ACC: Kevin Parks
1. Jameis Winston will post better numbers -- but won’t win the Heisman.
Much has been made of the depletion of Winston’s receiving corps, but losing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t spell doom for the Florida State QB. In fact, Winston struggled at times last year when getting too greedy down the field, and a renewed emphasis on a shorter passing game could up his numbers. When throwing to RBs or TEs last year, Winston completed 79 percent of his throws and averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, with 11 of his 86 passes going for touchdowns. Add the likelihood he’ll play more fourth quarters this season, and his numbers could well go up in 2014 -- but, of course, winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies is no easy task, and neither Winston nor coach Jimbo Fisher has ever shown much interest in chasing individual awards.
It’s telling that what could’ve been one of the most discussed QB vacancies in the conference was actually among the least interesting this offseason. Coach Bobby Petrino waited until Sunday to make it official, but Gardner was the obvious choice since the spring. Then there’s this: In nine years as a head coach, Petrino’s starting QBs have averaged 63 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt, 21 TDs and 8 interceptions -- stats that would’ve rivaled any QB in the league last year, save Winston and Tajh Boyd.
3. Virginia Tech wins 10 again.
The Hokies won at least 10 games in each of their first eight seasons in the ACC, but that streak ended in 2012 and the team is just 10-10 against Power Five conference foes in the past two years. But coach Frank Beamer is giving his young talent a chance to shine, the Week 2 date with Ohio State suddenly looks a lot more winnable and the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely for the Hokies. The offense needs to get a lot better to be a legit College Football Playoff contender, but Virginia Tech will at least be in the conversation.
4. Virginia goes bowling.
The schedule makes this a tough sell. Ten of Virginia’s 12 opponents played in a bowl game last year, and there may not be a single easy win on the slate. But there’s talent in Charlottesville, including 19 four- or five-star recruits inked in the past four years. That’s more than Louisville (16) and just one fewer than Virginia Tech (20). That talent has to translate to wins eventually, right? It’ll take some upsets, but the Hoos will get to six wins.
5. Clemson is a running team.
With Boyd and Sammy Watkins stealing the bulk of the headlines the past three years, Clemson’s passing game got a lot of credit for the team’s success. But the Tigers actually ranked in the top three in the ACC in rushing attempts in each of those three seasons. Now with a new QB and significant turnover at receiver, the passing game is a question, but Dabo Swinney loves his tailbacks. Don’t be surprised if freshman Wayne Gallman tops 1,000 yards -- something a Clemson tailback has done each of the past three seasons.
6. Young runners make a big impact.
Gallman won’t be the only rookie runner to make noise in 2014. The ACC has some impressive veterans in Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams, Kevin Parks and Dominique Brown, but there are plenty of fresh faces eager to make an impact, too. Virginia Tech’s Marshawn Williams, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could join Gallman as freshman sensations, while sophomores like T.J. Logan, James Conner, Myles Willis, Matt Dayes and Taquan Mizzell could all have big seasons, too.
7. Stacy Coley catches a TD from three different QBs.
If there was a more settled QB situation at Miami, Coley might be a niche pick for Heisman honors as one of the game’s most explosive players. Unfortunately, it could be a revolving door at QB for the Canes. Freshman Brad Kaaya gets first crack, and the hope is that Ryan Williams will return from an ACL injury sooner than later. Don’t be surprised if Jake Heaps or Kevin Olsen gets a shot to start at some point, too. Coley will make them all look better, but he’d benefit from some stability at QB.
8. Jamison Crowder sets the standard.
Crowder had 30 more targets last season than any other ACC receiver, and now Duke is without its second-best pass-catcher in Braxton Deaver. That makes Crowder an even more integral part of the Blue Devils’ passing game, and it means he should cruise past former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record for receiving yards. Crowder is just 1,152 yards short entering the season.
9. Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett look good.
Boston College and NC State will both be starting QBs who transferred from Florida, and both have a chance to put up solid numbers. In fact, we're predicting both Murphy and Brissett post better stats this season than Jeff Driskel, the man who kept them both on the bench in Gainesville.
10. The Coastal champ will be ...
Is there really any answer here that would feel remotely safe? Heck, Georgia Tech could win the division or miss out on a bowl game. Anything seems possible. But since it’s prediction time, we’ll ante up, just so you can remind us how wrong we were in December. So, let’s say ... Virginia Tech.
WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke. One of the most dynamic receivers in the ACC, Crowder has had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and gets the nod over Louisville receiver DeVante Parker in a close call. Given Crowder's past production in the offense, he should be in line to break school receiving records this season.
WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State. Perhaps one of the most underrated receivers in the country, Greene is a virtual lock to catch every pass that comes his way. He is the picture of consistency, and as the top returning target for Jameis Winston, should reach 1,000 yards again.
