August 10, 2009

ACC preseason unit rankings

MORE: ACC preview: Staying firmly on the ground


1. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have three of the conference's top nine returning rushers in RB Jonathan Dwyer, QB Josh Nesbitt and RB Roddy Jones. Now they're adding Anthony Allen, who rushed for a combined 1,102 yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons at Louisville. If Nesbitt improves his passing, look out.

2. Virginia Tech: Orange Bowl MVP Darren Evans and promising redshirt freshman Ryan Williams give the Hokies dynamic tailbacks to work alongside QB Tyrod Taylor, who rushed for 738 yards last year. This combination would look much better if Taylor improved his passing accuracy.

3. N.C. State: Russell Wilson undoubtedly is the ACC's top quarterback, but the injury concerns surrounding RBs Jamelle Eugene and Toney Baker keep the Wolfpack from ranking higher.

4. North Carolina: QB T.J. Yates could emerge as an all-conference contender if he can stay healthy for an entire season. Shaun Draughn rushed for 866 yards and Ryan Houston had eight touchdown runs last season.

5. Clemson: RB C.J. Spiller is one of the ACC's most explosive players, and Jamie Harper gives him a nice running mate. But the uncertain situation at quarterback is a major concern.

6. Miami: Graig Cooper and Javarris James would form a dynamic duo at tailback if they can stay healthy. Will QB Jacory Harris' reputation as a winner in high school translate to college?

7. Florida State: RBs Jermaine Thomas, Tavares Pressley and Ty Jones have plenty of promise, but QB Christian Ponder must improve his consistency after throwing 13 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes against FBS foes last season. If he does that, the Seminoles could rank higher on this list by the end of the season.

8. Wake Forest: Riley Skinner is one of the league's top quarterbacks, but the Deacons need to sort out their running back situation. The Deacons have plenty of experienced backs, but no real standouts. Maybe Kevin Harris' EagleBank Bowl performance shows he's ready to break through.

9. Maryland: We love the big-play ability of RB Da'Rel Scott, but QB Chris Turner's inconsistency drives us bonkers.

10. Virginia: The Cavaliers are counting on converted CB Vic Hall or 2007 starter Jameel Sewell to develop into a consistent quarterback and for RB Mikell Simpson to bounce back from a disappointing season.

11. Duke: QB Thaddeus Lewis is a fourth-year starter and a legitimate all-conference candidate, but the Blue Devils' inability to run the ball over the years keeps them near the bottom of this list.

12. Boston College: The Eagles have no proven quarterback candidates. RBs Montel Harris and Josh Haden formed a nice tandem last season, but we're wondering how much of their success is due to Boston College's line.


1. N.C. State: Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams give the Wolfpack two returning starters. Spencer is a big-play threat who came on strong late last season. The Pack also welcome back Donald Bowens, who caught 41 passes two years ago before a back injury sidelined him last season.

2. Miami: Aldarius Johnson, Thearon Collier, Laron Byrd and Travis Benjamin give Miami four wide receivers who had at least 18 catches, 228 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions last season. TE Dedrick Epps may not play because of an injury, though.

3. Virginia Tech: Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin each caught at least 30 passes as freshmen last season. Dyrell Roberts had 17 catches in his freshman year after playing running back in high school. All three should be vastly improved as sophomores. TE Greg Boone looks to be the best player in the league at his position.

4. Boston College: Rich Gunnell has 1,482 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns over the past two seasons, while Justin Jarvis and Ifeanyi Momah each caught three touchdown passes a year ago.

5. Clemson: Jacoby Ford arguably is the best receiver in the ACC, but Clemson doesn't have any other proven wide receivers. The Tigers need a breakout season from Xavier Dye, Marquan Jones or Terrance Ashe, who combined for 12 catches last year.

6. Maryland: The Terps are confident Torrey Smith or Ronnie Tyler can have a breakthrough season and LaQuan Williams will bounce back from a foot injury that sidelined him last season. But they don't have anyone with the big-play potential of departed first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey.

