The biggest signing day needs around the ACC
After an outstanding season in which the ACC emerged as the top conference in college football, there were some notable losses across the conference. Heading into National Signing Day, and with a legitimate six teams in contention next year, one or two key freshmen could make all the difference. Here’s a look at what each ACC team’s biggest need is on signing day.
Boston College: Quarterback
The Eagles’ latest experiment under center brought mixed results. Kentucky transfer Patrick Towles was an undoubted improvement on wide receiver/general athlete Jeff Smith, but he did not transform the program in the way some expected. Towles was terrible under pressure, completing just 26.1 percent of passes for 204 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His rudimentary understanding of pocket movement hurt Boston College in a number of games in 2016. Until they find an upgrade, Boston College will continue to languish in the cellar of the ACC.
Clemson: Running back
Replacing Deshaun Watson’s production will be the biggest challenge for the Tigers’ offense, but Nick Schuessler at least offered some promising signs in 2015. Without Wayne Gallman, however, Clemson’s scoring unit struggled. His decision to enter the NFL leaves the Tigers in need of reinforcements. In over 90 carries in 2016, C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice averaged only just over 2 yards after contact and broke only six tackles. Gallman, meanwhile, averaged 3 yards after contact per attempt and a broken tackle once in every four carries.
Duke: A pass-rusher
A couple of years ago, Duke was threatening to make a strong run at the ACC with NFL talent in the likes of Laken Tomlinson and Jamison Crowder. The program has taken a couple small steps back recently, in part due to a lack of standouts throughout the roster. A pass-rusher has been needed for a while, and Duke can’t afford to be fussy about where they do their damage. The top pass-rusher on the team was defensive tackle A.J. Wolf, who managed only 25 combined pressures. No other defensive lineman had more than 13. The unit as a whole managed only 13 sacks, 13 hits and 63 pressures. The Blue Devils are desperate for pass-rush help.
Florida State: Offensive tackle
The Seminoles, typically gutted by underclassman departing for the NFL, return a majority of starters in 2017. Behind promising quarterback Deondre Francois, FSU might be the favorites in the Atlantic division. Replacing lost production at the skill positions could prove problematic, but it is at tackle where the Seminoles must improve. Throughout 2016, Francois experienced a turnstile of tackles lining up to protect him. On the right side, a rotation of Brock Ruble and Rick Leonard was entirely ineffective. They combined to give up seven sacks, nine hits and 20 pressures a season ago. To compound matters, junior Roderick Johnson (16 pressures allowed) is heading for the pros.
Georgia Tech: Cornerbacks
In order for the triple option to function effectively, the Yellow Jackets defense has to keep games close. Big deficits are a killer for a ball-control attack that relies on constantly wearing down opponents. Transitioning from the triple option to a more expansive passing game cannot be easy. Georgia Tech were decent on the back end in 2016, but will only compete in the ACC with an excellent secondary considering the quarterbacks they will face. Step Durham and Lawrence Austin had particularly difficult season, giving up QB ratings of 100.4 and 87.3, respectively. They also combined to allow seven touchdowns. Short of an improvement in the secondary, the Yellow Jackets will find it difficult to challenge the conference’s top dogs.
Louisville: Interior offensive line
The Cardinals’ offensive line was embarrassed in key losses to Clemson and Houston. Schematic deficiencies aside, Louisville’s front simply lacks top talent. The departure of seniors Khalil Hunter and Tobijah Hughley are hardly a blow, considering they ranked 232nd and 137th, respectively, in 2016. The remaining returner to the interior, Kiola Mahoni, was the worst of the bunch. He earned the second-worst season grade of all guards, languishing at 319th in our rankings. Tackles Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil are solid, but the Cardinals’ interior is in desperate need of new personnel.
Brad Kaaya did not have the dominant junior year many expected, but he was a solid signal-caller throughout his career with the Hurricanes. His departure coincides with the loss of two top playmakers, wide receiver Stacy Coley and tight end David Njoku. Kaaya’s consistency left a lot to be desired, as did his performances under pressure (59.2 QB rating), but his loss represents a huge blow to the Hurricanes’ in terms of continuity. The departure of last season’s top lineman, senior Danny Isidora, opens another major hole in the lineup. Miami face a number of tough decisions this offseason.
