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Take 2: ACC position group set to make biggest improvement

6/22/2015

Last year’s ACC had a number of teams that excelled on one side of the ball but struggled on the other. Virginia Tech, Virginia and Syracuse could stop opponents, but finding the end zone on offense proved tough. Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Pitt scored with ease, but they couldn’t slow anyone else down. As we get set for 2015, each has made steps toward a turnaround, but which team’s weakness has the best shot to become a strength? ACC bloggers David Hale and Andrea Adelson debate.

Hale says the Hokies’ offense has finally found some answers: Yes, we’ve heard this refrain before -- Virginia Tech was just a player or two away from getting back to that magical 10-win mark, and for the past three seasons, the Hokies have fallen well short thanks to an offense that has looked awful far too often. When Frank Beamer is celebrating a 0-0 tie with Wake Forest at the end of regulation, things have gotten bad in Blacksburg.

But look at what the Hokies had to work with last season. They cycled through running backs all year, with two talented freshmen and last year’s rushing leader suffering significant injuries. Their three best receivers were all freshmen. Their starting quarterback arrived on campus just two months before the season began. Their O-line was a bruised and battered mess. No wonder they struggled to move the football.

Through adversity, however, the strengths of this team were found. J.C. Coleman emerged as a true lead back, topping 90 yards in his final four games. Cam Phillips, Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges got a year of experience under their belts and now give the Hokies arguably the ACC’s best group of passing targets. Michael Brewer took his lumps but earned his teammates’ respect. Wyatt Teller emerged as a leader on the O-line that is now much more comfortable playing together. It’s not just that Virginia Tech looks like it’s found a few answers, but rather the Hokies have reasons to be excited at virtually every offensive position.

Again, we’ve heard the refrain before, so let’s be cautiously optimistic about the O-line’s improvement or Brewer’s ability to take a big step in Year 2 in Blacksburg. Still, this is an offense that toppled Ohio State last year, now more experienced, more stable and more confident. Brewer doesn’t have to be a savior if Coleman continues to run the ball. The line doesn’t have to block forever if Phillips, Ford and Hodges get open quickly. There’s more talent across the board on offense for Virginia Tech this year than it’s had in a while, and for once, no one needs to be a one-man show. That’s the biggest reason for enthusiasm in Blacksburg, and we’re betting the Hokies finally turn the page and get back to contending for an ACC crown.

Adelson says watch out for the Ramblin' Wreck: Georgia Tech had one of the most opportunistic defenses in the country a season ago. Hooray for points off turnovers! But creating all those turnovers did not make the Jackets an elite group. In fact, they finished second-to-last in the ACC in total defense. That will not happen again in 2015. Because Georgia Tech is poised to make a marked jump on defense, perhaps the best jump among any unit across the league. For starters, this Jackets defense will be far more experienced when the season begins, allowing them to avoid the hold-your-nose performances that punctuated the first month of 2014. Nearly every starter returns, including Freshman All-American KeShun Freeman, preseason All-ACC candidate Adam Gotsis and secondary leaders D.J. White and Jamal Golden.

Experience is obviously important. But so is a good defensive front. This is where Georgia Tech really struggled to gain any consistency a year ago. The Jackets gave up an average of 6.32 yards per play, ranked among the bottom 20 teams in the country. They only had 61 tackles for loss and 20 sacks, numbers that also put them toward the bottom.

If it weren’t for forcing all those turnovers, Georgia Tech would have had a radically different season. Obviously the turnovers matter greatly, but defensive coordinator Ted Roof is looking for the defense to be vastly improved on the defensive line. I firmly believe they will be with the addition of Jabari Hunt-Days at defensive tackle, whom some teammates have described as "a monster," and more seasoned play from Gotsis, Freeman and others.

Folks in Atlanta believe, too. “We can be a dominant group,” Freeman told me during my spring visit. “Last year, we played with a lot of young guys and we were making a lot of young guy mistakes, but this year we have a lot of veterans and we have a lot of guys who played and our back. That's going to make us better for the next few years. That's what our D is doing this year. We're tuning things up instead of teaching things. Once we get tuned up, we're going to be ready to go.”

That's why Georgia Tech is one of the favorites to go back to the ACC championship game.