Spring football is a process of starting over with new personnel, and in the ACC, there are plenty of on-field changes coming in 2022. Clemson’s six-year run of conference titles was snapped in 2021, and the league is getting a hefty infusion of new coaches. As such, the conference has plenty of good storylines to follow entering a new season.
Mario Cristobal replaced Manny Diaz at Miami, Tony Elliott succeeded Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia, Brent Pry replaced Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech and Mike Elko is in for David Cutcliffe at Duke. As for the league’s recognizable returning faces, many of them are star quarterbacks with weighty expectations. Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman, NC State’s Devin Leary, Louisville’s Malik Cunningham, Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec, Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong combine to give the ACC arguably the nation’s strongest crop of proven passers.
With Clemson regrouping following a down year by the program’s standards, one of the above quarterbacks has a chance to do what Kenny Pickett did with Pittsburgh last season and lead their team past the mighty Tigers to a league title.
While spring games are largely vanilla, let’s overreact anyway to what we can expect from ACC teams in 2022.
QB Phil Jurkovec is the new Sam Howell: Jurkovec landed in the first round of a recent 2023 NFL Draft mock from CBS colleague Ryan Wilson. He certainly has the tools and ability to do it, but Boston College replaces four starters on its offensive line. Spring practice served as a reminder that Jurkovec will be hard-pressed to maintain that lofty stock in 2022 because of shifting roster dynamics outside his control. Former ACC quarterback Sam Howell of North Carolina dealt with a similar situation last season as his top two receivers and top two running backs departed following a huge 2020 season for the Tar Heels. Howell still got drafted, but in the fifth round instead of the first.
A once-stale offense will bounce back: There is a temptation to declare that nothing has improved with Clemson’s offense after its sleepy performance in the spring game. With former offensive coordinator Tony Elliott now the head coach at Virginia and the Tigers reeling from a substandard 2021 season, a 2 of 5 passing performance from D.J. Uiagalelei in the spring game could be interpreted as a perilous omen. However, with Uiagalelei getting pushed by freshman Cade Klubnik in the QB battle and the Tigers’ getting reps against one of the nation’s best defenses, progress is sure to come on offense. Remember: Clemson ranked eighth nationally in total defense last season with only Georgia and Wisconsin allowing fewer yards per play. With a nasty defensive front that includes the likes of Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, Clemson’s floor as a program remains high. Even if the offense isn’t elite, it should be improved enough to get the Tigers back in the ACC Championship Game.
2022 will be tough to stomach: Duke ranked dead last among the 130 FBS teams last season in total defense, and making significant improvement in Year 1 is going to be tough for coach Mike Elko. The former Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Wake Forest defensive coordinator has three of last season’s top four tacklers back, but depth looks like a serious issue and the offense lost stud running back Mataeo Durant to the NFL. Nothing about Duke’s situation looks conducive to a quick turnaround.
RB Trey Benson will be an impact player: The Oregon transfer tallied 77 yards on seven carries in Florida State’s Garnet & Gold game and looked capable of being an impact player in 2022. Once considered a four-star prospect in the 2020 class by 247Sports, Benson redshirted at Oregon as freshman and played sparingly last season. With Jashaun Corbin departed after leading the Seminoles in rushing last season, Benson could become one of the ACC’s top transfers in the season ahead. This is the definition of a spring overreaction, but Benson provides Seminoles’ fans with something to be excited about.
Staff overhaul won’t be enough: With Clemson up first on the schedule as a cross-division opponent and nonconference games vs. Georgia, Ole Miss and UCF on the docket, an offensive staff overhaul isn’t going to be enough for coach Geoff Collins to gain traction in his fourth season. Landing Chip Long as offensive coordinator is fairly exciting, and new running backs coach Mike Daniels bringing a 1,000-yard back Dylan McDuffie from Buffalo with him should help mitigate the loss of Jahmyr Gibbs to Alabama. But the chasm between the Yellow Jackets and bowl eligibility is too wide to be closed against a schedule this tough.
