2008 Spring Preview - The ACC
Clemson RB James Davis
Clemson RB James Davis
Posted Feb 24, 2008

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.

Spring Preview 2008

ACC Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 
- 2007 ACC Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - ACC
2008 ACC Insider Spring Questions & Answers


Boston College   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.    

Clemson  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 backfield.
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.   

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.             

Maryland  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.              

NC State  Begins: March 18  Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... 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.

Wake Forest  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.


Duke   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 year.
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.       

Georgia Tech   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.          

Miami   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 they recruit.
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.  

North Carolina   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 Chapel Hill.
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.   

Virginia   Begins: March 21  Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... 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 2008

Virginia Tech  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.