As you can tell from the questions above, there is a lot that we know and we don’t know about the ACC’s Coastal Division. Today we complete our look at the SEC and ACC heading into Spring practice, 2009.
Virginia Tech has been the ACC’s best program since it joined the league in 2004. Alabama has returned to national prominence under Nick Saban. They will meet at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 5 in the second Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Should be fun.
Georgia Tech was the surprise team of the ACC a year ago as it won nine games. What does Paul Johnson do for an encore?
We address these questions and many more today as we look at the ACC Coastal.
DUKE (4-8, practice started March 9, ends April 18)
What we know: No starting lineup in the ACC was hammered quite as badly as Duke’s which lost six starters on each side of the ball. The Blue Devils are really going to miss LB Michael Tauiliili, who led the ACC in tackles and was third in the nation with 11.7 per game. His loss is eased by the return of senior LB Vincent Rey, who had 108 tackles and two fumble returns for touchdowns last season. The Duke defense got a tough break on March 18 when senior DT Vince Oghobaase suffered a stress fracture in his foot and is out for the rest of the spring. He is expected to return in the fall.
What we don’t know: Can QB Thaddeus Lewis keep it going without WR Eron Riley? Lewis, who has thrown for 6,735 yards and 47 touchdowns in 34 career starts, returns for his senior season. But he will be without his primary weapon in Riley, the Savannah native who was fourth in the ACC in receptions (61 for 693 yards and 8 touchdowns). Rising sophomore WRs Johnny Williams and Donovan Varner combined for 51 catches last season. Will Duke’s rushing offense, which was 11th in the ACC (106.2 ypg) last season, be helped by the return of Re’quan Boyette? Boyette ran for 1,072 yards in his first three seasons and was the projected starter for 2008 but missed the entire season with a knee injury.
GEORGIA TECH (practice starts today, ends April 18)
What we know: The OL will be fine. Yes, the Yellow Jackets lose a great offensive tackle in Andrew Gardner (48 career starts) and another OT in David Brown who started eight games. But remember that Gardner missed the last five games of the 2008 season after shoulder surgery. There is depth up front and the unit as a whole will be better. The Yellow Jackets are just getting started on offense. Tech returns the ACC Player of the Year in running back Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards) and another big-time runner in Roddy Jones (8.5 ypc). But to that group coach Paul Johnson will add Anthony Allen, who sat out last season as a transfer from Louisville. I sense that Johnson has many fun things in his playbook that he hasn’t shown us yet.
What we don’t know: Did anybody lose more muscle on its defensive front than Georgia Tech? DE Michael Johnson, DT Vance Walker, and DT Darryl Richard combined for 87 career starts and were a big reason why the Yellow Jackets were third in the ACC against the rush (120.3 ypg). Johnson was third in the league in quarterback sacks (9) nine and tackles for loss (17.5). Can Josh Nesbitt stay healthy? Nesbitt, a rising junior from Greene County, picked up and executed Johnson’s offense far better than I thought he could in the first year. He averaged 71.7 yards rushing in ACC games last season. The QB in this offense makes a lot of plays but he also takes a lot of hits. Jaybo Shaw was a smart, efficient backup when Nesbitt was dinged up. But the offense is totally different and more explosive when Nesbitt is pulling the trigger.
MIAMI (7-6, practice started Feb. 24, ends March 28)
What we know: The Miami offense is going to be better—a lot better—because head coach Randy Shannon made two important decisions. No. 1, he said goodbye to Patrick Nix and hired Mark Whipple as his offensive coordinator. Whipple won a Division I-AA national championship at UMass and then went to the NFL to tutor Donovan McNabb of the Eagles. The second big decision was deciding once and for all that Jacory Harris was his starting quarterback. The inconsistent Robert Marve has transferred and Harris, the sophomore, will thrive under Whipple, who has been given the freedom by Shannon to be much more creative on offense. Another reason to be optimistic about the offense: True freshmen were responsible for 17 Miami touchdowns last season.
