ACC: ACC preseason position review 2014

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: Special teams

Best of the best: Florida State

There is no shortage of ACC teams with playmakers on special teams, but in the end, the Seminoles' talent overwhelms. They bring back sophomore Kermit Whitfield after a historic rookie campaign that was the best in school history. He had a nation-best 36.4 yard kick return average (an ACC record) and a 100-yard touchdown return late in the fourth quarter of the national title game. On top of that, there's reigning Lou Groza Award winner and All-American Roberto Aguayo, whose redshirt freshman season saw him nail 21 of his 22 field goal attempts and all 94 of his extra point tries. His 157 points set a new national record for a kicker as well. FSU also brings back punter Cason Beatty, in addition to the more-than-capable Rashad Greene at punt returner, where the Seminoles have a number of precocious speedsters behind him.

Next up: Duke

North Carolina certainly has a strong argument in returning Ryan Switzer, but the nod here ultimately goes to rival Duke, which brings back all of the key pieces from a special teams unit that played no small role in helping the Blue Devils win the Coastal Division title. There's Jamison Crowder, one of the most versatile players in the country, who amassed 401 yards and two touchdowns last season on 25 punt returns. There's DeVon Edwards, who thrived all over the field as a redshirt freshman, returning 19 kickoffs for 574 yards and two sores. And there's kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday, both of whom put forth stellar efforts last season, with Martin connecting on 2 of 3 tries from 50 yards or longer and Monday pinning 21 punts inside the 20.

Possible sleeper: Georgia Tech

Jamal Golden is back after a one-year absence because of a shoulder injury. But don't count out the junior, as he was the only player in 2012 to rank in the top 10 nationally in both punt returns (14.6) and kick returns (28.4). His time away has given way to more film study, and if fully healthy, Golden's numbers figure to be right up there with the rest of the talented specialists returning in the ACC this season. Harrison Butker impressed as a true freshman last season, hitting 10 of 14 field goal attempts and missing just one extra point. Punter Ryan Rodwell, meanwhile, figures to be the main guy after redshirting in 2013.

Problem for a contender: Virginia Tech

Beamer Ball has undoubtedly taken a hit, most notably with the team's kicking woes (VT missed 11 field goals last season) and the dismissal of Cody Journell. Freshman Michael Santamaria may be the answer at starter, for better or worse. Kyshoen Jarrett is back after averaging 5.3 yards per punt return last season. So, too, is Demitri Knowles, who averaged 21.8 yards per kick return in 2013. Something needs to be done about coverage, as the Hokies surrendered three touchdown returns last season.
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: Quarterbacks

Best of the best: Florida State

As if there was any real debate with this position. The Seminoles clearly have the conference’s best, if not the country’s. Jameis Winston hasn't lost a game in his career and is coming off a record-setting season in which he became only the second freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Most expect his numbers to drop as a redshirt sophomore, considering the lack of proven commodities at receiver with Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw pursuing NFL careers, but there is an expectation that Winston should be a better quarterback in 2014 under Jimbo Fisher, who has had several former quarterbacks drafted in the first round. The one area of concern for the Seminoles at the position is if Winston were to miss time because of injury. Sean Maguire looked strong in the spring game working against the backups, but there is not as much depth at the position as there was a season ago. Jacob Coker, who backed Winston up last fall, is competing for the starting job at Alabama, and Clint Trickett left before the 2013 season began and will start for West Virginia this fall. As long as Winston stays healthy, though, this is clearly the best group in the ACC.

Next up: Duke

There isn’t much returning experience at quarterback in the ACC, but the Blue Devils, the Seminoles’ opponent in the ACC title game last fall, bring back Anthony Boone. A redshirt senior, Boone is the leader of the offense and has responsibilities not only as a passer but also running. Boone threw for 2,260 yards as a junior but threw as many interceptions as he did touchdowns (13). Those numbers are somewhat skewed, as Boone was regularly replaced at the goal line by change-of-pace quarterback Brandon Connette, who rushed for 14 touchdowns in 2013. Connette is no longer with the team, though, so the burden of getting Duke into the end zone will fall squarely on Boone this season. If Duke plans to make a statement that 2013 was not a fluke and the Blue Devils will be an annual contender, Boone will be the one to lead them there.

