2008 Spring Preview - The ACC
Clemson RB James Davis
With James Davis returning for his senior season, Clemson is loaded, but what does it need to do to finally get over the top in the Tommy Bowden era? Just as spring ball gets underway, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each ACC team in the CFN Spring Preview.
ACC Spring Football Previews
2007 ACC Spring Analysis
Early Lookaheads -
2008 ACC Insider Spring
Questions & Answers
Begins: March 25 Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ...
It was common knowledge that
Jeff Jagodzinski inherited a veteran team with a Heisman-caliber quarterback in
2007, but now that much of that group has graduated, the coach’s job gets a lot
tougher. Not only has Matt Ryan left the Heights for the NFL, but so have last
year’s top two rushers, best offensive lineman, and three Second Team All-ACC
defensive players. The best news for the 2008 defense is that two potential
all-leaguers, DT B.J. Raji and LB Brian Toal, will be coming off the shelf after
sitting out all of last season.
The big spring question is ... Who fills Ryan’s shoes? Although he’ll
have to officially earn the job first, senior Chris Crane enters spring as the
heavy favorite to start the opener Aug. 30. Surprisingly quick at 6-4 and 236
pounds, he has a capable arm and the luxury of being Ryan’s understudy over the
last two seasons. If Crane is going to get pushed hard, it’ll come from Codi
Boek, a live-armed transfer from American River College.
The most important position to watch is ... Running back. This is Boston
College, where they still like to occasionally pound the ball between a couple
of massive tackles. Unfortunately, last season’s most productive rushers, Andre
Callender and L.V. Whitworth, are gone, and Jeff Smith and A.J. Brooks are
unlikely to suit up this year for physical and disciplinary reasons,
respectively. Enter rookie Josh Haden, who’s already on campus, and has the
breakaway speed and clear path to steal the job as a true freshman.
Spring attitude... After getting to the ACC title game and going 11-3
last season, Boston College is headed back to being a really solid eight or
nine-win program that’s unbeatable in December bowl games. For the first time
since 1996, neither Ryan nor Tom O’Brien is in Chestnut Hill, begging the
question of where the leadership will come from in 2008. The schedule doesn’t
get ornery until mid-October, so the new quarterback will have time to get
acclimated in September against the likes of Kent State, Rhode Island, and UCF.
Begins: March 8 Game: April 12
The early spring buzz
... With eight
starters returning to each side of the ball, Tommy Bowden’s biggest challenge
this spring will be keeping his Tigers from losing focus or getting
overconfident. Clemson is the early favorite to win the ACC, a target it’ll
have to wear until the season begins. It shapes up as a pivotal year for
Bowden, who hasn’t quite been able to nudge the program over the hump, failing
to win ten games or qualify for a major bowl game in his nine years with the
program. This is arguably his best team ever, and coming off one of his best
recruiting classes ever, adding an extra layer of pressure for a coach that’s no
stranger to must-win situations.
The big spring question is ... Is true freshman DaQuan Bowers already
capable of replacing Phillip Merling at defensive end? One of the most heralded
recruits to ever sign with Clemson, Bowers will participate this spring with an
eye on the starting job opposite Ricky Sapp. A unique talent with the body of
an upperclassman, those 15 practices in March and April will dramatically
increase his chances of getting on the field in September. If Bowers is the
real deal right away, he and Sapp will form a scary-good pass-rushing tandem
that’ll make Tiger fans forget Merling ever left.
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive tackle. If there’s
a weak link, it’s clearly along the offensive line, where tackles Barry
Richardson and Christian Capote and All-ACC guard Chris McDuffie have
graduated. The only way opponents are going to stop a Tiger offense that
includes QB Cullen Harper, backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, and WR Aaron
Kelly is if the line fails to open holes or keep the other team out of the
Spring attitude... Clemson opens the season against Alabama in the
Georgia Dome, so we’ll know very early whether the school is a championship
contender or pretender. All of the pieces are in place for the Tigers to cop
their first ACC title in 17 years, but they’ll first have to exorcise a few
late-seasons demons by navigating a November schedule that includes trips to
Atlantic Division rivals Boston College and Florida State.
Begins: March 17 Game: April 12
The early spring
buzz ... After
back-to-back 7-6 seasons, along with a lingering academic scandal, have the
Seminoles reached rock bottom or are they still descending further? It’s a
question the program will begin to answer in March, as it attempts to pick up
the pieces and make a hopeful return back to glory. While the defense will
again be the strength, the offense needs to take a giant step forward in Jimbo
Fisher’s second season as offensive coordinator. Most of last year’s unit is
back, but it managed to score just 23 points a game in 2007 and struggled big
time to open up the running game.
