ACC: Mitch Trubisky

The most aggressive offense in the ACC in 2014 was Clemson, which might not have been a surprise in 2012 or 2013, but in a year in which there were so many personnel issues for the Tigers’ offense, it’s a bit shocking.

Clemson threw deep (20-plus yards) on 7.46 percent of its total plays, well above the league average of 5.93 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that was probably not the best idea either, because while Clemson went deep more often than anyone else, the Tigers also averaged the second-fewest yards-per-attempt on those throws (trailing only Syracuse) and nearly 10 yards per attempt less than what Tajh Boyd mustered last year for Clemson. That’s not exactly a recipe for offensive success.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception.
But, of course, personnel had a lot to do with that, and it only goes to show how much a healthy Deshaun Watson affects Clemson’s overall offensive success, because those aggregate numbers hardly tell the whole story.

Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He averaged 15.9 yards per attempt, which would’ve been tops in the ACC if he’d been the only quarterback throwing for the Tigers in 2014. But he wasn’t.

Cole Stoudt and Nick Schuessler completed just 15 percent of their deep balls this season with one TD, two interceptions and a woeful 5.2 yards-per-attempt average. To put that in perspective, if they’d been the only quarterbacks throwing for Clemson this year, the Tigers would’ve been dead last in the league in YPA by nearly four full yards.

That’s just one of the interesting facts we find when we dig into the ACC’s deep-ball numbers for 2014.

A few more, with deep-ball stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info:

  • No team was worse on the deep ball in the ACC than Syracuse. This is no surprise. The Orange completed just 27.8 percent of its deep balls (worst in the ACC), averaged 9.2 yards per attempt (again, worst), had just two touchdowns (13th) and five interceptions (t-12th). That’s down a bit from last year, but the Orange have struggled on those throws ever since Ryan Nassib left.
  • Perhaps the most improved team on the deep ball this year was Virginia. Last season, the Hoos were just 7-of-50 on throws of 20 yards or more. This year, they more than doubled their deep-ball yards, completion percentage and TD throws.
  • North Carolina had one of the ACC’s most potent offenses, but it wasn’t because of the deep ball. This is one of the reasons Larry Fedora was so high on Mitch Trubisky, but the numbers didn’t back up that confidence. Overall, UNC’s completion percentage of 28 percent on deep balls was third-worst in the league and its 9.93 YPA was fourth worst, but Marquise Williams was far better than his counterpart. Williams wasn’t great (28 percent completions, 12.2 YPA) but Trubisky really struggled (3-of-15 for 100 yards with a pick).
  • Only Wake Forest went deep less often than Pittsburgh (4.28 percent of total plays), which seems a bit odd considering that the Panthers could’ve used play-action well (given the strong running game) and they actually had the highest completion percentage of any ACC team on throws of 20-plus yards (44.4 percent).
  • Florida State was far less successful on the deep ball this year than last, with its completion percentage down (48.8 in 2013 to 35.7 in 2014) and TDs way off (16 last year, nine this). But FSU also threw five fewer interceptions on deep throws this year, and when it did get a completion, it’s YPC was actually improved (40 YPA this year, 32 YPA last year).
  • No team was better on the deep ball than Miami in 2014. Brad Kaaya proved to be an excellent downfield thrower, matched with a good running game and speed at receiver. For the year, Miami completed 41.3 percent of its deep balls (second in ACC), averaged 14.6 yards per attempt (first) and had nine touchdowns on those throws (tied for first). It’s worth noting though that just 12 percent of Miami’s passes in 2014 were 20 yards or more, the third fewest in the league.
  • No team gained a higher percentage of its total offense in 2014 via the deep ball than Louisville (15.9 percent), which is interesting given that DeVante Parker missed seven games and Bobby Petrino cycled through three different quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville’s deep-ball numbers were virtually the same as 2013, in spite of losing its star receiver for more than half the year and a first-round draft pick at quarterback. That’s a real credit to the work Petrino did this season.
  • Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech and Boston College had the highest percentage of their pass attempts be deep balls. Next up though? NC State (17 percent).
  • Virginia Tech wasn’t great on the deep ball (10.5 YPA, four TDs, four INTs), but it was a necessary part of the Hokies’ offense. For the year, 74.1 percent of Tech’s plays of 20-plus yards came on throws of 20-plus yards -- meaning if the Hokies didn’t look deep, they rarely had a shot at a big play. The league average on that stat was 45.6 percent, meaning the rest of the ACC got more than half of its big plays from plays that weren’t deep balls. Virtually all of Virginia Tech’s big-play threat relied on the arm of Michael Brewer. That speaks volumes about the Hokies’ season.
When September opened, Marquise Williams wasn’t sure how long he’d be North Carolina’s starting quarterback. He’d battled Mitch Trubisky throughout the offseason and was splitting playing time with him when the season began.

When October began, Williams’ place on the Tar Heels’ pecking order seemed more certain, and his confidence grew.

Now, with two weeks left to play, there might not be a quarterback in the ACC playing any better than he is, and the perspective on a season that’s been a roller-coaster ride in Chapel Hill has shifted significantly thanks to Williams’ emergence.

“My thing is not trying to prove people wrong but just doing what I need to to win football games,” Williams said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNorth Carolina junior quarterback Marquise Williams is putting up big numbers since earning a full-time role.
What the numbers say is that Williams has been as dynamic a threat as almost any quarterback in the country in the past six weeks.

Since Oct. 1, Williams leads the ACC in Total QBR and is eighth nationally. His 574 rushing yards are third in the ACC in that span, and his 1,606 passing yards trails only Jameis Winston in the conference. He’s accounted for 18 touchdowns — tops in the league — and just four turnovers since then.

And while UNC’s defense has made winning a murky proposition at times, Williams’ heroics have kept the Tar Heels in virtually every game.

“He’s playing lights-out,” receiver Quinshad Davis said. “He’s just watching film, going through reads, taking off when he has to and making the throws when he needs to. He’s just a ballplayer, and when the lights are on, he’s a go-to guy and he makes plays for us. We need it.”

The biggest difference for Williams isn’t as much a massive shift in performance as it is a boost in confidence — both from his coach and in himself.

During North Carolina’s early games, Trubisky had a set schedule for playing time — usually getting in on the third drive of the game — and while Williams was the nominal starter, his grasp on the job seemed tenuous.

But Trubisky didn’t fare particularly well in his limited role, and after a month-long trial, the experiment came to an end.

“A little bit during the season, it threw me off, just worried about if I turn the ball over, am I going to come out of the game or am I up the next series or not,” Williams said.

Fedora dismisses this thought process, saying Trubisky’s role was predetermined and Williams knew he had the team’s support. Instead, he said Williams’ injection of confidence has been the difference.