7. Georgia Tech: The Jackets must find someone to complement All-ACC candidate Demaryius Thomas, who had 39 of the team's 74 catches last season.

8. Florida State: The Seminoles need Taiwan Easterling (30 catches for 322 yards last year) to bounce back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. They also need one of their young wide receivers (Jarmon Fortson and/or Bert Reed) to come up big.

9. Duke: Johnny Williams, Donovan Varner and Austin Kelly combined for 64 catches last season, so Thaddeus Lewis has plenty of candidates to replace the departed Eron Riley.

10. Wake Forest: QB Riley Skinner typically focuses on one guy who ends up ranking among the league leaders in receptions. Candidates to fill that role this season include Marshall Williams (26 catches for 390 yards last year) and Devon Brown (10 for 134). TE Ben Wooster is a guy to watch.

11. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have plenty of heavily recruited receivers, but they all lack experience. Greg Little, a tailback for much of last season, is the only returning wide receiver who caught a pass last season. North Carolina could rank much higher on this list by the end of the season.

12. Virginia: The departures of Kevin Ogletree and Maurice Covington leave Virginia without any wide receivers who caught more than 12 passes last season.


1. Florida State: Line coach Rick Trickett has turned Florida State's one-time Achilles' heel into its biggest strength. Rodney Hudson, an All-America candidate at guard, leads a line that returns all five starters and should help the Seminoles deliver one of the ACC's top rushing attacks.

2. Boston College: The Eagles seemingly have one of the ACC's top lines every season. C Matt Tennant and T Anthony Castonzo are legitimate All-ACC candidates leading a line with four returning starters.

3. Clemson: This line should be one of the most improved units in the entire conference. After breaking in four new starters last season, the Tigers have five returning starters on the line this season. Thomas Austin, a second-team All-ACC center last year, is moving over to guard.

4. Wake Forest: The return of Chris DeGeare after a year's absence should solidify a line that didn't give its running backs much help last season. Wake features seven linemen with a combined 116 career starts.

5. Virginia Tech: G Sergio Render is a fourth-year starter, and the Hokies also have returning starters at both tackle spots. The Hokies have new starters at center and one guard spot, which could hinder a team this run-oriented.

6. Georgia Tech: The Jackets return all five linemen who started the final four games last season, but they must improve their consistency. Georgia Tech lacks a standout lineman in the mold of departed T Andrew Gardner.

7. Virginia: Will Barker leads a line that returns four starters. The group must create more running room for an offense that averaged just 3.4 yards per carry last season.

8. Miami: Jason Fox, a senior tackle entering his fourth season as a starter, leads a line that returns three starters. G Orlando Franklin (6-7/334) has NFL size and graded out at 96 percent against Texas A&M, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech last season.

9. N.C. State: The Wolfpack have returning starters at center and at both tackle spots, but they need to do a better job of protecting QB Russell Wilson.

10. North Carolina: Third-year starter Kyle Jolly gives the Heels a solid left tackle to anchor the line, but they could struggle to replace departed starters Garrett Reynolds, Calvin Darity and Aaron Stahl.

11. Maryland: The Terps lost plenty of senior leadership in the offseason and now have just two returning starters: T Bruce Campbell and G Phil Costa.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils averaged just 3 yards per carry last season and have only two returning starters, G Kyle Hill and C Bryan Morgan.


1. Virginia Tech: E Jason Worilds is arguably the best defensive player in the conference, while John Graves and Cordarrow Thompson give the Hokies a pair of experienced tackles. The only question is whether senior Nekos Brown can step up as a pass rusher to complement Worilds.

2. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have as much depth on their line as just about anybody. UNC has four returning starters, and they all have plenty of upside. The one thing they lack is a pass rusher with Worilds' track record.

3. Clemson: The Tigers could have quite a pass rush if E Da'Quan Bowers meets expectations and E Ricky Sapp stays healthy. Kevin Alexander gives Clemson a third quality end, and NT Jarvis Jenkins is a returning starter.

