August 7, 2010

ACC a battle between QBs and cornerbacks

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

This season has been billed in some quarters as the ACC's Year of the Quarterback. It instead may go down as the Year of the Cornerback.

Sure, the ACC's quarterback malaise of the past few seasons mercifully has ended. Florida State has launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for Christian Ponder. Miami's Jacory Harris engineered exciting early-season wins over Florida State and Oklahoma last season. Georgia Tech's Joshua Nesbitt and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor are two of the nation's most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks. North Carolina State's Russell Wilson threw for 3,027 yards last season and has a 4-to-1 (48 to 12) TD pass-to-interception ratio.

The improvement in quarterback production helped a league known for defense produce a bunch of shootouts last season. But that doesn't mean the ACC has suddenly turned into the Big 12.

For one thing, keep in mind that Nesbitt and Taylor are known primarily for their running ability, though Taylor improved his passing ability as much as just about any quarterback in the nation last season. For another thing, quarterbacks around the conference will be throwing against arguably the nation's best collection of cornerbacks.

Virginia's Ras-I Dowling, Miami's Brandon Harris and North Carolina's Kendric Burney are potential early-round draft picks. Virginia Tech's Rashad Carmichael picked off six passes last season. Florida State's Greg Reid showed off his playmaking ability as a true freshman last season.

The ACC's quarterbacks finally served notice last season that they could bring balance to a defense-oriented league. This season, the defensive backs figure to deliver their response.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams. All he did as a redshirt freshman last season was rush for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns. Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis is the only active Division I player who rushed for more yards last season, and Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs is the only active player who rushed for more touchdowns. The return of Darren Evans from a knee injury could prevent him from matching his 2009 production, but Williams should continue to rank among the nation's most dangerous running backs.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: North Carolina DE Robert Quinn. After leading the ACC with 19 tackles for loss and ranking second in the conference with 11 sacks - only first-round draft pick Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech had more - Quinn heads into his junior season as one of the nation's top pass rushers. He also forced six fumbles last season to rank fourth in the nation in that category. He plays on a defense littered with potential first-round picks, but Quinn's star power shines brightest of all.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: North Carolina QB T.J. Yates. North Carolina's defense will make the Tar Heels the favorite team of any NFL scouting director this fall, but all that talent won't make much of a difference unless Yates rebounds from a disappointing 2009 season in which he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14). As good as its defense is, UNC must upgrade its offense to have any shot at winning the ACC title. If Yates continues to struggle, don't be surprised if the Tar Heels bench him in favor of redshirt freshman Bryn Renner.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: North Carolina State LB Nate Irving. He's adjusting to a position switch (from outside linebacker to middle linebacker) and a new linebackers coach (former North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta). And he's supposed to immediately upgrade a unit that ranked 11th in the ACC in scoring defense last season. That's a lot of pressure to put on a guy trying to come back from a near-fatal car wreck that knocked him out for the '09 season and left him with a collapsed lung, broken rib, separated shoulder and a compound fracture in his leg.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Georgia Tech RB Anthony Allen. Allen, a senior who began his career at Louisville, carried the ball just 64 times last season, his first with the Yellow Jackets, but he averaged a whopping 9.7 yards per attempt. Allen takes over as the "B" back this season in place of the departed Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for 1,395 yards in each of the past two seasons. Allen might not get all the way to 1,395, but he should cross the 1,000-yard mark and could challenge for the ACC rushing title.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Florida State CB Greg Reid. Reid, a sophomore who is the defending NCAA leader in punt-return average, should emerge as a standout defensive performer this season. He already showed his big-play ability last season by scoring on a 63-yard interception return against BYU and picking off a pass against Miami. Reid may lack size (he's 5 feet 9), but he knows how to play pass defense. Reid picked off four passes in one scrimmage this spring.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Clemson WR Bryce McNeal. Miami redshirt freshman RB Lamar Miller might have greater potential, but we're not sure how many carries he will get in the Hurricanes' crowded backfield. So we'll place our bets on McNeal, who could get more of an opportunity because Clemson lacks proven receivers. McNeal, a redshirt freshman and former Rivals100 prospect, showed his big-play potential by finishing with more than 100 yards on just three catches in a spring scrimmage. Other newcomers who could make an impact include Virginia redshirt freshman RB Dominique Wallace and North Carolina's Bryn Renner.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Boston College LB Kevin Pierre-Louis. We're taking a leap of faith in this true freshman based on his outstanding spring results after he arrived on campus in January. We're not sure how much playing time he will get in a linebacker corps that features Mark Herzlich and Luke Kuechly, but Pierre-Louis will deliver if he gets the opportunity. Perhaps Kuechly's 158-tackle performance as a freshman last season will cause BC coaches to take a chance on another newcomer.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers. The highest-rated recruit in Clemson history arrived on campus as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, but he has recorded only four sacks in 955 career snaps. Bowers still has enormous potential, which he showed off with an 11-tackle effort in the ACC championship game. He remains a blue-chip NFL prospect. But he needs to develop into more of a pass-rushing force.

