ACC Football: Patrick Hite Breaks Down Front-Runners and Sleepers
Patrick Hite from accnation.com was kind enough to answer some questions for Bleacher Report ACC liaison, Doug Adams.
Who do you see as the front-runners in the ACC conference? What teams appear primed for a run at the ACC title?
The easy pick in the Atlantic is Clemson. The Tigers have the best skill players in the conference. Cullen Harper was every bit as good as Matt Ryan last year and is my preseason first-team all-ACC quarterback for 2008. James Davis and C.J. Spiller form the best running-back tandem in the country and Aaron Kelly is a first-team receiver.
That being said, my pick to win the Atlantic is Wake Forest. Clemson’s offensive line worries me, and other than their secondary, the Tigers defense is full of holes. And don’t forget, Clemson has a way of underachieving. A loss at BC or UVa wouldn’t shock anyone.
Meanwhile, Wake has a quarterback in Riley Skinner that, if healthy for the entire season, may put up numbers similar to Harper. Also, Josh Adams will give both Davis and Spiller a run for first-team all-ACC. But it’s the Wake defense that could be the difference. Two years ago, during Wake's surprise run to the conference title, the Demon Deacons won in part with a strong defense. Expect the same this season.
Wake's schedule also helps. The Deacons don't have to play Virginia Tech or North Carolina, the teams many experts think will battle it out for the Coastal Division title, and Clemson has to play in Winston-Salem on a Thursday night. Wake does have to go to Florida State, but it's the third game of the season and the Seminoles will still be hurting because of early-season suspensions.
The Coastal appears to be the weaker of the two divisions for the upcoming season. Virginia Tech has questions at running back, receiver, and linebacker, just to name a few positions, but the Hokies still appear to be the best team in this division.
Tech needs to find a way to use Tyrod Taylor effectively. He's as talented as anyone on the Tech roster, but Sean Glennon is probably the better quarterback. Will the Hokies use both like they did at the end of last season? The quarterback situation and how Tech uses both players may be a key to this team.
North Carolina is young and it will be interesting to see how the players deal with preseason hype. Georgia Tech and Duke have new coaches. Virginia is dealing with personnel losses, both expected and unexpected. Miami needs someone to step up at quarterback, receiver and most spots on defense. The Hurricanes could be really good or really bad. That goes for a lot of teams in the Coastal.
Who do you see as the dark horse or sleeper teams?
In the Atlantic, I like Maryland as a surprise team. They need to settle on a quarterback. Chris Turner finished strong last year after replacing Jordan Steffy. Those two will be in the mix again, as will Josh Portis, who may be the most talented. Whichever player nails down the job, they'll have great receivers, starting with Darrius Heyward-Bey, as targets.
There's talent, if not experience, at running back, but the backs will benefit from what could be a great offensive line. The offense will have to carry the defense early, but if some of the younger players come around on defense, the unit could be good enough to keep the Terps in games. I don't think Maryland will sneak past Wake and Clemson, but an eight-win season is not out of the question.
This year's Coastal surprise could be last year's Coastal surprise. It seems for every Chris Long that was expected to be gone this season, a Jeffrey Fitzgerald unexpectedly left the program. The defense has some issues, but if the offensive line can come together quickly I really like the UVa skill players.
Peter Lalich will be the quarterback after Jameel Sewell found himself in academic trouble. Lalich isn't as mobile as Sewell, but he is a more traditional pocket quarterback and he'll have some weapons, including Kevin Ogletree. Running back should also be a strength for the Cavaliers. A weak division opens the door for Virginia, as well as every other team in the Coastal.
The ACC seems to be filled with competition at the Quarterback position. What can you tell us about the position battles that are surfacing in this conference?
Florida State: Drew Weatherford will most likely start at quarterback, but it's anyone's guess how long he remains in that position. The rising senior missed spring practice, giving Christian Ponder and D'Vontrey Richardson a chance to play. Both may push for starting time if Weatherford struggles. I like Ponder to get the job by the time FSU is at Miami Oct. 4, but this will probably be a season-long saga in Tallahassee.
