ACC: Shad Thornton

Last weekend’s NFL draft in which 42 ACC players were selected was a reminder of how much talent was departing the conference. But just as Sammy Watkins, Aaron Donald and Kyle Fuller say goodbye, the focus turns to the players who’ll step into the spotlight in 2014.

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.)

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami tailback Duke Johnson rushed for 920 yards in 2013, despite missing five games due to injury.
PASSING YARDS
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.

RUSHING YARDS
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.

RECEIVING YARDS
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)

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley has 21 sacks in his career.
Of note: Duke’s front four took a big hit with the loss of three senior starters, but the back seven should be one of the most experienced and productive in the conference. Of the 25 ACC players with at least 50 solo tackles last season, 12 return this season.

INTERCEPTIONS
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.

SACKS
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.

NC State spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the North Carolina State Wolfpack:

1. Having a quarterback helps. Last spring, the NC State offense looked dismal and new coach Dave Doeren didn’t know who his quarterback would be. That problem persisted throughout the fall, and the Wolfpack went winless in ACC play. Now that Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is eligible to play, however, there’s a consistency on offense that was missing throughout 2013. More importantly, Doeren knows who his QB is, and Brissett can play the role of leader throughout the offseason.

2. Hines is a playmaker. NC State had a huge class of early enrollees, and while all made strides this spring, it was Bo Hines who stood out. The freshman had a fabulous spring game, catching 10 passes for 132 yards. It wasn’t just a big day in front of fans either. Doeren raved that Hines made at least one play every day throughout spring practice.

3. There’s depth at tailback. Shad Thornton finished sixth in the ACC in rushing last season, but after a strong spring by NC State’s tailbacks, the starting job won’t just be handed to the incumbent. Thornton worked on the second-team offense in the spring game, while Doeren praised Tony Creecy and Matt Dayes, too, and with a QB who can force defenses to respect the passing game, there could be plenty of yards to be had on the ground in 2014 for the Wolfpack.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett, Garrett Leatham
Lance King/Getty ImagesFlorida transfer Jacoby Brissett will start at quarterback for the Wolfpack in 2014.
1. Will other young receivers step up? Hines impressed. Veteran Bryan Underwood looks healthy and should be a leader. But what about the rest of Brissett’s weapons in the passing game? The Wolfpack need more consistency out of sophomores Jumichael Ramos and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Hines’ fellow early enrollee Stephen Louis didn’t have a catch in the spring game.

2. Has the pass rush improved? It’s hard to make any grand pronouncements based on the spring game, where QBs weren’t live, but both the first- and second-string defenses racked up five sacks on the day. That’s the good news, but the defensive front remains young and inexperienced, with nowhere to go but up after last year’s D mustered a league-worst 20 sacks.

3. Can Doeren develop depth? Doeren has been quick to point out that 70 percent of NC State’s roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores, which means there’s not a ton of experience down the depth chart. That showed up in the spring game when the No. 2 defense did little to corral Brissett and the second-string offense produced a mere 65 yards. There are reasons for optimism with early enrollee safety Germaine Pratt (an INT in the spring game) and receiver-turned-pass rusher Pharoah McKever, among others, but the staff has its work cut out for it in developing the raw materials into productive players.

One way-too-early prediction: Yes, the Wolfpack were 0-8 in ACC play last season, but there weren’t many blowouts. Doeren’s crew showed plenty of fight despite a litany of problems, and that’s a good sign for what’s to come in 2014. The big change, however, is Brissett, who breathes new life into the offense and provides some real direction for NC State going forward. A conference title probably isn’t in the cards, but a bowl appearance wouldn’t be unrealistic.

ACC Week 7: Did you know?

October, 11, 2013
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Thanks again to ESPN Stats & Info and sports information departments from all of these schools for the tidbits.

Pitt: The Panthers have played 12 different true freshmen this season, and they are led by rookies in seven different categories. James Conner is their top rusher (353 yards), and receiver Tyler Boyd is their top pass-catcher (23 receptions), scorer (30 points), kick returner (178 yards) and all purpose threat (701 yards). Kicker Chris Blewitt, meanwhile, is the team's top kick-scorer (26 points), while defensive back Terrish Webb is tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries (1).

Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech has allowed just 30 points in the second half, the second-fewest in the ACC. Pitt has scored just 38 points in the second half, the fewest in the ACC. Quarterback Logan Thomas has faced a lot of criticism over the last two seasons but has stepped up his play recently for the Hokies, as he has not thrown an interception in his last two games after getting picked off in each of his previous five games.

Duke: The Blue Devils have displayed remarkable consistency on their offensive line in recent years, as they started Perry Simmons (RT), Laken Tomlinson (RG), Dave Harding (LG) and Takoby Cofield (RT) together in 18 straight games. Simmons, Tomlinson and Harding have started 28 o the past 30 games together. Duke's starting offensive linemen have a combined 128 starts, the most in the ACC. Simmons' 42 straight starts leads the ACC. Center Matt Skura is the only newcomer to the grope this year.

Virginia: Speaking of offensive lines, and upperclassmen ... the Cavaliers have actually gone the opposite way of Duke this season, using three freshmen on their offensive line this season, the most in the nation. Eric Smith started at right tackle last week against Ball State, making him the fourth true freshman in Virginia history to start at offensive tackle. The others are D'Brickashaw Ferguson (2002, LT), Brad Butler (2002, RT) and current starting left tackle Morgan Moses (2010, RT).

Maryland: Andre Monroe had a sack against Florida State, raising his season total to 3.5. The Terrapins are now the only team in the ACC and one of only three teams in the nation (Louisville, USC) to have three different players with at least three sacks on the season, Marcus Whitfield has 5.5 and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil has three. Maryland's 18 sacks on the season are third in the ACC and and fourth nationally.

Syracuse: The Orange are making their ACC road debut this weekend at NC State. Their last conference road debut came at Pitt in 1991, when Syracuse beat the Panthers in its Big East debut, the first of six straight conference road wins the Orange had to start their Big East tenure. Conversely, the Wolfpack are 6-0 all-time against the Orange, most recently beating them 38-17 in 1998. Syracuse was ranked in the top-20 in each of the last two meetings.

NC State: The Wolfpack call it "Rushing Roulette," as they have had five different players lead them in rushing through their first five games. None of those players, however, have eclipsed the 100-yard mark. Matt Dayes (84) led NC State on the ground against Louisiana Tech, followed by Tony Creecy (56) against Richmond, Bryan Underwood (54) against Clemson, Shad Thornton (71) against Central Michigan and Pete Thomas (60) against Wake Forest.

Boston College: The Eagles have lost four of their last five meetings with Clemson, but there have been some key BC wins against the Tigers — notably, BC’s first ACC win in 2005, at Clemson. And in each of the next two years, BC beat ranked Clemson teams. Those BC wins all came before Dabo Swinney took over as Clemson’s head coach. The last time BC knocked off a team ranked third or higher in the AP Poll was 1993, when it beat No. 1 Notre Dame on the road on a last-second field goal. The win landed Boston College on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Since then, BC is 0-6 against teams ranked third or higher, though the Eagles did beat No. 4 Notre Dame 14-7 in 2002.

Clemson: Tajh Boyd continues to light it up and will look to follow up his performance last week against Syracuse when he threw for a school-record 455 yards. That broke his own record, which he set last season against Wake Forest, by 27 yards. This week he needs just 220 yards of total offense to pass Georgia Tech’s Joe Hamilton for second place on the ACC career total offense list.

Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech leads the FBS in rushing yards by the quarterback position (718), while BYU is second with 579 yards. But the Yellow Jackets' passing offense, never a strong suit since Paul Johnson became head coach, has been awful lately, even by program standards. During its last two games, Georgia Tech has completed just 30.2 percent of its throws, the nation's worst mark during that stretch, while averaging just 105 passing yards per game. They have tallied no passing touchdowns and four interceptions, with a total QBR of 30.9.

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