ACC: Brandon Connette

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.
David Cutcliffe earned plenty of praise for the job he did revitalizing Duke in 2012, but even the most optimistic Blue Devils fans had to be surprised by the leap their team took in 2013 — winning 10 games and playing for a conference title. So, how did they do it?

Obviously Cutcliffe’s efforts installing an offseason program, improving recruiting and installing his system have worked wonders in Durham, but dig into the numbers and there were a few key areas that proved crucial to Duke’s run in 2013 and could make the difference once again as the Blue Devils try to defend their Coastal Division title this fall.

Strong offensive line play

[+] Enlarge Laken Tomlinson
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIDespite some personnel losses, Duke's offensive line, led by the experience of Laken Tomlinson, can be successful again in 2014.
Last season: It’s no secret that strong play in the trenches can cover a lot of other blemishes, and Duke’s offensive line was exceptional in 2013. The Blue Devils mustered 29 dropbacks per sack, the 10th-best mark in the country and by far the best in the ACC (Miami was next at 23.5). Duke also averaged 4.6 yards per carry (up nearly a yard from 2012) and had 28 rushing TDs (10 more than the previous season).

2014 outlook: Last season’s success shouldn’t have been a shocker. Duke returned the third-most experienced line in the country for 2013 (113 career starts), which translated to a unit that gelled quickly. Now, Duke must replace its two most veteran starters in Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, but the Blue Devils still have plenty of experience on the line. Still, Duke’s line isn’t exactly green. Laken Tomlinson (39 career starts), Matt Skura and Takoby Cofield are all seniors, while Lucas Patrick and Sam Marshall are juniors with ample game experience. With another year in Cutcliffe’s strength and conditioning program, the 2014 line could be every bit as good as 2013's.

A workhorse on offense

Last season: No receiver in the country was more relied upon more than Duke’s Jamison Crowder. Blue Devils QBs threw the ball 472 times in 2013, with Crowder the target on a whopping 174 of them (37 percent). Crowder hauled in 62 percent of the balls thrown his way and was exceptional on both short passes and as a deep threat. Most importantly, however, he was consistently good. The only game in which Crowder finished with fewer than five catches was the win over Virginia Tech.

2014 outlook: The case can be made that Crowder won’t be a secret in his senior campaign, but ACC defenses had to have known what was in store last fall, too. In the past two seasons, with three different starting QBs throwing to him, Crowder has racked up 184 catches, 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be among the best in the country -- and an ideal security blanket on offense -- once again in 2014.

Dynamic QB play

Last season: Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette combined for nearly 4,000 yards of offense (551 rushing, 3,472 passing) with 45 total touchdowns. As a point of comparison, Heisman winner Jameis Winston had 4,276 yards of offense and 44 total touchdowns. And thanks to the threat Connette posed with his legs, Duke was among the most successful teams in the country in the red zone, scoring TDs on 40 of 58 trips and 27 percent of its red-zone rushing attempts.

2014 outlook: Boone has another year of experience under his belt and is the ACC’s second-most veteran QB, but Connette’s transfer to Fresno State is a big blow. Only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch had more rushing TDs among quarterbacks last year than Connette, and they did so with nearly three times as many attempts. No player in the country with at least 30 red-zone rushing attempts scored at a higher rate than Connette in 2013 (42 percent), and while the Blue Devils are high on Thomas Sirk as Boone’s new backup, those are some enormous shoes to fill.

A playmaking defense

Last season: The easy knock on Duke last season was its defense. After all, twice Duke topped 48 points and still lost (Pitt, Texas A&M). Overall, the Blue Devils’ D ranked 82nd nationally, and it allowed nearly 8 yards per play in four losses. But the great equalizer were the big plays. Duke’s D recorded 26 takeaways (tied for 26th nationally) and 18 interceptions (tied for 13th nationally). The capacity for big plays helped offset too many bad ones defensively.

2014 outlook: The Blue Devils could be in for some rough patches on D again this fall. The secondary features four sophomores likely to see extensive playing time, while the defensive front gets a significant makeover from last season. Still, 14 of the 18 INTs from last season return, and DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields have the talent to blossom quickly.

Scoring on D, special teams

Last season: Thanks to Edwards and Crowder, Duke scored six non-offensive touchdowns last season, tied for the eighth-most nationally. The 16 teams that had at least six non-offensive touchdowns were a combined 130-66 (.653) in 2013, with eight of them winning at least 10 games (including both teams that played for the national title).

