Thursday, May 30, 2024
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ACC spring football overreactions: Miami has ‘the one’ in Cam Ward, Florida State defense will key title run

The ACC faces a critical college football season as 2024 marks the first of true coast-coast competition with the league welcoming Cal, Stanford and SMU into the fold for a record 17-team membership. Conference realignment remained a steady storyline throughout spring practice as those three not only prepared for the move but the league itself engaged in legal battles with two of its flagship football programs: Florida State and Clemson. While judges, lawyers, the league office and other figures in suits focus on the murky details of contracts, our focus is on the players in pads as we dive into what we learned during spring practice. 

Any reaction to spring games or spring practice reports could be technically identified as an overreaction since we are not privileged to the information gathered from most of the 15 formal practice sessions held during the spring period. But since college football is a year-round enterprise, we have questions heading into spring practice and takeaways once the spring games are in the books. Some of our overreactions are big-picture focused, while others are more of the personnel, depth chart variety, but all of them are tied to some of the burning questions for each ACC program. 

Boston College 

We might have a QB competition on our hands: Incumbent starter Thomas Castellanos was one of the big reasons for some of Boston College’s successes in 2023, seizing the QB1 duties midway through the season opener from Emmett Morehead and then proceeding to lead the team in rushing yards (1,113) and rushing touchdowns (13). The passing game was far from flawless as he totaled 15 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, which is why when first-year coach Bill O’Brien took over, he, like many new coaches, wanted to see some competition for the starting job. Enter Grayson James from FIU, a 6-3, 235-pounder with a strong arm and good accuracy. The spring game is where we saw this overreaction rise to the top as James appeared to have closed the gap with a solid performance in the controlled situations that included a quick whistle for the quarterback. While O’Brien is likely glad to have a couple of options and healthy competition, I’m guessing this overreaction is exactly that. While James might have closed the gap in practices, it’s hard to simulate what Castellanos can do with his feet in live action.  

Cal 

Veteran-led team can help Cal be most successful new addition: To try and peer in on Cal’s spring showcase was far more informative for the 2025 Bears or analysis of the team’s depth, as many of the contributors we expect to be playing key roles for 2024 were held out of action. But to hear Justin Wilcox discuss the state of the roster actually offers encouragement for where this team is at heading into their first year of ACC play. Wilcox is comfortable with the snaps that have been banked not just for long-time Bears such as First Team All-Pac-12 running back Jadyn Ott (22 starts in the last two seasons) but also key transfers who have built up experience at other places. That group of veterans, Wilcox says, has done a great job of establishing the chemistry for a team that has gotten faster and a bit bigger through the roster turnover of the offseason. Cal’s 16 transfer portal commits are the second-most in the ACC, and the class ranking is fifth in the conference. If we’re to take Wilcox at his word, those newcomers have meshed well with the established veterans and given the 2024 Bears a great foundation for the first year of ACC play.     

Clemson 

Bryant Wesco will be a spark plug for Clemson’s passing attack: In 10 seasons of Clemson football from 2011-2020, the Tigers had a 1,000-yard receiver in all but two seasons (2015, 2017). It was a truly remarkable run that included future pros Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Williams and Tee Higgins among others. But in the last three years (2021-23), no Clemson receiver has finished with more than 604 yards in a season and none from those teams have been selected in the NFL Draft. The tide seems to be turning, however, and one reason to believe that was the spring performance of early enrollee freshman Bryant Wesco. The blue-chip projections for Wesco are already playing out on the field as both coaches and teammates have been offering offering positive reviews all spring, and he even showed out with a diving over-the-shoulder touchdown grab in the spring game. Wesco specifically might not be the top candidate to be a 1,000-yard receiver for Clemson in 2024 — Antonio Williams, Tyler Brown, Troy Stellato have an experience edge for playing time — but his tools and talent are reminiscent of the days when Clemson had future NFL Draft picks at the position rolling in year-after-year.

Syndication: The Greenville News

Freshman WR Bryant Wesco will be a major player in the Clemson offense during the 2024 season.  USATSI

Duke 

Maalik Murphy hasn’t clinched starting QB job … yet: When Duke landed former Texas quarterback Maalik Murphy in the transfer portal, it was a huge win for first-year coach Manny Diaz and a statement that the program was ready to invest in building on the success of Mike Elko rather than allowing a return to previous form. But Murphy, by his own admission, exited the spring game with some more work to do and thus the battle rolls on into likely the start of fall camp. Grayson Loftis, the third-string quarterback in 2023 who was tasked with finishing the year after injuries to both Riley Leonard and Henry Belin, split first-team reps with Murphy in the spring game, appearing comfortable and capable in the new system. Offensive coordinator Jonathan Brewer comes from Rhett Lashlee’s staff at SMU and was on Diaz’s staff at Miami when Lashlee was offensive coordinator. If we are to draw conclusions from those stops and the limited spring action available, the quarterback can be very productive in this offense. Murphy’s arm talent and physical tools give him an on-paper edge to be that productive quarterback in 2024, but there’s work left to be done before we discuss his — and Duke’s — ceiling for Year 1 of the Diaz era.     

