Virginia Tech won another ACC championship during a rebuilding year in 2008. Georgia Tech was the surprise team in the Coastal Division in the first season under Paul Johnson. Miami made some baby steps back towards its old form. North Carolina continued to progress under Butch Davis. Duke made significant improvement in its first year under David Cutcliffe. Virginia struggled for a host of reasons.
Those were the story lines in the ACC’s Coastal Division in the fall of 2008. What will be the stories in 2009? Now that spring practice is over, let’s take a look at what we still don’t know about the ACC Coastal.
This is list is in alphabetical order. We’ll project the order of finish later on this month. If you want to pick the winners now, be my guest.
Last season: 4-8, 1-7 ACC.
Starters returning: Offense 5, defense 5, kickers 2.
Coach: David Cutcliffe, 48-37 overall, 4-8 in one season at Duke.
What we still don’t know: Can Duke find some stability on the offensive line? The Blue Devils are set at quarterback (Thaddeus Lewis) and are excited about the return of RB Re’quan Boyette, who sat out all of last season with a knee injury. But neither will get a chance to show what they can do if the offensive line doesn’t come around. Only two starters (C Bryan Morgan and LG Kyle Hill) return. Duke will miss OT Cameron Goldberg, who had 35 career starts. Can somebody step up to replace WR Eron Riley? The Savannah native had 40 career starts and led the team with 61 catches for 693 yards last season. Duke has a couple of good sophomores in Johnny Williams (30 catches) and Donovan Varner (25). But somebody has to make plays like Riley. Who is going to help Vincent Rey (109 tackles in 2008) at linebacker? Marcus Jones and Michael Tauiliili combined for 66 career starts and they are gone. Adam Banks, Damian Thornton and Abraham Kromah have a little experience. It’s time for them to step up.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Richmond.
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 ACC; lost to LSU 38-3 in Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 9, defense 8, kickers 2.
Coach: Paul Johnson, 116-43 overall, 9-4 in one season at Georgia Tech.
What we still don’t know: Will the new guys come through on the DL? Only DE Derrick Morgan returns from a defensive line that sent three guys (Michael Johnson, Vance Walker, Darryl Richard) to the NFL. It looks like junior Robert Hall will handle the other end while sophomore Jason Peters and redshirt freshman T.J. Barnes will handle the tackles. Morgan will be a star this season but will these young guys give him enough help? Can the offensive line finally get healthy? Center Dan Voss (shoulder), guard Cord Howard (hand) and tackle Nick Claytor (back) missed all or most of spring with injuries. This area looks a little thin, even if all these guys make it back. Can Scott Blair’s load be lightened? Blair handled punting, placekicking and kickoff chores last season and was just okay. He averaged 38.9 yards per punt. He made 12 of 19 field goals but was 0 for 6 from 40 yards or more. He needs to hand one of those jobs over to someone else.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Jacksonville State.
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 ACC; lost to California 24-17 in Emerald Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 8, defense 8, kicker 2.
Coach: Randy Shannon, 12-13 in two seasons at Miami.
What we still don’t know: How will Jacory Harris handle being “The Man?” As a true freshman in 2008 Harris showed that he could lead this football team. But now that Robert Marve has transferred and Mark Whipple has come on as offensive coordinator, how will Harris handle being a full-time starter on Day One in 2009? Shannon had high praise this spring for Harris and his ability to control the huddle and learn Whipple’s offense. How many true freshmen will have an impact this fall? Miami signed another Top 10 recruiting class in February and six of them enrolled in school early and took part in spring practice. CB Brandon McGee looks like a lock to be a backup despite a hand injury during spring practice. Veterans Javarris James and Graig Cooper lead the way at running back but freshman Mike James is pushing to get some carries. “Right now there are 56 freshmen and sophomores on this team,” Shannon said. “We played a lot of freshmen last spring and did it again this spring. You can see them starting to grow and develop.” There are more good freshmen to come in August, including quarterback A.J. Highsmith, the son of former Hurricane great Alonzo Highsmith. Can the defense start forcing some turnovers? Miami had only four pass interceptions last season, two of those came from defensive backs. WR Sam Shields was moved to cornerback this spring in an effort to get some play-making potential on that side of the ball. John Lovett takes over as the new defensive coordinator.
