ACC: Clemson Tigers

ACC morning links

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
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Vic Beasley is fashioning himself into a top 10 pick.

Off a thoroughly impressive performance at the NFL combine, Beasley turned heads once again at Clemson's Pro Day on Thursday. Though he did not run or lift, Beasley showed the record 72 team reps that he can also play linebacker, too. Beasley did not look out of place doing linebacker drills with two more established Tigers -- Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.

Though he starred at defensive end at Clemson, Beasley projects as an outside linebacker on the next level because of his size and pass rush ability.

Beasley told reporters afterward, "I came out here with the right mind set and I wanted to show these teams that I can play in space and drop back as a linebacker," Beasley said.

There was an all-star group in attendance to watch Beasley and his former teammates. New England coach Bill Belichick, Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly and Buffalo coach Rex Ryan were all there. All 32 NFL teams were represented.

In his latest mock draft, Insider ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Beasley going No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons. Kiper writes:
Beasley isn't just an athletic freak because he's been a one-man production line at Clemson, with 44.5 tackles for loss over the last two seasons. He can flat out create disruption and get to the quarterback, and that's exactly what Atlanta needs.

Beasley is one of nine ACC players Kiper has in the first round:

1. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
8. Beasley, Atlanta
14. DeVante Parker, Miami
19. Ereck Flowers, Cleveland
21. Eli Harold, Cincinnati
23. Eddie Goldman, Detroit
27. Kevin Johnson, Dallas
28. Cameron Erving, Denver
29. T.J. Clemmings, Indianapolis

Elsewhere around the ACC:
While Big Ten and other NCAA officials discuss rules limiting eligibility for first-year players in football and men’s basketball, ACC football coaches are nearly unanimous in wanting to move in the opposite direction.

In a poll of ACC football coaches, 12 of the 13 who responded said they favored or would consider expanding eligibility to allow players to play five years — eliminating the redshirt completely — and every coach expressed significant reservations about potentially redshirting all freshmen.

The debate has become a talking point after the Big Ten opened discussions on the subject of improving academics for freshmen by taking them off the field to focus more on the classroom, but every coach polled said they’d seen no firm correlation between grades and playing time, and many suggested redshirting freshmen can actually have a detrimental effect on their overall college experience.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesDavid Cutcliffe coaches at a school known for stellar academics, and he doesn't see a need to restrict freshman eligibility.
“My case study is watching young people, and the people who do redshirt that had been stars really struggle with their identity and happiness,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who has 33 years of experience coaching in the SEC and ACC.

Indeed, most coaches suggest the athletes with the greatest deficiencies in the classroom are also the ones who would be hurt the most by taking away their on-field experience, while the ones with the best time-management skills away from coaches are typically flourishing academically already.

“The kids that are mature and make good decisions, a redshirt year can be good for them,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “But the at-risk student is better off if he’s playing right away and engaged with the team all the time.”

While the specifics of freshman eligibility have not yet been a topic discussed among ACC coaches formally, Doeren said he was hopeful those conversations would begin soon, so that the concerns shared by the coaches can be addressed.

ACC commissioner John Swofford appeared open to restricted eligibility when asked by the Louisville Courier-Journal last month, though he conceded the logistics would be challenging.

“It's not a new topic,” Swofford told the paper. “It's been talked about in our league, as well as others, periodically. I'm old enough to have played in that system, and it was a good one. I think it's very educationally sound, and I think we should think about and consider anything that's educationally sound. Whether we get back to that, I don't know. I don't know if it fits the times in today's world. We haven't taken any votes in our league in regard to it in recent years.”

While the ACC does not specifically track league-wide academic performance of freshmen compared with older student-athletes, the conference does have the highest academic rating overall among Power 5 leagues, according to U.S. News and World Report, and 11 of the 14 institutions had an APR better than the FBS average. It's noteworthy, too, that of the 65 members of the league's academic All-ACC team, 12 were true freshmen.

On the NCAA level, eligibility restrictions for the most at-risk athletes are already set to go into effect beginning in 2016. Students who fail to meet core course requirements, GPA and ACT or SAT scores will be forced to redshirt or grayshirt their first year.

Extending eligibility restrictions to all freshmen would be a knee-jerk reaction, however, Cutcliffe said.

“I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish other than getting better grades out of it, and that’s just not going to happen,” he said.

What it clearly would accomplish, however, is a huge strain on the remaining rosters for all teams.

Until 1972, freshmen were ineligible for competition. But at that time there were no scholarship limits in place, and programs could easily field a team without the newcomers. Moreover, seasons were shorter, with the majority of programs playing just 11 games until the early 2000s. This past season, Oregon and Ohio State played 15 games — one shy of an NFL season — and if freshmen hadn’t been eligible to play, they might have been limited to a roster of just 60 scholarship athletes.

“That’s basically an NFL roster, but we don’t get to pick up anybody off waivers, have free agency, make trades,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “I’m not sure how that would work, and I don’t think they have any intention of giving us more scholarships.”

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonNorth Carolina's Larry Fedora and other coaches would certainly want to ease the 85-scholarship limit if freshmen weren't eligible.
Instead, coaches pointed to two distinct areas that could address academic concerns without eliminating eligibility.

First, schools need to do a better job of developing programs to ensure a smoother transition for incoming freshmen to the rigors of college life. As Doeren suggested, time management and study skills differentiate students who succeed from the ones who fall behind, and instilling those in freshmen upon arrival in the summer is crucial.

Virginia’s Mike London said he shared some of the Big Ten’s concerns regarding academic performance and would be open to further discussion of potential solutions, but he said those answers should start with an in-house focus on supporting students in the classroom.

“We all know the biggest transition is from high school to college,” London said. “It’s important to me that the structures you have in place — academic advising, mentoring, tutoring — that’s as critical as anything else, and if you’re successful there, you allow the student-athletes — particularly the freshmen — to come in and have success.”

Moreover, Fedora said he’d like to see schools raise their admissions standards for athletes to weed out those who would be most likely to struggle with academics.

