ACC spring preview: High expectations for new and returning faces

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  • Andrea Adelson


    Andrea Adelson

    ESPN Senior Writer

    • ACC reporter.
    • Joined in 2010.
    • Graduate of the University of Florida.
  • David Hale


    David Hale

    ESPN Staff Writer

    • ACC reporter.
    • Joined ESPN in 2012.
    • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

The biggest conference storyline that has dominated the headlines (aside from the future of the league) is whether the ACC has two teams with legitimate College Football Playoff chances in Clemson and Florida State. Both teams have plenty of questions to answer first.

At Clemson, new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley enters the mix to try and fix a unit that has lost its fastball. After making six straight playoff appearances, Clemson has not made the playoff the past two years, and that has led to questions about whether the program has long-term staying power. The move Dabo Swinney made to bring in Riley is a clear indication he believes there is plenty Clemson has left to prove.

In Tallahassee, Florida State has sent expectations soaring, thanks to a 10-win season plus all the starters coming back. But this is also a program that had a three-game losing streak in the middle of last season and has not beaten Clemson since 2014. If the Seminoles can get past a tough September, when they play both LSU and Clemson, expectations will be even higher.

While playoff appearances generally determine the way conferences are perceived, the ACC has been a far more balanced league than in years past. Perhaps that ends up playing a role in what happens in 2023, when the ACC plays without divisions.

Top storyline: The Eagles are going with a different starting quarterback this spring and a different offensive approach following a 3-9 season that was plagued with injuries and inconsistency. Emmett Morehead takes over as the starter after playing at a high level in 2022 in place of the injured Phil Jurkovec. Quarterbacks coach Steve Shimko adds the title of offensive coordinator, but no matter who is calling the plays, it is imperative for the Eagles to get back to running the football. BC could never keep the same offensive line together a year ago because they were so young and banged-up. But that should provide a far more experienced unit this year, especially with the return of possible first-round pick Christian Mahogany.

Newcomer to watch: There’s no question receiver Zay Flowers leaves behind big shoes to fill. Watch for UCF transfer Ryan O’Keefe to make the most of his opportunity. O’Keefe was a big-time playmaker for the Knights (2,002 receiving yards), but there will be other opportunities to get him the ball in space beyond lining him up at wide receiver. He also reunites with BC receivers coach Darrell Wyatt, who coached him at UCF.

Top storyline: This spring provides our first glimpse at what new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley will do to help quarterback Cade Klubnik get the Clemson offense back on track. Without question, Dabo Swinney’s decision to hire Riley from TCU was among the biggest in the college football offseason — an admission that fixing the offense needed to be handled by someone outside the program. The turning point was seemingly a loss to Tennessee in the Capital One Orange Bowl, when Clemson scored just 14 points on 101 plays. Riley’s offensive scheme has worked everywhere he has been, but for the first time in his career, he will be at a program that has consistently pulled in top-10 recruiting classes. The talent is there for Clemson to be a high-powered offense again.

Newcomer to watch: We will stay on the offensive side of the ball and go with freshman receiver Noble Johnson, an early enrollee who was one of the top offensive recruits Clemson signed in its 2023 class. Not only does Clemson have to get more consistency from its receivers, it also needs a big-play target who can stretch the field. Johnson, at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, has an opportunity to fit that category after averaging 17.2 yards per catch in high school.

Top storyline: In Mike Elko’s first year as head coach, Duke’s defense went from the worst in the ACC — and among the worst in the country — to being respectably middle-of-the-pack thanks to drastically improved tackling, a better pass rush and 26 takeaways, nearly twice its 2021 total. Building on that success will be key to the Blue Devils’ growth, but they’ll need to do it with a new defensive coordinator. Robb Smith left after just one year, and Elko brought in his former Texas A&M assistant Tyler Santucci to take over the D. There’s work to be done for a unit that still allowed 7.2 yards per pass, but if Santucci can get the defense to take another step forward, there’s no reason the Blue Devils can’t repeat last year’s surprising nine-win campaign.