What we don’t know: It’s time for Miami’s defense to grow up. Will they? When Shannon was the coordinator, defense was the backbone of the Miami football team. But in John Lovett, formerly of Auburn and Clemson, Miami has its fourth defensive coordinator in the span of 28 months. Miami finished 11th in the ACC in scoring defense (24.2 ppg) last season but played a bunch first-year people like LB Sean Spence, who was a freshman All-America. Eight starters return, including six of the front seven. Miami should also be helped by the return DE Eric Moncur, S Randy Phillips, an LB Colin McCarthy, who missed almost all of last season with injuries.
NORTH CAROLINA (8-5, practice started March 4, ends March 28)
What we know: If T.J. Yates can go the distance, the Tar Heel offense will be pretty good. The Marietta native (Pope H.S.) threw for a school-record 2,655 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2007. He had to recover from shoulder surgery to get ready for the 2008 season and then missed six games with an ankle injury. Still, Yates completed 60 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and only four interceptions. The defense has to be better. The Tar Heels finished 11th in the ACC in total defense last season (365.4 ypg) but nine starters return including six of the front seven. Look for those numbers to improve with the return of players like DT Marvin Austin and LB Bruce Carter (68 tackles).
What we don’t know: Who is going to catch the ball? For a while last season the Tar Heels had the best receiving duo in the ACC in Hakeem Nicks (who led the ACC in receiving with 1,222 yards) and Brandon Tate, the ACC’s all-purpose yardage leader who suffered a career-ending knee injury in the middle of last season. All total, North Carolina lost players accounting for 17 of its 21 touchdowns receiving a year ago. Greg Little was a tailback in 2008 but has moved back to WR to provide help. A couple of sophomores, Rashad Mason and Dwight Jones, are going to have to step up.
VIRGINIA (5-7, practice started March 21, ends April 18)
What we know: There is some work to do on defense. Five players who combined for 175 career starts are gone including OLB Clint Sintim, who was second only to Florida State’s Everette Brown in ACC quarterback sacks with 11. The offense, which finished dead last in the league (299.8 ypg) in 2008, has to improve under new OC Gregg Brandon, who lit up the MAC scoreboards when he was the head coach at Bowling Green. In four of his six seasons as a head coach Brandon’s offenses averaged over 400 yards per game. Brandon was elevated to head coach at Bowling Green in when Urban Meyer left for Utah in 2003. He was dismissed after six seasons with a record of 44-30.
What we don’t know: Can Jameel Sewell regain the quarterback position? Sewell had 22 consecutive starts and 3,997 yards of total offense when he was placed on academic suspension and missed the entire 2008 season. That set off a chain reaction of quarterback problems in Charlottesville. At the end of the season the Cavaliers turned to Vic Hall, who had 24 starts at cornerback. Sewell is back and Hall is working exclusively at quarterback this spring. Mark Verica, who started seven games last season, is also in the mix of what will be an interesting quarterback battle. Can RB Mikell Simpson stay healthy? Simpson missed the last three games of 2008 with a broken collarbone. Simpson ran for 570 yards on 113 carries as a sophomore in 2007 and then dropped off with the rest of the Virginia offense last season. Still, he has averaged 4.0 yards per carry in his career and should fare well in the new offense.
VIRGINIA TECH (10-4, practice starts April 1, ends April 25)
What we know: Bud Foster’s defense will be very good again. The Hokies’ defense was supposed to be in a rebuilding mode in 2008 but when the season ended Virginia Tech was second in the league in total defense (279.4 ypg) and first in scoring defense (16.7 ppg). Seven starters return but the losses were significant. Victor “Macho” Harris started 40 games at cornerback. Foster also has to find a couple of inside linebackers. According the figures recently released by the school, in the last five seasons combined, Virginia Tech has had the nation’s best defense (263.06 ypg). There is no reason to think that will change in 2009.
What we don’t know: Can QB Tyrod Taylor and RB Darren Evans keep it going? If so, the Hokies are going to be hard to handle on offense. Taylor, a rising junior, was dinged up a lot last season but still managed to record 1,774 yards of total offense (1,036 passing, 738 running) in 12 games. Evans set an ACC record for the most yards rushing by a freshman (1,265) last season. Virginia Tech has won the ACC championship in three of the five years (2004, 2007, 2008) it has been a member and played for the ACC championship (losing to Florida State) in 2005. The Hokies may be the closest thing the ACC has to a Top 10 team in 2009. Do they have a chance to upset Alabama in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 5?