Maryland: Chris Turner got his chance last year when Jordan Steffy was injured. Turner led Maryland to a couple of big wins, including one over Boston College, and is the likely starter come Aug. 30. But look for Turner to have a short leash. Steffy will likely get a chance if Turner falters. I really like Florida transfer Josh Portis, who missed last season at Maryland after some academic issues, but I don't believe he'll get a chance unless things go south in a hurry for the Terps.
N.C. State: Close your eyes and pick a name out of a hat—that may be the way N.C. State decides on a starting quarterback this year. Daniel Evans was the starter last year, but his competitors at the position are more athletic, plus Evans had an injury in the spring which may have hurt his chances at earning the starting job this season.
Justin Burke had a good spring game but was buried on the depth chart last year. Harrison Beck isn't the best decision maker but does have a strong arm. Mike Glennon is the hope for the future, but it's doubtful a true freshman can win the job unless the coaching staff decides at some point this year that the season is lost and starts playing for 2009.
Those are the three teams with actual battles heading into the season. As we've seen in the past, any of the other schools could end up with battles once the season gets under way. For instance, North Carolina will go with T.J. Yates to begin the season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Paulus if the Heels don't start out strong.
Robert Marve is my pick to start at Miami, but keeping the job all season isn't a given. I don't consider Virginia Tech's situation a quarterback battle because I think Frank Beamer fully expects to play both guys throughout the season.
Last year's top teams, Virginia Tech and Boston College, are graduating a lot of seniors and seem to be inexperienced at a lot of positions. Is there concern in the conference that this could be a down year?
This has been a hot topic on our podcast for the last few years. Recently, every year seems like a down one for the ACC. When the ACC expanded, conference officials dreamed about the day they landed two teams in the BCS. Not only is the ACC not close to realizing that dream, but the nightmare is that the one team that does get in every year can't win. The last time the ACC won a BCS game was in 1999.
It hasn't helped that the two teams with a history of being national powers—Florida State and Miami—have been down for the past few years. Virginia Tech has been on the verge of being a national power, but the Hokies can't seem to beat top-10 teams or win BCS games.
This year there is hope that Clemson can make some noise on a national level. The Tigers open with Alabama, and a Clemson win would be a huge step toward respect for the ACC. Other key non-conference games that the ACC could win include Maryland hosting California, UNC at Rutgers, and Virginia Tech at Nebraska.
If the ACC can win those games and finally get another BCS victory, it may go from being a down year to the year that things start heading in the right direction for the conference.
Who are some of the conference elite players that you believe will end the season with very high draft grades?
If you're looking at the NFL Draft, most 2009 mock drafts I see have Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson in the top 10, some in the top five. He could use some work on stopping the run, but Tech has used him almost exclusively in passing situations. His ability to get to the quarterback has caused NFL scouts to fall in love with Johnson. He will have a different defensive coordinator this season at Tech, so we'll see if that helps or hurts his production.
James Davis could be a solid NFL prospect, but I like C.J. Spiller better. He is more explosive than Davis and more of a threat in the passing game. Spiller is only a junior, so he may want to stick around one more year at Clemson to get the job all to himself after Davis is gone. Then again, if the NFL thinks he's a first-round pick in 2009, the Tigers may be without Thunder and Lightning next season.
Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly almost jumped into the draft last year, but decided to return. He could be a first-round pick in 2009, but Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey could be the better pro prospect. He is fast and has great hands. It's shocking to me Maryland hasn't made him more of a central figure in its offense.
I also like Virginia left tackle Eugene Moore, who didn't give up a sack last season. With a great year in 2008, Moore could become a top-10 pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
Finally, Victor "Macho" Harris could be a top-20 pick in the draft. He pulled his name out of the 2008 draft at the last minute to see if an extra year at Virginia Tech improves his draft stock. I could see him at either corner or safety in the NFL.
Can you rank all the teams in the ACC according to how you think they will finish from first to last?
1. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. Georgia Tech
1. Wake Forest
4. Florida State
5. North Carolina State
6. Boston College
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