2014 outlook: Big plays on D and special teams can be maddeningly inconsistent. When they happen, they can be game-changers, but they’re notoriously tough to predict. Still, Duke returns athleticism in the return game and in the secondary, which should open up options, and if the Blue Devils’ offense can force opponents into shootouts, the D will have its chances to take a few more INTs to the house.
Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk has a bit of an unconventional background, having never been a full-time signal caller until his senior year of high school. But with Brandon Connette transferring to Fresno State to be closer to his sick mother, Sirk -- just more than a year removed from a right Achilles tear -- now finds himself with the chance to seize a much bigger role for the reigning Coastal Division champions, as the redshirt sophomore has the inside track to earn some meaningful playing time behind Anthony Boone in 2014.

ESPN.com caught up with Sirk last week to discuss how he's preparing for his new role.

What was your reaction when you found out Brandon Connette was leaving?

Thomas Sirk: Me and Brandon were very close. When I came on my official visit here to Duke, Brandon Connette was my host. We have a big brother program here; he was my big brother. Me and Brandon, we always hung out and stuff, so it was kind of sad to hear he was going to go. It felt like I was losing a brother, a teammate and a great player. Me and him had a talk, and we kind of talked about what needs to happen now, and it kind of gave me a lot of confidence going into my role this summer, knowing that I'm stepping back into the spot I was in last spring before I tore my Achilles, and that I have to mature as a player and get ready to play. I have to be game-ready. I have to be ready to step in. I was excited for Brandon, he had the opportunity to play there, and also the opportunity that he gave me. He's competing for the starting job there and it allowed me the opportunity to compete for the starting job here. Overall, I think going into the summer it changed the way that I was going to perform this summer. It kind of changed my attitude about things, I'd say. Just the way I went into the summer. I wasn't down on myself by any means, and I know I still have a lot of work to do and I know I still have a lot to accomplish this summer. But I heard about Brandon, and it was immediately, like next day I had to get into the film room, start studying more and more. I knew I was going to have to watch more and more film.

What's the competition like with Parker Boehme?

TS: Parker and I, we work together, we watch film together. Any way that we can help each other, we're going to do so. We have a great relationship off the field but we know when we get on the field it's a competition. Same way with Boone, we're out there competing. Obviously we both came here to play. … That's kind of been the relationship with Parker and I. We'll help each other out in any way. It's not, 'I'm not going to tell you something because I think that's going to give me an advantage.' We tell each other what we do wrong, we tell each other what we do good. That's kind of the way our program's built around each other. We don't ever knock someone down in any way, shape or form. That's kind of the competition, and I know that competition makes players better, and I enjoy the competition with myself, with Boone and with Parker. I know they enjoy the competition, it makes the players more well-rounded and the urgency starts kicking in the film room more and we grow that relationship with other players.

What's it like to work with Scottie Montgomery? What's he like now in his current role?

TS: I like going into the meeting rooms with Coach Montgomery and on the field, because Coach Montgomery brings excitement wherever he's at. He brings urgency wherever he's at. He knows what we have to get done. We wouldn't want it any less than that because he knows we all could be great players if he pushes us to the point where we need to be each and every day. That's the mentality that I like. …. The quarterback drills that we have, his relationship with us, he's grown more with us, grown that bond with us like we had with Coach [Kurt] Roper, and I think that's definitely something that I've enjoyed when he's been in our quarterback room.

The spring seems so long ago, but what did you take from it?

TS: There's a lot of things in the spring that I could say I could go back and work on, and I'd tell you in the spring that I wasn't 100 percent but it was just a good opportunity for me to go back into football. And since then I've gotten a lot healthier, I put up tremendously on all of my leg work, my speed has progressed a lot also. But I'd say I need to work on my accuracy and I need to work on my preparation of everything that's going on before the snap. Just knowing the down and distance, knowing the play clock, knowing the time on the clock in general, along with knowing the plays. And since then when I watch film now, I put myself in situations that I think are going to happen in the game. For instance, if it's third-and-6, I go through one of our route combinations to see -- I'll go back and watch Sean Renfree and Boone and all the way back to Thad Lewis, just watching their decision-making. That's become a big thing for me since the spring, is knowing the down and distance and knowing the situation. I think that I'll be more game-ready when the time comes for me just because I've trained myself for then and even just going out on the field and having that play clock out there, I think that all that stuff maters. To be a well-rounded quarterback you have to not only perform well but you have to know the game, and I think that I know the plays very well. I'm very [knowledgeable] in our playbook and I think since the spring I've gotten a lot better with knowing the game of football and knowing different coverages. For instance, in the spring I would know where the coverage went if the safeties rotated, but I may have been a little unsure or indecisive on where I wanted to go with the ball, and that's the kind of situation I'm putting myself in now. If they do bring the Sam 'backer or Mike 'backer off the edge, then I know how to react. Where am I going to go with the ball? So just being able to react to the game and play faster is the biggest takeaway I got from the spring.

