Spring Preview 2009 - The ACC

Posted Mar 5, 2009

The ACC is coming off a strong season, and now it should be even better. The talent is there, led by GT's Jonathan Dwyer, BC's Mark Herzlich, and Clemson's C.J. Spiller. 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 2009

ACC Spring Football Previews

By Richard Cirminiello 

- 2009 ACC Spring Lookaheads
2008 ACC Lookbacks and Recaps

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

2009 ... Is The ACC Any Good?


Boston College   Begins: March 17  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... Eagle players know Frank Spaziani the defensive coordinator. This spring, they’ll get to know Frank Spaziani the head coach for the first time. After a tumultuous offseason, Coach Spaz will be looking to establish his authority, while getting his new staff up to speed. On offense, long-time veteran Gary Tranquill is coming out of retirement and returning to a college sideline for the first time in four years. Succeeding Spaziani on defense will be Bill McGovern, who’s being promoted after nine seasons as the linebackers coach. Even with so many new coaches, don’t expect any dramatic changes in philosophy from the last few years.               

The big spring question is ... Is there a quarterback in Boston that the program can count on? After getting spoiled for years by Matt Ryan, the Eagles are facing a second straight season of instability behind center. Dominique Davis provided more questions than answers when pressed into action last year, and behind him is a spate of unproven rookies. If Davis can’t shut the door on the competition, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle. The son of former NFL LB Jessie Tuggle, he’s got a big arm and is very dangerous when he gets outside the tackles.        

The most important position to watch is ... defensive tackle. The Eagle D will be missing about 650 pounds of future NFL linemen now that B.J. Raji and Ron Brace have run out of eligibility. These two were instrumental in the success of last year’s defense, and will be impossible to replace. The onus of clogging running lanes and occupying blockers will now fall to a handful of players, headed by Damik Scafe and Kaleb Ramsey. After earning letters as a backup the last two seasons, Scafe is poised to break out in his junior year.    

Spring attitude... Stay on course. Two years ago, Tom O’Brien left for Raleigh, and Boston College won the Atlantic Division. Last year, Ryan graduated, and Boston College won the Atlantic Division. Now that Jeff Jagodzinski was unexpectedly sacked in January, the Eagles still believe they’ll be in the hunt for an ACC championship. Until the quarterback situation gets settled, they’ll lean on RB Montel Harris, one of the league’s best offensive lines, and a Mark Herzlich-led defense that’ll still be very stingy.

Clemson  Begins: March 7  Game: April 11

The early spring buzz ... His interim coaching tag stripped away a few months back, this is officially Dabo Swinney’s team. That’ll be clear this spring, his first as the head coach, and the first for Billy Napier and Kevin Steele as the offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively. While Swinney did well in the second-half sprint, he’ll need to show that he can keep this Tiger team motivated and focused over the course of an entire season and offseason. Steele was, well, a steal for Clemson, bringing a long resume as an assistant, head coach, and recruiter to a program that needs more experience on the sidelines.

The big spring question is ... How much better will the offensive line be? After allowing more sacks than all but one ACC team, it can’t get any worse, right? The good news is that everyone is back from 2008, headed by all-league C Thomas Austin. Although that certainly helps, offensive line coach Brad Scott is the first to admit that it’s not a solution. The Tigers must improve in all aspects of their assignments, or else the new quarterback will get killed and star RB C.J. Spiller will regret returning for his senior year.

The most important position to watch is ... quarterback. With Cullen Harper gone, this is obviously the position that’ll get the most attention in the spring, and probably the summer for that matter. From the moment Willy Korn signed out of Byrnes (S.C.) High School in 2007, he was considered the future at the position. He still might be, but he’s going to get plenty of competition this spring from mobile redshirt freshman Kyle Parker, who puts himself into the mix by impressing on the scout team.

