Spring football primer: Burning questions for each ACC team
|ACC spring practice dates|
Ever since Florida State beat Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, the storyline surrounding ACC football has focused on one thing: the NCAA's Miami probe. A botched investigation, a lack of institutional control charge and the university's subsequent backlash have been at the center of a very public standoff -- one that could have major implications on the NCAA's future.
But while the Miami case will continue to drag on for months, fans can turn their attention to the on-field product again. Spring practice is starting up, and there's no shortage of intrigue. Clemson will look to emerge as the conference favorite, Florida State will look to adapt to staff turnover and Pitt and Syracuse will prepare to officially join the league in the fall. Here are burning questions for each ACC school as the spring session kicks off.
• Boston College: Can Steve Addazio right the ship? The Eagles are coming off a 2-10 season, their worst finish since a forgettable 0-11 campaign in 1978. And the problems last year were countless: BC finished 99th nationally in total offense and 100th in total defense, respectively. New coach Addazio provides a much-needed spark of energy after coming over from Temple, but he faces a tough task reinventing the program. Quarterback Chase Rettig, who will enter his fourth season as the starter, will have to adjust to a more spread-style approach, and new defensive coordinator Don Brown will have to generate more production from the Eagles' defensive line. Boston College recorded a paltry six sacks all of last year, the fewest in the FBS.
• Clemson: Will the defense continue to progress? If last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl was any indication, Clemson can play some defense, after all. Coordinator Brent Venables' unit held LSU to just 219 total yards, a colossal improvement from the team's embarrassing Orange Bowl showing the year before. Now, with offensive stars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins set to return, Clemson's defense will be asked to round into BCS shape. Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford and early enrollee Shaq Lawson will look to fill Malliciah Goodman's void on the defensive line, and linebackers Stephone Anthony and Spencer Shuey will lead a maturing linebacking corps. But the most pressure will be on the Tigers' secondary. Clemson was picked apart by several opposing passers in 2012 -- NC State's Mike Glennon threw for 493 yards and five touchdowns on Nov. 17 -- and will need its young group of defensive backs to show significant improvement this spring.
• Duke: Can the Blue Devils build off last year's success? Duke was the feel-good story of the first half of last season, racing to a 6-2 start en route to its first bowl appearance since 1994. But then the wheels came off. The Blue Devils lost their final five games, allowing at least 42 points in each one. Despite the departures of offensive standouts Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon, the program will look to use this spring as a launching pad for another run at a bowl berth. Quarterback Anthony Boone (who threw for 212 yards and four touchdowns while starting in Renfree's place against Virginia), wideout Jamison Crowder and cornerback Ross Cockrell will look to show last season's success was a sign of things to come, not a one-year aberration.
• Florida State: Can the 'Noles defense adapt to change? Plenty of attention will be on the three-way quarterback competition between Clint Trickett, Jacob Coker and dual-threat redshirt freshman Jameis Winston (who also plans to play baseball this spring), but Florida State must adjust to even more change on the defense. Defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine are gone, placing pressure on Mario Edwards Jr., Chris Casher and Giorgio Newberry to supplant their production. New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will look to establish his system, and new assistants Charles Kelly (linebackers) and Sal Sunseri (defensive ends) will look to build trust among their respective position groups. Even with safety Lamarcus Joyner's return, the 'Noles have plenty of work to do if they hope to replicate last year's success, when they finished second in the FBS in total defense.
• Georgia Tech: What will the defense look like under Ted Roof? At this point, Georgia Tech's offensive gameplan has become a given; Paul Johnson's triple-option attack has finished among the top four nationally in rushing yards every season he's been at the helm. But the defense has been markedly inconsistent. Ex-coordinator Al Groh was fired in October after lopsided losses to Middle Tennessee State and Clemson, and while the Yellow Jackets steadily improved using a simplified scheme down the stretch, they have a long way go if they hope to challenge for the Coastal Division crown. Roof, who came back to his alma mater from Penn State in January, will look to leave his mark on a unit that returns its top six tacklers from last season. He'll also try to come up with innovative ways to get the most of out linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, who finished third in the ACC in sacks (10) in 2012.
• Maryland: Can the Terps find a healthy quarterback? Last year, Maryland's quarterbacks may have been cursed; by the time converted linebacker Shawn Petty lined up under center, four Terps' signal-callers had already been lost to injury. This spring, the primary goal will be making sure the depth chart is fully restocked. Projected starter C.J. Brown, who tore his ACL during a non-contact drill last August, will participate in basic drills, while Caleb Rowe and Perry Hills will see limited reps amid their recoveries. That could open the door for Ricardo Young, who sat out last season after transferring. He's familiar with offensive coordinator Mike Locksley from their time together at New Mexico -- and someone has to throw the ball to dynamic sophomore-to-be Stefon Diggs.
