ACC: North Carolina Tar Heels

We’ve talked plenty about the myriad of quarterback battles going on around the ACC, but the conference actually returns five QBs who accounted for 2,000 yards of offense or more last season.

We wrote about the big-name receivers headed for the NFL draft, but the ACC also has three wideouts returning who accounted for 1,000 receiving yards in 2013, too.

But how about the tailbacks? How many 1,000-yard rushers from 2013 will be back again this season?

Believe it or not, the lone representative on that list is Virginia’s Kevin Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on the ground for a team that didn’t win a single conference game.

The depth chart among returning running backs in the conference doesn’t get much better beyond Parks, either. Duke Johnson is probably the ACC’s best returning running back. He racked up 920 yards in eight games before getting hurt. Beyond that, only Louisville’s Dominique Brown, who played in the AAC last year, returns with at least 800 yards on the ground from 2013.

So, if there aren’t a ton of top tailbacks returning for 2014, which teams are poised for the most success on the ground this year?



If we break down the numbers by tailbacks only, Pittsburgh is the clear front runner. No ACC team’s returning running backs accounted for a higher percentage of its 2013 carries (76 percent) than Pitt’s, and thanks to the negative rushing totals courtesy of sacks, James Conner (799 yards), Isaac Bennett (776 yards) and Co. actually accounted for 106 percent of the Panthers’ rushing yards from 2013. (A neat trick that comes courtesy of Tom Savage's 76 carries for minus-208 yards.)

With Parks back for 2014 along with highly touted sophomore Taquan Mizzell, UVA’s returning backs account for 74 percent of last season's rushes, along with 91 percent of its yards. Of course, without star lineman Morgan Moses, those yards might be a bit tougher to come by this season.

Virginia Tech, NC State and Louisville all return running backs responsible for at least 50 percent of last season's ground gains, too (with Miami falling just short after swapping Dallas Crawford to the secondary).

The bottom of the list might be even more intriguing. Wake Forest’s stable of running backs is a mess, but that’s been well documented. The rest of the bottom six, however, include BC (which lost a Heisman finalist) and the top four offenses in the league from 2013 (Florida State, Clemson, Duke and Georgia Tech).

In other words, the best offenses lost big-time runners, and the shakiest (aside from Wake) have talent returning. So, does that mean there’s reason for some serious shakeups in the ACC’s offensive standings?

Not necessarily.

Yes, the ground game is essential for most teams to succeed. Of the 10 teams that played in BCS bowl games last season, seven returned a tailback who rushed for at least 500 yards in 2012.

But the ground game isn’t defined entirely by the men toting the rock. FSU returns four starters on a veteran offensive line, along with a Heisman-winning quarterback. That should provide some room for its relatively green stable of running backs to roam.

And, of course, just because there’s talent departing doesn’t mean there isn’t more waiting in the wings. Florida State’s returning running backs (Karlos Williams and Ryan Green) averaged 7 yards per carry in reserve roles last season. Georgia Tech’s averaged 5.9, and Duke’s averaged 5.8 (QB Brandon Connette’s departure is the biggest blow to the Blue Devils’ ground attack). Even Clemson has cause to be excited about its rushing game in 2014 with the development of C.J. Davidson and Zac Brooks and the debut of uber-talented redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman.

The veteran presence in the backfield for Pitt, Virginia and NC State should offer some hope to teams in need of some offensive optimism, but it’s also a likely scenario that FSU, Clemson, and others will supply a few names to the ACC’s rushing leaderboard in 2014, too.

Video: Sport Science on Eric Ebron

April, 24, 2014
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video
The Sport Science team analyzes former North Carolina tight end and top NFL draft prospect Eric Ebron.

ACC's lunch links

April, 24, 2014
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I write the ACC lunch links one week out of every month, and still I was somehow left off Time’s list of its 100 most influential people. Something is seriously wrong with their criteria.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 23, 2014
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Your time-waster of the day: An oral history of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
There are differences between the two quarterbacks vying for the starting job at North Carolina, receiver Quinshad Davis said.

With Marquise Williams, there’s a familiarity between passer and receiver that stemmed from extensive playing time together throughout last season. When Mitch Trubisky takes over the first-team offense, there’s a bit more of a learning curve, but the ball arrives with ample zip and usually in just the right spot.

[+] EnlargeQuinshad Davis
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsQuinshad Davis has 15 touchdown receptions in two seasons at North Carolina.
But regardless of which quarterback is throwing the passes, the common ground is Davis, North Carolina’s top returning receiver and the foundation of the Tar Heels’ 2014 offense.

