Early Pre Season ACC Rankings
By: Chris Haines
The ACC looks to be a top-heavy conference this year. FSU and Virginia Tech look to be set for a mammoth collision in the ACC championship game this December. But with Randy Edsall taking over at Maryland and Al Golden taking over at Miami, the conference maybe finally going away from a top-heavy league. There’s plenty of new starting QB’s that showed off their arms this past spring and some teams are changing up their offenses. This can have the recipe for another interesting ACC race.
1. FSU: 10-4, 6-2 in ACC, beat South Carolina in Chick-Fila Bowl 26-17.
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.
After splitting time with Christian Ponder,over the past few years, EJ Manuel takes over the offense as a full-time starter. Manuel passed for 861 yards and 4 TD’s last years. Manuel is also a threat to run the ball when the play breaks down and is 4-2 as a starter. Manuel showed that he can take control of the offense and the huddle this past spring. Junior, Chris Thompson returns at the RB spot. Thompson rushed for 871 yards and 6 TD’s last year. If Thompson can run behind a healthy offensive line, he has the potential to be a 1,000 yard rusher this year. In the receiving core, the majority of last year’s unit returns. Leading the wideouts will be senior Bret Reed, Reed has not broken out yet as he only had 614 receiving yards and only 2 TD’s last year. Junior Rodney Smith will be the jump ball threat at 6’6. The o-line is the weakest part about this year’s FSU team. Returning starters Andrew Datko, Zebrie Sanders and David Spurlock all sat out this spring with injuries. There is no time-table of when they will return and if they are not back by the start of two a days, this unit could struggle which means bad news for the offense.
This FSU defense has the potential to be one of the best units in the country. DE, Brandon Jenkins will be the leader on the d-line. Jenkins led the team with sacks and tackles for loss with 13.5 and 21.5 respectively and o yeah that was as a sophomore last year. Juniors Anthony McCloud and Jacobbi McDaniel return in the interior. In the LB core, Nigel Bradham is the only returning starter. Bradham lead the team in tackles with 98 last year. In the secondary, all conference selection, Xavier Rhodes, returns. Rhodes had 58 tackles, four picks and 16 pass deflections as freshman last year. Senior, Terrance Parks is at the SS spot. If FSU can get past Oklahoma , on September 17th at home, FSU could be in the national title race. Regardless of what happens against OU, FSU, at the very least, should be playing in the ACC championship game.
2. Maryland: 9-4, 5-3 in ACC, beat ECU in Military Bowl 51-20
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
Sophomore Danny O’Brien returns at the quarterback spot. O’Brien passed for 2,438 yards and 22 TD’s in his freshman year, good enough for ACC rookie of the year honors. At running back, Da’Rel Scott is gone to the NFL, but David Megget is back, as he lead the team last year in rushing yards with 720. Last year, Ralph Fredigen used Scott and Megget in an NFL like running back by committee system. Randy Edsall did not use a running back by committee system at UConn, so Megget will have to be a little bit more in shape than last year. At the wide receiver spot, the Terps are losing leading receiver Torey Smith and the rest of the core starters from last year. Tony Logan will be a threat as a return man, but the question will be can he be a threat as a receiver. Top o-lineman Justin Gilbert is out until October with another ACL sprain. If MD’s offense is to be successful, the o-line must be healthy, or 2nd string guys have to step up for this team to build on last year.
Kenny Tate moves from safety to strong side LB, or as the MD coaches call it the STAR position. This is a great move for the Terps, as Tate has the size to play LB and the speed to drop into coverage. Don’t be surprised if Tate has 100 tackles again this year. Returning at the MLB spot is Demetrius Hartsfield, who was 3rd on the team in tackles last year. All three d-linemen return, and Joe Valleno lead the team last year with five sacks. The DBs are the weakest spot on the team, as MD had the 10th ranked pass defense in the league last year. Cameron Chism and Trenton Hughes are the only returning starters in this core. The Terps could be able to ride this front seven to another top three finish in the conference, but that depends on how many big plays the secondary gives up.