“Raise your standards,” Fedora said. “Don’t just let anybody in. If they’re not academically ready, then don’t let them in.”

All but one coach polled suggested five years of eligibility on the field would allow coaches more wiggle room in developing their freshmen.

“I would make everybody eligible, and then your team will be a lot healthier,” Miami coach Al Golden said. “There would never be a situation where a kid would feel like he’s letting his teammates down. The communication would improve. Health and safety would improve, and I bet our graduation rates and the number of student-athletes leaving with postgraduate degrees would increase sharply, too.”

It’s a plan that was reiterated again and again by ACC coaches concerned with player safety, academics and, of course, winning.

The bottom line among all coaches, however, is that more discussion of these issues is required, and that input from the coaches dealing with student-athletes on a daily basis should be weighed as strongly as any broad statistics being used to tout academic struggles for freshmen.

“A lot of things we do, we change before they’re truly broken,” Cutcliffe said. “I hope they listen to reason. I’d hate to see [eligibility restrictions] happen.”
Replacing an All-American is never an easy task, but at Clemson, there is no real panic about life after Vic Beasley.

Not with Shaq Lawson ready to step right into the starting job at defensive end.

Lawson learned behind Beasley the last two seasons, and thrived in his role. He is far from an inexperienced youngster -- Lawson has played a combined 632 snaps in two years, making the most of his opportunities.

In fact, Lawson is one of just two players in school history to have at least 10 or more tackles for loss as a freshman and sophomore. Clemson Hall of Famer Anthony Simmons, who made the 50th Anniversary All-ACC team 2002, is the other.

[+] EnlargeShaq Lawson
AP Photo/John RaouxShaq Lawson has his sights set on reaching double-digit sacks in 2015.
Excellent company indeed. But what is remarkable about Lawson is he did it as a backup.

“I learned a lot from Vic since I got here,” Lawson said in a recent phone interview after practice. “He taught me how to be fast and aggressive. At this level, you need to be fast. He continued to push me every day, so that got me better.”

Lawson, a four-star prospect out of high school, had to spend one year at Hargrave Military Academy before arriving at Clemson in 2013. Being away from the Tigers that one year helped prepare him to have the patience to wait for his chance to start.

“I’ve been patient for a long time,” Lawson said. “When I got here, I was just being patient because I knew I was behind an All-American and I knew my time was coming. My time is here, so I’m going to make the most of my opportunity this year.”

Lawson wants to hit double-digit tackles for loss again this year, but the bigger challenge is ramping up his sacks. Beasley was incredibly gifted at getting off the line quickly, using his speed and athleticism to get past linemen and to the quarterback.

The last two years, Beasley totaled 25 sacks. Lawson wants to get to double-digit sacks himself in 2015. So far, his career-high is four sacks, set during his freshman year. To that end, Lawson has worked hard this offseason to get rid of his body fat and become leaner.

He changed his diet and dropped five pounds, down to 270. Lawson says he feels much faster and not as heavy as he did in the past. His get-off at the line has been a big area where he has felt a difference.

“That’s going to help me a lot so I can finish my rush and finish the sacks,” Lawson said. “That’s my main focus, just getting my body lean and be more of a pass-rusher because I can play the run.”

Lawson must also take a bigger leadership role, now that he is one of the veterans on the defense. Clemson lost all its starters on the defensive line, but the Tigers return many players like Lawson with valuable game experience.

Still, guys like Beasley and Grady Jarrett provided terrific leadership for the entire defense over the last several seasons, leaving a vacuum to fill.

“Shaq is going to be one of our leaders on defense,” coach Dabo Swinney told reporters this week. “Will he be the next Vic Beasley? He has really been productive his first two years. He and [offensive tackle] Isaiah Battle have really been competing and making both players better.”

The biggest goal for Lawson is not his own personal stats, but making sure the Clemson defense remains the elite unit it has become.

“We don’t have any drop-off in the D-line,” Lawson said. “We’ve got great linebackers: Ben Boulware played great for us last year in big games and B.J. Goodson's always been great. In the secondary, we’ve got everybody back. We feel like we’re getting better every day and we’re going to try to be the No. 1 defense again this year.”

ACC morning links

March, 5, 2015
Mar 5
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You do not have to look too hard to find the standard spring preview fare now that practices have begun across the country.

USA Today is the latest with its prospectus, covering the usual ground. But one particular item stood out. Scroll to the bottom and there are five impact newcomers listed. One is tight end Jerome Washington, a junior college transfer who played club football for Gattaca last year.

Miami coaches have been pleased what they have seen out of Washington so far in camp, but he is not the only tight end who has drawn praise. The Canes believe they are deep enough and talented enough at tight end to make up for the loss of Clive Walford, who finished second on the team with 676 yards receiving and seven touchdowns a year ago and is one of the highest-rated tight ends available for the NFL draft.

"Clive left us in a really good position because everybody in that room saw how much he grew as a player and a person," coach Al Golden told ESPN.com recently. "I'm really excited about that group."

Veteran Stan Dobard leads the group, but Golden also mentioned Chris Herndon, Jake O'Donnell, David Njoku and Washington. There is no doubt Miami has a group of big guys who are athletic. Dobard was a four-star recruit out of high school; Njoku competes in the high jump for the track team and just placed sixth at the ACC Indoor Track and Field championships. Washington, the No. 1 rated junior college tight end, certainly looks the part. At 6-foot-5 and 262 pounds, he has impressed his coaches in the early going.

"His ceiling is through the roof," tight ends coach Larry Scott told reporters in South Florida earlier this week. "He's already 260-plus pounds and you go 'Wow.' You get him out here and work with him and see him stride, see him do movements that big guys typically have a hard time doing or have to over years develop. He does it naturally. You look at yourself and shake your head and go, 'We've got a special one here.'"

But Scott cautioned that Washington is still a freshman and has much learning to do. Whether or not he can make an impact this season remains to be seen. But Miami will be asking its tight ends to step up with Walford gone. So a big opportunity awaits.

