ACC: Andrew Brown

Because it's never too early to start making bold predictions about the 2015 season, Athlon put together its list of 10 potential breakout players for the upcoming season, and it includes two budding stars in the ACC.

The first is Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, which should be something of a no-brainer, given that the junior racked up 21.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons despite serving as the backup to Vic Beasley. Only seven other players in the ACC have totaled 10 or more TFL in each of the last two seasons, and of that group, only Lawson will be back for 2015.

“A guy like Shaq Lawson, he could've been starting his first two years, but he sat behind Vic Beasley and you can't complain about that,” defensive back Robert Smith said. “But he could've just as easily been starting the same way.”

Lawson is an obvious starter this year, but the Post & Courier projects out the rest of Clemson's starters, too.

The second of Athlon's breakout candidates is Travis Rudolph, the FSU wide receiver who stepped up as a strong No. 2 option after Rashad Greene as a true freshman this season, including six catches for 96 yards and a score in the Rose Bowl.

Rudolph definitely progressed as the year went along -- he had just one catch in FSU's first four games -- but he's going to have a tougher task in 2015. Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary are gone, meaning all eyes will clearly be on Rudolph to step into the No. 1 role in the passing game. Jameis Winston is gone, too, and the question about the next FSU QB is a big one. Still, Rudolph showed how much talent he has this season, and he's on record as being eager to follow in Greene's footsteps.

Looking around the rest of the ACC, a few other names to watch as potential breakout candidates:

Andrew Brown, Virginia: Injuries limited his freshman performance, but the Hoos will have a new-look defensive line in 2015, and Brown, the former five-star recruit, will be a big part of their plans.

Shaun Wilson, Duke: The ACC already got a small taste of what Wilson can do, as he rushed for 598 yards as a freshman in 2014. His 7.7 yards-per-carry average was the best by any Power 5 running back with at least 75 carries, but his numbers in conference -- 46 carries, 186 yards, 1 TD -- weren't quite as impressive. He'll have a bigger role in 2015.

Josh Jones, NC State: The redshirt freshman started the final five games of the year at strong safety for the Wolfpack, and that happened to coincide with a 4-1 finish to the season in which NC State allowed just 4.68 yards per play -- the seventh-best rate for any Power 5 team from Nov. 1 to the end of the season.

Joseph Yearby, Miami: The freshman had more than 600 yards from scrimmage backing up Duke Johnson in 2014. Now Johnson is gone, but rising star QB Brad Kaaya remains, and Miami's offense hopes to not miss a beat. It could be a huge year for Yearby, who played his high school ball alongside FSU's Dalvin Cook.

A few other links:

Virginia Cavaliers season preview

August, 19, 2014
8/19/14
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Virginia Cavaliers:

Key returners: RB Kevin Parks, RB Taquan Mizzell, S Anthony Harris, DE Eli Harold, LB Henry Coley

Key losses: TE Jake McGee, OT Morgan Moses, DE Jake Snyder, DT Brent Urban

Most important 2014 games: UCLA, Aug. 30; Miami, Nov. 22; at Virginia Tech, Nov. 28

Projected win percentage: 37 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 3

[+] EnlargeKevin Parks
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffRunning back Kevin Parks is among the few proven performers Virginia returns on offense.
Instant impact newcomers: Defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding. There is little doubt that the two highest-rated players in the 2014 signing class will play for the Cavs this season. Brown has had a little setback in dealing with a turf toe injury that has bothered him since the spring. But when he is healthy, he will be a contributor on a defensive line that needs depth at tackle. Blanding has been working with the first-team defense since spring practice opened. By all accounts, he is as good as advertised.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Greyson Lambert brings consistency to the quarterback position, allowing the offense to flourish. The defense improves on the gains it made from a season ago, and the Hoos cut down on penalties and turnovers. Parks turns in another 1,000-yard season, and playmaker receivers emerge to help Virginia pull several upsets, end a long losing streak to rival Virginia Tech, make a bowl and become the surprise team in the ACC.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Quarterback remains an issue behind Lambert, and the offensive line fails to gain any cohesion. Without any stability up front or behind Lambert, Virginia continues to struggle to move the ball and score points. Defensively, Virginia continues to give up too many big plays. One of the toughest schedules in the ACC does the Cavaliers no favors, and they sink to their third straight losing season.

