ACC: T.J. Logan

ACC's second-half stars

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
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This week, we looked at the second-half performances for the ACC’s quarterbacks. Now, we’ll dig into a few of the other top performances from returning players around the league.

Running backs

James Conner, Pittsburgh: No surprise that the ACC’s player of the year was really good down the stretch, but it’s worth noting that by Game 6, Conner’s performance was starting to lag because of the a heavy early workload. But after a bye, he came back strong, averaging 6.3 yards per rush (up from 5.6 in the first half) and scoring 17 times on the ground.

Dalvin Cook, Florida State: It was in FSU’s sixth game of the year against Syracuse that Cook finally got a long look, getting 23 carries and rushing for 122 yards, and though he still shared time with Karlos Williams after that, he quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best young runners. In the second half of the season, Cook averaged 6.2 yards per rush and had 27 carries of 10 yards or more (seventh among Power 5 backs), totaling 925 yards from scrimmage -- just 16 shy of Conner’s tally.

Wayne Gallman, Clemson: The Tigers’ ground game was abysmal in first half of the season. Set aside the big day against FCS South Carolina State, and Clemson ranked 102nd nationally in rushing per game (116) and 115th in yards per carry (2.8). But things improved down the stretch, even without star quarterback Deshaun Watson, thanks largely to Gallman. His 610 rushing yards in the second half of the season ranked fifth in the ACC, and his 18.3 rushes per game ranked third behind only Conner and Duke Johnson. On 128 second-half carries, Gallman didn’t fumble once.

Of note: Just 5.4 percent of Shaquille Powell's rushes in the second half went for a loss or no gain, the second-lowest rate in the league. Virginia Tech's J.C. Coleman ended the season with four straight games of 95 yards rushing or better. North Carolina’s T.J. Logan carried 86 times in the second half, and 44.2 percent went for at least 5 yards. Only Pitt’s Conner and Chris James had a better rate among ACC running backs.

Receivers and tight ends

Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: His 833 receiving yards in the latter half of the season ranked eighth nationally, and his 48 catches ranked 12th. As Pitt quarterback Chad Voytik got more seasoning, Boyd was the benefactor, hauling in 112 yards or more in five of his last six games. He was one of just seven receivers to rack up five 100-yard games in the season’s second half. More impressive is that Boyd did it without a legitimate No. 2 option. He accounted for a whopping 48 percent of Pitt’s receptions and 58 percent of its receiving yards in the second half, both easily the highest rates in the country.

Artavis Scott, Clemson: Would you believe a true freshman playing with a struggling quarterback had as many receptions in the second half of the season as Boyd? That’s true of Scott, who caught 48 balls from Game 7 on, trailing only Rashad Greene and Jamison Crowder in the ACC, and his five receiving touchdowns trailed only Miami’s Phillip Dorsett. The biggest reason for Scott’s success? He had 642 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Info, which nearly doubled any other ACC receiver.

Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech: No ACC player was targeted more often in the red zone from Week 8 on than Hodges (10), and his five catches and three touchdowns both ranked second in the conference during that span. He caught 28 balls from Week 8 through the end of the season, the second-most by any Power 5 tight end, trailing only Mackey semifinalist Jimmay Mundine.

Of note: Clemson’s Mike Williams hauled in 29 first downs in the second half of the season, trailing only Boyd among ACC receivers, and 16 of his 17 catches on third or fourth down went for conversions. Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne had six catches and four touchdowns in the red zone, both tops in the ACC. Virginia’s Canaan Severin had nine catches of 20 yards or more, more than any other ACC receiver aside from Boyd.

Defenders

Sheldon Rankins, Louisville: The Cardinals dodged a bullet when Rankins announced he would return for his senior season in 2015. In the second half of last season, he racked up six sacks -- tops in the ACC and 12th among all Power 5 defenders. He also forced a fumble and picked off a pass.

