ACC Set to Find Offensive Identity
By David England
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The ACC has lacked an offensive identity in the past, but is on the precipice of becoming a pass-oriented conference.
Football is known for many things: excitement, hard hits, passing, running, and kicking, just to name a few. There are many variables that make up the game we love. Since the first intercollegiate game in November of 1869, football has come a long way in regards to the passing game as we know it today.
Now that you have had your history lesson for the day, let's get to the good stuff. The Atlantic Coast Conference has never had a true identity. Among other conferences nationally, you can pinpoint a certain identity. Whether it be the SEC with it's potent rushing attacks, the Big 12 with it's passing game, or the Big Ten with it's running game, the ACC is a bit of a clouded mystery.
We have seen many rushing attacks in the ACC, but the passing game has seen its fair share of the spotlight as well. Last year was considered to have been a passing season. There was no shortage of talent on the ground either, with the likes of David Wilson, Giovani Bernard, Orwin Smith, Lamar Miller, and Andre Ellington. While there was no shortage of talent at the offensive skill positions, once again there was no real identity for the ACC in 2011.
Expect a major change in that regard for the upcoming season, as passing will dominate the ACC in 2012. The ACC returns 10 starting quarterbacks for the first time in league history. The two teams that don't return starters - Miami and Maryland - both have quarterbacks who started at least five games last season. With the likes of Tajh Boyd, Logan Thomas, Sean Renfree, Bryn Renner, and E.J. Manuel returning, expect potent passing attacks to be at a premium this fall. The ACC returns five quarterbacks who threw for over 3,000 yards last season, setting a conference record.
Football down south is known for physical, ground-and-pound football. The ACC will change some minds in 2012. Clemson's offense has high-flying passing attack written all over it, with Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins both returning. That combo was one of the deadliest in the nation through the air in 2011. With one year of experience under their belts, don't expect a sudden change in the game plan. Boyd set an ACC record last season with 38 total touchdowns (33 passing, five rushing). Watkins set an ACC rookie record with over 1,200 receiving yards last season. De'Andre Hopkins, the other talented receiver on the team, will not hurt matters, as he had close to 1,000 receiving yards in 2011.
Do not expect a slowdown in the passing game after Clemson. Duke's Conner Vernon is 34 catches away from the ACC record for career receptions held by Aaron Kelly of Clemson. He should easily eclipse the record in 2012 with Sean Renfree returning at quarterback. Speaking of Renfree, he had over 2,800 passing yards in 2011. Logan Thomas returns to Virginia Tech with a talented, albiet young offensive unit in 2012. Thomas passed for over 3,000 yards last season, despite having to share the backfield with eventual first round pick David Wilson. This showed the trust that head coach Frank Beamer had in Thomas as a sophomore. The biggest concern for Thomas in 2012 is that he loses his top two receivers in Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale.
If there is a quarterback that needs to take the next step in his progression as a quarterback it is undoubtedly E.J. Manuel of Florida State. Manuel put up decent numbers in 2011, with over 2,500 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. The speedy receiver Rashad Greene returns in 2011, which will certainly help elevate Manuel's play at quarterback. Out of all the QB's listed so far, Manuel has the most pressure on him. He is now entering his senior season and he is facing massive expectations. The team around him is expected to finish in the top five and be national contenders.
If there is one flaw with Manuel, it is his lack of clutch ability in big games. In perhaps the biggest game of Manuel's career, he did not step up to the stage. In Tallahassee against then No. 1 Oklahoma, Manuel went 13-19 for 85 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. After that performance, the Seminoles went on a two-game losing streak and finished the season at 9-4. Not all of Florida State's losses fall on the shoulders of Mr. Manuel, but as QB you are the first man blamed for the poor performances on the field.
The ACC needs a great year from the quarterback position as well as an identity in the upcoming season. The passing game will soon be on top. Get ready for a "first class" pass to the top passing conference in the country.