ACC teams look to answer questions at quarterback
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Dabo Swinney’s quarterback situation at Clemson seems settled for a while. Not many of his colleagues around the Atlantic Coast Conference can say the same thing.
Ten schools faced questions of varying degrees of urgency at QB this spring. Eight of those schools lost a starter from last year either due to graduation, transfer, early NFL draft declaration or disciplinary issues.
So as the league transitions into summer conditioning and with a little over four months until the season starts, only a handful of schools seem to have solidified their QB spots and the ACC’s quarterback club shapes up as Tigers star Trevor Lawrence and a bunch of new faces.
Duke’s Daniel Jones left school a year early to enter the draft and is a potential first-round pick. Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson (Maryland) and North Carolina’s Nathan Elliott (Arkansas State) transferred. Deondre Francois was kicked off the Florida State team in February. And among the QBs who exhausted their eligibility are Syracuse’s Eric Dungey and North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley.
The eight departed starters combined to throw for 16,822 yards and 107 touchdowns in 2018 while rushing for 2,402 yards and 40 more scores.
For some, the solution seems pretty simple: Duke heir apparent Quentin Harris made two starts last season while Jones was injured, and Ryan Willis started the final 10 games for the Hokies after Jackson’s season-ending injury.
For others, it’s a bit more up in the air: UNC has two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman vying for the job, new Louisville coach Scott Satterfield will likely choose between Jawon Pass and Malik Cunningham, and Miami could turn to Ohio State transfer Tate Martell or stick with N’Kosi Perry.
But the ACC certainly won’t be bereft of quarterback talent — not as long as Lawrence is around. After taking over midway through last season and leading the Tigers to their second College Football Playoff title, he enters his sophomore year as the unquestioned star among ACC quarterbacks.
“This time last year he was just trying to prove it, kind of getting in line,” Swinney said. “Now, it’s a different dynamic for him. He is in command and now we need him to lead, not get in line.”
There are four new head coaches in the conference this season, though one is anything but new to the league. Satterfield took over for the fired Bobby Petrino at Louisville while Geoff Collins (Georgia Tech) and Manny Diaz (Miami) both left Temple to replace retired veterans.
And then there’s Mack Brown, back for a second stint at North Carolina after more than two decades away. He led the Tar Heels to consecutive top-10 finishes in 1996 and ’97 before moving to Texas, then spending the past few years in broadcasting.
There was no easing into the spring for Brown: “We’re just pressing them to see who’s going to step up and who’s going to step back,” he said.
The biggest reconstruction job at Clemson revolves around the defense, which lost seven starters — including all four members of its NFL-ready defensive line and cornerback Trayvon Mullen, the MVP of the national championship game. Coordinator Brent Venables has been working in more than a handful of promising, young players, and the best of them could be sophomore defensive end Xavier Thomas, one of the nation’s highest-rated recruits in the class of 2018.
Georgia Tech could face some significant growing pains with a roster full of players recruited to run the triple-option offense favored by retired coach Paul Johnson — not the more traditional scheme run by Collins. The Yellow Jackets are heavy on running backs and light on tight ends, so the key priority in Atlanta is figuring out how to best utilize the returning players while Collins fills out a few recruiting classes with guys who more closely fit his philosophy.
WELCOME BACK, BLACKMAN
Florida State coach Willie Taggart’s top — and perhaps only — option at quarterback is redshirt sophomore James Blackman, the full-time starter in 2017 when Francois missed virtually the entire season with a ruptured patellar tendon. Blackman threw only 51 passes last season as Francois’ backup but moved to the front of the line when Francois was dismissed. Blackman is the only eligible quarterback on the Seminoles’ roster.
“I’ve seen James just this offseason watch more film than he’s ever watched being here, being up in our offices more than he’s ever been up there and it’s made a difference on the football field,” Taggart said.
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, and Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and AP freelancer Bob Ferrante in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.