2021 spring practice is either underway or about to begin all across college football, and it's welcomed with open arms after the ups and downs of the 2020 offseason. Players and coaches alike are still going through rigorous COVID-19 protocols in order to participate, but to even have these workouts after the entire country was shut down abruptly last March feels like a win for the sport.
A return to spring practice and a full spring schedule also brings back into focus the things that can be gained, learned and discussed around these programs during this crucial period of development. Position battles at quarterback and throughout the depth chart begin in earnest during these spring practice sessions, and teams with new coaches or coaching changes look to use them as a chance to build the foundation for what they want to accomplish in the fall.
In the ACC, there are 13 teams that begin every spring practice looking to improve and close the gap with Clemson. The Tigers have been pushing the standard forward for the entire conference throughout the College Football Playoff era and any other conference championship contender -- Miami or North Carolina draw the most intrigue as we begin 2021 -- knows the path to a league title goes through the Tigers.
Even though there were no head coaching changes after last season, the 2021 spring practice does bring a feeling of renewal for several programs who could use a fresh start. New hires from last cycle that didn't get the full 2020 offseason will have that opportunity for the first time, and other programs get to use this as a pivot point having gone through a tumultuous season where reaching the finish line felt like a competition on its own.
So with all the spring feelings of renewal, optimism and freshly cut grass, let's dive into the biggest questions around the ACC in 2021 spring practice.
Which wide receivers emerge as starters for Clemson?
When Tee Higgins left for the NFL Draft and Justyn Ross suffered a season-ending injury, the door was open for one of Clemson's several blue-chip wide receivers to make a jump in 2020. As Dabo Swinney and the Tigers have boosted their standing on the recruiting trail, one of their priorities has been keeping that wide receiver room loaded with the kind of game-changing talent that has been a key piece of the Clemson offense since the days of DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. But nagging injuries and player availability -- which were issues up and down the Tigers roster in 2020 -- contributed to limited production from talented players like Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson.
Luckily, the senior duo of Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell answered the call and stepped up to provide stability and reliability at the position en route to a sixth straight ACC Championship and College Football Playoff appearance. As spring is underway at Clemson, all eyes are on that talented room again to see what the rotation will look like for D.J. Uiagalelei in the fall. For starters, Ross is back and his return is among the most celebrated pieces of news the program has had in months. E.J. Williams broke out late last season as a freshman and will likely be in the mix for snaps along with Ngata and Ladson. A potential wild card here is Ajou Ajou, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound sophomore from Canada who saw limited game action but has generated buzz for his athleticism, as seen on the field in this 35-yard touchdown against Georgia Tech.
What's next for North Carolina's rushing attack?
Quarterback Sam Howell is among the most productive returning players in all of college football. After setting a new FBS true freshman record with 38 touchdowns on the way to winning ACC Rookie of the Year in 2019, he led the conference in passing yards (3,586) and passing touchdowns (30) in 2020. But despite the gaudy numbers, one of the things that stressed out opposing defensive coordinators the most was trying to contain the one-two punch of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter at running back. Both players finished as 1,000-yard rushers with notable contributions in the passing game as well, and both Williams and Carter are now off to the NFL along with 1,000-yard receiver Dyami Brown as well as dynamic big-play threat Dazz Newsome.
As long as Howell is on the field, there's going to be a set of high expectations for offensive production, but the next men up at those skill positions will determine whether North Carolina can reach the ACC Championship Game for the second time in school history. Running back British Brooks showed flashes in his Orange Bowl efforts against Texas A&M and the offense welcomes transfer Ty Chandler from Tennessee. In terms of pass-catchers, there will be experience with wide receiver Beau Corrales and tight end Garrett Walston coming coming back as a super seniors as well as exciting younger players like Josh Downs and Khafre Brown who showed glimpses of their own connection with Howell in limited work. Like Clemson, it's nice to have options, but who emerges carries great significance considering the expectations for the Tar Heels this fall.
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How will a full spring help the Year 2 coaches?
