Welcome to spring practice wrap-up week. With most spring practices in the books, it’s time to take a look at each Power Five team’s early 2017 storylines. Part Three of our series is the ACC, home of the reigning national champs and a 2017 national title frontrunner.
BOSTON COLLEGE (2016 record: 7-6)
Key takeaway: Last year’s BC spring game featured six total points, and no touchdowns. This year’s was significantly easier on the eyes. The Eagles have a quarterback competition, they have more depth and they appear ready to pick up the pace. They are ditching huddles in the hopes of building something resembling an uptempo attack, this after finishing 127th (2016) and 126th (2015) nationally in total offense the past two years. Can that translate into more wins? BC is in arguably the toughest division in college football, so that remains to be seen.
Position battle: Darius Wade entered spring as the presumed starting quarterback, and he’ll enter fall camp with that same distinction. But the redshirt junior has competition from redshirt freshman Anthony Brown, and seeing how each takes the reins of what should be a more dynamic offense will be the biggest storyline come August.
Straight from the coach: “We did more this spring than we’ve ever done,” Steve Addazio said, via the Boston Globe. “We did a lot of different things — from one-back to two-back to empty to throw to run to play-action. We just did a lot more. And I thought that’s a reflection of having more depth, more guys, quarterback play, etc.”
Team trend: In desperate need of a lift after a 3-9 season, BC won seven games in 2016. With more available bodies this year, the offense should improve, even if the win total might not. Even
For more Boston College news, visit EagleAction.com.
CLEMSON (2016 record: 14-1)
Key takeaway: Clemson is loaded. Sure, it loses a once-in-a-generation player in Deshaun Watson, but when you have a fifth-year starter on the defensive line transferring to get more playing time — as was the case with new Oregon DT Scott Pagano — there is no slowing down, as the Tigers should be fine defensively. Whether they can be the offensive machine they’ve been the past two seasons remains the biggest question.
Position battle: When you’re replacing a two-time Heisman finalist at one position, that’s the position that will draw the most attention. So it goes in the race to replace Watson, and while Kelly Bryant is the veteran of the QB group, don’t be surprised if this battle goes deep into fall camp, as Hunter Johnson, Tucker Israel and Zerrick Cooper won’t go away quietly.
Straight from the coach: “We recruited all four of them and signed them all for a reason,” Swinney said, via the (Anderson) Independent Mail. “We would never have signed them if we didn’t believe in them.”
Team trend: You can’t put a program “up” after it won a national championship, right? It doesn’t get any better than that, especially without Watson. Clemson is in a great place as a program, though, plain and simple. Even
For more Clemson news, visit TigerIllustrated.com.
DUKE (2016 record: 4-8)
Key takeaway: Duke started spring ball Feb. 3 — two days before this past year’s Super Bowl. Its spring game was March 4, before most teams started spring ball. What happened over the course of that month, David Cutcliffe hopes, will set the course on a renewed approach, as an unprecedented run of four straight bowl games gave way to a losing season last year. Still, silver linings emerged, and the progress of returning starting QB Daniel Jones, a redshirt sophomore, is among the biggest for a program that recruits and develops at a level that makes 4-8 seasons the outlier.
Position battle: The defensive backs room has taken on a different look in 2017, as Duke stalwarts Breon Borders, Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards are all gone. Bryon Fields is a familiar face, as is Alonzo Saxton, but players like Mark Gilbert, Jeremy McDuffie and Corbin McCarthy should take on bigger roles.
Straight from the coach: “I know the fastest path back is to change habits, to get back to the quality of habits I know we’re capable of having,” Cutcliffe told ESPN.com. “I’m not talking about players right now. I’m talking about coaches. Me. When I’m at my best is when my coaching habits are great. I did a retooling of myself. What am I doing great? What have I done average? I felt like my coaching habits weren’t as consistent as I needed them to be.
“There’s a trickle-down effect from there. We’re only going to be great around here if our coaches have great habits. If our coaches have great habits, our players will have great habits. We just needed to get back to that. It was time.”
Team trend: Duke has a promising quarterback, a talented group of receivers and some progress to build off from last year’s defensive line. It has the motivating factor of a 4-8 season, too. Up
For more Duke news, visit DevilsIllustrated.com.