4. N.C. State: E Willie Young struggles with consistency, but he's one of the nation's elite pass rushers when he's on his game. Young, Alan-Michael Cash, Shea McKeen and Leroy Burgess give the Wolfpack four senior starters on the line, though depth is a concern.

5. Miami: The return of T Allen Bailey and E Eric Moncur from injuries that knocked them out for most of 2008 should give this line a serious upgrade. The Hurricanes desperately need to improve a run defense that ranked at the bottom of the ACC last season.

6. Wake Forest: Boo Robinson and John Russell form the best tackle duo in the ACC, but the Demon Deacons need to find someone who can rush the passer from the edge. Maybe Kyle Wilber develops into that guy.

7. Florida State: The Seminoles have plenty of experienced tackles and should get even stronger at that spot with the arrival of five-star prospect Jacobbi McDaniel. But they don't have a pass rusher who can come close to matching the production of departed second-round pick Everette Brown.

8. Virginia: NT Nick Jenkins and E Matt Conrath return after earning starting jobs as freshmen last season. Virginia must upgrade a run defense that ranked 10th in the ACC last season.

9. Boston College: The return of E Alex Albright from a neck injury should stabilize the pass rush, but the Eagles are going to have a hard time replacing first-round pick B.J. Raji and second-round pick Ron Brace in the interior.

10. Georgia Tech: A lack of experience with this unit could prevent Georgia Tech from living up to expectations. E Derrick Morgan is the only returning starter on the line, and the Jackets don't have any clear-cut starters at tackle.

11. Duke: T Vince Oghobaase and E Ayanga Okpokowuruk have combined for 58 starts. They will try to upgrade a defense that ranked 11th in the ACC against the run last season.

12. Maryland: The Terps' lack of experience and depth here is enough of a concern that redshirt freshman A.J. Francis is currently listed as a starter at nose tackle.


1. North Carolina: Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter are back after combining for 190 tackles, seven sacks and three interceptions last season. The Tar Heels also believe first-year starter Zach Brown has a chance to be special.

2. Clemson: Kavell Conner, Brandon Maye and Scotty Cooper return after combining for 240 tackles last season. The Tigers' depth at linebacker allowed them to move DeAndre McDaniel to strong safety.

3. Virginia Tech: The Hokies have plenty of promising linebackers. Cody Grimm recorded 14 tackles for loss while making just one start last season. Cam Martin returns as a fifth-year senior, while Barquell Rivers showed his potential with a big Orange Bowl performance last season.

4. Miami: Sean Spence, the top freshman defensive player in the ACC last season, should make the leap to stardom this season. Fifth-year senior Darryl Sharpton provides leadership and maturity for a young defense, and Colin McCarthy could be a huge contributor if he manages to stay healthy.

5. Florida State: The Seminoles lose their top two tacklers from last season (Derek Nicholson and Toddrick Verdell), but they may actually be stronger. Dekoda Watson has star potential, Kendall Smith has shown plenty of promise and former five-star prospect Nigel Bradham could have a breakthrough sophomore season. The lack of depth is a concern in the wake of Vince Williams' season-ending injury.

6. Georgia Tech: The Jackets return four linebackers who started multiple games last season. There aren't any stars in this group, but there are plenty of solid players with experience.

7. Maryland: Alex Wujciak is the top returning tackler in the ACC and Adrian Moten also is a fine player, but the Terps otherwise lack depth and experience at this spot.

8. N.C. State: Ray Michel returns after recording a team-high 102 tackles. Michel and Nate Irving would have formed arguably the top linebacker tandem in the ACC if Irving hadn't been involved in a car wreck this summer that jeopardized his status for the season.

9. Boston College: The loss of Mark Herzlich is a devastating blow that puts even more pressure on Mike McLaughlin to have a successful return from an Achilles injury he suffered this spring. We're only rating the Eagles this high because we're counting on McLaughlin making a fast recovery.