Josh Jones, NC State: The redshirt freshman started the final five games of the season at strong safety, and not coincidentally, the Wolfpack’s defense improved dramatically, cutting its opponents’ completion percentage from 60 to 49, YPA from 7.0 to 5.9 and creating nine takeaways in five games after racking up just 11 in its first eight. Jones was at the forefront, picking off three passes in those last five games -- the third-most in the nation.

DeVon Edwards, Duke: After a boom-or-bust freshman campaign in 2013, Edwards was productive from the outset in 2014, but his second half was particularly impressive. He racked up an ACC-best 81 tackles during the second half of the season, including double-digit totals in six of Duke’s last seven games, and though his interception total dipped, he did chip in with five tackles for loss down the stretch.

Of note: Virginia Tech’s Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem combined for 18 TFL and 9.5 sacks during the final six games. Wake Forest linebacker Marquel Lee racked up 51 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss and three sacks, during Wake’s final six games. Georgia Tech’s D.J. White had six pass breakups and three interceptions in the latter half of the season, the most total passes defended among ACC defensive backs.

Viewer's Guide: Quick Lane Bowl

December, 26, 2014
12/26/14
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After a college football-less Christmas Day, the action gets going again Friday with three bowl games for your enjoyment, the second of which pits Rutgers versus North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl at 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) at Ford Field in Detroit. The first week of bowl season has been eventful and this game looks like a potential fun one. Let’s take a glance at what’s in store:

What’s at stake: North Carolina (6-6) is looking for a win to secure its seventh consecutive season with a winning record and second straight bowl win. The back-to-back bowl wins would be a first for the Tar Heels since 1996 to 1998, when they won three straight. Rutgers (7-5) is looking to finish with eight wins for the seventh time in nine years. A victory would be Kyle Flood’s first bowl win as the Scarlet Knights’ head coach and move the program to 6-4 all time in bowl games.

Players to watch: Rutgers junior receiver Leonte Carroo was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media after turning in an impressive 53-catch, 1,043-yard, 10-touchdown season. His 10 touchdown catches tied the Scarlet Knights’ single-season record and was second in the Big Ten. Though Flood listed him on the injury report with an upper body injury, Carroo is probable and according to Flood likely to be 100 percent by game time. North Carolina junior quarterback Marquise Williams, a second-team All-ACC media pick, led the Tar Heels in passing yards (2,870) and rushing yards (737) and has 32 combined touchdowns (20 passing, 12 receiving). His 3,607 yards of total offense is a single-season school record and he is responsible for five of the 12 highest UNC single-game totals for total offense.

Comeback kids: North Carolina trailed in the second half in five of its six wins this season and four of those wins required a big play in the game’s final five minutes to secure victory. The Tar Heels’ closest call in a winning effort came against Georgia Tech, when T.J. Logan scored on a 2-yard run with 11 seconds left to complete a 48-43 victory. Rutgers can come from behind, too, and quarterback Gary Nova has shown a knack for rallying. He has led Rutgers to seven fourth-quarter or overtime comeback wins in his career, tied for the most of any active player in the country. He did it twice this season, rallying the Scarlet Knights to wins over Washington State and Maryland.

Piling up the points?: With both teams featuring gifted quarterbacks in Nova and Williams and neither having what anyone would call a shutdown defense (North Carolina allows 38.9 points per game, 119th in the country; while Rutgers allows 30.9 points per game, 92nd nationally), this game could become a shootout in short order. Plus, North Carolina let go of associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning earlier this month (Dan Disch is running the Tar Heels' defense for the game). That should provide plenty of day-after-Christmas entertainment for those looking for it.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
11/16/14
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It was another wild weekend in the ACC. Here are our takeaways from it:

The road still goes through FSU. This time the deficit was 16, on two separate occassions. No matter. Dalvin Cook's late touchdown clinched a 30-26 FSU win in Miami -- its 26th straight win and its fifth straight victory over the rival Hurricanes. Mississippi State fell at Alabama, which leaves the Seminoles as the lone unbeateen Power 5 team. Say what you want about their style, but the Noles are taking care of business, with just Boston College and Florida left before the ACC title game, in which they clinched a berth earlier Saturday.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesDalvin Cook's 26-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter completed Florida State's comeback.
Clemson can't catch a break at QB. In his first game back since breaking a bone in his right hand, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered a knee injury, the severity of which is unknown. Coach Dabo Swinney said ligament damage is a possibility, which would be a crushing blow to the freshman sensation. Cole Stoudt threw three interceptions in Watson's place, including two pick-sixes, and the Tigers managed just 190 total yards of offense in the 28-6 loss.