The big spring question is ... Will anything change now that Fisher’s
been named Bobby Bowden’s successor? Although it may not be perceptible to the
naked eye, Fisher’s role and influence are going to increase as Bowden’s final
days at the helm get closer. Already the pilot of the Seminole offense, he’s
also become the most influential coach on the recruiting trail and is having
more say on staff decisions. Fisher’s prominence is growing all the time in
Tallahassee, but you’re not going to recognize it by watching this year’s Garnet
and Gold game.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. After
Andre Fluellen graduated, the thinking was that Letroy Guion would take over and
have a monster senior season. Guion had other plans, however, leaving early for
the NFL and leaving the Noles shorthanded on the interior of the defensive
line. It’s about time for Emmanuel Dunbar to begin fulfilling his expectations,
and Justin Mincey to evolve into an every-down player.
Spring attitude... The ‘Noles will be without a slew of suspended players
for the first three games, but opening with Western Carolina and Chattanooga
softens the blow. Although the schedule pretty much guarantees a bowl game, to
win a tough Atlantic Division, Florida State might need career years from
sporadic QB Drew Weatherford and underrated RB Antone Smith.
Begins: March 25 Game: April 26
The early spring buzz
... It’s only been
five years since the Terps were stringing together ten-win seasons; it just
feels a whole lot longer. Maryland has hit an impasse under Ralph Friedgen,
settling into the midsection of the ACC and stumbling repeatedly on offense.
Friedgen hired James Franklin away from Kansas State to light a fire under a
unit that hasn’t averaged more than 24 points a game since 2003. Franklin’s
first order of business will be to make sense out of a muddled quarterback
situation that includes junior Chris Turner, senior Jordan Steffy, and junior
Josh Portis, the Florida transfer that hasn’t been able to get on the field the
last two years.
The big spring question is ... Who takes over for the running back duo of
Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball? The Terrapins’ best weapons a year ago are no
longer in College Park, leaving a gaping hole in the backfield. For the
Maryland offense to have any chance of being potent, it needs an element of
balance and a threat of a power running game. A couple of sophomores, Morgan
Green and Da’Rel Scott, will figure prominently in the Terps’ offensive plans
after combining for just 17 carries last season.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive tackle. The
Terrapins were tenth in the ACC against the run last year, when they had
veterans Dre Moore and Carlos Feliciano manning the interior of the line.
Without the pair, or stud LB Erin Henderson, the Maryland defense is going to be
very susceptible to opponents that commit to the run. It’ll have to be a big
year for junior Travis Ivey, senior Dean Muhtadi, and this year’s recruits, or
else the Terps are going to allow plenty of long and draining drives this fall.
Spring attitude... You never want to doubt Friedgen, who’s done his best
work when the least is expected of his teams. Still, the Terps have the look of
a middle-of-the-pack program that isn’t particularly sterling at any one unit;
at least that’s before spring ball. The wide receivers, led by Darrius Heyward-Bey,
could be dangerous, but even they’ll be neutralized if one of the quarterbacks
doesn’t raise the level of his game.
Begins: March 18 Game: April 19
The early spring
Second-year head coach Tom O’Brien desperately wants to establish a running
game, especially with State’s uncertainty at quarterback. Although he expects
to be loaded at running back with Jamelle Eugene, Andre Brown, and Toney Baker
back in the fold, it won’t matter unless the Pack gets dramatically better on
the offensive line. The unit got routinely blown off the ball in 2007, making
Eugene’s three 100-yard days after Brown and Baker were injured all the more
impressive. So dire is the situation on the line, O’Brien is strongly
considering moving defensive tackles Ted Larsen and John Bedics to the other
side of the ball in the spring.
The big spring question is ... Out of Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck,
does NC State have a quarterback it can count on? O’Brien’s offenses are rarely
built around the passing game, but it sure would help the entire attack if the
quarterbacks played with more consistency. Evans, Beck, and Justin Burke
combined to throw a league-high 23 interceptions a year ago, a huge reason why
the Pack started the season 1-5. Don’t expect an epiphany out of either hurler
in 2008, although it will help to get back TE Anthony Hill, who missed last
season with a knee injury.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. The Wolfpack was
last in the ACC last year in run defense, and things won’t get any easier
without starting linebackers Ernest Jones, James Martin, and LeRue Rumph, and
all-league tackle DeMario Pressley. Nate Irving, Ray Michel, and John Ware
earned significant playing time as underclassmen in 2007, making them the
frontrunners to win starting jobs by the end of the spring session.