They said it: "The identity is one of unity. You can talk about, well, how does that happen? Last year, we had four seniors. This year, we have 22. There's a maturation process that takes place when you have teams that are looking for leaders, that are looking for an identity. … The expectations of performing are paramount for us." -- coach Mike London.

Biggest question mark: How much time do we have? Outside of Parks, the entire offense remains a question mark. The offensive line has not been solidified yet; Lambert remains a wild card; and there is no go-to player among the receivers with McGee gone. Virginia is in desperate need of a big-play threat in the receiver group and a quarterback who can limit the mistakes. We still don’t know whether both will come to fruition for this team in 2014.
Virginia only returns two starters to its defensive line. So why are the Hoos a sleeper choice at that position?

Returning defensive end Eli Harold is a big reason. But perhaps even bigger? Depth. As in much, much more of it.

[+] EnlargeEli Harold
Lee Coleman/Icon SMIDefensive end Eli Harold says the Cavaliers will benefit in 2014 from added depth along the line.
"Our defensive line is loaded," Harold said in an interview with ESPN.com Tuesday. "We’ve got about eight or nine guys who can go in there and play right away."

Contrast that to last season, when depth was in short supply. Harold was in on 806 plays, second-most on defense and practically unheard of for a defensive lineman. He did not recall coming out of the game in the opener against BYU, taking 93 snaps. As a comparison, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley took 560 snaps and played one more game. Better depth at Clemson means fewer snaps, and fewer snaps means much fresher players on the line -- an absolute must to be effective.

Harold, who ended last season with 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss a year ago, says the Hoos have the best depth they have had in years. Couple that with the new aggressive approach implemented last season, and expectations for the group have grown.

"I’m glad we have depth this year, to allow our athletes to get out in space, rush the passer and also stop the run," Harold said.

David Dean also returns as a starter at tackle. But Harold praised Mike Moore, slated to start at end, and then listed others like Donte Wilkins and Chris Braithwaite, back after sitting out last season. Then, of course, there is highly touted freshman tackle Andrew Brown, who will be expected to have an immediate impact.

"Andrew Brown’s definitely going to help us out this year whether he starts or not," Harold said. "He’s going to play up to 20 plays a game I think. He’s a big, strong guy. He’s one of the strongest guys on the team already. He’s fast, he’s physical, he also has finesse. A guy like that brings a lot to the table. He deserves that highly touted rank he has. We’re expecting a lot out of him, but like I told him, just don’t put too much on yourself. You’re just now learning, so don’t be so hard on yourself."

Harold himself is up to 245 pounds, and says the new strength and conditioning staff has done a great job transforming the players on the roster. He says there is much more leadership too, more players with passion and competitiveness, eager to get the program back to a bowl game. As for individual goals, Harold has set the bar high -- he wants 15 sacks.

A few breathers would be nice, 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.

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:

Analysis of ACC awards polls

June, 17, 2014
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In a series last week, the ACC blog broke down some of the early preseason candidates for several of the conference’s top postseason awards. Colleague Matt Fortuna gave a short brief on each of the candidates, listed a few honorable mentions and a SportsNation poll asked readers to vote on which candidate, if any, would win.

We asked for your prediction on who would be the conference offensive and defensive players of the year, offensive and defensive rookies of the year and coach of the year. With just about a week for fans to vote, here are the results from the polls.

