NCF Nation: Corbin McCarthy

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.
Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles gave up a head-coaching job at his alma mater, Cornell, to come to Duke and take over one of the nation’s worst defenses.

That’s the kind of draw coach David Cutcliffe has to his assistants.

“That’s why I did it, because of him,” said Knowles, who also worked with Cutcliffe at Ole Miss. “He’s that kind of guy. He’s the right guy at the right time here.”

Turns out Knowles was the right guy at the right time for Duke’s defense, too. Less than three full years after he was hired, Knowles has turned his injury-laden group into one of the ACC’s more respectable defenses. As Duke prepares to face Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Saturday, it does so ranked higher than the Hokies this week in total defense, rushing defense, passes intercepted and sacks. Duke’s improvement on defense has been one of the key factors in the Blue Devils’ 5-1 start, as they are the only team in the ACC that can become bowl eligible this weekend with a win.

[+] EnlargeWalt Canty
Zumapress/Icon SMIWalt Canty (4) and the Duke defense are turning heads.
“They are starting to make plays even if they’re not in the perfect position,” Knowles said. “We all try to have the perfect defense for every play, but it doesn’t work out that way. What you need is guys who understand the system and react to what they see and things that are happening right in front of them. It’s not a video game. As coaches we want to make it into a video game and draw up the perfect blitz. We call it ‘pull your trigger.’ They’re really just starting to react to the play before it happens. That’s a product of being in the system. That’s the way you get better.”

Duke, which gave up 180 rushing yards per game last year, is allowing fewer than 130 yards (and 3.7 yard per carry) this year. Duke already has more sacks from its defensive front (13.5) than it did all last season (12).

Duke -- a program usually filled with a bunch of polite players -- is finally looking a little mean, not to mention more comfortable in Knowles’ 4-2-5 scheme.

“From last year to this year, I feel like we’re playing more aggressive,” said safety Walt Canty, who had 14 tackles, including three for loss in last week’s 42-17 win over Virginia. “Last year it was still kind of a new system. This year we’re more familiar with it, and there are a lot of older guys, and a lot of leaders on the field.

“That’s one of our focuses on defense. We want to come out and try and be as aggressive as possible and try and force the offense into doing things they don’t want to do.”

So far, so good. Duke is tied for second in the ACC in turnovers gained with 12.

What makes Duke’s defensive progress all the more impressive is how many injuries to key players they’ve had to overcome. In years' past, the program wouldn’t have been able to do it because of a lack of depth and talent. The recruiting has improved, though, and there is no longer as much of a drop-off from the first- to the second-string defense.

Safety Jordon Byas missed the first three games after preseason knee surgery. Starters Brandon Braxton and Lee Butler were injured early in the Wake game. Starter August Campbell was hurt and then left the team. Backups Corbin McCarthy, Taylor Sowell, Jared Boyd and Chris Tavarez have all been hurt.

“It could have been devastating,” Knowles said. “It really could have been devastating.”

The secondary, which was hit the hardest by injuries, has also been one of the most improved groups on the defense. Last year, Duke ranked either last or next to last in the ACC in every significant defensive category. This year, the Blue Devils rank fourth in total defense and fifth in pass efficiency defense.

“Coach Cutcliffe has really built a great program,” Knowles said. “We’re at a point where the players are starting to believe. All coaches talk about that next-man-up philosophy, and that’s hard to get to when you’re struggling to build a program, but at some point it clicks. The guys who step in there are just expected to do it instead of people wondering if they’re going to make a mistake. That’s the growth and maturity of the program in general.”

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