3. North Carolina State: 9-4, 5-3 in ACC, beat West Virginia in Champs Sports Bowl 23-7
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
Because head coach, Tom O’Brien, wanted Russell Wilson to only focus on football; Wilson left NC State to go to a school that will let him play both football and baseball. Senior Mike Glennon took the majority of the snaps under center this past spring. Glennon saw little action in mop up duty last year, but has earned high praise from Tom O’Brien as O’Brien said Glennon reminds him of Matt Ryan. Only time will tell if Glennon plays like Matt Ryan. Returning at the running spot is sophomore, Mustafa Greene. Greene rushed for 597 yards and four TD’s as a freshman. Greene will be splitting time with Anthony Creecy. The Wolfpack have multiple senior wideouts returning, but problem is that they don’t have experience. TJ Graham is the top stat getter out of the returnees. Graham had only 316 receiving yards and four TD’s last year. On the 0-line, four of five return and all of them are juniors. This will be the strength of the team and if the line stays healthy, Mustafa Greene could be looking at a 1,000 yard year.
Everyone in the secondary returns led by junior SS, Earl Wolf. Wolf led the team in tackles with 95 last year. At the FS spot is Brandon Bishop who led the team in IN T’s last year with 4. In the LB core, seniors Terrell Manning and Audie Cole return. Manning had 75 tackles and 4.5 sacks, Cole had 86 tackles and 5 sacks last year. On the d-line, seniors Jeff Rieskcamp and JR Sweezy return. Rieskcamp had 23 tackles and Sweezy had 50 and led the team in tackles for loss last year. The defense will be the strength of this team, the only red flag is that the defense only had 9 picks last year a number that will have to go up if the Wolfpack are to be competitive this year.
4. Clemson: 6-7, 4-4 in ACC, lost to USF in Meineke Car Care Bowl 31-26.
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.
Newly hired offensive coordinator, Chad Morris brings his high tempo, fast paced offense over from Tulsa and running it will be first year starter, Tajh Boyd. The fast paced offense was evident in the spring game as the Tigers ran 22 more plays than last year’s spring game. Boyd showed that he can control the offense during the spring game, but can Boyd do that in tough environments like South Carolina this year. Having the running back spot to him self this year will be redshirt junior, Andre Ellington. Ellington rushed for 718 yards and a team high 10 rushing TD’s. DeAndre Hopkins leads the receiving core, Hopkins had 637 receiving yards and four TD’s last year. Hopkins was a true freshman last year so look for his number to go up in this new up tempo offense this year. Redshirt junior, Dwayne Allen is at the TE spot, Allen had 373 receiving yards and a touchdown, as that was good enough for all conference honors last year. Four of five return on the o-line lead by RG, Anthony McClain, who stand at 6’5 330 lbs. The offense has a lot of raw talent, the question is can this unit grasp the new offense quickly and turn it into success.
On defense, replacing Da’Quan Bowers is going to be obviously tough, but red shirt senior, Andre Branch seems up to the task. Branch had 55 tackles and 7.5 for loss last year. With Branch being the start on the d-line now, look for those numbers to go up this year. In the LB core, junior Corico Hawkins and sophomore, Quandon Christian return. Hawkins had 71 tackles and 10 tackles for loss last year while Richardson had 24 tackles last year. Christian started seven games as a true freshman last year and should be the full-time starter this year, look for him to keep improving as the year goes on. In the secondary, juniors, Rashard Hall and Xavier Brewer are the only returning starters in the d-backfield. Hall had 65 tackles while Brewer had 54 tackles and 5.5 for loss. This defense has a mix of upper and underclassmen, while some of the underclassmen have decent game experience, others don’t have a lot of experience and that could be trouble for this defense this year.
5. Boston College: 7-6, 4-4 in ACC, lost to Nevada in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl 20-13.
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
BC returns a good mix of upper and underclassmen this year. Sophomore QB Chase Rettig returns, but with new offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers, Rettig will have to learn a new offense for the second year in a row. Rettig threw for 1,238 yards and only six touchdowns last year. Senior Montel Harris returns to the running back position, but was held out of all spring scrimmages this year due to an undisclosed injury. BC’s leading wide receiver, sophomore Bobby Siwgert, returns as he caught four TD passes last year. Despite losing Anthony Castazno, the Eagles o-line looks to be solid once again. Seniors Mark Spinney returns at center while Nathan Richman is at on guard spot while sophomore Ian White takes over at the other guard. With a new offense, there are just to many questions that must be answered on game day before BC is placed higher in the rankings, but the potential is there.
