Spring in the ACC: Predicting the Best of the Coastal Division

Bleacher ReportSenior Analyst IApril 17, 2009

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 08:  Running back Jonathan Dwyer #21 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets runs into Marvin Austin #9 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the game at Kenan Stadium on November 8, 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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Half of the ACC’s Coastal Division hosts spring showcases this coming Saturday (Apr. 18) as folks in Atlanta, Durham and Charlottesville will get a live preview of next season’s edition. 

Meanwhile, the 'Canes and Heels have already put their final stamp on spring football. 

Frank Beamer’s Hokies put the official end on spring in the Coastal when they wrap up workouts the final weekend of April.

While the Atlantic Division looks to be filled with unknowns, the Coastal returns the bulk of their talent including five* of six starting quarterbacks. 

The asterisk of course belongs to the lone “new” face in Virginia’s Jameel Sewell, who started all of 2007 leading the Wahoos to nine wins before being forced to sit out 2008 due to academic ineligibility.

The Coastal looks poised to be extremely competitive with four teams ranked in just about everyone’s preseason top 25 for 2009 (VT, GT, Miami, UNC). 

With so much talent returning, this could be the year where the ACC starts to make good on becoming a major BCS football player as was predicted after realignment in 2004.

As spring heads down the home stretch, let’s take an early look at the best that the Coastal Division has to offer at each of the seven position groups. 

Offensive Line: Sergio Render (Guard, Virginia Tech)

Render is a monster of a man standing 6’3” and weighing in at 324 lbs. He’s got the prototypical size of an NFL guard. His fourth season as a starter in Blacksburgand, he will be the anchor on a Virginia Tech line that will need to give Tyrod Taylor time to work his magic and Darren Evans holes to run through.

The experienced senior missed all of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery but enters the season as one of the top ranked guards in the nation. He is coming off a second team All-ACC performance and seems poised to join FSU’s Rodney Hudson on numerous pre-season All-American teams.

Entering this season, Beamer has the running back and quarterback threats that he’s lacked in recent seasons and Render is going to be a major cog in driving the Hokie express. 

Render is a devastating run blocker. He can pull to the outside to attack linebackers and the secondary but he really excels leaning on tackles and moving his frame forward. 

He gets great leg drive, dominates defensive tackles and moves to the second level like a monster.

Running Back: Jonathan Dwyer  (Georgia Tech)

Dwyer was a breath of fresh air for the Yellow Jacket program under new head man Paul Johnson in 2008.  The sophomore racked up 1,395 yards to lead the ACC. 

The six-foot-tall, 228 lbs, back is prototype size. He has the speed for the NFL and his sophomore season has put him on the national radar as more than just an “option running back.”

This season Dwyer will be no secret and the Coastal Division will have a year of facing Johnson’s option attack under its belt which should make for intense battles at the line of scrimmage. 

The positive is Dwyer and the rest of the Wreck’s personnel have had a season to fully immerse themselves in the flexbone.

Dwyer’s biggest issue will be his durability. However, that will less of an issue with the increased role of understudies Roddy Jones and Anthony Allen. 

He should still post big numbers and, with the Jackets' offensive machine, poised to roll repeat as the ACC player of the year.

Wide Receiver: Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech)

Thomas is the second Jacket to make the list and his name is probably a surprise to fans outside the Georgia Tech communities. 

Thomas averaged a mere three receptions a game and only posted 627 receiving yards in 2008 but when it comes to the ACC’s receivers, he is without a doubt the best returning cast member.

His size, speed and ability to go up and get the football make him a dangerous threat on every down from scrimmage.

The problem is Thomas plays under Paul Johnson’s system with a quarterback, Josh Nesbitt, who only completed 43.9 percent of his passes. 

When the passes were there, Thomas was able to average 16.1 yards per catch and, as he demonstrated against Clemson, has the ability to make big catches under pressure.

His third-down catch sealed the Tigers fate in Death Valley after the Tigers rallied to within a score.

Look for Paul Johnson to utilize his 6’3”, 229 lbs, wide-out more frequently this season as his offensive line gels together and the team understands the option. 

Running the option pass will become more efficient with an experienced Nesbitt and Thomas’ numbers should increase.