ACC offensive player of the year

Results: QB Jameis Winston, Florida State (52 percent), RB Duke Johnson, Miami (19), Other (14), WR DeVante Parker, Louisville (12), WR Jamison Crowder, Duke (3).
Analysis: Winston is the overwhelming favorite in the poll, and his 33-percentage point lead over second-place Johnson is the widest gap among the five SportsNation polls. That is hardly a surprise, considering the Heisman winner returns and has yet to lose a game as a starter in his college career. Johnson is a reasonable second option, as the Miami running back will play a pivotal role for the Canes as they break in a new quarterback. If Miami can achieve double-digit wins this season, Johnson will be tough to beat.
Write-in votes: Gauging from the comments section, it seems as if readers had Seminoles running back Karlos Williams in mind when voting “other” for the most part. A third-string running back last season, the former five-star recruit will start as a senior in 2014. Many FSU fans are expecting Williams to easily surpass 1,000 yards.

ACC defensive player of the year

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThere are big expectations for Florida State's Mario Edwards, the No. 1 recruit in the 2012 class.
Results: DE Mario Edwards, Florida State (35), DE Vic Beasley, Clemson (34), Other (15), LB Denzel Perryman, Miami (13), S Anthony Harris, Virginia (3).
Analysis: Edwards narrowly edged Beasley, who could have been a first-round pick in last month’s NFL draft. Edwards, a junior and former No. 1 high school recruit, could be the first defensive lineman taken in next year’s draft. However, Edwards’ statistics could keep him from winning defensive player of the year. While he certainly could be the most dominant league defensive player, he likely won’t have the same sack numbers as Beasley, who had 13 a season ago, or 2013 winner Aaron Donald, who registered 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss as an interior lineman.
Write-in votes: Once again, the FSU voices were heard in the comment section, offering their thoughts on why sophomore defensive back Jalen Ramsey is the favorite on the Seminoles’ defense. Ramsey is going to fill the void in the backfield left by the departed Lamarcus Joyner, a Thorpe Award finalist in 2013.

ACC offensive rookie of the year

Results: Other (31), QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson (26), QB Kevin Olsen, Miami (24), RB Elijah Hood, North Carolina (16), QB Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina (3).
Analysis: This is definitely a difficult one to predict as there is an inherent unpredictability in the award, much more than any other postseason trophy. Other is probably the safe choice and I tend to agree with the readers. Olsen is a good pick if he is the Canes’ starter for the entire season. Watson, who was injured during spring camp, was the top quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class nationally. North Carolina could not afford to miss on Hood, who enrolled early and figures to be featured extensively in the UNC offense.
Write-in votes: With so many departures on the Clemson offense, one reader suggests redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman will win the award. He was a four-star recruit in the 2013 class.

ACC defensive rookie of the year

Results: CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson (36), DT Keith Bryant (33), Other (20), DT Andrew Brown (6), S Quin Blanding, Virginia (5).
Analysis: Alexander is a smart pick for rookie of the year on defense considering the reputation he had coming to Clemson before the 2013 season. The No. 4 player nationally in the 2013 recruiting class, Alexander redshirted as a freshman. He should get extensive playing time this upcoming season, though, and he has arguably the best defensive line in the ACC in front of him, which could force rushed and errant throws in his direction that are prime for interceptions. With the loss of Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle for FSU, the Noles certainly will need someone at the position to step up. It remains to be seen if Bryant will be that person, and a strong summer would definitely help his cause as the Noles open up preseason camp in a little more than a month. Both Blanding and Brown are sleepers, especially if the Cavaliers can reach bowl eligibility.
Write-in votes: One commenter agrees with Fortuna that Florida State redshirt freshman linebacker Matthew Thomas could win this award. Thomas was spectacular in spring drills and could be a starter for the Noles this season.

ACC coach of the year

Results: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (40), Dabo Swinney, Clemson (26), Other (22), Larry Fedora, North Carolina (7), Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh (5).
Analysis: The safe bet in the conference is to go with Fisher or Swinney. The two have Clemson and Florida State in a league of their own within the ACC. Both are coming off BCS bowl wins but have holes to fill on their 2014 teams. Swinney needs to overcome the losses of his starting quarterback, running back and star receiver. Fisher loses defensive leaders Jernigan, Joyner and Telvin Smith. I thought Fedora would receive more votes, considering the Heels are one of the favorites to win the division.
AthlonSports was the latest publication to release a preseason All-ACC team, joining Phil Steele from a week ago. We already broke down Steele's teams, but now that we have multiple forecasts to look at, it's worth checking out some trends and differences.