Spring attitude... O’Brien is too good of a coach not to turn things
around in Raleigh, but don’t expect miracles this early in his tenure. The
Wolfpack has a long way to go in this process, and it’ll show again in 2008.
With the holes on defense and the offensive line, and the erratic play of the
quarterbacks, NC State will be fortunate to match last year’s 5-7 record.
Begins: March 26 Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ...
The return of head coach Jim
Grobe, who once again turned away higher profile offers, guaranteeing a positive
atmosphere for next month’s spring kickoff. The coach has been the undisputed
architect of the best two-year run in school history, a run that shows no signs
of stopping in 2008. Grobe and his staff’s knack for taking marginal high
school linemen and molding them into producers will be tested this fall, as the
Deacons lose three starters on the offensive line and two on defense. True to
Wake’s recent formula of success, it’ll be led by a steady running game, the
low-risk passing of Riley Skinner, and a vastly underrated back seven.
The big spring question is ... Who replaces Steve Justice at center? The
most important of those three departing offensive linemen and one of the best
ever to play in Winston-Salem, Justice’s presence on the Wake Forest offense
will be sorely missed. A masher in the running game, he made his linemates
better and the holes for Josh Adams, Micah Andrews, and Kenny Moore wider. Trey
Bailey, the heady junior who learned from Justice the last couple of seasons, is
poised to take over at the pivot.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide receiver. The Deacons
will certainly run more than they’ll pass, but to avoid being predictable,
they’ve got to uncover a few new receivers for Skinner. Gone are three of last
year’s top four pass-catchers, including Moore, a do-everything All-ACC First
Team selection. For Skinner to continue his development, a lot will be expected
of Chip Brinkman, Jordan Williams, and Demir Boldin, and a new starting tight
end must be developed.
Spring attitude... With so many starters returning and a favorable schedule
that has Clemson and Boston College visiting Groves Stadium, Wake Forest has to
be thinking big, like playing for the ACC championship for the second time in
three years. And why not? The backfield returns intact and the defense should
be just as opportunistic as last year, when it led the league with 35
takeaways. As long as the Deacons can solidify the offensive line and find a
pass rushing replacement for DE Jeremy Thompson, Grobe will again be a very hot
commodity at the end of the regular season.
Begins: March 19 Game: April 19
The early spring buzz
... The biggest star
at Duke this spring hasn’t worn a helmet or pads in decades. By luring David
Cutcliffe away from Tennessee, the Blue Devils have their best Xs and Os guy
since Steve Spurrier was in Durham, and they get a coach who brings instant
credibility to a floundering program. His task is obviously overwhelming,
inheriting a team that’s won four games in four years and hasn’t beaten an ACC
opponent since 2004, but the new staff is a step in the right direction.
Cutcliffe has already begun paying dividends to Duke, beating out Pac-10 teams
for Sean Renfree, his eventual franchise at quarterback.
The big spring question is ... How much of an impact will Cutcliffe have
on a Duke offense that averaged 18 points a game in 2007? Cutcliffe has tutored
both Manning brothers, but he doesn’t exactly have one of them to work with this
year. QB Thaddeus Lewis and WR Eron Riley are nice building blocks for the new
pro-style offense, provided Riley’s part in a fight last month doesn’t keep him
off the field. The key for the Blue Devils will be to establish some semblance
of a running attack after averaging just 64 yards a game on the ground last
The most important position to watch is ... Offensive line. The fact
that it all starts up front was never more evident than with last year’s line,
which allowed 45 sacks and never opened holes for Re’Quan Boyette. Three
starters are back, led by massive RT Fred Roland, but Cutcliffe’s top priority
this spring will be to find a new center and left guard and improve the overall
depth in the trenches. Some of the youngsters, like tackles Robert Drum and
Bryan Morgan, will get a chance for playing time early in their careers.
Spring attitude... There’s a whole new attitude permeating throughout the
program, which often comes with the hiring of a new staff. Fundamentally, the
Blue Devils will make a quantum leap from last season, even if it doesn’t show
up in the final standings. Duke will take its first rebuilding steps under
Cutcliffe in 2008, stunning one ACC opponent later this fall.