TE: Nick O'Leary, Florida State. One of the best tight ends in the country, O'Leary had 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He should improve on all those numbers this season.
T: Cameron Erving, Florida State. Erving thought about leaving school early last season for the NFL draft but decided to return, and he now anchors the best offensive line in the country.
T: Sean Hickey, Syracuse. Hickey is going into his third season as a starter and has developed into one of the best tackles in the league. He also may be the strongest player in the ACC, too.
C: Andy Gallik, Boston College. Gallik helped spearhead a Boston College run game last season that averaged 212.5 yards on the ground. As a three-year starter, Gallik has grown into the best center in the league.
G: Tre' Jackson, Florida State. One of the best guards in the country, Jackson also opted to return to school for his senior year. He and Erving are the best players on that line.
G: Laken Tomlinson, Duke. A first-team All-ACC player a year ago, Tomlinson will be relied upon even more to lead an offensive line that has to replace two of its best players. If he has another stellar season, Tomlinson could be one of the first guards taken in next year's draft.
QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State. The returning Heisman Trophy winner had a rough season off-the-field but there is no questioning his credentials on the field. After throwing for more than 4,000 yards a year ago, the expectation is he will be even better this year.
RB: Duke Johnson, Miami. Johnson is one of the best backs in the country, averaging 6.6 yards every time he touches the ball. If he can stay healthy for the entire season, he's a virtual lock to gain 1,000 yards.
RB: Kevin Parks, Virginia. Parks is the only returning 1,000-yard back in the ACC and is hoping for more in 2014. Tough call here between Parks and Karlos Williams, the next two best backs in the league behind Johnson.
DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson. Beasley finished last season with 13 sacks (tops in ACC) and 23 TFL (4th in nation). He’s a preseason All-American and the biggest star on one of the country's top defensive fronts.
DE: Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State. The No. 1 overall recruit in the nation three years ago, Edwards is poised to come into his own in 2014. He was a critical piece of Florida State’s run-stuffing defense a year ago, finishing with 9.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks.
DT: Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech. No returning interior lineman in the ACC had more TFL last year than Maddy’s 13.5, and he was a key for the Hokies' dominant defense. This season, he'll be the centerpiece of a new-look D line.
DT: Grady Jarrett, Clemson. Dabo Swinney calls Jarrett one of the best defenders in the nation, even if he hasn’t gotten much national acclaim. He finished last season with 59 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, and should be the foundation for a dominant defensive line at Clemson this season.
LB: Denzel Perryman, Miami. Perryman is Miami’s most productive defender, finishing with 108 tackles last season (fifth in the ACC). He’s the lone ACC defender returning for 2014 to have recorded at least 60 tackles in each of the previous three seasons.
LB: Stephone Anthony, Clemson. His 15 TFL last season ranked eighth in the ACC, and no returning linebacker in the conference had more. He added 86 tackles and 4.5 sacks to boot.
CB: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech. One of the top freshman defenders in the nation last season, Fuller picked off six passes as part of Virginia Tech's exceptional secondary. His 17 passes defended tied for eighth nationally.
CB: P.J. Williams, Florida State. Williams racked up three interceptions and was dominant in coverage for Florida State, which finished with the best pass defense in the nation. He also won defensive MVP honors in the BCS national championship.
S: Anthony Harris, Virginia. Led the nation with eight interceptions last season for Virginia, including picking off at least one pass in five straight games in conference play in October and November.
S: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State. The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey made the transition to safety midseason and didn’t miss a beat, finishing with 49 tackles and an INT.
S: Jeremy Cash, Duke. Cash finished last season second in the ACC in tackles (121), fifth in interceptions (4) and recorded 9.5 TFL, tops in the conference among defensive backs.
K: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State. The Lou Groza Award winner in 2013, Aguayo broke the national record for points by a kicker in a season with 157 points. He is virtually automatic every time he steps onto the field, missing just one field goal attempt and zero extra points last season.
P: A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech. A second-team All-ACC selection a year ago, Hughes averaged 44.1 yards per punt. He placed 24 inside the 20, and had 22 punts of 50 yards or longer.
KR: Kermit Whitfield, Florida State. Whitfield led the nation last year in kickoffs, with an average of 36.4 yards per return. His speed makes him extremely difficult to stop, let alone slow down.
PR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina. Teams have probably learned to kick away from Switzer at all times. Last season, he had five returns for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record.
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: 3½
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.
In other words, ask most running backs what they need to break a big run, and the answer is simple: Just a few more touches.
"Once you get out there and the ball in your hands, it's natural," said Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on 227 carries last year, both tops among returning ACC tailbacks. "You're getting in the flow of the game. You're taking your hits and get stronger as the game goes on. Some guys are like that."