The one similarity that jumps out immediately is that North Carolina's Marquise Williams is Athlon's second-team quarterback, just like he was Steele's. As we said last week, this could very well turn out to be the case, but the fact that Williams remains engaged in a highly competitive quarterback race with Mitch Trubisky speaks to just how much uncertainty there is at the position throughout the ACC.

Duke's Anthony Boone is the third-team quarterback on both teams, while Athlon has Clemson's Cole Stoudt as its fourth-team quarterback. (Steele had Louisville's Will Gardner.)

Athlon does list Pitt's Tyler Boyd as a first-team receiver, along with Florida State's Rashad Greene. Boyd was a second-teamer on Steele's list, which featured Greene, Duke's Jamison Crowder and Louisville's DeVante Parker as first-teamers.

Athlon, however, listed just two receivers per team, and 26 total players per team (11 offense/11 defense/four special teams). Steele listed 28 total players per team (12/12/4).

Boston College's Andy Gallik gets the nod as Athlon's first-team center over Louisville's Jake Smith, who was a first-teamer on Steele's list. FSU's Bobby Hart gets the nod as one of Athlon's first-team tackles over Syracuse's Sean Hickey, who made Steele's first team.

Defensively, the biggest (and only real) difference comes at one of the safety spots, where Athlon has FSU's Jalen Ramsey as a first-teamer and Steele has him as a third-teamer. Duke safety Jeremy Cash made Steele's first team, as did teammate Kelby Brown at linebacker, where Steele had four players per team. (Athlon had three per team. Both Cash and Brown were second-teamers.)

Punter is the only difference on the first-team special teams squad, with Athlon picking Virginia Tech's A.J. Hughes and Steele taking UNC's Tommy Hibbard. Hibbard was on Athlon's second team, while Hughes was on Steele's third team.

Also of note: No Andrew Brown on Athlon's list. The five-star Virginia freshman was on Steele's fourth team at defensive tackle.
It is never too early to make predictions, and with the season less than three months away, we are seeking your input on who you think will win some of the ACC's top honors at season's end.

We continue today with defensive rookie of the year.

CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson. The No. 2 cornerback and No. 4 player overall in the Class of 2013, Alexander was forced to redshirt last season after suffering a groin injury in fall camp. The five-star prospect might have been good enough to start from Day 1, but he should get that chance this fall on a defense that might be as good as any in the league. A veteran line up front should only create more opportunities for Alexander to make a name for himself early.

SportsNation

Who will be the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year?

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    36%
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    6%
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    5%
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    33%
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    20%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,164)

DT Andrew Brown, Virginia. The five-star Chesapeake native was the jewel of Mike London's strong 2014 recruiting class, Brown enrolled this spring and, despite missing most of spring practice because of turf toe, has already picked up preseason All-ACC fourth-team honors from Phil Steele. That goes to show just how high expectations are for the the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Brown, who was named Gatorade's national player of the year, becoming only the third non-quarterback/non-running back to win the 29-year-old award.

S Quin Blanding, Virginia. Blanding was another highly-touted recruit London was able to land in this past cycle, as the Virginia Beach native was a five-star prospect and ESPN's No. 10 overall player from the Class of 2014. Blanding did just about everything in high school, including punting at times. Unlike Brown, Blanding did not enroll early, but he'll have a chance to prove his value early in fall camp.

DT Keith Bryant, Florida State. Another redshirt freshman, Bryant came to Tallahassee as a four-star prospect out of Atlantic Community High in Delray Beach, Florida. ESPN's No. 14 defensive tackle was a member of the scout team last season, but the 6-foot-2, 308-pounder could contend for meaningful playing time this season on a roster that remains loaded with talent.

