Changes across the ACC board
From players and their positions to defensive schemes and coaching staffs, sweeping changes began throughout the ACC this spring, all made with the hopes that this year can be better than the last.
The most noticeable differences in the conference were in Tallahassee, where legendary coach Bobby Bowden was replaced by Jimbo Fisher, and in Charlottesville, where the gregarious Mike London replaced the often surly Al Groh. Both first-year coaches were busy running campaigns to rebuild relationships within the state. Defending ACC champ Georgia Tech bid farewell to two first-round NFL draft picks and welcomed Groh as defensive coordinator to boost the Jackets' struggling defense with his 3-4 scheme.
Defenses were a focus across the conference this spring. Along with Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia, Duke also introduced a new defensive coordinator, as Marion Hobby will take over the playcalling duties. NC State added former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta to its staff as linebackers coach, and Miami hired defensive line coach Rick Petri. Of those programs, only Miami finished better than 52nd nationally in total defense and 56th nationally in scoring defense last year.
While the defenses were under repair, several of the ACC's starting quarterbacks were under treatment. Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt, Miami's Jacory Harris, Duke's Sean Renfree and FSU backup E.J. Manuel were all sidelined with injuries. Wake Forest backups Ted Stachitas and Brendan Cross were also hurt, helping to push Skylar Jones to the top of the depth chart -- for now. Only Georgia Tech settled on its No. 2 signal-caller, as Tevin Washington won the job, but this spring was a reminder of how critical the health of the starters will be if those teams expect to contend for any titles.
There were some comeback stories, though, as BC linebacker Mark Herzlich, NC State linebacker Nate Irving and Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans were able to contribute in some capacity, with Evans seeming to make the quickest recovery. His health only raises another question, though, and that's how Virginia Tech will make use of its crowded backfield.
The Hokies also began to rebuild their defense this spring after losing six starters from last year's 10-win season, but there's one thing that didn't change in Blacksburg -- expectations. Nothing happened in the conference this spring to sway early perceptions that Virginia Tech will be the team to beat. Whether or not the Hokies can reach the ACC title game depends in large part upon how effective the rest of the changes in the conference will be.
What we learned this spring
Just because we're not in season doesn't mean there aren't a few lessons to be learned across the ACC. Here's a look at what spring practices revealed throughout the conference:
1. Veteran quarterbacks must stay healthy, as the experience behind them was revealed: With starters Josh Nesbitt, Sean Renfree and Jacory Harris sidelined with injuries, competition at backup quarterback was a theme throughout the conference this spring. Fans got a glimpse of their programs' futures, but with the exception of NC State and North Carolina, there wasn't exactly overwhelming confidence in the No. 2s. Only Georgia Tech solidified its backup situation, as Tevin Washington won the job behind Nesbitt, but a significant gap still remains between them. A.J. Highsmith appeared to be the front-runner at Miami, and Logan Thomas seemed to edge Ju-Ju Clayton at Virginia Tech, but competition will continue this summer.
2. Miami could have the deepest backfield in the ACC: Last season this award went to Georgia Tech. This season it could go to Virginia Tech. But Miami -- even without injured starter Graig Cooper -- proved this spring it should be in the running -- literally. The Canes have plenty of options in Lamar Miller, Storm Johnson, Damien Berry and Mike James.
3. Plenty of defensive questions remain: Florida State, Virginia, Duke and Georgia Tech began their transitions under new coordinators, but with players still figuring out their new roles, it will take more time to adjust to the schemes and evaluate their progress. NC State found some young talent it liked up front to help replace four starting defensive linemen, but is also in transition with first-year linebackers coach Jon Tenuta. Virginia Tech was pleased with its defense this spring, despite having to replace six starters, but only the Boise State opener will reveal how far the Hokies came.
4. The stars of 2008 are eager to shine again: NC State linebacker Nate Irving, who was injured last summer in a severe car accident; BC linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was diagnosed with cancer last May; and Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans, who tore his ACL last summer, all returned to practices this spring. Irving and Herzlich approached their returns more gingerly than Evans, though, and it's still unclear how much of an impact they'll have this fall. Evans will be sharing carries with Ryan Williams, Irving played in only half the spring game, and nobody knows whether Herzlich can reclaim his 2008 Defensive Player of the Year title.
5. Players aren't the only one coaches must recruit: First-year coaches Mike London and Jimbo Fisher spent much of this spring networking with their state high school coaches and trying to work their way into the good graces of the fans. It was easier for London, as he wasn't tasked with replacing one of college football's winningest and friendliest coaches. Fisher nixed the golf in favor of the office on his spring booster tour and there was a reluctance among some of the older fans to embrace Fisher's businesslike approach.
Best of spring
Best spring game atmosphere: A school-record 51,300 fans showed up at Doak Campbell Stadium for FSU's first spring game under the direction of Jimbo Fisher. That was more than both Virginia Tech (a school-record 41,000) and UNC (a school-record 29,500). The day also featured a halftime flag football game with some of the top football players in FSU history, including Peter Warrick, Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson.
Best spring game performance: Georgia Tech redshirt sophomore quarterback Tevin Washington ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in a game that ended at halftime because of severe weather. Washington's performance helped solidify his position as the backup to Josh Nesbitt.
