ACC: Sylvester Williams

We’ve got less than two weeks until our planes take off for Greensboro, N.C., the site of this year’s ACC Football Kickoff, where members of the media meet with players and coaches for two days of interviews. In order to help us get to the unofficial start of the season, we’re counting down 10 of the most interesting storylines in the ACC this fall. We head to Chapel Hill, N.C., today for No. 9:

No. 9: Can UNC earn a real ring?

Ok, so we gave Larry Fedora some grief for buying his players ACC Coastal Division championship rings last year when his team was ineligible to win it, but you know what? Those are the kinds of things players love, and the guys in Chapel Hill are buying into the “Fed Spread.” Their up-tempo offense reflects the 100 mph pace of their head coach, and it should only be better this fall with veteran quarterback Bryn Renner returning. Only two problems: standout running back Giovani Bernard and lead blocker Jonathan Cooper have to be replaced. Those are big-time losses, and not only in the running game. Bernard will also be sorely missed in the return game. A.J. Blue is ready to become the team’s top running back, but can the Heels be as effective without their top two offensive players from 2012? And that’s just the beginning. No other team in the ACC -- besides FSU -- lost more starters than North Carolina, which has to replace 10. Defensively, UNC has to replace its top two leaders in sacks in defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick.

We know Renner is good. We think Fedora is good. But can the entire team reload on talent and be good enough this fall to earn a ring instead of buy one?

The countdown:

No. 10: Can Duke get back to a bowl game?
North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin returns as one of the leaders of the Tar Heels' defense for 2013. Martin had an outstanding spring game, with four sacks and six tackles for loss, and is also getting some pub as one of the top defensive end prospects Insider in the country.

[+] EnlargeKareem Martin
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsKareem Martin returns in 2013 as one of the Tar Heels' leaders and one of the top defensive end prospects in the nation.
I had a chance to catch up with him recently. Here is a little of what he had to say.

What do you feel you worked on this spring to improve your game?

KM: Just tried to work on different aspects that I felt were my weaknesses during the year, pass rush, ball get off, all the things a defensive lineman needs. Going into spring, I felt like if I was going to be an effective, great player I would need to work on those things. I feel like I accomplished those goals. I was able to have a good spring game and I felt like it was an overall successful spring for me.

How did you go about working on those different things?

KM: Just taking it one day at a time. In the spring time, you have a lot more individual periods, so I took those a lot more seriously than maybe I have in the past, making sure every move that I do I’m doing it with a purpose as opposed to going through the motions. When you treat a practice like a game, that’s when you make a lot of strides. I think it really helped me out.

So did you have a different mind-set than the way you treated practices in the past?

KM: I’ve always treated practice seriously, but this year I feel like it’s my year to step up for this defensive line. A lot is expected of me so I’m focused a little bit more. I treat every rep like it’s my last and give it my all because I know the team is going to be looking for me to be a leader on this defense. To do that, I have to show it in practice so I can perform in games.

That also sets an example for your teammates since everybody is looking at you, too.

KM: Yeah you know I think the defensive line as a whole, I think we made a lot of strides this offseason. We have a lot of young guys who played a little bit last year who got a lot of reps this springs, guys like Justin Thomason, Jessie Rogers, both those guys played a little bit last year but this spring really helped them out, allowed them to get a lot more live reps. That’s what helped us out.

You guys obviously started playing a new scheme last year. How was playing defensive end different?

KM: With the scheme, there was a lot more movement than your average 4-3. There was a lot more slanting and stunts and everything because they were sending guys all the time. It was played a lot differently than what I had played in the past.

How long did it take to make that transition?

KM: The hardest part was learning the playbook. We weren’t familiar with the staff at the time so there were communication errors in the beginning. Going into fall camp as the transition was over, then I was used to doing all the movements and knew what to expect.

You went from seven tackles for loss in 2011 to 15.5 in 2012. How do you feel about your productivity?

KM: You’re able to pin your ears back with this defense. We do a lot of movements, and it keeps the offensive linemen on edge. They never know what you’re going to do, so that plays to our advantage. We’ve got guys coming through the gaps and they don’t know who to block. Also me getting bigger, faster and stronger allowed me to do a lot of things for this defense last year.

With Sylvester Williams gone, who’s been filling in that role and who do you expect step up there?