Regardless, the significance of Williams as the clear-cut No. 1 was perfectly illustrated against Pitt last Saturday.

Williams started off slow and UNC fell behind 21-7. But on the final drive of the half, Williams got hot, capped an 80-yard drive with a touchdown run and dominated the second half. For the game, Williams finished with four touchdowns.

“I just found my groove and kept going,” Williams said. “Once I find my rhythm, I’m good, and that’s what it’s been like the past couple weeks — starting at Notre Dame. Just getting in that rhythm and going with the flow is probably the best thing ever for me and I’ve just been thankful and grateful that I’m in this position.”

By getting into his groove, Williams has North Carolina on the precipice of getting to a bowl game after a horrendous start to the season, which is an accomplishment in itself. Of course, it’s also the same thing Williams did for the Heels last season, and it wasn’t enough to earn him his coach’s endorsement when the season ended.

So what happens in 2015? Trubisky is still immensely talented and was highly recruited. Fedora obviously likes what he has in the freshman and wants him to get playing time. But after Williams has proven again he’s capable of putting up big numbers, is there any way he won’t hang on to the job?

“To be honest, I think it’s just me going forward and leaving my mark and going off what I started this year to finish out strong,” Williams said.

Fedora has made a point of saying jobs have to be won every offseason, and he said he’s not close to thinking about those decisions now. With a huge matchup Thursday against Duke, his priorities are on the immediate decisions, not the long-term ones.

That’s perhaps fair, but it also means Williams has a few more chances to make his mark. And with each passing game, the conversation has shifted further from whether he’s UNC’s best quarterback to whether he’s one of the best in the ACC.

For both Williams and North Carolina, how the season began isn’t so important anymore. It’s all about finishing strong.

“These last two games are very important to us and our fans and this whole staff,” Williams said. “We want to finish the season strong because people are going to remember us for what we did in November. That’s all we care about right now.”

North Carolina makes its Coastal move

October, 27, 2014
It was convenient for us all to write off North Carolina after another embarrassing start to its season, but one thing is becoming quite apparent about these Tar Heels under Larry Fedora.

They rise only after they have fallen hard, refusing to give in to the gut punches and the critics. Are they making things difficult on purpose? Because they seem to thrive on the rush that comes when they have been dismissed.

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsMarquise Williams and the Tar Heels beat Coastal Division foe Virginia in Week 9, and are looking ahead to the final four games of the season.
Two seasons in a row now, North Carolina has been labeled the biggest disappointment in the ACC through midseason. The Tar Heels are now following a similar trajectory to last season, when they overcame a 1-5 start to make a bowl game.

However, there is a key difference in 2014: North Carolina still has a shot to win the Coastal, despite a 2-4 start. In 2013, UNC began 0-3 in conference play. Right now, the Tar Heels are 2-2 and control their destiny. Indeed, the coaching staff has modified the popular one-play-at-a-time cliché into: One for the Coastal.

"Fedora's been telling us we still have a chance to win. That's still our goal," linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said.

Here, then, is another lesson in Crazy Coastal 101.

Duke leads the Coastal with a 2-1 conference record. Pitt, Miami, Georgia Tech, UVa and North Carolina have two conference losses each. North Carolina still has Miami, Pittsburgh, Duke and NC State left on the schedule. So for the fun of it, let's say the Tar Heels win out. That would put them at 6-2 in the conference, with a 5-1 record inside the Coastal Division.

In this scenario, Miami and Pittsburgh would have more than two conference losses, so they'd be out. Now let's turn our attention to Duke and Georgia Tech. Let's say all three teams finish in a three-way tie atop the Coastal at 6-2.

North Carolina would be 2-0 in their mini-group and would win the tiebreaker. The Tar Heels also would have a tiebreaker over Virginia, should the Hoos somehow finish 6-2.

Coastal. Champions.

All right, all right, we are getting ahead of ourselves, but the Coastal is the most unpredictable in college football and North Carolina is perhaps its most unpredictable team. In September, it lost to East Carolina 70-41; In October, it nearly upset No. 6 Notre Dame in South Bend -- the yin and yang of the Tar Heels' season to date.

"We're going to keep fighting. We're going to continue to go all out," quarterback Marquise Williams said. "It changed when we lost to Notre Dame."

Its 28-27 win against Virginia on Saturday also fits in the unpredictable category, after the Tar Heels fell behind 14-0 and trailed for nearly the entire game. The final five minutes featured an interception from a defensive tackle; Williams being forced out of the game because his helmet came off, only to watch backup Mitch Trubisky throw the go-ahead score; a gusty onside kick call from Fedora that made him look like a genius; and a game-clinching flag on Virginia with a minute left to play.

Now, a crucial Coastal showdown in Miami awaits on Saturday, where the Tar Heels' defense must find a way to slow down Duke Johnson.

The focus will be on that group, as it usually is, but North Carolina beat Virginia thanks to a much better defensive effort in the second half. The Hoos only had three points after halftime and totaled 443 yards, just the third time all season the defense held an opponent under 500 yards. It also was the first time since September that its opponent did not score 30 or more points.

Virginia is not nearly as explosive as Miami, so there is little doubt the task will be much tougher in South Florida. But if North Carolina can get out with a win, it will be much harder for anyone to dismiss this team.

"Our guys are confident," Fedora said. "They feel good about where we're at. They know on the outside nobody believes it, but that's OK. We only need the guys in that room to believe it, and they're believing it."

What we learned in the ACC: Week 9

October, 25, 2014
Here's what we learned in the ACC in Week 9:

[+] EnlargeGus Edwards
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsMiami is rising in the Coastal division and dominated the Hokies on Thursday.
Miami fans can calm down. It's been an up-and-down start to the season for Miami, but Thursday night's 30-6 win at Virginia Tech was a high point. The Hurricanes looked terrific on both sides of the ball, as the defense held the Hokies to just 262 yards of offense, while Duke Johnson rushed for a 249 yards and a touchdown (and added 37 more and another touchdown through the air). In the crowded Coastal standings, Miami is trending upward and has a win over first-place Duke that could loom very large as the season moves into the home stretch.

Virginia Tech fans are getting restless. There are some valid excuses for Virginia Tech's struggles this season. Quarterback Michael Brewer didn't arrive until the summer. Freshmen are receiving playing time all over the offense. Injuries have decimated the starting lineup. But for all the reasonable explanations, what Virginia Tech fans care most about is the Hokies are just 12-13 against Power 5 teams in the past three seasons, and Thursday's home loss to Miami might have been the most listless performance Frank Beamer's squad has had in a while.