Newcomer to watch: Speaking of the pass defense, Duke added a potential difference-maker this offseason in Miami transfer Al Blades Jr. The onetime blue-chip recruit started 14 games in 2019 and 2020, but an injury-plagued 2021 and the new coaching staff at Miami in 2022 kept him off the field for long stretches. He’s still immensely talented, however, and a fresh start with the Blue Devils could equate to another shot at stardom for Blades and a big improvement for Duke’s secondary.

Jordan Travis helped the Seminoles win 10 games last season. Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire

Top storyline: The Seminoles rank No. 1 in the nation in returning production, including bringing back their quarterback (Jordan Travis), leading rusher (Trey Benson) and leading receiver (Johnny Wilson). There are not many high-profile position battles that need to be addressed in the spring. The biggest storyline centers around how this team handles the increased expectations and hype following a 10-win season. Florida State is a legitimate threat to win the ACC this year for the first time in seven years. Nobody is talking about hot seats and whether Florida State can ever get back as a program. Now the talk is whether this team can contend for the playoff. How Mike Norvell and his team handles all that outside noise will be fascinating to watch.

Newcomer to watch: Once again, Florida State has no shortage of transfers as Norvell and his staff continue to rely on a model that allows them to integrate veteran playmakers into their team. It has worked wonders since Norvell arrived. Among this year’s talented group of transfers, keep an eye on Virginia transfer cornerback Fentrell Cypress II, who ranked No. 1 in the ACC and ninth nationally in pass breakups in a breakout season in 2022. He has the potential to be the best shutdown cornerback in the ACC.

Top storyline: Did last year’s 4-4 finish represent progress or a post-coaching change blip? Brent Key did enough down the stretch to earn the full-time head-coaching job, but now the real work begins. Key must develop some explosiveness on an offense that often lacked any downfield threat, continue to develop an O-line that’s been among the league’s worst for years and reignite a ground game that used to be the signature of Georgia Tech’s brand but in 2022 averaged just 3.75 yards per rush. Finding an offensive identity this spring will go a long way to determining how competitive the Yellow Jackets will be. Key helped turn around the defense in 2022. Now it’s time for the offense to take a similar leap forward.

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Newcomer to watch: Haynes King spent three years in Jimbo Fisher’s offense, winning the starting job three different times, and yet it never seemed to quite work. Whether because of injuries or inconsistency, King wrapped his Aggies career with just 10 touchdown passes to go with 10 picks. Still, he brings some serious talent to Georgia Tech, which dealt with its own frustrating inconsistency through three years with Jeff Sims. Out from under Fisher’s long shadow, it’s easy to envision a scenario where the change of scenery and far less pressure to meet sky-high expectations offer King a chance to finally thrive. If he does, it’d be a boon for the Yellow Jackets and potentially one of the biggest portal additions of the year.

Top storyline: It feels as if everybody in America described the hire of Jeff Brohm as a “slam dunk” for the Cardinals, and for good reason. He is Louisville football royalty, and he had great success as head coach at Purdue before finally deciding to come back to his alma mater. Of course, that has put a lot of the focus on the Louisville offense, which had stagnated under coach Scott Satterfield. Brohm is sure to get the offense jump-started, especially when it comes to playing with more tempo. He was also able to hang onto a top-tier recruiting class, so how the players on the roster mesh with what Brohm wants to do is one of the biggest storylines to watch.

Newcomer to watch: There are two quarterbacks to watch: Incoming freshman Pierce Clarkson, a four-star recruit and huge pickup for the Cards, and transfer Jack Plummer. Brohm made it a point to bolster the depth in his quarterback room as soon as he arrived. Bringing Plummer in does just that — especially since Plummer has experience with Brohm. Plummer started his career at Purdue and spent four years there before transferring to Cal last season. His familiarity with Brohm could give him an advantage. But either way, there will be competition for this spot, and that is exactly what Brohm wants.

Top storyline: Miami opened the 2022 season amid much fanfare with the return of Mario Cristobal, a renewed investment from the school in football, an all-star cast of assistant coaches and an incumbent QB poised for stardom. The result: 5-7. This offseason saw an exodus of assistants and players, but folks around Miami think it might be better for it. In particular, QB Tyler Van Dyke looks like he’ll be a far better fit in new OC Shawn Dawson’s offensive scheme. There are still plenty of big questions for Miami, but the biggest accomplishment the team might achieve this spring will be simply putting 2022 in the rearview mirror for good.