KM: Right now, we have me, Tim Jackson and Shawn Underwood. Both of those guys do great playing the nose and the tackle. It’s hard to fill the void Sly left. He’s a first-rounder. It’s hard to replace that production he had, but with those two guys and with our quality backups, we will have to play more as a unit as opposed to depending on that one person. I think if we can all buy in as a unit we should be able to fill that void that he left.

How much better can the defense be in Year 2?

KM: The defense will be a lot better. Year 1 we were just adjusting. The playbook was very limited, we still had guys trying to learn the playbook and that hurt us early on. The Wake Forest and Louisville games had a lot of missed assignments. But Year 2, everybody has a grasp of the offense, we’ve been working at it all offseason, getting the younger guys involved. As a defense this spring, we really stepped and were able to fly around a lot more.
North Carolina Tar Heels

2012 record: 8-4

2012 conference record: 5-3, Coastal

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Bryn Renner, OT James Hurst, DE Kareem Martin, S Tre Boston

Key losses

RB Giovani Bernard, OG Jonathan Cooper, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Bernard (1,228 yards, 12 TDs)

Passing: Renner* (276-of-422 for 3,356 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs)

Receiving: Quinshad Davis* (776 yards, 5 TDs)

Tackles: Boston* (86)

Sacks: Reddick (6.5)

Interceptions: Boston, Tim Scott (four each)

Spring answers

1. Offensive line. Though the Tar Heels are losing three starters on the offensive line, including All-American guard Cooper, they do already have their starting five pretty set going into fall camp. Landon Turner and Kiaro Holts have playing experience, and Caleb Peterson is a redshirt freshman taking over for Cooper. The good news is the Tar Heels have two terrific players helping them in tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine.

2. Strong secondary. There are some key faces the Tar Heels have to replace on their defense, but their secondary returns nearly all of its key contributors. Safety Tre Boston has an opportunity to be an all-conference player, and this unit should be much better than it was a season ago.

3. Watch for Kareem Martin. By all accounts, Martin had a terrific spring as the leader of the defensive line with Williams gone. Martin had four sacks and six tackles for loss in the spring game, and is motivated to have a monster season.

Fall questions

1. Running back. We did get a few more answers this spring about A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, but it’s still unclear how the Tar Heels are going to use him and true freshman Khris Francis, who was in for spring. They might use a running back-by-committee approach as they try to replace Bernard’s productivity.

2. Offensive line depth. While the Tar Heels feel certain they know what their starting offensive line is going to look like, they are not so sure about who the next three men into the rotation are going to be. So depth is one key area that has to be built in the offseason and into fall camp.

3. Receiver. At this point, North Carolina has three known commodities in Quinshad Davis, Sean Tapley, and tight end Eric Ebron. The Tar Heels are waiting on T.J. Thorpe to get healthy and some other guys to really start being more consistent and defining their roles, because there are plenty of opportunities for making big plays in this offense.
Florida State followed up its big first round with a huge NFL draft weekend, as the Seminoles led every program in the nation with 11 total picks, setting a new school record.

That's right. The Noles had more picks than national champion Alabama (nine) and SEC power LSU (nine), two schools that played for the national championship following the 2011 season. More than in-state rival Florida (eight), too.

Those numbers are clear validation the Seminoles have restocked their cupboards with an inordinate amount of talent as they re-emerge in the national conversation.

"It’s a great indication of how the program is truly developing," coach Jimbo Fisher said in a statement. “I think it shows we’re getting back to national prominence. Our players are doing a great job of representing themselves on and off the field leading to chances at the next level. I’m happy for all of these guys and want to thank them for helping return this program back to the national spotlight."

Overall, the ACC had 31 players taken for the ninth straight season, finishing second behind the SEC.

Here is a quick look back at all the selections:

