College football never stops. Even though the season ended just more than a month ago, preparations are already full speed toward the 2021 campaign.
Spring practices give teams an opportunity to develop starters, find replacements for departed players and give young talent the chance to gain experience.
The outlook for the Atlantic Coast Conference again has six-time defending champion Clemson as the favorite with the rest of the league hoping to gain ground. The Tigers won't be as overwhelming a favorite with them expected to take a slight step back. Plus, some contenders are returning enough starters to perhaps make things interesting.
The key question for each team entering its offseason practices:
2020 record: 6-5 (5-5 in ACC)
Key players: QB Phil Jurkovec, WR Zay Flowers, C Alec Lindstrom
Biggest question: Can the Eagles find a running game?
Jeff Hafley’s first season with the Eagles was a success as the Eagles went 6-5 and, more importantly, showed the ability to compete with the top of the ACC in close losses to North Carolina and Notre Dame. Now comes step two of the building process. Jurkovec proved himself in his first year as a starter after transferring from Notre Dame. But too often he was a one-man band with an offense that was 118th in rushing (101.7 yards per game) and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. A promising sign? Lindstrom, a first team all-ACC pick, decided to return, giving BC all five starters back on the offensive line.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei will step in after the departure of Trevor Lawrence. (Photo: Ken Ruinard, USA TODAY Sports)
2020 record: 10-2 (8-1)
Key players: QB D.J. Uiagalelei, DL Myles Murphy, LB James Skalski
Biggest question: Will the defense improve enough to beat elite teams?
For most programs, losing a player as special as Trevor Lawrence would easily create the biggest question. But the Tigers are different, especially with Uiagalelei showing in two starts that he’ll be fine under center. The larger concern is a defense that was shredded in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State one year after LSU did the same in the title game. The unit, which returns most of its starters, is good enough to win the ACC. The standard for Clemson, however, is winning titles so the pressure is on coordinator Brent Venables to find a fix.
2020 record: 2-9 (1-9)
Key players: RB Mataeo Durant, OL Casey Holman, LB Shaka Heyward
Biggest question: Was last season a blip or ominous sign of decline?
The Blue Devils had gone to bowl games in six of the eight previous seasons before the bottom fell out last year. Nobody doubts Dave Cutcliffe’s coaching ability. However, this is a big lift to bring the program back to credibility. He started by shifting the responsibilities of his staff in hopes of energizing both sides of the ball. Quarterback play — Cutcliffe’s expertise — was dreadful and must improve.
2020 record: 3-6 (2-6)
Key players: QB McKenzie Milton, RB Jashaun Corbin, LB Amari Gainer
Biggest question: Can the Seminoles start their climb to respectability?
Mike Norvell became the third coach in four seasons when he took over at Florida State last year. With such upheaval amid injuries, COVID-19 issues and being the youngest team in the country, it is no surprise that his debut was a disappointment. There are reasons for optimism that Norvell can restore a program that should never be floundering at the bottom of the ACC. Milton transfers in two years after his horrific leg injury at Central Florida. He could solidify the quarterback position that has been a mess. The offensive line — another issue in recent seasons — could become a strength with most of its experience returning. A host of transfers on defense hopes to bring improvement on that side of the ball.
SEC PREVIEW: Alabama still on top, but what about the rest of the league?
BIG TEN PREVIEW: Ohio State is in the driver's seat; Indiana needs healthy QB
2020 record: 3-7 (3-6)
Key players: QB Jeff Sims, RB Jahmyr Gibbs, DL Jordan Domineck
Biggest question: Is the third year the charm for Geoff Collins?
Sims and Gibbs were two standouts from last year’s freshman group that will be significant as Collins continues his transformation of the program. Sims, as expected for a first-year player, was inconsistent, showing signs of brilliance and a propensity to turn the ball over. Like Florida State, the Yellow Jackets have dipped into the transfer market to solve issues on defense. Better play there is a must to get them into the postseason mix.
2020 record: 4-7 (3-7)
Key players: QB Malik Cunningham, LB C.J. Avery, DB Kei’Trel Clark
Biggest question: Are there enough playmakers to avoid close losses?
The Cardinals weren't far from being near the top of the league but went 0-4 in games decided by seven points or less, including a five-point loss at Notre Dame. Cunningham loses his top running back and top two receivers that provided most of the team’s big plays. The good news on offense? All five offensive line starters return.
2020 record: 8-3 (7-2)
Key players: QB D’Eriq King, WR Mike Harley, DB Bubba Bolden
Biggest question: Will King be close to 100% by the start of the season?