Begins: March 24 Game: April 19
The early spring
buzz ... By every
possible measure, 2008 shapes up as a transition year for the Georgia Tech
program, even if the new coaching staff is seeing it that way. With new head
coach Paul Johnson comes the adoption of the option offense and the exit of
defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who deftly turned the Yellow Jackets into a
perennial nuisance for the rest of the ACC. As if all that upheaval isn’t
unsettling enough, the defense loses three of last year’s four all-leaguers, and
the special teams must replace Durant Brooks and Travis Bell, the best
punter-kicker combo in the history of the program.
The big spring question is ... Who’ll be Johnson’s first quarterback in
Atlanta? Well, one man it won’t be is last year’s starter Taylor
Bennett, a bad fit for the offense who has decided to transfer. The two primary
contenders are sophomore Josh Nesbitt and Auburn transfer Calvin Booker, both of
whom possess the requisite athleticism to run the option attack. Nesbitt ran
for 339 yards a year ago, flashing the burst and escapability that bode well for
his future in Atlanta.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker. In Philip
Wheeler and Gary Guyton, the Yellow Jackets will be without last year’s top two
tacklers and two of the defense’s best run defenders. While Shane Bowen will be
back to handle one of the starting jobs, the competition for the two openings
will begin in the spring and last until the end of the summer. Tech is
particularly excited about the future of sophomore Anthony Barnes, who backed up
Bowen and had 29 tackles in his 2007 debut.
Spring attitude... With change occurring just about everywhere at Georgia
Tech, the expectations for the upcoming season are understandably modest. Throw
in September games at Boston College and Virginia Tech, and the Jackets could be
out of the ACC title hunt before the leaves start turning colors. More than
anything else, Johnson wants to establish his system in 2008, with an eye toward
bigger and better things in 2009.
Begins: February 26 Game: March 29
The early spring
buzz ... Head
coach Randy Shannon got a mulligan for going 5-7 in his first season, but the
honeymoon is already over as he heads into year two. The Hurricanes need to
develop a consistent playmaker at quarterback and revamp the defense, two areas
that never let the program down during the glory days. Very few positions won’t
be open to competition this spring, as Miami begins to infuse parts of its last
two recruiting classes into the depth chart. Shannon built a fortress around
the city of Miami in February, assembling one of the nation’s best hauls of
young talent, but now he and his staff need to show they can coach as well as
The big spring question is ... Is this Robert Marve’s first step toward
locking down the quarterback opening? The job is clearly his to lose, but the
redshirt freshman will get pushed in March by Jacory Harris and Cannon Smith,
two of the gems of this year’s class. Almost all the way back from last July’s
scary car accident, Marve has the athletic ability to keep defenses from getting
too comfortable. No matter what happens next month, Shannon doesn’t plan to
officially anoint his starter until the summer.
The most important position to watch is ... The offensive line. Well,
specifically, the interior of the offensive line. The Hurricanes are in good
shape at tackle, with Jason Fox handling the left side and seniors Reggie
Youngblood and Chris Rutledge battling it out on the right side. There’ll be
new starters, however, at center and both guard spots on a unit that didn’t get
the job done a year ago. The most intriguing starter might be Shannon’s son
Xavier, who has transferred from Florida International to lock horns with A.J.
Trump at the pivot.
Spring attitude... Although this latest recruiting class has brought a
spark back to the Miami program, it’s not likely to have a profound impact on
the Hurricanes’ win total this year. Shannon’s going to get the ‘Canes back to
the postseason, but with so much uncertainty on both sides of the ball and a
rugged schedule, they’ll fall a little short of a Coastal Division crown.
Begins: March 3 Game: April 5
The early spring
buzz ... Butch
Davis’ sleeping giant believes it’s ready to take another big step in its quest
to be a perennial contender in the ACC. The Tar Heels played a ton of
underclassmen in 2007, which is expected to pay off this year. After showing
their immaturity in close games a year ago, Carolina is now experienced
everywhere, including at quarterback, where sophomore T.J. Yates begins his
second season as the starter. While Davis has turned away interest from other
programs since the end of the season, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano jumped
to the Baltimore Ravens in February, forcing the Heels to hire Everett Withers.
The big spring question is ... Can the Tar Heels locate a running game?
Carolina was brutal on the ground last year, a combination of poor blocking up
front and an average stable of running backs. Last season’s top four rushers
are back, but unless a line that returns four starters can keep the opposition
out of the backfield, it won’t make a difference. The Heels are optimistic
about the future of Greg Little, who ran for 243 yards and two scores in the
final two games of 2007, despite being viewed as a receiver when he got to
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line. While
there’s plenty of excitement about the back seven, the front four is the site of
this year’s two biggest losses. DE Hilee Taylor and DT Kentwan Balmer were a
couple of All-ACC performers, whose next games will take place on Sundays.