Spring attitude... It’s going to be a real interesting spring at Clemson. With Swinney at the helm, it’s the dawn of a new era for the first time in a decade. One thing the coach won’t have to contend with is lofty expectations or a target on his team’s chest. Unlike last year, the Tigers won’t appear in the top 10 of preseason polls, especially after losing their quarterback, top receiver, and both starting safeties. Still, this is Clemson, where attracting top talent has rarely been a problem. If the new quarterback can produce and Steele keeps the defense feisty, the Tigers are capable of rising up and vexing the experts once again.    

Florida State  Begins: March 2  Game: April 4

The early spring buzz ... For the first time in a long time, there’ll be no quarterback controversy when the Seminoles begin camp on March 2. The job belongs to Christian Ponder, who went wire-to-wire as the starter a year ago. That’s good news for the offense and coordinator Jimbo Fisher, as Florida State searches for more explosiveness through the air. Now, this doesn’t mean Ponder won’t get pushed in March and April. After throwing 13 interceptions and just 14 touchdowns, Fisher will be on him to improve throughout the 15 practices. And 2008 mega-recruit E.J. Manuel is lurking in the shadows and looking to pull an upset.

The big spring question is ... Is Florida State about to unveil its best offensive line in ages? With the incomparable Rick Trickett as the line coach and all five starters back, this group has an enormous ceiling. Rodney Hudson is a rock at left guard, and a whopping six freshmen started games a year ago, led by Offensive Newcomer of the Year Andrew Datko. Without a single upperclassman, the ‘Noles did a pretty good job in 2008. With that year to work together and 15 spring practices, they could have one of the best fronts in the ACC.

The most important position to watch is ... wide receiver. Ponder’s evolution as a passer could depend on how quickly his young receiving corps develops. Greg Carr has graduated. Preston Parker has been dismissed after his latest arrest. Taiwan Easterling ruptured his left Achilles during winter conditioning. And Corey Surrency is still appealing for another season in Tallahassee. Bert Reed, Jarmon Forston, and Rodney Owens will have to be exceptional if the passing game is to do better than last year’s No. 82 ranking in the country.

Spring attitude... The Parker situation aside, it’s been a relatively quiet offseason compared to last year for Florida State. That’s a good thing as the program tries to win its first ACC championship in four years. To reach that goal, the Seminoles need a quantum leap from Ponder and some holes to be filled at each level of the defense. The latter has never been a problem for Mickey Andrews and his defensive staff. The former will be a collaborative effort that includes offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and Ponder’s youthful supporting cast.

Maryland  Begins: March 24  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... While many of its competitors were juggling their coaching staffs in the offseason, Maryland was taking steps toward stability and continuity in the hierarchy. In early February, the Terrapin administration named a coach-in-waiting for whenever Ralph Friedgen retires, naming offensive coordinator James Franklin as his eventual successor. Clearly sensing that Franklin was in demand on other campuses, the program gave him a compelling reason to stay in College Park. He’s young, yet experienced, and is recognized as one of the better recruiters in the region. While Fridge will gradually expose Franklin to more than he had in the past, no one expects there to be tangible signs of change in the spring.

The big spring question is ... Can Friedgen and Franklin keep all of their backs happy? Last spring, the Terps were concerned about replacing Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore, but that’s a distant concern. Today, they’ve got three backs capable of carrying the load if given a chance. While Da’Rel Scott is the undisputed feature back after rushing for more than 1,000 yards, it’ll be hard keeping Davin Meggett and Morgan Green on the sidelines for too long. Meggett was a revelation in his rookie year and Green showed what he can do in the Humanitarian Bowl, running for 72 yards and a score on 10 carries.

The most important position to watch is ... offensive line. Who’s going to block for that trio of runners? Most of last year’s massive line is out of eligibility, including all-leaguers Edwin Williams, Scott Burley, and Jaimie Thomas. Bruce Campbell and Phil Costa are expected to be the anchors at tackle and guard, respectively. After those two? Plenty of question marks. A slew of freshmen from last season, like Stephen St. John, Andrew Gonnella, Lamar Young, Justin Lewis, and R.J. Dill will be under the microscope in March and April.