Even Parks, one of the league's true bell cows at tailback, doesn't figure to be the only show in town for Virginia. Sophomore Taquan Mizzell, one of the Cavaliers top recruits under coach Mike London, is right behind him on the depth chart, providing a dynamic change of pace for the offense.
The same is true at Louisville and UNC and Syracuse and Pitt (which has a pair 0f 700-yard backs returning) and nearly every other program in the conference. At Florida State, where Jimbo Fisher has given a tailback 25 carries in a game just four times during his tenure, Karlos Williams is the epitome of an every-down back, but even he's being challenged by freshman Dalvin Cook and sophomore Mario Pender -- neither of whom have taken a snap at the college level.
It's really a game of probabilities, Fisher said. Depth provides alternatives, and at a position where physical punishment comes with the territory, it's best for teams to be prepared with a contingency plan.
"A running back only has so many hits in him," Fisher said. "The durability, the freshness in the fourth quarter, developing depth on your team and if guys have certain skill sets you have to put them in position to have success like that. I think it helps your team grow."
Fisher certainly has the evidence to back up his theory. During the past two seasons, only Oregon and Ohio State have averaged more yards-per-carry (excepting sacks) than Florida State's 6.40 mark. Last season, the Seminoles averaged 6.33 yards-per-carry in the second halves of games, too — the fourth-best mark in the country and an improvement of more than 1.5 yards per touch from its first-half average.
Specialization and distribution have become paramount, even for programs that have traditionally relied on a lead ball carrier.
Rod McDowell racked up 189 carries for Clemson last year, but Dabo Swinney said that was more a factor of necessity than desire. With four running backs vying for carries on this year's depth chart and coordinator Chad Morris aiming to run at least 85 plays a game, the rushing attempts figure to be portioned out in smaller doses in 2014.
"It's really become a specialized position," said Swinney, who plans to have a backfield-by-committee approach this season. "You need different flavors. You don't want all vanilla ice cream. You need some strawberry, chocolate, blueberry."
Nationally, just 15 running backs averaged 20 carries per game last season, half the number to reach that average in 2007. But including QBs, there were 36 runners who averaged 6.5 yards-per-rush or better last season, nearly double the total from 2007.
There are still a few every-down ball-carriers, but they're the exception. Andre Williams accounted for 68 percent of Boston College's rushing attempts last season and ended the year as a Heisman finalist, but Parks was the only other ACC runner to carve out more than a 40 percent share in his backfield.
Duke Johnson certainly would've eclipsed that total at Miami, but he went down with an ankle injury in Miami's eighth game and was lost for the season. Johnson figures to return to a prominent role in 2014 -- perhaps the closest thing the ACC will have to a true bell cow -- but last year's injury showcased just how crucial it is to have depth. With a healthy Johnson, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 200 yards per game on the ground. Without him, the Hurricanes mustered just 3.6 yards per carry and less than 100 yards per game rushing.
Spreading the wealth even when there's a clear No. 1 on the depth chart helps build depth that might not have been there before, NC State coach Dave Doeren said. The Wolfpack figure to give at least three — and maybe four — tailbacks a share of the pie this year, and while Doeren said he'll play the hot hand on a series-by-series basis, the knowledge that each player will get his shot while not being guaranteed anything more has had a positive effect on practice.
"When you have two or three backs, they've got to maximize their carries and put themselves in a position to get more," he said.
The game of mix-and-match tailbacks doesn't always sit well with players who, like Parks, would love a chance to get into a rhythm and take a few hits, but it's a fact of life most have gotten used to.
"It's a hard thing when you get your mojo running and you get pulled," Parks said, "but at the end of the day, you've got to be a team player. If the coaches feel you're hitting on all cylinders, they'll keep you in."
And there's an advantage for them, too. All those hits may help a tailback get a feel for the game, but they're also a lot of wear and tear on players who are hoping to still have plenty of spring in their steps when it's time to play at the NFL level.
"It means they have more tread on the tires when they get to the NFL and can truly make money," Fisher said. "But you're still getting the most out of them while you're here."
20. Kelby Brown, Duke Blue Devils
Year: Redshirt senior
Brown has been an integral piece to Duke's turnaround, bouncing back from a knee injury to record 114 tackles last season. He is one of three returning 100-tackle players on the Blue Devils' defense in 2014, and he will start for a fourth time in five years. Brown should also provide a boost to the pass rush, having made 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2013.
19. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State Seminoles
Position: Defensive back
Ramsey has already made his mark on what should be another outstanding secondary, as the former five-star recruit earned freshman All-America honors last season as a 14-game starter. He is the first FSU corner to start as a true freshman since Deion Sanders did in 1985. Ramsey thrived again this spring, as he was one of three players to earn the Seminoles' Hinesman Award (spring standout). Ramsey now steps into the role formerly held by Lamarcus Joyner, the anchor of last season's secondary, which led the nation in pass defense.
