Commentary

Breaking down the ACC Atlantic

Originally Published: May 14, 2008
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

Is Boston College ready to fill the big shoes of Matt Ryan? Will Clemson finally live up to expectations? How will Year 2 under Tom O'Brien go at NC State? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Boston College Eagles

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Kent State
Sept. 06 Georgia Tech
Sept. 20 UCF
Sept. 27 Rhode Island
Oct. 04 @ North Carolina State
Oct. 18 Virginia Tech
Oct. 25 @ North Carolina
Nov. 01 Clemson
Nov. 08 Notre Dame
Nov. 15 @ Florida State
Nov. 22 @ Wake Forest
Nov. 29 Maryland


2007 overall record:
11-3

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
DT B.J. Raji, LB Brian Toal, DE Alex Albright, DT Ron Brace, LB Mark Herzlich, OT Anthony Castonzo, TE Ryan Purvis, WR Brandon Robinson, WR Rich Gunnell
Key losses
QB Matt Ryan, RB Andre Callender, RB L.V. Whitworth, WR Kevin Challenger, OT Gosder Cherilus, CB DeJuan Tribble, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, FS Jamie Silva, LB Tyronne Pruitt, DE Nick Larkin
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Andre Callender (969 yds)
Passing: Matt Ryan (4,507 yds)
Receiving: Rich Gunnell* (931 yds)
Tackles: Jamie Silva (125)
Sacks: Alex Albright* (8)
Interceptions: Jamie Silva (8)

Spring answers

1. Left side of the line: Sophomore Anthony Castonzo, who started all 14 games at right tackle last year as a true freshman, moved to left tackle, and Clif Ramsey, last year's starter at right guard, moved to left guard. Their transitions this spring were successful, and the Eagles also don't have to worry about center, where junior Matt Tennant returns as starter.

2. Ryan's Heir: Chris Crane, who spent the past three seasons watching Matt Ryan, emerged as the definite leader at quarterback. Crane separated himself from junior college transfer Codi Boek and redshirt freshman Dominique Davis. Crane completed 18 of 35 passes for 155 yards and one touchdown in the Eagles' spring game -- the most productive he's been since a 2006 game against Buffalo.

3. Depth at linebacker: Brian Toal is back after sitting out last season with a torn labrum, and senior Robert Francois got valuable experience in his stead last season. At strongside linebacker, where junior Mark Herzlich returns as starter, there are three more viable options. Junior Mike McLaughlin started three games in the middle when Jo-Lonn Dunbar was injured and has three backups behind him.

Fall questions

1. Punter: Senior Steve Aponavicius is in his third year as place-kicker, but the Eagles still need to replace four-year starting punter Johnny Ayers. Sophomore Billy Bennett was back in the mix after suffering an injury early last season, but he had a subpar spring. Receiver Billy Flutie punted some, but the staff is awaiting the arrival of place-kicker Ryan Quigley from Myrtle Beach, S.C.

2. Holes on defense: Jamie Silva and DeJuan Tribble were the most glaring losses heading into the spring, but the removal of Brady Smith from the team meant that BC will also have to replace both ends. Left end Alex Albright could move to Smith's spot on the right, along with right tackle Damik Scafe or left tackle Ron Brace.

3. Running back: The Eagles are still looking for somebody to replace four-year starters Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth. Josh Haden was the only option this spring, but coach Jeff Jagodzinski won't know if Haden is the best until four other recruits arrive this fall. Dan Mulrooney was moved from free safety and led all rushers in the spring game with 10 carries for 33 yards.

Clemson Tigers

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Alabama
Sept. 06 Citadel
Sept. 13 North Carolina State
Sept. 20 South Carolina State
Sept. 27 Maryland
Oct. 09 @ Wake Forest
Oct. 18 Georgia Tech
Nov. 01 @ Boston College
Nov. 08 @ Florida State
Nov. 15 Duke
Nov. 22 @ Virginia
Nov. 29 South Carolina


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Cullen Harper, RB C.J. Spiller, RB James Davis, WR Aaron Kelly, S Michael Hamlin, DE Ricky Sapp, CB Chris Chancellor
Key losses
OT Barry Richardson, OG Chris McDuffie, DE Phillip Merling, LB Nick Watkins, LB Tremaine Billie
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: James Davis* (1101 yds)
Passing: Cullen Harper* (2,991 yds)
Receiving: Aaron Kelly* (1081 yds)
Tackles: Michael Hamlin (97)
Sacks: Ricky Sapp (5)
Interceptions: Chris Chancellor (4)

Spring answers

1. As good as advertised: Yes, defensive end DaQuan Bowers will play. The No. 1-ranked player in the ESPN 150 Class of 2008 wasted no time making an impression, and he capped his spring with a team-high seven tackles and two sacks in the spring game. There's no question he'll play this fall.