Others: Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas technically could contend for this award, given the medical redshirt he received after undergoing shoulder surgery after four games last season. Four-star defensive end Chad Thomas is Miami's highest-rated defensive recruit, and four-star end Kentavius Street could provide an immediate boost to NC State after the Wolfpack's 3-9 campaign last season.
If you're a big college football fan (and if you're reading this, it is safe to assume that you are), then you probably get excited every summer for the release of Phil Steele's preseason magazine. Luckily for all of us, Steele released his preseason All-ACC teams on Wednesday, giving us an early look at who he thinks will stand out in the league in 2014.

There are, of course, the usual suspects on the first team -- Jameis Winston, Duke Johnson, Vic Beasley, et al. But the interesting wrinkles usually come further down the list. In this case, the second team presents plenty of surprises and room for debate, along with a looming uncertainty about the conference as it enters 2014.

North Carolina's Marquise Williams is the second-team quarterback, with Steele presumably seeing Williams building off his strong performance down the stretch last season with the Tar Heels. Williams might very well be that good, and he’ll likely need to be if UNC wants to make a Duke-like leap this year and win the Coastal Division. But Williams also exited the spring in a battle with Mitch Trubisky for his starting job, and there is no clear ending to that race in the immediate future.

Speaking of Duke, Anthony Boone is the third-team quarterback. Louisville's Will Gardner is the fourth-team QB, which might also sound like a stretch, but again underscores just how little experience returns at the quarterback position throughout the league this year.

The placing of Pitt's Tyler Boyd on the second-team might be eye-opening at first, but it is hard to argue against the first-team receivers: Florida State's Rashad Greene, Duke's Jamison Crowder and Louisville's DeVante Parker. That is a position with no shortage of star power in the league.

Elsewhere, Seminoles safety Jalen Ramsey is on the third team following an impressive freshman season with the national champions. His quick adjustment to the college game after arriving to Tallahassee as ESPN's No. 14 overall player in the nation suggests that he could find himself on the first team when all is said and done this season.

Also of note is Virginia prized five-star freshman defensive tackle Andrew Brown debuting on the fourth team.

Virginia spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Virginia Cavaliers:

1. The Cavaliers will lose their top receiver. It was announced last week tight end Jake McGee would be leaving Virginia with plans to transfer to another school. It is a tough blow for Virginia, which leaned on McGee for 43 catches and 395 yards, both team highs.

2. Quarterback Greyson Lambert will likely be the starter this fall. Although nothing official has been announced, Lambert looked strong during the Cavs’ spring game and has the respect of his teammates. The redshirt sophomore will be a captain this fall.

3. The Virginia passing offense could be in trouble again this fall. Without McGee and with Lambert adapting to a starting role, the unit could struggle, especially early on.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Is Taquan Mizzell going to have the breakout season the Cavs need? The sophomore played sparingly last season, but he was one of the top prep running backs in the 2013 class. The expectation is for Mizzell to be one of the conference’s top performers at the position.

2. What is the role for their five-star recruits? One of the biggest questions is not whether five-star signees Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown will see the field, but how often. Brown, a defensive tackle, is already enrolled. Blanding will enter the defensive backfield this summer.

3. Will Mike London last the season? He enters his fifth season at the school on the heels of a winless conference campaign. It would be tough for London to survive another 2-10 season.

One way-too-early prediction:

The Cavs open the season against UCLA at home. London’s players know they are playing for their coach’s job, and a Week 1 win against a likely Top 25 preseason team would reduce the early season heat on London’s seat. Virginia will battle UCLA and offer some promise for the remaining 11 games of the 2014 season.
In spite of Andrew Brown’s injury-shortened spring, there is still plenty of optimism for Virginia’s top recruit heading into summer camp.

Brown, the No. 1-ranked defensive tackle in the Class of 2014, No. 5 overall recruit and the top player in the state of Virginia, suffered turf toe in March and missed most of spring practices. He is expected to return in time for summer camp, but was getting some first-team reps at the time of his injury. Expectations within the program are still high that Brown can be a contributor in his first season and supplement the talent returning up front.