First round
  • No. 7 Jonathan Cooper, OG, Arizona
  • No. 16 EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo
  • No. 24 Bjoern Werner, DE, Indianapolis
  • No. 25 Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota
  • No. 27 DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston
  • No. 28 Sylvester Williams, DT, Denver
Second round
  • No. 37 Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
  • No. 40 Cornellius "Tank" Carradine, DE, San Francisco
  • No. 42 Menelik Watson, OT, Oakland
  • No. 51 David Amerson, CB, NC State
Third round
  • No. 73 Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay
  • No. 89 Brennan Williams, OT, North Carolina
Fourth round
  • No. 127 Malliciah Goodman, DE, Atlanta
Fifth round
  • No. 136 Earl Wolff, S, Philadelphia
  • No. 141 Oday Aboushi, OG, New York Jets
  • No. 143 Jonathan Meeks, S, Buffalo
  • No. 149 Brandon McGee, CB, St. Louis
  • No. 154 Chris Thompson, RB, Washington
  • No. 162 Brandon Jenkins, LB, Washington
Sixth round
  • No. 171 Corey Fuller, WR, Detroit
  • No. 173 Vinston Painter, OT, Denver
  • No. 177 Dustin Hopkins, PK, Buffalo
  • No. 180 Nick Moody, LB, San Francisco
  • No. 187 Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona
  • No. 189 Mike James, RB, Tampa Bay
  • No. 206 Vince Williams, LB, Pittsburgh
Seventh round
  • No. 214 Travis Bond, OG, Minnesota
  • No. 215 Tommy Bohanon, FB, New York Jets
  • No. 224 Kevin Dorsey, WR, Green Bay
  • No. 229 Everett Dawkins, DT, Minnesota
  • No. 249 Sean Renfree, QB, Atlanta

Incoming member Syracuse had three players drafted as well: tackle Justin Pugh in the first round to the New York Giants; quarterback Ryan Nassib in the fourth round to the Giants; and safety Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round to Pittsburgh.

And now a few notes:
  • North Carolina had the second-most picks from the ACC with five -- its highest total since five were picked in 2011. The Tar Heels had three offensive linemen selected, the most from UNC in the draft since 1967.
  • Miami had its NFL draft streak extended to 39 consecutive seasons with Brandon McGee and Mike James both getting selected.
  • Virginia also had its draft streak extended to 30 straight seasons with Aboushi's selection.
  • Tommy Bohanon Bohanon became just the third Wake Forest fullback to have his name called in the draft, joining Ovie Mughelli (Ravens, 2003) and Neil MacLean (Eagles, 1958).
  • With four selections in this year's draft, Clemson has now had 23 players chosen over the last five years, and at least four every year Dabo Swinney has been head coach. It is the first time in history Clemson has had at least four players drafted each of the last five years.
  • Georgia Tech did not have a player selected for the first time since 2005. Three players with draft hopes ended up with free agent deals: T.J. Barnes (Jacksonville), Izaan Cross (Buffalo) and Rod Sweeting (New Orleans).
  • Pitt did not have a player drafted for the second consecutive season. Running back Ray Graham, who was the Panthers' best hope for selection, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Texans.
  • Here are a few other notable free-agent signings: Conner Vernon (Oakland), Chibuikem “Kenny” Okoro (San Diego), Marcus Davis (New York Giants), Lonnie Pryor (Jacksonville).

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 26, 2013
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Congrats to the ACC's first-rounders!
 

Most draft analysts expected a big first round for the ACC, so watching six picks come off the board Thursday night was no big surprise.

Watching EJ Manuel go before his more highly-rated Seminoles teammates, as the only quarterback taken among the first 32 selections? Well, that was the big draft day shocker.

The Buffalo Bills selected Manuel with the No. 16 overall pick, as new coach Doug Marrone passed over his former Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib in favor of the dual-threat Florida State product. Manuel was invited to New York for the draft, so certainly expectations were there for him to be a high pick.

But West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was expected to come off the board first. Speculation had linked Nassib to Buffalo for months, thanks to his connections with Marrone and his former offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett. But in the end, Bills general manager Buddy Nix said of Manuel, "This guy to us has got the upside to be whatever you want him to be."

For those scoring at home, the Seminoles have had quarterbacks drafted in the first round twice in the past three drafts. Christian Ponder went to the Minnesota Vikings in 2011. You have to believe coach Jimbo Fisher will be dropping that little nugget every time he sets foot on the recruiting trail.

Manuel was the first of three Seminoles drafted in the first round. Defensive end Bjoern Werner went No. 24 to Indianapolis and cornerback Xavier Rhodes went next, at No. 25 to Minnesota. Both Werner and Rhodes were projected to go higher than Manuel in just about every mock draft. Florida State had three first-round picks for the first time since 2006.

As for the league as a whole, six players who spent their careers in the ACC went in the first round -- the highest total since seven were drafted in 2008. If you count Syracuse offensive tackle Justin Pugh, then seven players at current/future ACC schools went on Day 1. Pugh became the highest drafted Orange player since Dwight Freeney was the 11th pick by the Colts in 2002.