Georgia Tech is going bowling. After a 5-0 start to the season, this seemed obvious, but two straight losses soured much of the early momentum the Yellow Jackets had created. Add an injury that kept second-leading rusher Zach Laskey off the field against Pitt, and things weren't looking good. So what happens? Pitt fumbles on each of its first five drives, Tech rushes for 465 yards -- most in the ACC this season -- and the power dynamic in the Coastal shifted yet again after a 56-28 Georgia Tech win. More importantly, though, Georgia Tech got back to doing what it does best: Running the ball down the opposition's throats, avoiding mistakes and capitalizing when the opposition coughs up the ball. The result, of course, is Tech will be in a bowl game for the 18th straight season.

Mitch Trubisky can throw it, too. North Carolina entered Saturday's game at Virginia with the ACC's hottest quarterback in Marquise Williams, but it was Trubisky, the backup, who won the game for the Tar Heels with a 16-yard touchdown pass with 4:05 to play. Trubisky was in the game only because Williams' helmet popped off on the previous play, but his toss to T.J. Thorpe on a third-and-15 was the difference in the 28-27 UNC win. It was his only throw of the game. For the second straight year, a once-struggling Tar Heels team is finding ways to win down the stretch and is right back in the thick of things in the Coastal.

Clemson's defense is frightening. The offense hasn't done much in Deshaun Watson's absence, but the Tigers have managed to win their past three games behind a defense that has utterly smothered the opposition. Clemson manhandled Syracuse 16-6, held the Orange to their lowest yardage total since 2008 and racked up 12 tackles for loss along the way. In its past four games, Clemson's defense has allowed just three touchdowns, given up an average of just 3.5 yards per play and recorded 40 tackles for loss.
The exchange between coach and player was fairly straightforward, Marquise Williams said. North Carolina's defense had just given up a long touchdown, again. The Tar Heels were on the brink of losing a shootout, again. But Larry Fedora pulled his quarterback aside for a quick chat, confident he could be the guy to shake UNC out of its recent misery.

"Coach said, 'We have three timeouts and there's 3:07. Marquise, you do this every Wednesday,'" Williams said. "'This is how much confidence I have in you. You just won the two-minute drill on Wednesday against our defense, so I know you can do it again.' I told Coach, 'You're right. We can do this. We can do it as an offense. We're going to do this.'"

Williams executed a 12-play drive that used all but the remaining 11 seconds, with T.J. Logan running it in for the winning score over Georgia Tech. It was ACC victory No. 1 for the Heels and the end of a four-game skid caused mostly by a defense that is still searching for answers as it enters Virginia this Saturday. But it was finally validation for Williams, who will take consecutive career performances into Charlottesville, hoping he can engineer a UNC turnaround similar to last season's.

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Gerry Broome/Associated PressMarquise Williams accounted for five touchdowns and led a game-winning drive for the Tar Heels against Georgia Tech.
"I looked at it as something that we needed very badly, this football team needed badly," Fedora said of beating the Yellow Jackets. "They needed (it) for their confidence level, for their ability to keep believing in each other and what they were doing and to keep practicing hard. I think we were getting to a point where we really needed it, and they got it done. It was all about, just find a way to win the football game. When you find a way to win football games, you start realizing, if you don't screw it up, you've got a pretty good chance."

Williams forced a third-down throw that was picked off late at Notre Dame 11 days ago, one of several minor screw-ups by the Heels that cost them a shot at a major upset in a 50-43 loss. Still, the redshirt junior became the first player in school history to pass for 300 yards (303) and rush for 100 (132) in the same game. He also caught a touchdown pass. Williams topped that this past Saturday by completing a school-record 38 passes (on 47 attempts) for 390 yards with four touchdowns and just one interception, adding 16 rushes for 73 yards and another score.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder seized control of the offense at Notre Dame, the first game he played from start to finish without rotating with Mitch Trubisky. He did not look back against Georgia Tech, winning ACC offensive back of the week honors for the second straight week.

Williams bragged about spending as much time in the film room now as his coaches do, adding that his confidence level is at an all-time high. He said he is playing with a swagger, and that he remains calm under otherwise-stressful situations on the field.

His previous two-minute drill experience before this past weekend came in last year's regular-season finale against Duke, which ended with him throwing a pick that gave the rival Blue Devils the Coastal division title. He was set on not letting that happen again Saturday, taking advantage of the talent and situations around him and not forcing anything unless it was there.

"He's gotten into a pretty good rhythm and he feels comfortable," Fedora said, adding, "There was no panic in him. Just go out there and play. He did a really good job of not forcing the ball on that series, checking it down on the swing to the back. He was pretty methodical actually. I was proud of him."

Williams has been diplomatic about his recent success, mentioning, unprompted and in order, his offensive line, his receivers and his running backs as reasons for the big numbers. He had helped engineer a 6-1 finish for the Heels last season following a 1-5 start, raising 2014 expectations that made the program's 2-4 start this fall all the more disappointing. Still, with Williams back in charge with five games to go, last year's finish is a good starting point for how UNC can turn things around again.

"That's what we're planning on doing, the same thing," Williams said. "Come back and play better Carolina football in the second half. Play smart and fast.

"We haven't been that smart. We're getting a lot of penalties. We just haven't been doing what we need to do. And now we've found something. It's time to get it going because guys are tired of losing."

What we learned in the ACC: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Week 8, including the biggest game of the season for an ACC team, is in the books. Here's what we learned:

Florida State is still unbeaten: For the third time this season, Florida State trailed at the half, but the Seminoles once again staged a dramatic comeback followed by a nail-biting defensive stand on their opponent's final drive to remain unbeaten and keep their playoff hopes alive. Jameis Winston was the star, as he completed 15-of-16 passes for 181 yards in the second half and lead the 31-27 comeback win, while Rashad Greene and Travis Rudolph both caught TD passes. It's clear Florida State isn't the same team it was a year ago, but the Seminoles' ability to continually fight back and find ways to win might be even more impressive.

[+] EnlargeTravis Rudolph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTravis Rudolph and the Seminoles proved their ability to come back from a deficit once again.
The Coastal still goes through Duke: Last week, Georgia Tech looked like the favorite to win the Coastal, and then Duke beat them. Then it was Virginia's turn atop the conference, and once again, the Blue Devils took down the favorite. Duke averaged more than 5 yards per carry against Virginia's stout defensive front, and it didn't turn the ball over in a big 20-13 win in Durham. The end result? The defending Coastal champs are once again the team to beat in the division. The Blue Devils have head-to-head victories over two of the other one-loss teams, and they'll get their chance to take down Pitt, too, after a Week 9 bye.