“He’s a very intelligent young man,” said defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. “Obviously the No. 1 thing is he likes football, so that’s a plus. He was fun at practice because every day you could see the young man work knowing, ‘I’m playing college football now against bigger, stronger, faster guys than I played in [high school]. It’s a shame what happened to him, but health-wise, once he comes back and gets himself 100 percent ready to go, he’s going to make a lot of strides here come camp and going into the season. I just like his whole demeanor.”

At 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Brown is a physically gifted athlete who enrolled early already looming larger than many of his older teammates. He still attended all of the position meetings this spring and was constantly learning off the field even though he wasn’t always on it. Virginia has significant shoes to fill on the defensive line, as defensive end Jake Snyder and defensive tackle Brent Urban both have to be replaced, but there is enough experience on the roster that Brown doesn’t have to come in and be a superstar.

He just has to stay healthy.

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
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Lots of injuries, not a lot of quarterbacks ...

ACC's lunch links

March, 10, 2014
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The madness is almost ready to begin.

Breaking down the spring in the ACC Coastal division:

Duke

Spring practice over

What we learned:
  • Momentum rolls on. It's hard to believe the Blue Devils are already done with spring ball, but coach David Cutcliffe opted to open practice in February to capitalize on the momentum that was created last season. After the spring game ended Saturday, he praised the way his players handled the practices. There was a great deal of retention and not a lot of re-teaching, so coaches were able to get much more out of their players this spring.
  • Max McCaffrey emerges. Jamison Crowder had a spectacular 2013 season, but it was essentially him and then everybody else in the receiver group. That may not be the case this season. McCaffrey earned praise from coaches and teammates for the way he improved during the spring. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said McCaffrey made as many plays as anybody else on the offense this spring.
  • Stepping up on the line. The Blue Devils lost three starters on their defensive line -- both ends in Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx, and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento. But it appears as if the players behind them are ready to step up and make a seamless transition. Defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson each had two sacks in the spring game. Kyler Brown also made the switch from linebacker to defensive end and had a sack in the spring game as well.
Georgia Tech

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 18

What to watch:
  • Justin Thomas takes over. After Vad Lee announced his transfer from Georgia Tech, the quarterback reigns fell to Thomas, who played in 10 games this season. The Jackets had their share of highs and lows under Lee, but what the staff is going to be looking for first and foremost is Thomas’ ability to hold on to the football. Georgia Tech had 24 giveaways and ranked No. 12 in the ACC in turnover margin.
  • Defensive line questions. The Jackets lose three starters on the defensive line, including All-ACC defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu -- who had 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Who will step up and fill that type of production? The most experienced backups returning are sophomores Tyler Stargel and Patrick Gamble. Also, Travin Henry will get a look at defensive end after playing wide receiver last season.
  • Offensive line questions. Georgia Tech also loses three starters on the offensive line -- tackles Ray Beno and Will Jackson and center Jay Finch. The trio combined to start 117 games in their careers, so there is no doubt this is going to be a much less experienced unit in 2014. The good news is All-ACC guard Shaq Mason returns to help anchor the new-look line.
Miami

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Quarterback derby. Stephen Morris is gone, but the Canes do have at least one experienced quarterback on the roster in Ryan Williams, a Memphis transfer who has served as Morris’ backup the last two seasons. As a true freshman with the Tigers, Williams started 10 games -- all the way back in 2010. Challenging Williams is redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who had a bit of a rocky first year in Miami, along with Gray Crow.
  • Defensive improvements. Perhaps more than what happens at quarterback, Miami must see improvements out of its defense this season. Embattled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio kept his job but the status quo cannot persist. Every single area of the defense must be upgraded. Ranking No. 13 in the ACC in total defense just can’t happen again.
  • Defensive improvements, Part II. To try and help the secondary, Miami already moved Dallas Crawford over to safety, where the Canes could use the help. But Miami must be stronger on the defensive front. The Canes only had 12 sacks in eight conference games. By comparison, BC led the way with 25 sacks in conference games. This is a big opportunity for guys like Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyriq McCord and Ufomba Kamalu to really step up.
North Carolina