THE COACHES

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State [ Team Preview ]

2. Boston College [ Team Preview ]

3. Clemson [ Team Preview ]

4. N.C. State [ Team Preview ]

5. Wake Forest [ Team Preview ]

6. Maryland [ Team Preview ]

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Tech

2. Miami [ Team Preview ]

3. North Carolina [ Team Preview ]

4. Georgia Tech [ Team Preview ]

5. Duke [ Team Preview ]

6. Virginia [ Team Preview ]

ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Virginia Tech over Florida State

COACH ON THE HOT SEAT: Maryland's Ralph Friedgen. After leading Maryland to at least 10 wins in each of his first three seasons on the job, the Fridge has cooled considerably. He now is coming off a 2-10 season and is working at a school that is in the process of hiring a new president and a new athletic director. Friedgen may need to lead Maryland to a bowl to impress his new bosses.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Virginia Tech. You can make a decent argument that Frank Beamer is the best active FBS coach without a national championship. You also can make a good case that Bud Foster is the best defensive coordinator in the business. This staff benefits from its continuity. Beamer is in his 24th season, and he brought Foster with him. Running backs coach Billy Hite started working here nine years before Beamer's arrival.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Miami's Mark Whipple. This conference's best assistant coaches are defensive coordinators, but Whipple deserves credit for helping Miami improve its ranking in total offense from 89th in 2008 to 45th last season. Whipple spent 16 years as a college head coach in the lower levels and posted a 121-59 record. He also has experience as an NFL quarterbacks coach.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Virginia Tech's Bud Foster. He's one of the major reasons Virginia Tech heads into the season as the ACC favorite despite having only one healthy returning defensive player who made at least six starts last season. The last time the Hokies entered a season with so many questions on defense was 2008. Foster's crew ended up ranking seventh in the nation in total defense and ninth in scoring defense that season.

THE OTHER STUFF

LSU vs. North Carolina at Atlanta, Sept. 4

Boise State vs. Virginia Tech at Landover, Md., Sept. 6

Florida State at Oklahoma, Sept. 11

Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11

Florida State at Miami, Oct. 9

North Carolina at Miami, Oct. 23

Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, Nov. 4

Clemson at Florida State, Nov. 13

Virginia Tech at North Carolina, Nov. 13

Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Florida State. We understand it's hard to label the Seminoles as a potential surprise team when the ACC media have made them the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Division. But the way we see it, whenever a team wins a division title one season after a 7-6 finish, it constitutes a surprise. Florida State's offense is so good that the Seminoles should win the Atlantic as long as their defense is merely average.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: North Carolina. Yes, the defense is awesome. It won't matter if the offense is awful. The Tar Heels should be better than usual, but their offense isn't good enough for them to win their first ACC title since 1980. They might even end up with more losses than 2011 first-round draft picks.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20. This game matches what we believe are the best teams in the ACC this season. It's a testament to the strength and balance of the Coastal Division that it would come as no surprise to us if Virginia Tech loses this game and still wins the conference title.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Miami. The Hurricanes have consecutive road games with Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Clemson in the first four weeks of the season. They also have home games with Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and USF plus a trip to Georgia Tech. Florida State's non-conference schedule is slightly tougher, but the Seminoles benefit from a conference slate that doesn't include Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Boston College. The Eagles play six of their first eight games at home. A home game with Notre Dame is the only potential loss in a non-conference schedule that also includes home dates with Weber State and Kent State plus a trip to Syracuse. Boston College also doesn't have to worry about playing Georgia Tech, Miami or North Carolina.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBChristian Ponder, Florida State (6-3/227, Sr.)
RBMontel Harris, Boston College (5-10/200, Jr.)
RBRyan Williams, Virginia Tech (5-10/211, Soph.)
WRLeonard Hankerson, Miami (6-3/215, Sr.)
WROwen Spencer, N.C. State (6-3/185, Sr.)
TEGeorge Bryan, N.C. State (6-5/265, Jr.)
TAnthony Castonzo, Boston College (6-7/295, Sr.)
TChris Hairston, Clemson (6-7/325, Sr.)
GThomas Claiborne, Boston College (6-3/325, Sr.)
GRodney Hudson, Florida State (6-2/282, Sr.)
CSean Bedford, Georgia Tech (6-1/274, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EDa'Quan Bowers, Clemson (6-4/280, Jr.)
TMarvin Austin, North Carolina (6-3/305, Sr.)
ERobert Quinn, North Carolina (6-5/270, Jr.)
LBBruce Carter, North Carolina (6-3/230, Sr.)
LBLuke Kuechly, Boston College (6-3/225, Soph.)
LBQuan Sturdivant, North Carolina (6-2/235, Sr.)
LBAlex Wujciak, Maryland (6-3/245, Sr.)
CBRas-I Dowling, Virginia (6-2/205, Sr.)
CBBrandon Harris, Miami (5-11/195, Jr.)
FSDeunta Williams, North Carolina (6-2/210, Sr.)
SSDeAndre McDaniel, Clemson (6-1/215, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KMatt Bosher, Miami (6-0/205, Sr.)
PChandler Anderson, Georgia Tech (6-0/201, Jr.)
KRTorrey Smith, Maryland (6-1/200, Jr.)
PRGreg Reid, Florida State (5-87/174, Soph.)