FLORIDA STATE (2016 record: 10-3)
Key takeaway: Jimbo Fisher knows this group has the chance to be special. Like, national-title special. But FSU can’t live up to that by repeating its slow start of last season, especially considering the fact that its opening-week opponent this year is Alabama. So Fisher was hard on this team all spring, hoping to build toughness that will bear fruit in the crucial moments of the upcoming season. The steady improvement of last year’s team shows the talent that is there, and if Deondre Francois builds off last year — and if his O-line protects him — there should be no stopping the Noles.
Position battle: Dalvin Cook carried so much of the FSU offense for the past two years, so replacing him is no easy task. But the growth of everyone around him eases the burden on his successor, be it junior Jacques Patrick or four-star early-enrollee Cam Akers, both of whom impressed the staff this spring and appear ready to collectively take on the load.
Straight from the coach: “I was hell this spring. I was never happy, was pushing, because you got to get across what you’re trying to sell right now,” Fisher said, via ESPN.com. “I’d walk off the field some days and feel bad about practice because how hard I got on them or how hard I challenged or how hard I pushed them.”
Team trend: FSU is coming off another 10-win season, one that got off to a rocky start. By season’s end, the Noles were playing like a top-five team, and with the growth of Francois and the defense, can and should contend for a national title this year. Up
For more Florida State news, visit Warchant.com.
GEORGIA TECH (2016 record: 9-4)
Key takeaway: Georgia Tech quietly won six of its last seven games to end 2016, beating teams like Virginia Tech and Georgia to generate some momentum for the program. While the quarterback competition dominated Paul Johnson’s 10th spring in Atlanta, he’ll likely enter summer with fewer questions than a year ago. Of course, as the past three seasons on the Flats have shown — 11-3 to 3-9 to 9-4 — the margin for error is so, so thin for the Jackets.
Position battle: Justin Thomas was arguably the best QB to ever run Johnson’s triple-option offense, so replacing the three-year starter is a challenge. Having frontrunner Matthew Jordan go down with a foot injury didn’t help, either, although it doesn’t sound like he’ll miss much time post-spring. But the combination of Jordan, TaQuan Marshall, Lucas Johnson and Jay Jones showed Johnson enough to ease any concerns about the position.
Straight from the coach: “I’ve said before that they’re the least of my worries, that position,” Johnson said of the quarterbacks, via the Albany (Ga.) Herald. “We’ve got some good players there.”
Team trend: When expectations are low, Tech rises above them. When they’re high? Well, the Jackets were the Coastal favorite in 2015 and went 3-9. This team has the chance to be better than last year’s 9-4 outfit, but that depends on how adequately it replaces Thomas. Even
For more Georgia Tech news, visit JacketsOnline.com.
LOUISVILLE (2016 record: 9-4)
Key takeaway: The air came out of the balloon pretty darn quickly for a team that spent the first 10 weeks in the playoff picture. Perhaps some of that was regression to the mean after a comically efficient offensive performance early on. Perhaps some of that was the offensive line being exposed late. That unit has to be better, though, and with Lamar Jackson back, Bobby Petrino’s offense should still be thrilling to watch. Seeing what new coordinator Peter Sirmon does with a talented defense is worth monitoring, too.
Position battle: Brandon Radcliff and his 903-yard season are gone, and while Jackson rushed for 1,571 yards last season, it would be nice for Louisville to be able to count on others in the ground game. Jeremy Smith is back, and so, too, could be former starting QB Reggie Bonnafon, who has been a jack-of-all-trades during his time with the Cards. The backfield, next to Jackson, might be where he’s most dangerous.
Straight from the coach: “He was pretty darn good last year, but you’re always working to improve,” Petrino said of Jackson, via ESPN.com. “I think if he can do all of this, it will be like the great Magic Johnson years — one year he’s the scorer, the next year he’s dishing assists. He’s making everyone around him better and that’s really the goal.
“If he’s distributing the ball, hitting the checkdowns, seeing this, making this check, it’s going to make all of us better. Whether he’ll ever have numbers like he did last year, I don’t know that. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But it will make the offense more efficient, which makes him better.”