Best performance by a freshman: UNC redshirt freshman quarterback Bryn Renner closed the gap in the competition with T.J. Yates by leading the White team to a 17-0 win. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 184 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Best story of the spring: Comebacks across the league. At BC it was the return of linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was diagnosed with cancer last May. At Georgia Tech it was Cooper Taylor, who returned to action for the first time since being diagnosed with Wolff-White-Parkinson Syndrome last September. At NC State it was linebacker Nate Irving, who suffered serious injuries in a car crash last summer. And Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans made his recovery from a torn ACL last summer.
Best position change: Kenny Anunike (Duke) -- With Duke in need of depth along the defensive line, Anunike moved from TE to DE for spring practice and posted nine tackles including two for loss in the spring game. The former backup tight end, who has been injured for most of his career at Duke, proved he can help a unit that lost two starters who combined for 78 career starts.
Best quote: "We were admitted to the emergency room last year, with the quarterback situation. We were in dire straits. We came out of the emergency room and we lived. We're still in intensive care." -- BC coach Frank Spaziani to ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel.
BCS Contenders From ACC
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Boston College: Dave Shinskie is older and a little wiser, but will he keep his job? For more on the Eagles, click here.
Clemson: How will Clemson attempt to replace all-everything RB C.J. Spiller? For more on the Tigers, click here.
Duke: The running game got a much-needed boost from rookie Josh Snead, who graduated early and enrolled in January. For more on the Blue Devils, click here.
Florida State: The new defensive scheme will create more playmaking opportunities under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. For more on the Seminoles, click here.
Georgia Tech: Yes, Stephen Hill has the chance to be the program's next elite receiver, but he might have help. For more on the Yellow Jackets, click here.
Maryland: Maryland wrapped up spring with Jamarr Robinson as its new QB, Danny O'Brien his backup and C.J. Brown No. 3. For more on the Terps, click here.
Miami: The quarterback position has the best depth it's seen under coach Randy Shannon. For more on the Hurricanes, click here.
North Carolina: If it can stay healthy, the offensive line should be much improved. For more on the Tar Heels, click here.
North Carolina State: For the first time since 2005, NC State doesn't have a running back with any starting experience. For more on the Wolfpack, click here.
Virginia: Cam Johnson's move from linebacker to defensive end proved beneficial. For more on the Cavaliers, click here.
Virginia Tech: If Darren Evans is suffering any lingering effects from last year's torn ACL, it wasn't evident. For more on the Hokies, click here.
Wake Forest: Wake Forest found some playmakers this spring who can help ease the transition for a new starting quarterback. For more on the Demon Deacons, click here.
ACC Games To Watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Virginia Tech: The Hokies were encouraged by the rookie performances on defense this spring, but coach Frank Beamer has said he's still looking for the young players to get stronger this offseason and spend some significant time in the film room. Offensively, the Hokies will be as good as the revamped offensive line, and that's still a work in progress.
2. Florida State: What separates the Seminoles right now is the fact they have to replace only one starter on offense, and veteran quarterback Christian Ponder will be protected by one of the best lines in the country. The defense is better suited for the personnel under coordinator Mark Stoops, but overall remains a question.
3. Miami: The Hurricanes' depth at running back should make the offense more productive in the second year under coordinator Mark Whipple. The Canes' defensive line was also a highlight of the spring under first-year assistant Rick Petri, but they need to replace three starters up front offensively.
4. Clemson: Defense was the strength this spring, but running backs Andre Ellington and James Harper should ease the loss of C.J. Spiller. With four starters returning, the offensive line should improve. The key to Clemson's run at a second straight Atlantic Division title will be the return of quarterback Kyle Parker to football instead of baseball.
5. Georgia Tech: Yes, they're the defending ACC champs, but the Jackets were hurt the most by the NFL draft and are making the biggest transition defensively. There were positive reviews about the addition and style of coordinator Al Groh, and if the Jackets can replace three starters on the offensive line, they've got the skill players to defend their title.
6. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have an NFL-caliber defense, but this spring revealed little about how much progress they made offensively. Quarterback play remains a concern, as Butch Davis must choose between inexperience and inconsistency.
7. Boston College: The quarterback competition continues, and nobody is sure just how effective linebacker Mark Herzlich will be upon his return. The Eagles do have one of the better offensive lines, though, and a schedule conducive to another appearance in the ACC title game.
8. Maryland: Coach Ralph Friedgen was pleased with his spring practices, specifically the progress of the offensive line, which will be critical to Maryland's comeback this fall. The Terps have settled on quarterback Jamarr Robinson as their starter and have plenty of talent at running back and receiver to help him.
9. Wake Forest: Skylar Jones finished the spring atop the depth chart, but his main competitors -- Ted Stachitas and Brendan Cross -- were both injured. The Deacs will reveal a more run-based, option offense under their new quarterback. The interior defensive line remains a concern.
10. NC State: Coach Tom O'Brien just can't seem to get through an offseason without a setback. The misdemeanor charges against four of his players -- including two starters from 2009 -- revealed poor decision-making from veterans.
11. Duke: Quarterback Sean Renfree is expected to be fully recovered from his torn ACL and be the starter this fall, but the Blue Devils' running game is still in need of an upgrade and the defensive line remains a question.
12. Virginia: It's still too early for first-year coach Mike London to put his stamp on the program, as he needs more recruiting classes to do that. This will be a transition year with a new staff, new philosophies and possibly a new quarterback.