18. Nick O'Leary, Florida State
Position: Tight end
O'Leary returns for his senior season as one of Jameis Winston's top targets, as FSU searches for answers at receiver behind Rashad Greene. O'Leary enters 2014 as arguably the nation's top tight end, this after a 2013 campaign that saw him haul in 33 receptions for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. He is back to 100 percent after missing the end of the spring following a motorcycle accident. And, in case you haven't heard, he comes from good lineage: His grandfather is golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
17. Karlos Williams, Florida State
Position: Running back
Williams entered FSU as a five-star prospect at safety. He moved to running back last year and did not disappoint, finishing second on the team in rushing, with 730 yards. He scored 11 touchdowns and averaged 8.0 yards per carry. He helped turned the momentum of the BCS title game by converting a fake punt in the second quarter. Now Williams is the top man in the backfield for the Seminoles, and the possibilities seem endless for an athlete who finally has a full year of playing the position under his belt.
16. Kevin Parks, Virginia Cavaliers
Position: Running back
Year: Redshirt senior
Parks was one of the more overlooked players in the ACC last season, a byproduct of Virginia's winless conference campaign. Still, the Salisbury, North Carolina, native became the first Cavalier to rush for 1,000 yards since Alvin Pearman in 2004, tallying 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns. Listed at a generous 5-foot-8, Parks did plenty of speed training this offseason in hopes of making more explosive plays. He will be the leader of a crowded backfield that should help take pressure off new quarterback Greyson Lambert.
The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.
See our previous projections here.
Second-year star: Mizzell (5-foot-10, 190 pounds)
Recruiting stock: Mizzell was the only member of Virginia's class who was in the ESPN 300. He was the nation's No. 9 running back and No. 75 overall prospect, and he starred in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, returning a kickoff 72 yards to set up the winning score for the East team. Nicknamed "Smoke," Mizzell rushed for more than 3,500 yards during his high school career and accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards during his senior season.
2013 in review: Mizzell played in 10 of 12 games, rushing 45 times for 184 yards and a touchdown. He caught 29 passes for 164 yards and another score. He also tallied 347 yards on 21 kickoff returns. Mizzell missed two games with a lower extremity injury.
2014 potential: Potential is the perfect word to use when talking about Mizzell. He embraced comparisons to Miami's star tailback, Duke Johnson. Things didn't go so smoothly for Mizzell early on, but he is optimistic that he can take off in 2014, especially now that he is healthy. He ran track this spring, and the football staff raved about his attitude. Can he become one of the best running backs in the ACC? Life could be a little bit more difficult without tackle Morgan Moses, whom the Washington Redskins drafted in the third round last week. And with the Cavaliers returning their top-two rushers from last season in Kevin Parks (1,031 yards) and Khalek Shepherd (304 yards), the big numbers might not be as easy to come by. But Mizzell has taken all of the right steps going into his second season, and is, by all accounts, well on his way to reaching his potential.
Also watch for: You cannot overlook Johnson, who had a reception in all eight games he played in last season and had the most receiving yards by a Virginia true freshman in 14 years. Three-star receiver Andre Levrone could also see some opportunities after redshirting last year, as he impressed on the scout team. Also keep an eye on three-star, 6-foot-6 offensive lineman Eric Tetlow, who appeared in five games in 2013 and emerged this spring as Virginia's front-runner to start at center.
With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)
Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)
Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)
Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.
TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)
Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)
Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.
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?
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.
Mizzell, nicknamed “Smoke” for his raw speed, was still learning how to run.
One of Virginia’s fastest recruits, though, was forced to slow down. He had to learn the playbook. He had to adjust to life as a college student. He had to compete against veterans. And he had to overcome the first injury to ever sideline him.
Now, finally healthy again and more knowledgeable in the playbook, Mizzell is primed and eager to show why he was widely considered one of the nation's top running backs in the 2013 recruiting class. For Mizzell, his desire to be the best isn’t about bravado, recruiting rankings or hype. (His coaches gush about his genuine modesty.) Instead, the former four-star, ESPN 300 prospect is simply trying to reach his ceiling -- which is why it was all the more devastating when his rookie season was derailed by an ankle injury. It was a hurdle he had to clear both mentally and physically, but also one that has helped him mature into a more complete player.
And a faster one, too.
“I can’t even ... it’s so exciting,” he said, searching for the right words to describe his return. “Sometimes you might not want to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning for practice, but every morning I wake up, I’m so anxious to get on the field. As soon as I felt myself -- even after the season -- the moment I felt myself back 100 percent, I was ready to go. That’s why I started running track. I’m trying to get myself better right now. I don’t want to wait until August or September to get better. I want to get better right now. So I started running track, and now my opportunity to get back on the field, I’m going to take advantage of it and play to the best of my ability.”
