ACC: Louisville Cardinals

The ACC's nice guys

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
10:00
AM ET
College football fans sure find easy targets to wear the black hat. Whether it's a coach bouncing from school to school, a recruit flipping to a rival or someone who just can't avoid making headlines, there remains no shortage of villains in this sport.

That doesn't mean it's without guys worth rooting for, though. Here, we give you five ACC guys whom even rival fans have to appreciate for what they do on Saturdays and beyond.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtWR Daniel Rodriguez walked on at Clemson after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Daniel Rodriguez, Clemson. The Tigers receiver served roughly 18 months in Iraq and one year in Afghanistan. He served in the Army from 2006-10. He earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal With Valor Device. Just watch this "College GameDay" feature on him. One of the better moments all of last season was Rodriguez scoring a 2-yard touchdown against The Citadel on Military Appreciation Day. He enters his senior year with 10 career catches for 30 yards and five punt returns for 31 yards. You don't see stories like Rodriguez's every day, and he certainly helps put the term "hero" in perspective.

Laken Tomlinson, Duke. Tomlinson arrived in Chicago from Jamaica at the age of 10, with little knowledge of the game of football. His recruitment and background is very similar to that of "The Blind Side," with Tomlinson ultimately committing to David Cutcliffe and a then-rebuilding Blue Devils program. He took part in a service trip two years ago in Ethiopia to help construct freshwater wells for local communities. He's blossomed into a pretty good offensive guard, too, earning All-ACC honors during Duke's run to the Coastal Division crown last season.

Kevin Haplea, Florida State. You're out for the season with a torn ACL. So what do you do? If you're Haplea, you help start a charity chapter at your new school. The Penn State transfer founded the Seminoles' chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which, coincidentally, holds its first event, "Lift for Life," today. The fundraising effort raises awareness and research money for rare diseases, with FSU's chapter championing Fanconi anemia, which is the disease that coach Jimbo Fisher's son, Ethan, was diagnosed with. A redshirt senior, Haplea could see his role expand this year, complementing Nick O'Leary in FSU's two-tight-end sets.

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville. With both of his parents in jail, Mauldin bounced between different foster families before one of his foster mothers introduced him to football in high school. He's excelled since, registering 9.5 sacks last season and earning second-team all-league honors from the American Athletic Conference. Mauldin does no shortage of community work as well.

David Durham, Pitt. The starting defensive end has done no shortage of work around his new community since transferring from Ohio State prior to the 2012 season. Durham has hosted youth football clinics, wrapped and delivered Christmas gifts to families in need, volunteered with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and, most recently, was part of a group of Pitt players who visited an orphanage in Haiti in May for a weeklong mission trip. Durham was the Panthers defense's winner of the Ed Conway Award this spring, which goes to the most improved player.
Two more watch lists were released Thursday, and the ACC is well-represented. The Bronko Nagurski Trophy is awarded to the nation’s top defensive player by the Charlotte Touchdown Club. The Outland Trophy is given to the nation’s top interior lineman, offensive or defensive.

Here are the ACC and Notre Dame players to make the watch lists:

Bronko Nagurski Trophy

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception. Anthony is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields and registered 13 sacks as a junior. He led the ACC in sacks in 2013. Beasley also is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second consecutive season this fall. Brown is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant-impact player for the Blue Devils in 2013 following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season. Cash is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national title game. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Nagurski. Edwards is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech. Fuller is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best. Harris is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double-teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best. Jarrett is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the season. Maddy is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but he is as talented as they come. Mauldin is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes defense. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall. Perryman is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

CB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame: He has started every game in his career and was a FWAA Freshman All-American in 2012. He starred in the Irish’s bowl game with an interception and three pass breakups. Russell is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: Poised to be one of the best linebackers of recent history for the Irish, Smith started all 13 games as a freshman. He had the third-most tackles for a Notre Dame freshman in school history in 2013. Smith is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list. Williams also is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

Outland Trophy

DL Sheldon Day, Notre Dame: An impact player since his freshman season, Day was second among Notre Dame defensive linemen in tackles last season.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: A potential first-round draft pick, Erving elected to stay in school for another run at a national championship. As Jameis Winston’s blindside protector, few linemen nationally hold as much responsibility.

OT Sean Hickey, Syracuse: A workout warrior and one of the strongest players in college football, Hickey is the linchpin to the Orange offensive line.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: A two-time ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week, Mason has started 26 of the last 28 games for the Yellow Jackets.

OG Josue Matias, Florida State: Another potential first-round candidate along Florida State’s offensive line, Matias is athletic enough to play offensive tackle, too. He experimented at left tackle this spring.

OC Jake Smith, Louisville: Smith could end up playing right guard, where he started earlier in his career, but he is coming off a junior season in which he started at center. Smith is also on the Rimington watch list.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: A key along the offensive line for the Blue Devils, Tomlinson likely will be a preseason All-ACC team selection. He was a first-team All-ACC coaches selection in 2013 as the Blue Devils’ best lineman.

Clemson’s Grady Jarrett and Virginia Tech’s Luther Maddy were represented on both lists.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
2:24
PM ET
The 2014 college football season is inching ever so closer, with ACC media days set to take place in less than two weeks.

The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:

BOSTON COLLEGE
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.

CLEMSON
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.

DUKE
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.

FLORIDA STATE
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.

GEORGIA TECH
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.

LOUISVILLE
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.

MIAMI
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.

NORTH CAROLINA
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.