BC may of had the top ranked overall defenses in the league last year, but had the ninth ranked passing defense. With three of four starters returning in the DB core, the Eagles should not be getting burned as much as last year. And with landing four-star recruit Al Louis-Jean, there is depth in the d-back field this year. Luck Kuechly will lead the LB core. Keuchly had 11o solo tackles as a sophomore last year. On the d-line, Max Hollaway and Kaleb Rasmey. Hollaway had four sacks while Rasmey had 39 tackles last year.
6. Wake Forest: 3-9, 1-7 in ACC
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Well, the good news for the Demon Deacons is that there are plenty of returnees on both sides of the ball. Sophomore Tanner Price will be at the QB spot. Tanner passed for 1,349 yards and seven TD’s as a freshman last year. Leading rusher Josh Harris returns, but did not practice much this spring because of a pulled hamstring. Look for Brenden Pendergrass to push Harris for starting running back spot once August rolls around. Four starters return on the offensive line for the Deacons. With only one win, in the league last year, Wake can only go up, and with so many players back, the Deacons seem to be on their way.
Tim Billings takes over as defensive coordinator as last year’s coordinator, Brad Lambert, was fired after Wake’s D finished 11th in the conference. CB Josh Bush, SS Cyhl Quarles, FS Daniel Mack and CB Kevin Johnson all return in the secondary. And the 2nd string guys showed this spring that they can fill in easily if anyone were to get hurt this year. The d-line should be also pretty solid, as Ramon Booi returns at the NT spot. The defense is in the same position as the offense; it can only go up.
1. Virgina Tech: 11-3, 8-0 in ACC, lost to Standford in Orange Bowl, 40-12.
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Sophomore Logan Thomas will replace Tyrod Taylor at the QB spot. Thomas only saw mop up duty last year. Despite not seeing a lot of action as a freshman, Thomas looked very impressive in spring ball, as he took over the offense with ease. Thomas will look to the help of senior wide outs Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Boykin had 846 receiving yards and six TD’s last year. Thomas also has the luxury of having four senior linemen returning this year. At the running back spot, David Wilson will replace Darren Evans. Wilson had 642 yards and five TD’s last year. Thomas has the tools to be successful – time to see what he does on Saturdays.
The young defense struggled last year especially early against Boise St and JMU. The defense improved throughout the year, but finished 8th in total defense in the ACC. Unacceptable, by Bud Foster’s standards. The d-line was the most impressive unit of the defense. Derrick Hopkins was unlockable and redshirt sophomores JR Collins and James Gayle showed a lot of potential this spring. In the LB core, Tariq Edwards stood out the most, and returning on the strong side will be Bruce Taylor, who led the team in tackles with 91 last year. For the DB’s, 3 of 4 return, but a lack of depth behind the starters is the concern. As long as the LB’s and DB’s remain injury free, Beamer ball should be back in full force this year in Blacksburg.
2. Miami: 7-6, 5-3 in ACC, lost to Notre Dame in Sun Bowl 33-17.
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Former Temple coach Al Golden takes over in what was one of the best hires of this offseason. It showed this past spring, as all of the team bought into all of Golden’s philosophy. Despite starting most of last year, Jacory Harris is in a QB competition with sophomore Stephen Morris. Neither were able to separate themselves during spring ball, so it will have to be settled during 2-a-days. Sophomore Lamar Miller is the number one guy at RB for right now. Miller is going to have competition from Mike James, the power back, and Storm Johnson is the quick elusive back. This is a great problem for Golden to have, as any of the three seem to be capable of being the starter. Everyone on the o-line returns, and all are over 300 lb. LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin return for their senior years at the WR spots. Byrd had 441 yards receiving, while Benjamin had 743 yards. Once a QB choice is made and the offensive unit respects that player as their leader, this should be one of the best offenses in the league.
On defense, Sean Spence anchors the senior-led LB core; Spence had 111 tackles and 17 tackles for a loss. Up front, three of four return on the d-line. Anchoring the d-line is Micanor Regis, who had 42 tackles and DE Oliver Vernon, who had 10 sacks last year. Miami was 3rd in the league in sacks last year with 37. The weakness of the ‘Canes D will be the secondary, as only two of four starters return. If the D-backs can step up, then the Canes’ D will be fine, as the front seven looks to be one of the best in the league this year.
