ACC spring storylines

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Fair or not, the lasting image of the ACC’s 2011 season is the 70 points hung on conference champion Clemson by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

The good news for the conference is there’s plenty of talent to get beyond that image.  As noted by ESPN.com ACC blogger Heather Dinich, a wealth of experienced and talented quarterbacks will return in 2012, including Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.

Of course, there are many questions entering the spring for members of the ACC.  Can Clemson stop Clemsoning itself and put together a won-loss record that matches its talent level?  Can the Hokies reascend to its traditional spot atop the conference?  Or, will a surprise team — London calling? — shakeup the top of league?

The answers to those questions and many, many more won’t be answered for several months, but we can take a look into some of the storylines that will be woven into the ACC’s spring story.

Tigers need to get defensive
Arguably the biggest move for Clemson this offseason was one that didn’t happen, with head coach Dabo Swinney and the athletic department’s bank account being able to beat back a significant push by Ohio State for the services of offensive coordinator Chad Morris.  The biggest move that did come to fruition?  Replacing defensive coordinator Kevin Steele with Oklahoma’s Brent Venables.  After the 70-point bowl debacle, parting ways with Steele was inevitable and necessary outside of the bowl debacle; the Tigers finished 81st in points allowed and 71st in total yards per game in 2011.  Venables’ defense will begin its implementation during the spring.  While the fruits of change won’t be realized until September — at the earliest — there may not have been a more significant change in the conference, one that needs to work if Clemson wants to become more than a bit player on the national scene.

Water wet, sky blue, FSU’s back
Like flowers blooming or getting gouged by the tax man, trumpeting Florida State’s return to relevance on the national stage has become an annual rite of spring.  The Seminoles were preseason sweethearts last year — some dolt had them as high as No. 2 before the start of the 2011 season — but stumbled its way to an 8-4 record in the regular season that included losses to Wake Forest and Virginia.  It’s undeniable that, on paper, the talent is there with top-ten recruiting classes each of the past four years and 15 starters returning from last year’s squad.  Perhaps the biggest question mark for FSU entering the spring?  The offensive line, a group sorely lacking in experience and a unit that must begin to find some clarity in these upcoming offseason sessions.

Edsall, Edsel, whatever… it’s still a lemon
It seems that the embarrassing offseason at Maryland has overshadowed somewhat the abysmal on-field product during Randy Edsall‘s first season with the Terps.  And what an abysmal mess it was.  After opening the Edsall era — a loose term, for obvious reasons — with a win over Miami, the Terps proceeded to win just one of its next 11 games to cap a 10-loss season.  And things didn’t get much better after that two-win debacle; a change at coordinator on both sides of the ball and the transfer of erstwhile starting quarterback Danny O’Brien along with both starting offensive tackles and several other key contributors makes this second spring wrought with more uncertainty than the first one.  Changing offensive and defensive schemes, several quality players fleeing what looks, smells and feels like a sinking ship?  Not exactly what Edsall and his program needs coming into a season that has must-have turnaround written all over it, regardless of how staunch his boss’ support is at this time.

Everything’s Hokie-dory in Blacksburg
Lather, rinse, repeat, right?  Well, maybe.  Here’s the known for the Hokies entering the spring: they will be really good on defense, returning nine starters from a Bud Foster-led squad that finished in the Top Ten nationally last year.  On offense, there’s Thomas and… well… a lot of question marks.  Starting running back David Wilson and his 1,709 yards needs replaced.  As does his backup.  As do the Hokies’ two leading receivers, with the departed Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin accounting for nearly half (121) of the Hokies’ 243 receptions.  How to replace that offensive production — over 3,700 yards among the four out of nearly 5,800 yards of total offense in 2011 — will be the Hokies’ top priority this spring and go a long way in determining how far Tech can go this season.  Then again, given the fact that Frank Beamer & Company play the plug-and-succeed game as well as anyone in the country — eight consecutive 10-win-plus seasons, 13 in his 21 seasons in Blacksburg — anything less than another division/conference crown would be more than a mild surprise even with the offensive attrition.

ACC working on London time?
Virginia doesn’t have the talent that conference foes Clemson or Virginia Tech or Florida State or Miami can throw out on any given Saturday, but it does have something those perennial ACC contenders don’t: arguably the best football coach in the conference.  Mike London — and the underrated coaching staff he’s assembled — has the Cavaliers on the verge of a borderline miracle — making the Hoos a have year-in and year-out.  Last year was a glimpse into what the future may hold for the Cavs as a loss in the regular-season finale to in-state rival Tech was the only thing keeping them from the Coastal’s spot in the conference title game.  If the Hoos are hoping for a repeat or better in 2012, however, London must do something about a defense that will be forced to replace six starters from last year’s team.

