Spring look around the ACC
What are the biggest questions facing the ACC's 12 teams as they head into fall practice?
From Brian Toal's injury concern at Boston College to Wake Forest's attempt to overcome the loss of ACC Player of the Year Chris Barclay, the following questions will be among the biggest facing the ACC's 12 teams as they head into fall practice.
Boston College Eagles
What is the health status of linebacker Brian Toal?
The junior linebacker was forced to sit out spring practice as he continues to recover from nerve damage in the neck/shoulder area that he sustained during Boston College's game against NC State on Nov. 12. He finished fourth on the team in '05 with 53 tackles. Toal's return to full health is imperative for a defense that lost its other two starting linebackers and All-America defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka to graduation. Toal is also the Eagles' most effective runner in short-yardage situations; he rushed for a team-high six touchdowns on 23 carries in 2005. Toal said at the end of spring practice that his injury is healing more slowly than anticipated but added that he expects to be ready when BC opens the 2006 season at Central Michigan on Aug. 31.
Is quarterback Will Proctor good enough to lead the Tigers to an Atlantic Division championship?
Clemson is loaded on offense with the return of tailbacks James Davis and Reggie Merriweather, receivers Chansi Stuckey and Aaron Kelly, and all five starting offensive linemen. The big question mark is Proctor, a senior who takes over for four-year starter Charlie Whitehurst. Proctor didn't blow anyone away during spring practice, but he proved himself capable last season when he relieved an injured Whitehurst and led the Tigers to a game-winning field goal in the opener against Texas A&M. Proctor will be tested in a hurry. After opening the season at home against Florida Atlantic, Clemson travels for consecutive road games against Boston College and Florida State.
Duke Blue Devils
Will the Blue Devils' youth movement pay off with a few wins in 2006?
No Division I-A team played more freshmen (31) than Duke did in each of the last two seasons. That trend may continue in '06. Coach Ted Roof said he expects freshmen to serve as regular contributors at approximately 12 positions. Some of the young talent already on the roster is pretty good. Wide receiver Eron Riley, linebackers Michael Tauiliili (formerly Michael Brown) and Patrick Bailey, tailbacks Justin Boyle and Re'quan Boyette, and kick returner Ronni Drummer are all potentially quality players and key parts to the puzzle Roof is building. But Duke, which has won three conference games in the last six seasons, is unlikely to enjoy much success in the immediate future.
Florida State Seminoles
Will the Seminoles be able to find their running game again?
The best news out of spring practice was that tailbacks Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith were named the team's offensive Most Valuable Players. That's important for an offense that found it nearly impossible to move the ball on the ground last season. The Seminoles' averaged an ACC-low 94 rushing yards per game, the lowest figure by an FSU team since 1947. Booker and Smith are good enough to have big seasons for the 'Noles. The bigger concern is an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries last season.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Will quarterback Reggie Ball finally put together a complete season?
The Yellow Jackets could be a surprise contender for the ACC championship in 2006, but they'll have to get consistent production from Ball, a four-year starter. Ball doesn't have to throw for 250 yards or rush for 100 yards to be effective, although he's capable of doing both. What Tech's offense needs is the steady handle of a veteran leader who stays away from big mistakes. That's something that Ball (41 career interceptions, 37 touchdown passes) has not always been able to do. Ball hasn't quite lived up to the expectations created after he was named the ACC's Rookie of the Year in 2003. He has one more year to try and, with an offense that includes All-American receiver Calvin Johnson and a solid running game, his chances are good.
With the top four receivers gone from last season, who will catch passes for the Terrapins?
Maryland lost its top three wide receivers -- Danny Melendez, Jo Jo Walker and Derrick Fenner -- to graduation and also saw All-American tight end Vernon Davis depart early to enter the NFL draft. That quartet combined for 160 receptions, 2,352 yards and 13 touchdown catches last season. Davis, who had more gains of 20-plus yards than anyone else in the ACC, will be particularly missed. The top returning receiver is Drew Weatherly, who caught 10 passes last season. Weatherly enjoyed a strong spring and will be one of the starters. Derrius Heyward-Bey, who might be the fastest player in the ACC, also may have earned a starting job with a sensational spring, including a combined eight catches for 169 yards and a touchdown in the first two scrimmages.