Florida State 

Pat Payton, Marvin Jones Jr. will be the best pass rushing tandem in the ACC: It looks like Mike Norvell, the portal king, did it again. First it was Jermaine Johnson arriving from Georgia to win ACC Defensive Player of the Year, then it was Jared Verse from Albany developing into a two-time All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick. This time Norvell went back to Athens, Georgia, to bring on Marvin Jones Jr., and through spring practice it appears as though the son of one of Florida State’s greatest linebackers will be a star on the 2024 defense. Opposite Jones is Patrick Payton, the team’s leader in tackles for loss (14.5) last season and a dynamic physical presence on the edge with his 6-5, 254-pound frame. Payton uses his size to be disruptive all over the field, and his 10 pass breakups in 2023 were the most for an ACC defensive lineman since 2016. This one-two punch of next-level athleticism, which will key this FSU defense, is going to make passing downs a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

Georgia Tech 

Yellow Jackets could have top-three passing attack in the ACC: Haynes King’s first year in Atlanta had mixed results. If we watch cutups of his games against Louisville, Ole Miss, Bowling Green and North Carolina — 15 touchdowns, four interceptions in those games combined with a 313.8 passing yards per game average — and nothing else, you might enter 2024 with King penciled in as the first team preseason pick for All-ACC quarterback. But the full body of work included performances where he was far less consistent throughout the game, and that’s why he finished the season leading the ACC in both touchdowns (27) and interceptions (16). Finding some more consistency could unlock the best of Georgia Tech’s offense, which returns a strong run game and three of the top four receivers in Eric Singleton, Christian Leary and Malik Rutherford.

Georgia v Georgia Tech

Haynes King and the Georgia Tech offense are ready to take the next step after a solid 2023 campaign.  Getty Images

Louisville 

Transfer portal vault can power yet another run at an ACC title: Jeff Brohm flipped Louisville’s roster in Year 1, bringing in 25 players from the transfer portal and getting important pieces from the previous roster to buy in on his vision for Louisville football. The results exceeded the expectations as the Cardinals won 10 games, finished as the runner-up in the ACC and ranked in the top 20 of the final AP Top 25 poll. The portal evaluations and fit graded out extremely well, which is why Brohm deserves the benefit of the doubt as he’s set to do it again in 2024. Louisville is currently on pace to have a 29-player transfer class heading into the fall with many of those additions taking part in spring practice. Former Oregon and Texas Tech quarterback Tyler Shough is healthy and looks ready to lead the offense, and he’ll be protected by key additions up front such as Pete Nygra and Jonathan Mendoza among others. Some of last year’s transfers are also still on board, giving some continuity in the midst of apparent roster chaos. There are still questions on the depth chart that need to be answered, and some of that will come with the summer arrivals of additional transfers, but the new faces in spring checked enough boxes to think there won’t be a huge drop-off from last season’s impressive debut.   

Miami 

Cam Ward is set up to be “the one”: For two decades, Miami fans have yearned to be back in the mix and competing for the top spots in college football’s hierarchy. Since joining the ACC prior to the 2004 season, the Hurricanes have finished in the final AP Top 25 just six times and never finished higher than 11th (2004). The program has also gone 3-12 in bowl games as an ACC member, which contributes to the narrative of a championship contender that’s lost its way. The high-water mark of the last 20 years was Miami’s 2017 run that included 10 wins and an ACC Coastal title, but even that season lacked what any college football fan desires: dominant quarterback play. Miami fans have been waiting for “the one,” riding the ups and downs of Jacory Harris, Stephen Morris and Brad Kaaya in the early part of the 2010s, and then recently flirting with greatness thanks to the playmaking and production of D’Eriq King and Tyler Van Dyke. Cam Ward, arriving after two strong seasons at Washington State, can be the quarterback that leads Miami to an ACC title as he’s stepping into an offense with a strong line up front and gifted playmakers at wide receiver. Ward’s chances to be successful only increased with the recent addition of All-Pac-12 running back Damien Martinez from Oregon State, and with the motivation of turning down the NFL Draft, Ward can boost his stock with a big year in 2024.    