Georgia Tech continues to shock us all. Who saw this coming? The Yellow Jackets routed Clemson to get their fourth straight win and improved to 9-2 on the season before their season finale against rival Georgia. They finish 6-2 in ACC play and have a shot at the ACC title after Duke's loss at Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils are 4-2 in league play and will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker if they win out.

NC State is going bowling. The Wolfpack ran away from Wake Forest early and notched a 42-13 victory that got them bowl-eligible for the fourth time in five years and the first time under second-year coach Dave Doeren. Matt Dayes tallied 113 total yards from scrimmage to lead the way.

Virginia Tech, UNC keep bowl hopes alive. The Hokies notched an upset at No. 21 Duke 17-16 to get to win No. 5 with two games remaining, at Wake Forest and vs. Virginia. Say what you want about the performance of the program this season, but it could not afford to see its bowl-game streak end. It probably won't now, after forcing three turnovers from a Blue Devils team that had been so sharp at protecting the ball. UNC got to the five-win mark as well, thanks to more late-game theatrics from Marquise Williams and T.J. Logan, who dealt Pitt a tough 40-35 loss.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 9

October, 25, 2014
10/25/14
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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."
Larry Fedora finds a certain amusement in toying with the media, as evidenced by his quip earlier this week that he hasn't named a starting quarterback simply because it annoys his interrogators.

So perhaps it was that same devilish sentiment that led Fedora to offer reporters at last month’s ACC Kickoff a chance to line up against his new running back for a few tackling drills. Or maybe it was simply that the power of Elijah Hood needs to be experienced to be believed.

Either way, his point was clear: Being on the wrong side of a blow from the UNC freshman is not a pleasant experience.

[+] EnlargeElijah Hood
AP Photo/The Herald-Sun, Christine T. NguyenElijah Hood, right, will bring a physical presence to the Tar Heels' rushing attack.
“Hood is like a bull in a china closet,” Fedora said. “He’s 225 pounds, he’s got great speed and he likes to run into things. When he breaks through, he’s not looking to avoid contact. He’s looking for something to run into — our team, their team, it doesn’t matter. He just wants something to hit.”

As North Carolina gets set to open the 2014 season, Hood is currently listed as one of three backups to starter T.J. Logan, but that’s hardly an indication that the freshman will lack opportunities to deliver punishment on the field.

The Tar Heels’ backfield is diverse, with Logan playing the part of Hood’s polar opposite, a shifty, 185-pound speedster. Logan is the Ferrari. Hood is the bulldozer.

“He’s bringing the power to our backfield,” Logan said. “When DBs come up to make tackles, they’re going to have to adjust to Elijah.”

That can be a difficult adjustment, with bruisers like Andre Williams (6-0, 227) running wild last year, and a host of big backs gearing up for big seasons this year, including Florida State’s Karlos Williams (6-1, 225), Louisville’s Dominique Brown (6-2, 233), Miami’s Gus Edwards (6-1, 221), Syracuse’s Adonis Ameen-Moore (5-11, 246), and Pitt’s James Conner (6-2, 250), who also plans to play a bit at defensive end.

Even among the new faces in the conference, Hood isn’t alone in his role as battering ram. Virginia Tech has freshmen Marshawn Williams (5-11, 229) and Shai McKenzie (5-11, 221), while Louisville backs up Brown with another big back in L.J. Scott (6-1, 228).

But Hood may be the first of the true freshmen to garner a major role this season, and his presence could be a huge benefit for the Tar Heels. Fedora raved about how quickly the freshman picked up blocking schemes and blitz pickups -- “faster than any freshman I’ve had,” he said -- and Hood’s role as a between-the-tackles runner is a significant asset.