Spring attitude... After swinging and missing for years in its ACC championship bid, Maryland is looking to get over the hump in 2009. Don’t bet on it. The offense has question marks on the inside and a mediocre passing game, especially without Darrius Heyward-Bey. Aside from maybe LB Alex Wujciak, the defense is going to lack genuine star power. When you put it all together, this looks like another seven or eight-win Terrapin team that can beat anyone on the schedule…or lose to it.

NC State  Begins: March 20  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... The buzz around Raleigh these days is the overall lack of national buzz surrounding the Wolfpack. Carolina is making more noise. So is Wake Forest. Heck, even East Carolina and Duke are making more headlines among the state’s schools. Yet, it was NC State, which beat all four schools a year ago, and returns its most important pieces on offense and defense. Head coach Tom O’Brien could care less about such trivial matters. Much like his stint at Boston College, he’s focused on building a winning program that plays with an attitude on defense and runs the ball with authority. After two years, he’s clearly headed in the right direction.

The big spring question is ... What more can QB Russell Wilson do for this program? A revelation for the Wolfpack, he became the first freshman quarterback in ACC history to be named to the all-league first team. His first order of business, however, is to get healthy after spraining his knee ligaments in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. Wilson is hoping to be cleared for practice, so he pick up where left off in 2008 and develop a rhythm with his receivers. To say that he’s State’s most valuable player is an understatement, so it bears watching how that knee is healing during the spring.

The most important position to watch is ... the secondary. North Carolina State was last in the ACC last year in pass defense, having more breakdowns in coverage than big plays. CB Jeremy Gray and S J.C. Neal are gone from that unit, leaving a couple of holes that need to be filled. DeAndre Morgan and Justin Byers are back at cornerback and safety, respectively, and S Javon Morgan is expected to return after missing all of 2008 with a knee injury. It’ll help if the kids, like CB Dominique Ellis and S Jimmaul Simmons can start playing like vets this spring.

Spring attitude... O’Brien’s blueprint for success has already begun to materialize. In fact, considering what he inherited, you could argue that he’s ahead of schedule. NC State may not have the depth or talent of the league’s elite, but the way it finished the 2008 season, no one should be surprised if the team sneaks up and takes the Atlantic Division. The Pack is that close to being a contender. The biggest factor, by far, will be keeping Wilson healthy and getting redshirt freshman Mike Glennon ready in the event of an emergency.

Wake Forest  Begins: March 24  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... As long as head coach Jim Grobe continues to remain loyal to Wake Forest, the program is going to feel good about its upcoming season. Now in the midst of their best three-year run in program history, the Demon Deacons have benefited from continuity within the coaching staff. The talent is never going to rival Virginia Tech or Florida State, but this group of coaches has had a penchant for turning average high schools recruits into NFL-caliber athletes. And with Riley Skinner back for a fourth season to pilot the offense, there’s a sense that Wake will be dangerous every single weekend.

The big spring question is ... Will the offensive line step it up? After finishing 10th in the league in sacks allowed and 11th in yards per carry, this unit can’t be any worse than it was in 2008. The good news is that everyone is back, including hulking Chris DeGeare, who sat out the year for academic reasons. While Skinner has the quick feet to survive the rush, the backs have to get more daylight than they saw last fall. If the line does its job up front, Josh Adams, Brandon Pendergrass, and Kevin Harris are capable of forming one of the league’s most productive backfields.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive backfield. After Brandon Ghee, who’s back at one cornerback spot, the Deacons have nothing but question marks in the secondary. There’s no easy way to replace Alphonso Smith, Kevin Patterson, and Chip Vaughn, who made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks the last few seasons. Ghee’s side of the field will be avoided, putting pressure on Josh Bush, Alex Frye, Junior Petit-Jean, and John Stamper to pick up the slack and make those quarterbacks pay for picking on them.