Team trend: The three-game slide to end last season was deflating, to be sure. But it also obscured the fact that the first 10 games were so, so good. You just can’t get too down on a team that returns the reigning Heisman winner at QB. Even
For more Louisville news, visit CardinalSports.com.
MIAMI (2016 record: 9-4)
Key takeaway: Is the U back? OK, we’ve been asking that for years now, and we’ll keep asking it until this team, at the very least, wins what is always a winnable Coastal division. But Mark Richt’s debut campaign was stellar, and he has enough returning talent — backed by strong recruiting — to elevate expectations, at least for those who have actually paid attention to this program in the ACC era. He does have to break in a new quarterback, though, after the impressive three-year run of Brad Kaaya.
Position battle: Jack Allison’s post-spring transfer makes the quarterback competition smaller by one, but the storyline will persist until a starter is chosen. Malik Rosier and Evan Sheriffs are the last men standing from the spring, but four-star QB N’Kosi Perry’s summer arrival could change things dramatically.
Straight from the coach: “I mean I didn’t expect it necessarily and I know that we still have a lot more competition to go,” Richt said of not having a clear starting QB. “I did not expect to have a clear leader when it was done. I would have been OK with it, but I think we are right about where we thought we were.”
Team trend: The Canes return 15 starters from a group that won nine games under a new regime. Replacing Kaaya is tricky, sure, but that thin defense looked so promising under Manny Diaz that Miami can’t help but be excited about the future. Up
For more Miami news, visit CaneSport.com.
NORTH CAROLINA (2016 record: 8-5)
Key takeaway: Gone is likely first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky. Gone is defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. And gone are many other key pieces from the past several seasons. Larry Fedora may have his work cut out for him in breaking in so many new faces this year, but the accumulation of talent over the years — along with highs like an 11-win season in 2015 — makes this program ever-dangerous, even if it’ll have a third different starting QB in three years.
Position battle: Where to begin? The high-octane Heels get a makeover at virtually every skill position, from quarterback to their top two running backs to arguably their top three receivers. It’s open season for UNC, although the late addition of former LSU QB Brandon Harris might quell some concerns about replacing Trubisky. Running back Jordon Brown and receivers Austin Proehl and Jordan Cunningham will likely take on bigger roles in 2017.
Straight from the coach: “I’ve never looked at it where, ‘Oh my gosh, these guys are gone, what are we going to do?’” Fedora said, via ESPN.com. “You lose guys every year, and so you adjust. That’s what we do as an offensive staff is we decide what’s going to be best for this team going forward. We know that if we take care of the football we’ve got a chance to win, so we want our turnover margin to be extremely good. The margin of error is much smaller.”
Team trend: UNC in some ways underachieved last year, considering it was the reigning division champ and was talented enough to beat FSU early. So it’s entirely plausible to see this team win eight or more games in 2017, despite all of the roster turnover. Even
For more North Carolina news, visit TarHeelIllustrated.com.
NC STATE (2016 record: 7-6)
Key takeaway: There was a post-spring exodus at tight end for NC State, with Thaddeus Moss and Pharoah McKever both recently announcing plans to transfer. But Dave Doeren’s fifth Wolfpack squad has a returning starting QB, a veteran O-line and a ton of defensive playmakers back in the fold this season, and this could be a pretty special team if it finally puts it all together.
Position battle: Matt Dayes was one of the nation’s most underrated running backs, tallying 1,166 yards last season. Who replaces him? Reggie Gallaspy was limited, Johnny Frasier is transferring and the versatile Nyheim Hines was with the track team for part of spring, although he seems fairly locked in as a full-time running back now. Stay tuned.
Straight from the coach: “It’s a lot different, and not to take away from other teams, but when you have 22 seniors and a bunch of them are starters, and have a lot of valuable game experience, it’s just different,” Doeren said, via the Wolfpacker. “You can’t plug that in. There are a lot invested in those guys.”
Team trend: This team gets the “darkhorse” label seemingly every year. And it proceeds to play mostly .500 ball every single year. Thus, despite all the returning talent, there is some hesitancy before getting too excited about the Pack in 2017. Even
For more North Carolina State news, visit TheWolfPacker.com.