His numbers still may keep him off the All-ACC team but the talent, size and ability are there to make him one of the ACC’s best.

Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech)

Finally, Tyrod Taylor is "the guy" in Blacksburg.

The junior split time with Sean Glennon, was stripped of a redshirt and has struggled with injuries in previous seasons. But now it is his time to shine for the Hokies.

Taylor is coming off an ACC title season and he’s currently the ACC’s savior by getting the league a much needed BCS bowl game win.

The most dangerous player in the ACC, he has tremendous blend of speed and a cannon for an arm. He must improve his accuracy to truly be the devastating threat his potential screams for him to be. 

The kid can get it done with his legs, proven by his 738 rushing yards from just a season ago. Yet he must get more confident in his receivers to maximize the Hokies potential.

That confidence in the receivers should come this season as the corp has gained the much valued experience of a season at the collegiate level.

Taylor’s first test will come in the opening week as the Hokies take on Nick Saban’s Alabama team on the national stage. If the preseason top ten Hokies want to live up to their BCS dreams, Tyrod Taylor will have to be healthy and at his best for the entire season.

Defensive Back: Morgan Burnett (Safety, Georgia Tech)

Morgan Burnett finished with seven interceptions, 5.5 tackles for loss and finished 13th in the ACC in tackles per game in 2008. 

Burnett is a guy who does all the dirty work. But his job just got a little dirtier with the departure of both starting defensive tackles and end, Michael Johnson.

The kid is a ball-hawk who sees the field and truly rallies to the football. He brings his “big boy” pads with him to the stadium every day. In taking the time to watch him play, you see a safety who is passionate about the game and has an elevated understanding of his role in the defense. 

He led the Wreck in tackles in 2008 as a sophomore and looks to make an encore performance this season. 

The junior safety will have to have a stellar season to elevate a Yellow Jacket defense that is without Darryl Richard, Vance Walker and Johnson but the experienced Burnett is now the leader of the defense. 

Expect to see Burnett flying around in the secondary and making stops at the line of scrimmage as the Jackets must employ increased perimeter pressure to counteract the absence of an experienced defensive line.

Linebacker: Quan Sturdivant (Middle Linebacker, North Carolina)

The converted quarterback played well as a freshman in 2007 but 2008 saw Sturdivant explode in production racking up 122 tackles from his outside linebacker position. In 2009, you'll see the speedy, physical junior step into the middle linebacker spot to replace the graduated Mark Paschal.

The transition to middle linebacker pulls Sturdivant, the Heels best linebacker, into the heart of the defense and allows him to be an anchor for the newcomer Zach Brown. 

Posting thirteen-tackle games twice in 2008 from the outside, Sturdivant is a tackling machine who finds a way through the wash to the ball carrier. 

His combination of size (6’2”, 232 lbs) and speed (4.6) make him a wrecking ball in the second level. His athletic ability make him a true player in pass defense.

As an every down middle linebacker, Sturdivant is one of the best in the nation entering 2008. He’s got the size and speed to play both short and long yardage possessions. 

He’s at his best flowing sideline to sideline. With the massive tackles in front of him occupying blockers, this season should see the junior post career highs in tackles yet again.

Defensive Line: Marvin Austin (Defensive Tackle, North Carolina)

Austin has the potential to be the number one overall pick in the 2010 draft.

The issue is him finally living up to his athletic expectations.  He’s a terrific blend of size, speed and power that has the explosion to dominate against the run and the pass. 

After having a stand out freshman year, he took a step back in 2008 when he faced double teams and didn’t have the presence of Kentwan Balmer and Hilee Taylor along the defensive line.

The emergence of Robert Quinn and EJ Wilson as dependable pass rushers should give Austin more freedom along the defensive line. Their impact, coupled with defensive line coach John Blake’s diligent teachings, should elevate Austin from playing on instinct as he did in 2007 to using technique and experience to defeat double teams in 2009.

Much like Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers, UNC’s Marvin Austin seems poised for a break out season in 2009. 

By giving the dominant tackle help along the defensive front, Austin’s tackle for loss as well as sack number should improve as will his impact upon the game. 

Look for Austin to return to freshman form and surpass those numbers through increased playing time while making his first appearance on the All-ACC team.


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