We’ve spent a couple of days looking at the SEC. Let’s spend today and Monday looking at spring practice in the ACC. We’ll start with the Atlantic Division.
BOSTON COLLEGE (9-5, practice started March 17, ends April 25)
What we know: The Eagles will be able to run the ball. Four of five starters return on the offensive line along with sophomore running back Montel Harris, who rushed for 900 yards in 2008, the most ever by a freshman at BC. OLB Mark Herzlich may be the best player you have never heard of. Herzlich, who has 28 career starts, had six interceptions last season, which tied for the most by a linebacker. He returned two of those for touchdowns. He was the ACC defensive player of the year. The Eagles return seven starters off the No. 1 defense in the ACC and the No. 5 defense in the country. BC will miss LB Brian Toal and DT B.J. Raji.
What we don’t know: Frank Spaziani was a great defensive coordinator. How will he be as a first-year head coach? Spaziani took over the program when Jeff Jagodzinski was suddenly fired on Jan. 7 after he interviewed with the New York Jets. The players love him. Sometimes that is good. Sometimes that is not. Is Dominique Davis the answer at quarterback? Davis (741 yards passing), a rising sophomore, started the final three games of 2008. He is very athletic. He will be pushed, however, by redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle of Alpharetta (Northview), the son of former Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. We also don’t know how Boston College will react to losing OC Steve Logan, one of the brilliant minds in the game. Veteran Gary Tranquill takes over the offense.
CLEMSON (7-6, practice started March 9, ends April 11)
What we know: Clemson must find some people on offense to make plays. QB Cullen Harper (2.601 yards passing in 2008), RB James Davis (Clemson’s No. 2 all-time rusher with 3,881 yards), and WR Aaron Kelly (the ACC’s all time receiver with 232 catches) are all gone. But there is reason for optimism in the Tiger camp. The entire offensive line, which was a weakness a year ago, returns and should be a strength on this team. Thomas Austin may be the best center in the country. RB C.J. Spiller, who led the ACC in all-purpose yards (1,770) returns for what should be a monster senior season. He needs just 921 all-purpose yards this season to set the ACC career record. WR Jacoby Ford, who has world-class speed, has been waiting for his chance to shine. This is it.
What we don’t know: Will Willy Korn win the job of starting quarterback? Korn was one of the nation’s most highly-recruited players two years ago. He played sparingly his first two seasons (26 of 38 passes, 216 yards in 2008) and now gets a chance to be the full-time guy. He will be challenged, however, by redshirt freshman Kyle Parker of Jacksonville, who was ranked among the top five high school quarterbacks in the country in 2007. Parker has a big-time arm that has already impressed coaches in practice and is an incredible athlete. How will the defense improve under new DC Kevin Steele? Steele left Alabama in the offseason and gets eight returning starters from a Clemson defense that finished fifth in the ACC (299.9 ypg).
FLORIDA STATE (9-4, practice started March 16, ends April 4)
What we know: There are a bunch of holes to fill on defense. The Seminoles lose six starters from a defense that finished third in the ACC (294.9 ypg). DE Everette Brown, who led the ACC with 13.5 sacks, passed up his senior year to enter the NFL Draft. CB Tony Carter had 50 career starts. Florida State should be able to run the football as all five starters return on the offensive line and there are no seniors in the group. But the Seminoles have to find a dependable running back to replace Antone Smith (792 yards rushing). The player the Seminoles are going to miss most is Graham Gano, who handled punting, placekicking and kickoff duties. Gano led the ACC in scoring with 105 points.
What we don’t know: Who is going to catch the ball? It was bad enough that the Seminoles lost WR Greg Carr, who had 23 career starts. But also gone is problem-child Preston Parker, who was kicked off the team in February. Taiwan Easterling and Bert Reed combined for 53 catches as freshmen last season and appear to be next in line. How much was OC Jimbo Fisher counting on QB E.J. Manuel? The redshirt freshman from Virginia Beach, Va., was one of the nation’s top recruits in 2008. He redshirted last season with the hope of challenging junior Christian Ponder for the starting job. But Manuel suffered a compound dislocation of the index finger on his right (throwing) hand on Monday and is out for the rest of spring practice. Manuel will be back this summer but he will miss some important reps in practice.