Coming back from the Achilles tear, how do you think you've grown as a football player long-term?

TS: It's one of those situations you never wished happen, but after that happened I couldn't control it. So I got the most out of the situation. I think I matured as a player, I matured as a person, just in my habits and the things that I do. I know the game of football 100 percent more now than I did when I got injured, and I feel more confident in myself now that I'm fully healthy that I'm going to come back as a player that is even better than I was before my Achilles [tear]. Football-knowledge, coverage-knowledge, knowing our playbook -- I think the opportunity that I've had to go through a whole football season watching the speed of the game from the sidelines is different from watching my true freshman year because I wasn't comfortable with the playbook then. But after watching this season standing on the sideline I kind of put myself in a lot of situations that Anthony and Brandon were putting themselves in out on the field. I got to watch a lot of football and I think that's progressed me as a player. I think that now as another year's gone by and the time's come just for me to play, I think that I'll be more ready in those situations than ever.


Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn't want to do it.

When he met with former quarterback Chad Kelly on the Monday following Clemson's spring game, Swinney said his original plan was to suspend Kelly -- not dismiss him from the team entirely -- but the meeting "just didn’t go well."

"There’s just certain things you can’t tolerate, and that’s just the bottom line," Swinney said. "It wasn’t a good meeting. It was a simple decision that was made. He moved on and we moved on."

So did more than half the ACC this spring, to a new era of quarterbacks.

Cole Stoudt’s tenure began swiftly at Clemson, ending what was one of the most intriguing quarterback competitions in the ACC and capping a spring that was filled with quarterback news throughout the conference.

[+] EnlargeKevin Olsen
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKevin Olsen became Miami's first-string quarterback when Ryan Williams tore his ACL.
At Miami, quarterback Ryan Williams tore his ACL, leaving Kevin Olsen the undisputed starter heading into summer camp.

At Duke, Brandon Connette announced his decision to transfer to the West Coast, leaving Anthony Boone in an unfamiliar role of being the lone leader.

Boston College named Florida transfer Tyler Murphy its starter, Syracuse reaffirmed Terrel Hunt as its starter, Justin Thomas is the main man at Georgia Tech, Will Gardner took the lead at Louisville and Chad Voytik became the obvious choice at Pitt.

What began as a position up for grabs in the ACC is largely no longer a mystery, as many schools determined their starting quarterback this spring, or at least had separation occur -- if not by performance, then by default. While most of the quarterbacks throughout the league are still unproven (six schools don’t have any starting experience returning to the position, and four schools brought in transfers to help), many enter summer camp at least sure of where they stand on the depth chart.

"I had my meeting with the coaches before all that happened, and I felt comfortable with where I was," said Stoudt, who will make his first career start in the season opener at Georgia. "They said I was going to be the guy and everything. I know there were some things that happened, but I'm happy with the situation, and I'm happy I'm the guy going into fall camp, so it's exciting."

Nine of the 14 schools in the ACC will introduce a first-year starting quarterback this fall. Of the 11 teams that entered spring with quarterback competitions, eight found answers -- or at least had an obvious front-runner emerge.

At Miami, Williams had distanced himself from Olsen through his decision-making and accuracy, but the torn ACL meant an instant promotion for Olsen. Still, coach Al Golden said his confidence in the position remains high.

"I think we're not going to change what we do," Golden said. "We need to do a really good job of establishing the running game, keeping it simple, doing what we do best. Getting into more third-and-manageables. We were in way too many third-and-longs last year to possess the ball and convert. Clearly the two young men we have here on campus right now can do it. The two coming in will also have an opportunity to compete."

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsVirginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is still looking for a starting quarterback to emerge.
The only three schools that didn’t come close to naming a starter this spring were Virginia Tech, Virginia and Wake Forest. It's not a stretch to say that the Hokies' hopes of returning to the ACC title game hinge on having a dependable quarterback emerge, and as one of the premier programs in the Coastal Division, it will continue to be one of the most-watched storylines of the summer. Those within the program have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and true freshman Chris Durkin. The staff has made it perfectly clear they won’t name a starter until those two are added to the competition this summer.

"The big question really is the quarterback," coach Frank Beamer said. "I think Mark Leal, Brenden Motley and Andrew Ford all have had their moments. Some of it's good; some of it's not as good as you like. I think Michael Brewer coming in, Chris Durkin coming in, will enter into the competition there. We'll see how that ends up. But that's certainly the critical question for our football team right now."