This offseason, Mizzell, who never ran track in high school, has competed in the 60-meter dash during indoor track and the 100-meter dash in outdoor track. He’s also taking reps with the first and second teams at spring football practices and has been used in the return game. He’s in good company, as Virginia returns senior starter Kevin Parks and senior Khalek Shepherd, the Cavaliers’ two leading rushers from a year ago. Parks ran for 1,031 yards last year and started all 12 games, while Shepherd had 304 yards.
There doesn’t seem to be any concern within the program, though, about a shortage of snaps for Mizzell. Coach Mike London said the staff has made sure to evaluate Mizzell with the first-team offense in an effort to get him as many touches as possible.
“It’s about the maturation process,” London said. “He’s bigger, he’s stronger, his knowledge of the offense both in running the ball and pass protection and running routes, all of those things have really materialized. He’s back there catching punts now. He caught some kickoffs last year. There are some things we do in the backfield exclusively for him, but he’s also a running back. He’s learned the gamut from A-Z about how to be a complete player.”
“Virginia fans are eager to see the total package.
He's bigger, he's stronger, his knowledge of the offense both in running the ball and pass protection and running routes all of those things have really materialized. ... He's learned the gamut from A-Z about how to be a complete player.” -- Virginia coach Mike London on Taquan Mizzell
On his first carry in the second game of last season against Oregon, Mizzell was taken down by two defenders and said he immediately felt the pain in his ankle when he tried to stand on it. He missed two games and never started a game but still finished with 695 all-purpose yards.
“I think he came in with a lot of high expectations,” running backs coach and special teams coordinator Larry Lewis said. “It probably didn’t go like he wanted to, but what he learned in that year has helped him to be the player he is right now, which right now I see what everybody’s expectations are. He’s healthy and knows what’s going on and has that experience from last year. It’s not like he’s a rookie player right now. It’s like he’s a veteran player stepping out on the field. You see a remarkable difference right now.”
Credit UVa track coach Bryan Fetzer with some of the change.
Through track, Mizzell has learned how to create power through his legs and properly accelerate, zeroing in on biomechanics and techniques that can make the difference of a fraction of a second -- or a first down.
“I tried to make it so he can relate it towards football,” said Fetzer, who has four other football players on his roster this spring. “I was a football-track athlete in college myself, so I understand the reason. He’s not coming out to be a track star. He’s coming out to improve his game for football and hopefully have some fun and get faster.
“We’ve talked about the process of it, that his first year he’s not going to see this incredible improvement. It’s going to take a little bit of time. It’s going to take him learning how to do things before he really sees the results.”
Just like it did in football.
In the 26 games since, London’s squad is 6-20, with just two ACC wins. In 2013, the Cavaliers went winless in conference play (2-10 overall), and it’s difficult to find one clear cause for all the problems. There were games when the defense was exceptional (Pitt, Virginia Tech) but the offense couldn’t score. There were games when the offense figured ways to move the ball (Ball State, Maryland) but the defense couldn’t hold. Then there were games when everything looked out of sync (Clemson, UNC) and London’s job security was tenuous at best.
In the end, it was a season to forget at Virginia, but there remain building blocks in place for the future, and a few performances from 2013 were worth remembering.
Offensive MVP: Kevin Parks (Jr., RB)
It was a tough season for Virginia’s offense, which finished 111th in the nation in scoring and 90th in total offense. But while the passing game struggled routinely, Parks provided a consistent threat for the Cavaliers. The junior finished with 1,031 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, topping 100 yards six times, including each of Virginia’s final three games. Parks finished second only to Heisman finalist Andre Williams in rushing in the ACC.
Defensive MVP: Anthony Harris (Jr., S)
The 2013 season didn’t go according to plan for Virginia, but Harris provided more than a few highlights. He finished third on the team with 80 tackles, led the nation with eight interceptions and landed on numerous All-America teams. Harris was the star on a defense that showed some signs of significant progress -- particularly against BYU, Pitt and Virginia Tech -- and offers some hope that the Hoos can turn things around in 2014.
Best moment: Harris’ INT against BYU
Trailing 16-12 late in the fourth quarter of its opener against BYU, Virginia got its biggest play of the season when Harris picked off a pass from Taysom Hill, then flipped the ball to teammate Henry Coley, who ran it back to the BYU 13-yard line. Moments later, Parks ran for a touchdown, and the Cavaliers won their first -- and only -- game of the season against an FBS foe. At the time, it seemed like a turning point for Virginia. Instead, it proved to be one of the few highlights in a lost season.