NC STATE
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.

PITT
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.

SYRACUSE
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.

VIRGINIA
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.

VIRGINIA TECH
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT

WAKE FOREST
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.
You gotta be sound in the kicking game.

The watch lists for the Lou Groza Award (best kicker) and Ray Guy (best punter) were released Wednesday, and these same lists will be pared down during the season, with winners announced in December.

Here are players from the ACC and Notre Dame to receive recognition:

Lou Groza Award:

Roberto Aguayo, Florida State: Only the second freshman to win the award, Aguayo is the odds-on favorite to repeat as a sophomore. He set an FBS single-season kicking record with 157 points last season and was 21 of 22 on field goal attempts. He converted all 94 extra points.

Kyle Brindza, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish’s kicker has a strong leg having made three field goals from at least 50 yards last season. He played a key role in the Irish’s bowl game, connecting on 5-of-6 field goal attempts.

Niklas Sade, NC State: A semifinalist last season, Sade was consistent for the Wolfpack. Twice last season Sade made four field goals in a single game.

John Wallace, Louisville: He nearly tied the Louisville record of 21 field goals in a single season, coming up short by one. Art Carmody, who won the award in 2006, owns the record.

Ray Guy Award:

Wil Baumann, NC State: He’s started 37 games in his career for the Wolfpack and was seventh in the ACC in punting average in 2013.

Riley Dixon, Syracuse: Dixon was awarded a scholarship in January after averaging more than 42 yards per punt last season.

Tommy Hibbard, North Carolina: Hibbard was a second-team All-ACC selection in 2012 and a honorable mention last season. He averaged 43.0 yards on 65 punts, 22 of which were downed in the red zone.

A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech: Hughes was a second-team All-ACC selection last fall after averaging 44.1 yards and downing 24 punts inside the 20.

Will Monday, Duke: Averaged 42.7 yards on 69 punts last season. Monday had punts of 72 and 66 yards in 2013.

ACC lunchtime links

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
12:15
PM ET
The way athletes begin working out at such a young age and the advances in sports training and nutrition, football players each year seem to be more physically gifted and impressive than ever before.

Some like to call them physical “freaks,” in a positive way. They’re uniquely talented and possess an athleticism that is rare among their peers.

This week, Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com has offered his list of college football’s freaks, and several ACC players made the cut. While the ACC is on the wrong end of a lot of jokes, the conference has produced a large number of NFL draft picks and regularly is behind only the SEC in picks annually. With the talent bases in ACC recruiting hotbeds Florida, Georgia and throughout the South, conference schools have some of the country’s most athletic players in their own backyard.

With the genesis of GPS training, which our David Hale reported on last month, programs such as Florida State are now taking those elite physical athletes and helping them reach the next level. It’s no longer about just lifting weights and running sprints; it is a science.

The ACC names to make Feldman’s list:

Louisville WR DeVante Parker: Potentially the No. 1 receiver among 2015 NFL draft boards, Parker stands 6-foot-3 and Feldman lists a wingspan of 80 inches, which means few cornerbacks can compete with him on jump balls. Parker might not be a national name just yet, but under the tutelage of Bobby Petrino, Parker could put up freakish numbers to go along with that athleticism.

Georgia Tech RB Broderick Snoddy: Snoddy has run the 100-meter dash in 10.28 seconds and is a prep sprint champion. The Yellow Jackets are going to need that speed to translate to the field, and that could happen this fall as Snoddy figures to see more carries and has the potential to break a long run any time he touches the ball with his elite set of wheels. His school bio states he is only “likely” the team’s fastest player, but it’s probably a safe bet to give him that full distinction.

Syracuse OT Sean Hickey: If you need any explanation as to why I will point you in the direction of Andrea’s piece on Hickey’s intense training.

Florida State CBs Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams: It’s funny because on Twitter recently I was asked about who is better between Darby and Williams. I didn’t answer then and I won’t answer now, other than to say those two are projected to be among the first two cornerbacks taken in next year’s draft. The two lock down receivers, and they locked down the freak distinction at cornerback.

Miami CB Artie Burns: He is an elite sprinter and is hoping to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. He holds several prep sprinting records. On the football field, Burns was a solid returner and cornerback as a freshman and was a top 10 cornerback coming out of high school.

Here are a few other links to help you through the day:
Two more preseason award watch lists were released Tuesday, which means we are still moving toward the college football season at what seems like a snail’s pace.

The Rimington Trophy, presented annually to the nation’s top center, already had a spring watch list but altered the original to include a few more names (because there were not enough already). Also released was the watch list for the John Mackey Award, which is given to the nation’s top tight end.

The lists will be pared down during the season before winners are announced in December.

The watch lists for the Maxwell Award and Bednarik Award were released Monday.

Below are the ACC and Notre Dame players to make the Mackey and Rimington watch lists and a little information on each.

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFlorida State's Nick O'Leary could be a frontrunner for the Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end.
John Mackey Award

Gerald Christian, Louisville: The Florida transfer was one of the Cardinals’ more productive pass catchers last season, and he figures to drastically improve on his 28 receptions from a season ago now that Bobby Petrino is orchestrating the Cards’ offense. (The ACC blog caught up with Christian for a Q&A on Monday.)

Braxton Deaver, Duke: One of the conference’s best tight ends in 2013, Deaver was one of the many bright spots for the Blue Devils’ offense. He caught 46 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns.