Spring attitude... It’s business as usual around Winston-Salem, where Wake Forest now expects to bowl each season and compete for the Atlantic Division. Losing six starters from the back seven, including Aaron Curry and Smith, is a devastating blow for the defense. If the Deacons are going to challenge for more than a mid-tier postseason game in December, the offense will have to exceed expectations. In other words, a lot is riding on the development of a line that must create more space for the team’s playmakers.


Duke   Begins: March 18  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... At his core, David Cutcliffe is a teacher, which is why this is one of his favorite times of the year. He knows that wins in October and November are possible because of what’s done in the spring and summer. Since he and his staff arrived a little over a year ago, the Blue Devils have gotten markedly better in terms of conditioning and fundamentals. Cutcliffe knows he’s still facing a talent gap versus the rest of the league that can be narrowed by doing the little things well. These 15 practices in March and April are another chance to improve in every aspect of the game.

The big spring question is ... Who becomes Thaddeus Lewis’ favorite target now that Eron Riley is gone? Riley was sensational over the last four years, creating a massive hole in the passing game. It’ll take more than a single player to replace his production of 61 catches and eight touchdowns from a year ago. Johnny Williams, Donovan Varner, Austin Kelly, and Sheldon Bell all showed glimpses as underclassmen. Oh, and don’t forget about big TE Brett Huffman, who had 14 receptions as a sophomore.

The most important position to watch is ... the offensive line. Boy, this has been a glaring problem in Durham for years. The Blue Devils actually made some progress in pass protection in 2008, but now must move on without three starters from that unit, including top blocker Cameron Goldberg. The cornerstones will be G Kyle Hill and C Bryan Morgan, but they’ll need lots of help. In particular, this is going to be a big spring for young tackles Jeffrey Cowart and Pontus Bondeson, and G Mitchell Lederman.

Spring attitude... Build on last year. The Blue Devils took positive steps in just about every area in 2008, but now they’ve got to add another layer of success to Cutcliffe’s blueprint. The program enjoyed stability in the coaching staff this offseason and once again recruited well. With Thaddeus Lewis back behind center and DT Vince Oghobaase returning for his senior, Duke believes it can get closer to that coveted bowl eligibility after winning games a year ago.        

Georgia Tech   Begins: March 23  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Boy, have things changed around Atlanta in a matter of a year, or what? Last March, the program was all about getting acclimated to first-year head coach Paul Johnson and his option offense. This March, the Yellow Jackets will be looking to fine-tune that system, specifically QB Josh Nesbitt, while moving up in the ACC pecking order. Tech has had a very quiet offseason, only making news on signing day with a solid class that addressed both sides of the ball and capitalized on last year’s nine-win season.

The big spring question is ... How far along will the offense be compared to last year? As good as the Yellow Jacket attack was in 2008, Johnson knows it can be more efficient and explosive now that the learning curve is flatter. Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones form one of the most dynamic backfield tandems in the country, and the line returns enough able bodies to offset the loss of LT Andrew Gardner. The fate of the option hinges on Nesbitt, who played to mixed reviews as a sophomore and had some problems with durability. If he regresses, Johnson won’t hesitate to give the ball to second-year point guard Jaybo Shaw.

The most important position to watch is ... the defensive line. This is the one area where Tech genuinely needs to rebuild after losing three starters, who earned all-conference honors in 2008. Without Vance Walker, Darryl Richard, and Michael Johnson, it’ll be up to junior DE Derrick Morgan to be the new show-stopper. Helping him out along the front four, among others, will be Jason Peters, Robert Hall, and Ben Anderson, who’ll have a chance to parlay this spring into a starting assignment.

Spring attitude... After winning nine games, including an upset of Georgia, Georgia Tech will enter the 2009 season with high expectations and the wind at its back. Even getting throttled by LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl did little to douse the enthusiasm surrounding the program. The Yellow Jackets will spend almost a month of the spring working out the kinks on offense and retooling the interior on defense. Considering the talent in the offensive and defensive backfields, they’ll be thinking Coastal champs after nearly winning the division a year ago.          