North Carolina: Wide receiver
The Tar Heels feel like a program in complete rebuild mode after the departure of their starting quarterback, top three receivers and two dynamic special teamers. Replacing Mitch Trubisky, Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, T.J. Logan and Mack Hollins will not be easy. In fact, the Tar Heels are saying goodbye to seven key contributors this offseason on the offensive side of the ball. Austin Proehl has the most experience of the returning wide receivers, but he will find it hard to replace Switzer’s prodigious production. He has twice as many drops (eight) as he does touchdowns (four) to this point in his career.
NC State: Secondary
The Wolfpack will be comfortable with the quantity of losses this offseason. The quality of departing talent, however, will concern them. Corner Jack Tocho and safety Josh Jones were the keystones of the defensive backfield. Both are heading for the NFL. Tocho allowed the Wolfpack’s underrated front to go to work, ranking 15th in the FBS in pure coverage grade. Jones, meanwhile, ranked 12th overall, giving up a QB rating of only 58.3. The remaining pair of returning starters were not nearly as effective. They should be better for the experience, but Shawn Boone (10 missed tackles in 67 attempts) and Mike Stevens (88.2 QB rating allowed) were a couple notches below the level of their counterparts in 2016.
Pittsburgh: Offensive line
The Pitt Panthers’ pro-style offense is driven by the power running game. As key as quarterback Nathan Peterman proved a season ago, their ability to generate a running game makes the whole unit tick. The loss, therefore, of the entire left side of their line represents a major stumbling block. On the edge, tackle Adam Bisnowaty gave up 10 ten combined pressures in 2016 and performed admirably as a run blocker. Guard Dorian Johnson, though, was the key run blocker for the front last season. He was most commonly called upon to pull out in front and lead in the power scheme, wrecking defenders at the point of attack on a consistent basis. Replacing his production is unlikely to be easy.
Syracuse: Running back
The Orange have adopted an aggressive vertical offense, transforming games with big plays between quarterback Eric Dungey and wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo. Replacing the latter may prove difficult, and it is not the only concern. The scheme would function more effectively if the running game represented a legitimate threat, forcing defenses to bring another safety into the box. Starter Dontae Strickland experienced a torrid campaign, ranking dead last in our running back rankings. He struggled picking up the blitz in particular, giving up 15 combined pressures. In addition, he averaged only 3.5 yards per carry and 6.3 yards per catch.
Gauging quarterbacks at programs that lack the resources of other institutions is difficult, but the right decision at the position can have a major impact. After muddling through with a combination of Matt Johns and Kurt Benkert in 2016, the Cavaliers have theoretically landed on their starter. Benkert struggled in the pocket in his first year as a starter, taking six sacks, but showed flashes here and there. He made his fair share of big-time plays (21 touchdowns), but needs to learn to avoid the major mistakes (11 interceptions). His accuracy under pressure (33.3 percent) could also use some work. The coaches need to decide if Benkert is the long-term solution.
Virginia Tech: Quarterback
The Hokies offer an exemplary case study for the transformation a quarterback can make to a program. With Michael Brewer at the helm, Virginia Tech muddled around the middle of the pack in the Coastal division. Back a year later, with Jerod Evans’ transfer from JUCO secured, they collected the Coastal championship. Evans was an obvious success, but his surprise departure leaves a gaping hole the Hokies didn’t expect to have to fill. Backup Brendan Motley toiled in 2015, inspiring little confidence.
Wake Forest: Linebacker
The Demon Deacons improved significantly in 2016, even though they won only three games last season. In the most competitive division in football, that record is more impressive than it seems. The Demon Deacons’ success was built on a dominant defense led by their linebackers. Marquel Lee was a force in the middle, ranking in the top ten with 61 run stops this season. Beside him, Thomas Brown was given greater coverage responsibilities, responding with a QB rating allowed of only 87.3. Jaboree Williams offers plenty of potential stepping into a full-time role, but he’ll need support.