Spring football preview: Burning questions for each ACC team
I know the promotional material for this column refers to the burning questions surrounding the ACC, but I haven't forgotten
Of course, a few programs believe they can break Virginia Tech's stranglehold on the VTC. Florida State is expecting big things and first-year coach Al Golden inherits a talented roster at Miami. Georgia Tech is the only other school to win the conference since 2007 and coach Paul Johnson isn't likely to endure two consecutive losing seasons. But unless someone else holds the conference title trophy in December, I'll keep calling this league the VTC -- at least when I remember to.
At least Rogers won't have to deal with the Brett Favre circus he endured in his final two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Rogers certainly has the collegiate bona fides; he coached Donovan McNabb at Syracuse and Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick at Virginia Tech. In Chestnut Hill, he'll inherit quarterback Chase Rettig, who went 5-4 as the starter after taking over the job a month into his freshman season. Rogers will be pleased to know he also inherits a workhorse back. Montel Harris led the ACC in 2010 with 103.6 rushing yards per game and Harris has churned out 577 carries the past two seasons.
Probably not this spring. Clemson has four early enrollees, but the biggest names in the recruiting class -- St. Augustine, Fla., linebacker Tony Steward, Wadesboro, N.C., linebacker Stephone Anthony and Punta Gorda, Fla., tailback Mike Bellamy -- aren't scheduled to arrive until this summer. The highlight of the spring should be watching new first-team quarterback Tajh Boyd learn the up-tempo offense first-year coordinator Chad Morris brought from Tulsa. Boyd will have to absorb the offense without star tailback Andre Ellington, who is still rehabbing from a case of Kyrie Irving Toe. (It's the ACC. You should know what that means.) Ellington, who had surgery on his injured big toe in December, should be ready for the season.
Duke started spring practice last month, so the Blue Devils have already begun answering questions. But if the first scrimmage is any indication, Duke still has work to do on a defense that finished 11th in the ACC in scoring defense and last in total defense in 2010. Quarterback Sean Renfree picked apart the Blue Devils' defense, which was playing short-handed because of injury. "The frustration is that you're out there with five or six defensive starters," coach David Cutcliffe said. "It's really hard." Secondary coach Jim Knowles, who served as a co-coordinator with Marion Hobby last season, will go solo after Hobby's move to Clemson. Knowles and his staff will get a chance to test out some inexperienced linebackers this spring. Two starting spots are up for grabs, and 2010 freshman All-America Kelby Brown will miss spring as he recovers from a knee injury.
We're not talking about quarterback Christian Ponder, who is a huge loss in his own right. We know FSU has junior E.J. Manuel waiting in the wings at quarterback, and coach Jimbo Fisher believes the offense is in good hands with Manuel. The toughest offensive player for the Seminoles to replace probably is left guard Rodney Hudson, the two time winner of the ACC's Jacobs Blocking Award. Hudson might have been the nation's most technically sound lineman, and it will be almost impossible to duplicate the leadership he provided. One player who probably will get a crack at Hudson's old spot is 6-foot-4, 315-pound junior college transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug. Fahrenkrug was the nation's top-rated Juco lineman while playing at North Dakota State College of Science. Florida State went a long way to get the Minnesota native, and that's a sign that Seminoles coaches believe Fahrenkrug can help a team that will be expected to contend for the ACC title and possibly more.
The Yellow Jackets were a different team after they lost quarterback Joshua Nesbitt for the season to an injury against Virginia Tech on Nov. 4. Tevin Washington replaced Nesbitt and went 1-3 down the stretch. The end result was coach Paul Johnson's first losing season since his first year at Navy. Now a junior, Washington will have to work this spring to keep the starting job. Redshirt freshman Synjyn Days -- a first-team all-namer -- ran the option at Hillgrove High in Powder Springs, Ga., and now he wants to make opposing ACC defenses feel like they ate too many chili dogs at The Varsity. "I will start next year," Days told JacketsOnline.com during bowl practice. "That's the way I feel."
Randy Edsall's coaching credentials are plenty solid. The man brought Connecticut from I-AA to a Big East title. But at Maryland, he'll find an apathetic fan base that won't get excited without immediate, tangible success. This spring, it will be interesting to see how new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton chooses to use quarterback Danny O'Brien, a 2010 freshman All-America who has the makings of a star. If Maryland fans want to feel some optimism about Crowton's offense, they probably should avoid reading LSU message boards. Of course, the Crowton-O'Brien combo should help solve the chicken-egg argument that plagued Crowton in Baton Rouge: Was LSU's lack of offensive production in 2010 Crowton's fault, or was it because the Tigers didn't have an elite quarterback? Maryland does have an elite quarterback, so the answer to that question should come in the fall.