3. North Carolina: 8-5, 4-4 in ACC, beat Tennessee in Music City Bowl 30-27
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
For the past two years, it seemed like NC was everyone’s dark horse pick to win the ACC. Last year, the Tar Heels were screwed over by NCAA suspensions, and the year before they just didn’t live up to the hype. This year, there isn’t as much hype around the Tar Heels as in years past, and rightfully so. Replacing TJ Yates will be sophomore Bryn Renner. Butch Davis had an open QB competition coming into camp, but Renner was able to outperform the rest of the QB’s in every way. Four of five return on the 0-line, and if the line can stay healthy, it will be one of the best in the league, as this group averages 319 lb. The veteran o-line will help out first year RB starter Hunter Furr, who saw little action last year. Erik Highsmith and Dwight Jones return at WR. Highsmith had 348 yards receiving and three TD’s. Jones lead the team with 946 yards receiving and four TD’s. For this offense to click, Renner is going to have to get comfortable first with being a starter, but he does have the veteran o-line and wideouts to support him.
DE Quinton Couples returns for his senior year, and he led the team last year with 10 sacks. Also returning on the d-line is DT Jared McAdoo, DE Donte Paige-Moss, and DT Tydreke Powell. Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick will anchor the LB’s, but no one has stepped up to fill the weak side spot. Brown lead the team with 74 tackles, while Reddick had 72. Senior Matt Merelli leads the secondary, but Merelli is the only solid returning starter. Butch Davis has said the rest of the positions will be up for grabs as the secondary was shorthanded last year due to the NCAA suspensions. It will be hard to run the ball on this team this year, but holes must be filled in the secondary if NC is to compete with Va. Tech and Miami.
4. Georgia Tech: 6-7, 4-4 in ACC, lost to Air Force in Independence Bowl 14-7.
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Tevin Washington as of right now is the number one guy at the QB position to replace Joshua Nesbitt. But after a five turnover spring game, Synjyn Days maybe pushing Washington for that starting spot in August. When running an option offense, your o-line must be the best players on the team. That was not seen this spring, despite Omoregie Uzzi being a second-team all conference selection and both Phil Smith and Will Jackson having decent experience from last season. Both Roddy Jones and Orwin Smith return at the a-back/wing back spots. Jones had 378 yards rushing and four TD’s last year and Smith had 535 and four TDs. The problem is there is not a b-back/FB spot set in stone yet, and it will be a crucial position battle in August.
The defense showed that they are a lot more comfortable in year two of the 3-4 defense. DE Izaan Cross, DE Jason Peters and DT Logan Walls all return on d-line this year. Only two of four LB’s return Julian Burnett and Steven Sylvester will be anchoring this unit. Burnett lead the team with 89 tackles, but the front seven needs to get more pressure on QB’s as Tech was ranked 11th in the league, in sacks. All four players in the secondary will be first time starters, so this unit will be getting burned and getting burned often. With the youth in the secondary, the front 7 must get a ton more pressure on the QB than last year.
5. Virginia: 4-8, 1-7.
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 9 defense
Head Coach Mike London has the Cavaliers headed in the right direction, but don’t expect a bowl bid in Charlottesville this year. Neither Michael Rocco, Ross Metheny, or Michael Staruss stepped up during spring ball and it will be a three-way competition come this August. Same goes for the RB position as Perry Jones, Kevin Parks, and Khalek Shepherd will compete for carries this fall. The good news on the offense is that senior F Austin Pasztor and T Morgan Moses return. There are way too many questions on this offense for there to be any hope of a .500 year for the Cavs.
With nine starters returning, the defense was the most impressive part about UVA’s spring practice. Nick Jenkins returns on the d-line, where he had 46 tackles last year. DE Cam Johnson is also back and lead the team with 6.5 sacks last year. Anchoring the LB core will be the team’s leading tackler, LaRoy Reynolds (66 last year). The defense will be the highlight of the Cavs season, but won’t be enough for UVA.
6. Duke: 3-9, 1-7.
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Sophomore QB Sean Renfree passed for over 3,000 yards as a freshman and should continue to be one of the lone bright spots for Duke. Renfree will have both Conner Veron and Donovan Varner back at the WR spots. Vernon lead the team with 973 receiving yards. For the passing game to be successful, the o-line has to step up its run blocking, as Duke was ranked 104th in the country for rushing.
Duke is running a 4-2-5 – something rarely seen division I-A ball – but it could work. For this defense to work, more pressure must be put on the QB as Duke was ranked last in the league in sacks. Duke is losing both their leading tackler and sacker on defense this year. With lack of pressure on the QB expected again from the Blue Devils, opposing ACC QBs are going to have a field day when they see Duke.