Last year, UNC had the lowest rushing average in the ACC on third-and-short runs and the fourth-lowest third-and-short conversion rate. The Heels scored on just 13 of 31 rushing attempts from inside the 5-yard line, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They also lost their biggest back from 2013 in A.J. Blue.

As the team looks to establish its ground game this season, Hood’s presence presents options.

“He’s special,” Fedora said. “What’s his role going to be? It’s hard to say that. He’s going to play in the first game and his production will determine how much he plays in the next game.”

That’s the game plan for each of North Carolina’s four primary backs, Fedora said. There’s a plan in place for touches and substitutions, but none of it is etched in stone. If Logan or Romar Morris or Khris Francis looks particularly sharp, they’ll keep getting the ball. And if it’s Hood that steals the bulk of the carries, that’s fine too.

“I have confidence in him from what I’ve seen, but there’s still some unknown,” Fedora said. “But I’m excited to see him out there.”

ACC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
8/26/14
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The college football season is finally ready to kick off. No doubt all the time we’ve spent studying depth charts and devouring news will be rendered meaningless by September’s end, but that won’t stop us from making a few bold predictions about what’s to come in 2014. If we get half of them right, we’ll call it a success.

1. Jameis Winston will post better numbers -- but won’t win the Heisman.

Much has been made of the depletion of Winston’s receiving corps, but losing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t spell doom for the Florida State QB. In fact, Winston struggled at times last year when getting too greedy down the field, and a renewed emphasis on a shorter passing game could up his numbers. When throwing to RBs or TEs last year, Winston completed 79 percent of his throws and averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, with 11 of his 86 passes going for touchdowns. Add the likelihood he’ll play more fourth quarters this season, and his numbers could well go up in 2014 -- but, of course, winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies is no easy task, and neither Winston nor coach Jimbo Fisher has ever shown much interest in chasing individual awards.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
AP Photo/Garry JonesUnder coach Bobby Petrino, Will Gardner has a chance to flourish as Louisville's starting QB.
2. Louisville’s Will Gardner will be the ACC’s second-best quarterback.

It’s telling that what could’ve been one of the most discussed QB vacancies in the conference was actually among the least interesting this offseason. Coach Bobby Petrino waited until Sunday to make it official, but Gardner was the obvious choice since the spring. Then there’s this: In nine years as a head coach, Petrino’s starting QBs have averaged 63 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt, 21 TDs and 8 interceptions -- stats that would’ve rivaled any QB in the league last year, save Winston and Tajh Boyd.

3. Virginia Tech wins 10 again.

The Hokies won at least 10 games in each of their first eight seasons in the ACC, but that streak ended in 2012 and the team is just 10-10 against Power Five conference foes in the past two years. But coach Frank Beamer is giving his young talent a chance to shine, the Week 2 date with Ohio State suddenly looks a lot more winnable and the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely for the Hokies. The offense needs to get a lot better to be a legit College Football Playoff contender, but Virginia Tech will at least be in the conversation.

4. Virginia goes bowling.

The schedule makes this a tough sell. Ten of Virginia’s 12 opponents played in a bowl game last year, and there may not be a single easy win on the slate. But there’s talent in Charlottesville, including 19 four- or five-star recruits inked in the past four years. That’s more than Louisville (16) and just one fewer than Virginia Tech (20). That talent has to translate to wins eventually, right? It’ll take some upsets, but the Hoos will get to six wins.

5. Clemson is a running team.

With Boyd and Sammy Watkins stealing the bulk of the headlines the past three years, Clemson’s passing game got a lot of credit for the team’s success. But the Tigers actually ranked in the top three in the ACC in rushing attempts in each of those three seasons. Now with a new QB and significant turnover at receiver, the passing game is a question, but Dabo Swinney loves his tailbacks. Don’t be surprised if freshman Wayne Gallman tops 1,000 yards -- something a Clemson tailback has done each of the past three seasons.

