ACC Coastal Storylines
By Brandon Rink
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Last season marked the first time in five years that a Coastal Division team did not win the ACC championship.
The Coastal Division sets its sights back on the ACC title after Virginia Tech’s loss to Clemson last December ended a four-year run of reigning champs.
The focus was on offense this spring, whether it’s UNC’s move to the spread, Miami and Virginia Tech replacing elite running backs or quarterbacks jockeying for position down on the Flats.
Three storylines out of the Coastal Division this spring.
1) Hokies, ‘Canes find emerging running backs to replace the ACC’s top tailbacks
Miami and Virginia Tech, at different ends of the offseason hype spectrum, share the same problem – losing a huge chunk of the running game early to the NFL.
Former Hokies running back David Wilson exited as the last pick of the first round to the New York Giants, while Lamar Miller slipped to the second pick of the fourth round to the hometown Miami Dolphins. With the departures of Wilson and Miller, the ACC loses 2,981 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and the only two tailbacks who averaged over 100 rushing yards per game in the conference last season.
In Coral Gables, the top two returning rushers occupy the top two spots on the post-spring depth chart in senior Mike James and junior Eduardo Clements. James made the most of his carries with seven touchdowns and 275 yards on 72 attempts last season. Clements played more sparingly with 15 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Hurricane head coach Al Golden had the race neck-and-neck between James and Clements pre-spring game, but James came out on top going into the summer, scoring the lone touchdown in the defense-dominated scrimmage with 57 rushing yards on 15 attempts.
Golden said James and Clements “distinguished themselves from the group” this spring.
Up in Blacksburg, the picture is a bit more muddied.
Just in the last two seasons, the Hokies have lost three underclassmen running backs to the NFL (Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and Wilson), leaving a roster filled with players with something to prove in 2012.
To illustrate the point, atop the Virginia Tech post-spring depth chart are three tailbacks without a college rushing attempt.
Michael Holmes, a redshirt freshman, leads the group with early-enrollee J.C. Coleman (rated the No.3 all-purpose back by Rivals) and senior Martin Scales also in the mix.
With a wide-open race, Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer sees his 2012 signees as factors for playing time in fall camp as well.
“We've got some really, really talented freshmen that will come in and compete at that tailback position,” Beamer said. “The deal, I think – we need to identify them quickly and get them to work because there's just not much time between when we report and when we play Georgia Tech.”
2) UNC’s offensive transition to the spread “sluggish” this spring, Larry Fedora says
Even in a mediocre 2011 season, UNC showed off some offensive pieces.
Quarterback Bryn Renner was efficient, passing for over 3,000 yards with 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Running back Giovani Bernard, when healthy, was near-unstoppable, racking up 1,253 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns for a spot just behind NFL-bound David Wilson and Lamar Miller among the ACC’s best.
But as a unit overall, the Tar Heels were unspectacular, thus the move to the spread offense this spring under new head coach Larry Fedora.
Entering his fifth-year as a head coach, Fedora said one of the main goals for his new team was understanding the base offense and reworking how they prepare week-to-week.
“The biggest change was to try to learn how to practice the way we want to practice,” Fedora said. “And that is with energy and enthusiasm, and excitement each and every day and to do that on a consistent level. That takes some time to get done.”
Shifting from the pro-style offensive look of the Butch Davis era, Fedora called UNC’s offensive tempo “sluggish” reviewing the spring. His QB was efficient in the final exhibition, however, hitting 23-of-28 attempts for 295 yards and two touchdowns. Renner connected with redshirt freshman running back Romar Morris on both scores, and Morris added another touchdown on an 8-yard run to lead the Blue to a 44-21 win over the White squad.
The comparison to watch in Chapel Hill this season is between the ‘12 Tar Heels and the ‘11 Clemson Tigers, coming off their move to the hurry-up spread last season.
Clemson jumped into the top-26 nationally in passing offense (21st, 282.3 YPG from 78th in 2011), scoring offense (24th, 33.6 PPG from 86th in 2011) and total offense (26th, 440.8 YPG from 88th in 2011). What’s intriguing is UNC doesn’t have to bridge quite that big a gap, finishing 36th in passing offense (254.4 YPG), 56th in scoring offense (28 PPG) and 53rd in total offense (393.2 YPG) last season.
Behind the most experienced offensive line in the ACC, don’t be surprised if Fedora’s Heels make noise, despite the postseason ban handed down by the NCAA this offseason.
3) Georgia Tech’s QB competition extends into the fall
Senior Yellow Jacket quarterback Tevin Washington has 17 career starts under his belt, and two underclassmen QBs gunning for his job.
Redshirt sophomore Synjyn Days and redshirt freshman Vad Lee both had a strong spring session, showing off their best attributes in Georgia Tech’s spring game.
Lee could bring a boost in the passing game, where he hit 9-of-17 pass attempts for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Seeing time at A-back this spring as well, Days led the Yellow Jackets with 79 rushing yards on 15 carries with a touchdown, and added three more rushing scores in the scrimmage a week before.
With as many starts as he has, why is Washington feeling the heat? For starters, he hasn’t hit above 50 percent of passes in two seasons of significant playing time, and also averaged an interception for every 18.8 pass attempts last season (third worst in the ACC among starters).
That said, the senior made his impact on the ground, leading the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense with 987 yards (5th in the ACC) and 14 rushing scores.
Washington is still the guy, but GT head coach Paul Johnson says the offseason holds the key to who sees the field most this fall.
“I think all three bring something to the table. It's really a matter of who can improve most (between now) and (September 3rd),” Johnson said. “The guys behind Tevin both bring different things.”