Elsewhere around the ACC:
  • A few Syracuse news items of interest. Defensive tackle Ryan Sloan has decided to leave the program after several incidents over the last few years made him realize Syracuse was not the right place for him. The Orange are really hurting for depth at the defensive tackle spot this spring. Marcus Coleman is also gone, thanks to foot injuries that cut his career short. Meanwhile, backup quarterback AJ Long told a local television station he expects to redshirt the 2015 season. Long was supposed to redshirt last year, but was forced to play when starting quarterback Terrel Hunt got hurt. Now that Hunt is healthy, it makes sense for the staff to try and get Long a redshirt year back.
  • Florida State picked up a commitment from a junior college linebacker for the class of 2016.
  • Louisville picked up a commitment from a 380-pound defensive tackle nicknamed "Big Snack."
  • NC State wants to continue to build on its recent success.
  • Virginia Tech running back Shai McKenzie has been suspended indefinitely after he was charged with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
  • Wake Forest is going to be without the two cornerbacks expected to take over starting roles all spring.
  • This is not football related, but it is a must-read for anybody who uses the Internet. Bravo, Curt Schilling. Bravo.
  • We'll leave you with this quick video showing Clemson unveiling its latest tombstone, a tradition that pays tribute to each road win against a ranked opponent. Oklahoma was the latest "victim."
The conference returns a number of experienced and talented quarterbacks, but for two of the ACC's top teams, there is an open competition at the position. Those competitions will define the spring for Florida State and Louisville and could define all of 2015. Those position battles highlight the conference's most intense competitions this spring.

1. Florida State starting quarterback
When Jameis Winston committed to the Seminoles, it was assumed the No. 1 high school quarterback would transition into the starting role after a redshirt year once EJ Manuel departed. There is not an obvious answer for who will follow Winston, however. Sean Maguire filled in admirably against Clemson under tough circumstances and against the top defense in 2014, but he still has much to prove. J.J. Cosentino was an ESPN 300 recruit and certainly has the build (6-foot-4, 234 pounds), but he redshirted as a freshman. De'Andre Johnson enrolled in January and could be a dark horse, but fellow freshman Deondre Francois, who will arrive in the summer, has the higher prep pedigree. John Franklin III could get some looks in the spring, but he spent most of last season at receiver.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill Gardner passed for 1,669 yards with 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions in eight games for Louisville last season, but missed five games overall, including the final three.
2. Louisville starting quarterback
You might have better odds hitting the superfecta at Churchill Downs two months from now than accurately pegging who the Cardinals will start in the season opener. Will Gardner, who took the majority of snaps in 2014, is recovering from a torn ACL. Reggie Bonnafon collected a handful of starts as a true freshman, but he could not wrestle the starting gig from Gardner long term. Kyle Bolin showed promise against Kentucky in the regular-season finale but struggled in the bowl game against Georgia. Tyler Ferguson has followed Bobby Petrino around recently, so the transfer should have the offense down. Making it tougher on the three spring participants is the lack of experienced receivers. That will be another interesting position battle.

3. Georgia Tech's running backs
The Yellow Jackets are losing seven of their top nine leading rushers at running back, so aside from Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech's crowded backfield will have several new faces. Broderick Snoddy is the most experienced but is recovering from a devastating leg injury suffered in November. Snoddy has lightning speed and is a home-run threat with the ball in his hands. Dennis Andrews had only 16 carries in 2014, but he averaged 6.6 yards per carry. The name to watch is C.J. Leggett, who redshirted as a freshman last season but was highly rated coming out of high school.

4. Boston College's starting offensive line
Former offensive line coach Steve Addazio had the luxury of coaching five seniors along the line at certain points in 2014. The obvious flip side is that now he has to completely retool the offensive line, and the spring is the ideal time to start working on that chemistry. Guard Harris Williams returns from injury, but there are a number of question marks around him. Dave Bowen could be a solid bet to start at one of the tackle spots. Senior Frank Taylor could step in at center. Aside from Williams, though, nothing looks to be set in stone.

5. Clemson backup quarterback.
The Tigers probably have the conference's best quarterback, but Deshaun Watson has struggled to stay healthy since enrolling at Clemson. He suffered three significant injuries his first season, the last a torn ACL that will cost him spring practice. A year ago, the Tigers still had Cole Stoudt, who had started a handful of games. If Watson is not ready for the opener or has to miss any time in 2015, the Tigers' season could be in jeopardy. Nick Schuessler is a redshirt junior but a former walk-on who has thrown only 10 career passes. Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel are true freshmen who enrolled in January.

6. Miami running back
Duke Johnson, whose career will be celebrated at Miami for quite some time, is off to the NFL. Miami has a strong stable of running backs it can rely on to replace Johnson, but it remains to be seen who will get the majority of the carries. Joseph Yearby was one of the country's top running backs in the 2014 class and ran for more than 500 yards as a freshman. However, Gus Edwards could leave the spring with the starting gig. Edwards is a bigger back but is capable of running away from defenders. Mark Walton is enrolling in the coming months, and he was one of the top high school players in Florida last fall.

ACC morning links

March, 4, 2015
Mar 4
9:00
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AthlonSports released its ACC spring preview this week, and writer Steven Lassan is not overlooking Florida State just yet.

In his pre-spring power rankings, Lassan has the Seminoles atop the Atlantic Division, listing the quarterback battle as the obvious top offseason priority. Despite winning the last three ACC titles, FSU has seemed to take a bit of a backseat this offseason to Clemson, the perceived early frontrunner in the division and the league.

Look no further than this space, where the four of us all picked the Tigers to win the Atlantic in our way-too early ACC predictions for 2015. We also -- well, three of us -- picked Georgia Tech to win the Coastal, and Lassan thinks no differently in his early spring power rankings though, as he points out, the Yellow Jackets do need to replace plenty of key figures at the skill position spots after last year's production.