2. Harper unhampered: Quarterback Cullen Harper had shoulder surgery prior to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and seemed to struggle against Auburn, but this spring revealed he is completely healthy. Harper completed 13 of 18 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns -- in the first half of the spring game. Backup Willy Korn, who redshirted after just two games as a freshman because of an injured throwing shoulder, also had a productive spring.

3. Xavier Dye: In addition to Bowers, coach Tommy Bowden was impressed with sophomore receiver Xavier Dye. Dye, a South Carolina native who saw the second-most snaps among freshmen last year, caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Harper in the spring game and finished with six catches for 87 yards.

Fall questions

1. Linebackers: The Tigers were already without departed leading tackler Nick Watkins, and then starting middle linebacker Cortney Vincent was suspended from spring practices and reserve Antonio Clay was not in school this semester for personal reasons. Jeremy Campbell's move from strongside linebacker to the inside and the addition of Stanley Hunter helped. "I think we've got the right people in there but we're a long ways from being a productive unit at that position," Bowden said.

2. Offensive line: Clemson had to replace four starters, and named all but the two guard spots. Still, Cory Lambert has never started a game at left tackle and three of the four players competing to be guards are redshirt freshmen. Freshman Antoine McClain, who is ranked the No. 6 offensive tackle in the country by ESPN.com, could help when he arrives this fall. "It's not like we've been recruiting zeros at that position," Bowden said.

3. Great expectations: Nearly everything is in place for Clemson to finally win the ACC title, but the Tigers are notorious for falling short. Only time will tell if this is the year Clemson doesn't beat itself. Apparently, coach Tommy Bowden is unaware of the expectations for his veteran team: "I don't even know where people are picking us," Bowden said. " … are we picked to win it?" Yes, actually.

Florida State Seminoles

2008 Schedule

Sept. 06 Western Carolina
Sept. 13 Chattanooga
Sept. 20 Wake Forest
Sept. 27 Colorado
Oct. 04 @ Miami
Oct. 16 @ North Carolina State
Oct. 25 Virginia Tech
Nov. 01 @ Georgia Tech
Nov. 08 Clemson
Nov. 15 Boston College
Nov. 22 @ Maryland
Nov. 29 Florida


2007 overall record:
7-6

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Drew Weatherford, WR Greg Carr, LE Everette Brown, FS Myron Rolle, TB Antone Smith, C Ryan McMahon, G Rodney Hudson, LB Derek Nicholson, LB Dekoda Watson
Key losses
Six starters for first six games (academic scandal suspension), Preston Parker (pending suspension), LB Geno Hayes, DT Letroy Guion, WR De'Cody Fagg, PK Gary Cismesia, DT Andre Fluellen
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Antone Smith* (819 yds)
Passing: Drew Weatherford* (2,049 yds)
Receiving: Greg Carr* (795 yds)
Tackles: Derek Nicholson* (99)
Sacks: Everette Brown* (6½)
Interceptions: Patrick Robinson* (6)

Spring answers

1. Ponder can play: Somebody is finally ready to challenge quarterback Drew Weatherford. Christian Ponder, a redshirt sophomore, was 12-of-19 for 140 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the spring game. With Weatherford out for most of the spring with a knee injury, Ponder made a strong case for taking over the Seminoles' offense -- he was named MVP on offense.

2. Looking past Parker: With Preston Parker out of the picture while he faces legal issues, the Seminoles found out they've got a few other playmakers to lean on. Bert Reed and Taiwan Easterling showed potential. Easterling was thrown to six times in the spring game and caught five passes for 81 yards.

3. Depth at linebacker: Even with Geno Hayes leaving early for the NFL draft, the Seminoles still have a talented group of linebackers, starting with Derek Nicholson and Dekoda Watson. Watson had one sack in the spring game for a loss of 12 yards, and Nicholson is the Seminoles' leading returning tackler.

Fall questions

1. Special teams questions: The Seminoles are still in the market for a holder, long snapper and place-kicker -- all three departed starters were together the past two seasons. Place-kicker Zack Hobby and punter Graham Gano, a walk-on from Delaware, are still competing for jobs.

2. Depth on offensive line: True freshmen are going to have to play, and at least two players will earn their first collegiate starts this year. With junior right tackle Daron Rose ruled ineligible, all the linemen are freshmen or sophomores. FSU will look to true freshmen Zebrie Sanders and Rhonne Sanderson for immediate help.

3. JUCO impact: Three junior college transfers -- defensive end Markus White, running back Tavares Pressley and wide receiver Corey Surrency -- are all needed. None of them enrolled early, though, so the staff will have to wait to find out how much they can add. Surrency could have a significant role without Parker in the mix.