Ben Koyack, Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish have produced several elite tight ends, and the hope is Koyack will be the next in line. He was not utilized much early on in 2013 but will be counted on more this fall with Troy Niklas off to the NFL.

Nick O'Leary, Florida State: One of the country’s best tight ends, O'Leary should be one of Jameis Winston's favorite targets this fall. O'Leary had the opportunity to leave school after last season, and he could be rewarded with a second national championship and a Mackey Award this fall.

Clive Walford, Miami: Much like Notre Dame, the Hurricanes have a fine tradition at tight end, and Walford is coming off a very solid season. He will need to be a security blanket for the Canes’ quarterback, whoever that may be.

Reaction: The ACC is not loaded at tight end, but there are certainly more than a few players who could push for a spot on an All-America team by season’s end. O’Leary is likely the best of the bunch and had an outside opportunity of being a first-round pick if he had entered the NFL draft. If he can stay on the field -- he’s escaped serious injury twice now from motorcycle accidents -- he is poised for a standout senior campaign. Winston lost top targets Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to the NFL, and O’Leary figures to be Winston’s security blanket on third downs and in the red zone. Keep an eye on Deaver as a player who could continue making the cut as the list is pared down throughout the season.

[+] EnlargeAndy Gallik
Michael Tureski/Icon SMIVeteran Boston College center Andy Gallik is key to the Eagles being able to play their style.
Rimington Trophy

Andy Gallik, Boston College: A three-year starter, Gallik is the glue to a team predicated on playing smash-mouth football under former offensive line coach Steve Addazio. Gallik has started 25 straight games for the Eagles.

Artie Rowell, Pittsburgh: Rowell started all 13 games for the Panthers last season and was recognized for his performance in the bowl game against Bowling Green. James Conner set a Pitt record for rushing yards in a bowl game that night, due largely to Rowell.

Austin Barron, Florida State: Barron has starting experience, but he spent most of last season as a reserve to 2013 Rimington winner Bryan Stork. Barron has four experienced starters surrounding him on the offensive line, which should allow him to shine in his first year as the full-time starter.

Jake Smith, Louisville: Smith could end up playing right guard, where he started earlier in his career, but he is coming off a junior season in which he started at center.

Matt Skura, Duke: He played nearly every snap at center for the Blue Devils last season and was the linchpin of an offensive line that allowed just 17 sacks in 14 games.

Nick Martin, Notre Dame: The starter last year until a late-season knee injury cost him the final few games, Martin is poised for a solid senior season. The Irish were second in the country in 2013 in sacks allowed. Martin is the younger brother of Zack Martin, a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft.

Ryan Norton, Clemson: A starter in all 13 games for Clemson a season ago, Norton was the ACC Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week in his first start against Georgia in last year’s opener.

Shane McDermott, Miami: A third-team All-ACC selection in 2013, McDermott has played in all but four games since his redshirt freshman season at Miami.

Reaction: While more than half the centers in FBS are on this list, the ACC representatives all deserve to be on here for the most part. All have starting experience and in several cases have been commanding the offensive line for multiple seasons. Martin was hurt late in the season, but Irish coach Brian Kelly expects him to be ready for the season opener after missing spring practices. Barron has the least amount of starting experience and probably does not make the list if it were a little more exclusive, but he played admirably in Stork’s stead last season and could be recognized in the same manner as Stork by the end of the season.

ACC lunchtime links

July, 8, 2014
Jul 8
12:00
PM ET
The NCAA suggested Monday football teams hold no more than two contact practices per week during the season, and while it is an early step, it is certainly a positive one for the sport’s governing body.

While the concussion issue has the NFL under siege, the college game has not garnered the same type of pressures regarding player safety and head injuries. But following a concussion summit earlier this season, the NCAA is taking necessary action to protect its student-athletes.

What really stood out to me about the NCAA's suggestions was creating a return-to-learn plan for student-athletes who suffer a concussion to help ease them back into their classroom work. With the interest and money college football generates, the players’ duties in the classroom are often overlooked, and when a player suffers a concussion, the question is whether he will be healthy for the following weekend’s game.

"It's not only talking about the health and safety of the student-athletes," Dr. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer for the NCAA, told The Associated Press. "It's a concussion guideline where we're saying, 'Look, these kids are students first and we have to make certain that if they have a concussion, there's a good return-to-learn pathway for them.'"

During the season and spring practice, there are already enough hurdles keeping student-athletes from performing at 100 percent in the classroom, and a head injury could set student-athletes back days -- if not months. While the two contact practices a week will garner the most headlines to come from the NCAA's suggestions, the return-to-learn process will be one of the most beneficial potential changes for the well-being of student-athletes.

It is important to note these are NCAA suggestions rather than mandates.

Here a few other ACC-related links to get you through the afternoon.
The day Bobby Petrino turned his first Louisville players into film-study believers unfolded exactly the way he said it would.

It was Nov. 27, 2004, Louisville against cross-state rival Cincinnati.

Louisville got the ball first, at the 20. All week, Petrino told his offensive players that if the defensive end lined up on the opening play in the 9-technique, the Cards would score a touchdown.

Sure enough, the Cincinnati end was lined up exactly the way Petrino predicted. Brian Brohm checked to the right play.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
AP Photo/Garry JonesBobby Petrino's emphasis on film study has helped his players to succeed in the NFL.
Eric Shelton scored an 80-yard touchdown. Louisville won 70-7.