One other interesting early slotting by Lassan? He has Duke at No. 6 in the Coastal, this after second- and first-place finishes in 2014 and 2013, respectively. There is certainly be plenty of turnover on both sides of the ball for the Blue Devils, so it will be interesting to see what David Cutcliffe does in his eighth year in Durham.

Here are the rest of your Wednesday links:

ACC morning links

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
9:00
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There has been no shortage of talk about ACC players in the lead-up to the NFL Draft. Look no further than the debate over the first pick, which currently looks to be leaning in the favor of former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The former Heisman Trophy winner filed a trademark for "Famous Jameis," our Darren Rovell reported Monday, putting himself in position to capitalize on a nickname that has followed him from early on during his career with the Seminoles.

But it's a rather off-the-radar former ACC player who has experienced a rapid rise in the early months of pre-draft evaluation: Kevin Johnson.

The former Wake Forest cornerback drew representatives from 23 NFL teams Monday to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for his pro day, and he has little doubt about about his abilities.

"I think I'm the best cornerback," Johnson said, according to our David Newton.

Newton, who covers the Carolina Panthers, says Carolina could be in the hunt for a corner like Johnson in the first round with the No. 25 pick. Another team with interest appears to be the Pittsburgh Steelers, who sent a league-high four reps to Wake Forest.

In his most recent mock draft, Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay has Johnson going 14th overall, to the Miami Dolphins.

Johnson rested on his Combine numbers Monday -- namely a 4.52 40-yard dash -- and both he and Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson believe that Johnson can be a shutdown corner at the next level despite notching just one interception this past fall.

"He's a tall corner that can run," Clawson said. "And he has the loosest, quickest hips of anybody I've ever seen."

Here are the rest of your Tuesday links:
Brent Venables was already hard at work breaking down film of Clemson’s 2015 opponents last month when he noticed something interesting in Notre Dame’s resounding defeat at the hands of USC. The Irish, who travel to Death Valley on Oct. 3, were getting trounced 49-7 midway through the fourth quarter, and Venables couldn’t help but note that USC still had the bulk of its starting defense on the field.

This isn’t entirely uncommon. The stats look a lot better when the best players are on the field the whole game. But this isn’t a philosophy Venables ever has understood, and he’s hoping his plan of distributing as many snaps as possible to his bench players will pay some dividends this year.

[+] EnlargeMackensie Alexander
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesMackensie Alexander and the secondary will be expected to hold things down while the revamped front four comes together.
“Sometimes it’s not quite as pretty at the end of the game if they put a couple cheap ones on you, but we’re building for the future and getting guys that are experienced,” Venables said.

Last season, Venables’ defense was oozing experience. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and a host of seniors anchored a unit that led the nation in nearly a dozen statistical categories. It was the culmination of a four-year journey that transformed Clemson’s D from national punchline into national powerhouse.

Now the journey begins again — but Venables isn’t exactly starting from scratch.

Nine seniors from last year’s two-deep have moved on, but the group that remains is not short on experience. While just three starters return, the Tigers have a host of players who have earned meaningful snaps over the past few seasons. In fact, 23 defenders had at least 75 snaps played last season.

“We’ve got players at every position in the front seven who have either started games in the last two years or have played substantial snaps,” Venables said. “But like all starters — can these guys play to the level of consistency that we just lost? That’s the challenge, getting these guys to grow up and take responsibility for the day-in, day-out grind of what it takes to be a starter.”

For some, there are fewer questions. Beasley’s former backup, Shaq Lawson, is the ACC’s only returning defender who accumulated at least 10 tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons. D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins both have starting experience at tackle. Ben Boulware got a jump start on his 2015 campaign at linebacker by returning an interception for a TD against Oklahoma in Clemson's Russell Athletic Bowl win. B.J. Goodson and Korrin Wiggins have seen their share of work at outside linebacker.

In other words, this isn’t a group that figures to be overwhelmed by the moment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to match the legacy of the players who preceded them.

“That was a special group we had — not just at Clemson but in college football,” Venables said. “We had a great chemistry that is hard to coach, and hopefully these young guys have learned something from that. If we don’t have the work ethic and the toughness and competitiveness, it’ll be a substantial drop-off.”

With that in mind, Venables has been careful not to dole out too much advanced praise for the new starters stepping into bigger roles. What Beasley, Jarrett & Co. provided was so much more than just production on the field. That group valued the details as much as any Venables has coached and its work ethic was a rarity.

Last year’s seniors worked to instill that mentality in younger teammates, but there are no guarantees those seeds will take root.

“It’s one thing to talk about it now before they’ve ever really led, but they recognize what it takes,” Venables said. “It’s hard. It’s easy to talk about it. It’s easy to do it today or this week. But can you do it day in and day out? That’s the challenge of being a really good player and a really good leader.”

Regardless of the turnover, don’t expect the overall philosophy behind Venables’ D to change much. The game plan won’t be adjusted to account for the loss of Beasley or Jarrett, but the demands on those who remain will be bigger.

While last year’s D was led by the front seven, Venables said the secondary will need to star in the early going this season. And while the pass D at Clemson was tops in the nation last year, it won’t have the luxury of those stars up front to set the table in 2015. That puts the onus on emerging stars such as Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse to step up.

“They need to be better than what they were,” Venables said. “That ball may not come out [as fast]. They’ll need to be tighter in their coverage, play better awareness and eliminate some mistakes. They need to make marked improvement.”

There’s also the not-so-small task of finding youngsters ready to take on the snaps that Lawson, Reader and others consumed in reserve roles last year. That’s perhaps the biggest mystery — and greatest source of excitement — on D as Clemson gets set to open spring practice.

“It’s one thing running over bags and around cones,” Venables said. “We feel good about our young guys, and it’ll be a process. But maybe after a few weeks we’ll feel better about proclaiming who can break that two-deep with those young guys. But we like the group of guys we have in here.”

The truth is, the defense won’t be the same in 2015 as it was a year ago. That group was unique, and Venables understands there will be growing pains.

But he also isn’t surprised this day has come. Even as the Tigers were busy tormenting opposing QBs throughout 2014, he was planning for the inevitable.