The critical question for the rest of the conference becomes how these new starters will perform when it counts. Now that most of them have earned their starting jobs, there's pressure to keep them.

"I've said that if we were to play tomorrow, [Will Gardner] would run out there as our starter," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "… There will certainly be competition for it in the fall. He’ll have a chance to go out each day and prove that he's either the better quarterback, or someone passes him by."

More often than not, the ACC's new quarterbacks were able to prove it this spring.

Duke spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
10:00
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Duke Blue Devils:

Offensive line answers. Duke is losing its two most veteran starters on the line in guard Dave Harding and tackle Perry Simmons, who combined to start 91 games. But the Blue Devils seem to be in good shape based on spring results. Lucas Patrick is penciled in to replace Harding and Tanner Stone is in to replace Simmons. Though Patrick hurt his ankle in the spring game, he does not need surgery and will be available for fall practice.

Depth across the board. Coach David Cutcliffe said repeatedly throughout the spring that his team has more depth now than it ever has under his watch. Even during the spring game, Cutcliffe said there was a not a huge drop-off between his first-team and second-team units. That is a sign of a coach who has worked long and hard at recruiting to lay the foundation for his program.

Cornerback answers. Duke lost both starting cornerbacks -- All-ACC selection Ross Cockrell and Garett Patterson. But the Blue Devils are in good shape with sophomores Breon Borders and Bryon Fields. They both played in all 14 games in 2013, taking the second- and third-most snaps among all Duke cornerbacks. Borders broke the school freshman record for interceptions (four).

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke's Anthony Boone threw for 2,260 yards in 2013.
Replacing Connette. Losing quarterback Brandon Connette is a blow to the offense, especially when you consider how valuable he was in short-yardage situations. Thomas Sirk enters fall camp as the backup to Anthony Boone, with quarterback Parker Boehme right behind. Though Sirk and Boehme lack game experience, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said Sirk might be one of the better athletes on the team.

Defensive line. No other position group takes a hit as big as this one. Three starters are gone. Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento combined to start 109 games. Dezmond Johnson has the most experience, while Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo has the biggest playmaking ability. Kyler Brown made a transition from linebacker to defensive end to help with the pass rush.

Depth at running back. Last season, Duke returned four running backs to the rotation. But that number is down to two -- Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell. Redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe had a good spring and is third in line. Incoming freshman Shaun Wilson could be relied upon as well if he proves himself during fall camp.

One way-too-early prediction

Duke will be the preseason favorite in the Coastal. The days when the Blue Devils were penciled in to finish last are gone. The defending division champions return 17 starters, including Boone and All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder. Their schedule is also very manageable, with crossover divisional games against Wake Forest and Syracuse.
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?

I think the issue is, if we collectively agree that we're going to schedule up, we don't have to come up with a hard rule we have to go to nine games or everybody has to schedule one game against an SEC school. It's just a matter of getting everybody to agree to that.

-- FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox


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.
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.
Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery described his final meeting with quarterback Brandon Connette as one of the most emotional meetings of his career.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDuke will be looking for experienced quarterback depth after Brandon Connette decided to transfer.
Understandably so. Playing thousands of miles away from his ailing mother had weighed heavily on Connette for months. Finally, he decided he could not take the burden any longer. Connette was granted a transfer to be closer to his mother in California.

It was the right decision to make on all fronts. Now, Duke has to try and defend its Coastal Division crown without a key part of its offensive game plan. The good news is veteran starter Anthony Boone returns. The bad news is there is no experienced depth behind him, and nobody ready to take all the snaps Connette would have received in 2014.

“It never is our approach to train a guy for a certain role,” Montgomery said in a phone interview. “What we're going to do is train the quarterback position, and it has nothing to do with splitting time or roles. We’re just trying to get the best possible quarterbacks we can have, one behind another or one adjoined or aligned with each other. Anthony is our starter, no question about that, and we're trying to develop young men behind him.”

What made Duke function so well as an offense last fall was the way Boone and Connette effectively split time. Connette proved he was more than just a Wildcat quarterback, too, when Boone was out with an ankle injury and missed a few games.

In 13 games, Connette was in on 246 plays -- 101 rushing and 145 passing. He finished second on the team in total offense (119.2 yards per game), right behind Boone (224.9). He led the team with 14 rushing touchdowns and was second in scoring. He leaves school as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 31.

All that production will have to come from somewhere else now, whether from the running backs or other quarterbacks. Thomas Sirk and Parker Boehme will now be put into “more of a heated situation” Montgomery says, in order to get them prepared for more competition.