A healthy Louisville is pretty good: We knew Louisville's defense was good. The offense, on the other hand, was a problem. But Saturday's 30-18 win over NC State was the Cardinals' first game with a full lineup of healthy stars on offense, including QB Will Gardner, running back Michael Dyer and receiver DeVante Parker. The trio injected some life into the proceedings, as Louisville scored 30 points for the first time in a month, and Dyer and Parker combined for 305 yards. Dyer racked up his first 100-yard rushing performance since 2011. It was a nice addition for Louisville but also a reminder of what might've been for the Cardinals, had the offense been this healthy from the start of the season.

Clemson can win ugly: The Tigers' offense has mustered just two touchdowns and averaged just 4 yards per play without star QB Deshaun Watson the past two weeks, but they've still managed to win both games. Chalk it up to a spectacular defense that once again stuffed an opponent's ground game. Boston College entered as the No. 5 rushing offense in the nation, but Clemson racked up 14 tackles for loss and surrendered just 120 yards on the ground in its 17-13 victory and held BC nearly 200 yards below its season average. Cole Stoudt won't be confused for Watson any time soon, but if he can continue to make a handful of plays a game, this defense should be enough to carry Clemson a long way.

Marquise Williams is UNC's QB: It's hard to believe there was a QB debate in Chapel Hill earlier this year. Williams has been unstoppable in his past two games -- which, coincidentally, were the first two games in which Mitch Trubisky wasn't given regular playing time. Williams set a North Carolina record with 38 completions, threw for four TDs and rushed for one more while leading a dramatic 48-43 come-from-behind win over Georgia Tech late in the fourth quarter. In his past two games, Williams has compiled 696 passing yards, 205 rush yards and nine touchdowns.

Pitt's not dead yet: Thursday's 21-16 win over Virginia Tech proved to be a resurrection for Pitt. The Panthers had dropped three in a row as their QB struggled and defenses ganged up to stop star tailback James Conner. Against Virginia Tech, however, Pitt looked much improved. Chad Voytik didn't have to do much with his arm (92 yards), but he racked up 118 yards on the ground, and the win further stifled Tech's hopes for a division title and rekindled Pitt's.

By the numbers: Carolina conundrum

October, 9, 2014
It’s not like anyone had the Coastal figured out before the season, but there did seem to be some consensus that, even if it wasn’t going to win the division, North Carolina would at least be a strong contender. In fact, in one of Phil Steele’s projections, he had the Tar Heels going undefeated.

So, what happened?

Andrew Carter of the Raleigh News & Observer did a nice job breaking down the biggest breakdowns earlier this week. His list included:
  • Offensive line play
  • Lack of productivity from running backs
  • Struggles on the D line
  • Too many big plays allowed
That certainly covers a lot, and one of the reasons I was skeptical of UNC to start the season was the obvious weaknesses on both sides of the line. So really, should this slow start have been such a surprise?

Actually, if we look back just a year ago, when North Carolina started 1-5, the numbers look pretty familiar.

In 2013, UNC lost four of its first five, including one to Virginia Tech and a blowout to ECU. Same in 2014.

In 2013, UNC’s offensive line struggled in Games 1-5, and its ground game, as a result, averaged just 1.9 yards before contact. Same in 2014.

In 2013, UNC’s running backs provided little help in those first five games, averaging 3.8 yards per rush. That number is down just a small fraction in 2014.

In 2013, UNC’s defensive line struggled to pressure the opposing quarterback, coming up with a sack every 21.1 dropbacks. In 2014, it’s only marginally better -- once every 20.3.

In 2013, UNC’s sixth game was also a loss -- a squeaker to undefeated, highly ranked Miami.

In 2014, UNC’s sixth game is against an undefeated, highly ranked Notre Dame.

Last year, that Miami game was a turning point. It was a game in which a lot of the young players grew up, when Marquise Williams gained some confidence, when the defense found some footing. Afterward, the yards-per-rush for running backs skyrocketed, the yards before contact went up significantly, and the sack rate for the defense jumped. In games 7-13, North Carolina was 6-1. That’s a big reason why people were high on the Heels to start this season.

Can the Notre Dame game be a turning point this year?

Well, aside from the aforementioned stats, there were three other numbers that didn’t quite match up from last year’s slow start to this year’s.

First, there were those big plays. UNC allowed just 22 in its first five games last year. It’s coughed up 33 this year. The Heels know it’s a huge problem that has swung games early, and yet they’ve been helpless to fix it. Shane Carden, Deshaun Watson … even struggling Michael Brewer have been able to take advantage.

Second is penalties. I’m on record saying flags aren’t overly important, but Larry Fedora made it a linchpin of his offseason and the rate of penalties for UNC has actually gone way up so far. It’s a sign of the youth on the roster (which obviously improves with experience) but also perhaps a sign that the team largely tuned out Fedora’s message.

Lastly, there’s the QB situation.

In 2013, North Carolina ran a two-QB system in the early going before Bryn Renner got hurt and it became Williams’ team. That coincided with the team’s turning point, but it’s also of note that even in those first five games when the Heels’ were 1-4, the team’s adjusted QBR was 71.3.

In 2014, Fedora is once again running a two-QB system, with Mitch Trubisky jumping in on the third series of each game and then sporadically throughout the second half. His numbers have been awful in small doses, and as the Greensboro News and Record’s Powell Latimer points out, Williams has struggled when he’s re-entered the games.

Fedora says the QB rotation isn’t the problem, but during this dreadful five-game stretch for UNC, it looks like perhaps one of the biggest differences from a year ago. The team’s Total QBR is just 59.2.

Maybe the Notre Dame game will be a crossroads for North Carolina this season, just as Miami was a year ago. If it’s going to be, a lot needs to be fixed — including at least one major issue that Fedora isn’t willing to admit is a problem.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 6

October, 5, 2014
Here's what we learned in the ACC in Week 6:

1. FSU should be the unquestioned No. 1. Florida State did what it was supposed to do and beat Wake Forest 43-3 on Saturday. The Seminoles are now 5-0, and there should be no doubt they are No. 1 after No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma lost. Yet there are those who might not see the Seminoles as No. 1, not after Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss turned in wins over ranked SEC opponents. The voters should be reminded Florida State has won 21 games in a row. It beat an improving Oklahoma State team, ranked No. 21 and rising, to open the season; it beat Clemson with a backup quarterback; and it outscored NC State 49-17 after a disastrous first quarter this past week. Not every win has been impressive, but Florida State has found ways to beat one ranked team, beat another with a backup and overcome a 24-7 deficit. Clemson, by the way, will be ranked before too long, so that win will only look better and better. The Tigers are a far different team with Deshaun Watson under center. Of course, the rankings don't really matter right now. If Florida State beats Syracuse and Notre Dame, it will be very happy with where it stands when the first College Football Playoff committee rankings are released Oct. 28.