6. Young runners make a big impact.

Gallman won’t be the only rookie runner to make noise in 2014. The ACC has some impressive veterans in Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams, Kevin Parks and Dominique Brown, but there are plenty of fresh faces eager to make an impact, too. Virginia Tech’s Marshawn Williams, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could join Gallman as freshman sensations, while sophomores like T.J. Logan, James Conner, Myles Willis, Matt Dayes and Taquan Mizzell could all have big seasons, too.

7. Stacy Coley catches a TD from three different QBs.

If there was a more settled QB situation at Miami, Coley might be a niche pick for Heisman honors as one of the game’s most explosive players. Unfortunately, it could be a revolving door at QB for the Canes. Freshman Brad Kaaya gets first crack, and the hope is that Ryan Williams will return from an ACL injury sooner than later. Don’t be surprised if Jake Heaps or Kevin Olsen gets a shot to start at some point, too. Coley will make them all look better, but he’d benefit from some stability at QB.

8. Jamison Crowder sets the standard.

Crowder had 30 more targets last season than any other ACC receiver, and now Duke is without its second-best pass-catcher in Braxton Deaver. That makes Crowder an even more integral part of the Blue Devils’ passing game, and it means he should cruise past former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record for receiving yards. Crowder is just 1,152 yards short entering the season.

9. Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett look good.

Boston College and NC State will both be starting QBs who transferred from Florida, and both have a chance to put up solid numbers. In fact, we're predicting both Murphy and Brissett post better stats this season than Jeff Driskel, the man who kept them both on the bench in Gainesville.

10. The Coastal champ will be ...

Is there really any answer here that would feel remotely safe? Heck, Georgia Tech could win the division or miss out on a bowl game. Anything seems possible. But since it’s prediction time, we’ll ante up, just so you can remind us how wrong we were in December. So, let’s say ... Virginia Tech.

North Carolina Tar Heels season preview

August, 13, 2014
8/13/14
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» 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.
North Carolina Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora knows he has an unusually small senior class headed into 2014, a fact he has pointed out to throughout the preseason.

But does that make the Tar Heels inexperienced?

It all depends on your perspective.

With the recent dismissal of Shawn Underwood, North Carolina has 11 seniors on its 105-man roster. Five are starters -- four on defense and just one on offense. Only one of those five players -- cornerback Tim Scott -- has started more than 15 career games.

Forty players are either true or redshirt freshmen. But as Phil Steele points out, the Tar Heels return 75 percent of their lettermen from a year ago to rank No. 22 in the country. Indeed, North Carolina relied on a bevy of young stars to turn around a tough start to 2013 and make a bowl game. Those young stars are another year more experienced. Sophomores like Ryan Switzer, Khris Francis, T.J. Logan, Bug Howard, Dominique Green and Brian Walker will be relied on even more. Three sophomores are expected to start on the offensive line as well.

That may not replace the intangible that senior leadership brings, but at least the Tar Heels have got a solid core of young talent with game experience headed into the season.

Now for a comparison, let us take a look at rival NC State. Coach Dave Doeren has spent months discussing the youth on his team, throwing out one stat after another to prove his point.

The Wolfpack have 52 true or redshirt freshmen on the 105-man roster and 17 total seniors. Of that senior group, eight are projected starters. Three have started 20-plus games in their careers.

Even though the senior class is larger and 14 starters are back, NC State still ranks No. 114 in the nation in experience. So in this case, a bigger senior class does not translate into more experience because nearly 50 percent of the NC State roster has never played a collegiate down.

Plus, NC State does not have as many sophomores with as much game experience as those at North Carolina.

Bottom line: The North Carolina senior class may be small, but the Tar Heels make up for the numbers with many more experienced players across the board. The only issue to work through is leadership. We saw what strong senior leadership meant to Duke a year ago. With so few seniors, Fedora knew he had to try and develop more leaders. So earlier in the summer, Fedora decided to go away from a senior-only leadership course to include players by position. Switzer, Quinshad Davis and T.J. Thorpe were in that group.