While Marvin Austin is expected to fill the gap on the inside, finding a
replacement for Taylor’s 16 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. A couple of last
year’s redshirt freshmen, Darrius Massenburg and Darius Powell, are being
counted on to pick up the slack.
Spring attitude... Davis’ second spring is all about building on last
season and getting better on offense, even though Yates will sit it out to rehab
shoulder surgery. They’ll have to navigate a relatively tough schedule to do
so, but the Heels are inching closer to winning six games and qualifying for a
second-tier bowl game. A 13th game would instantly put the program’s rebuilding
efforts into overdrive.
Begins: March 21 Game: April 12
The early spring
Virginia’s high academic standards are causing major headaches this off-season
for Al Groh and the football program. A half-dozen players, including QB Jameel
Sewell, DE Jeffrey Fitzgerald, and CB Chris Cook have uncertain futures in
Charlottesville related to problems in the classroom. Most unsettling is the
fact that these departures are occurring on a team that was already facing the
possibility of having to rebuild in 2008 after going an unlikely 9-4 a year ago.
If the Cavs have any hope of bucking the trend again this fall, they’ll have to
spend this spring recapturing the close-game magic that led to an NCAA-record
six wins by five points or less in 2007.
The big spring question is ... Who’s going to rush the passer? If
Fitzgerald makes good on his promise to transfer, it’ll rob the Cavaliers of he
and Chris Long, who combined for 21 sacks last season. That’ll leave the
program with just two ends with meaningful experience, sophomore Sean Gottschalk
and senior Alex Field. If opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw this
season, an average Virginia secondary is going to get exposed on a weekly basis.
The most important position to watch is ... The offensive line. When
First Team All-ACC lineman Branden Albert decided to declare for the NFL Draft,
it meant Virginia would be without both of last year’s starting guards and its
No. 1 center. One of the top priorities this spring will be to rebuild the
interior of that line in order to support the running game and likely starting
quarterback Peter Lalich. At 6-5 and 235 pounds, the sophomore is more of a
pocket passer than the kind of quarterback Cav coaches want to be dodging
non-stop pass rushes.
Spring attitude... The conventional wisdom is that Virginia overachieved
last year with one great player, a solid kicking game, several close wins, and
an average overall supporting cast. With Long and Albert headed to the NFL, the
Cavaliers are taking huge hits on the defensive and offensive lines,
respectively. Plus, this was supposed to be Sewell’s breakout year, rather than
a season that may never materialize. With a schedule that begins with USC and
ends with Virginia Tech, Virginia will be hard-pressed to win seven games in
Begins: March 26 Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ...
The defending ACC champions
will enter the upcoming season as one of the main favorites to win the Coastal
Division, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t big holes to fill. The Hokies took
a beating through graduation, losing their top receivers, three-quarters of the
starting defensive line, All-ACC linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall, and
steady PK Jud Dunlevy. No doubt there’s talent waiting in the wings, but Tech
will have to find and develop it in a hurry this spring in order to win a third
league title in just the past five seasons.
The big spring question is ... Will both quarterbacks again be featured
prominently? Last season, Frank Beamer used freshman Tyrod Taylor and junior
Sean Glennon extensively, often maximizing their complementary set of skills.
However, with 11 games of experience now in the vault, the clock might be
ticking before Taylor passes Glennon en route to the lion’s share of the snaps.
Clearly the more dynamic of the two, he’s capable of obliterating the
two-quarterback system by stepping up as a passer this spring.
The most important position to watch is ... Defensive line. If the
Hokies hiccup in their attempt to replace DE Chris Ellis and tackles Barry
Booker and Carlton Powell, the entire defense will feel the ripple effect. Tech
was No. 5 nationally last year in run defense and sacks largely because of a
front seven that opponents couldn’t handle man-to-man. Ends Jason Worilds and
Nekos Brown, and tackles John Graves and Cordarrow Thompson will instantly have
to fill in and become frontline producers.
Spring attitude... Regardless of the hurdles, Virginia Tech has gotten
this ACC thing down to a science, winning the league or playing in the title
game in three of the last four years. The upcoming season will bring challenges
to both sides of the ball, but in a division that has no serious challenger, at
least on paper going into the off-season, the program can’t settle for anything
less than another appearance in the title game.