The answer is important with the Hurricanes opening against defending national champion Alabama. King’s decision to return was celebrated for a few days before his knee injury during the team’s bowl game left his status in doubt. After elevating the offense last year, King’s passing is important with Harley and Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo at receiver. In his absence this spring, three freshmen – Peyton Matocha, Tyler Van Dyke and early enrollee Jake Garcia – will have a chance to get extra reps and possibly compete for the starting job if King isn't ready.
Quarterback Sam Howell will lead the Tar Heels, who may have their best chance to win an ACC title since 1980. (Photo: Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports)
2020 record: 8-4 (7-3)
Key players: QB Sam Howell, OL Joshua Ezeudu, LB Tomon Fox
Biggest question: Are there enough pieces to break through and win the ACC?
With Howell expected to enter the NFL draft after the season, this looks to be the best opportunity for the Tar Heels to win their first conference title since 1980. The glaring holes are at running back and receiver, but a full offseason can benefit the discovery process at those positions. The defense should take a big step forward with most of its contributors returning. The benefits of Mack Brown’s recruiting will finally get a full spring to acclimate.
North Carolina State
2020 record: 8-4 (7-3)
Key players: RB Zonovan Knight, DL Daniel Joseph, LB Payton Wilson
Biggest question: Was the 2020 season a sign of the Wolfpack rising?
It’s hard to make concrete inferences from last season given the impact of COVID-19, but the Wolfpack took a big step forward in a season that saw them lose only to Clemson, Miami and North Carolina in the league. Sophomore quarterback Devin Leary returns after an injury-plagued season. His development this spring is crucial. Knight and Ricky Person give the running game a strong 1-2 punch, while defense can again be stingy with Joseph and Wilson among its leaders.
2020 record: 6-5 (5-5)
Key players: QB Kenny Pickett, WR Jordan Addison, LB SirVocea Dennis
Biggest question: Do the Panthers move from the middle of the pack?
The return of Pickett, who was expected to declare for the NFL draft, is a major plus for a program that has hovered between five and eight wins for all six of Pat Narduzzi’s seasons. On the receiving end of many of Pickett's throws should be Addison, a freshman standout last year. The defense that was dominant up front (ranked third in the nation against the run) lost several key performers. How those gaps are filled will determine if Pitt can threaten in the Coastal Division.
2020 record: 1-10 (1-9)
Key players: RB Sean Tucker, WR Taj Harris, DB Garrett Williams
Biggest question: Is this the last stand for Dino Babers?
The 10-win season in 2018 seems like a lifetime ago for the Orange. They’ve won just six of 23 games since, putting their coach under pressure to change course quickly or his departure seems assured. The offense, Babers’ specialty, has regressed with issues at quarterback being the first order of business. Tucker and Harris provide two weapons for whomever is behind center. The defensive line returns intact to provide a solid foundation.
2020 record: 5-5 (4-5)
Key players: QB Brennan Armstrong, WR Billy Kemp IV, LB Nick Jackson
Biggest question: Will the secondary improve enough to solidify the defense?
The Cavaliers expectedly took a step back with Armstrong having mixed results in his first year as a starter. It got better later in the season as Virginia won four of its last five games, providing momentum and confidence entering the offseason. The defense, specifically the secondary, was a disappointment. Shoring up that area will be the primary focus in the offseason after allowing more than 300 yards per game.
2020 record: 5-6 (5-5)
Key players: QB Braxton Burmeister, DL Amare Barno, LB Dax Hollifield
Biggest question: How quickly can the defense be rebuilt?
In the first year after the retirement of longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies cratered to 103rd in total defense and allowed 32.1 points per game. Adding to concerns, several of the unit's best players are off to the NFL. This spring will be critical for Foster successor Justin Hamilton to turn the tide, especially with coach Justin Fuente on the hot seat entering his sixth season after the team’s run of 27 consecutive bowl games ended. Attention also will have to be paid to the offense as Burmeister becomes the starter with two others transferring out. A solid ground threat will need to be found after top rusher Khalil Herbert departed.
2020 record: 4-5 (3-4)
Key players: QB Sam Hartman, WR Jaquarii Roberson, DL Miles Fox
Biggest question: Are the Demon Deacons going to be even better on offense?
The Demon Deacons keep consistently punching above their weight as evidenced by their five consecutive bowl trips entering this season. A sixth seems likely with Hartman and Roberson back to spearhead an offense that ranked 19th in scoring (36 points per game). What postseason destination they reach will depend on how the defense jells. Too many blown leads last year led to the school's first losing record since Dave Clawson's second season in 2015.
Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ErickSmith
Source: Read Full Article