Will it help? We have to wait and see.
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.
Last year, North Carolina's ground game ranked 11th among ACC teams, and the leading rusher was a quarterback who spent half the season as a backup. But as the Tar Heels turned their season around down the stretch, the running game came alive, too. UNC averaged 5.1 yards per rush with 13 rushing touchdowns in its final six contests. Now, sophomore T.J. Logan and a deep contingent of tailbacks are looking to build on that success in 2014. We caught up with Logan to see how the backfield is coming together in Chapel Hill.

David Hale: Spring practice was a bit of a feeling-out process in the backfield. How's the summer been going for you guys?

T.J. Logan: We're real excited. We've got a lot of different backs with different types of running styles. It's going to be a great time in Chapel Hill.

[+] EnlargeZach Edwards
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesT.J. Logan rushed for 533 yards and four touchdowns on 93 carries last season.
DH: You're one of three tailbacks returning that got at least 60 carries last year, along with QB Marquise Williams and a highly-touted freshman in Elijah Hood. How do you possibly split up carries?

TL: Yeah, it's going to be a committee. But with the type of offense that we have, guys are going to get tired. The guys on the sideline have to be ready, just be able to come in and have an impact on the game.

DH: How does that work for a running back? Obviously you want to get your touches, but it can also keep you fresh to have a good rotation going.

TL: We definitely have a lot of respect for each other. We're like brothers. Whoever's out there, we want them to do the best. Playing running back, you've got to be able to let things go. If Elijah or Romar [Morris] is out there, I'm cheering for them. I know my time is coming.

DH: You lost two starters on your offensive line from last year, and this spring there were a number of players hurt. How does that affect you guys in the backfield?

TL: It's definitely kind of hard when you don't have the guys you've been playing with or the guys you know are going to be out there with you. This spring, they've come back. We've gotten a better feel in team workouts, and it's getting better.

DH: You didn't play much the first five games of the season, but you really came on down the stretch last season. What did that experience do for you?

TL: It helped a lot. It gave me some confidence. But I'm not trying to lean on that. It's a new season, and you've got to come in and play your best football. But not playing at the beginning of the season, I think it helped me. I got to sit back and watch a couple guys like [A.J.] Blue and Romar.

DH: You mentioned Marquise Williams. When he took over at quarterback, the ground game seemed to improve, but he spent the spring battling Mitch Trubisky for the starting job. How does a QB competition affect the running backs?

TL: I feel like it really doesn't affect us as long as we're protecting. Any quarterback that plays is going to give us a chance to win. Either one of them is going to get the job done.

DH: Elijah arrived this spring with a lot of recruiting hype. What does he bring to the table for you?

TL: He's definitely bringing power to our backfield. We have guys like Romar and myself that are quicker backs. Khris [Francis] is well balanced. But Elijah brings the power to the bunch. When DBs have to come up and make tackles, they're going to have to adjust to certain guys like Elijah. And the change-of-pace with me and Romar in the game, we can run by guys.

DH: The numbers weren't great for the running backs last year. How did you guys view that performance? What does it mean for you going into 2014?

TL: Last year, we felt like we definitely could've done more. Marquise had more rushing yards than any of the running backs. As a group, we sat down and talked about it, and we feel like this is our year. We're going to take over. We've got a couple big names in the group, so we've got to live up to that.

DH: After finishing strong last season, are you excited to see where you'll pick up this year?

TL: As a team last year, we felt like we had something to prove. We got on a good foot near the end of the season, playing like a team. Now people are expecting us to come out and continue that, so I feel like that's what we're going to do.

DH: With so many running backs expecting to touch the ball, do you set goals for yourself or do you have goals for the group?

TL: I know my goals, that's about it. But everybody in the room has goals. We have a board now that shows different things like cut blocks and how many yards after contact. We're waiting to actually get out there and start filling that board up.
From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found HERE.