MARYLAND (8-5, practice starts March 24, ends April 25)
What we know: There is a bunch of work to do on the offensive line. The Terps lost three starters plus the tight end from the 2008 team. Those four players accounted for 115 career starts. RB Da’Rel Scott has a chance to be big-time if he behaves himself. Scott, a rising junior, finished second in ACC rushing behind Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer with 1,133 yards (5.4 ypc). He had 174 yards in the Humanitarian Bowl win over Nevada despite playing only 21 minutes due to a disciplinary suspension. QB Chris Turner needs to play ranked teams every week. Against seven ranked opponents last season he was brilliant, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for a 233-yard average and only two interceptions. Turner is back with 20 career starts under his belt.
What we don’t know: Can the Terps overcome the loss of WR Darrius Heyward-Bey? Heyward-Bey, who caught 42 passes for 609 yards last season and had 35 career starts, was the one reliable big-play guy that Ralph Friedgen had in the passing game. Friedgen believes he has some good players waiting in the wings like sophomore Torrey Smith, who had 1,089 yards in kickoff returns last season, including a 99-yard return for a touchdown. Of the 12 ACC teams Maryland was hit hardest by graduation/early exits as 31 lettermen are gone from 2008. Only four starters return on defense. Friedgen has been to a bowl in six of his eight seasons at Maryland. Will he go again in 2009?
N.C. STATE (6-7, practice starts March 20, ends April 18)
What we know: The Wolfpack should be able to run the football. Despite the loss of TB Andre Brown (767 yards, 7 TD), N.C. State returns senior Jamelle Eugene, who ran for 442 yards and caught 26 passes as a backup last season. Toney Baker, a former Parade All-American, has missed almost all of the past two seasons due to injury but was a proven back in 2005 and 2006. Three starters on the offensive line return. The Wolfpack should be able to slow down the run. Seven starters return on a unit that held its final five opponents to an average of 98 yards rushing. LBs Nate Irving and Ray Micheal combined for 165 tackles last season. Based on the track record of coach Tom O’Brien, look for significant improvement in this, his third year in Raleigh.
What we don’t know: Is QB Russell Wilson ready to go the distance? Wilson became the first freshman to be named All-ACC quarterback last season when he threw for 1,955 yards, ran for 388 more and accounted for 21 touchdowns. But Wilson, who is also a standout member of the Wolfpack baseball team, suffered a knee injury in the Papajohns.com Bowl against Rutgers. He has gone through a 12-week treatment and has been cleared to practice. Wilson will split time between spring practice and baseball. He will be pushed for the starting job by Mike Glennon, who redshirted last season as a true freshman. Glennon, who is 6-6 with a big-time arm, was rated among the nation’s top five high school quarterbacks as a high school senior in 2007. Wilson, who threw only one interception in 275 attempts last season, has thrown 249 consecutive passes without an interception and needs 22 more to break the ACC record set by Florida State’s Drew Weatherford.
WAKE FOREST (8-5, practice starts March 24, ends April 18)
What we know: The Deacons will be busy rebuilding their defense. Wake Forest finished fourth in the ACC (296.7 ypg) and 16th nationally in total defense last season but gone from that unit are seven starters and 10 players from the two deep. Among them were CB Alphonso Smith, the all-time ACC leader in pass interceptions (21), and LB Aaron Curry, the 2008 Butkus Award winner. The rebuilding with start with three very good players up front: DT John Russell, NT Boo Robinson, and DE Kyle Wilber. The back seven is all gone except for senior CB Brandon Ghee.
What we don’t know: Can the offense carry Wake Forest until the defense grows up? Senior QB Riley Skinner, who has 37 career starts, enters the 2009 season as the most accurate passer in ACC history (67.3 percent). Nine starters return on an offense that scored only 21 points per game a year ago. The three top rushers—Brandon Pendergrass (528 yards), Josh Adams (402 yards) and Kevin Harris (176 yards) also return. Can Wake Forest continue to take care of the ball? Last season the Deacons forced 37 turnovers, more than any team in Division I-A football. Wake Forest turned it over 20 times and was fifth in the nation in turnover margin. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe has redshirted virtually every freshman since he arrived at Wake Forest eight seasons ago. That has allowed the Deacons to reload when they have big personnel losses. Can Wake Forest, which has won eight or more games in three straight seasons, do it again?