Only the SEC had more picks on Day 1, with 12.

As expected, North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper was the first ACC player taken, at No. 7 overall to Arizona. Teammate Sylvester Williams went No. 28 overall to Denver, giving the Tar Heels two first-round picks for the first time since 2002. Cooper became the first offensive guard taken in the top 10 since 1997.

Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins went No. 27 overall to the Houston Texans, making his decision to leave school early pay off. That seems to be the perfect fit for Hopkins, who gets to play with Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson. Hopkins became the first Clemson wide receiver to be selected in the first round since Rod Gardner went No. 15 to the Washington Redskins in 2001.

So to review:
  • No. 7 Jonathan Cooper, OG, Arizona
  • No. 16 EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo
  • No. 19 Justin Pugh, OT, NY Giants
  • No. 24 Bjoern Werner, DE, Indianapolis
  • No. 25 Xavier Rhodes, CB, Minnesota
  • No. 27 DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston
  • No. 28 Sylvester Williams, DT, Denver

The second and third rounds resume Friday night in New York. Among the ACC players who stand a chance to get selected later today:

ACC's lunchtime links

April, 25, 2013
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So many questions, so little time ...
The first round of the NFL draft is just a week away, so it is time to provide you an update with the latest predictions, mock drafts and rankings from ESPN experts.

First, let us start with Mel Kiper Jr., who plays general manager for every single team and predicts the first three rounds of the draft Insider. It is Insider content, but here is a look at where he has placed players from ACC schools. Oh, and be sure to read his ground rules to have a better understanding of his thought process.

First round
Second round
Third round

As Kiper Jr. states, that piece is not a mock draft. It's his preference for each team at that spot. His mock draft features Cooper, Williams and Rhodes. Disagree with his first-round picks? Well you can make your own mock draft Insider. Two thumbs up on that tool.

Kiper also has updated his Big Board Insider, ranking the Top 25 prospects. Only Cooper and Williams make that list.

Meanwhile, ESPN draft expert Todd McShay has revealed the Scouts Inc. tier rankings Insider, which list prospects by their ratings. There are seven tiers and 109 players rated, with 17 from ACC schools (counting incoming members Pittsburgh and Syracuse).

McShay also has named his All-Satellite team Insider, comprised of the best prospects when playing in space. North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard checks in at No. 5. McShay writes, "He has super-quick feet, good initial burst and outstanding lateral agility. Bernard can stop and start on a dime, strings together multiple moves and is a slippery runner between the tackles."

Want more? Kiper also has updated his top 5 prospects by position Insider.
With half of the conference playing spring games this weekend, here’s a look at what to watch if you’re keeping an eye on the ACC as spring ball comes to a close:

CLEMSON

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • Quarterbacks of the future. You know Tajh Boyd is good. Expect Cole Stoudt and Chad Kelly to take most of the snaps. Boyd played just four snaps in the last scrimmage. Let's see his backups.
  • The tight ends. Clemson tight ends Dwayne Allen and Brandon Ford have been the first team All-ACC tight ends the past two years. Clemson tight ends have 118 receptions and 21 touchdowns the past two years, perhaps the most underrated area in Chad Morris’ offense. So who moves in there this year? Sam Cooper is the most experienced, but freshman Jordan Leggett has been impressive this spring.
  • How much better is the defense? All eyes will be on Brent Venables' group to see how much progress it has made this spring. If the D gets better, it could be a special season in Death Valley.
FLORIDA STATE

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, (ESPN3)

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. It's been one of the hottest topics this spring in the ACC and arguably the biggest position battle in the conference. Check out Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and Jameis Winston as they all battle to replace starter EJ Manuel.
  • The defensive line. The competition is on to replace Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine. Mario Edwards Jr. is ready to jump in, along with Giorgio Newberry.
  • Don't forget the kicker. It's big at FSU. The Noles have to replace Dustin Hopkins, the ACC's all-time leading scorer and the NCAA's all-time kick scorer. It's your chance to see Roberto Aguayo, who was one of the nation's top kickers coming out of high school.
MARYLAND

