ACC Football: Top Spring Practice Battles to Watch For
Quarterback is the word around the ACC, as teams are looking to replace impact signal-callers all over the conference. However, quarterback is not the only spot where teams will be looking for answers come spring football.
With the reigning BCS national champion in the conference, the league has a bit more shine to its apple entering spring ball. Here is where teams in the Atlantic and the Coastal will start laying the foundation to try and knock off a loaded Florida State team that is looking to make a run at back-to-back titles.
Although players are transitioning all over the conference, the coaching ranks remain relatively stable, with just a handful of coordinators leaving. The only new head coach is Bobby Petrino, who looks to guide Louisville from the AAC to the ACC while teaching his brand of football to the Cardinals.
As spring ball closes in, here is a look at some of the most compelling spring competitions in the ACC.
Florida State: Running Back
The Seminoles return Heisman winner Jameis Winston at the quarterback spot, and Nick O'Leary and Rashad Greene should help stabilize a passing attack that loses Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin. The run game was powered by Devonta Freeman, who is headed to the NFL. James Wilder Jr., the third leading rusher, is also headed for the next level.
Karlos Williams, the second leading rusher for 2013, returns to the mix, and after working to transition from defensive back to full-time running back a year ago, he will hit the ground running in the spring. The rising senior is expected to be a star at the position, after showing flashes of being the total package during his first year of carrying the ball.
However, early enrollee Dalvin Cook enters as one of the nation's most highly touted running backs. From Miami Central, he was rated as the nation's No. 2 running back by 247Sports, and as an early enrollee, he will be in the mix for Jimbo Fisher's team this spring.
This battle will be an interesting one to watch because regardless of who emerges as the starter, Florida State is going to win. Williams and Cook are two capable backs who are explosive and elusive and will help power the run game of the ACC favorite.
One key to watch will be the pass protection. Freeman was a tremendous asset in the pass game as a blocker, and replacing that output will be tough for Williams and Cook. If they can become a positive in that respect, it will mean more reps.
Virginia Tech: Linebackers
The Hokies lose Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards at the linebacker spot, who both made plays for the Virginia Tech defense. With the leading tacklers moving on, defensive coordinator Bud Foster will be looking at his depth chart and hoping to find new leaders at a position where a lot is required by the Hokies.
This battle is going to be quite the scrap, as plenty of names will be hoping to push into the starting mix for the defense. The elder statesmen, Derek DiNardo and Chase Williams, have both played well on special teams, and in their final season, the clock is ticking on being a starter.
In addition to the seniors, two players from the class of 2012 will likely make big pushes to start at linebacker. Dahman McKinnon and Deon Clarke are both athletic options who have seen time on the field and are hoping to seize the opportunity.
From the redshirt ranks, the Hokies have Jameion Moss and Andrew Motuapuaka. This spring is about those two showing what they can do in an effort to climb into the two-deep and possibly the starting spot. It won't be easy, but like the other players in the mix, they fit the profile of what Foster is looking for physically.
Depending upon his recovery, another contender could also be in the mix: Devin Vandyke. He was third on the depth chart behind Tyler and Williams entering the 2013 season, but an ACL tear sidelined him early in the season. If he is cleared for spring football, he will give the coaches another option at the position.
Virginia Tech has more of a rodeo for the two linebacker positions than a true head-to-head battle. With a lot of options and contenders, this will be one of the more intriguing position bouts and will likely continue into fall camp.
Louisville starts the quarterback part of this movement, and as the Cardinals enter spring with a new head coach in a new conference, Bobby Petrino will be looking for his guy. That means Will Gardner, Kyle Bolin and Brett Nelson will be competing for the job this spring.
A transfer who could not crack the previous staff's depth chart, Nelson is the least likely to win, but with a clean slate, perhaps the senior will be able to make up some ground on the two favorites to win the job.
That said, his road won't be easy, as both Bolin and Gardner have Louisville fans excited. Per 247Sports, Gardner was a high 3-star in the 2012 class who won the backup spot in 2013 and grew into his 6'5" frame during his two seasons at Louisville. He has a big arm, can throw on the move and is familiar with his targets.