Worst moment: the loss to Maryland
There were plenty of ugly games for Virginia this season, but the 0-8 record in ACC play tends to overshadow the fact that UVA was actually competitive early. A loss to high-flying Oregon and highly regarded Ball State were excusable. Virginia played Pitt close in its ACC opener, holding the Panthers without a point in the second half. Then the Cavaliers appeared in position to pick up a conference win on Oct. 12 when Alec Vozenilek lined up for a 42-yard, game-winning field goal attempt against the Terps. But he missed, and Virginia lost its next six games by an average of 22 points.
On to the picks!
OLD DOMINION (8-3) at NORTH CAROLINA (5-5), noon, ESPN3. #ODUvsUNC. The Tar Heels are going for their fifth straight win and bowl eligibility against a team that is 0-2 against ACC competition already this year. Old Dominion has put up some points this season, but the Tar Heels' D has been vastly improved in this recent winning streak and will be able to shut the Monarchs down. With another punt return for score, Ryan Switzer would tie the ACC single-season record.
AA picks: North Carolina 40, Old Dominion 17
HD's pick: North Carolina 44, Old Dominion 24
DUKE (8-2, 4-2) at WAKE FOREST (4-6, 2-5), noon, ESPN2. #DUKEvsWF. Before winning last season, Duke had lost 12 straight games to the Deacs. But the Blue Devils today are the superior program, with better athletes all the way around. They have successfully used two quarterbacks all season, and their defense is filled with young talent and playmakers at linebacker. Duke is 3-0 on the road and should pick up another win against an offensively challenged Deacs team still trying to find some answers with Michael Campanaro out.
AA picks: Duke 35, Wake Forest 20
HD's pick: Duke 24, Wake Forest 21
CITADEL (5-6) at No. 7 CLEMSON (9-1), noon, ESPN3. #CITvsCLEM. It's senior day at Clemson, giving the Tigers the opportunity to honor Tajh Boyd and his fellow seniors. The question is just how much Boyd will play after bruising his collarbone last week, especially with a big game looming next week against South Carolina. Coach Dabo Swinney says he prefers to have an FCS opponent in this slot, giving the Tigers ample time to prepare for their in-state nemesis.
AA picks: Clemson 56, The Citadel 3
HD's pick: Clemson 45, The Citadel 10
VIRGINIA (2-8, 0-6) at MIAMI (7-3, 3-3), noon, ESPNU. #UVAvsMIA. Miami's issues against UVa are common knowledge, so this game sets up to be closer than what some might anticipate. Plus, the Hurricanes have lost three straight after a 7-0 start and have seen their defense drop off considerably. Virginia does not scream offensive juggernaut, but neither did Virginia Tech and the Hokies racked up 42 points in a win two weeks ago. The Hoos have a solid back in Kevin Parks, No. 3 in the ACC in rushing, and a good tight end in Jake McGee, who will make some plays, but ultimately, Stephen Morris and the Miami offense will make a few more plays to win.
AA picks: Miami 28, Virginia 27
HD's pick: Miami 34, Virginia 24
EAST CAROLINA (8-2) at NC STATE (3-7), ESPN3. #ECUvsNCST. The Pirates took down North Carolina earlier this year, nearly beat Virginia Tech, and go into this game as the favorites. NC State has looked like a ragged bunch, losing six straight in its worst season since 2006. There is no doubt East Carolina has the much better quarterback, as Shane Carden has turned in an outstanding season. But NC State is going to find a way to dig deep and come out with a win thanks to a few big plays from its pass game.
AA picks: NC State 28, East Carolina 24
HD's pick: East Carolina 41, NC State 14: ECU is No. 10 in the country in scoring offense at 41.5 points per game, and Carden leads the No. 8 passing offense in the country. The Pirates undoubtedly have the edge at quarterback, as NC State has struggled with both Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas. The two have combined for 15 interceptions and five touchdowns. Carden threw that many TDs by himself last week. If North Carolina was embarrassed by the Pirates at home, there’s no reason to believe the Wolfpack will fare much better. ECU is a solid eight-win team that, unlike NC State, is bowl eligible.
PITT (5-5, 2-4) at SYRACUSE (5-5, 3-3), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #PITTvsCUSE. This game is a toss-up, as is nearly every league game these two teams have played this season (excluding Clemson and Florida State). Both are coming off losses, and both need one win for bowl eligibility. The problem for the Panthers is they have no real identity on offense. Syracuse does, and that is pounding the football. The Orange will get enough out of their run game and keep Aaron Donald at bay to win a close one.
AA picks: Syracuse 24, Pitt 23
HD's pick: Syracuse 21, Pitt 17
ALABAMA A&M (4-7) at GEORGIA TECH (6-4), 1:30 p.m., ESPN3. #AAMUvsGT. Like Clemson and Florida State, Georgia Tech also gets a warm-up game before it closes with its in-state rival next week. Coach Paul Johnson says the focus is on getting better at what his team does this week. You can bet Robert Godhigh will have another terrific performance, following his 100-yard rushing/100-yard receiving day against Clemson. Godhigh is on pace to set the ACC mark for highest average yards per carry, currently at 9.5.