Malik Cunningham is a Heisman sleeper: After compiling nearly 4,000 total yards last season, Cunningham is back for his super-senior season. With loads of experience on the offensive line and some proven playmakers around him, Cunningham could sneak into the Heisman Trophy conversation. If nothing else, he should be able to help the Cardinals break through and build on the promise they showed in 2019 during coach Scott Satterfield’s first season.
The Hurricanes will win the ACC Coastal crown: First-year coach Mario Cristobal did well enough in the transfer portal over the last few months that this team should be able to build off last season’s 5-3 ACC mark. The Canes, which return budding star Tyler Van Dyke at quarterback, finished second in the Coastal last season behind Pitt. However, the Panthers are replacing star quarterback Kenny Pickett, most of their offensive staff and (potentially) star receiver Jordan Addison. And there is nothing particularly frightening about the other teams in the division.
Josh Downs will make new QB a star: It won’t matter whether Jacolby Criswell or Drake Maye wins North Carolina’s starting quarterback job, receiver Josh Downs will make that winner a star in 2022. Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Improving on those numbers will be hard with a new QB, but Downs caught touchdown passes from both in the spring game. That underscores the point here: North Carolina’s quarterback will be throwing to one of the sport’s best sets of hands, and that quarterback will look good as a result.
Bring on the expectations: NC State is getting love as a potential top-10 team in some of the way-too-early polls that circulate this time of year. Those expectations seem awfully lofty for a program that has never finished in the top 10, but bring it on! The last time the Wolfpack finished in the top 15 was in 2002 when Philip Rivers was quarterback. Devin Leary is the best QB they’ve had since then, and there is enough around him for NC State to build off a 9-3 season. Leary threw 35 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions last season. The sport could use a fresh face in the CFP conversation, and NC State could find itself in the mix if things break right at Clemson on Oct. 1.
Regression ahead: Regardless of whether or not star receiver Jordan Addison returns after catching 100 passes and winning the Bilentnikoff Award as a sophomore, there is some major regression ahead for Pitt. Expect a team closer to seven wins than the 11-win total posted by last year’s ACC champions. The Panthers are fortunate to avoid Clemson, NC State and Wake Forest out of the Atlantic division, but their nonconference slate is tricky with games against West Virginia and Tennessee out of the gate. Then comes a trip to Western Michigan to try and avenge last season’s home loss to the Broncos.
Justin Lamson should start at QB: Syracuse ranked 122nd in passing offense last season, failing to reach 2,000 total yards through the air during a 5-7 season. If you flash back to Syracuse’s 10-win season in 2018, it had a for more serviceable aerial attack. If the Orange want to reclaim some momentum under seventh-year coach Dino Babers, they should go with Lamson at quarterback. The redshirt freshman made his case by tossing a pair of long touchdowns and finishing 7 of 10 passing for 151 yards in the spring game.
QB Sam Hartman will get better: Hartman finished third in the ACC Player of the Year voting in 2021, but he still has plenty of room to improve, as was evident in his 6 of 14 passing performance in the spring game. Now a fifth-year senior, Hartman finished second in the league in passing touchdowns with 39 last season … but he also threw more interceptions than any other ACC quarterback (14) and ranked near the bottom of the league in completion percentage (58.9%). He’s already one of the nation’s more prolific quarterbacks, but you can expect Hartman to take another step in 2022.
QB Brennan Armstrong is the key to Tony Elliott’s tenure: Elliott received a gift in his first offseason with Armstrong opting to return for a fifth season. Armstrong threw for 4,449 yards and 31 touchdowns in just 11 games last season while completing 65.2% of his passes. If Elliott can turn Armstrong into an NFL Draft pick, it will establish the Cavaliers as a QB destination and set the tone for what the former Clemson offensive coordinator will accomplish.
Quarterback will remain unsettled into the season: Marshall transfer Grant Wells seems like the frontrunner to win the quarterback job in coach Brent Pry’s first season, but South Carolina transfer Jason Brown is in the mix as well. The bet here is that multiple quarterbacks will play this season. Wells brings two seasons of starting experience to the equation, but he struggled with interceptions for the Thundering Herd. Brown rose to fame for transitioning from a GA role to actually playing QB for the Gamecocks last season after a career at the FCS level. He helped guide South Carolina to wins over Florida and Auburn and has the intangible to challenge Wells for the job.