• Miami: Will the 'Canes make significant strides on defense? Though Miami's offense must learn to adapt to life under new offensive coordinator James Coley, the Hurricanes return quarterback Stephen Morris, running back Duke Johnson and the top three wide receivers from an attack that averaged more than 440 yards per game in 2012. But the defense needs major work. The 'Canes finished last in the ACC in rushing defense, pass defense and total defense -- and most of the faces remain the same. A young group should benefit from a full season of experience, but players other than linebacker Denzel Perryman need to develop. That particularly resonates on the defensive line; Miami recorded just 13 sacks last year, 113th in the FBS.
• North Carolina: Who will replace Gio Bernard? Bernard was arguably the most overlooked back in the nation in 2012, quietly rushing for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now he's off to the NFL, and All-America offensive guard Jonathan Cooper is gone with him. That places the onus on A.J. Blue and Romar Morris to step up. Blue ran for nine touchdowns on limited carries last year, while Morris impressed the staff with his versatility as a freshman. (Morris was even named ACC Receiver of the Week after making five receptions for 149 yards and two scores in a loss to Louisville.) Both will look to alleviate some of the pressure on quarterback Bryn Renner, who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the last two seasons.
• NC State: How long will it take Dave Doeren to make his mark? Prior accepting the NC State job on Dec. 1, Doeren was putting together quite the résumé at Northern Illinois. In his first two seasons as an FBS head coach, he won two MAC championships and went 23-4. Now, he's out to transform the Wolfpack into a perennial ACC contender. But to do so, he'll have to fill some major holes this spring. The biggest question marks come under center and in the secondary. Manny Stocker and Pete Thomas will compete to replace Glennon at quarterback, while a young group of defensive backs will look to take over for Earl Wolff, David Amerson and Brandan Bishop. Doeren's ability to find ideal fits for at both spots could go a long way toward determining his first-year success in the fall.
• Pittsburgh: Will the Panthers be more consistent in Paul Chryst's second season? Pitt's 2012 season was defined by extremes. There was the good, which included routs of Virginia Tech and Rutgers and a near-colossal upset of Notre Dame; and the bad, which included an inexplicable loss to FCS Youngstown State. In his second year at the helm, Chryst will look to eliminate most of the latter. If Arizona transfer Tom Savage, former U.S. Army All-American Chad Voytik or junior Trey Anderson can emerge as a capable replacement for quarterback Tino Sunseri, the Panthers could use this spring to shape up before their ACC debut. Running back Rushel Shell, wide receiver Devin Street and defensive tackle Aaron Donald could all be more dangerous with another year of experience.
• Syracuse: How quickly can 'Cuse transition to a new era? Syracuse's Pinstripe Bowl beatdown of West Virginia was the end of an era for a myriad of reasons: Coach Doug Marrone, quarterback Ryan Nassib and star safety Shamarko Thomas are all gone. Now, before the school adapts to life in a new conference, it must first create a level of comfort among its own roster. New coach Scott Shafer has been with the Orange since 2009, so his familiarity should help expedite the process. But between finding a new quarterback -- Charley Loeb, John Kinder and Terrel Hunt will compete for the job -- and replacing its top two tacklers, 'Cuse could be in for a trying spring. If nothing else, the team's top two rushers, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, both return.
• Virginia: Can the Cavaliers establish an offensive identity? Virginia never truly figured out who it was offensively in 2012, splitting time between multiple quarterbacks as it limped to a 4-8 finish. Coach Mike London brought in Steve Fairchild to coordinate the attack in January, and Fairchild's first task will be selecting his go-to guy under center. Phillip Sims should get the first look following Michael Rocco's transfer to Richmond, but junior-to-be David Watford could make a case for the job with a strong performance this spring. Fairchild will also be asked to derive more production out of Virginia's ground game. Kevin Parks turned in two 100-yard rushing efforts in the final six games, but the Cavs' running threat was mostly underwhelming; it averaged just 128.5 yards per game, 96th in the nation.
• Virginia Tech: Will Logan Thomas finally live up to his potential? The book on Thomas is well established by now; he boasts NFL-caliber size and arm strength, but he's prone to baffling lapses in judgment. Case in point: He threw 10 touchdown passes of 30 yards or longer last season, but he also tossed 16 interceptions, tied for the fourth-highest total in the nation. New offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler -- whose quarterbacks at Auburn struggled mightily in 2012 -- will use this spring to try to finally turn Thomas into the dominant passer he's been billed to be. Especially without a proven rushing threat, his progress will be crucial to Virginia Tech's hopes of winning its fourth ACC title in the last seven years.
• Wake Forest: Can the Deacs return to form? Largely an afterthought during its 5-7 campaign, Wake Forest was decimated by injuries in 2012. Nine offensive linemen went down over the course of the season, and leading wide receiver Michael Campanaro missed two games with a broken right hand. Campanaro will miss spring practice to undergo unrelated ankle surgery, and the prospects for Deacs' offense depend on his recovery. However, look for Wake to use the next few weeks to find out which other players are ready to contribute. Rising senior quarterback Tanner Price brings veteran leadership to the team, but coach Jim Grobe needs other playmakers -- particularly on his 117th-ranked total offense -- to rise to the occasion.