“Some things aren’t going to be the same,” Venables said. “Vic Beasley isn’t just going to show up. That doesn’t happen. The older you are, the better you get, the less mistakes you make. We may not have that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be really good.”
The contrast at quarterback in the ACC between this spring and last spring is pretty easy to quantify.

Last spring: Six teams had quarterbacks with zero career starts.

This spring: Two teams have quarterbacks with zero career starts.

Last spring: ACC teams combined for 76 returning career starts at quarterback.

This spring: ACC teams combined for double that mark, with 155 returning career starts at the position.

Last spring: Four ACC teams returned their starter from the previous season.

This spring: 10 ACC teams return their starting quarterback.

So even with Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston gone, it is pretty safe to say the ACC will be leaps better at quarterback in 2015. More experienced players return, though interestingly enough, the two most experienced teams at quarterback a year ago are now the least: Florida State and Duke.

Winston showed exceptional talent can make up for inexperience. So did three first-time starters a year ago, players that blossomed into bona fide stars: Brad Kaaya at Miami, Justin Thomas at Georgia Tech and Deshaun Watson at Clemson.

Add in Marquise Williams at North Carolina (who will miss the spring with a hip injury), and four quarterbacks have the potential not only to be selected preseason All-ACC quarterback, but one could very easily be preseason ACC Offensive Player of the Year.

Kaaya and Williams each threw for 3,000 yards. Kaaya led the ACC in pass efficiency and passing yards per completion; Thomas ranked No. 4 in the ACC in rushing. Watson threw 14 touchdowns to two interceptions and completed 68 percent of his passes in his injury-shortened year (while also being a valuable rusher).

In Williams’ case, he had to survive a heated quarterback competition last spring that went into the season, when coach Larry Fedora decided to play him and Mitch Trubisky. But once Williams became the full-time starter after the first month of the season, his play blossomed. As our David Hale pointed out, only five Power 5 quarterbacks had more total touchdowns (20) than Williams from game 7 until the season ended. Though Trubisky will get the first-team reps this spring, Williams is expected to return as the starter when he is healthy come fall camp.

Even beyond the top tier, a quarterback such as Chad Voytik will have a chance to improve under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

“He’s probably one of the most impressive guys in our morning runs,” coach Pat Narduzzi said of Voytik. “People talk about Tyler Boyd and James Conner. That’s maybe one of the forgotten guys. Chad Voytik is a heck of a football player. He’s a competitor.”

And at Virginia, the Hoos are going into the spring without a quarterback controversy for the first time in five years. Greyson Lambert returns as the starter, with Matt Johns right behind him.

“This is the first time in a long time you have two guys who have played, and they played pretty good opponents, kept us in some close games and they both have stats,” London said. “If you look at the rest of the league, we probably have the most experienced 1-2 quarterback duo coming back, and that has to be a positive for us.”

London is close. Louisville and Syracuse have three players with at least one career start, thanks to injuries at the position a year ago. But unlike Syracuse, which will go with healthy Terrel Hunt as its starter, Louisville has declared an open quarterback competition.

Will Gardner (seven starts) will miss the spring, leaving Reggie Bonnafon (five starts), Kyle Bolin (one start) and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson to get the majority of the reps.

Two more teams will have open competitions this spring: Florida State (Sean Maguire, J.J. Cosentino, De'Andre Johnson) and Boston College (Darius Wade, Troy Flutie). The Seminoles have at least had stability at the position under Jimbo Fisher, who is on the verge of producing his third straight first-round pick at quarterback.

BC, meanwhile, will start its third quarterback in three seasons under Steve Addazio.

“No matter what you do, your quarterback doesn’t have any experience, and that’s our job. We have to find the guy that’s going to be the best leader for this football team,” Addazio said. “For me to tell you I know that’s going to happen at a high, high level next year? I can’t say that because that position is tough. But that’s our job. To get the next guy in line and to get the most out of that guy. Whoever that guy is, we’re going to make the most mature that we can make him in the shortest amount of time.”

Unlike last year, that is a problem only a few teams have to deal with this spring.
Spring football is off and running at several ACC schools, with many more set to kick things off in the coming days and weeks. There is no shortage of storylines throughout the league, but here are the questions that stand out above all else:

1. Does the ACC have an embarrassment of quarterback riches? It's not every day a league can withstand losing a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the pros (more on FSU later), but the ACC has a ton of talent coming back under center in 2015. Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest all return players who started at quarterback in 2014. Thomas Sirk is the frontrunner at Duke, and he saw extended time last year as a change-of-pace quarterback, too. Then there's Clemson and North Carolina, whose talented signal-callers from last fall will miss this spring, giving others a chance to prove themselves and build depth. Which brings us to …

2. What about the No. 2 quarterbacks? Deshaun Watson may be way ahead of schedule in his recovery from ACL surgery, as Dabo Swinney said Friday, and we all know what the sophomore is capable of when he is healthy. But this spring will see others get a chance at Clemson, as last year's No. 3 signal-caller, Nick Schuessler, leads a trio of quarterbacks that includes early enrollees Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel. At North Carolina, meanwhile, the Tar Heels will have to go through spring drills without starter Marquise Williams, who is sidelined with a hip injury. That means Mitch Trubisky, who split time with Williams in the early part of the 2014 season, will run the first team this spring.

3. How does FSU replace Jameis? More quarterback talk, you say? Why of course! Florida State lost just one game in two years with Jameis Winston as its starter, so replacing him is no easy task. Sean Maguire is back after an uneven performance in his lone start last year, but he will have to battle it out with redshirt freshman J.J. Cosentino, a former ESPN four-star prospect, and early enrollee De'Andre Johnson, another four-star prospect.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPat Narduzzi spent the past eight seasons as Michigan State's defensive coordinator.
4. What does Narduzzi bring to Pitt? There is just one new head coach in the ACC this time around. And, once again, he resides in the Steel City. Pat Narduzzi is the fourth different head coach to open a spring in Pittsburgh since 2010, but he walks into a pretty good situation. The Panthers boast junior studs in James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense, and Narduzzi's defensive roots should prove valuable to a Panthers unit that struggled down the stretch last season.