SMU graduate assistant GJ Kinne to call plays in Frisco Bowl

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New SMU head coach Sonny Dykes has been busy assembling his staff as he prepares to jump right in the saddle to coach the Mustangs in the Frisco Bowl next week, but he will have one holdover from the previous staff to help call the shots on offense. Graduate assistant GJ Kinne will call the offensive plays for the bowl game, according to Adam Grosbard of The Dallas Morning News.

This would seem to be the most logical choice for Dykes to make in this scenario. Kinne has been working in the SMU system all season long under former head coach Chad Morris, who has moved to Arkansas with a handful of assistants. Having the most experience with the current roster and a better comfort level makes sense to have Kinne take on this responsibility so close to the bowl game. This will be a major promotion for Kinne, the former Tulsa quarterback, even if just for one game.

I certainly trust G.J. It’s going to be fun to give him an opportunity to be highly involved and it’ll be one of those things he remembers for the rest of his life,” Dykes said of the decision to have Kinne calling the offense from above. “When you’re a GA and you get to call a bowl game, it’s a pretty awesome opportunity.”

Just how smoothly this all goes is anyone’s guess. Fortunately, if things go awry, Kinne and Dykes can always just resort to going back to a chuck-it-deep mentality and see what happens.

SMU faces Louisiana Tech in the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 20.

Pitt loses second QB to transfer in as many days

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Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi may have been signed to a contract extension recently, but the Panthers are quickly getting shallow at the quarterback spot on the depth chart for 2018. For the second time in as many days, Pitt is losing a quarterback to a transfer.

Ben DiNucci is the most recent of the two to announce his decision to leave the program. Though DiNucci did not say where he is heading next, he did say in a brief message on Twitter he will be enrolling in January. He will have two years of eligibility to use, although he would have to sit out the 2018 season if he transfers to another FBS program. He would be eligible to play right away if he transfers to a lower division football program. A report from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggests the latter will be the case, with James Madison and Towson the two leading candidates to add DiNucci.

DiNucci was Pittsburgh’s leading passer this season with 1,091 yards and five touchdowns, although he was used mostly as a backup for Max Browne until Browne was injured after appearing in six games. DiNucci also added 126 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown, which came in Week 2 against Penn State.

DiNucci’s announcement comes just one day after Thomas MacVittie announced his own decision to leave the Panthers behind. The redshirt freshman did not appear in any games this season and was passed over on the depth chart by freshman Kenny Pickett. Pickett now becomes the top option in the passing game for the Panthers heading into the spring, unless Pitt happens to add a transfer to the mix.

Pitt will have another scholarship quarterback on the way in 2018 with the addition of incoming freshman Nick Patti out of New Jersey. Patti is not expected to be enrolling early, so he will not be around in the spring.

Royce Freeman will not play in Las Vegas Bowl

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Oregon senior running back Royce Freeman will not play in this weekend’s Las Vegas Bowl, thus bringing his collegiate career to a close before he moves on to the NFL next year. Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal announced Freeman’s lack of availability to reporters today ahead of the bowl game against Boise State.

Freeman played in all 12 games for the Ducks this season, rushing for 1,475 yards and 16 touchdowns. Freeman’s career at Oregon has been a highly productive one under two different coaches. As a freshman in 2014, Freeman rushed for 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns to quickly begin gaining some national attention as the Ducks advanced to the national championship game in the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff (but some guy named Marcus Mariota was doing some good things too at the time to grab the majority of the national attention).

Freeman rushed for 5,621 yards and 60 touchdowns for Oregon, and he was also responsible for four touchdown receptions.

Freeman will join a growing list following a growing trend of sitting out of a bowl game before moving to the NFL.

West Virginia QB Will Grier announces return in 2018

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West Virginia quarterback Will Grier will be back for another season of football in Morgantown. Grier announced today he will be back in the blue and gold in 2018, his senior season.

Citing a desire to see his team accomplish more next season, Grier said he is “completely focused and looking forward to building off the success” experienced in 2017.

“West Virginia is my home, and I couldn’t be more excited about the future here,” Grier said in his released statement.

Grier’s return to West Virginia will be a boost for the offense next season. In his first year back playing college football after parting ways with Florida amid a drug-related suspension, Grier played in 11 games and passed for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns for the Mountaineers. He was one of three quarterbacks in the Big 12 to average more than 300 passing yards in a game, with the other two being Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. With Mayfield and Rudolph moving on to the NFL next year, Grier will be one of the top offensive players returning to play football in the Big 12 in 2018.