[+] EnlargeGeorgia Tech Zach Laskey
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesZach Laskey accounted for 133 of Georgia Tech's 318 rushing yards against Miami.
2. Virginia and Georgia Tech are the Coastal front-runners. Believe it! The two teams in the Coastal with the most questions headed into the season have gotten off to 2-0 starts in league play and sit atop the division. For now. While there always is a caveat in the Coastal, both teams deserve to be there. Georgia Tech ended long losing streaks to both Virginia Tech and Miami. Its 28-17 win over the Canes on Saturday night was as thorough an offensive domination as you can get. The Jackets rolled up 311 yards rushing and 21 first downs, converted 9-of-14 third-down attempts and held the ball for 40 minutes. They also came up with two turnovers to kill Miami drives. The Canes' defense reverted to form and looked lost for most of the night against a team that has the most predictable offense in the ACC. Virginia, meanwhile, held on to beat Pitt 24-19 behind a career game from Kevin Parks, who had 169 yards and a touchdown. Considering how the Panthers outplayed the Hoos in the second half, this is a big win for Virginia. Maybe a season ago, the result would've been different. No, the officiating was not very good in the game, but Virginia found a way to win. The Nov. 1 matchup between Georgia Tech and Virginia in Atlanta is looking pretty big right about now.

3. The two-QB system isn’t working for UNC. Mitch Trubisky was 1-of-4 for 11 yards and threw a disastrous pick-six during his limited time on the field in a 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech, and once again Tar Heels fans are wondering why Larry Fedora insists on the merry-go-round at QB. Marquise Williams has said the right things, but the off-and-on approach is clearly affecting him, while Trubisky isn’t getting nearly enough reps to make real progress. With UNC’s Coastal hopes on life support, it’s time for Fedora to pick his QB -- either to try to win now or to prep for the future. It is not as if the schedule gives them any breaks, either. North Carolina is at Notre Dame next weekend, with games against Georgia Tech, at Virginia and at Miami to follow.

4. NC State isn’t ready to contend: Clemson could do what Florida State couldn’t: get consistent pressure off the edge on NC State in a 41-0 blowout. The Tigers’ pass rush utterly smothered Jacoby Brissett, whose problems with fumbles under pressure continue to cost the Wolfpack. Meanwhile, NC State’s porous defense looked bad again, and while it’s clear Dave Doeren’s crew is better than it was a year ago, the ACC losing streak is now at 10 games, and there’s no debate who is the second best team in the Atlantic Division. Watson finished with 329 all-purpose yards in another solid performance, which left many to wonder what would have happened had he been the starter when the season began.

5. Louisville can win with defense: The Cardinals haven’t allowed more than 300 yards in a game yet this season and notched another outstanding effort in a 28-6 win over Syracuse on Friday night. Its 12 interceptions through six games were more than six ACC teams had all of the past season. Gerod Holliman has seven picks in six games -- something no one had done since FAU’s Tavious Polo in 2007. The defensive front has racked up 21 sacks already, and no opponent has averaged even 3 yards per rush. Yes, Louisville is having some offensive struggles in the early going, but it might not matter if Todd Grantham’s unit keeps playing this well.

By the numbers: Going deep in ACC

September, 25, 2014
It’s been a stellar start to the season for Jacoby Brissett, but there’s one little nagging problem in his performance that he knows must be fixed if NC State wants to upend top-ranked Florida State on Saturday: The deep ball.

The Wolfpack lead the ACC in total offense (502 yards per game), passing touchdowns (10) and completion percentage (67.7 percent), but those big plays downfield have been somewhat tough to come by.

“We’re not playing conservative; we’re taking our shots,” Brissett said. But those shots haven’t worked out quite as he’d hoped.

So far this season, on throws of 20 yards or longer, Brissett is just 5-of-15.

The good news is that the five he’s completed have accounted for 200 yards of offense, and of the 10 that didn’t connect, none were picked off. It's also a big improvement over last season, when NC State QBs connected on just 20 percent of their deep balls with three TDs and seven interceptions.

The bad news, coach Dave Doeren said, is that those throws should have added up to so much more.

“We’re still dropping a couple balls we should catch,” Doeren said. “We dropped four deep balls that could’ve been touchdowns.”

Of course, Brissett hasn’t been perfect on his throws, either.

“A lot of the overthrows were my fault,” he said. “I was just a little too happy they were that wide open.”

Saturday figures to offer fewer opportunities for receivers to be running wide open downfield against FSU’s stellar secondary, but Brissett also knows his offense will need to take its shots when possible if it wants to match the Seminoles’ firepower. A few big plays can swing a ballgame.

“Just give them a shot,” he said. “It’s hit or miss. It’s a long throw, but once you hit one, it’ll loosen the defense up. When they’re playing tight, take that shot.”

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeNC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett is trying to complete deep passes, with limited success.
And that got us to thinking about those big plays. Has NC State’s offense really been so bad on deep balls? And who’s doing it better?

The answer to the first question is that the Wolfpack have performed to almost exactly the league average on deep throws. Brissett has looked deep (20 yards or more downfield) on 12.6 percent of his throws — exactly the league average for ACC QBs. He’s completed one-third of them, just a tick below the ACC median. He’s averaging 13.6 yards per attempt on those throws -- again, right in the middle of the league (13.6).

But, of course, to beat Florida State, the league average rarely cuts it. NC State needs to be exceptional.

Last year, that was the territory marked by Jameis Winston and the Seminoles. Winston led all ACC quarterbacks with 40 completions and tied for the lead with 16 touchdowns on throws of 20 yards or longer. His 98.6 QBR on such throws trailed only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. Winston looked deep on 21 percent of his attempts.

This year, however, that’s changed — at least through the two games Winston has played. The FSU quarterback has attempted passes of 20-plus yards on 10.4 percent of his throws (14th among ACC QBs) and has yet to complete one for a touchdown. Overall, Florida State’s two starting quarterbacks (Winston and Sean Maguire) have completed 6-of-12 deep balls for 306 yards, which look like solid numbers, but -- noticeably -- three-quarters of those passes have gone to Rashad Greene. The biggest difference for FSU this season is that the Seminoles have yet to find another receiver who is really stretching the field.

Greene’s eight deep targets are tied for the league lead with Louisville’s James Quick, Pitt’s Tyler Boyd and Georgia Tech’s DeAndre Smelter. Greene's four receptions on those throws is matched only by Miami’s Phillip Dorsett.

The deep ball for the Hurricanes has actually been an interesting discussion. With freshman Brad Kaaya struggling on such throws early in the season, defenses have been happy to stack the box and slow down Duke Johnson. Kaaya has attempted just 13 throws of 20-plus yards so far (13th in the ACC), down drastically from a year ago, when Stephen Morris was third in the league in deep balls. With Dorsett and Stacy Coley as weapons, it seems reasonable that James Coley will need to take the training wheels off for Kaaya sooner than later.