North Carolina 

Biggest portal wins may have been players who stayed home: There has been a lot of transfer portal activity in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with the most recent headline being a return for quarterback Jacolby Criswell after the former Tar Heels spent 2023 at Arkansas. The Tar Heels also brought over quarterback Max Johnson and tight end Jake Johnson from Texas A&M along with some key offensive line pieces to rework the depth up front. The team also lost nearly two dozen players to the portal including eight that landed at other power conference programs. But one thing we have seen recently is how the biggest portal headlines can sometimes be tied to roster retention, and that’s been one of the biggest developments this spring. Days after the North Carolina spring game, the Heels4Life NIL collective announced new deals with running back Omarion Hampton and defensive end Kaimon Rucker, arguably the two best players on the 2024 roster. This is a group that will need some special players as they move on from Drake Maye and try to install a brand new defense under new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins. It’s a reset year that’s going to lead to a lot of coin-flip games in the ACC, and having difference-makers like Hampton and Rucker will be important for key plays in coin-flip games. 

Campbell v North Carolina

Running back Omarion Hampton will prove to be a key piece of this Tar Heels offense in 2024.  Getty Images

NC State 

Grayson McCall ready to recapture his best Coastal Carolina form: From 2020-22, Grayson McCall was among the top quarterbacks in the entire country. McCall went 29-4 as a starter across those three seasons, totaling 77 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. In 2021, he set a new NCAA record for passer rating in a season. Injuries and a coaching change contributed to different results in 2023, but now fully healthy, McCall is looking to find his best form again with NC State in 2024. In Raleigh, he’s linked up with offensive coordinator Robert Anae, whose reputation for versatility was needed last season during a quarterback shuffle that included active starter MJ Morris declaring a redshirt year in the middle of the campaign. Now, McCall’s versatility, as well as a skill position group that’s been boosted by the transfer portal but remains headlined by 2023 ACC Rookie of the Year KC Concepcion, allow for Anae to craft an offense that can highlight everyone’s strengths. This is an all-in year for NC State to make a run at the elusive ACC championship, and McCall has all the tools to help lead the way in that pursuit. 

Pitt 

The portal has made it a lot tougher for Pitt’s potential bounce-back season: The first eight years of the Pat Narduzzi era highlighted a program that had become one of the most steady in the ACC. The Panthers were bowling in six of those eight seasons, played for the ACC championship twice — winning the league in 2021. The two-year exodus of talent and coaching turnover hinted at a possible step back from back-to-back top-25 finishes, but no one expected a drop like what we saw with the 3-9 campaign in 2023. Law of averages says a bounce back should be in store for a head coach and program that’s 65-50 overall and 43-31 in ACC play since 2015, but the law of averages doesn’t know about the chaos caused by transfer portal roulette. Not all of the 19 outgoing transfers are players who were expected to play a key role for Pitt in 2024. But multiple projected starters on the defense are in that group when you combine it with nine NFL Draft picks taken in the last two years and additional coaching staff turnover it becomes tougher to find the obvious signs for a return to the 7-8 win standard established over the last decade. The player development at Pitt has been among the best in the ACC, so I’m not going to rule out some surprises when the team takes the field in 2024, but the margins appear to be awfully slim in part because of key portal exits.  

SMU 

Defensive line upgrades will be a strength: SMU won the AAC on the way out of town, and quarterback Preston Stone is back after a leading a prolific offensive attack. But as we project the impact of SMU’s transition, the biggest headline from the spring is not what we knew previously but what we saw with Rhett Lashlee’s roster upgrades on the defensive side of the ball. Moving from the AAC to the ACC is a step up for SMU, and one thing that the Mustangs made sure they have ready for the jump into a power conference is some power conference-caliber bodies along the defensive line. That includes Anthony Booker Jr. (6-4, 351 pounds) from Arkansas, Mike Lockhart (6-3, 308 pounds) from West Virginia and Jonathan Jefferson (6-3, 295 pounds) from Georgia. Not all set to be stars or even starters, but they’re all expected to be part of the rotation and key pieces of making sure SMU’s defense is not just on par with the rest of the ACC but a plus-value position group for the Mustangs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Navy at SMU

Preston Stone is back to lead a prolific SMU offensive attack into the program’s ACC era.  Getty Images

Stanford 

Ashton Daniels passed the test and is ready for the ACC: Second-year coach Troy Taylor made a splash in the 2024 cycle when he landed four-star quarterback Elijah Brown out of California high school power house Mater Dei. The 6-2, 205-pound Brown has an NFL Draft projection and is expected to be a power conference starter eventually, but this spring his primary role was to be stiff competition for incumbent starter Ashton Daniels. The performance across 10 starters last season was up-and-down for Daniels, who has not won the job outright but appears to be the favorite to start the year as QB1. A step forward for Daniels in the midst of competition is great news for a Stanford offense that boasts one of the top wide receiver talents in the ACC with Elic Ayomanor leading a wide receiver room that also includes Tiger Bachmeier and Emmett Mosley, an early enrollee freshman who impressed in spring practice.  