First game: Sept. 7 at Florida State.
Last season: 8-5, 4-4 ACC; lost to West Virginia 31-30 in Meineke Car Care Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 6, defense 9, kicker 1.
Coach: Butch Davis, 63-33 overall, 12-13 in two seasons at North Carolina.
What we still don’t know: Who is going to catch the ball? With the exit of Hakeem Nicks (68 catches, 1,222 yards, 12 TD), Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster, the Tar Heels’ leading returning receiver is fullback Bobby Rome (31 catches). Of the 21 touchdown catches North Carolina had last season, the players who accounted for 19 of the scores are gone. Sophomore Dwight Jones, freshman Joshua Adams, and junior Greg Little, a former tailback, look like the guys. Who will be the kickers? The Tar Heels did not have a scholarship punter in the spring but incoming freshman C.J. Feagles, son of former NFL punter Jeff Feagles, will get a shot at the job. Casey Barth made 10 of 15 field goals last season but is being challenged by Jay Wooten, who has a stronger leg. Who will replace Trimane Goddard at safety? Goddard is one of only two starters not returning on defense this season. Da’Norris Searcy, a junior, and senior Melvin Williams are still locked in a very competitive battle for that position.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. The Citadel.
Last season: 5-7, 3-5 ACC.
Starters returning: Offense 5, defense 6, kicker 2.
Coach: Al Groh, 82-84 overall, 56-44 in eight seasons at Virginia.
What we still don’t know: Virginia has completely committed to the spread offense by hiring former Bowling Green HC Gregg Brandon as its offensive coordinator. So the Cavaliers are going to throw a bunch of passes. But who is going to catch them? The top four receivers from a year ago are gone and nobody really stepped up in the spring. Virginia still hasn’t settled on a quarterback. Vic Hall, a converted CB, spent all spring at quarterback. Jameel Sewell started 13 games in 2007 when the Cavaliers won nine games and played on New Year’s Day. He sat out 2008 with academic issues and is back. He seems perfect for Brandon’s offense but hasn’t won the job. Marc Verica, a classic drop back passer, started nine games last season but threw 16 interceptions. Will the special teams improve? Former Kansas State head coach Ron Prince, a former Groh assistant, returns to Charlottesville to head up the special teams. Both kicking and punting were spotty in 2008. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. William & Mary.
Last season: 10-4, 5-3 ACC; beat Boston College 30-12 in ACC championship game; beat Cincinnati 20-7 in Orange Bowl.
Starters returning: Offense 8, defense 7, kicker 1.
Coach: Frank Beamer, 219-112-4 overall, 177-89-2 in 22 seasons at Virginia Tech.
What we still don’t know: Who is going to back up QB Tyrod Taylor? Taylor, a junior, is clearly the starter but he was in and out of the lineup last season due to injuries. The coaches are concerned about the No. 2 QB position should Taylor get hurt. Redshirt freshman Ju-Ju Clayton won the job in the spring but the coaches are not entirely comfortable with his ability to run the offense. Will another linebacker step up? The starters are pretty much set as sophomores Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson will join returning starter Cam Martin. But Virginia Tech DC Bud Foster wants to be six deep at the position and he is still looking for a backup to Johnson. Sophomore Quillie Odom and redshirt freshman Lyndell Gibson are the likely candidates. Is this team good enough to beat Alabama? The Hokies will be in just about everybody’s preseason Top 10. Alabama, the defending SEC West champs, is rebuilding its offensive line. It’s going to be an interesting chess match between Foster and Jim McElwain, Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
First game: Sept. 5 vs. Alabama (Georgia Dome, Atlanta).