“Thomas Sirk may be one of the better athletes we have on our team,” Montgomery said. “He has to be more consistent with who he is as a player. He's a young quarterback, and he had a good spring. He developed in a lot of ways, but when you’re at the No 3. spot, it's a lot different than when you're at the No. 2 spot.”

Boehme was injured for a good portion of the spring, so Montgomery wants to see more from him during fall practice. Duke also has true freshman Johnathan Lloyd, an early enrollee who went through spring practice, and welcomes four-star dual-threat freshman quarterback Nico Pierre this summer.

“We're prepared to move forward and get guys ready,” Montgomery said. “There may be a guy who comes out of the middle of nowhere at the quarterback position and plays lights-out and moves into that role, not necessarily fill the shoes of Brandon, but also create their niche in the offense.”
This is a bittersweet parting for Duke.

Quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for a school-record 27 touchdowns last year, has been granted his release to transfer to a school closer to his home in Corona, Calif. Connette wants to be -- and should be -- near his mother, Nancy, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke will miss Brandon Connette's ability to run as well as pass.
While it’s a huge loss for Duke -- significant enough to diminish the Blue Devils' chances of defending the ACC’s Coastal Division title -- it’s a monumental win for Connette, who has had to endure his mother’s struggle against cancer from a distance.

“Being away from my family during my mother’s illness has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to endure,” he said.

Connette, though, remained the consummate teammate, lining up at quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver and even safety during his redshirt junior season in 2013. He was clutch, accounting for five game-winning touchdowns (against Memphis, Troy, Virginia, NC State and Wake Forest). As a fourth-year junior, his experience alone was invaluable to the offense. He also led Duke in rushing touchdowns in three of the past four seasons.

This spring, he finally took every snap at quarterback and was relishing the opportunity to focus on one position alongside starter Anthony Boone. Now Boone is the undisputed starter, and redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk will be No. 2.

Boone should be even better in 2014 as he will be in his second season as the starter, and he’s 10-2 in that role. He completed 64 percent of his passes last season and put on a thrilling performance against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Not bad, but it’s like Batman without Robin.

Even without Connette, Duke can still win the Coastal Division -- the Blue Devils return 17 starters, including eight on offense -- but it’s impossible to ignore the offensive production that will have to be replaced. The fact that Connette wasn’t a full-time starter makes his numbers even more impressive.

Rival North Carolina, meanwhile, is quickly closing the gap, especially offensively. Duke will have home-field advantage against the Tar Heels this year, and it was Boone who led the game-winning touchdown drive against UNC in last year’s Coastal-clinching 27-25 win.

Connette’s departure is going to be tough to overcome, but it would be foolish to count the Blue Devils out because of it, especially considering the mediocrity that pervades throughout the rest of the division. Don’t forget, Duke was picked to finish last in the division in 2013. The Blue Devils are making a habit out of proving people wrong.

First, though, they have to prove they can overcome the transfer of one of their veteran playmakers.

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The theme throughout this spring across the ACC has been turnover and uncertainty at quarterback.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesWith Anthony Boone (and Brandon Connette), Duke has plenty of experience at the QB position in 2014.
But what about those schools that return a good amount of starting experience? Duke returns more career starts than any team in the ACC, just ahead of Florida State. Quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have combined to start 16 games for the Blue Devils, while Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has 14 starts for the Noles.

That should give both teams and edge when it comes to defending their respective division crowns. How much of an edge? Depends on the viewpoint. Relying on returning quarterback data alone to predict how a team will do often fails to look at the big picture.

Go back to last season. Duke and Florida State went into 2013 having to replace veterans at quarterback — EJ Manuel had 31 career starts for the Noles, while Sean Renfree had 35 career starts for the Blue Devils. Questions about experience at quarterback followed both teams into the season. Indeed, Clemson was picked to finish ahead of Florida State thanks in large part to returning starter Tajh Boyd, going into his third season behind center.

Those questions, however, were quickly answered as both Duke and Florida State went on to play for the ACC championship. Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina -- all picked to finish ahead of Duke -- returned multi-year starters at quarterback but that was not enough to win the division. Boyd did not help Clemson win an ACC title, but the Tigers did make a BCS game and won 11 contests. Tanner Price, one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the ACC last season, could not help Wake Forest get back to a bowl game.

Still, returning a starting quarterback is almost always preferable. Not every redshirt freshman is going to win the Heisman the way Winston did in Year 1 as a starter. Boone, who had his share of ups and downs early last season as he transitioned to a starting role, has now been on both sides.