Maryland Terrapins

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Delaware
Sept. 06 @ Middle Tennessee
Sept. 13 California
Sept. 20 Eastern Michigan
Sept. 27 @ Clemson
Oct. 04 @ Virginia
Oct. 18 Wake Forest
Oct. 25 North Carolina State
Nov. 06 @ Virginia Tech
Nov. 15 North Carolina
Nov. 22 Florida State
Nov. 29 @ Boston College


2007 overall record:
6-7

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 5, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, QB Chris Turner, C Edwin Williams, LT Scott Burley, DE Jeremy Navarre, FB Cory Jackson, LB Dave Philistin, LB Moise Fokou, CB Kevin Barnes
Key losses
RB Lance Ball, RB Keon Lattimore, LB Erin Henderson, DT Dre Moore, OG Andrew Crummey, SS Christian Varner, DT Carlos Feliciano
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Keon Lattimore (805 yds)
Passing: Chris Turner* (1,958 yds)
Receiving: Darrius Heyward-Bey* (786 yds)
Tackles: Erin Henderson (133)
Sacks: Dre Moore (6)
Interceptions: Kevin Barnes* (4)

Spring answers

1. Another duo: Running backs Morgan Green and Da'Rel Scott solidified their spots as the top replacements for Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore. Their different styles could make them an even more effective combo than their predecessors, but there is still room for improvement. Both split reps with the first team this spring and will have a solid offensive line to block for them.

2. Loaded at linebacker: The Terps were eager to welcome back Alex Wujciak, a blue-collar, throwback linebacker who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Wujciak went after quarterbacks this spring with a crazed look in his eyes and brought an intensity the coaches loved. With Dave Philistin, Rick Costa and Moise Fokou all out with injuries, Chase Bullock and Adrian Moten also got valuable reps and continued the progress they made last season.

3. Cornered: Maryland found three corners -- Kevin Barnes, Nolan Carroll and Anthony Wiseman -- who can start this fall. It was a promising spring for a secondary that lost three starters. Barnes is the lone returning starter. Carroll had seven tackles and one interception in the spring game and is competing with Wiseman for the spot opposite Barnes.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback: Returning starter or not, it's almost become an annual tradition for coach Ralph Friedgen to make it a wide-open competition. Will Jordan Steffy, who has had five concussions, earn his job back from Chris Turner, who started the final eight games of 2007 after Steffy got hurt? Steffy certainly made a case for himself this spring, but Friedgen still wasn't ready to name a starter.

2. D-line: So far, senior defensive end Jeremy Navarre is the only definitive starter on the line. The Terps lost two starters, and Mack Frost missed the spring with a knee injury. Junior Travis Ivey, a veteran who played mostly in goal-line situations last season, could start at nose tackle. Two senior walk-ons -- Olugbemi Otulaja and Dean Muhtadi -- could both see more significant roles.

3. Heyward-Bey and ?: Who else besides NFL prospect Darrius Heyward-Bey will become a playmaker in the Terps' new offense? Receivers Isaiah Williams (broken bone in his hand) and LaQuan Williams (knee) were both injured on the same day in the middle of spring practice. That opened the door for two redshirt freshmen  Ronnie Tyler and Torrey Smith -- to get more reps. Tyler had a team-high four catches for 59 yards in the Terps' spring game.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 @ South Carolina
Sept. 06 William & Mary
Sept. 13 @ Clemson
Sept. 20 East Carolina
Sept. 27 South Florida
Oct. 04 Boston College
Oct. 16 Florida State
Oct. 25 @ Maryland
Nov. 08 @ Duke
Nov. 15 Wake Forest
Nov. 22 @ North Carolina
Nov. 29 Miami


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 7, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
TE Anthony Hill, TB Jamelle Eugene, TB Andre Brown, DE Willie Young, DT Alan-Michael Cash and CB Jeremy Gray
Key losses
SS DaJuan Morgan, LB James Martin, LB Ernest Jones, WR John Dunlap, TE Marcus Stone, FB Pat Bedics, DT DeMario Pressley, WR/RT Darrell Blackman
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jamelle Eugene* (667 yds)
Passing: Daniel Evans* (2,030 yds)
Receiving: Donald Bowens* (598 yds)
Tackles: DaJuan Morgan (97)
Sacks: Willie Young* (5.5)
Interceptions: DaJuan Morgan and Jeremy Gray* (3)

Spring answers

1. Nurse them back: This team needs everyone to be healthy this fall in order to have a fighting chance. Injuries played a role in Tom O'Brien's 1-5 start in his first year as coach, and with an abundance of youth on the current roster, he needs Toney Baker, Andre Brown and Anthony Hill -- three of his top playmakers -- at 100 percent. They should be ready.