When: 7 p.m. on Friday in Byrd Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The running backs. Both Brandon Ross and Albert Reid have had strong springs and will be competing for playing time come the fall.
  • The receivers. This group should be a strong point for the team this year, as Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Nigel King are a talented trio.
  • New faces on defense. The Terps have to replace six starters on defense, including some of their best leaders in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis.
DUKE

When: 4 p.m. ET on Saturday (ESPN3) in Wallace Wade Stadium

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Booooooone. Anthony Boone takes over at quarterback, and there have been rave reviews about him from within the program all spring. He's got a strong arm and is mobile.
  • New faces at safety. Some big names are gone, as Duke has to replace graduates Jordon Byas and Walt Canty, and Brandon Braxton, who moved back to receiver. Jeremy Cash, eligible now after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last fall, headlines the group that includes sophomore Dwayne Norman (60 tackles in 2012 as true freshman) and redshirt freshman Corbin McCarthy.
  • Front and center: There is one hole to fill on the offensive line and Matt Skura takes over at center for Brian Moore.
MIAMI

When: 3 p.m. ET at Sun Life Stadium (ESPN3)

Gates open: 12:30 p.m.

Parking/admission: Free

What to watch:
  • Defensive improvement. Is there any? The Canes were one of the worst in the country last year, but they return every starter up front.
  • The No. 2 QB. Who is it? Gray Crow started the last scrimmage as the backup to Stephen Morris and completed 8 of 13 passes for 73 yards, with a touchdown and interception. Ryan Williams, who entered the spring as the expected No. 2, completed only six of his 12 passes with a touchdown and an interception. The coaches will be watching these guys closely on Saturday, so should you.
  • Running back Dallas Crawford. You know Duke Johnson. It's time to get to know this guy. Those within the program have said Crawford has had a great spring and could be a rising star this fall. He scored two touchdowns in a scrimmage in Naples earlier this month.
NORTH CAROLINA

When: 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at Kenan Stadium (ESPN3)

Admission: Free

Parking: $5/vehicle

What to watch:
  • Gio's replacement(s). A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have been working to ease the loss of leading rusher Giovani Bernard. Can they be as effective as he was, how much progress have they made and who will replace Bernard in the return game?
  • The O-line. Former guard Jonathan Cooper should be a first-round draft pick later this month, and it won't matter how good Blue and Morris are if they can't find anyone to help block for them. A total of three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
  • Replacing big names on D. Cooper and Bernard aren't the only big names that will be missing. The defense is going to miss tackle Sylvester Williams, who could be another first-round draft pick, and linebacker Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 8.5 for loss). How does the D look without them?
PITTSBURGH

When: 7 p.m. ET on Friday at Bethel Park High School (ESPN3)

Gates open: 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

What to watch:
  • The quarterbacks. Fifth-year senior Tom Savage has taken most of the reps with the first team, and redshirt freshman Chad Voytik appears to be the backup, but coach Paul Chryst has yet to name a starter.
  • The running backs. Earlier this month, it was announced that Rushel Shell has decided to transfer. Since then, the bulk of the carries have gone to junior Isaac Bennett, sophomore Malcolm Crockett and senior Desmond Brown. How they fare will go a long way in determining how Pitt fares in its first season in the ACC.
  • The offensive line. It's been problematic for the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, and Pitt now has to break in two new starters in Gabe Roberts and Adam Bisnowaty.

Taking stock of the draft

April, 10, 2013
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North Carolina offensive guard Jonathan Cooper could be the ACC's top draft pick this year, according to Todd McShay's latest mock draft Insider.

The first round of the draft is at 8 p.m. ET on April 25, and McShay has Cooper at the No. 11 overall pick, heading to the San Diego Chargers. McShay's piece is Insider content, but I'll give you a sneak peek as to how McShay thinks the rest of the ACC might fare in the first round:
This version of McShay's mock draft doesn't include Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins or FSU defensive end Tank Carradine in the first round. He has also given Rhodes a significant bump from No. 24, where he was listed earlier this month. In his 5.0 version, McShay lists several scenarios for each team, though, and both Hopkins and Carradine are mentioned as possibilities for other teams, so they still have first-round potential.