“I just like to have fun with all of them,” Davis said. “Whichever one I’m out there with, I’m catching balls, laughing and joking and making sure we have a good time out there.”

It’s a role North Carolina hopes Davis continues to fill this season as it settles on a starting quarterback and grooms a cadre of young talent in both the receiving corps and backfield. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Davis’ job this fall is to make sure his quarterback is having fun.

“That’s a great thing for those quarterbacks is to have a long-armed receiver, big targets with a big range they can throw the ball in,” coach Larry Fedora said. “They don’t have to be perfect because they have guys with seven-foot wing spans.”

Last season, North Carolina’s quarterbacks got a taste of what Davis could provide, but it was tight end Eric Ebron who did much of the heavy lifting.

Ebron -- 6-4, 245 and likely to be selected in the first round of next month’s NFL draft -- was UNC’s leading receiver last season and a go-to target in key situations. But as the Tar Heels shift focus to 2014, that role now projects to be filled largely by Davis -- and he’s eager to get started.

“I want to lead the offense,” Davis said. “I’m one of the few guys we have that’s been on the squad for years. I want to take that role and make those plays he made last year and get some people some open space to work one on one.”

There’s ample evidence that Davis is perfect for the job.

Among the ACC’s returning receivers in 2014, only Jamison Crowder, Tyler Boyd and Rashad Greene averaged more receiving yards per game last season than Davis (56.2). None caught more touchdowns (10). No one with as many catches (48) averaged more yards per reception (15.2). And as a sophomore last season, Davis was among the more reliable options in the league, hauling in 67 percent of his targets.

“Every ball that’s in the air, he expects to catch, no matter where the DB is on him,” Fedora said. “And that’s pretty good because he’s very competitive. He believes he can make every catch.”

That doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done as Davis enters his junior season.

As good as Davis’ numbers were last season, his reception and yardage totals actually dipped from his freshman campaign in 2012. The problem was consistency. Davis manhandled lesser defenses against East Carolina and Old Dominion, but he failed to post a 100-yard game against another ACC team. He turned in strong performances against Virginia Tech, Miami and NC State (16 catches, four TDs total), but all but was largely a non-factor against Georgia Tech and Duke and had just one catch for six yards in North Carolina’s bowl game.

As the rest of the Tar Heels’ offense jockeys for position on the depth chart, Fedora said Davis’ job is to simply get better -- and more consistent -- at all the things he was already doing well.

“He’s going to be counted on to make more plays in the offense,” Fedora said. “The next step for him is just to keep getting a little bit better in every phase of becoming a complete player. That’s blocking, catching, route-running, understanding the offense, leadership -- that’s everything, becoming a complete wide receiver.”

And if Davis can do that, he won’t simply fill some of the void left by Ebron’s departure, Williams said. Davis has the skill set to be one of the best receivers in the league, to post numbers similar to what Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin -- both first-round projections in the NFL draft, too — mustered last season.

“Those are some big-time receivers, but I feel like he’s in the top with those names,” Williams said. “People didn’t recognize it [last season] because we’re at North Carolina and that’s Florida State and Clemson. We don’t get as much respect. But I’m sure people will realize who he is this year.”

ACC's lunch links

April, 22, 2014
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Because you know you want to see Larry Fedora rapping Drake lyrics

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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Wishing everybody a great holiday weekend!
Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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Never forget.
North Carolina safety Tim Scott is well aware of the surging expectations surrounding his offensive teammates this spring -- further motivation for the Tar Heels’ defense to catch up this fall.

“We feel as if we’re not talked about or we’re not even respected,” Scott said. “Everyone talks about our offense and how explosive they are, but we also have an explosive, physical, fast defense, and that’s really what our main point is to prove this year.”

They’ve got some work to do.

While North Carolina is considered by many to be a team on the rise in the ACC’s Coastal Division, much of that confidence is rooted in the Tar Heels’ offensive potential. North Carolina gave up 55 points in an embarrassing loss to East Carolina last year -- at home -- before improving in the second half of the season. UNC ranked 64th in the country last year in total defense and Scott said the biggest problem was miscommunication, a result of transitioning to a 4-2-5 defense.

“When coach Vic [Koenning] and coach [Larry] Fedora came in with the new 4-2-5, everyone knew their part, but in the 4-2-5 defense, you have to know what everyone is doing,” said Scott, now a leader in UNC’s secondary. “Everyone has to speak to everybody. That’s really what we didn’t get down and that’s what we’re taking the time to do this spring.