No quarterback in the conference has looked deep more often than Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas, but that’s no surprise. Tech’s option offense lures defenders to the line of scrimmage, and Thomas has taken advantage by looking deep 19 times and connecting for three touchdowns.

What is perhaps a bit more surprising is the next two names on the list: Mitch Trubisky at North Carolina (seven deep balls out of 34 passes) and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (eight deep balls on 41 attempts).

Trubisky has struggled on his deep throws, completing just one of seven. Watson, on the other hand, has been exceptional. The true freshman has connected on 6 of 8 deep balls, including 2 of 3 for 67 yards last week against Florida State. Is it any wonder the Tigers have turned to him over Cole Stoudt (3-of-12 on deep throws) to run Chad Morris’ offense? Watson is also one of just three ACC QBs (along with Winston and Kaaya) to complete more than half their deep balls.

On the other end of the spectrum, no ACC quarterback has looked deep less often than Wake Forest’s John Wolford (6.2 percent of his throws) and none have balanced the risk-reward worse than Virginia Tech’s Michael Brewer, who is averaging a league-low 27.8 yards-per-completion on deep throws, with three interceptions and no touchdowns.

Of course, it’s also still awfully early, and small sample sizes often yield strange results. But as Brissett takes aim at the nation’s top team Saturday, NC State is clearly not the only offense wondering how deep balls fits into their arsenal.

ACC morning links

September, 22, 2014
No surprise, but Dabo Swinney made it official Sunday: Deshaun Watson will start at quarterback for Clemson, writes The Post and Courier.

Clemson fans obviously wish that decision had come a few days earlier, but it’s hard to fault Swinney for showing loyalty to his veteran, Cole Stoudt, for as long as he could. Besides, most true freshmen would’ve been rattled by the big stage in Tallahassee on Saturday. It’s just that Watson isn’t like most freshmen, and that’s why this was an easy decision moving forward.

Four weeks into the season, Watson is the fourth backup QB in the ACC to see signifiant action, and he’s clearly been the best. Watson leads all ACC quarterbacks in Total QBR and is sixth nationally.

The true freshman has only been on campus since January and he missed the latter half of spring ball with an injury, but as we wrote last week, he's a quick study and Chad Morris' offense is second nature already.

Watson might be licking his chops for his first career start, which will come this week against a reeling North Carolina team that just coughed up 789 yards of offense to ECU and ranks 125th nationally in passing defense. It’s so bad for the Tar Heels that Larry Fedora admitted he needs to re-evaluate how he’s doing his job, writes the Charlotte Observer.

Of course, as Fedora tries to right the ship in Chapel Hill, it’s possible he could turn to his backup QB, too. Starter Marquise Williams struggled against ECU, completing 14 of 25 passes for 127 yards (just 5.1 per attempt) and tossed a disastrous interception that was returned for a TD. Two early scoring drives led by Williams were actually finished by TD throws from a wide receiver and punter, respectively.

Mitch Trubisky wasn’t markedly better, completing 8 of 16 throws for 103 yards and a touchdown, but it’s fair to wonder if UNC fans will start clamoring for the highly recruited freshman to start over the veteran QB soon, too, just as Clemson’s fans did.

Sean Maguire largely held his own in his first start for Florida State, and it was a wild ride for his family, writes Warchant. But he’s headed back to the bench as Jimbo Fisher made clear that Jameis Winston will be the starter again, effective today.

Then at Virginia, the Hoos remain optimistic despite a third straight 2-2 start, writes The Daily Progress. But questions still linger at QB, after Matt Johns finished things off for Virginia against BYU following an injury to starter Greyson Lambert. Lambert says he'll be back this week, but Johns has the better numbers through four games.

But if there’s QB drama in those places, there is none in Clemson, where Watson is clearly the future.

“Turn his tape on, watch him play and the moment was never too big for him, even as a freshman playing varsity,” Morris told me last week. And that was before Watson looked like a savvy veteran in raucous Doak Campbell Stadium.

The Tigers are 1-2, and for the third straight year, it looks like winning the ACC won’t happen. But after Clemson fans licked their wounds Sunday, they should certainly feel good about the future with their new QB.

A few more links:
  • There’s no doubt Winston was missed Saturday, but Florida State showed its depth in the win over Clemson, writes Sports Illustrated.
  • It was a lot of little things that let Florida State squash Clemson, writes Tomahawk Nation. Of note on those little things: Clemson was 2-of-5 converting third-and-short against the Seminoles.
  • This headline from the Washington Post certainly summed up Clemson's performance Saturday succinctly.
  • Michael Brewer took the blame after Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech, writes The Roanoke Times. No Power 5 QB in the country has thrown more interceptions this season than Brewer (eight).
  • There are plenty of numbers for Boston College to be happy about after four games, but BC Interruption points out a couple sobering stats: The Eagles didn’t force a turnover against Maine and currently rank 104th nationally with a minus-3 turnover margin. BC has just three points off turnovers this year, too. Only six FBS teams have less.
  • Another year, another long list of complaints about Miami’s defense, writes The Sun-Sentinel. Is there anyone in the ACC whose job seems less secure right now than Mark D’Onofrio? Since he came aboard in 2011, only Duke has allowed more yards per game to Power 5 teams than Miami (446.2) and no ACC team has allowed a higher percentage of third-down conversions (46.1).
  • James Quick’s breakout game against FIU was worth the wait for Louisville, writes The Courier-Journal.
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora gave his offensive line about a 'C' grade after its opener against Liberty, which could be either an indictment of a unit that was far more talented than its competition or praise for a group that was breaking in three new starters.

Either way, Fedora said, things have to get better in Week 2.

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeCoach Larry Fedora says he needs to see improvement from his inexperienced offensive line.
It’s not that the line performed poorly for the Tar Heels. The unit, which Fedora repeatedly touted throughout fall camp as the biggest question mark on the team, allowed just one sack -- midway through the third quarter with backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the game -- and opened some running lanes for the tailbacks, which averaged 5 yards per carry.

But with San Diego State next up on the schedule, Fedora said, the test gets much bigger this week.

"The chaos that they try to create with their movement, their blitzes, all the different things that they do on that side of the ball will be an issue," Fedora said. "It’s a concern to see how our guys will handle it."

With starting left guard Caleb Peterson out with an injury, Will Dancy made his first start in the opener against Liberty. Tackle John Ferranto started for the first time, too, and center Lucas Crowley made just the second start of his career. The lack of experience didn’t keep UNC’s offense from racking up 443 yards or running a whopping 93 plays -- sixth most by any Power 5 conference team in Week 1 -- but the unit didn’t always look completely cohesive.