5. How will BC's offensive makeover look? Few coaches have had as much early success at new stops as Steve Addazio has had at Boston College, taking a two-win team from 2012 to consecutive 7-6 seasons. In 2013, he rode Heisman finalist running back Andre Williams to a strong finish. In 2014, he relied on dual-threat transfer quarterback Tyler Murphy. This season Addazio promoted receivers coach Todd Fitch to offensive coordinator after Ryan Day left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he is looking for a more balanced attack. This could be more challenging considering he'll be without a senior signal-caller for the first time.

6. Will early enrollees make an impact? We already mentioned Johnson at FSU, but five-star safety Derwin James could have an easier path to the field, given the Seminoles' openings in the secondary. So, too, could five-star receiver George Campbell. Similar circumstances at North Carolina could allow four-star linebacker Andre Smith to start early, especially on a Tar Heels defense that had a staff makeover and is in need of a massive turnaround from 2014.

7. Can Clemson's defense again be dominant? The Tigers boasted the nation's No. 1 defense last season, but they said goodbye to plenty of talent. Coordinator Brent Venables will have his work cut for him, but bringing back Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Ben Boulware, Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse is certainly a good starting point for a team that appears to be the early league frontrunner in 2015.

8. Will Louisville keep it going defensively? The Cardinals' defense was one of the bigger surprise of 2014, Bobby Petrino's first year back with the program. But all of those playmakers came from the past regime, and Petrino will be counting on transfers with troubled pasts to pitch in this year: former Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, former Georgia corner Shaq Wiggins and former TCU linebacker Devonte Fields.

9. Can Miami take advantage of the talent at its disposal? Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Stacy Coley give the Hurricanes a great starting point this spring. But Miami likely has to figure out its retooling offensive line in order to take advantage of its weapons. Questions on how this team went 6-7 last year continue to mount, and now will be as good of a time as any for the Canes to get things going and change the conversation.

10. Will Notre Dame get a quarterback answer? The Irish's inaugural year of quasi-ACC membership helped bring us arguably the game of the year, at Florida State. This year the Irish, who return 19 starters, will face six ACC teams, including contests against potential division frontrunners Clemson and Georgia Tech. But who is directing the offense under center will likely be determined this spring, as Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will battle it out after splitting reps in Notre Dame's bowl win over LSU. There is also always the chance that Golson, who said he graduates this spring, could transfer and play his fifth season elsewhere this fall.

ACC morning links

March, 2, 2015
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Spring is more than two weeks away. Spring practices have yet to begin at a number of schools across the country. But in Durham, the main event of spring football has already come and gone.

Duke got an early start on its spring season again this year, hoping to keep the momentum going from another strong campaign this past fall. And if Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, the Blue Devils' defense is ahead of the offense at this point.
“The defense definitely won,” defensive tackle Carlos Wray said, according to the (Raleigh) News & Observer's Laura Keeley. “They got behind the sticks (tackled for loss), they didn’t convert a fourth down, they missed the two-point conversion, which is what we call a game-winner, and the referees deemed that the pass over in the left corner of the end zone was incomplete, which gave us the W."

With construction taking place at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke had only a 25-minute scrimmage, which followed 90 minutes of drills. And the results could very well turn out to be a pleasant surprise for a team that has won 19 games these past two seasons.

As colleague David Hale wrote last week, defensive line has been the one big missing piece for the Blue Devils these past two seasons. Wray is the only returning starter to the defensive line in 2015, but the continued growth and development of the unit is a positive sign.

Defensive tackle A.J. Wolf was honored as most improved defensive player this spring, sharing the distinction with defensive back Alonzo Saxton II. Offensively, receiver Terrence Alls and tackle Gabe Brander earned the accolades. Corner Jamie Cockey earned the Blue Devil Heart Award.

Saturday was Duke's 11th practice this spring.

Here are the rest of your Monday links:

ACC's most intriguing Nos. 1-5

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
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We’re still 26 long weeks away from the start of the 2015 season, but there promises to be plenty of twists and turns for ACC teams before the action kicks off. While some of the drama will come as a surprise, there are a number of key figures around the ACC that are already big stories. With that in mind, we’re counting down the 25 most intriguing figures in the conference this offseason -- from players to coaches to administrators -- and digging into the impact they might make on how 2015 unfolds once the games finally begin. Last up, Nos. 1 through 5.

1. Jimbo Fisher

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Orlando Sentinel via Getty ImagesThe loss of numerous impact players on offense will likely test Florida State's Jimbo Fisher in 2015.
Role: Head coach, Florida State

Intrigue: Fisher won a national title in 2013 and took FSU to the College Football Playoff last year, but now he’ll be presiding over an offense without Jameis Winston. Finding his next quarterback will be job No. 1, and it also figures to be the most discussed storyline of the spring. Winston set a standard that no one is likely to match, but J.J. Cosentino and Sean Maguire will do battle to get a chance to try. Adding more pressure to the decision, Fisher will also need to find four new starters on the O-line and replace the most prolific receiver and tight end in program history.

Possible impact: There’s no such thing as rebuilding in Tallahassee. The expectation is for Florida State to reload. But is that realistic this year? The defense was already a concern, and four underclassmen have left for the NFL draft. Meanwhile, the offense won’t be there to cover up many mistakes this time around, and Fisher’s ability to develop his inexperienced QBs and find the right man for the job will likely be the biggest differentiator between a fourth straight ACC title for Florida State or making that 29-game winning streak a distant memory.

2. Deshaun Watson

Role: Quarterback, Clemson

Intrigue: There are no more questions about how good Watson will be, how well he’ll acclimate himself to the college game or what could be in store for the Tigers once he gets on the field. As a freshman in 2014, he provided resounding answers to those concerns. Now, it’s a matter of whether the future star can simply stay on the field. He suffered three different injuries that cost him time last year, and he’s now rehabbing an ACL tear this offseason. Add to the intrigue, Watson said goodbye to coordinator Chad Morris -- the man who recruited him to Clemson -- after Morris took the head coaching job at SMU.