Newcomer to watch: Miami signed a pair of five-star offensive linemen, and both players — Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola — will participate in spring ball. Given the Hurricanes’ offensive woes last season, which included just 1.42 yards before contact per carry, adding size and strength up from is critical. If Mauigoa and Okunola develop as Cristobal hopes they will, they’d fit nicely into a group that also includes veteran Zion Nelson and UCF transfer Matt Lee.

Top storyline: When NC State brought in Virginia transfer quarterback Brennan Armstrong, the natural assumption was that he would take over the starting quarterback job with Devin Leary off to Kentucky. Especially with his former offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, coming to NC State as well. But coach Dave Doeren has made it clear there will be an open competition this spring between Armstrong and returning quarterbacks MJ Morris and Ben Finley. Morris and Finley played last season after Leary got hurt and showed their own flashes of potential. How the competition goes this spring could determine how the NC State offense looks moving forward.

Newcomer to watch: The obvious choice here is Armstrong, who put up huge numbers when he was with Anae at Virginia. In 2021, their last season together, Armstrong threw for 4,449 yards (a single-season Virginia passing record) and accounted for 40 total touchdowns. His ability to run makes him a true dual-threat. But without Anae at Virginia last season, he struggled. This fresh start with the Wolfpack could get him back on track, if he’s able to win the competition.

Drake Maye finished with 38 touchdowns and 4,321 passing yards last year. Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Top storyline: In Mack Brown’s first season with the Tar Heels in 2019, UNC’s defense had a 58.3% successful play rate. The next year, 57.1%. The next, 55.2%. And last season? A dismal 52.2%, good for 121st nationally. Can you spot the trend? The Heels had a genuine Heisman Trophy contender in Drake Maye and a ton of skill position talent in 2022. They posted big numbers on offense. And in the end, the woeful state of the D left UNC with a four-game losing streak to close out the season. Afterward, a host of defensive mainstays hit the portal, and Brown and DC Gene Chizik are looking to start fresh. That ultimately means getting better production up front and playing more aggressively to disrupt the opposing QB — something the Heels were atrocious at in 2022. Can the D-line make a big jump this spring? Will fresh faces bring a new energy? Or will it be more of the same as Maye’s heroics are offset by a paper-thin defense in 2023?

Newcomer to watch: After three years running Brown’s offense, Phil Longo left for Wisconsin this offseason. In his place, Brown hired former UCF offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who came up under Gus Malzahn. It will be interesting to see how Lindsey’s style of play works with Maye, who excelled under Longo’s up-tempo, Air Raid principles. Lindsey led a stellar rushing attack at UCF a year ago, but UNC’s offensive identity has always started with the QB.

Top storyline: The offense will have a completely new feel in 2023 with the departure of last year’s leading passer, rusher and receiver. In the case of the ground game, replacing Izzy Abanikanda will be no easy task, but the Panthers got a taste of what Rodney Hammond Jr. could bring in the Sun Bowl as he rushed for 94 yards and two touchdowns, earning game MVP honors. LSU transfer Derrick Davis Jr. could also add some pop this spring. Finding a replacement for explosive receiver Jared Wayne and a host of veteran O-linemen will be critical, too. But, of course, the QB room figures to grab the bulk of the headlines.

Newcomer to watch: The Panthers think they hit a home run by adding hometown product Phil Jurkovec through the transfer portal this offseason. Once a blue-chip signee for Notre Dame, then a burgeoning prospect with first-round draft pick potential at Boston College, Jurkovec has battled injuries the past two seasons and struggled behind a woeful Eagles O-line in 2022. At Pitt, he may have found the perfect landing spot on an offense that will allow him to use his athleticism and big arm, while playing with a defense that should keep him in every game.

Top storyline: This has been an offseason filled with transition for Syracuse, which had to revamp its coaching staff after five assistants left for other jobs. Jason Beck takes over as offensive coordinator, but his familiarity with quarterback Garrett Shrader and the system they want to run should make for an easy transition. The more fascinating move was hiring veteran defensive guru Rocky Long to replace Tony White as defensive coordinator. White learned the 3-3-5 defensive scheme from Long, and because coach Dino Babers wanted Syracuse to continue running that scheme, he decided to go after the creator himself.