Odds are Hopkins continues the ACC's streak of having a wide receiver drafted in the first or second round in each of the past eight years. If Carradine is taken in the first round, and Florida State winds up having four first-round draft picks, the Seminoles would tie their own conference record for the most first-round picks by an ACC team. The Noles did it in 1997 and 2006.
ESPN Insider Todd McShay recently released his latest mock draftInsider, and once again, it is looking like a strong first round for the ACC. If McShay is right, and seven former ACC players are chosen in the first round, it would be the most the conference has had drafted in the first round since 2008:

2008: 7
2009: 5
2010: 4
2011: 3
2012: 3 (No. 9 Luke Kuechly, BC; No. 16 Quinton Coples, UNC; No. 32 David Wilson, VT)

McShay's piece is Insider content, and he has analysis on each player, but here is a sneak peek at who he has going and when:
As far as ACC quarterbacks go, McShay says wait until Round 2. The only ACC players listed in his second-round mock draft are former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel and former NC State quarterback Mike Glennon.
NORTH CAROLINA

If you’re just joining us, this series looks at the unranked teams in the ACC as either contenders or pretenders heading into the 2013 season. Florida State and Clemson are not included because they are the only two teams from the ACC expected to be ranked this preseason. Those rankings automatically qualify them as contenders.

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Let's move on to the Coastal Division, which is completely wide open headed into 2013. Expect there to be many more contenders out of this division. Let's start with North Carolina, which had the best overall record in the Coastal last season at 8-4. Can the Tar Heels contend now that they are eligible for the postseason?

Why they're a contender: North Carolina returns one of the top passers in the league in Bryn Renner, who threw for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions a year ago. He has some talent to throw to, from Sean Tapley to Eric Ebron to T.J. Thorpe to Quinshad Davis, who emerged in the second half of the season. A.J. Blue and Romar Morris should help ease the loss of Giovani Bernard. And James Hurst returns as one of the best tackles in the nation to help mitigate the loss of Jonathan Cooper. The Tar Heels were one of the most explosive offenses in the ACC last year, ranking just behind Clemson. With Renner back and another year in the Larry Fedora hurry-up spread system, the hope is that this team will be even better on offense despite losing some of its best players.

Why they're a pretender: As mentioned above, North Carolina has to replace Bernard and Cooper, the two top players on offense from a year ago. Bernard was more than just a running back. He was the best all-purpose player in the ACC, and they are going to have to rely on multiple players to reproduce his production. Can Romar and Blue be as effective? Who replaces Bernard in the return game? Three starters are gone on the offensive line -- two guards and a tackle. Redshirt freshman Caleb Peterson or sophomore Landon Turner are vying to replace Cooper, guys with little playing experience. So the potential for some growing pains exists, which could hamper Renner and the run game. Defensively, North Carolina loses its top two players off an inconsistent group from a year ago, with Sylvester Williams (13.5 tackles for loss) and Kevin Reddick (85 tackles, 18.5 for loss) gone.

Final verdict: Contender. North Carolina has to replace some outstanding All-ACC players. But the Tar Heels do return Renner to lead the offense, which should be more fine-tuned in Year 2 under Fedora. So should the defense, which showed flashes at times but should have a much better understanding of what is expected in this scheme. Even with Bernard and Cooper gone, it is tough to count out a team with a senior quarterback capable of throwing for 3,500 yards in an offense designed to rack up yards and points.

More in this series
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has unveiled his third mock draft , and boy is there a heavy ACC presence.

Kiper now has six ACC players going in the first round -- one more than Todd McShay has in his latest mock draft .

Here is the rundown:
Most experts have had Werner, Cooper and Williams as first-round picks for months. But Watson and Rhodes are gaining steam. Hopkins is as well, though he did not make McShay's latest mock draft.

What stood out the most in looking at both mock drafts from McShay and Kiper is they now have Watson going ahead of Werner. Though Werner was the much more decorated player in college, he had a so-so combine. Watson has barely played any football and some (like myself) saw his decision to leave early as a risk. But his physical attributes (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), upside and position have made him very appealing as a first-round prospect.

As for Hopkins, I love the spot where Kiper has him going. I think he would be a perfect fit for the Texans.

Now, let's just say Kiper is right, and all six go in the first round. That would be the most first-round picks for the ACC since 2007, when six players also went in Round 1. Since 1997, the ACC has averaged 4.8 first-round picks a year.