10. Virginia: Denzel Burrell is the only returning starter as Virginia attempts to withstand the departures of star performers Jon Copper, Clint Sintim and Antonio Appleby.

11. Duke: Vincent Rey has recorded more than 100 tackles in each of the past two seasons, but the Blue Devils don't have an adequate replacement for departed All-ACC performer Michael Tauiliili.

12. Wake Forest: Last season, Wake Forest had Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry in its linebacking corps. This season, the Deacons don't have a returning starter at linebacker.


1. Virginia Tech: The Hokies have so much talent here that they should withstand the departure of All-America CB Victor "Macho" Harris. CB Stephan Virgil picked off six passes last year, while Kam Chancellor and Dorian Porch form the ACC's top safety tandem. The only question is at the second cornerback spot, but the Hokies have plenty of confidence in first-year starter Rashad Carmichael.

2. Clemson: Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler give Clemson one of the top cornerback duos in the nation, and we're betting DeAndre McDaniel makes a seamless transition to strong safety after recording 77 tackles as a linebacker last season.

3. Georgia Tech: All-America SS Morgan Burnett leads a secondary that returns three starters. The Jackets only have to replace departed CB Jahi Word-Daniels, and they already learned to play without him when he sat out the second half of the 2008 season with a hamstring injury.

4. Boston College: Roderick Rollins, DeLeon Gause and Wes Davis each made at least six starts last season for a secondary that helped BC rank seventh in the nation in pass efficiency defense. The Eagles picked off 26 passes last season to tie Florida for the NCAA lead.

5. Virginia: The Cavaliers had enough depth here to move Vic Hall from cornerback to quarterback. Chris Cook returns after a year-long layoff to team up All-ACC candidate Ras-I Dowling and Chase Minnifield at cornerback. SS Corey Mosley started nine games as a freshman last season.

6. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have three returning starters in the secondary, but the one guy who left - All-America SS Trimane Goddard - could prove tough to replace.

7. Florida State: If CB Patrick Robinson regains his '07 form, he could challenge for All-ACC or even All-America honors. The Seminoles also return FS Jamie Robinson, but they have plenty of questions elsewhere in the secondary.

8. Maryland: The Terps have plenty of experience here with the return of FS Terrell Skinner, CB Anthony Wiseman and the versatile Jamari McCullough, who can play any position in the secondary.

9. Miami: The Hurricanes have such a rich tradition of producing ball-hawking defenders that it's hard to believe they went the entire 2008 season with only four interceptions. The return of S Randy Phillips from a leg injury could shore up the secondary.

10. Wake Forest: CB Brandon Ghee has made 22 career starts, but he's the only returning starter in a secondary that must replace ACC career interceptions leader Alphonso Smith.

11. N.C. State: The Wolfpack ranked 11th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense last season. They could improve if injury-riddled safeties Clem Johnson and Javon Walker can stay healthy.

12. Duke: CB Leon Wright and FS Catron Gainey are returning starters attempting to prevent Duke from ranking last in the ACC in pass efficiency defense again this season.


1. Miami: Matt Bosher went 18-of-20 on field-goal attempts and averaged 40.4 yards per punt last season. Travis Benjamin ranked 25th in the nation in punt-return average last season.

2. N.C. State: Josh Czajkowski returns as the Wolfpack's kicker after going 16-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season. T.J. Graham ranked fifth in the ACC in kickoff-return average last year. Chris Ward and Jeff Ruiz are competing for the punting job.

3. Maryland: Travis Baltz led the ACC with an average of 41.1 yards per punt last season, while Torrey Smith ranked 22nd in the nation in kickoff-return average. The uncertainty comes at kicker, with Mike Barbour and Nick Wallace are competing for the job.

4. Duke: Nick Maggio went 11-of-14 on field-goal attempts and Kevin Jones averaged 40.8 yards per punt last season.

5. Clemson: C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford have the potential to score on just about any return. Spencer Benton likely takes over as Clemson's kicker this year. Dawson Zimmerman punted in three games last season and should have the job to himself this season.

