Not every ACC team held a spring game this year, but every coach in the league has been extremely vocal about how different they feel this May after getting in a full spring practice. Optimism is brimming at every program for the simple reason that they got to put in the work that was missed in 2020, and the progress seen this spring that was absent last year has every coach feeling a little bit better about what's ahead in 2021.
As long as the team gets through spring practice healthy, it is nearly impossible to come out on the other end of spring practice worse off than when you started. That aforementioned optimism leads to a lot of positive headlines and talking points, which then get put through fan translation to become to the boasts and overreactions that will carry us into the fall.
So join us as we take a look around the ACC for some of the big talking points and takeaways from 2021 spring practices -- from the starting position of a boast or overreaction.
Boston College: The Eagles may never run the ball
In each of the first four years under Steve Addazio (2013-16), Boston College ranked 13th in the ACC in terms of pass attempts per game, only throwing the ball more than Georgia Tech. The Eagles opened up the offense a little bit more in the next three seasons but never finished the year higher than 10th in the conference. When a defensive coordinator is hired as a head coach, an explosion in the passing game is not among the usual expectations. But that's exactly what's happened with Jeff Hafley, who brought in Frank Cignetti Jr. as offensive coordinator, Phil Jurkovec as the team's new quarterback and oversaw an offense that finished fourth in the ACC in pass attempts per game in 2020.
All signs from spring point to more of the same, with Jurkovec back and his backup, Dennis Grosel, also earning praise for his work throughout spring practice. Both quarterbacks looked good in the spring game, which featured the familiar combo of Jurkovec and Zay Flowers hooking up twice in the first half. Hafley may prefer a more balanced approach, but when it comes to utilizing the personnel, it makes sense that Boston College has become a pass-happy team. Flowers is one of the best wide receivers in the conference, Jaelen Gills is set to have a big year in 2021 and there are intriguing younger receivers like Taji Johnson poised to continue this aerial success in the future.
Clemson: Best WR room in the country
There's going to be some push back from Columbus, Ohio, and Norman, Oklahoma, but no one in the upstate believes there's a better set of wide receivers than what Clemson has. The offense as a whole does have questions in terms of how the order shakes out at running back, whether the offensive line can be a strength and the backup quarterback position, but the passing game is primed to be one of the best in the country with D.J. Uiagalelei and this group of wide receivers.
Justyn Ross and Frank Ladson Jr. didn't even participate in the spring game, and the depth at the position was still among the top takeaways from the scrimmage. Joseph Ngata seems healthy and ready to explode, Ajou Ajou is ready to flip flashes of athletic excellence into regular production and the freshmen duo of Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins got on campus early and "lit a fire" under the rest of the group for spring practice. Add in E.J. Williams, a late-season star with half of his catches and both of his touchdowns in the final four games, and the collection of talent just seems overwhelming.
Actually pushing Ohio State or Oklahoma (or Alabama or USC) in the argument for top wide receiver room in the country means turning all that on-paper potential into production on Saturdays. Given the other questions on offense, that may be more of a necessity than a luxury.
Duke: Blue Devils due for better turnover luck
With 20 lost fumbles and 19 interceptions in 11 games, Duke ranked last among all FBS teams with a -19 turnover margin on the season. Now in terms of turnover margin per game, the Blue Devils only ranked No. 125 (-1.73), but it's important to note that the totality of the turnovers drives what was the most frustrating storyline for Duke football in 2020. Bowling Green and Arizona turned it over at a higher rate, but they only lived through that frustration for five games while the Blue Devils saw all kinds of turnovers (red zone, special teams, turnovers after forcing a turnover) throughout a nearly-full regular-season slate. Duke even had nine interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries to finish tied for 13th in the country in turnovers gained, but the frequency of handing the ball right back to the opposition has driven David Cutcliffe to make it a key coaching point for the spring.
"I've never been around it. I've never seen anything like that in this very long career that I've had," Cutcliffe explained. "I can't pinpoint all of the unique and different reasons. But you have to start it early, day one. It has to become important even when the ball's not on the field."