AA picks: Georgia Tech 55, Alabama A&M 3
HD's pick: Georgia Tech 56, Alabama A&M 10
IDAHO (1-9) at No. 2 FLORIDA STATE (10-0), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. #IDAHOvsFSU. Once again, the question is how long will Jimbo Fisher keep his starters in, especially with a bigger game against rival Florida looming. This also seems as good a time as any to get backup quarterback Sean Maguire some reps. Idaho is one of the worst teams in the entire country, and this game should be out of hand by the end of the first quarter.
AA picks: Florida State 65, Idaho 0
HD's pick: FSU 72, Idaho 3
BOSTON COLLEGE (6-4, 3-3) at MARYLAND (6-4, 2-4), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. #BCvsMD. This may have been the toughest game to pick this week. Maryland is coming off an impressive win at Virginia Tech, while Andre Williams has put together two straight games of incredible performances. So which direction will this game go? It is hard to pick against the Eagles given what Williams and the offensive line have done this season. Simply put, they have worn the opposition down. Maryland has had injuries to contend with on defense, so I think BC will end up wearing the Terps down in the end.
AA picks: BC 24, Maryland 21
HD's pick: Maryland 21, Boston College 17: This game could go either way, but with it being the final home game in Byrd Stadium, it was hard to pick against the Terps. More importantly, Maryland has fared well this year in stopping the run, and is ranked No. 30 in the country in rushing defense, holding opponents to 139.8 yards per game. Boston College has made its living this fall with its running game, and Williams is certainly no secret. The Terps will be looking to slow down the ACC’s all-time single-season rushing leader, and they’ve also got the advantage in quarterback with C.J. Brown.
That is where the league wants to stay.
Either Clemson or Florida State will remain a national championship contender. The loser has a shot at staying in the top 10, and earning an at-large BCS berth should it win out.
"We are the only league out there that's got three undefeated teams, and to have two of them not only match up and play, but be in the same division, I think it's great," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "I don't have any doubt that regardless of the outcome of this game, Clemson and Florida State are going to be very much in the picture the rest of the year. This is two really good football teams that are going to do everything they can to win this game."
Indeed, for the second straight year both teams face each other ranked in the top 10, with both national championship and ACC title hopes on the line. The winner of this game has produced the Atlantic Division representative in the ACC championship game in each of the last four years, making Florida State-Clemson a burgeoning rivalry.
The high stakes only add to it.
"You have a rivalry, it's usually when both teams are very competitive and both teams have success and it will decide something, and this has definitely become that in my opinion," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
So who has the edge? Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who faced both teams already this year, has been besieged with that question from the media, friends and even family. Even he is undecided.
"They're really both two outstanding teams. I mean, absolutely justified in the rankings that they have," Addazio said. "They could be No. 1. They're that talented. They're each a little different maybe, but at the end of the day, they've got two powerful defenses, two explosive quarterbacks and teams that are loaded with playmakers. So I just think you're going to see one of the truly outstanding football games of the season. I think it's great for the ACC to have the quality of teams that we have in here, and now you have two of these teams on a national stage.
"I can tell you from my years in the SEC and in the Big Ten and different places I've been that I would put these two teams up against anybody."
This game is the headliner, but there are several others on the ACC slate in Week 8 that will have potential bowl ramifications. Here is a quick look at the other matchups.
Syracuse (3-3, 1-1) at Georgia Tech (3-3, 2-2), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. Even though the Jackets have lost three straight, their average of 421.3 yards of total offense ranks as the sixth-highest in school history. Syracuse, meanwhile, is averaging 220.7 yards per game on the ground -- on pace to be the team’s best mark since 1998 (228.4). The Orange have posted back-to-back 300-yard rushing games, the first time that has happened since 2003.
Maryland (5-1, 1-1) at Wake Forest (3-3, 1-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. There is no doubt Maryland has to keep an eye on Wake Forest receiver Michael Campanaro, who has two games this season with double-digit receptions. He needs 11 catches to pass Desmond Clark (1995-98) as the school's career receptions leader. Clark holds the mark with 216. Meanwhile, the Maryland run offense will provide a big challenge for the Deacs. Nikita Whitlock, who has 11.5 tackles for loss, will be a big key.
Duke (4-2, 0-2) at Virginia (2-4, 0-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. One team will pick up its first ACC win of the season. One key matchup to watch is Virginia running back Kevin Parks against the Duke run defense. The Blue Devils have shown flashes of defensive improvement but have been wildly inconsistent. They had a great showing last week, but coach David Cutcliffe wants to see that type of performance each week. Parks, meanwhile, had his third 100-yard rushing day last week against Maryland, giving him consecutive 100-yard rushing days.