Next up: The running game

Best of the best: Florida State

There's plenty of competition for the top spot, but we're giving the edge to FSU's revamped ground game in spite of the losses of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. While the Seminoles said goodbye to two of their top runners, they return a senior-laden offensive line that has opened holes to the tune of 5.6 yards-per-carry last season, as well as a dynamic (if inexperienced) group of ball carriers. At the top of the depth chart, Karlos Williams tallied 730 yards and 11 TDs last season in a limited role, and his size/speed combination makes him as tough to bring down as any runner in the country. Behind him, Ryan Green and Mario Pender offer speedy alternatives, while true freshman Dalvin Cook oozes potential and could emerge as FSU's No. 2 option. Jimbo Fisher has made a point of distributing carries in recent years, so expect all four to see plenty of work.

Next up: Miami

It's easy enough to make a case for Georgia Tech (300 rush yards per game last year), Louisville (veteran offensive line and deep backfield) or Pitt (two 700-yard tailbacks returning), but we'll give the slight edge to Miami because there may be no more dynamic or productive runner in the conference than Duke Johnson. True, Johnson is coming off a severe ankle injury that cost him the final five games of 2013, but he's back and feeling good already, and he promises to be the foundation of the Canes' offense. With a healthy Johnson in the backfield last season, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry -- which would've been good for 13th nationally and third in the ACC.

Possible sleeper: North Carolina

Against FBS foes last season, North Carolina mustered a mere 148 yards per game on the ground -- good for 11th in the ACC. But that doesn't mean the ground game won't be a strength for the Tar Heels in 2014. In the early going, UNC mustered a meager 2.8 yards-per-carry and six TDs in its first seven games of the year (in which the Heels finished 2-5). After the calendar flipped to November, however, North Carolina's ground game flourished, averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry and scoring 13 times, while helping the Heels to a 5-1 finish. Now, T.J. Logan is back to lead a particularly deep corps of runners, and Marquise Williams is as good a threat to run as any QB in the league. If the offensive line can hold up, North Carolina's ground game should be vastly improved in 2014.

Potential problem: Virginia Tech

The Hokies' backfield was a disaster last season. Set aside the work of now-departed QB Logan Thomas, and the running backs tallied a mere 3.98 yards-per-carry last season and managed just 11 third-down conversions. Against FBS teams, Tech managed just 2.88 yards-per-carry, the ninth-worst mark in the nation. The eight teams that were worse had a combined record of 18-79. Now the Hokies add a first-year starter at quarterback, and the situation looks even more dire.

Video: ACC special teams analysis

June, 5, 2014
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Andrea Adelson takes a look at special teams in the ACC, where some of the top players in the country are set to return for 2014.
The 2013 signing class has already made its mark on the ACC, from Tyler Boyd and Stacy Coley shining on offense to Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller starring on defense to Ryan Switzer racking up All-America honors on special teams. But for most players, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference -- the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

See our previous projections HERE.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Lawrence
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIFormer three-star recruit Des Lawrence is expected to be a starter for the Tar Heels in 2014.
Next up: North Carolina

Class recap: Larry Fedora brought in the No. 21 overall class (and No. 5 in the ACC) in 2013, and he used a good portion of his freshmen right off the bat. T.J. Logan led UNC running backs in rushing, Khris Francis carried 63 times, Bug Howard was a key member of the receiving corps and, of course, Switzer won All-America honors as a punt returner.

Second-year star: CB Des Lawrence (6-foot-1, 175 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Lawrence wasn’t the most coveted talent, and among UNC defensive backs, he was widely overshadowed by ESPN 300 member Brian Walker, UNC’s top signee in 2013. But Lawrence did rank as the No. 47 safety, and was a three-star prospect from Charlotte with good height and athleticism.

2013 in review: A knee injury early in training camp scuttled some early enthusiasm for Lawrence, and he missed the first six games of the season. It’s probably coincidence that UNC finished 6-1 after Lawrence’s return, but he did finally record his first tackle on Nov. 9 against Virginia and saw his playing time mount as the season progressed, finishing with 11 tackles (one for a loss).