Syracuse 

The Orange will have one of the top offenses in the ACC: Fran Brown has done great work in the transfer portal building out a roster that will have Syracuse competitive in every ACC game this year. The headline was getting Kyle McCord from Ohio State, but there’s a lot more to like about this offense. First and foremost, versatile tight end-wide receiver hybrid Oronde Gadsden is fully healthy, and his connection with McCord was on full display this spring. There were also great reviews for the performances of Seed Haynes, a transfer from Georgia who was named the offensive MVP of the spring. And with Umari Hatcher and Trevor Pena, the passing attack should be much improved from where it was a year ago. But for all the McCord and pass-game related hype, the team’s MVP in the fall might be LeQuint Allen. After becoming a 1,000-yard rusher last year, there is no expectation of Allen slowing down. Whether the run setting up the pass or vice versa, there is a lot to like about Syracuse’s balance and ceiling on offense. 

Virginia 

Don’t expect a drop off at the wide receiver position: The Miami Dolphins should be excited with what they are getting from Malik Washington, a First Team All-ACC wide receiver who set a single-season conference record with 110 receptions and a school record with 1,426 receiving yards. No one at the FBS level had more 100-yard receiving games (10) than Washington, so it’s natural to assume that the group will take a step back following his departure. That does not seem to be the case, however. While a quarterback battle between Tony Muskett and Anthony Colandrea waged throughout spring practice, the biggest positive was realizing the wide receivers are ready to keep up the production in Washington’s absence. Malachi Fields is a known entity after being second on the team in receptions (58), receiving yards (811) and touchdowns (5) last season, and there’s a big step forward for junior JR Wilson, who was one of the shining stars of the spring game. Andre Green, a transfer from North Carolina, also stood out this spring. The passing game should be strong again in 2024.   

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami

Malachi Fields will get the chance to step up in 2024 amid the departure of Malik Washington to the NFL.  USATSI

Virginia Tech 

Year 3 will be yet another step forward for the Brent Pry era: Healthy program building sometimes requires steadiness, and that’s definitely the case in Blacksburg, Virginia, where the early transfer portal era really hurt the development and depth at Virginia Tech. The roster Pry took over heading into 2022 was in bad shape, and the on-field results showed with a 3-8 overall record and just one ACC win. The Alexandria, Virginia, native reestablished Virginia Tech’s presence on the recruiting trail with high schoolers but also tapped the transfer portal, and with strong evaluation, the Hokies hit on enough portal additions to see a jump from 3-8 in 2022 to 7-6 in 2023 with a four-win increase in ACC play. Now, as we prepare for 2024, the Hokies are one of the most intriguing teams in the conference. They’ve got the quarterback set with Kyron Drones, they’ve got an active and aggressive defense that makes its presence known and a good roster blend of transfer portal additions and younger players from Pry’s first recruiting classes. It’s been a while since you’ve been able to say Virginia Tech has all those things in line, but the Hokies have their house in order and are ready to make some noise in the ACC this fall.    

Wake Forest 

It’s time for the Hank Bachmeier bounce back: This will be the sixth college football season for Hank Bachmeier, and after a strong spring, it’s setting up to be a return to form for the quarterback who first arrived as a breakout freshman starter for Boise State in 2019. From 2019-21, he was the guy for the Broncos but lost his job in 2022 and transferred to Louisiana Tech for what was a less-than-successful 2023 campaign. He arrived in Winton-Salem, North Carolina, needing to beat out the competition for the QB1 duties, but circumstances set Bachmeier up to finish the spring looking like the answer at quarterback. Michael Kern injured his finger early in spring practice when it crashed into a defender’s helmet and limited his activity, allowing Bachmeier to settle in with the first-string offense. Wake Forest should see its offense return to form, particularly at the wide receiver position. If you’re looking for the next dynamic wideout to help Bachmeier’s bounce-back efforts, watch for him and Horatio Fields to be a difficult duo to stop this fall. 

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