“You’re obviously going to have some growing pains with quarterbacks who haven’t played many snaps, young quarterbacks going into their first year as a starter,” Boone said recently. “I just feel like that’s something we’re capable of avoiding, that’s something that should be to our advantage, having the knowledge of different teams in our league, just knowing tendencies of what team plays what kind of defense, just having that knowledge going into next year. I feel like it’s good to if you have one, but we have two who have been there. It’s a good feeling. It lets our offensive coordinator be at ease because we have the ability to fix a lot of play calls that have been called, if something happens. I feel that knowledge is a huge winning edge for us, compared to guys who may not know the system as well.”

Returning career starts at quarterback:

Duke: 16
Florida State: 14
Virginia: 12
Syracuse 10
Miami: 10*
Boston College: 6*
North Carolina: 5
NC State: 3*
Clemson: 0
Georgia Tech: 0
Louisville: 0
Pittsburgh: 0
Virginia Tech: 0
Wake Forest: 0

*-QBs at these schools made their starts while playing for other programs.


Change in W-L record for teams that returned starting quarterbacks in 2013.

Boston College: +5
Miami: +2
Louisville: +1
Virginia Tech: +1
North Carolina: -1
Clemson: No change
Wake Forest: -1


Change in W-L record for teams that started first-time quarterbacks in 2013.

Duke: +4
Florida State: +2
Pitt: +1
Georgia Tech: No change
Syracuse: -1
Virginia: -2
NC State: -4

(*Target totals courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)

Much has been made about the enormous turnover at quarterback in the ACC, where nine of the league’s 14 teams will feature a different starter in Week 1 of 2014 than at the conclusion of 2013.

The new arms throwing the football will be a major storyline for the spring, but the players on the other end of those passes will be much different this year, too. Eight of the top 12 receivers in the ACC last season are moving on, including likely first-round NFL draft picks Sammy Watkins, Eric Ebron and Kelvin Benjamin.

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh's Tyler Boyd could be one of the ACC's top wideouts in 2014.
Combine the high turnover at quarterback with the loss of so many top receivers, and it’s fair to say the passing games in the ACC will look much different in 2014. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some impressive returning talent. Nine receivers who were targeted at least 70 times last season return.

The obvious standout is Jamison Crowder, who was targeted a whopping 174 times in 2013. Nationally, only Fresno State’s Davante Adams (180 targets) was thrown to more often, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It’s also worth noting that Fresno State had 203 more passing attempts than Duke did. Crowder was on the receiving end of 37 percent of Duke’s passing attempts last season, compared with just 27 percent for Adams. Among ACC receivers, only Boston College’s Alex Amidon accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s throws (41 percent). Given his contributions on special teams, too, there's a case to be made that, aside from Jameis Winston, no player in the ACC means more to his team than Crowder.

It’s worth noting, too, that Duke is one of the five ACC teams with the quarterback position already settled, with Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette both returning for 2014, giving the Blue Devils easily the most tested quarterback-receiver combo in the conference.

Beyond Duke’s established QB/WR combo, Florida State is in good hands with senior Rashad Greene returning for his senior season. In 2013, he was on the receiving end of 27 percent of Winston’s throws, and with Benjamin and Kenny Shaw both gone, Greene’s role figures to only get bigger in 2014.

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Who will be the ACC's best receiver in 2014?

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Believe it or not, the third-most tested combo in the conference is at Virginia, where QB David Watford returns along with receiver Darius Jennings, who was targeted 78 times last year. Of course, the Virginia passing game was far from effective for much of the season -- and Jennings only hauled in 49 percent of his targets with a paltry 4.3 yards/target average -- but the rapport Watford and Jennings were able to build throughout 2013 offers some hope for the Cavaliers’ offense.

In terms of pure explosiveness, North Carolina could have an interesting combination with Marquise Williams back at quarterback and emerging talent Quinshad Davis at receiver. Davis hauled in an impressive 67 percent of his targets and gained an average of 10.1 yards per target last season, including 10 touchdowns. Of course, he’ll need to prove he’s as effective without Ebron hogging so much of the attention from opposing defenses this year.

Similarly, the ACC will get its introduction to Louisville standout DeVante Parker in 2014. While Parker won't have the luxury of Teddy Bridgewater throwing to him, his numbers last season were immensely impressive. He averaged nearly 11 yards each time he was thrown to, and he hauled in two-thirds of his targets.