Newcomer to watch: Syracuse signed three key additions from the transfer portal. All three have a chance to make an immediate impact. Nebraska transfer cornerback Jaeden Gould and Notre Dame transfer cornerback Jayden Bellamy (former high school teammates) fill an immediate needed for the Orange, who have to replace both Garrett Williams (NFL draft) and Duce Chestnut (transfer). The most intriguing could be Alabama transfer defensive lineman Braylen Ingraham, who has the opportunity to help transform a defensive front that was often overmatched last season.

Top storyline: Few teams have ever had to navigate a spring like the one Virginia is about to undertake. Last season ended abruptly after 10 games when four members of the football team were shot, including three who were killed, by another Virginia student following a field trip in November. The season had already been a mess on the field as a new coaching staff attempted to weave veteran talent with a new approach, and the off-field tragedy rightfully shifted all focus away from football. How does Tony Elliott pick up the pieces as he enters Year 2 as head coach? Can he refocus his team on needed improvement while not losing sight of the immense emotional toll of the past year? Elliott has spent months preparing to find the right balance.

Newcomer to watch: Elliott preached the need for a more balanced offense in 2022 than the pass-happy attack the Cavaliers had run under Bronco Mendenhall, but finding a productive running game remained elusive for the Hoos. This offseason, Elliott turned to a familiar face to try to fill the void, bringing in former Clemson back Kobe Pace to anchor the ground game. Pace split starting reps with Will Shipley in 2021, when Elliott was Clemson’s offensive coordinator, rushing for 641 yards and six touchdowns. An injury sidelined him for much of 2022, however, but he could provide a needed spark for this year’s Cavaliers while helping to mentor younger talent such as sophomore Xavier Brown.

Top storyline: Last year was a mess offensively for Virginia Tech, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected. Brent Pry was rebuilding from the ground up, and that meant a lot of learning on the job for the Hokies. This offseason, both QB coach Brad Glenn (Cincinnati) and OL coach Joe Rudolph (Notre Dame) left for other jobs, further complicating the growth process. The continued development of Grant Wells at QB is paramount, but nothing would help the Hokies more in their push back to bowl eligibility in 2023 than getting the ground game going. A year ago, Virginia Tech finished 13th in the ACC in rushing yards, with Wells providing a healthy chunk of their total. Finding running lanes for transfer Bhayshul Tuten and up-and-comer Malachi Thomas. There’s not much depth here, so keeping Thomas healthy and finding more holes up front will be critical.

Newcomer to watch: The Hokies seemed to have found a genuine star last season in receiver Kaleb Smith, only to see him leave this offseason for Notre Dame. What did Pry do to fill that hole? He brought in perhaps the most productive player available, landing Old Dominion’s Ali Jennings III, who hauled in 54 catches for 959 yards and nine touchdowns last season for the Monarchs. At 6-2, Jennings provides an enticing target, and he could help Wells and the passing game take a big leap in 2023.

Top storyline: Sam Hartman set a plethora of school records during his time as Wake Forest quarterback, in addition to an ACC-record 110 touchdown passes. But his transfer to Notre Dame marks the start of a new era for the Demon Deacons offense, one that will feature Mitch Griffis as the starting quarterback. The good news here is that Griffis has starting experience, playing in place of Hartman last season against VMI and throwing for 288 yards and three touchdowns. He will have plenty of help, too, as Wake Forest returns four of its top five receivers from a year ago.

Newcomer to watch: Wake Forest was able to hire cornerbacks coach Chip West away from Syracuse, and that could pay off immediate dividends. West and head coach Dave Clawson go way, way back (to Fordham in 2003) and West also has experience working with defensive coordinator Brad Lambert. In three years with the Orange, all of his cornerbacks earned All-ACC honors. Wake Forest has struggled in coverage in recent years, giving up 29 passing touchdowns in 2022, among the worst in the country. It should also be noted Wake Forest signed ESPN 300 cornerback Antonio Robinson to help at this position as well.

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