ACC Atlantic Storylines
By Brandon Rink
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Three storylines from the ACC Atlantic Division following the conclusion of spring practice.
There’s been no shortage of storylines from the Atlantic Division just this past week, from Montel Harris’ dismissal to Sammy Watkins’ arrest.
But today, we look at three storylines from the actual gridiron this spring.
1) Senior QB's at FSU and NC State still left with something to prove after spring ball
It’s now or never for senior quarterbacks E.J. Manuel and Mike Glennon. Both are chasing an elusive first ACC title, and neither jumped into the long offseason on a high note off from the spring’s final exhibition.
Manuel took a back seat to his underclassmen backups (Clint Trickett and Jacob Coker) in FSU’s spring game, as the youngsters combined to complete 21-of-34 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns (and no turnovers). Manuel threw for as many touchdowns as interceptions (two), including a 51-yard pick-six, while hitting 55 percent of his passes for 255 yards.
Up in Raleigh, Glennon commanded a White squad which was dominated by the Black team’s experienced secondary of first-team starters at the Kay Yow Spring Game. He accounted for one of the three picks thrown on the day, hitting 12-of-20 throws for 154 yards with no scores in his team’s 32-7 blowout loss.
Both QB's came into last season with their fair share of expectations – Manuel making preseason first-team All-ACC and Glennon getting the vote of confidence from his head coach, Tom O’Brien, to take over Russell Wilson’s spot early.
Looking at the final stat-line, Manuel’s 2011 numbers (2,666 passing yards/18 TDs/8 INTs) don’t look bad, and he had to fight off an injury sustained early in the season against Oklahoma, missing the Clemson game and a portion of the Wake Forest matchup. The damage was done for FSU’s season, however, after the loss in Winston-Salem, as the Seminoles trudged their way to a disappointing (after the preseason hype), but at the same time respectable (after all the injuries) 9-4 season.
It’s clear, after Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher had Manuel embrace the hype last season – even bringing the first-year starter to ACC media days last season, Fisher is trying to keep the pressure off of his senior quarterback.
Asked if Manuel needed a ACC Player of the Year season for the Seminoles to claim their first ACC title since 2005, Fisher said: “He didn't play perfect (last season), but he did pretty good with the situations we had around him… I think we'll be able to run the football much better and make more plays out there, and play great defense and special teams. He can (be a top quarterback), but I don't think he has to.”
On the flip side, NC State got everything they needed and more from Glennon last season (3,054 passing yards/31 TDs/12 INTs), and O’Brien says competition with one of the country’s best defensive backs, David Amerson, has only helped him develop this spring.
“When you have a kid like that, he's challenged Amerson all spring,” O’Brien said. “Now Amerson got him in the spring game, but that's all part of the challenge of going best against best.
“He had a great opportunity this spring to go against a good, competitive secondary, getting that back foot down, getting the ball out and making good decisions.”
2) Offseason transition in Maryland starting to settle down
There’s rough starts for a coach, and then there’s Randy Edsall and Maryland.
Since the end of the 2011 season, the Terps have replaced both coordinators and 13 players have transferred.
But it’s spring, where coaches are eternally hopeful, and Edsall is no different.
“I thought we had a very good spring,” Edsall said. “We had basically five objectives that we wanted to work to get better at during spring. Number one was to make sure that everybody was all in with what we were doing. I think we've accomplished that.”
The embattled second-year coach replaced Gary Crowton with Mike Locksley at offensive coordinator, who brings a more pro-style offense that is said to have “spread principles” and will also use the hurry-up.
Defensively, Maryland installed a 3-4 defensive scheme this spring under Brian Stewart, who came from Houston for the job left by Todd Bradford. The Terps finished 2011 108th in total defense and 102nd in scoring defense.
Junior dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown stands to be Maryland’s signal-caller with no experienced competition in sight thanks to former ACC Rookie of the Year Danny O’Brien’s transfer to Wisconsin. Brown was second on the team in rushing yards (574) with five scores last season, completing 49.3 percent of passes for 842 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
As you might expect, he says the Terps are eager to move on from their second 2-10 season in three years and the rough offseason.
“A lot of the guys want to put the past in the past and springtime was a way to move forward and just get going,” Brown said. “You're not going to completely forget it but you want to get a better taste in your mouth. Everyone's bought in and we're moving in the right direction right now.”
Maryland’s spring game featured a modified scoring system with points for traditional scores (touchdowns, field goals, etc.) and also for sacks and first downs among other categories. The defense rallied for a 67-53 win, on the back of constant pressure on the quarterback.
The offense found the endzone just twice, a one-yard touchdown run by tailback Brandon Ross and a nine-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ricky Schultz to wide receiver Nigel King. Brown finished the day 17-for-33 on pass attempts for 199 yards.
With injuries a major factor, senior Terrapins defensive tackle A.J. Francis says folks shouldn’t sleep on the defense’s exhibition performance.
“Those sacks just prove we were coming (on the rush) and we have to give credit to the whole defense,” Francis said. “It makes you really think about how good we can be because arguably three of our best players on our defense – (DT) Joe Vellano, (SAM) Kenny Tate and (LB) Darin Drakeford - weren't in the game. It really shows how good this defense can really be.”
Edsall and his Terrapins are saying all the right things out of spring football, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see if they show progress on the field after major shake-ups on the coaching staff and roster.
3) Atlantic tailbacks could lead the way in ‘12
With the ACC’s top two rushers gone (both from exiting from the Coastal), the opportunity is there for Atlantic running backs to make their mark on the conference record books.
Down in TigerTown, Clemson’s Andre Ellington comes off a breakout 2011 season, rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns after knee surgery that held him out of offseason workouts last year. Ellington had a “great” spring according to Tiger offensive coordinator Chad Morris, but did sit out the spring game after minor ankle surgery to clean up scar tissue.
Ellington’s durability is the lingering question. which is probably what kept the senior in school instead of opting for the NFL draft, but in Morris’ well-oiled offensive machine, he could easily post back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons if he remains healthy.
At Wake Forest, Josh Harris is trying to work his way back on the radar after sitting much of last season with a hamstring injury. Harris was a top five ACC rusher in 2010, averaging 5.7 yards per carry to the tune of 720 yards rushing and seven touchdowns.
The junior made the most of limited carries in the spring game, going for 40 yards on six carries with a touchdown rush and catch. Deacs head coach Jim Grobe was happy to see Harris back in action at full-strength.
"He looked like Josh Harris and that's what I like," Grobe said to Wake Forest’s official site. "He had two or three inside runs, he wasn't trying to bounce everything to the perimeter. I loved his touchdown run down in the red zone, he got north and just powered his way up into the end zone and if we can get him to do that all the time - we know he has a chance to be special.”
Boston College returns its top three running backs, but recently lost its all-time leading rusher, Montel Harris, due to multiple violations of team rules, according to Eagle head coach Frank Spaziani.
Harris’ status was up-in-the-air as it was, with knee injuries keeping him out for the majority of the last two seasons. But now, the spotlight is on BC’s leading trio to perform. Juniors Rolandan “Deuce” Finch and Andre Williams, along with sophomore Tahj Kimble will share load this season. Finch led the way in ’11 with 705 rushing yards and four touchdowns (243 of those yards and two touchdowns in one game at Maryland).
Right now, there may not be an ACC job more tied to the production of one unit than Spaziani and the Eagles’ running backs after Harris’ dismissal and the overall downward trajectory of the BC program.