One of Fedora’s offseason mantras was smarter play, and he preached again and again that North Carolina would trim the high number of penalties it racked up last season. There was little progress on that front in Week 1, and the line was a big reason. The line was flagged five times for false starts.

Chalk it up to a learning experience, but Fedora said those lessons need to take hold this week.

San Diego State defensive coordinator Rocky Long’s philosophy is predicated on confusion, and that could make for a tough matchup for a young line.

"Rocky is very innovative on defense," Fedora said. "It’s a very unique style of defense, and his guys adapt to it very well. There are a lot of movements, a lot of confusion, a lot of chaos created for a young offensive line, and so that definitely is a concern for us."

Film study this week helps, but even that has its limitations, Fedora said.

"It’s not like you can zero in on one thing," he said. "Our guys are going to have to prepare for a lot of different looks."

In other words, expect the unexpected.

It’s enough to have Fedora worried, but the Aztecs also figure to present a nice barometer of just how far the Tar Heels' offensive line has come. With a difficult four-game stretch against East Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame upcoming, Fedora knows that mediocre performance against Liberty won’t be enough to carry the Tar Heels too far into ACC play.

But Fedora isn’t expecting perfection yet, just progress.

"I want them just to see them improve a little bit each week," Fedora said. "We don't have to be end-of-the-season, at our best right now, but we do need to see improvement, and the style of defense that San Diego State runs makes it very difficult for a young offensive line."

ACC morning links

August, 19, 2014
It is nearly time to begin preparing for Week 1 matchups. Does it surprise anybody that there are still unanswered questions at quarterback for three Coastal Division contenders?

Miami held a scrimmage Monday night in which true freshman Brad Kaaya continued to impress, throwing two touchdown passes. Transfer Jake Heaps, competing for the starting job, sat out the scrimmage to rest his arm. Coach Al Golden has repeatedly said he would name his starter following both scrimmages. Kevin Olsen is suspended for at least the opener; Kaaya played in both scrimmages; Heaps in just one. Do we read anything into where this leads headed into the opener against Louisville?

Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, coach Larry Fedora said he will not publicly announce his starter before kickoff against Liberty on Aug. 30. Returning starter Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky have been in a dogged competition. The Tar Heels will begin game prep Wednesday.

"We'll make a decision before the 30th," Fedora said. "I mean, you guys won't know it. But we will make a decision before the 30th. We'll start as we get into the game-planning, we'll have a plan what we're going to do and how we're going to implement it and those guys will be aware of it.

"It won't be like we walk out there on the 30th and I flip a coin and throw one of them out there."

Finally, the race to start at Virginia Tech is down to Michael Brewer and Mark Leal. Brenden Motley, who left the spring No. 1 on the depth chart, has been dealing with back issues throughout fall camp and has fallen out of the competition. Brewer and Leal split first-team reps during a weekend scrimmage, but a decision remains up in the air.

Now here is quick look at other headlines across the ACC:

North Carolina Tar Heels season preview

August, 13, 2014

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the season for the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Key returners: QB Marquise Williams (1,765 passing yards, 536 rushing yards, 16 TDs), RB T.J. Logan (533 rushing yards, 4 TDs), WR Quinshad Davis (48 catches, 730 yards, 10 TDs), WR/PR Ryan Switzer (872 all-purpose yards, 8 TDs), LB Jeff Schoettmer (85 tackles), LB Norkeithus Otis (13 TFL, 7.5 sacks), LB Travis Hughes (76 tackles), S Dominique Green (3 INTs)

Key losses: TE Eric Ebron (62 catches, 973 yards), RB A.J. Blue (298 yards), LT James Hurst, C Russell Bodine, DB Tre Boston (94 tackles, 5 INTs), DE Kareem Martin (21.5 TFLs, 11.5 sacks), DB Jabari Price (80 tackles, 9 pass breakups)

Most important games: Sept. 27 at Clemson, Oct. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 11 at Notre Dame, Nov. 1 at Miami, Nov. 20 at Duke

Projected win percentage: .703

Vegas over/under: 8.5 wins

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMarquise Williams completed 58.1 percent of his passes last season.
Instant impact newcomers: Running back Elijah Hood is 220 pounds of brute force who figures to be a major asset in UNC’s ground game from the outset. True freshman Bentley Spain is in the mix for the starting job at left tackle, though spring injuries limited him in the early going. Redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon could see significant playing time on a badly depleted defensive line. And of course, there’s the issue of quarterback, where redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky is still hoping to unseat Williams as the starter.

Biggest question mark: The line of scrimmage. Larry Fedora says the offensive line may well dictate just how good UNC is as a team, and with the losses of two key players from last year’s group and a host of spring injuries, there are still plenty of questions left to be answered in that area. But if the O-line is a major question mark, the D-line isn’t much more settled. The losses of Kareem Martin (11.5 sacks) and Tim Jackson leave a major void, and some of the talent expected to help fill the gaps -- Shawn Underwood, Greg Webb -- was ruled ineligible before the start of fall camp.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Fedora finds his quarterback, the O-line jells quickly, the rushing defense improves dramatically from a year ago and UNC finally finds some consistency overall. The schedule won’t be an easy one, but if the Heels can get off to a quicker start this year than last, they remain a strong contender for the Coastal Division.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The luxury of having two good QBs devolves into a full-fledged quarterback controversy that never is resolved. The O-line looks shaky and the youth on defense becomes a major problem. Four of UNC’s toughest games are on the road, which is potentially problematic for a young team, which could mean last year’s strong finish fades to a distant memory by mid-October in 2014.

Number to know: 9. That’s the number of touchdowns scored last season by North Carolina’s defense and special teams -- tied with national champion Florida State for the most by any team from a Power Five conference. Overall, defense and special teams accounted for 16.4 percent of UNC’s touchdowns last year, the most by a Power Five conference team. Switzer led the way for the Tar Heels with five punt-return scores.
The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.

Why North Carolina will win the Coastal

The running game. Last year’s team struggled to run the ball, finishing 11th overall in the conference in rushing with QB Marquise Williams serving as the team’s leading rusher. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and a more optimistic narrative unfolds. In UNC’s first seven games, it averaged 102 yards on the ground, 2.8 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns. In its last six games, that average jumped to 202 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry and the Heels scored 13 times on the ground. Now Larry Fedora’s crew adds hulking freshman Elijah Hood to a backfield that already includes T.J. Logan, Khris Francis and Romar Morris and promises to be one of the deepest, most diverse units in the league.