Old Dominion (4-2) at Pitt (3-2), 7 p.m., ESPN3. The Panthers' run game has come to a screeching halt over the last two weeks, with a combined 31 yards on the ground against Virginia and Virginia Tech. Some of that has to do with the sacks that have lost yardage, but no running back has gone over 31 yards rushing since the win over Duke on Sept. 21. Coach Paul Chryst says there are a few things that can be done schematically to help the Panthers get back on track.
Clemson DE Vic Beasley: The history of NC State pulling the upset over ranked teams was well documented in the lead-up to the game, and the Wolfpack might have done it again if it hadn't been for Beasley's dominant work on defense. The Clemson defensive end racked up five tackles, three sacks, broke up two passes and -- three plays after NC State had a potential go-ahead score called back -- forced a fumble from QB Pete Thomas that turned the tide of the game. Beasley now has five sacks on the season -- just three shy of his 2012 total.
Pittsburgh QB Tom Savage: Handing out just one helmet sticker to a member of the Pitt offense after Saturday's 58-55 win is a tough task, but it's impossible to argue with Savage's final numbers. The senior QB completed 22-of-33 passes for 424 yards and six touchdowns, tying an ACC record. The six-TD performance hadn't been done by an ACC quarterback since 1999. He had plenty of help though. Tailback James Conner ran for 173 yards, receiver Devin Street caught six passes for 166 and freshman sensation Tyler Boyd had eight catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns.
Maryland's defense: Defensive back A.J. Hendy was the star, recovering two fumbles and returning an interception for a touchdown in the 37-0 win, but there's plenty of credit to go around on the Terps' D. Maryland pitched a shutout against West Virginia -- the first time the Mountaineers had been held scoreless since 2001 -- while creating six turnovers. West Virginia had just 175 yards of offense, including a mere 62 from the passing game. Seven different Terrapins recorded a tackle in the backfield, three different players forced fumbles, and Maryland assured it will be undefeated for its Oct. 5 showdown with Florida State.
Georgia Tech running backs: North Carolina jumped out to a 13-0 lead early, but the Georgia Tech offense roared back with 324 rushing yards, 199 of which were delivered by Robert Godhigh and David Sims. Godhigh racked up a career-best 100 yards on just nine carries -- five of which went for first downs. Sims, meanwhile, tacked on 99 yards and two scores. The senior B-back scored on a 1-yard run for the Yellow Jackets' first touchdown, then rumbled in from 6 yards out to put the finishing touches on a 28-20 come-from-behind win that established Georgia Tech as a top contender in the Coastal Division.
Duke WR Jamison Crowder: Perhaps it's breaking an unwritten rule by giving a helmet sticker to a player whose team lost, but it's hard to fault Crowder for the outcome. The junior did all he could to keep Duke in the game, recording 279 all-purpose yards and scoring three touchdowns -- one rushing, one receiving and one on a punt return. He became the first Duke player to record a rushing, receiving and special-teams TD in a single game since 1999.
But that hardly mattered.
Virginia was gritty -- and that is what the Hoos needed to beat BYU 19-16 on Saturday.
In a game delayed for over 2 hours because of bad weather, Virginia showed a toughness on defense that was thoroughly missing a season ago. That defense put the Hoos in position to get a hugely significant win, considering Oregon looms next on the schedule. The last six minutes provided some of the wildest action of opening weekend.
Virginia led 12-7 midway through the fourth quarter, but BYU finally was able to put together a solid drive and took a 13-12 lead. Khalek Shepherd fumbled the ensuing kickoff and BYU recovered. The Hoos looked like they were imploding as BYU stretched its lead to 16-12. Virginia, so inconsistent on offense all game, did nothing on its ensuing possession.
It was the defense that came up big when it mattered. Anthony Harris intercepted Hill with 2:41 to go, giving the Hoos' offense one last chance to do something. Kevin Parks scored on a 13-yard run one play later to put Virginia back ahead. The defense, so strong for a majority of the game, held on to the lead this time.
Given all the restructuring coach Mike London did this offseason, on top of the hugely challenging nonconference schedule to start, this counts as an extremely impressive win. The defense seemed to play with an edge, and kept UVa in this game because the offense, quite frankly, still has some work to do.
David Watford, who won the quarterback competition this fall, was not at his best, going 18-of-32 for 118 yards with one touchdown and one interception, while adding 10 yards on the ground. Virginia managed 230 total yards. BYU has a heck of a defense, so that certainly had a role in the way the Hoos played. But as it stands, the offense has a ways to go to catch up to where the defense is right now.
After a 4-8 season, UVa will take a win any way it can get it.