“It’s improved a lot,” he said. “Everyone can play at this level, but once you get the mental part down -- which we didn’t have down, of course, for the first six games of the season, when we went 1-5 -- we took the time after that Miami game, and we really wanted to improve in that and make sure we can show the world that the defense we’re playing is the defense that can be successful. That’s what we proved the last couple games of the season going into the bowl game and now the defense is really transitioning to keeping that up during the spring.”

UNC’s defense made significant strides in the second half of the season. Through the first six games, UNC allowed 456 yards per game, including 203.3 on the ground, and allowed 30.7 points per game. Through the final seven games (a 5-2 record), UNC allowed 357.9 yards per game, including 164.6 on the ground, and 19.1 points per game. Five of the final seven opponents were held to 20 points or fewer.

Scott said the best is yet to come -- for the defense and the offense.

“I think honestly we can be better than what we’ve been since I’ve been here,” he said. “… I know last year wasn’t the year we wanted. We had a chance to have a three-way go for the Coastal. This year our objective is to win it outright and prove to everyone that we don’t just have draft picks. We have people who can come together as a team and win games.”

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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Bo Pelini is the cat's meow.

ACC spring games recap

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
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Eight ACC teams wrapped up their spring seasons this past weekend, with games and open practices taking place from Pittsburgh all the way down to Miami. Here's a look at the biggest storylines from all of the action surrounding six of those teams. (Colleague Jared Shanker has plenty of Florida State content over on our Seminoles site, while our David Hale was in the house for the second spring of the Dave Doeren era at NC State.)

CLEMSON
The Tigers entered their spring game down one quarterback after Deshaun Watson injured his collarbone five days earlier, and fellow signal caller Chad Kelly might have simplified the QB battle for the coaching staff down the stretch -- just not in a good way. Kelly got himself benched for the second half after questioning a punting decision on fourth down in the second quarter. Cole Stoudt took advantage of the opening, completing 15 of 23 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns on a day that certainly did not hurt his chances at emerging atop the three-man race come August. Kelly, meanwhile, went 10-for-18 for 118 yards with two interceptions. The defense was credited with 14 sacks, though the quarterbacks weren't live. The White team beat the Orange team, 23-5, in front of a record 33,000.

LOUISVILLE
It's often too easy to draw general conclusions and overreact to what we all see during a team's main public display at the end of each spring. That is probably the case when looking at the Cardinals' Friday night fireworks. Redshirt sophomore Will Gardner threw for 542 yards and four touchdowns, leading the offense to 951 total yards and 11 touchdowns. Most of it came against the second-team defense, which underscored the feeling exiting 2013: The secondary is in need of some depth, especially after losing Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Is Bobby Petrino's first offense that good? Is his secondary that bad? Probably somewhere in between, though roughly 27,500 were entertained.

MIAMI
The defense was the main storyline ever since the end of the 2013 season, though Ryan Williams' ACL tear last week brought a new concern to the forefront. Still, the Hurricanes had to be pleased with how Mark D'Onofrio's unit performed on Saturday, with safeties Jamal Carter and Dallas Crawford leading the way with five tackles apiece. The defense won the game, 61-60, thanks to an unconventional scoring system. And, more importantly, it held Miami's new quarterbacks in check, with Kevin Olsen going just 7-of-21 for 65 yards and a pick and Gray Crow going 9-of-20 for 63 yards and a pick. Juwon Young and Tracy Howard came up with the interceptions.

NORTH CAROLINA
Quarterbacks took center stage in Chapel Hill as well, with neither incumbent Marquise Williams nor challenger Mitch Trubisky offering much in way of clarity. Williams completed 22 of 32 passes for 135 yards and an interception. Trubisky went 20-for-32 for 183 yards and an interception. Larry Fedora liked the decision-making from both of his signal callers on Saturday and knows he has two capable signal-callers, but he isn't offering any public hints about who his guy will likely be come this fall. The Blue team, by the way, beat the White team, 38-17.

VIRGINIA
The defense (Blue) dominated the injury-depleted offense (White), coming up with four interceptions and nine total sacks (albeit two-hand touch sacks). Greyson Lambert looked like the best of the Cavaliers' quarterbacks, completing 18 of 31 passes for 220 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. Incumbent David Watford went just 4-of-14 for 31 yards with two picks, while Matt Johns completed 6 of his 19 throws for 43 yards. Lambert and the Virginia coaching staff attributed the redshirt sophomore's improved play to a clear head, as he has taken pressure off himself this time around and looks like the front-runner, as he was voted one of four captains by teammates, along with Anthony Harris, Henry Coley and Kevin Parks. He was also one of 13 players -- and the only quarterback -- named to the leadership council.