Possible impact: Last year was a rebuilding season on offense for Clemson, but the Tigers identified a host of young talent, including Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman and Mike Williams. But Watson was the key ingredient, and when he was on the field, the Tigers were difficult to slow down. The ACL injury ended his season before the bowl game, but he’ll also have nine months to rehab before the 2015 season begins. If he’s at 100 percent or close to it, Clemson could easily have the most dangerous offense in the ACC.

3. Al Golden

Role: Head coach, Miami

Intrigue: It’s been four years at Miami for Golden, and patience is wearing thin among the fan base. The front-level talent on the roster has been solid, but depth and consistency have been hard to come by. Last year’s team fell apart down the stretch, and the Canes are now just 8-11 since starting the 2013 season with seven straight wins. It may well be now or never for Golden to get Miami back into the national conversation.

Possible impact: With Brad Kaaya, Joseph Yearby and a host of talented young offensive players, Miami has weapons. But there’s also a ton of talent walking out the door from last year’s squad that finished 6-7. If all the chips fall into place, Miami has a shot to win its first ACC Coastal title and take the heat off its head coach, but it certainly seems like the Canes might have been better positioned to do that in each of the past two seasons and couldn’t finish the job.

4. Gene Chizik

Role: Defensive coordinator, North Carolina

Intrigue: Just five years removed from coaching a national champion at Auburn, Chizik takes over the ACC’s worst defense with a huge job ahead of him. Last year, North Carolina allowed at least 30 points in nine games and finished last in the ACC in both rushing and pass defense. Chizik has coached up his share of exceptional defenses, however, and if anyone is capable of reshaping what’s been a dismal unit for the Heels, it’s him.

Possible impact: Chizik will completely revamp the scheme, and the spring will be about identifying which players are best equipped for his new defense. If the scheme takes root quickly, UNC has a strong offense and more returning starters than any team in the ACC. It seems like every year, the Heels get some preseason love as a possible Coastal favorite, only to disappoint. But with Chizik in the fold, this could potentially be the year UNC finally pulls it all together.

5. Brent Venables

Role: Defensive coordinator, Clemson

Intrigue: Venables took over Clemson’s D in 2012 and the unit improved every year, culminating with a No. 1 ranking nationally in total defense in 2014. But now the foundation of that rebuilding project are moving on, and Venables will be looking for replacements for departing stars like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony.

Possible impact: Venables knew this day would come, of course, and he’s made a habit of getting his backups plenty of snaps. Shaq Lawson, D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins and others have seen plenty of action, and the secondary already promises to be sensational. If Venables can manage the transition, Clemson has an exceptional chance to be the best team in the ACC in 2015.

ACC morning links

February, 27, 2015
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Athlon put together a list of 20 running backs on the rise for 2015, and it’s an ACC-heavy club.

The top 20 includes FSU’s Dalvin Cook, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, BC’s Jon Hilliman, Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell and Miami’s Joseph Yearby. Georgia Tech’s C.J. Leggett also cracks the “others to watch” list. So that’s six running backs from the conference’s 14 teams, but it’s possible the list could’ve been even longer.

NC State’s combo of Shad Thornton and Matt Dayes was exceptionally good last season. Had their combined stats belonged to just one runner, their 23 touchdowns and 1,934 scrimmage yards would’ve ranked second in the ACC.

North Carolina’s T.J. Logan has been a reflection of his team the past two years -- slow starts followed by strong finishes, but he topped 92 yards in three of his final four games last year, and from Nov. 1 on, 43 percent of his rushes gained at least 5 yards.

Louisville’s Brandon Radcliff had to share the backfield with a trio of other productive runners throughout last season, but he still ran for 12 scores (third in the ACC) and had 22 carries of 10 yards or more, trailing only James Conner of Pittsburgh and Cook among returning ACC runners.

Duke’s Shaun Wilson will likely still share plenty of snaps with Shaq Powell, but no Power 5 back in the nation with at least 75 carries had a higher yards per carry average than the freshman last year.

At Virginia Tech, J.C. Coleman will be No. 1 on the depth chart after a strong finish to the season, but Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams both showed flashes of brilliance as true freshmen last year behind a lackluster offensive line.

And since this was an “on the rise” list, it didn’t even include the ACC’s player of the year in Conner.

In other words, the ACC should have a really strong corps of runners next season, and it certainly wouldn’t be out of the question for the league to end up with a half-dozen 1,000-yard backs or more.

A few more links:
If you're perusing the nonconference schedules for ACC teams in 2015, you've no doubt noticed that Boston College isn't exactly wowing its fan base by signing up for two games against FCS foes. But before you go and point fingers at the Eagles for stacking the decks for two easy wins, BC Interruption goes through the agonizing details of the long, unpleasant journey that led to this slate of games.

Long story short, the ACC's flip-flop on a nine-game schedule two years ago and the ongoing conference reshuffling elsewhere were the biggest dominoes to fall, but when you get into the nitty gritty of it, the saga really underscores just how difficult scheduling has become.

In 2012, Florida State faced a similar problem. West Virginia bailed on a nonconference agreement, and in its place, the Seminoles could do no better than Savannah State -- a game so lopsided, they didn't even finish playing it.

Clemson and Georgia Tech both had multiple FCS foes on their schedules in 2013, and even those late-season rivalries against the SEC probably weren't enough to make matchups against Elon or South Carolina State seem worthwhile. But that's the breaks when the conference changes scheduling tactics at the last minute.

Scheduling has become a brutal business. Teams don't see conference foes often enough in the ACC, SEC and Big Ten. No one wants to lose the revenue of a seventh home game, so slating home-and-homes against anyone becomes tricky. Lower-tier FBS schools know their services as punching bags are in high demand, so they want big bucks in return. Contracts for future games aren't worth much more than the paper they're printed on.