Will new offensive coordinator Rich Olson energize an offense that has lost its sizzle?
The Hurricanes have been a disappointment the last two seasons, primarily because of an ineffective offense that produced only an occasional big play. Last season, Miami was held to its lowest point total since 1997. Those struggles cost offensive coordinator Dan Werner and three other assistants their jobs after the 2005 season. Olson, an NFL assistant for 10 seasons, said he will employ an attacking offense that will include shorter drop-backs and more high-percentage passing, allowing Miami's receivers to make plays. How it will work is uncertain. The Hurricanes' defense snuffed out the offense virtually the entire spring, and injuries sidelined No. 1 tailback Tyrone Moss and starting receivers Ryan Moore and Darnell Jenkins for much of Miami's 15 practices.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Will Joe Dailey or Cam Sexton win the starting quarterback job?
Coach John Bunting declined to name a starter following spring practice, but Dailey seems the likely favorite. A transfer from Nebraska, Dailey started 11 games for the Cornhuskers in 2004 and has a sizable edge in experience over Sexton, a redshirt freshman. Dailey will work under new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, whose task is to revitalize an offense that produced only 19 touchdowns in 11 games last season.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Will the Wolfpack recover from losing their defensive playmakers?
No ACC team sustained more serious losses on defense, especially on the front seven, than coach Chuck Amato's Wolfpack. Mario Williams and Manny Lawson were the best defensive-end pairing in the ACC and, maybe, the nation. Tackle John McCargo and linebacker Stephen Tulloch, like Williams, were early entrants to the NFL draft and will be sorely missed. Linebacker Oliver Hoyte is also gone. There were good signs during spring practice in the play of linebacker Pat Lowery, named the team's defensive MYP, and defensive end Willie Young, who finished with three sacks in the Red-White game. But the team's youth on defense figures to be a major concern for Amato in '06.
Can the Cavaliers overcome offseason chaos?
As if finding a new starting quarterback wasn't enough to worry about during spring practice, the Cavaliers had plenty of other distractions. Several players -- including starting tackle Eddie Pinigis and cornerback Mike Brown --- were involved in legal problems. Three starters on defense were kicked off the team prior to spring practice for undisclosed violations of team policy. There was also upheaval on the coaching staff, as new offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators were hired. Oh yeah, Virginia did settle on a quarterback. Coach Al Groh named Christian Olsen, the older brother of Miami tight end Greg Olsen, as the starter for a 2006 season that figures to be awfully rocky for the Cavaliers.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Is Sean Glennon the right quarterback for the Hokies?
Virginia Tech's worries at quarterback would have been nonexistent if Marcus Vick had kept his nose clean. That, apparently, was too much to ask. Vick's banishment in January resulted in a four-quarterback race for the No. 1 job during spring practice. A few days after the spring game, coach Frank Beamer announced that Glennon was the starter -- for now. Beamer gave no assurances that Glennon would start the season opener against Northeastern on Sept. 2. Glennon wasn't spectacular during the spring, but neither were his two chief rivals -- sophomore Cory Holt and redshirt freshman Ike Whitaker. Both Holt and Whitaker are more athletic than Glennon, an attribute that might come in handy behind the Hokies' rebuilt offensive line.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Which direction are the Demon Deacons headed without Chris Barclay?
Coach Jim Grobe had immediate success upon taking over Wake's program in 2001. The Demon Deacons followed a 2-9 campaign with a 6-5 record in Grobe's first season, then improved to 7-6 with a Seattle Bowl berth in 2002. But Wake has gone south since then, registering a 5-7 mark in 2003 followed by a pair of 4-7 records. Forging a turnaround doesn't figure to be any easier without Barclay, the ACC's 2005 Player of the Year. The good news is that Micah Andrews, who finished seventh in the ACC with an average of 62.1 yards rushing per game, should be an adequate replacement, and a growing talent base on both sides of the ball could have Wake back in bowl contention.
Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.