So do you believe that turnover luck can swing in the other direction? Duke sure hopes that one of the most eye-popping seasons in terms of turnovers sees a regression, and the Blue Devils do a better job of taking care of the ball.
Florida State: McKenzie Milton helps close Clemson gap
Former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton was first celebrated for his triumphant recovery from a catastrophic leg injury. That his football career has another chapter is a credit to him and the support of friends, family, doctors and coaches that have guided him back. Mike Norvell offered him a chance to come finish his playing career at Florida State, and after getting through spring healthy and looking good in the spring game, the conversation has changed. We're no longer celebrating the fact that he can play, but instead setting the expectations for how well he can play in the Seminoles offense this fall.
The quarterback battle is ongoing, and Jordan Travis will have his chance to win the starting job in one of the most interesting fall camp storylines in the ACC. The good news for Norvell and Florida State is that either player can be successful, and it's very possible both players will be necessary for the Seminoles to reach their goals in 2021. That primary goal is returning to a championship level, which means closing the gap with Clemson. Ever since Jameis Winston went to the NFL, Clemson has overtaken Florida State in the ACC Atlantic largely behind its own run of elite quarterbacks. In that same time, the Seminoles bounced between James Blackman and Deondre Francois without ever getting elite play at the most important position on the field.
Milton was one of the top quarterbacks in the sport in 2017, and while matching those numbers from the undefeated UCF season is unrealistic, the overreaction to some solid play in the spring has us wondering if there's still an elite ceiling for the former Knight in 2021.
Georgia Tech: Jeff Sims poised for breakout season
Sims arrived at Georgia Tech with high expectations as a three-year starter coming out of high school in Jacksonville, Florida, who participated in the Elite 11 competition and ranked as one of the top 15 prospects in program history, He embodies how Geoff Collins has flipped the recruiting script for the Yellow Jackets. Collins has also shown a commitment to playing these highly-touted recruits early, including Sims' full season as the team's starter under center. Few freshmen in the country had more on their plate than Sims, who had to learn the offense and learn how to be a college student all in the midst of strict COVID protocols preventing the kind of interaction that helps young players do both.
Collins has spoken often about how much this spring has meant to Sims, who has not only been putting in work to improve but gained the respect of his teammates to the point of being voted one of the four captains for the spring game. He showed out in that spring game as well, completing 9 of 10 passes with two touchdowns and adding a third score with a 48-yard run on the fourth play of the game.
Louisville: Cards ready to replace Javian Hawkins
A big concern for Louisville in 2021 is how to replace the 2,347 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns totaled by Javian Hawkins over the last two seasons. The Cards got after it early, trying to leave some time on the back end of the semester for more work away from the practice field, and had all 15 spring practices wrapped on March 17. With basketball season in the forefront and no spring game, the team got its work in mostly under the radar, but one of the notes from Scott Satterfield's time with the media is a renewed confidence in the options at running back.
Redshirt freshman Jalen Mitchell leads a group that has a tough ask ahead in replacing Hawkins' production, but it's likely he won't be asked to bear all that weight. Junior Hassan Hall returned to work this spring with a new attitude after a disappointing 2020, and if that renewed energy leads to something closer to 2019 when he was the second-best back on the team, it's going to bode well for the team's versatility at the position. Redshirt senior Maurice Burkley is also in the mix, and while he missed spring practice recovering from an injury, the coaches are excited to get him back in the fall to round out the rotation with his experience and ability.
Miami: King-Rambo will be a formidable duo
While D'Eriq King did not participate in spring practice as he recovers from his knee injury in the bowl game, Miami did give fans a look at the program's future at the position with Jake Garcia and Tyler Van Dyke handling most of the first-team reps. Manny Diaz feels like he's got great options behind King, and the confidence that this staff has in the quarterback position has translated to confidence about where the Hurricanes stand in the ACC pecking order, not only in 2021 but beyond.