Miami   Begins: February 24  Game: March 28

The early spring buzz ... This spring was supposed to be all about getting reps for the slew of underclassmen, like QB Jacory Harris, who dot the Hurricane two-deep. That, however, was before the team announced the hiring of two new coordinators who’ll be looking to size up their personnel and install their systems. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple has been here a little longer, but his job is also a little tougher than defensive coordinator John Lovett’s. There are more sets and formations, which will make the offense a priority this March. Whipple will be rolling out his version of a pro-style offense that comes with a thick playbook and new terminology.

The big spring question is ... How far along has Harris come since his true freshman debut? Now that Robert Marve has transferred to parts unknown, Harris is the undisputed triggerman of Whipple’s offense. After playing well in spots and showing his inexperience at other times, the ‘Canes are hoping he can take a big leap forward in his second season on campus. While young, he’s a confident kid, who’s used to being in the spotlight. His physical gifts are obvious, but this practice session will be more about digesting Whipple’s system and getting comfortable with being the new leader of the Miami attack.

The most important position to watch is ... wide receiver. If Harris is going to get to the next level of his progression, he’s going to need a lot more help from a receiving corps that lacked consistency in 2008. Like the man getting them the ball, the receivers have obvious physical gifts, but must start doing the little things better, like running tighter routes and holding on to the ball. Aldarius Johnson, Thearon Collier, Travis Benjamin, and Laron Byrd all had their moments as freshmen, forming an exciting group that’s ready to blossom in this offense.

Spring attitude... Grow up. After using so many freshmen and sophomores at key positions, Miami is hoping to turn the corner as a collective group in 2009. Hey, this is the Hurricanes, and as well as Randy Shannon has been recruiting, no one doubts that there’s enough talent to win an ACC title. The key is for all of that talent, from Harris and Benjamin to Marcus Robinson and Sean Spence, to mature and start making more big plays. If that happens, the rest of the league better look out because these ‘Canes are getting real close to being real good.

North Carolina   Begins: March 2  Game: April 2

The early spring buzz ... Over the last year, the Tar Heels have gotten real trendy as the next big thing in the ACC. After ending a four-year bowl drought and assembling a killer recruiting class in February, Carolina is beginning to gain national attention as a budding powerhouse out of Chapel Hill. Is the program ready for the spotlight? The program is stockpiling talent and building up quite a head of steam, but this is hardly a finished product, so the month of March will be used to work on fundamentals and execution, especially with an offense that sputtered frequently in 2008.

The big spring question is ... Can the Tar Heels finally locate a consistent running game? Yup, same question as last spring because Carolina was 89th nationally in rushing in 2008, and desperately needs a complement to the passing game. Converted defensive back Shaun Draughn provided a spark, and begins the season as the feature back. In short yardage, he’ll get an assist from big Ryan Houston, who scored eight times a year ago. Both players will need more help from a line that’s moving forward without its top two blockers, Garrett Reynolds and Calvin Darity.

The most important position to watch is ... wide receiver. The Tar Heels have three receivers with legitimate shots of making NFL rosters in 2009. That’s good for the overall reputation of the program, but not so good for the immediate future. Five of last year’s top pass-catchers are gone, and the top returning guy, Greg Little, began 2008 as a running back. Some of those tops recruits of Butch Davis and John Blake, like Todd Harrelson, Dwight Jones, Rashad Mason, and Jheranie Boyd, will be asked to grow up quickly this season.

Spring attitude... The Tar Heels took a decisive step in the right direction in 2008, Davis’ second on campus. With similar growth this year, there’s no telling how high this program might soar. A Coastal Division crown and ACC title is certainly within reach, especially if the offense can narrow the divide on an improving defense. One of the keys will be the development of junior QB T.J. Yates, who played well last year when he wasn’t on the shelf, and will need to build chemistry with the inexperienced corps of receivers.     