PITT (2016 record: 8-5)
Key takeaway: It’s not every day you lose a future NFL quarterback and an ACC player of the year at running back and look to be in decent shape offensively, but that might be the case with Pitt. The Panthers landed USC grad transfer Max Browne at QB, and he’ll work with new OC Shawn Watson. Qadre Ollison won ACC rookie of the year honors in 2015, and he’ll have another strong O-line blocking for him. Let’s not overlook the versatile Quadree Henderson at receiver, either. As for the defense …
Position battle: The biggest battle was likely at linebacker, where only Oluwaseun Idowu returns, at the Star position. Quintin Wright looks like the Mike frontrunner while Saleem Brightwell and Elijah Zeise are battling it out for the starting Money spot. The line needs to overcome the loss of Ejuan Price, but there are enough veteran bodies there to ease any potential concern.
Straight from the coach: “The two of them have done a nice job,” Pat Narduzzi said of Max Browne and Ben DiNucci after the spring game. “Obviously, one is further along than the other, I won’t tell you who. I wanted to give the other young guys a chance to run. You see [Kenny] Pickett and [Thomas] MacVittie, they both can run and they’re young, with young wheels.”
Team trend: Pitt lost a lot of offensive talent and is on its third coordinator in three years, but Narduzzi has established a very nice foundation in going 8-5 in each of his first two years. The promise can be seen in wins like last year’s over Penn State and Clemson. The defense is bound to break through soon, too. Up
For more Pittsburgh news, visit Panther-lair.com.
SYRACUSE (2016 record: 4-8)
Key takeaway: Dino Babers’ first Syracuse team amassed the second-most yardage in school history. The offense was new, the defensive personnel was thin and the struggles were often evident. Still, the Orange have a returning starting QB and 10 starters back on defense, so expectations will be a bit higher in Year 2. If nothing else, this will be a fun team to watch.
Position battle: Nine starters are back on offense, but there’s no mistaking the absence of record-setting receiver Amba Etta-Tawo. Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael are experienced guys who will take on bigger roles, but more production will be there for the taking from a group that includes Jamal Custis, Adly Enoicy and Devin C. Butler.
Straight from the coach: “I have an older brother and I have a younger brother,” Babers said, via Syracuse.com. “When you have brothers, they are going to fight all the time and we did. But the rule was you better not leave a mark on your brother. If you left a mark on your brother then your daddy was coming home and all hell was going to break loose. That was kind of our attitude this spring. We were going to beat up on our brothers, we were going to beat up on each other, but you better not leave a mark. I thought the team did a great job of it.”
Team trend: Few would’ve guessed that Syracuse would knock off Coastal champion Virginia Tech during last year’s 4-8 season, but something as confined as that win offers hope for what should be a much more exciting offense in the comforts of the Carrier Dome. Babers, in many ways, is the perfect coach for this program, and a bowl berth should be an achievable goal. Up
For more Syracuse news, visit CuseConfidential.com.
VIRGINIA (2016 record: 2-10)
Key takeaway: Things weren’t exactly easy on the eyes during Bronco Mendenhall’s debut campaign in Charlottesville, but sometimes that’s necessary in the long-term. And while the talent level is questionable on a team that hasn’t gone bowling since 2011, the Hoos do return a starting QB in Kurt Benkert and, perhaps more importantly, a greater understanding of expectations as they look to turn the page on this rebuilding job.
Position battle: Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell did a little bit of everything during his time in the backfield with the Hoos, proving to be a threat in both the running and passing game. Jordan Ellis, Olamide Zaccheaus and Daniel Hamm are all back, but they collectively tallied just 89 rushing yards and two TDs last season.
Straight from the coach: “Our program’s culture was ahead of its execution from what I had seen and how it was being developed,” Mendenhall said, via the (Newport News) Daily Press. “That was intentional. (We’re) looking to build something that’s lasting and sustainable over time. And I think cultural and core beliefs and guiding principles go in first. … While I’m not saying that’s finished and done, I’ve been pleased with the embracing of that from our players.”
Team trend: It’s Year 2 of a new coaching regime, a hire that caught everyone off-guard last season. There’s nowhere to go but up after a two-win season, and Mendenhall’s track record suggests he’ll have the Cavs playing much better ball. The question is how soon. Up
For more Virginia news, visit CavsCorner.com.
