ACC Atlantic Division spring football preview
As the ACC is knee deep into a month that annually supplies its fans with some of the greatest celebrations and memories of the year, football programs are quietly working behind the scenes.
The ACC and NCAA tournaments are important along Tobacco Road and its extended reaches, but as each year passes, spring football makes strides up the ladder of relevance.
The clearest sign of increased interest in spring football in the ACC is the rising spring game attendance around the conference.
Florida State had more than 53,000 last April, Virginia Tech drew more than 42,000 fans, while Clemson had 27,000. Bad weather impacted the crowd at N.C. State, which has in recent years gone well over the 20,000 mark. Two years ago, North Carolina had nearly 30,000.
With 11 starting quarterbacks returning, optimism is up for ACC football in 2012 and that should be reflected by the crowds at the upcoming spring games, but before we get there, each of the league’s 12 schools must go through their spring workouts. Here is a quick primer, beginning today with the Atlantic Division:
CLEMSON (10-4, 6-2, ACC champions)
Recap: The Tigers finally got over the ACC hump and captured their first conference title in 20 years. They did it with a high-flying offense that helped profile quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins as national stars. The season, however, ended on a complete downer: a record-setting 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Key departures: Three starters along the offensive line plus some second-teamers along with tight end Dwayne Allen’s early entry to the NFL draft may make for a period of adjustment. The defensive front lost some of its beef, but the players expected to step in have tremendous upsides.
Priorities: The Orange Bowl exposed Clemson’s defense, which had too often struggled against even mediocre units from Maryland and Wake Forest. The athletes are there. It’s just a matter of shoring up a few things to make a big difference.
Keep an eye on: The return of senior tailback Andre Ellington is a big deal to Clemson. Ellington can be used numerous ways and having him back will help the Tigers maintain some balance. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables comes over from Oklahoma and is charged with making the Tigers tougher and better.
Spring game: April 14.
WAKE FOREST (6-7, 5-3 in the ACC)
Recap: What a strange season for the wildly inconsistent Demon Deacons. They came very close to beating Notre Dame but were blown out by Vanderbilt. They also had the lead late at Clemson in November in a game that could have given them the division title, but fell apart.
Key departures: Including tight end, Wake lost five of six starters along the offensive line, and given the timing and need for amazing chemistry to execute the Deacs’ misdirection schemes, this is a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Priorities: Getting the offensive line as much experience as possible while also taking a long look at a dozen players competing for first-line jobs. The defense has potential to make huge strides, and this spring is crucial to its improvement.
Keep an eye on: Sophomore cornerback Merrill Noel was one of the top freshmen defensive players in the nation last season and could challenge for awards this fall. It never hurts to have such a player on a unit that lacks star power.
Spring game: April 14.
FLORIDA STATE (9-4, 5-3)
Recap: The pundits said last fall was the time FSU’s program would break through and compete for a national championship. Injuries and a physical beating at the hands of Oklahoma at home in September ended those hopes. But the Seminoles closed strong, beat Notre Dame in the Champ Sports Bowl, and head into the 2012 campaign optimistic.
Key departures: Losing offensive tackle Andrew Datko and linebacker Nigel Bradham are big losses, but the Seminoles were fortunate nobody left early so the team comes back rather intact.
Priorities: FSU must find ways to improve its ground game. Perhaps changing its splits, blocking angles or just working to get better at something the team did not do well on a consistent basis last fall.
Keep an eye on: Quarterback E.J. Manuel is under the weight of high expectation. This is his last go-around and he has the tools to lead FSU to a special season. But it begins this spring.
Spring game: April 14.
N.C. STATE (8-5, 4-4)
Recap: The Wolfpack again turned a terrible start to the season into a Belk Bowl appearance and victory over Louisville. Injuries have been problems early in most of Tom O’Brien’s five seasons, and poor depth has lead to losses. That happened again last season but the Pack finished strong.
Key departures: Linebacker Terrell Manning went pro, Audi Cole is graduating, and D.J. Green is ineligible, so linebacker is going to be a huge area of interest moving forward.
Priorities: Linebacker is an extremely important position in Mike Archer’s and Jon Tenuta’s defense, and as of now this is easily the Wolfpack’s biggest problem area.
Keep an eye on: Defensive end Art Norman could be a key to State’s defensive front, especially when it comes to applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks. With the linebacker corps a major concern, this is an area that can give the unit an edge.
Spring game: April 21.
BOSTON COLLEGE (4-8, 3-5)
Recap: The Eagles didn’t have a successful season by any stretch but did improve into November, earning Frank Spaziani a chance to keep his job for another year.
Key departures: Linebacker Luke Keuchly led the nation in tackles and left a year early for the NFL. He was the anchor of a defense that posted some of its best efforts late in the season.
Priorities: Senior tailback Montel Harris will miss spring practice, so the fight for his repetitions will be interesting, and with his injury issues, whoever gets the job may end up carrying the ball quite a bit in the fall, just like last season.
Keep an eye on: BC needs more balance on offense and the next piece is having a deep threat in its passing game. This spring offers QB Chase Rettig an opportunity to work long balls more into the Eagles repertoire.
Spring game: March 31.
MARYLAND (2-10, 1-7)
Recap: The Randy Edsall era started out impressively with the new-look Terrapins beating Miami on Labor Day night before a nationally televised audience. It was an exciting game and the Terps looked very good. From that point on, however, things just got worse and worse and continue to derail well into the offseason.
Key departures: The transfer number continues growing, so it’s not concrete even as of this writing. Maryland lost some important players through graduation, but a greater issue is losing depth inside the program due to unhappy departures, as too many players have chosen to play elsewhere.
Priorities: Edsall needs a spirited spring to offset the mood surrounding the program. Maryland fired alum Ralph Friedgen after he won the ACC’s Coach of the Year award in 2010, and Edsall’s first year was a disaster. Getting a good vibe is more important than any position issues.
Keep an eye on: With Danny O’Brien having transferred, the quarterback job is without a doubt C.J. Brown’s. This spring is huge for him to not only fully grasp the nuances of the position but to also become a respected team leader.
Spring game: April 21.
Friday: Coastal Division spring preview