Virginia  Begins: March 20  Game: April 18

The early spring buzz ... Al Groh spent the offseason trying to manage a coaching staff that was rife with departures. On offense, former Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon has been brought to Charlottesville to supercharge an offense that’s finished 101st or lower in each of the last three years. Also added was former Cavalier assistant and Kansas State head coach Ron Prince, who’ll be the associate head coach and special teams coordinator. On defense, the school lost coordinator Bob Diaco to Cincinnati and assistant Bob Pruett to retirement in a matter of weeks. In their place, Bob Trott and Chad Wilt have been hired to assist Groh on defense. With so many changes, the players might want to wear name tags in March.

The big spring question is ... Will Jameel Sewell be handed the quarterback job now that he’s back from academic suspension? Don’t count on it, although his return certainly boosts a position that was a liability a year ago. He played well as the starter in 2007, but will have to earn his way back up the depth chart. Standing in his way will be Marc Verica, who struggled badly last year, and versatile Vic Hall, who’s better known for his work as a cornerback. At 5-9, Hall doesn’t look the part, but he’s the state’s all-time leading passer, and ran for 109 yards and two scores in the finale with Virginia Tech last November.

The most important position to watch is ... linebacker. In Groh’s 3-4 defense, playmaking linebackers are an absolute must. Unfortunately, last year’s three best players at the position, Clint Sintim, Jon Copper, and Antonio Appleby, have run out of eligibility. Senior-to-be Denzell Burrell is the new veteran of a group that’ll spend the spring holding auditions to fill out the two-deep. Darren Childs, Jared Detrick, and John-Kevin Dolce will take an early lead into camp after lettering last fall.

Spring attitude... Following a turbulent offseason, the Cavaliers can’t wait to put the pads on and start impressing the new members of the staff. After losing his final four games and finishing below .500, Groh will be coaching with a sense of desperation in 2009. Another losing season will put another dent in his job security. The most important of the coaching changes will be Brandon, who must get more from an offense that pulled up the rear in the ACC in total yards and scoring.

Virginia Tech   Begins: April 1  Game: April 25

The early spring buzz ... By winning a second straight ACC title, the Hokies bypassed the rebuilding stage in 2008 and have set the stage for even bigger expectations in 2009. Tech returns a bunch of starters on both sides of the ball, and all of that youth at the skill positions is now a year older. While last spring was mostly about getting reps for younger players, this April will be about developing chemistry and plugging the few holes that exist on the two-deep. As long as Frank Beamer, Bryan Stinespring, and Bud Foster remain in Blacksburg, there’s a feeling around the region that a sixth straight 10-win season is well within reach.

The big spring question is ... Is Tyrod Taylor about to take the next step in his evolution at quarterback? Sean Glennon is gone, so he better be because a veteran safety net no longer exists. Taylor is now the veteran. Mostly a change-of-pace and running threat in his first two years as a Hokie, he needs to accomplish more as a passer after throwing just two touchdown passes in 2008. An array of weapons should no longer be a problem. With Greg Boone at tight end and young receivers Jarrett Boykin, Dyrell Roberts, and Danny Coale brimming with potential, Taylor has access to an exciting set of pass-catchers.

The most important position to watch is ... offensive line. The Hokies lose two starters from last year, but neither Nick Marshman nor Ryan Shuman is irreplaceable. At guard, look for Jaymes Brooks to slide into the lineup after playing real well in the Orange Bowl. Beau Warren has been groomed to succeed Shuman, and be the new guy at the pivot. The bigger concern will be building depth in the trenches, which has plagued the program recently. Tech has struggled with pass protection the last two years, which also must be addressed by the offensive staff.

Spring attitude... With a September schedule that includes dates with Alabama, Nebraska, and Miami, the Hokies will know right away whether they’re more than just the favorite to repeat as ACC champions. If they can get through this early gauntlet unscathed, they’ll spend the final two months of the season making a case for a No. 1 ranking. Foster’s defense will again be outstanding. No surprise there. The offense and Taylor will dictate how far Tech can go in 2009.