Here is a look at past ACC first-round draft history, starting with 2005, the first year featuring 12 schools.
  • 2005 -- 5
  • 2006 -- 12
  • 2007 -- 6
  • 2008 -- 7
  • 2009 -- 5
  • 2010 -- 4
  • 2011 -- 3
  • 2012 -- 3

In addition to keeping tabs on how many first-round picks go from the ACC, keep an eye on the total number of first-round picks from the SEC. The 12 picks from the ACC in 2006 set an NFL record for a conference. Many expect the SEC to challenge that total this year. In that most recent McShay mock draft, he has 14 SEC players going in Round 1; Kiper has 13.
The NFL draft is coming up in April, and ESPN analyst Todd McShay this week released his latest mock draft Insider. The first player off the board for the ACC is former UNC offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, who McShay lists at No. 10. Cooper is joined by:

No. 22: Menelik Watson, Florida State OT
No. 23: Sylvester Williams, North Carolina, DT
No. 25: Bjoern Werner, Florida State, DE
No. 28: Xavier Rhodes, Florida State, CB

Florida State and North Carolina are the lone ACC schools represented, and all of these guys are going to be extremely difficult to replace.

Mel Kiper's Big Board Insider was also updated this week, and Cooper comes in at No. 8. Werner and Williams also make the cut, but Watson and Rhodes didn't. Kiper also listed his top five draft prospects by position Insider, and you'll find lots of former ACC players listed there.

Q&A with UNC coach Larry Fedora

March, 6, 2013
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North Carolina starts spring practices today in what will be coach Larry Fedora’s second season. The Tar Heels finished 8-4 last year and atop the Coastal Division standings, but were ineligible to play for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. This year, North Carolina is eligible and has a chance to be a contender again, but first it has to replace some big-time talent on both sides of the ball. I spoke with Fedora recently to get his take on where the program stands heading into the spring.

Here are the highlights of the first part of our conversation:

[+] EnlargeLarry Fedora
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsBeing eligible for the postseason in 2013 has coach Larry Fedora and UNC pumped.
You had a great season in your first year, but this year you’re eligible to compete for the ACC title. Does that change the perspective going in?

Larry Fedora: It doesn’t really change the perspective. For us, the objective is to be better in each of the three phases than we were at the end of the season. You’ve got some holes you have to fill with seniors who left who did some good things. We’ve got to identify the guys who are going to step up and fill those holes and who are going to make the plays. Are we going to pick up where we left off, or are we going to go back? Are we going to start backwards? For us, it’s trying to pick up where we left off, and by the end of spring, be a better football team than we were in the last game.

What does the competition look like to replace Giovani Bernard?

LF: For Gio, we’ve got A.J. Blue and Romar Morris, and we have a kid we signed out of Durham by the name of Khris Francis, who is in school. Those three guys will be competing for that playing time. It’s the same thing I told them last year: For us it doesn’t matter whether you are a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. It’s about producing, and the guys who produce are the ones who are going to be on the football field. We’ll see in spring what those three guys do. Both Romar and A.J., they got extensive playing time last year, so they’re going to feel comfortable with the system, and they’ll be better players than they were last year.

What does quarterback Bryn Renner need to focus on this spring?

LF: If you watched Bryn progress over the season, really about the last five games were maybe his best of the season. I think it’s to pick up where he left off. Hopefully, with the position development stuff that we do in the offseason, Bryn will pick up where he left off and be better than he was at the end of the season. Leadership is huge, which Bryn is taking a hold of and running with. I think for him it’s managing the game and taking advantage of what the defense gives us. That goes back to making great decisions. If we can make sure we improve in those areas, then he is going to be a better football player.

Overall, how do you think you guys look defensively? You lose some big names over there.

LF: Yeah we lose Kevin Reddick, we lose Sly (Sylvester Williams), some pretty big names that are going to go on and play at the next level and do well. We’ll be revamping in a lot of areas. We’ve got some young guys on the D-line that are going to have to step up and see who’s going to emerge as a leader up there. Kareem Martin really needs to have a big year for us. He’s a guy who’s going to come back with the most experience. Tim Jackson is going to be a guy inside that’s going to come back with the most experience. You’ve got Shawn Underwood, and you’ve got Devonte Brown, those are all guys who really need to have a great spring. Ethan Farmer, those guys. This spring is going to be very, very critical for their success. Justin Thompson and Jessie Rogers, they’re not freshmen anymore. I think they’re going to make some great improvement this spring. Then you go to the backers. I think this is really big for Travis Hughes. Travis Hughes needs to become the man. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does and Tommy Heffernan has to keep improving.

Check back Thursday for Part II of the conversation.

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