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD

1. Virginia Tech: Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans give the Hokies an offensive backfield that ranks among the best in the nation, let alone the conference.

2. Florida State: Christian Ponder is the ACC's best passer. The Seminoles also have a deep stable of running backs, with Jermaine Thomas and Chris Thompson competing for the starting job.

3. Georgia Tech: Joshua Nesbitt, Anthony Allen and Roddy Jones each have the potential to rush for 1,000 yards. Nesbitt's inaccuracy as a passer keeps the Jackets from ranking higher.

4. Miami: The Hurricanes could be higher on this list by the end of the season if RB Graig Cooper makes a strong recovery and/or RB Lamar Miller has a breakthrough season.

5. Clemson: QB Kyle Parker's decision to return to school removes some of the pressure from Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper, who are trying to replace C.J. Spiller.

6. Boston College: Montel Harris is one of the most underrated backs in the nation, but the Eagles' quarterback situation remains a concern.

7. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack's lack of proven running backs could put even more pressure on QB Russell Wilson, a former first-team All-ACC selection.

8. North Carolina: T.J. Yates threw more interceptions than touchdown passes last season, and the Tar Heels averaged just 3.6 yards per carry.

9. Maryland: The Terps have two promising backs in former All-ACC pick Da'Rel Scott and Davin Meggett, but QB Jamarr Robinson remains an unknown quantity.

10. Wake Forest: Josh Adams and Brandon Pendergrass each averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, but the Deacons still don't know the identity of their starting quarterback.

11. Virginia: It's really a toss-up between Virginia and Duke for the last spot on this list. Both teams have major questions in the backfield.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils have a starting quarterback (Sean Renfree) coming back from a torn ACL and a rushing attack that averaged just 2.2 yards per carry last season.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

1. Miami: Leonard Hankerson, LaRon Byrd and Travis Benjamin give Jacory Harris a trio of talented targets, though the dismissal of Thearon Collier cuts into the Hurricanes' depth.

2, North Carolina State: Owen Spencer led the ACC in yards per catch last season (25.5), and George Bryan is one of the league's top tight ends.

3. North Carolina: Greg Little is the senior leader of a receiving corps with plenty of youth and plenty of upside. If Zack Pianalto stays healthy, he gives the Heels one of the nation's top pass-catching tight ends.

4. Duke: Donovan Varner, Conner Vernon and Austin Kelly each caught at least 54 passes last season. Will they be able to match those numbers without Thaddeus Lewis throwing to them?

5. Virginia Tech: Tight end is a concern, but Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and Dyrell Roberts combined for 92 receptions last season.

6. Wake Forest: It's the same issue as with Duke. Devon Brown, Marshall Williams and Chris Givens caught at least 45 passes apiece last season, but how will they fare with a new quarterback?

7. Maryland: Torrey Smith is one of the top overall receivers in the league, but he could use more help.

8. Florida State: If Bert Reed lives up to his potential, the Seminoles will move up this list. The Seminoles suffered a blow with the preseason dismissal of Jarmon Fortson.

9. Clemson: Xavier Dye (14 catches last season) is the most proven receiver on Clemson's roster, though the Tigers have plenty of underclassmen with upside.

10. Virginia: Kris Burd leads an underwhelming group, though Virginia's QB problems haven't helped matters.

11. Boston College: The Eagles will miss WR Rich Gunnell this season, though TE Chris Pantale could have a breakout year.