"I remember that play like it was yesterday," recalled Breno Giacomini, an offensive lineman on that squad. "It was unbelievable. He proved himself a lot to us before, but that day in my mind showed he knows exactly what he’s talking about. It all goes back to the film work he put in. That has made me a better player. It took me a little longer to realize but the film work that I put in has really helped my career."

Giacomini speaks from experience. As he shared anecdotes about Petrino over the phone, he was on his way to pick up the Super Bowl ring he won last season with Seattle.

Petrino has his share of critics, but it is hard to knock his ability to develop NFL-caliber players. He has coached 37 NFL draft picks; 29 have been offensive players. And one of the biggest keys to their collective success has been meticulous preparation that begins in the film room, something the current Louisville players have already begun to learn.

“If you can learn to break down film half as good as Coach Petrino can, it gives you an edge in the NFL,” said former Louisville center Eric Wood, going into his sixth season with Buffalo.

Ryan Mallett says the first thing Petrino taught him at Arkansas was defense, hugely beneficial now that he is with the New England Patriots.

“He acts like you don't know anything,” Mallett said. “What your coach might have told you in high school, he might want it done differently. Learning that way definitely helped me because in the NFL, you watch a lot of film throughout the day. So you know what to look for.

“The smaller details or finer details some guys might overlook, that helps you understand the game better, like who’s covering the running back if the running back is lined up at the receiver position. Little things like that, indicators before the ball is snapped so you know what will happen.”

Giacomini even notices the difference in NFL meeting rooms between those who have learned how to break down film under Petrino, and those who have not. He said Alvin Bailey, who played for Petrino at Arkansas and then with Giacomini in Seattle, got the playbook down just a little bit faster.

Beyond breaking down film, Petrino also expects perfection. When mistakes are made, screaming ensues. As Wood says, “You have your rough days playing for Coach Petrino because he’s really demanding, but ultimately that’s how you’re going to get the most out of 18 to 22 year olds.”

Harry Douglas, who ranks second on the Louisville career yards receiving list, credits that type of coaching style with helping him get drafted.

“The times he doesn’t holler at you and demand excellence, that’s when you need to be worried,” Douglas said. “He knows what each player he recruits is capable of and all he does is push you to be the best you can be. I always want a coach like that. Coaches like that are the best because they don’t care who you are, what star you are, how many catches you have, they’re going to push you. The hay is never going to be in the barn with them.”

Douglas was a Petrino believer from the start. A scrawny 130 pounds out of high school, Petrino pushed Douglas to transform himself, and he became an All-Big East receiver. When Petrino joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, he held Douglas up as an example of an undersized player who worked hard to become elite.

So when the Falcons ended up drafting Douglas in 2008, every receiver on the team knew exactly who was walking in the door.

“All the receivers said, ‘It’s time to see what he’s got,” said Douglas, coming off his best NFL season with 85 catches for 1,067 yards and two touchdowns. “Even now today, Roddy (White) and Julio (Jones) and people in Atlanta know I practice the same way I did in college. My practice habits have not changed.”

Petrino has not changed the way he runs practice or prepares his players with film study, though people who know him say he has changed away from the field. He had to, given the circumstances. He arrived at Louisville again with some extra baggage, but those who have played for Petrino are happy he is back.

"Initially when I heard he was coming back, I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what people would think about rehiring him, a guy who left us and went through what he went through at Arkansas," Wood said. "But I believe in second chances. This is place he wanted to be, and I couldn’t be more excited. I got over those feelings in 10 seconds when I envisioned all he success U of L would have."
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Next up: The secondary

Best of the best: Florida State

Where do we begin? FSU's defensive backs may be the best in the nation. Start with safety Jalen Ramsey, who started as a true freshman last season, earned freshman All-America honors and should step right into the role all-everything DB Lamarcus Joyner filled last season. Both Ramsey and corner P.J. Williams shined this spring, and they were recognized as such by sharing the team's Hinesman Award (spring standout), along with Jameis Winston. Ronald Darby has the potential to become a shutdown corner, Tyler Hunter has made a strong comeback from neck surgery that forced him out of the final 11 games of last season and Nate Andrews is looking to build off a standout rookie campaign that saw him lead the Seminoles in interceptions, with four.

Next up: Virginia Tech

If FSU's secondary is the best in the nation, Virginia Tech's probably isn't far behind. The Hokies return all four starters from a unit that ranked No. 8 nationally in passing defense last season. Corners Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson were thrust into immediate meaningful action in 2013 because of injuries and neither disappointed, tallying a combined 11 interceptions. Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner added two picks apiece, with Jarrett serving as the team's leading returning tackler this fall as well (71 in 2013). Injuries limited several key pieces of the secondary this spring, but if it's any consolation, that could prove valuable long-term for the next-in-line at DBU. It's how Fuller and Facyson were able to thrive so early, after all.

Possible sleeper: Duke

The departure of Ross Cockrell will be tough to fill, but the Blue Devils have a ton of talented and experience playmakers returning. And there could be more opportunities coming their way, thanks to the fact that they have a very green defensive line. Safety Jeremy Cash had four of the secondary's 16 interceptions last year (the team had 18 total), but his biggest impact may be up front, where he tallied 9.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, in addition to tallying 121 tackles in 2013. Corner DeVon Edwards came on strong down the stretch and finished with three picks, and safety Deondre Singleton added one pick and two forced fumbles as well. Corner Breon Borders, meanwhile, holds the distinction of picking off the Heisman winner Winston twice last season as a freshman, and he is looking to build off a four-interception rookie campaign.