Which brings us to the biggest problem: Scheduling matters a lot in this new playoff era. In fact, scheduling was probably the No. 1 topic of discussion as we all debated who was in and who should be left out. But was it Florida State's fault that Oklahoma State wasn't very good? Should Baylor have been made to suffer for keeping scheduling agreements that were signed long before there was such a thing as a playoff committee? How many people were giving extra credit to Ohio State for losing to Virginia Tech rather than thumping four punching bags like Mississippi State did?

One way around the problems may be to ink more nonconference conference games, as UNC and Wake Forest did, and as the Post & Courier suggests Clemson and South Carolina should also do. But if we're getting to that point, why not just move to that nine-game conference slate that was such a source of frustration two years ago?

What's more realistic in the short term is that the committee -- which includes its share of ADs who should be familiar with these issues -- needs to seriously re-evaluate how much scheduling factors into its rankings.

A few more links:

ACC's most intriguing: Nos. 11-15

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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We’re still 26 long weeks away from the start of the 2015 season, but there promises to be plenty of twists and turns for ACC teams before the action kicks off. While some of the drama will come as a surprise, there are a number of key figures around the ACC who already are big stories. With that in mind, we’re counting down the 25 most intriguing figures in the conference this offseason — from players to coaches to administrators — and digging into the impact they might make on how 2015 unfolds once the games finally begin. Here are numbers 11 through 15.

11. Jabari Hunt-Days

Role: Outside linebacker, Georgia Tech

Intrigue: After recording seven tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2013, Hunt Days figured to be the heir apparent to Tech star pass rusher Jeremiah Attaochu in 2014. Instead, he missed the year with academic issues, and as a result, the Yellow Jackets finished 108th in sacks-per-game and allowed more than 5 yards per carry. He’s back in the fold now, but is this an older, wiser Hunt-Days?

Possible impact: Adam Gotsis was Tech’s only established pass rusher last season, but KeShun Freeman learned on the fly, and the rest of the defensive front filled in around them. In spite of the overall success of 2014, however, the defense was still a sieve at times, allowing the fifth-most yards-per-play of any Power 5 team. But add Hunt-Days back to the mix and suddenly Tech’s pass rush looks a lot more intimidating. He insists he has learned some valuable lessons from his time away, and if that’s true, he could team with Gotsis, Freeman and an emerging secondary to transform the Jackets’ D into an asset in 2015.

[+] EnlargeThomas Sirk
Fabian Radulescu/Icon SportswireDuke QB Thomas Sirk rushed for 238 yards and eight touchdowns in a limited role in 2014,
12. Thomas Sirk

Role: Quarterback, Duke

Intrigue: The last time the Blue Devils opened a season with a starting quarterback who had less than 50 pass attempts under his belt was 2006. This season, the entire roster has just 16 passes combined in their careers. Still, Sirk was on the field often last season as a change-of-pace runner in place of Anthony Boone. Now he’s poised to take over the starting job, but there are still plenty of questions about how much of a complete player he can be.

Possible impact: David Cutcliffe raved about Sirk’s athleticism, saying he might be the fastest QB he has coached, which certainly should pair well with an already deep running game for the Blue Devils. But Sirk’s arm is solid, too, so if he can turn his limited game experience into a level of comfort as a full-time starter in 2015, he figures to make Duke’s offense particularly dynamic.

13. Michael Brewer

Role: Quarterback, Virginia Tech

Intrigue: There’s no question the Hokies’ offense struggled last season, but there was still plenty of room for optimism because so many of the key roles were filled by freshmen. Instead, Brewer — on campus for just a month before fall camp opened — took the brunt of the criticism. Some was warranted. He threw interceptions in nine of 13 games, including 11 in his first six contests. Some wasn’t. He improved his decision-making in the second half of the year and engineered impressive comebacks against ECU, Duke and UVA. Now Brewer has a chance to get a full spring and summer under his belt with his young teammates, but he’ll also be pushed by highly regarded freshman Dwayne Lawson.

Possible impact: Brewer doesn’t need to be a superstar for Tech in 2015 — something Lawson could well blossom into down the road — but he does need to play smart and take advantage of big-play opportunities when they arise. Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges should provide the Hokies with an explosive mix of receivers, but if Brewer can’t take advantage, it’s going to be tough for Frank Beamer’s squad to improve dramatically this year, and Tech fans are tired of excuses.

14. Dan Radakovich

Role: Athletics Director, Clemson

Intrigue: Radakovich’s work at Clemson has been impressive, as the school is in the midst of a four-year run of 10-win seasons and breaking ground on a ton of facility expansions. But the real intrigue for Radakovich is in his other gig, as a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Last year, FSU was dinged consistently, despite an unbeaten regular season. This year, the ACC might have an even tougher argument to make, and it will need a strong voice on the committee to state its case.

Possible impact: Radakovich has shown he’s willing to think outside the box and get things done, which is exactly the philosophy that’s likely needed to push for the ACC’s relevance on the national stage, and his determination to get Clemson to invest in its program to keep up with the big boys nationally is crucial to changing perceptions of the league. The problem, however, is that if Clemson is the team on the precipice of a playoff invite at year’s end, Radakovich would have to recuse himself from the proceedings.

15. Charles Kelly

Role: Defensive coordinator, Florida State

Intrigue: After having a different coordinator in each of the past three seasons, FSU finally has some stability at the top of its defense. The problem is that many fans aren’t thrilled with that. Kelly oversaw some serious struggles last season for the Seminoles, and he took the blame for a lackluster pass rush and a propensity by the D to give up big plays. Add the fact that four starters departed early for the NFL, and the job of rebuilding the once-mighty FSU D is a big one.

Possible impact: FSU allowed 170 rushing yards per game last year, 73rd nationally. It allowed 51 completions of 20 yards or more, 113th nationally. It had just 17 sacks, 108th nationally. Those are ugly numbers for a team that has thrived on defense previously under Jimbo Fisher. Kelly is not new to the job of building a D, but he’s going to need to develop young players quickly if he wants to make significant strides in 2015.

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