Spring start: Started March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Marquise Williams took over as the starter when Bryn Renner was gone for the season and ended up helping the Tar Heels make a bowl game after a 1-5 start. But coach Larry Fedora said the competition is open this spring. Look for Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker to give Williams a major push.
  • Defensive line questions. Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson are both gone, leaving big holes in the North Carolina front. Martin ended up notching 21.5 tackles for loss to rank No. 3 in the ACC. So who are the next guys up? At end, Junior Gnonkonde and Jessie Rogers are the top two contenders, while Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown and Justin Thomason will compete for one of the tackle spots.
  • Replacing Ebron. Eric Ebron was dynamic at tight end for the Tar Heels last season, leading the team with 62 receptions for 973 yards, while adding three touchdowns. Will the Tar Heels be able to replace that type of production with just one player? Jack Tabb would be next in line among the tight ends, but this is a huge opportunity for the North Carolina receiving group as well. We saw plenty of promise out of young guys like Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer.
Pitt

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: No spring game. Last day of practice April 13

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Chad Voytik played really well in relief of an injured Tom Savage in the bowl game, but coach Paul Chryst said the competition to win the starting job is open headed into the spring. At this point, Voytik and Trey Anderson are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. So you can bet the biggest goal of all is to keep them both healthy.
  • Replacing Aaron Donald. One of the biggest surprises in all of college football this past season was the emergence and utter dominance of Donald at defensive tackle. Donald swept every major defensive award after notching 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Darryl Render is the next man up.
  • Complementary receiver. Devin Street is gone, leaving Tyler Boyd as the only standout receiver on the roster. Not only do the Panthers have to develop a consistent No. 2 receiver, they also have to develop some depth. Watch for Manasseh Garner, a former H-back who moved to receiver late last season when Street got hurt. He is more physical than Boyd, and has some extended playing experience.
Virginia

Spring start: Started March 1

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. David Watford is not guaranteed to win his starting job back after last season, when he threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns are also in the mix and reps with the first team will be split. In fact, Lambert got the first-team reps when the Hoos opened spring ball last weekend.
  • Andrew Brown. The highly-touted freshman will have every opportunity to win a starting job at defensive tackle, and it all starts in spring ball. The No. 3-ranked player in the ESPN 300 comes in with tons of hype; now can he translate that into on-field success? He, Donte Wilkins and Chris Brathwaite will be competing to start next to David Dean.
  • Mr. McGee. Jake McGee was the best player the Hoos had among the group of tight ends and receivers a year ago, leading the team with 43 catches for 395 yards. This spring, McGee has now moved over to receiver so the Hoos can take advantage of his athletic ability. Plus, Virginia is lacking playmakers at the position, so we’ll see how much this move benefits both McGee and the offense.
Virginia Tech

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Quarterback. Mark Leal heads into the spring with a leg up in the quarterback competition but make no mistake, there is no set starter. He will get competition from freshmen Andrew Ford and Brenden Motley in the spring, with freshman Chris Durkin and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer arriving in summer. This competition will likely drag on into the fall.
  • Front seven. The Hokies are losing five terrific players up front, including ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, and linebacker Jack Tyler, who racked up 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. There is no doubt a major priority this spring is finding their replacements and building depth along the line and at linebacker. Who will step up as the leader of this group with Tyler gone?
  • Skill players. This has been an ongoing theme over the last two seasons and will continue to be a theme until the Hokies have consistently good players at running back and receiver. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is excited about the return of tight end Ryan Malleck, and his entire tight end group for that matter. A healthy Malleck and improvement from Kalvin Cline means the Hokies could simultaneously improve their run and pass game.

ACC's lunchtime links

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
12:00
PM ET
Come chat with AA today at 4 p.m. ET!

ACC recruiting storylines: Dec. 19 

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
2:00
PM ET

The holiday season is fast approaching, and with it, so too is national signing day.

ACC programs are scrambling to firm up their commitment lists and add to them as well. Here are a few top storylines for the conference:

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