Problem for a contender: Louisville

It's all on the corners now. Replacing safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor is a huge task for Todd Grantham in his first season as Louisville's defensive coordinator, and he at least benefits from a pair of returning starters at corner in Terrell Floyd and Charles Gaines. Still, there could be a pair of redshirt freshmen starting at safety (Charles Williams and Richard Benjamin), though Gerod Holliman and Michael Johnson might figure into the mix.
We learned a little bit about expectations for the college football season three weeks ago when The Golden Nugget opened betting lines on 200 games in 2014. Now we can take another look at individual expectations thanks to Bovada releasing division, league and national title odds.

In what should come as no surprise at all, Florida State is the favorite to win both the ACC title and the national title. The Seminoles are 2/5 odds to win the league crown for the third season in a row, while they are 11/2 to repeat as national champions.

The team with the second-best odds to win it all probably isn't that big of a surprise, either (Alabama at 6/1). But the No. 2 favorite to win the ACC title in 2014 will certainly open some eyes, as Miami checks in at 11/2. The Hurricanes have obvious question marks both under center and on defense, and their schedule doesn't exactly do them any huge favors.

The fact that Virginia Tech is the No. 3 favorite to win the ACC, behind the Hurricanes at 10/1, likely goes a long way in showing just how much easier the path is to the ACC title game in the Coastal Division, whose winner would then only have to manage a one-game upset to win the league. Clemson, considered to be arguably the second-best team in the league entering 2014, is tied with North Carolina as No. 4 favorite, at 12/1.

The Tar Heels, whose summer hype has been noted in this space before, are actually ahead of the Hokies as Coastal favorites, with 7/4 odds to Virginia Tech's 6/1. Miami remains the favorite, with 3/2 odds to win the division.

Reigning Coastal champion Duke is tied with Georgia Tech with 15/2 odds, while Pittsburgh, one of the many potential darkhorses in the division this fall, is tied for last with Virginia, at 25/1.

As for national title odds, you'll have to look far down the list to find another contender after FSU, as Clemson comes in with the 23rd-best odds at 66/1, three spots ahead of Miami, which is at 75/1. Bovada released national title odds for 51 teams in all, with nine ACC teams making the cut. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Pitt all have 500/1 odds to win it all.

League newcomer Louisville, for what it's worth, has 9/1 odds to win the Atlantic Division, 15/1 odds to win the ACC and 150/1 odds to win the national title. Partial member Notre Dame has 40/1 odds to win the national title.
Do you need a sign college football is close but still just a little too far away? The first preseason award watch lists were released Monday, a list of more than 70 players that could be the best in the country by season’s end.

It doesn’t matter if you have started only three games in your career and haven’t played a down since November 2012 -- there is a spot for you on the list.

That said, it’s college football and as ridiculous as these often are, I admit I enjoy looking at them. The watch lists for the Maxwell Award, given to the college player of the year, and Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, were released Monday. As the season progresses, the list will be pared down before a winner is announced in December.

Here is a look at the ACC players to make the cut and some justification for each player being on the list.

Maxwell Award

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: As a freshman last fall, Boyd was as good of a receiver as there was in the ACC. As the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver heading into the 2014 season, Boyd could put up monster numbers and follow in the footsteps of Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargeJames Connor
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner set a Pitt record with 229 yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green.
QB Jacoby Brissett, NC State: This is not a knock on Brissett, but his inclusion is certainly puzzling considering he sat out all of 2013 after transferring from Florida, where he saw limited time as a starter and backup. However, the Wolfpack staff is high on Brissett leading the program’s turnaround, and Brissett was a blue-chip high school recruit.

WR Stacy Coley, Miami: Much like Boyd, Coley had a strong freshman season and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. One of the country’s elite recruits in 2013, Coley could make a national name for himself if he can build a connection with Miami’s quarterbacks, which have struggled with inconsistency and injury.

RB James Conner, Pitt: It’s almost unfair Conner was limited to just the Maxwell watch list Monday considering he is a two-way standout for the Panthers. Conner is already a huge fan favorite in the Steel City for his bruising and relentless running style, and he broke Tony Dorsett’s school bowl-game rushing record in December.

WR Jamison Crowder, Duke: Any time you catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,300 yards, you deserve to be on this list.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson’s inclusion here is a credit to how dominant he was before the injury against Florida State and how woeful Miami looked after. If he can stay healthy, Johnson has the potential to be an elite back nationally.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: As the Cardinals’ leading returning receiver and now in Bobby Petrino’s offense, Parker should light up stat sheets this coming season.

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Seminoles’ receivers, but none of it includes Greene, who led the Noles in receiving in 2013. With Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw in the NFL, Greene will be looked upon to bail out Jameis Winston this fall.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Speaking of Winston, the Maxwell is about the only thing he did not win last season. Another spectacular season and it will be hard to ignore him again.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State: Similar to Brissett, this is a bit of a projection pick, although Williams has done significantly more than Brissett. Williams was the third-string running back in 2013, but with his five-star talent base coupled with a senior-laden offensive line and Williams could set records in his final season in Tallahassee.

Reaction: While Brissett is obviously a surprise, overall it is hard to argue with much of the list. Williams' inclusion might be pushing it a little bit, although he certainly could be one of the best running backs in the country with his blend of size and speed. It's a positive sign for the ACC that several underclassmen are on the list, including special playmakers Boyd, Coley and Conner, who will all be true sophomores this fall. The biggest question is whether Winston will win the award if he performs the way most expect him to as a redshirt sophomore. AJ McCarron won the award last season over Winston, who was a semifinalist along with Johnny Manziel. Winston's off-the-field issues might have played a role, so it would be interesting to see if the Maxwell Award will continue to take those incidents into account.