12. Georgia Tech: Demaryius Thomas caught 46 passes last season. None of his teammates caught more than eight. Thomas has moved on to the NFL, hence this ranking.

OFFENSIVE LINE

1. Florida State: All-America G Rodney Hudson - a potential four-time All-ACC pick - anchors a line that returns all five starters.

2. Boston College: The list of four returning starters includes potential first-round pick Anthony Castonzo and All-ACC candidate Thomas Claiborne at guard.

3. Clemson: LT Chris Hairston leads a line that returns four starters.

4. Virginia Tech: The Hokies return three starters, but they could have a tough time replacing T Ed Wang and G Sergio Render.

5. North Carolina: The Tar Heels are counting on LT Carl Gaskins to make a successful recovery after he missed last season with a knee injury.

6. Georgia Tech: All-ACC C Sean Bedford is back, but he's one of only two returning starters on the line.

7. Miami: The Hurricanes could have a tough time replacing four-year starter Jason Fox at tackle. They're counting on Orlando Franklin to make a smooth transition from guard to left tackle.

8. Duke: The good news: Duke returns four starters. The bad news: The Devils averaged only 2.2 yards per carry last season.

9. Wake Forest: Joe Looney and Russell Nenon should make the Deacons solid in the interior, but Wake must break in new starters at each tackle spot.

10. Virginia: T Landon Bradley and Gs B.J. Cabbell and Austin Pasztor give Virginia three returning starters, but the Cavaliers allowed the most sacks in the conference last season.

11. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack return only two starters from a line that allowed 2.7 sacks per game last season, even with the mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback.

12. Maryland: The Terps have three returning starters, but they're still awfully young up front. And they ranked 105th in the nation in rushing and gave up three sacks per game last season.

DEFENSIVE LINE

1. North Carolina: This one's a no-brainer. E Robert Quinn and T Marvin Austin give the Tar Heels two probable first-round picks up front.

2. Miami: Nearly every team in the country would love to have the Hurricanes' depth in the front four. The versatile Allen Bailey is an All-America candidate.

3. Clemson: Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson give Clemson a pair of experienced tackles, and Da'Quan Bowers has plenty of upside at end.

4. Virginia Tech: The Hokies don't have any proven pass rushers, and they need T John Graves to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2009 season.

5. Boston College: Alex Albright had 8.5 sacks in 2007, but he has delivered only two sacks since while struggling with injuries.

6. Florida State: The Seminoles have some quality tackles, but they seriously lack pass rushers.

7. Virginia: The Cavaliers bring back Nick Jenkins and Matt Conrath, but they will miss the departed Nate Collins.

8. Wake Forest: Wake has some depth at end, but the Deacons have big holes at tackle following the departures of John Russell and Boo Robinson.

9. Georgia Tech: Who's going to rush the passer now that Derrick Morgan has gone to the NFL? The Yellow Jackets have gone to a 3-4 set after being a 4-3 team.

10. Duke: Ayanga Okpokowuruk and Vince Oghobaase were tough to spell. They'll be tougher to replace.

11. Maryland: NT A.J. Francis is the Terps' only returning starter up front.

12. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack don't have a single returning starter on the line.

LINEBACKERS

1. North Carolina: Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant are potential first-round draft picks.

2. Boston College: If we were certain Mark Herzlich would recapture his 2008 form, the Eagles might rank first on this list.

3. Maryland: Alex Wujciak - one of the nation's most prolific tacklers - leads an experienced unit that also features Demetrius Hartsfield and Adrian Moten.

4. Florida State: Nigel Bradham and Kendall Smith combined for 178 tackles last season.

5. Miami: The Hurricanes need more depth to support Colin McCarthy and Sean Spence. They also need McCarthy to stay healthy.

6. Virginia Tech: Barquell Rivers and Lyndell Gibson are a good nucleus, though Rivers' health is a concern.

7. North Carolina State: Nate Irving could be one of the conference's top linebackers if he regains his 2008 form, but he's going to need plenty of help.

8. Clemson: Depth is enough of a concern that some freshmen likely will play immediately.

9. Georgia Tech: How well-suited are Tech's linebackers to play a 3-4 system? Nobody will know the answer for at least a few more weeks.

10. Virginia: Steve Greer recorded a team-high 92 tackles last season, but he's the Cavaliers' only returning starter.

11. Wake Forest: Hunter Haynes and Matt Woodlief at least provide some experience, but the Deacons could use a playmaker.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils don't return a linebacker who recorded more than 60 tackles last season.