PITT
The Panthers drew plenty of attention early for announcing that they would not hold a traditional spring game. Still, their "Field Pass" event on Sunday at its South Side headquarters drew more than 3,000 who came and listened to presentations from defensive coordinator Matt House, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej and recruiting coordinator Dann Kabala. A big theme around Pitt this spring has been the program's youth, but that storyline moved closer and closer toward its depth, which has been tested lately with injuries to running backs James Conner (sprained left knee) and Isaac Bennett (sprained left shoulder), who will have surgery but is expected to return in time for fall camp. Pitt held its 14th spring practice before Sunday's fan event and will conclude its spring season Tuesday.

ACC spring games preview

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Seven ACC teams will play their spring games this weekend, and eight will officially close spring practices in the coming days, as Pitt has opted to have a more fan-friendly event instead of an actual spring game on Sunday before closing practice on Tuesday.

For all of these teams -- including Florida State -- the quarterbacks will be among the most-watched players on the field. In Tallahassee, fans will get a chance to see the Heisman Trophy winner, returning starter Jameis Winston. At every other school, there is an ongoing storyline and competition with the quarterbacks. We’re giving you one additional thing to keep an eye on that might not be so obvious.

Check it out, and enjoy the games this weekend!

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. on Saturday (ESPNU) and on WatchESPN

Where: Death Valley

One thing to watch: The true freshman wide receivers. Artavis Scott, Demarre Kitt and Kyrin Priester were all highly touted recruits who enrolled early to help Clemson try to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant (a combined 2,292 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013).

FLORIDA STATE

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN) and on WatchESPN

Where: Doak Campbell Stadium

One thing to watch: The wide receivers. They haven’t exactly earned high praise from coach Jimbo Fisher, who called the receivers out last week for not getting open and making catches. Rashad Greene is the most experienced option as the Noles try to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but the staff also needs to see more from players like Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield.

LOUISVILLE

When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday

Where: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium

One thing to watch: The safeties. Louisville lost Hakeem Smith, who started 51 straight games, and projected first-round draft pick Calvin Pryor. Jermaine Reve, Gerod Holliman and Chucky Williams are the leading candidates for those spots, but Reve is out for the spring with an injury. Reve and Holliman are the only players with game experience.

MIAMI

When: 6 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Sun Life Stadium

One thing to watch: Defense, defense, defense. It’s been an area of concern, but the defense showed signs of progress this spring. The Canes return eight starters and 16 players from the two-deep depth chart. Denzel Perryman is now playing middle linebacker, and Dallas Crawford moved to safety to give that position a boost. Those within the program have said repeatedly that the defense has made strides since last season, and overall it was a good spring for the defense. We’ll see if they can punctuate it in the spring game.

NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN3)

Where: Kenan Stadium

One thing to watch: True freshman running back Elijah Hood. The four-star recruit was rated the nation's No. 9 running back in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.com and No. 80 overall in the ESPN 300. The early enrollee has had such a good spring that he could see some immediate playing time, even though the Tar Heels are deep at the position.

NC STATE

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium

One thing to watch: More young wide receivers. NC State has to replace Quintin Payton and Rashard Smith, both starters from last year. The talent pool to choose from includes a host of sophomores and freshmen, including two early enrollees. The leading sophomore candidates are: Jumichael Ramos, who finished the last three games of 2013 strong; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who led the team in receiving at one point last year as a true freshman; and Bra'lon Cherry, who suffered a season-ending injury against Duke. Freshmen Bo Hines and Stephen Louis enrolled early, and redshirt freshman Gavin Locklear is also in the mix.

VIRGINIA

When: 1 p.m. on Saturday

Where: Scott Stadium

One thing to watch: Improved wide receivers. This is a group coach Mike London has praised this spring, for both its height and athleticism, as the staff has moved toward a longer, leaner look. London recently singled out Miles Gooch, Keeon Johnson and Kyle Dockins -- all listed at 6-foot-3 -- as players who have excelled this spring. Unfortunately, fans won’t be able to see starter Jake McGee, the Hoos’ star tight end who moved to receiver this spring, as he’ll be sidelined with a hamstring injury.

PITT (No spring game)

When: From 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Pitt will host its “Pitt Football Field Pass”

Where: The UPMC Sports Performance Complex

One thing to watch: Instead of a game, Pitt will hold a public event that will include a kids’ clinic, an offensive strategy session with coordinator Joe Rudolph, a defensive strategy session with coordinator Matt House, a recruiting session with coordinator Dann Kabala and a strength and conditioning session with assistant coach Ross Kolodziej.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Thoughts with all those affected Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
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First prediction I've gotten right all tourney.

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