Bednarik Award

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: A semifinalist for the award last season, Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields. If he can show a little more consistency, he might win the award in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley is among the favorites to repeat as a finalist for this season's Bednarik Award.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second straight season this fall.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant impact player for the Blue Devils a season ago following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national championship. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Bednarik.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best.

DE Eli Harold, Virginia: Last season he finished sixth in the ACC with 15 tackles for loss, an impressive number. He could see his numbers improve drastically with five-star Andrew Brown now at defensive tackle.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the year.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but is as talented as they come.

DE/LB Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina: Otis is another player poised to possibly gain national recognition and it begins with his inclusion on this list. He had a very strong junior season with 6.5 sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes’ defenses. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list.

Reaction: It was surprising Darby's name was not included on the list despite missing the spring. He could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL draft next year. The ACC is home to some of the country's best defensive backs with Williams, Fuller and Harris. Beasley is certainly one of the favorites coming into the season, but he was shut down by Florida State last season and will need to rebound against the Seminoles to make a push for the Bednarik as a senior. His sack numbers should be impressive once again, and if he can perform on the big stages, it might be the little extra that wins him the award this season. FSU's Edwards could be the best defensive lineman in the ACC and the country if he plays like he did against Auburn all season. What could hurt Edwards is he will not always be in a position to pile up sacks and tackles even when he is dominating opposing offensive linemen.
Louisville tight end Gerald Christian is poised for a breakout season under new coach Bobby Petrino.

Just look at past history.

Petrino has utilized the tight end effectively in his offense at just about all his stops. During his first go-around at Louisville, Ronnie Ghent and Gary Barnidge became NFL players. At Arkansas, D.J. Williams won the Mackey Award in 2010 and ended up in the NFL, too. Christian has always been an effective pass catcher, and his size -- 6-foot-3, 244-pounds -- presents matchup problems for defenses.

Add him into the mix with a stellar receiving group, and Louisville has an opportunity to put up some big-time numbers this season. I recently had a chance to catch up with Christian about his role in the offense. His goal? One hundred receptions. Sounds lofty, but that is how excited he is about what Petrino brings to the offense. Here is a little more of what Christian had to say.

How much more will you be used in the Louisville pass game this year?

[+] EnlargeChristian
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsGerald Christian can't wait to play in Bobby Petrino's tight end-friendly offense.
A: Coach Petrino, he’s known for using his tight ends and he’s a great coach. I like how he takes his personnel and utilizes their strengths. He’s going to take me and put me in position to be one-on-one against a linebacker and one-on-one against a safety, where he targets me to have mismatches to exploit the defense. Last year, the offense was just learning plays, whereas Coach Petrino takes his playmakers and targets them more to make plays.

So you must be pumped for the opportunity.

A: I’m really excited. After spring ball and seeing the stuff he does and how he’s using me ... I’ve been given an opportunity to show what I can do. Now all I have to do is step up and make the plays. It will be fun for me.

This is your senior year after starting your career at Florida and then transferring to the Cardinals. What type of year can you have?

A: I was highly recruited out of high school, but I feel like my career hasn’t been what I wanted it to be. Last year, I had an opportunity to show what I could do but I still feel I could have been utilized more. This year, it’s my time to step up and show everything I can do. This year will be the year I make a name for myself.

Why did you leave Florida?

A: We had the coaching changes, and I didn’t feel stuff was working out for me. I wanted a new start. Out of high school, I was recruited by Urban Meyer, and Coach (Charlie) Strong, so when he was over here, going through the transfer process, I was comfortable with with Coach Strong and I wanted to come here. Sitting out -- it was tough. Going to the games every week and not being able to play was really hard. I wanted to be out there and help the team I’d been practicing with every day. But it motivated me and kept me focused. I worked hard every day and tried to take that year and make myself better.

So this is your fourth head coach since you started college, from Meyer to Will Muschamp to Strong to now Petrino. How have you dealt with all the changes?

A: That’s one thing when younger guys come in, I say you really can’t base your career off a coach because coaches come and go. At some point, you have to look out for you and be there for your team. It’s more you and your team than the coach. I didn’t know Coach Strong was going to leave. Sometimes, kids they get their relationships built up with the coaches, but this is a business and a coach will do what’s best for their family. I understand it. ... I feel like everything worked out for me.

Seeing Petrino walk through that door must have eased your mind a little when Strong left.

A: I was really excited, just seeing all the tight ends he’s put in the NFL, just knowing his history. Then when he got here and seeing how he utilized me, it seemed like he was happy with me, so I’m happy with him. He’s making me work harder and bust my butt.

Aside from yourself, you have got many skill position players back, including receivers DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers. How good can this offense be, even with Teddy Bridgewater gone?