There were no head coaching changes in the ACC after the 2020 season, but this will still be the first full offseason for the new hires of the 2019-20 coaching cycle. Everyone was impacted to different degrees in terms of their spring practices completed before the shutdown in March 2020. At Boston College and Florida State, the challenge was to not only connect with the players but install the schemes virtually. But it's not just the head coaches either, NC State offensive coordinator Tim Beck had to adjust on the fly with limited availability from Devin Leary in the preseason and then switch back to an offense geared for Bailey Hockman when Leary suffered a season-ending injury. Syracuse also saw its fall camp affected, which in addition to the loss of spring workouts hurt the Orange's move to a new 3-3-5 defense. Continuity became a big advantage for those teams with head coach-offensive coordinator-defensive coordinator all remaining in place from 2019 to 2020. Now with a full spring practice, it will be interesting to see how the gap might be closed heading into 2021.
What will the impact of transfers be at Florida State?
Much of the attention in Tallahassee will be on McKenzie Milton and the role he'll play in Florida State's quarterback battle with Jordan Travis and Chubba Purdy. There's good reason for that, since Milton was electric when on the field at UCF, leading the Knights to an undefeated season in 2017 while throwing for 37 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. A catastrophic leg injury has left him sidelined since the final week of the 2018 regular season, and the journey back to full health, and eventually live game action, has been one of the best stories in college football.
Milton's success will be cheered by Seminole fans and college football fans alike, but he alone can not help steady the ship for Mike Norvell after a disappointing and disjointed first season. Norvell and his staff hit the transfer portal to address needs at cornerback (Brandon Moore from UCF, Jarques McClellion from Arkansas), safety (Jammie Robinson from South Carolina) and defensive line (Jermaine Johnson from Georgia, Keir Thomas from South Carolina). Some of these players will start while others will be rotational for depth, but they'll all be asked to be ready to go immediately to help improve a defense that struggled last season.
What the does the battle look like for QB2 at Miami?
After suffering a knee injury in the bowl game, D'Eriq King won't be available for spring practice. He's expected to make a full recovery and when healthy will return to his spot at QB1 on the depth chart. King's commitment to the Hurricanes for 2021 keeps the team's ceiling high and therefore it's hard to imagine any of the other players in that room passing him on the depth chart. But that does not mean that this battle to sort out the pecking order in spring practice does not carry great significance. After all, King has suffered two knee injuries in his college career and there could be any tweak, twist or awkward step that suddenly puts one of his backups in a game with ACC title contention on the line. Tyler Van Dyke was the ninth-ranked pro-style quarterback from the 2020 class and able to redshirt last season after seeing just two games of action. He'll be the one who knows the ropes while former five-star and early enrollee Jake Garcia tries to make a splash. Peyton Matocha and Ryan Rizik are also on the spring four-deep, but the battle for King's backup (and potentially his heir apparent) seems to be between the two top quarterbacks from Manny Diaz's last two recruiting classes.
Can volatile Louisville settle in after an offensive exodus?
On this week's ACC edition of Spring Gleaning on the Cover 3 Podcast, Bud Elliott did a good job of refocusing my thoughts on the ups and downs of Louisville's first two years under Scott Satterfield. On the surface, the Cardinals greatly exceeded expectations by finishing solo second place in the ACC Atlantic in 2019 after being picked dead last in the division. After bottoming out in the final year of Bobby Petrino, seeing the Cardinals soar brought tons of praise and an ACC Coach the Year award for Satterfield. Then in 2020, Louisville fell short of expectations with a 4-7 record, including a stretch that saw the Cardinals drop six of their first seven ACC games.
But a deeper dive below the surface suggests that the two teams, in terms of performance, weren't as far apart as the record may seem. Three of Louisville's five ACC wins in 2019 had a combined margin of just 12 points while four of the Cardinals' seven ACC losses in 2020 all came by seven points or less, including a 12-7 rock fight with top-five Notre Dame. Bud brought up the Las Vegas power ratings, which had the 2019 and 2020 Cardinals rated similarly, suggesting further that this was a team that got a little lucky in Satterfield's first year and caught some unlucky bounces in Year Two. But while numbers can almost erase narrative here, the X-factor is Satterfield's reported involvement with the South Carolina coaching search and the ensuing back-and-forth with the Louisville community to ease their uncertainties about his commitment to the program. Winning will win back trust, which makes reloading an offense that loses Tutu Atwell, Dez Fitzpatrick and Javian Hawkins among the most interesting storylines to watch this spring.