Sleeper: Virginia

The entire 2013 season was a disaster for the Cavaliers and the Cavaliers felt the pain at quarterback. David Watford failed to retain the job, and coach Mike London hinted at some leadership issues for Watford this spring, too. That opened the door for redshirt sophomore Greyson Lambert, who in May was named the starter. London is putting a tremendous amount of trust in Lambert, who was voted a team captain this spring. There is a good amount of talent on Virginia’s roster as London has recruited well, so there are pieces around Lambert that should help ease him into the starting lineup. It won’t be an ideal start for Lambert as the Cavs open with UCLA, Louisville and BYU among their first four games, but Lambert could make a profound statement by playing well through the first third of the season.

Problem for a contender: Miami

Miami is considered Florida State’s toughest competition in the ACC this season, but the Hurricanes’ season has a little problem heading into the fall: They don’t have a starting quarterback. Projected starter Ryan Williams is rehabilitating a torn knee ligament and hopes to be ready for the opener, but it certainly seems unlikely considering the injury was only sustained three months ago. Williams is the only quarterback on the roster that has started a game for Miami. Kevin Olsen figures to be the starter if Williams is not ready. A blue-chip recruit, the redshirt freshman still might not be ready to be a starter in Coral Gables, which is why it was imperative that Miami brought in transfer Jake Heaps this summer. Heaps bounced around in college with stints at BYU and Kansas, but was a highly regarded high school quarterback. Brad Kaaya signed with Miami this February and was an ESPN 300 quarterback. He has an outside chance of starting. No matter who starts, expect a steady dose of running back Duke Johnson in every game and an expectation for the quarterback to do just enough to win. The first quarter of the season is manageable with games at Louisville and against Florida A&M and Arkansas State, but after that, the Hurricanes will need a definitive answer at quarterback.
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.
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.
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?
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 running game

Best of the best: Florida State

There's plenty of competition for the top spot, but we're giving the edge to FSU's revamped ground game in spite of the losses of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. While the Seminoles said goodbye to two of their top runners, they return a senior-laden offensive line that has opened holes to the tune of 5.6 yards-per-carry last season, as well as a dynamic (if inexperienced) group of ball carriers. At the top of the depth chart, Karlos Williams tallied 730 yards and 11 TDs last season in a limited role, and his size/speed combination makes him as tough to bring down as any runner in the country. Behind him, Ryan Green and Mario Pender offer speedy alternatives, while true freshman Dalvin Cook oozes potential and could emerge as FSU's No. 2 option. Jimbo Fisher has made a point of distributing carries in recent years, so expect all four to see plenty of work.

Next up: Miami

It's easy enough to make a case for Georgia Tech (300 rush yards per game last year), Louisville (veteran offensive line and deep backfield) or Pitt (two 700-yard tailbacks returning), but we'll give the slight edge to Miami because there may be no more dynamic or productive runner in the conference than Duke Johnson. True, Johnson is coming off a severe ankle injury that cost him the final five games of 2013, but he's back and feeling good already, and he promises to be the foundation of the Canes' offense. With a healthy Johnson in the backfield last season, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry -- which would've been good for 13th nationally and third in the ACC.

Possible sleeper: North Carolina

Against FBS foes last season, North Carolina mustered a mere 148 yards per game on the ground -- good for 11th in the ACC. But that doesn't mean the ground game won't be a strength for the Tar Heels in 2014. In the early going, UNC mustered a meager 2.8 yards-per-carry and six TDs in its first seven games of the year (in which the Heels finished 2-5). After the calendar flipped to November, however, North Carolina's ground game flourished, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 13 times, while helping the Heels to a 5-1 finish. Now, T.J. Logan is back to lead a particularly deep corps of runners, and Marquise Williams is as good a threat to run as any QB in the league. If the offensive line can hold up, North Carolina's ground game should be vastly improved in 2014.

Potential problem: Virginia Tech

The Hokies' backfield was a disaster last season. Set aside the work of now-departed QB Logan Thomas, and the running backs tallied a mere 3.98 yards-per-carry last season and managed just 11 third-down conversions. Against FBS teams, Tech managed just 2.88 yards-per-carry, the ninth-worst mark in the nation. The eight teams that were worse had a combined record of 18-79. Now the Hokies add a first-year starter at quarterback, and the situation looks even more dire.
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.

Up next: Defensive line.

Best of the best: Clemson

The Tigers are stacked on the defensive line, returning all four starters plus their top four backups from a season ago. Easy to see why Clemson gets the nod over the Seminoles -- sheer experience alone. Clemson has the best returning lineman in the league -- and one of the best in the nation -- in Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a year ago. His backup, Shaq Lawson, had 10 tackles for loss. That is more than anybody Florida State returns. So not only does Clemson have a group that is active behind the line, it has good depth, too, which should keep everybody fresh and make for one of the best line rotations in the country. If this group can live up to expectations, the Tigers have a chance to be one of the best groups in the entire country.