A: I think the offense is going to be real good, honestly. I think we’re going to shock a lot of people. We have a lot of depth, we have a lot of veterans. The only thing that’s different is the quarterback position but we have a young guy, Will Gardner, who played under Teddy and he’s picking it up fast. Our offensive line came back, our running backs, we have veteran receivers, and we’re all helping him through his process, too. It’s not like he’s a new quarterback with a young group of receivers. Everybody around him is a veteran so we’ve taken him under our wing. He’ll be ready.
From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Up today: Wide receivers

Best of the best: Louisville

The move to the ACC figures to be one littered with transitional speed bumps, but coach Bobby Petrino does enter the league with an unmatched group of receivers. Senior DeVante Parker is arguably the conference’s top receiver and could be a first-round pick in next year’s NFL draft. He hauled in 55 passes in 2013, but with leading receiver Damian Copeland bypassing sixth year of eligibility, Parker’s numbers figure to increase. He could break the 1,000-yard barrier in 2014. The Cardinals return four of their top five leading receivers from last season when factoring in tight end Gerald Christian. Eli Rogers was effective as the No. 3 receiver last season, and at 5-foot-10, he provides an ideal complement to the 6-3 Parker.

Next: Miami

The Hurricanes have one of the conference’s emerging stars at any position in sophomore Stacy Coley. As a freshman, Coley caught seven touchdown passes, which led Miami. The 6-1, 185-pound receiver was one of Miami’s prized recruits from the 2013 class, as he was the fourth-ranked receiver in the country. Similar to Louisville, the Hurricanes lose their leading receiver from a season ago but return five of their top six from 2013. Clive Walford is one of the better tight ends, and the Hurricanes are hoping Beau Sandland lives up to his junior-college billing. In his first season, Sandland rarely made an impact, but he was ranked 15th nationally among juco recruits in 2013.

Sleeper: North Carolina

Marquise Williams helped turn around the Tar Heels’ season in 2013 and will likely be the starter entering the season, but he no longer has the luxury of throwing it up to tight end Eric Ebron, a top-10 pick in May’s NFL draft. However, the Heels do return several talented playmakers who could cause headaches for conference defensive coordinators. Junior Quinshad Davis is an underrated receiver, tallying 48 catches for 730 yards last season. He also had a team-high 10 touchdowns. Behind Davis is Ryan Switzer, who mostly made a name for himself as a returner. But it’s important to note that Switzer hauled in 32 passes. Bug Howard and T.J. Thorpe also return, which means the Heels bring back four of their top five receivers.

Problem for a contender: Clemson

There will be no replacing a talent like Sammy Watkins no matter how well the Tigers have recruited the position. Watkins was considered the best player in the draft by some teams and was brilliant in the Orange Bowl. Clemson is also breaking in a new quarterback, which means it could take some time for the passing game to develop the type of consistency it will need to break through a defensive secondary of Florida State’s caliber. Second-leading receiver Martavis Bryant is also off to the NFL. As mentioned earlier, however, the Tigers have recruited extremely well at the position and it would not be a total shock if by season’s end this turned into one of the conference’s best groups. Charone Peake was a five-star recruit in 2011, but last fall he tore a knee ligament after two games. Germone Hopper, Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester, Artavis Scott, Trevion Thompson and Mike Williams were all blue-chip recruits, too.

ACC mailblog

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
2:00
PM ET
One quick dip into the mailbag before we start warming up the grill.

Have a spectacular, and safe, July 4 weekend!

Tim Griffith in Christianburg, Va., writes: I don't twitter, but regarding #thingsTimHowardcould save... Hokies version. He could have tipped away Matt Ryan's last minute pass back on a cold, rainy night in 2007 leading to a Hokie victory (and probably a No. 2 finish in the BCS that year just ahead of, gulp, LSU. 48-9 ring a bell?) He could have tipped away the last minute pass completion from Boise State at the beginning of the 2010 season. That probably negates the awful JMU loss the next week as well, and the Hokies run the table, again, missing a BCS MNC chance.You mentioned the last second Michigan loss. Not sure he could have done much more than Bud Foster and his gang did in that one. Ah, to have Tim Howard for just the opportune moments..............a guy can dream, can't he?

Andrea Adelson: Could he have willed Ernest Wilford to catch the 2-point conversion against Miami in 2001? Dreamers always welcome here!

 




Tim in Louisville writes: So, Louisville is officially in the ACC. Which school do you think the Cards will develop the most tense rivalry with over the next few years? It seems a long shot but I'm really hoping for it to be Miami. We need a new trophy game to replace the battle for the Keg of Nails. A Schnellenberger Pipe trophy would be a more than suitable replacement.

Adelson: I am all in favor of a pipe trophy, but it will be hard to develop that rivalry with Miami, considering the teams will be playing once every blue moon. Louisville's Coastal crossover opponent is Virginia. The Hoos do not exactly have rivalry written all over them. In the Atlantic division, there are some former Big East teams. Do Syracuse or Pitt do anything for you? Florida State and Clemson already have much more established rivalries but if the Cards can be competitive against both, I think Louisville fans would view them as their biggest rivals. That would not be the case in reverse, though.

 




Barry Rose in Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Okay, I realize I'm from Tallahassee and the Seminoles are my team, but, seriously, Clemson with the best Defensive Line! Did you watch the Clemson vs. FSU games this past year? The only time (Vic) Beasley got off the line was when Cameron (Erving) wasn't blocking him. I've watched the game a couple of times and it is amazing what Beasley didn't do. Boston College's defensive line played us better than Clemson. I also realize that we had a really good offensive line last year and it should be somewhat better this year and for Clemson to win the ACC they have to beat FSU. I don't think it will happen this coming year, either.