6. Virginia Tech: The Hokies were uncharacteristically shaky on special teams last season, particularly on punt coverage. Fifth-year senior Matt Waldron is the likely replacement at kicker. Brent Bowden averaged 40.4 yards per punt last season.

7. North Carolina: Casey Barth was 10-of-14 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 42, last season. The Tar Heels likely will hand the punting duties to walk-on Grant Schallock. Bruce Carter led the nation with five blocked kicks last season.

8. Florida State: Dustin Hopkins - the top kicking prospect in the 2009 recruiting class - has the unenviable task of replacing Lou Groza Award winner Graham Gano. Shawn Powell averaged 41.1 yards per punt last season before giving way to Gano.

9. Boston College: Steve Aponavicius went 14-of-21 on field-goal attempts last season but didn't make anything from beyond 36 yards. Ryan Quigley averaged 39.6 yards per punt last season.

10. Wake Forest: The Deacons will sorely miss the departed Sam Swank, one of the nation's top combination kicker-punters. Shane Popham went 7-for-12 on field-goal attempts and averaged 39.2 yards per punt while replacing an injured Swank last season.

11. Virginia: The kicking job will go to either Chris Hinkebein (no career attempts) or Robert Randolph (3-for-4 on field goals). Jimmy Howell averaged 39 yards per punt last season.

12. Georgia Tech: Scott Blair went 12-of-19 on field-goal attempts - including 0-for-6 from at least 40 yards - and averaged only 38.9 yards per punt last season. Georgia Tech's special teams breakdowns played a big role in its one-sided Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to LSU.


1. Virginia Tech: The Hokies' ability to win the ACC title with so many apparent holes in their depth chart last season was a testament to this staff's expertise.

2. Wake Forest: Georgia fans may disagree, but Jim Grobe just might be the best active head coach who never has participated in a national championship game.

3. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson proved last season that his option attack can work anywhere, and Tech's defense did just fine without coordinator Jon Tenuta - the most heralded member of former coach Chan Gailey's staff.

4. North Carolina: Butch Davis certainly knows how to recruit talented players and talented assistants, but the Tar Heels' late-season struggles against North Carolina State and West Virginia kept us from ranking this staff a spot or two higher.

5. Florida State: Legendary coach Bobby Bowden may be a bit past his prime, but it's hard to argue with the results offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and offensive line coach Rick Trickett delivered last season.

6. N.C. State: The Wolfpack's late-season surges the past two seasons have shown that Tom O'Brien's guys never stop playing for him. Now he just needs them to start playing better early in the season.

7. Maryland: Ralph Friedgen has won 64 percent of his games at Maryland and has one of the ACC's most dynamic offensive coordinators in James Franklin. The arrival of new coordinator Don Brown should spark the defense.

8. Duke: David Cutcliffe had success at Ole Miss - albeit with Eli Manning as his quarterback - and wasted no time making Duke competitive again with its conference foes.

9. Virginia: The arrivals of former head coaches Gregg Brandon and Ron Prince should fortify Virginia's staff, though coach Al Groh could be spreading himself too thin by becoming his own defensive coordinator.

10. Clemson: Coach Dabo Swinney remains unproven, but he did have some success in an interim role last season. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele did outstanding work in his previous stops at Florida State and Alabama.

11. Miami: Third-year coach Randy Shannon has upgraded the team's discipline, but the Hurricanes' win-loss record still needs improvement. The Hurricanes also need more continuity: Miami is on its third defensive coordinator and second offensive coordinator since Shannon took over the program.

12. Boston College: Frank Spaziani was one of the nation's most underrated defensive coordinators, but how will he fare as a first-time head coach at the age of 62? Bill McGovern is a first-time Football Bowl Subdivision defensive coordinator, and 69-year-old offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill has been away from college football the past three seasons.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at

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