Garcia and Van Dyke both played well in the spring game, but the offensive thunder was nearly stolen by Oklahoma transfer Charleston Rambo, who lived up to the goal of recapturing his 2019 form after a change of scenery. Rambo got looks early and often, and finished leading the team in both targets and receptions. Miami did not get consistent performance from the wide receiver position last season, so Rambo's emergence along with improvement from players like Mike Harley Jr. and Mark Pope will go a long way to taking the Hurricanes passing attack to the next level.
North Carolina: Tar Heels ready to contend for CFP
While much of the discussion around North Carolina's ceiling in 2021 will begin with and be dominated by a focus on Sam Howell, the sub-headlines are the reasons to think of the Tar Heels as a top-10 team that can stay in the top 10 throughout the season. Mack Brown mentioned the difficulty of breaking through last year after North Carolina peaked at No. 5 before losing at Florida State. You may reach the top five in the polls, but you're not a "top-five team" if one loss sends you tumbling in the rankings. Winning consistently and consistently winning while ranked buys credibility and builds a foundation for how you are viewed as a football program.
Howell will be a Heisman Trophy contender and in the mix to be a first-round NFL Draft pick if he continues to produce even near the level of his freshman and sophomore seasons. There's a lot of skill talent to replace, but players like Josh Downs have already flashed at wide receiver and the offense gets a boost after losing two pros at running back with Ty Chandler arriving from Tennessee.
What's going to make North Carolina more well-rounded and more of a true playoff threat, however, is the defensive side of the ball, where youth from a year ago now has more experience and the benefit of strength and conditioning to change the look. For the first time in a while, North Carolina has a defense with elite playmakers at all three levels including one of the most talented secondaries in the ACC with Tony Grimes, Storm Duck and Ja'Quirious Conley leading the way. Every defensive starter from the Orange Bowl loss to Texas A&M is back, and considering that was a game where the Tar Heels held a lead in the fourth quarter, that group enters 2021 with the expectation that they can compete with the likes of the Aggies -- who were right in the middle of the playoff picture.
NC State: No excuses with experience aplenty
Last year's campaign was arguably the most impressive of the Dave Doeren era, overcoming the offseason hurdles that came with COVID as well as a preseason COVID pause that impacted the start of the year and player availability once the Wolfpack did get going. Starting quarterback Devin Leary was lost to injury right as he was getting his groove going, and the series of bad bounces would have made it easy to explain away a lack of success. Instead, NC State turned in one of its best seasons since Doeren arrived and bumped the coach up to No. 2 on the program's all-time wins list. Three more 8-4 seasons, and suddenly Doeren is the winningest coach in program history.
Six out of the last seven seasons have resulted in winning records and three of the last four have included eight wins or more. But instead of spending energy looking back and celebrating those signs of a consistent winner and healthy program the attention is all on taking the next step. With 18 starters returning, including 90 percent of the defensive production (No. 6 in the nation according to ESPN's Bill Connelly), it's time to see NC State as one of the best teams in the ACC in 2021. "Next step" is a difficult notion when you reside in the Atlantic Division with Clemson, and even a 10-win season comes with its challenges thanks to drawing both North Carolina and Miami from the Coastal Division, but it's possible to reach that double-digit goal. Avoiding the unexpected losses that have crept up for previous NC State teams might come down to the competitive depth we saw on display this spring. The Wolfpack were down multiple projected starters on both sides of the ball, yet when it came time for the spring game, the backups did not look unprepared or out of place. NC State has been working to build out that depth, so when the veterans are back, there are enough game-ready bodies to sustain bad breaks throughout a grueling ACC schedule.
Pitt: Run game is ready to go
With Kenny Pickett returning his for his 12th (give or take) year at Pitt, the offense clearly is going to ride on his decision-making and performance. But things get a lot easier for Pickett if the Panthers have an effective run game, something that was absent for much of 2020. Pitt ranked No. 13 in rushing yards per game and No. 12 in yards per attempt in the ACC, with Vincent Davis as the most productive back of the group thanks in part to a 247-yard rushing performance in the final game of the season at Georgia Tech. If you take out that stat-padding finale, Pitt ranked near the bottom of the ACC in most rushing categories. Taking the next step for an offense that has not only Pickett but gifted wide receivers like Jordan Addison and Taysir Mack requires an effective ground attack.