Special teams are special. Only Bowling Green (10) had more non-offensive touchdowns last season than UNC (9), and the Tar Heels’ special teams were a big reason why. Ryan Switzer was an All-American, scoring five times on punt returns last year, but Fedora says his sophomore only scratched the surface of his talent. Switzer may get work on kick returns this year, too. And even if teams work to avoid kicking to Switzer this year, he says that's fine by him. It will simply mean UNC will start every drive with solid field position as the opposition boots them short or out of bounds.

The QB competition. While the rest of the league is searching for one quarterback it can count on, North Carolina’s quandary is how to find reps for both of its QBs. Williams led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 finish last year and showed he can command the offense. Mitch Trubisky was a top recruit with a strong arm and impressive mobility. Fedora said he believes he can win with both -- and that means both will likely see some playing time. There may not be another team in the conference with as much depth at the QB spot as Carolina enjoys.

Why North Carolina won’t win the Coastal

The QB competition. Wait, what were we just saying about the advantages of having two QBs? You know the old saying — if you have two quarterbacks, you’ve got none. That may not necessarily apply to UNC’s situation, but regardless which QB is tabbed as the starter, the expectations will be high and any early struggles could quickly lead to a restless fan base and a divided locker room.

The offensive line. Fedora has been blunt in saying the Tar Heels will likely go just as far as their revamped offensive line can carry them. The unit lost two starters to the NFL after last season, and a host of spring injuries meant there was no time for cohesion to be built among the newcomers. Bentley Spain could be a breakout star at left tackle, but for a team with eyes on an ACC title, relying on a true freshman at that position is never an ideal scenario.

They’re just too young. It’s both exciting and unnerving, Fedora admits. He has just six seniors on his team. The offensive line has only three juniors on the entire depth chart. A host of key personnel on both sides of the ball are freshmen and sophomores. Yes, this is Year 3 for Fedora, and he believes last year’s strong finish was a good sign that players are beginning to grasp his philosophy, but with youth come mistakes, and in a crowded Coastal, there may not be room for too many setbacks.

ACC's lunch links: QB roundup

July, 22, 2014
The most honest man at ACC Kickoff was probably Wake Forest's Dave Clawson. And, to his credit, he even managed to find a little humor in the bleak picture painted by his depth chart this year, as the High Point Enterprise wrote.
Asked to comment about where his first Wake Forest team is predicted to finish in the ACC's tough Atlantic Division, Clawson replied, “Were we picked to win it? I didn't see those. Were we unanimous first? The bull's-eye is on us, right?”

Clawson didn't sugar-coat the team's lack of experience and depth, but he had his most pointed comments regarding the quarterback position, where Tyler Cameron and Kevin Sousa are battling for a job that no one seems eager to win.

“Those two guys who took snaps in the spring, neither did enough, even if we didn't have those [true freshmen] coming in, to take control of the job,” Clawson said.

What was unique from Clawson was his pessimism on the position. What wasn't unique were the questions about the position. Plenty of coaches were asked about their quarterbacks in Greensboro, and for good reason. After talking with each coach and the players in attendance, here's a quick run-down of where each ACC team's QB situation stands.

1. Florida State: Jameis Winston is the returning Heisman winner and his time in Greensboro was, at the very least, a solid first step in FSU's quest to repair its quarterback's image.

2. Duke: Anthony Boone is the only other quarterback in the league with at least 300 attempts last season who is back for 2014, but David Cutcliffe still plans to use two quarterbacks and eagerly talked up Thomas Sirk, who will step into the red zone role manned so well by Brandon Connette last season.

3. Clemson: The biggest worry for Clemson is the potential for a real quarterback controversy (or, at the very least, a lively debate) if Cole Stoudt struggles early. Dabo Swinney offered blanket support for his senior, but the early schedule is difficult, and the immensely talented but completely green Deshaun Watson is waiting in the wings.

4. NC State: Dave Doeren can barely contain his enthusiasm about the addition of Jacoby Brissett, whom the coach described as “everything you recruit in a quarterback.” Doeren did remind reporters, however, that Brissett's on-field experience remains extremely limited.

5. North Carolina: Hey, if Peyton Manning says Marquise Williams is going to be an exceptional passer, who are we to argue? Still, it's not enough to convince Larry Fedora to hand him the starting job just yet, and it sounds more and more like UNC will use two quarterbacks at times.

6. Syracuse: Terrel Hunt has proved he can win and he's taken on a leadership role this offseason, but he still needs to prove he can be a respectable downfield passer. And even Scott Shafer admitted things needed to get better there.

7. Louisville: The depth chart isn't set in stone here either, but Bobby Petrino had plenty of praise for Will Gardner in Greensboro, saying, "He can make all the throws you need to make. He's got the arm strength. He's got a very quick release. ... He's a natural leader that the players have already learned to follow."

8. Pitt: Paul Chryst says Chad Voytik still has a ways to go, but he's pleased with the quarterback's progress and, of course, Voytik will have as dangerous a weapon as any first-year starter in the league in Tyler Boyd.

9. Boston College: The Eagles actually have a relatively experienced and settled QB spot with the arrival of transfer Tyler Murphy, and lineman Andy Gallik said Murphy has grasped the offense and taken on a leadership role. But his problem will be that he doesn't have much in the way of receiving targets or experience in the backfield to help him out.

10. Virginia: Mike London shrugged off the rumors about his job, and one reason he can do that is that he's immensely confident in QB Greyson Lambert, who looks to have cemented his role as the team's starter.

11. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson smiled at the notion that recently departed QB Vad Lee said the triple-option wasn't for him, noting the situation had become “frustrating” for both sides. With Justin Thomas, however, Johnson said he has the ideal quarterback to run his offense.

12. Virginia Tech: Well, Brenden Motley did get a preseason player of the year vote, even if he's not exactly destined to win the starting job. Frank Beamer said he plans to end the drama soon, even if no one separates himself and “he has to go with a gut decision.”

13. Miami: Ryan Williams would make this a much better scenario, but Al Golden isn't interested in predicting his veteran will be back from a torn ACL any time soon. That leaves Jake Heaps and Kevin Olsen, neither of whom earned a ton of praise in Greensboro.

14. Wake Forest: It's going to be a long year for Clawson, but at least he's got a sense of humor about it.

More links:

Dabo Swinney is confident Clemson will have a chance to win the Atlantic, writes The State.

Swinney has no intention of taking religion out of his football program, writes Sports on Earth.

There are no hard feelings between Swinney and Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, writes The Post-Standard.

Florida State's offensive line will be what sets the Seminoles apart in the ACC, writes Tomahawk Nation.

And your non-sports link of the day: If you don't hear from me for a few months, blame the new Simpsons World from FXX, which looks… amazing.