SECONDARY

1. North Carolina: CB Kendric Burney and FS Deunta Williams each earned first-team All-ACC honors last season.

2. Clemson: SS DeAndre McDaniel is a legitimate Thorpe Award candidate. The Tigers are hoping Marcus Gilchrist makes a successful move from safety to cornerback.

3. Miami: Brandon Harris is one of the nation's top cover corners. Ray Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque give Miami a pair of promising young safeties.

4. Virginia Tech: Rashad Carmichael continues the tradition of outstanding Virginia Tech cornerbacks. The Hokies also expect big things from FS Eddie Whitley.

5. Virginia: CB Ras-I Dowling likely will end the season as one of the nation's best players on a losing team.

6. Boston College: The Eagles return two starters, including underrated FS Wes Davis.

7. Georgia Tech: The return of Mario Butler, Jerrard Tarrant and Dominique Reese should help the Jackets withstand the loss of SS Morgan Burnett.

8. Florida State: CB Greg Reid is an emerging star, but the Seminoles need plenty of other defensive backs to step up.

9. Wake Forest: Kenny Okoro is a bright young cornerback, and SS Cyhl Quarles and FS Josh Bush each made at least six starts last season.

10. Duke: The Devils return two starters in the secondary after ranking 80th in the nation last season in pass efficiency defense.

11. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack gave up 20 touchdown passes and recorded only eight interceptions last season.

12. Maryland: The Terps ranked 105th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season, and they return only one starter in the secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS

1. Florida State: Greg Reid led the nation in punt-return average last season. The Seminoles also return their kicker and punter from last season.

2. Maryland: The Terps should get a boost from the return of former All-ACC P Travis Baltz. They already have one of the game's best return men in Torrey Smith.

3. Miami: Matt Bosher might be the nation's best combination kicker/punter.

4. North Carolina: Casey Barth went 21-of-25 on field-goal attempts last season. The Tar Heels also have a veteran punter (Grant Schallock) and an outstanding returner (Da'Norris Searcy).

5. Georgia Tech: Chandler Anderson helped Georgia Tech lead the ACC in net punting last season, but K Scott Blair has been inconsistent.

6. Clemson: Who will step up as the Tigers' return man now that C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford are gone?

7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies must break in a new kicker and punter, but history suggests their special teams will be just fine.

8. Boston College: Ryan Quigley is a fine punter, but the Eagles must find a new kicker. Boston College was first in the ACC in kickoff coverage and third in net punting last season.

9. Duke: Will Snyderwine has ended Duke's recent history of kicking frustration, but the Devils ranked last in the ACC in net punting last season.

10. Virginia: Robert Randolph was 17-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season, while Jimmy Howell ranked in the middle of the pack in punting.

11. North Carolina State: Josh Czajkowski went 10-of-12 on field-goal attempts last season, but Jeff Ruiz averaged just 37.9 yards per punt.

12. Wake Forest: Jimmy Newman was 5-of-8 on field-goal attempts from beyond 30 yards out last season with a season-long kick of 44 yards. The Deacons also ranked 110th in the nation in kickoff coverage.

COACHING STAFFS

1. Virginia Tech: In a league that has featured plenty of coaching turnover the past five seasons, the Hokies have thrived on continuity.

2. Georgia Tech: Nobody's arguing anymore about whether Paul Johnson's option attack can work in a major conference.

3. Wake Forest: Jim Grobe's job gets even tougher now that he finally must break in a new starting quarterback.

4. North Carolina: Butch Davis has done a great job of upgrading the talent base, but the Tar Heels must stop the late-season fades.

5. Boston College: Frank Spaziani's first season suggests that promoting from within was the right move.

6. Clemson: In his first full season on the job, Dabo Swinney won the division title that always eluded his predecessor.

7. Miami: Randy Shannon certainly has upgraded the Hurricanes' performance off the field, but the on-field product remains a work in progress.

8. Duke: His staff doesn't feature any big names, but David Cutcliffe has helped make Duke competitive. His job should get even tougher without QB Thaddeus Lewis.

9. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher has done a nice job of recruiting and overhauling the coaching staff, but we can't rank his staff any higher until we see what they can accomplish during the season

10. North Carolina State: Injuries and defensive woes have hindered Tom O'Brien's attempts to turn the Wolfpack into consistent winners. If it doesn't happen soon, he could be on the hot seat before long.

11. Maryland: Nobody in the conference is under more pressure right now than Ralph Friedgen

12. Virginia: Mike London won an FCS title at Richmond, but we still have no idea what to expect from him at the FBS level.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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