VIRGINIA TECH (2016 record: 10-4)
Key takeaway: There was no quarterback job won quite yet, and Justin Fuente sounds more concerned about receivers stepping up than signal callers. The depth probably isn’t where it needs to be on either side just yet, but 2016 was so good that Virginia Tech fans have to be excited about the possibilities in-store for future seasons.
Position battle: Jerod Evans was a pleasant surprise last season, but he somewhat surprisingly declared for the draft, leaving the Hokies with a three-man QB race that enters the summer undecided. The contestants: redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, juco transfer A.J. Bush and freshman Hendon Hooker.
Straight from the coach: “We don’t want to overthrow the ball,” Fuente said. “We have to continue to take some steps on the outside. I think that will be good. It will help those three quarterbacks play better. We said this earlier that my biggest concern is not the development of our quarterbacks as much as if we can surround them with guys who can win ties and make plays, so that they are productive.”
Team trend: It is entirely plausible the Hokies don’t win 10 games this year, and that this “up” trend remains true. It’s only Year 2 of a new regime, and there is a lot of turnover on this roster. Still, seeing what Fuente did last year left little doubt that he will continue to do great things in Blacksburg. Up
For more Virginia Tech news, visit HokieHaven.com.
WAKE FOREST (2016 record: 7-6)
Key takeaway: Dave Clawson had what many feel was a breakthrough season last year, his third at Wake Forest. but he hasn’t looked at it that way. The Deacs made a bowl, but, more importantly, they have made the investments and recruiting moves to resemble a full-flight Power-5 program, which should continue to bear fruit on the field this fall. A new coordinator in Jay Sawvel will look to keep the defense strong, while the amount of experience returning on offense offers promise for a group that has slowly but surely grown up the past three years.
Position battle: Kendall Hinton entered the spring as the top QB despite missing the bulk of last season, but this is a position always worth keeping an eye on, given how much both he and John Wolford have played at Wake. Hinton is more versatile, but you can’t discount the way Wolford has persevered through his first three years under center.
Straight from the coach: “Quite honestly, I think our guys don’t like hearing that they had a great year last year,” Clawson said. “It wasn’t a great year. We improved, we got better. But we don’t want 7-6 to be the standard for great here. We want a higher standard. People mean well when they say it and I certainly take it the right way but we can’t have the approach here that winning six games and getting to a bowl is a great year. We have higher aspirations than that. To get more wins and compete for an ACC title, having said that, with our conference and our division, I know how hard that is. Those are easy things to say and a very tall mountain to climb in our conference. But that’s where we want to get to and it’s going to take a lot of work over the summer to get there.”
Team trend: The aforementioned quote kind of sums it up. Wake Forest won seven games last year and could’ve won as many as nine. Enough returning talent, and quality depth, is back to make an improvement over last year’s total possible. Up
For more Wake Forest news, visit DeaconsIllustrated.com.
NOTRE DAME (2016 record: 4-8)
Key takeaway: Notre Dame has six new assistants and a new starting quarterback. It has the pressure of having to rebound from four-win season. So far, though, Brian Kelly and his crew have seemed to adjust accordingly, from a new strength program to a renewed sense of accountability throughout the building. Of course, the ultimate referendum will come in the on-field results this fall.
Position battle: Brandon Wimbush is the new quarterback, and we know plenty about the talented running backs and receivers. The defense might be another story, but new coordinator Mike Elko is hoping the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Right tackle is the only true position battle, with redshirt freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg duking it out to join four returning starters up front. That battle will likely last into fall camp.
Straight from the coach: “The story beneath the story for me was: Who the heck is going to be the No. 2 quarterback?” Kelly said. “Because if you guys have followed us long enough, we’ve used our No. 2 here, quite a bit. So having that No. 2, and seeing him perform the way he has this spring, for me, has been, one of the big stories. And Ian (Book) has done this all spring.”
Team trend: Notre Dame will be better than 4-8, probably significantly so. But the failures of last year should not lower the bar for this year, so the new-look Irish need to show on-field progress that goes beyond the simple won-loss record of 2017. Even
For more Notre Dame news, visit BlueAndGold.com.
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