Well the good news coming out of the spring game is that there's plenty of buzz about how the offense is going to bounce back in 2021. Davis will once again be a part of the picture, but the the spring game also featured some good running from Izzy Abanikanda and a sense that the offensive line -- "the hogs," as they call themselves -- is ready to assert dominance at the point of attack in the same way that group did in 2018 when Pitt won the Coastal Division.
Syracuse: Youth experience will benefit Orange in 2021
Syracuse already had a young roster last season, but when injuries, opt-outs and other availability issues hit in 2020, the Orange had to lean far more on the youthful end of a roster that had 57 of the 85 scholarship players as true or redshirt freshmen. The on-field results were a one-win season, but the tone Dino Babers takes when discussing his team indicates that experience has had a positive impact on the mentality of the team heading into 2021.
The defeats that piled up during a 1-10 season hardened the younger players, revealing in practice just how tough Power Five football can be and how far they had to go in their own development to be ready to win in the ACC. Many of those rookie contributors suffered injuries that needed offseason rehabilitation and recovery that kept them out of spring practice, but what Babers said he saw from the super seniors who missed time with injuries in 2020 was a reignited fire and level of competitiveness when they returned to action this spring. When the younger stars who got thrown into the fire early mix with the veterans who are hungry after missing time, it's going to result in a deeper and far more competitive football team in the fall.
Virginia: Scott Stadium is a legit home-field advantage
Across 2018 and 2019, Virginia lost just one home game, including an undefeated record at Scott Stadium when the Wahoos claimed the Coastal Division title in 2019. Virginia only lost once at home in 2020 as well, but one of the big talking points coming out of the spring game was how inspired the players and coaches were to be playing in front of fans in Scott Stadium. We've rarely discussed Charlottesville on the list of toughest places to play in the ACC, but Bronco Mendenhall is really working on promoting an environment that can be a true home-field advantage.
"It does make a difference in terms of other people seeing you and kind of holding you accountable for your preparation, that makes a difference, and then it's just more fun," Mendenhall said of playing in front of fans after the spring game. "I would love to say it's the same with or without [fans]. It's not even close. It's way more fun when we have a Scott Stadium environment and a true Fourth Side. So I was just really thankful that those that could come made it today."
Of course Virginia, the home of "first-years," "grounds" and "The Lawn" have a unique name for the home-field advantage. "Fourth Side" may just be a better-dressed "12th Man," but if it does end up making a difference like it did in 2019, then they call it whatever they like en route to Coastal Division title contention.
Virginia Tech: Jordan Williams will be a game-changer
Spring ball has allowed some of the incoming transfers to make a big impression, and few new arrivals have generated buzz like defensive tackle Jordan Williams. The former Clemson Tiger has respect from his teammates thanks to his experience with the championship-winning program and his size -- listed at 6-1, 310 pounds but he's down to 300, per Willams -- fits a need for the Hokies inside up front.
When the defensive line is smaller, they have to be more creative with movement and how they get pressure. But a player like Williams can stand his ground well, handle a double team and help the linebackers and safeties get better vision on what's happening in the backfield. As a former blue-chip prospect recruit from a title contender like Clemson, Williams' pedigree has a real impact on his new locker room.
Wake Forest: Deacs will score 40 points per game
Wake Forest has been in the midst of one of most successful runs of offensive football in school history. After setting new yardage and points records in 2019, the Demon Deacons adjusted their expectations due to having nine starters to replace but still broke another record in 2020 with most points per game in school history (36.0). Now all 11 starters from that offense are back for 2021, and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero is trying to find a way to turn up the heat even more.
It's not hard to imagine how Wake Forest might do it given what we saw from new contributors last season. Running back Christian Beal-Smith is ready to go after 770 yards and five touchdowns, inside receiver Jaqaurii Roberson exploded with 962 yards and eight touchdowns on 62 receptions and there's a loaded set of options at the outside receiver position for quarterback Sam Hartman, who although not a newcomer, had one of his most successful seasons of college football.