Next up: Florida State

If there is one constant in the ACC, it is a rock solid, dominant defensive line at Florida State. Five defensive linemen have been drafted over the past two years and another, Mario Edwards Jr., is rated as a top 5 defensive end among all underclassmen. There is no doubt the Seminoles are talented once again, but they do need to rebuild some depth across the entire line and may even rely on more linebackers to help out with the pass rush in 2014. Freshmen also will factor into the mix, as the Seminoles signed seven defensive linemen to help make up for some of the losses. Players such as Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher are set to be the standouts on this group, but the Noles will need some unproven players to step up to keep the championship-level quality of the defensive line going.

Possible sleeper: Virginia

The Hoos have to replace two starters, but there is growing expectation for the line to be improved over a year ago. Eli Harold returns at defensive end after racking up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss a year ago, and has received early consideration as a potential All-ACC candidate. Mike Moore, slated to start at the other end position, was one of the defense's most improved players during the spring. Then, of course, there is incoming true freshman Andrew Brown, one of the top-rated players in the class of 2014 with an opportunity to make an immediate impact at tackle. Brown enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Though he battled through a bit of an injury, he is still in the mix to win a starting job.

Problem for a contender: North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have to rebuild along the front again, after losing starters Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. Martin leaves behind the gaping hole, after racking up 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, along with 14 hurries a year ago. Even with Martin getting into the backfield, North Carolina ranked last in rushing defense, so there is no doubt this group has to make major improvements up front. Among the ends, only Junior Gnonkonde returns as a consistent contributor, with Jessie Rogers and redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon in the mix. There is more depth at tackle than at end, though, so North Carolina will no doubt be growing up its ends in a hurry to make up for Martin's departure.

Previous previews:
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.

First up: Offensive line

Best of the best: Florida State

Yes, Jameis Winston returns, which alone makes Florida State’s offense frightening for the rest of the ACC. But what really figures to set the Seminoles apart are the big guys in front of the Heisman winner. FSU returns four of five starters from last season’s line and currently projects to start five seniors, with Cameron Erving, Josue Matias and Tre' Jackson all getting some preseason All-America buzz. It’s also one of the best run-blocking groups in the nation, with FSU averaging 5.6 yards-per-carry the past two years. One area where the Seminoles could improve, however, is pass blocking. FSU QBs have been sacked once every 15.8 drop-backs the past two years, which ranks 85th nationally.

Next up: Georgia Tech

FSU leads the ACC in yards-per-rush the past two seasons, but Georgia Tech is just a tick behind at 5.4 ypc. It’s just that, thanks to the Yellow Jackets’ option offense, the line doesn’t get quite the national acclaim the unit in Tallahassee does. Still, Tech’s line has been as consistently good as any in the conference, led this fall by guard Shaq Mason. The rest of the group also returns starters Trey Braun and Bryan Chamberlain, but there’s an obvious question mark at left tackle, where redshirt freshman Chris Griffin is currently penciled in as the starter. Beyond FSU and Georgia Tech, however, the ACC looks to have a number of solid O-line units this season, including Louisville, Duke and Syracuse.

Possible sleeper: Pittsburgh

Only five teams in the country allowed more sacks per game last season than Pitt, and those five teams finished with a combined record of 6-54. So, if four of the five starters from that unit return this fall, is that really a good thing for the Panthers? It’s probably not likely that Pitt suddenly blossoms into one of the best pass-protection teams in the country, but the unit also isn’t nearly as bad as the numbers indicated a year ago. Quarterback Tom Savage was a statue in the pocket, but Chad Voytik -- this season's starter at QB -- is far more mobile. The backfield has ample experience, too, and guard Matt Rotheram has started 25 of 26 games in the past two years to provide some veteran leadership on the line.

Potential problem: North Carolina

There’s a lot to like about North Carolina’s offense, from depth at quarterback to an impressive stable of runners to a receiving corps led by talented junior Quinshad Davis. But the O-line is a concern for coach Larry Fedora, who struggled to even piece together five healthy players throughout the spring. The loss of All-ACC tackle James Hurst hurts, but center Russell Bodine’s decision to leave for the NFL early was salt in the wound. The Heels may need to rely on a true freshman (Bentley Spain) at left tackle, which is never a good sign for a team looking to compete for a division crown.

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