Spring in the ACC: Predicting the Best of the Atlantic Division
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Spring football is slowly starting to wind down. The Seminoles wrapped up spring drills a week ago, and the Clemson Tigers look to showcase their progress today with their Orange and White scrimmage in Death Valley.
The next two weeks will see the division's other four schools will put an exclamation point on their 15 spring practices.
With that in mind, we turn an eye to the best of what the ACC’s Atlantic Division has to offer the college football world.
Looking through position groups there are some clear cut leaders in the Atlantic’s landscape. Other names like Nate Ingram, NCSU’s fiery middle linebacker, Riley Skinner of Wake Forest, as well as Clemson’s CJ Spiller, just barely missed the cut for leading their respective position groups in the Atlantic Division.
Here’s an early look at who will stand out in the fall of 2009...your Best of the Atlantic Division.
Offensive Line: Rodney Hudson (Guard, Florida State)
The 6’2” 295 pound junior is entering his third season as a starter in Tallahassee, and he’s already racked up quite a resume:
Third-team All-ACC, freshman All-American in 2007, and first team All-ACC as a sophomore.
The mauler anchored the Seminole’s rushing attack last season and he’s a solid player in the passing game as well. Another of Hudson’s assets is his ability to get to the perimeter in the run game. He’s remarkably agile for a big man, and his ability to get to the second level after defeating his initial assignment is the best among guards in the college ranks.
While physically impressive, Hudson’s biggest asset is his mentally focused approach to the game exemplified by his 20-game streak of playing penalty-free football; which was broken by a false start in 2008 (1,024 snaps played).
He limits his mistakes, and is a guy that the 'Noles can count on game in and game out; the poster-boy for consistency. He’s going to be called upon to protect Ponder as well as be a road grader for FSU’s run game. Expect preseason All-America Honors to come his way from every publication.
Running Back: Da’Rel Scott (Tailback, Maryland)
Most folks will automatically slot Clemson’s CJ Spiller into this slot as the best back in the division. However, facts say otherwise.
While Spiller is a dynamic back capable of hurting teams in both ways, there is no spot on the All-ACC team for “dynamic guy.”
There is a spot for “running back,” and Da'Rel Scott looks to snatch one of those slots with an encore of his 2008 performance. Scott posted 1,133 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns for a shaky Terrapins offense saddled with the burden of trying to get Darius Heyward-Bey the football. With no Heyward-Bey, the Terps can focus on the best part of their offense: Scott and backfield mate Davin Meggett.
Look for Scott to battle GT’s Jonathan Dwyer as the ACC’s premier feature back. Scott’s a bruising runner between the tackles who is capable of breaking the ball open if he’s given a seam.
He’s a back who gets better with each carry as he punishes defenders throughout the game, and with Meggett there to help carry part of the load, watch his second half production increase drastically.
Wide Receiver: Jacoby Ford (Wide Receiver, Clemson)
This is less a testament to Ford’s presence as a dominating wide receiver and more an ode to the departure of Aaron Kelly, Darius Heyward-Bey, and Wake Forest’s DJ Boldin.
Not to mention Preston Parker’s dismissal from the FSU squad for enjoying an "alcohol induced nap" in a McDonald's drive-thru. The Atlantic is without a true, prototypical NFL, dominant receiver, and thus Ford is thrust from his Robin role in the Clemson offense, to the Batman position for the Tigers.
Ford is a speed demon capable of getting loose down field against both man-to-man and zone coverage. However, the Clemson senior is at his best in the screen and short passing game.
He can turn a five or 10 yard pass into a long gain with his legs, and Dabo Swinney would be wise to the get the ball in his hands early and often.
Quarterback: Russell Wilson (North Carolina State)
Wilson had a breakout season in 2008 and was the biggest and best surprise in the ACC, winning first team honors as well as the ACC Rookie of the Year award.
Originally just thought to be a stopgap while the highly touted Mike Glennon red-shirted to bulk up and learn the system, Wilson excelled as the ACC season progressed.
Plagued by injuries in the first half of 2008 the red-shirt freshman was able to rebound and lead the Pack to a four game win streak to close out the regular season, making them bowl eligible.
This season, Wilson has bulked up to ready his body for the wear and tear of the ACC schedule, and his receiving corps looks to be more dependable than they were as freshmen just a year ago.
Coming off a throttling of UNC and a dismantling of Miami in their final two ACC games, the Wolfpack have a lot of momentum. With 2006’s prize recruit Toney Baker finally healthy, Wilson should have the run game he needs to compliment the Pack’s improved passing game.
Defensive Back: Crezdon Butler (Cornerback, Clemson)
Kevin Steele leaves pro-prospect Javier Arenas at Alabama, but inherits a very similar player in Butler. As a sophomore, Butler proved his worth by amassing 43 tackles, four interceptions, and, most impressively, 3.5 tackles for loss. The kid is a burner who, unlike most cover corners, isn’t afraid to mix it up at the line of scrimmage.
The departure of safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons, coupled with Kevin Steele’s aggressive, blitzing and man-to-man schemes, will put the onus on Butler to take that next step.
He has the physical tools to not only be the Atlantic’s best defensive back, but in feasting on mistakes caused by the new pressure front he can become one of the nation’s elite cornerbacks.
Linebacker: Mark Herzlich (Outside Linebacker, Boston College)
Herzlich enters his third season as a full-time starter for the Eagles, playing for his third coach in four seasons. After posting back to back 90+ tackle seasons, Herzlich was named the ACC Player of the Year in 2008, and elected to return for his senior season.
Returning BC to the nation’s elite defensive rankings will not be easy, as he must combat losing tackles BJ Raji and Ron Brace to graduation and the NFL, as well as starting middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin to a ruptured achilles.
The Eagles will need Herzlich to duplicate his six interception performance of a season ago, as well as fight through more blocks to get to the ball careers. In terms of his NFL stock, returning may have hurt Herzlich, but for the Eagles and BC to be successful, his return for Frank Spaziani was imperative.
Look for Herzlich to repeat as an All-ACC linebacker, and if Kaleb Ramsey and Damik Scaife can even partially fill Brace and Raji’s shoes, the senior backer should be able to post another dominant season for the Eagles.
Defensive Line: Da’Quan Bowers (Defensive End, Clemson)
Bowers is quite possibly the best physical specimen to play at Clemson since the Perry brothers. In 2008, he stepped onto campus as a man, and has played heavy minutes from day one.
He showed flashes of brilliance during last season, as he adjusted to the college game and finished the season with a flourish, posting six tackles for loss in his last four games.
Playing opposite of a healthy Ricky Sapp should give Bowers a better edge than last season, when teams were able to double team and key on the man-child of a freshman.
Built in the mold of recent ACC phenoms Julius Peppers and Mario Williams, 2009 will be a breakout season for the sophomore. He has the talent to be 2011’s No. 1 overall pick, and this coming season, with a season of experience under his belt, watch for Bowers to take that step towards solidifying his name right alongside Clemson’s other great defensive linemen of all-time.
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