The first-year coach will start with a little motivation-by-depth chart. Last week, Golden released his pre-spring chart, and the gasps from Coral Gables were audible up the entire east coast. "There's going to be some wake-up calls because there are some guys that got their butts beat out in the offseason [conditioning] program,'' Golden said. "Now, it's going to be up to them to win this second phase.'' Spencer Whipple, the son of the recently fired offensive coordinator, was installed as the No. 1 quarterback ahead of senior Jacory Harris and sophomore Stephen Morris. Redshirt freshman Malcolm Bunche was listed ahead of sophomore Seantrel Henderson at left tackle. The list goes on. Basically, Golden has shown he understands the one thing that motivates a player: playing time. Whether Whipple, Bunche and the rest can maintain their spots through the spring is doubtful, but Golden's message has been delivered.
Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien will approach spring practice as if three-year starter Russell Wilson will not be back for his senior season. Wilson, a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in 2010, will play professional baseball this spring and summer. If Wilson decides his future is on the diamond, he won't be back. But Wilson has always believed he can play both sports professionally, and his athleticism on the football field suggests he could find a place in the NFL even if it isn't at quarterback. So N.C. State will move forward with 6-6 redshirt junior Mike Glennon, who has patiently waited for his turn. Last spring, he guided the first-team offense only to be supplanted when Wilson returned from baseball. Glennon, the younger brother of former Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon, finds himself with a little more power this time around. He is on pace to graduate in May, meaning he could conceivably take advantage of the same NCAA transfer exemption used by cornerback Ryan Smith (Utah to Florida in 2006), quarterback Greg Paulus (Duke basketball to Syracuse football in 2009) and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli (Oregon to Ole Miss in 2010). Essentially, if Glennon isn't happy with the situation at N.C. State, he could declare himself a free agent. So it probably would be best for all involved if N.C. State gets a firm decision from Wilson soon. "The door is always open," O'Brien said on Feb. 2. "You always have to have options in life and he has that as an option."
Watching the NFL combine, one thing was clear: If North Carolina had played at full strength in 2010, the Tar Heels could have won the ACC title and might have competed for the national title. But losing so many players to the scandal may help in 2011, when players thrown into service in 2010 will return as grizzled veterans. Still, the Tar Heels will need to replace some departed contributors. Redshirt sophomore Bryn Renner, for example, is the front-runner to replace T.J. Yates. Meanwhile, the player who could generate the most buzz this spring is defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who arrived in January from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. The 6-3, 320-pounder from Jefferson City, Mo., could provide an instant upgrade for the middle of North Carolina's defense.
Virginia's two best offensive players in coach Mike London's first season were quarterback Mark Verica and tailback Keith Payne. This spring, London must replace both. Michael Rocco and Ross Metheny each played some in 2010, but they won't be the only ones with a chance to win the job. Michael Strauss is coming off a redshirt season, and freshman David Watford enrolled in January and will play this spring. The Cavaliers have some depth at tailback. Perry Jones ran for 646 yards last season, but he could face a challenge from redshirt freshman Kevin Parks. Parks isn't huge (5-8, 195 pounds), but he set the North Carolina record for career rushing yards in high school.
Virginia Tech isn't content to simply roll along piling up ACC titles. The Hokies won their third conference championship in four seasons and set school records for yards and points in 2010, but coach Frank Beamer sensed something needed to change. So he stripped the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring -- who has called plays since 2001 -- and gave them to quarterbacks coach Mike O'Cain. Beamer's reasoning was that O'Cain will work better with Logan Thomas, the 6-6, 242-pound sophomore who is expected to take over for Taylor at quarterback. "It's not a super-big deal," Beamer said of the move. Actually, the identity of the person who will choose the plays in the heat of the moment during games is a fairly big deal. Virginia Tech has been consistently good, but the Hokies have fallen just short of the elite level most years since playing for the national title following the 1999 season. Maybe, with a season of change on offense in store anyway, Beamer decided now was the best time to pull the trigger and try a change that could help push Virginia Tech into college football's highest echelon.
Yes. Coach Jim Grobe is too good to let the Demon Deacons languish for long. Wake Forest returns 17 starters from a young team that got creamed by 30 points or more five times last season. A program such as Wake will have the occasional down cycle, no matter how good the coaching staff is. This spring will help the Demon Deacons determine how far they'll move down the road to recovery in the fall. It will be especially critical for sophomore quarterback Tanner Price, who arrived in time for preseason camp in 2010 and got thrown into the starting job following an injury to Ted Stachitas. Price will have a chance this spring to develop a rapport with a maturing offensive line. If all goes well, he'll exit spring truly in command of the offense.