ACC Spring Practice Primer: As Clemson Reloads, Can Other Would-Be Contenders Recover?

Clemson was incredible last season. All of the ACC teams that were expected to push Clemson ... were not. The next six weeks might show us who's ready to give ACC title contention another shot in 2019.
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It was a good year for the ACC. Clemson won the national title and established itself as one of the greatest teams ever. Syracuse ended the year with a top-25 ranking and the program’s first 10-win season since 2001. NC State and Virginia continued their upward swings. However, there is plenty of room for improvement everywhere else in the conference. The Coastal Division was a mess last season, with a 7–5 Pitt team emerging from a sea of disappointments. Entering spring football, the league welcomes four new coaches to the fold at North Carolina (Mack Brown), Miami (Manny Diaz), Georgia Tech (Geoff Collins) and Louisville (Scott Satterfield). Will the ACC ever have depth to match its top-end talent?

Here’s a five-minute guide to what to watch around the league this spring. In case you missed it, we’ve also covered the Big TenBig 12, Pac-12 and SEC this week.

State of the spring favorite: Clemson’s golden generation of defensive linemen is off to the NFL draft, and all four starters will likely come off the board in the first two rounds. (Backup DT Albert Huggins helped his own pro stock filling in for the suspended Dexter Lawrence in the final two games of his college career, too.) Will the national champions be able to sustain their dominance as sophomore Xavier Thomas, redshirt junior Nyles Pinckney, junior Justin Foster and others step up? Thomas was the No. 3 overall player in the class of 2018, so defensive coordinator Brett Venables doesn’t have a bare cupboard, but the questions of who claims starring roles in the trenches and who fills in behind them as supporting cast members along Clemson’s defensive line will be a story to watch all spring.

Most interesting QB competition: Virginia Tech has already had plenty of quarterback drama this winter. Presumptive starter Josh Jackson, who missed most of 2018 after he was injured in a late-September loss to Old Dominion, will transfer to Maryland for his final season; he was reportedly angry at being asked to compete for his starting job this spring. The competition among those who remain is still open, with last year’s starter Ryan Willis looking to hold off talented redshirt freshman Quincy Patterson and redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker, who was in the transfer portal himself until Feb. 21.

Burning non-QB depth chart question: Is there hope for Florida State’s offensive line? Willie Taggart’s first year in Tallahassee got off to a horrendous start, and the primary scapegoat was a porous line that prevented the Seminoles from establishing Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense. FSU signed five offensive linemen, coaxed starting tackle Landon Dickerson back out of the transfer portal, replaced offensive line coach Greg Frey and hired Houston line coach Randy Clements and (somewhat controversially) offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to fix this problem. Four-star Dontae Lucas, juco tackle Jay Williams and three-star Maurice Smith are all enrolled early and should appear in spring. After last year’s disaster, no spot on the offensive line should be set in stone.

Coach to watch: There’s no avoiding the hype for Miami’s Manny Diaz. After Mark Richt’s shocking retirement, Diaz voided his deal to become Temple’s head coach and returned to his hometown to succeed Richt, whom he had just finished serving as defensive coordinator. Diaz has already been hailed as the savior of Miami, and expectations for his tenure are through the roof. Can he fix Miami’s problems on both sides of the ball and reshape the Hurricanes’ recruiting trajectory?

Spring game viewing guide

Friday, April 5: Duke
Saturday, April 6: Wake Forest, Florida State, Boston College, Clemson, NC State
Saturday, April 13: North Carolina, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech
Saturday, April 20: Miami
Friday, April 26: Georgia Tech
Saturday, April 27: Virginia
Louisville is not holding a spring game.

With Hard Rock Stadium booked during its desired window, Miami is still trying to figure out where its spring game will be, but once that’s settled fans will be able to set aside time for their first look at transfer quarterback Tate Martell, who left Ohio State just as Justin Fields arrived in Columbus. Martell will wait on an NCAA ruling to decide whether he can battle for the Hurricanes’ QB job in 2019 without having to sit out a year.

Meanwhile in Atlanta, new Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins has a huge reconstruction project ahead of him in the post-Paul Johnson era. Watching Georgia Tech move away from the triple-option offense most of its players were recruited to run should be worth the price of admission.