplant the quarterback who has started most of his career?
Kendall Hinton relieved John Wolford in the Duke game on Sept. 10 and played well enough in a win to earn the starting job. But Hinton went down with a knee injury the following week, and Wolford started nine of the final 10 games. Wolford has started 33 games in three seasons, but Hinton opened spring practice last week as the starter. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson explained why Hinton and Wolford will split snaps in spring practice. “In my meetings with John and Kendall, I tell them that everybody within our walls and outside of our walls wants us to have one quarterback,” Clawson told reporters after the Demon Deacons opened practice last week. “And we do too. But those two guys haven’t stayed healthy for more than two or three games at a time for the last two years. We’re repping them equally with the ones. Kendall is the starter but John’s getting a lot of reps with the ones because he has to.”
How will Duke fill some newly opened holes on the defensive line?
This may be a spring practice preview for most teams, but for the Blue Devils, it’s a review. They played their spring game Saturday, ending a somewhat eventful set of practices. The biggest news came off the field when veteran defensive linemen Marquies Price and Brandon Boyce were dismissed from the team. (No reason was given other than they failed to meet the standards of a Duke player.) Losing those two—Price started last year at defensive end and Boyce was a backup—hurts depth along the line, but Duke should have some young talent to place around senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay. Sophomore end Tre Hornbuckle was named co-most improved player of the Blue Devils’ spring practices.
Is this one of those years for the Yellow Jackets?
We didn’t expect much from Georgia Tech when Justin Thomas took over the starting job in ’14, and the Yellow Jackets wound up winning the Coastal Division and pushing Florida State deep into the fourth quarter of the ACC title game. This feels as if it could be another such year.
Georgia Tech has a lot of key pieces in place, but it has to replace Thomas. The most likely replacement is Matthew Jordan, who led the Yellow Jackets to a win at Virginia Tech last season and who occasionally replaced Thomas in goal line situations.
B-back (fullback) Dedrick Mills also will try to build on an MVP performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl win against Kentucky. Mills missed three games because of suspensions and one because of a concussion last year. But when he did play, he averaged five yards a carry.
With many of the other pieces in place, can Mark Richt find a quarterback to replace Brad Kaaya?
The Hurricanes will pressure opposing quarterbacks thanks to an excellent defensive line led by assistant Craig Kuligowski, who previously ran a pass rusher factory under Gary Pinkel at Missouri. Mark Walton gives the Hurricanes an established back. Ahmmon Richards broke the school record for receiving yards by a freshman last year.
Now coach Mark Richt must choose a quarterback who can help Miami continue its upward trajectory. He’ll decide from an open competition between Kaaya’s backup (Malik Rosier) and a group of less experienced signal-callers that includes redshirt sophomore Evan Shirreffs, redshirt freshman Jack Allison, redshirt junior Vincent Testaverde and early enrollee Cade Weldon. Those last two names should seem familiar. Testaverde is the son of former Hurricanes star Vinny Testaverde, while Weldon is the son of former Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon.
How well can Larry Fedora rebuild an offense from scratch?
Larry Fedora had planned to build his offense around tailback Elijah Hood, who announced in December that he would return for his senior season. But Hood changed his mind and entered the NFL draft, leaving the Tar Heels without any of their top playmakers from last season. “We don’t have a starting quarterback right now. We don’t have a starting left tackle. We don’t have a starting right guard,” Fedora told reporters after the Tar Heels opened spring practice last week. “I know y’all don’t want to hear that. But we don’t. It’s all starting over at every position.”
Fedora always uses that bit of coachspeak, but this time it’s basically true. The Tar Heels have three quarterbacks (Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd) splitting reps. Fedora said it’s possible that a quarterback could separate and win the job in spring, but that seems unlikely given the competitors’ lack of experience and the possibility that Notre Dame graduate Malik Zaire could transfer to North Carolina. Zaire also is considering Wisconsin, and it remains possible that the SEC could reverse course and allow Florida to take a graduate transfer, which could make the Gators a possibility as well.
Can the Panthers develop a pass defense befitting a Pat Narduzzi-coached team?
The only thing that kept last year’s Syracuse game from being Pat Narduzzi’s worst nightmare was the fact that the Panthers did eventually win it. But that 76–61 abomination encapsulated the Panthers’ problem last year. They had an efficient offense, but the defense—Narduzzi’s pride and joy—let them down repeatedly because it couldn’t stop the pass. Opponents averaged an absurd nine yards per passing attempt in Pitt’s five losses and 7.9 yards an attempt in every game, and the crazy part is the Panthers were still only a few plays away from contention for the Coastal Division title.
This spring, Avonte Maddox returns at boundary corner and Jordan Whitehead, who missed the tail end of the season after injuring his arm at Clemson, returns at strong safety. Jay Stocker and Bricen Garner will compete for the open free safety spot, and Phillipie Motley will compete with Dane Jackson for the open field corner spot.
The other question is who will pressure the quarterback now that defensive end Ejaun Price has exhausted his eligibility. The answer could be Dewayne Hendrix, a Tennessee transfer who sat out ’15 because of transfer rules and suffered a season-ending foot injury in the first half of last year’s season-opener. Hendrix had been drawing rave reviews from teammates before the injury. Now he’ll finally get another chance.
How long will it take until Bronco Mendenhall has Virginia winning again?
The Cavaliers haven’t had a winning season since ’11, and Mendenhall has made clear that there is still much work to be done after his 2–10 debut last year. Mendenhall, who made a bowl game in each of his 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, told ESPN.com in December that last year’s off-season program was designed to prepare the Cavaliers for the pace of Mendenhall’s practices, and that came at the expense of some of the bulk necessary to compete in the ACC. Now Virginia is working on adding that bulk with a multi-tiered weight program.
Having safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser back for ’17—both could have left early for the NFL—should help in terms of experience and leadership on defense. Meanwhile, Kurt Benkert, a graduate transfer from East Carolina who split time as the starting quarterback with Matt Johns last season, will enter spring practice as the favorite to win that job.
Can Justin Fuente work his quarterback magic again?
When quarterback Jerod Evans decided to turn pro after only one season in Blacksburg, the 2017 Hokies went from the Coastal Division favorite to an unknown commodity. With Bud Foster running the defense, it’s safe to assume Virginia Tech will remain excellent on that side of the ball. Coach Justin Fuente will have to replenish the offense with a new starter at quarterback and a receiving corps that is unproven outside of Cam Phillips.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, Andy Dalton, Paxton Lynch and Evans can attest that Fuente has a great track record with QBs. He’ll try to find his next starter this spring from a group that includes junior college transfer A.J. Bush, redshirt freshman Josh Jackson and true freshman Hendon Hooker.