2014 potential: The excitement surrounding Lawrence upon arrival at North Carolina was tempered early last season, but coaches knew what they had in him. He entered spring penciled in as a starter at cornerback alongside Walker, his fellow 2013 signee, and showed no signs of slowing down this spring. The Tar Heels’ secondary was burned for too many big plays last season (75 plays of 15 yards or more) and Fedora believes Lawrence and Walker can help turn that tide in 2014. Lawrence will need to show he can be more effective in supporting the run and utilize his size with more physical receivers, but he’s got ample talent to blossom quickly, and UNC is willing to let its young corners learn on the job this season.

Also watch for: The freshmen who played last season are all expected to take a big step forward in 2014, particularly the running backs. Walker will see his role increase significantly alongside Lawrence, and both could blossom into solid players this year. Dajaun Drennon could fill a role in a depleted group of defensive ends, R.J. Prince is pushing for a starting job on a thin line, and Lucas Crowley projects to take over as the starting center. And all of that ignores the biggest wild card, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky remains in competition to win the starting job over incumbent Marquise Williams. In other words, the Class of 2013 was big as freshmen, but it could have a massive impact in Year 2 in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the North Carolina Tar Heels:

1. The running game looks sharp: T.J. Logan emerged down the stretch last season for North Carolina, but coach Larry Fedora said the rising sophomore still had much to learn. By the spring game, Logan looked like an established veteran, running for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. His backfield counterpart Khris Francis had 88 yards and two scores, too, while early enrollee Elijah Hood had a quiet day in the spring finale, though he managed to impress coaches and teammates throughout the five weeks of practice.

2. Replacing Ebron will be a group effort: Eric Ebron was the offensive backbone for the Tar Heels last season, and he’ll likely be rewarded as a first-round pick in next month’s NFL draft. Replacing all that production won’t be easy, but UNC’s receiving corps figures to be far deeper. Quinshad Davis is a budding star, while sophomores Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard made big strides throughout the spring.

3. The defense should be better: Fedora said the biggest takeaway from the spring is that his defense, which struggled at times last season, looks far more savvy in the system. The bulk of the Tar Heels’ experience is on that side of the ball, and Fedora said he was pleased with how poised and refined the unit looked consistently throughout the spring. After finishing 10th in the league total defense last season, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeT.J. Logan
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsAs a freshman in 2013, North Carolina tailback T.J. Logan rushed for 553 yards and four touchdowns.
1. So, who’s the quarterback?: Fedora said from the outset that the QB job was up for grabs, and the spring game didn’t bring much closure to the debate. Neither Marquise Williams nor Mitch Trubisky looked particularly sharp -- both throwing a pick, neither tossing a touchdown. Fedora said he wants the competition to continue throughout the summer, and while Williams has an edge in experience, it’s clear Trubisky is a legitimate contender.

2. How will the O-line hold up?: UNC loses two key starters off last season's line and entered the spring with several other veterans banged up. Even highly touted early enrollee Bentley Spain couldn’t make it through the spring without a few dings, which left the Tar Heels working with a makeshift unit throughout. Fedora hopes the group will be healthier by fall, but it remains a work in progress and, with all due respect to the QBs, perhaps the most important question left to be answered.

3. Can the Heels stop the run?: It’s the inherent Catch-22 of spring football: If the offense is doing well, the defense must be struggling -- and vice versa. So when the running game looked so strong in the spring game, it only served to underscore what was UNC’s biggest defensive shortcoming in 2013. The Heels finished dead last in the ACC in rushing D (182 yards per game) and while Logan, Francis and Co. promise to frustrate a lot of defenders in 2014, Fedora would love to see his front seven look a little more stout moving forward.

One way-too-early prediction:

The big question at the end of 2013 remains unanswered after the spring of 2014: In UNC the inexperienced group that started 1-5 last year or the red-hot team that finished 6-1? It’s certainly encouraging that last year’s freshman have continued to show improvement, and that makes UNC an early contender in the Coastal. The Heels might be the most complete team in the division, but unless they improve on both sides of the line, more inconsistency could await this fall.

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