While Crowder and Greene represent the cream of the crop for receivers with returning quarterbacks, the player with perhaps the most upside of the group is Tyler Boyd. Pitt might be in search of a new starting quarterback to replace Tom Savage, but few first-year starters will have a weapon as reliable and explosive in the passing game as Pitt has in Boyd. As a true freshman in 2013, Boyd finished third in the conference in targets (behind only Crowder and Watkins), hauled in nearly 70 percent of his targets (tops among returning receivers with at least 70 targets) and his 10 catches of 25 yards or more is second only to Crowder among returning receivers in the conference.

But perhaps the most intriguing names on this list are the trio from Virginia Tech. The Hokies account for one-third of all the ACC’s returning receivers with at least 70 targets, meaning that while Frank Beamer works to find his new quarterback, he’ll have a veteran group of receivers to target. Of course, experience only matters if there’s talent to back it up and that’s the big question in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech ranked 63rd nationally in passing offense last season, 68th in yards per attempt and 89th in QB rating. While Demitri Knowles, Willie Byrn and Joshua Stanford were all among the ACC’s most targeted receivers, they also hauled in just 56 percent of the balls thrown their way and averaged just 7.9 yards per target. They’ll need to be far more reliable in 2014 with a new QB throwing to them.
Florida State is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as ACC champions in 2014. But that doesn't mean the rest of the league is going to step aside for the Seminoles.

So which team has the best chance to unseat them from their throne? Let's look at some of the top contenders:

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Who has the best chance to unseat Florida State as ACC champion in 2014?

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Clemson: Skeptical fans will ask how the Tigers will take down Florida State considering: 1. They have lost to the Noles the last two years; 2. They play in Tallahassee in 2014; 3. They do not have Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Roderick McDowell, just to name four. Well, the truth is Clemson is not going anywhere anytime soon. Florida State had a lot of questions last season about replacing 11 NFL draft picks -- including its starting quarterback. But thanks to recruiting, the Seminoles were even better. Now, this is not to say Clemson will be even better in 2014 than it was a year ago, but it is to say the Tigers are not going to go back to winning seven games. They have kept pace with Florida State on the recruiting trail, have outstanding candidates to step in at quarterback, should be better at running back and will have one of the strongest defensive lines in the ACC. Boyd and Watkins might be gone, but Clemson is here to stay.

Duke: The Blue Devils, you say? Well, yes, they are a big-time dark horse, especially because the gap between the two programs was exposed for the world to see in the ACC championship game last December. Still, Duke will be one of the favorites to repeat as Coastal champions for several reasons. First, the Blue Devils return eight starters on offense, including All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder, starting quarterback Anthony Boone and backup Brandon Connette. Second, they have some excellent players back on defense, including linebacker Kelby Brown and safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards. Third, their schedule should make them favorites as they avoid playing Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame. Given the progress that has been made, this team could easily win 10 games again.

Louisville: The Cards are a bit of a wild card for a host of reasons. Not only do they have to replace potential No. 1 draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, their front seven has to be rebuilt and they have a new coach and new schemes to get used to in a short period of time. The schedule is much more challenging in 2014, too, with games against Florida State, Clemson, Notre Dame and Miami. The program is a step behind Florida State and Clemson, but Bobby Petrino sure knows how to coach. He won 10 or more games in the SEC West. Twice. Their chances are remote, but they should still be one of the top-tier ACC teams this year.

Miami: While it is true the in-state rivals are lagging behind the Seminoles, the Hurricanes have made some major strides on the recruiting trail and have talent all over the roster. If Duke Johnson had not gotten hurt last season, perhaps Miami would have stayed in the game. The Canes have a receiving group that can challenge the Florida State secondary. A healthy Johnson is a game-changer. And they meet in Miami this year in mid-November. Still, there are questions at quarterback and on defense that make Miami a long shot to unseat the Seminoles.

Other: Is it North Carolina? Virginia Tech? Anybody else? Now it's time for you to weigh in with our handy dandy poll.
Brandon Connette missed all of spring practice last season with a shoulder injury. But even as he sat on the sideline, he knew his quarterback duties would be diminished as the Blue Devils sought to play him all over the field.

That, of course, is no longer the case.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesBrandon Connette completed 11-of-16 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns in Duke's spring game on Saturday.
Connette and Anthony Boone teamed to form a highly successful quarterback rotation this past season so the hope is to keep that momentum going headed into 2014. Every single rep Connette took this spring came at quarterback, and he showed more growth in the spring game this past Saturday. Connette completed 11-of-16 passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Blue team past the White team, 24-14. Both Connette and Boone teamed together for the Blue team.

Afterward, coach David Cutcliffe said, "Today you saw what spring practice has been -- continued momentum. There were a lot of positives on both sides of the ball, on both the Blue and White units.”