Bolin has to fill in, but at 6'3", the 4-star 2013 signee has the tools to be a stud quarterback. Like Gardner, he is tall enough to throw over the line of scrimmage and has the athleticism to roll out to make accurate throws.
The most intriguing element to this spring battle is Max Wittek. The ex-USC quarterback is still in limbo about his destination, according to CBS Sports, so the Louisville winner is not guaranteed the job. Should Wittek arrive in the summer, fall camp will see another open competition, where either Bolin or Gardner would have to continue to fight for the job.
Virginia Tech: Quarterback
The Hokies are on the list again, because if they want to get back to winning the Coastal Division, Frank Beamer's team needs good, consistent quarterback play. As the head coach told The Washington Post following the bowl game, Mark Leal is first up for the job this spring.
Leal, a rising redshirt senior, has sat patiently behind Logan Thomas over the last few seasons, waiting for his turn to take the reins. In the Sun Bowl against UCLA, he was pressed into action and went 11-of-24 with two interceptions following Thomas' injury. So while Leal is the favorite to win the job, he still has plenty of work to do to calm the Hokies' nerves.
He will be pushed by 2012 signee Brendan Motley and current early enrollee Andrew Ford.
Motley is a dynamic athlete who would allow the offense to continue to work the running quarterback element. Ford is Scot Loeffler's first true quarterback recruit, and as an early enrollee, expect him to compete. He is athletic enough to throw on the move, but he's at his best distributing the ball to playmakers down the field.
For Virginia Tech, this battle should be intriguing; although Leal is the leader, he will have to work to earn the job. What the Hokies cannot afford is another season where interceptions are nearly as common as touchdowns, and Leal has to prove he is the best option, not just the default option because of age.
The goal here should be seeing Motley and Ford push Leal, with the best player emerging from the fire of competition.
Clemson is home to one of the most important and intriguing quarterback battles in the nation. Tajh Boyd has moved onto the next level, and the Tigers are tasked with replacing one of the better quarterbacks in recent ACC history. There are three candidates, and each will be fighting to fill his shoes.
Of the three players vying for the position, Cole Stoudt brings the most experience to the mix. The rising senior has played significant time as the leading backup over the last three seasons, and after biding his time, he will not just give the position away to his challengers. He has been effective, showing the ability to run when he has to and consistently making smart decisions with the football.
Next up is Chad Kelly, a highly touted 247Sports' 2012 4-star signee who brings a solid arm, a little in-game experience and a lot of confidence to the mix. He could not beat out Stoudt for the backup role in 2013, but this year with the starting job on the line, look for the rising redshirt sophomore to compete hard to get on the field.
The wild card in this mix is Deshaun Watson. He brings confidence, good polish and some high level athleticism to the position. He is an early enrollee from the 2014 class and has the highest ceiling of the three quarterback options.
This battle will pit Stoudt's experience against two young gunners who believe they should be the starting quarterback. No one is going to cede ground, and to get his one-year stint as the starter for the Tigers, Stoudt will have to fight off two players who could be the future of the Clemson program.
Other Notable Battles
At North Carolina, the battle will be in the trenches on both sides of the ball. James Hurst and Russell Bodine are out, and that means coach Larry Fedora has to replace pieces on the offensive line to keep his offense moving. Defensively, Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson transition out of the program, and the Heels have to fill in the bodies up front.
For the NC State Wolfpack, the battle will be about the backup quarterback spot. Jacoby Brissett, the Florida transfer, has already been tabbed as the starter, so head coach Dave Doeren's job will be finding a capable No. 2. Garrett Leatham, Bryant Shirreffs and Josh Taylor all return and have a tremendous amount of work to do. Someone has to emerge as a capable passer out of the mix who can control the offense.
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will be looking for defensive ends this spring, and with some talented youth, there will be a healthy competition to replace Jeremiah Attaochu and Emmanuel Dieke. Although finding the versatility of Attaochu will be difficult, the Yellow Jackets have some talented athletes who will give them a sound rotation on the edge of the defensive front.
Spring ball is about competition, and there are interesting battles all over the conference. Miami has to find a quarterback, while Virginia is moving to replace major pieces on the offensive line. There are plenty of moving pieces to focus on in the ACC in a spring season that should help teams position themselves for the future.
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