2. The real deal: Jamelle Eugene had to start last year when two starters were injured, and heading into the spring game, he was the lone running back on scholarship -- again. With Baker (knee) and Brown (foot) out, Eugene proved his durability yet again. He carried 15 times for 68 yards, including a 21-yard touchdown run. The three other backs in that game were walk-ons.

3. Right faces in right places: O'Brien did some shifting and found out who his five best players are on the offensive line. John Bedics and Ted Larsen, part-time starters at defensive tackle, switched to offensive guard and it improved the group. Senior tackle Meares Green, senior Curtis Crouch and junior Julian Williams are returning starters.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback: O'Brien can't make a decision until he sees what incoming quarterback Mike Glennon has to offer. Returning starter Daniel Evans missed the spring because of shoulder surgery, and Russell Wilson made a strong case while he was out. Still, O'Brien has hopes Glennon, the younger brother of Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon, will add to the competition this fall.

2. Still shifting: Although O'Brien found out who his best offensive linemen are, he's still tinkering with where they should line up. Green started off at center but was moved him to tackle, and the others are still moving around from tackle to guard. Tackles Jake Vermiglio and Jerraill McCuller have starting experience and are in the mix, but the challenge is improving upon last year's 89.2 rushing yards per game.

3. Second season: How much improvement will show in O'Brien's second season after his 5-7 debut? The schedule will force young players to learn quickly, as it includes Clemson and South Carolina in two of the first three weeks of the season. O'Brien said his team has to play better football and can't have more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (14) this year.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Baylor
Sept. 06 Mississippi
Sept. 20 @ Florida State
Sept. 27 Navy
Oct. 09 Clemson
Oct. 18 @ Maryland
Oct. 25 @ Miami
Nov. 01 Duke
Nov. 08 Virginia
Nov. 15 @ North Carolina State
Nov. 22 Boston College
Nov. 29 Vanderbilt


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 5, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Riley Skinner, CB Alphonso Smith, TB Josh Adams, P/PK Sam Swank, LB Aaron Curry
Key losses
WR Kenneth Moore, C Steve Justice, DE Jeremy Thompson, TE Joe Tereshinski
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Josh Adams* (953 yds)
Passing: Riley Skinner* (2,204)
Receiving: Kenneth Moore (1,011)
Tackles: Chip Vaughn* (105)
Sacks: Jeremy Thompson (6½)
Interceptions: Alphonso Smith (8)*

Spring answers

1. Who's No. 2: The backup to tailback Josh Adams will be Brandon Pendergrass, a redshirt freshman. Pendergrass, who was considered the No. 20 running back in the ESPN 150 class of 2007, had a team-high 25 yards on just three carries in the spring game, and added two catches for 21 yards.

2. Wooster's No. 1: The top two tight ends from last season graduated, but Ben Wooster made a seamless transition into a playmaker. After having only two receptions in 12 games last season, Wooster punctuated his productive spring with a 35-yard touchdown reception in the spring game, and a 65-yard touchdown catch. He finished with five catches for 138 yards. No questions about that.

3. Got you cornered: Not that there was much doubt, but this spring reiterated Wake Forest might have two of best corners in the league in Alphonso Smith and Brandon Ghee. Smith has already made a name for himself, as he racked up eight interceptions last year and returned three of them for touchdowns. Ghee started the final 11 games of last season and had 10 pass breakups.

Fall questions

1. Depth on the offensive line: No, it's not going to be easy to replace center Steve Justice, who was chosen in the sixth round of the NFL draft, but coach Jim Grobe left spring practices confident Trey Bailey can do the job. Grobe is more concerned about Bailey's backup. "Trey Bailey will be fine," Grobe said, "I'm just not sure what we would do if Trey got banged up. The young guys behind him are not ready to go."

2. No Moore: Can anyone replace leading receiver Kenny Moore's 98 catches and more than 1,000 yards receiving? Chip Brinkman caught three passes for 79 yards in the spring game, and Devon Brown had five receptions for 33 yards. "We worried about all these young receivers coming in and I don't think we came out of spring finding a go-to guy necessarily," Grobe said, "but I think we've probably got the best overall group -- four, five, six guys that can go out and play for us that we feel comfortable with."

3. End in sight?: Finding a replacement for former defensive end Jeremy Thompson was one of Grobe's "real concerns," especially with Matt Robinson limited this spring with a bad knee. Redshirt senior Antonio Wilson showed promise this spring, along with redshirt freshmen Kyle Wilber and Tristan Dorty. Inexperience, though, remains a factor.

Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.

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