In a phone interview before the spring game, Connette said focusing on quarterback this spring has been a huge help. When he studies tape, he focuses on the quarterback. He has become much better with his pre-snap reads. And there is a comfort in knowing what he will be doing in practice and in games, as opposed to the unpredictability that comes with being more of a wildcat-type player.

"This spring has really helped me," Connette said. "I don't have to worry about what position I'm going in as. Even last year in fall camp, I'd be sitting on the sideline at practice and one rep I'd be in at quarterback, then I'd be in at tight end, receiver, just all over the place. It makes you think a lot more. Right now, I'm able to just focus on what I could be doing as a quarterback on every play."

Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery was not ready to reveal too many details about how Duke would build upon its rotation with Boone and Connette, saying in a recent phone interview, "Right now, Anthony is the starter like the way we ended the season. Brandon’s been phenomenal so it’s a really good problem to have. We’re very happy with where we are with both those guys."

Among other spring game highlights:

  • Shaquille Powell led the team with 75 yards on eight carries -- including a 36-yard touchdown run to seal the win for the Blue team.
  • Max McCaffrey ended up with four catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. Just about everybody at Duke has praised McCaffrey for the strides he has made this spring and has seemingly emerged as the No. 2 receiver to Jamison Crowder.
  • Defensively, the Blue Devils got good performances from ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson, who had two sacks each. That was an encouraging sign for the Blue Devils, who have to rebuild their defensive front after losing Kenny Anunike, Justin Foxx and Sydney Sarmiento. Johnson told The Herald-Sun after the spring game, "They left the place better than they found it, which is what Coach Cut preaches all the time. For me, it’s about not letting what they built fall. Keep it going and continue to grow it as much as I can."
Duke is closing in on its spring game Saturday, but players are not the only ones who have gone through practices or simulated situations in the last month.

[+] EnlargeScottie Montgomery
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIHaving veterans at the skill positions will help Scottie Montgomery in his first season calling plays.
New offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery has gotten some good reps, too, calling plays for the first time in his career during two scrimmages held earlier this month -- with a third opportunity on tap this weekend. Montgomery says the practice has been great not only because he can make the calls, but because he can see how his players respond in stress situations, giving him a much better feel for what needs to be done once the season kicks off in August.

The biggest play-calling lesson he has learned so far?

"It’s hard to call a perfect call," Montgomery said in a recent phone interview. "You want to call a win every single time, but unfortunately you can’t do it. You have some calls that you want back that you see and they go score, and you have some calls you feel really good about and it’s a 2-yard gain or a 2-yard loss. You can’t get into calling wins. You have to lean on the preparation of executing every play you have."

Preparation has led Montgomery to this moment. After his playing career ended, he began coaching receivers at Duke with long-term goals carefully planned out. He knew eventually he wanted to become a coordinator, and eventually after that, a head coach. He left the Blue Devils to coach receivers for the Pittsburgh Steelers because he wanted the NFL experience. He returned to Duke last season to serve as associate head coach and passing-game coordinator while also working with the receivers.

That valuable experience prepared him for the role he has today, especially because he was able to help former offensive coordinator Kurt Roper make game plans and watch him call plays.

"It just puts you in more of a game-planning mode and really, working hand in hand with Kurt, it was great for us because he leaned on me and I leaned on him in a lot of situations in the passing game, and even in the run game," Montgomery said. "My other role as associate head coach was probably as big, if not bigger, than the role of passing-game coordinator. It was basically the execution of practice, helping run the program, really putting myself in uncomfortable situations that I hadn’t been in, being the liaison between the head football coach and assistant coaches with both their needs and concerns. So I thought all that was great for me and developing as a young coach."

With Roper now the offensive coordinator at Florida, a strong group of veterans should also make Montgomery's transition a little easier. He already knows the staff well and eight starters are back, including quarterback Anthony Boone and receiver Jamison Crowder, not to mention backup quarterback Brandon Connette. Plus, coach David Cutcliffe has served as his mentor for years. That has made the transition "seamless" in both his view, and Boone's view, too.

Montgomery recruited Boone out of high school and the two have a solid relationship. That also helps since Montgomery is coaching the quarterbacks as well.

"From a pass offense standpoint, his former knowledge of playing wide receiver and playing at the next level, understanding splits and route concepts, sharing those tips with us of what receivers think about mid-route, has increased our accuracy, increased our timing, just increased our overall knowledge of where players are going to be on the field," Boone said. "It’s been a great, great changeup for us."

For Montgomery, too.

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