Adelson: I have heard this argument used against the Clemson defensive line repeatedly. But the position preview is not a breakdown of specific matchups won or lost last season. It is a projection of the potential the position group itself has headed into 2014. Clemson has the most starters back, and the best collection of depth back in the league off an extremely productive group in 2013. It also has the best defensive player in the league back in Beasley, regardless of how you viewed his performance against Florida State -- a game that got away from everybody on the Tigers' sideline within the first 10 minutes of the game. Again, this is all based on potential. The first big test comes before Florida State -- in the opener against Georgia. Clemson will need its defensive line to be dominant to have a shot to win.

 




Jonathan Peak in Pike Road, Ala., writes: Maryland is a member of the exclusive Association of American Universities. Louisville is a third tier academic institution. But who cares about academics, right? Oh, Maryland also has 47 National Championships. And we have people like Kevin Plank (founder of Under Armour), Sergey Brin (founder of Google), Jim Henson, and a lengthy list of notable sports journalists with careers more prominent than yours will ever be who actually went to Maryland. Jennifer Lawrence didn't even attend Louisville. You should be writing for the National Inquirer.

Adelson: Looks like one Terps fan can't take a joke! Lighten up, Jonathan! You guys are in a waaaaaaaay better conference now, amIright?

 




Luke Fletcher in Byron, Ga., writes: Well Georgia Tech's Ryan Bramford (in charge of scheduling) obviously would never be hired at Notre Dame, as the athletic department not only wants to keep the BCS scheduling model of playing a FCS and G5 in the same season, we played two FCS opponents in the same season in 2008 and 2013!!!!!!!! ... No one is saying to schedule Bama yearly, but there are enough P5s to replace one of the FCS/G5 games! ... I guess I need to write to the ACC office about how 9 game schedules makes more sense for the league since Mr. Bamford thinks scheduling FCS teams is the same draw as scheduling an SEC team!

Adelson writes: I appreciate your frustration, Luke, but let me clarify a few things here that will hopefully make some sense to you. Bramford takes his cues from the athletic director, who ultimately decides on the vision for nonconference scheduling. As for the multiple FCS teams on the schedule last season, Georgia Tech was put in a tough spot. When the league decided to move to nine conference games a few years ago, ACC teams started dropping nonconference games to make room. Then when the Notre Dame scheduling agreement forced the ACC to move back to an 8-game schedule, it was too late to find an FBS team to put back on the schedule. Clemson, by the way, also was forced to play two FCS teams last year. That is not a scheduling practice Georgia Tech wants to continue moving forward. Because Georgia is already locked into the schedule, Georgia Tech has opted for a more conservative nonconference scheduling approach. The Jackets are not the only school that plays FCS on an annual basis. Florida State, Miami and Clemson do -- just to name three. They also are not the only ones to play teams outside the power-5 conferences. Look at Miami's schedule this year. You will see one FCS, one tough power-five (Nebraska) and two outside the power five (Arkansas State, Cincinnati). Georgia Tech has future games set up against Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, so that should at least ease some concerns. Notre Dame also is on the schedule every three years. In those years, you won't see Georgia Tech scheduling more difficult opponents because it already will have the Irish and the Bulldogs. There has to be a balance in nonconference scheduling. Just how you achieve it is one of the tougher jobs an athletic director has to do.
From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Up today: Linebackers

Best of the best: Clemson

It's easy to see why many believe the Tigers have the best front seven in the ACC. In addition to having the strongest defensive front, they also have the strongest group of linebackers returning to the team. Stephone Anthony had a breakout season a year ago, finishing with 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 802 snaps played. He should be a preseason All-ACC selection. Clemson did lose two starters in Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey, but it returns experienced players at the position. Tony Steward and Ben Boulware will anchor the weak side. Both were ranked among the top linebackers out of high school, and if Steward can stay healthy, he is in line for a big year. At the other spot, Clemson has the option of playing a linebacker or nickelback depending on the alignment. T.J. Burrell and Dorian O'Daniel will be in the mix on the strong side.

Next up: Duke

The Blue Devils return the best linebacker duo in the ACC in David Helton and Kelby Brown, who finished as the top two tacklers in the conference last season. The two combined for 247 tackles a year ago and are back to anchor a group looking to improve both against the run and the pass. Their backups return as well, so there are not many depth concerns here. These two are as dependable as they come. Now, having said that, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Florida State. The Seminoles are losing two key players in Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and will be relying more on a five defensive back alignment, so there are some questions at the position. But this team has the talent to again be the best in the ACC once it gains some experience. As it stands now, Terrance Smith is the only linebacker with consistent playing time. Guys like Matthew Thomas and Reggie Northrup could develop into studs before the season's up.

Sleeper: Syracuse

The Orange return two of the more underrated linebackers in the ACC in Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch, who will be relied upon to anchor a defense with some serious questions on the defensive line. Though middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is gone, Syracuse coaches were pleased with the role Marqez Hodge played as a true freshman behind Spruill a year ago, so he spent a year in training preparing to take over the starting job. Davis and Lynch will be there to help Hodge along. Keep an eye on Louisville here as well. The Cards return hard hitter James Burgess and have moved Lorenzo Mauldin to outside linebacker/rush end. That should pay dividends.

Problem for a contender: Pitt

The Panthers have not gotten consistent linebacker play for years, so this position remains a question mark. Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas return, but the Panthers have little in the way of depth to help them out. Thomas has the potential to be excellent. He had 72 tackles a year ago, but coaches are now hoping for more. Bam Bradley could also have an impact here, but only six lettermen are back from a year ago. There are also questions elsewhere in the conference. Will anybody step up to help out Denzel Perryman at Miami? And will Virginia Tech be just as good at linebacker without Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards?

SPONSORED HEADLINES