The 2022 spring practice schedule isn’t just underway across the ACC — it’s already completed in some cases. As schools continue to wrap up their spring work on the field, we wanted to bring an attention to each program in the conference with some burning questions. As you might expect, there is plenty of interest in new head coaches and quarterback battles, but just as interesting might be the impact of coordinator changes or instant-impact transfers.
The one thing you can count on is that the ACC’s football landscape feels like it’s started from scratch after the upheaval in 2021. For the first time since 2010, the league was not won by Clemson or Florida State. Instead, Pitt claimed its first ACC title after beating Wake Forest, which won the ACC Atlantic for the second time in program history. While Clemson looks to return to the top of the mountain in 2022, the rest of the conference also has proof that the league crown is not out of reach despite Dabo Swinney’s dominance for much of the last decade.
So as optimism abounds — as it does every spring — here is one question for every team in the ACC.
How will returning stars mesh with new coaching?: The two most important players for Boston College’s offense over the last two years — quarterback Phil Jurkovec and wide receiver Zay Flowers — are back for 2022. When Jurkovec was healthy for a full year in 2020, he was a top-five quarterback in the league, and Flowers, the big-play threat, finished as the ACC’s leader in receiving touchdowns that season. The importance of Jurkovec to the passing game was exposed when he was limited to just six games in 2021 because of injury, and the Eagles’ offensive rankings dropped to the bottom tier of the conference.
This spring, the attention turns to how those stars will mesh with new offensive coordinator John McNulty, brought in to replace Frank Cignetti after Pitt hired him to replace Mark Whipple. McNulty was previously the tight ends coach for Notre Dame, but he has extensive experience as an NFL assistant and was Rutgers’ offensive coordinator during the Ray Rice and Kenny Britt days. We know that Jurkovec, Flowers and the passing game have been productive, but now the intrigue is how new ideas brought in by McNulty might help the offense take the next step and bounce back from a woeful 2021.
What’s the re-worked offensive staff mean for D.J. Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik?: The quarterback battle itself is the biggest storyline for Clemson’s spring practice, but the next-level question is how the competition will be impacted by the absence of former offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, now the head coach at Virginia. Uiagalelei not only has the benefit of experience, but of continuity with former quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter elevated to offensive coordinator. As an early enrollee, Klubnik, a former five-star recruit, has gotten opportunities to show his readiness this spring.
While Streeter’s promotion was straightforward, there was also some shuffling that includes a new voice leading the offensive line (Thomas Austin) and the passing game (Kyle Richardson) as Dabo Swinney used his pipeline of analysts and off-field coaches to fill many of the on-field openings on his staff. These are coaches who have been around the program and know the culture, but they also might have some new ideas that could shape the quarterback battle (and offense as a whole) as Clemson eyes a return to ACC title contention this fall.
What’s the learning curve under a new head coach?: Early takeaways from Duke’s spring practice indicate this team has a lot on its plate as it builds a foundation with first-year coach Mike Elko. The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator has mentioned the defense and, in particular, the big schematic changes on the back with how that group wants to handle pass coverage. Like many teams across the country with a first-year coach, it sounds like this spring is going to be about teaching as much as repping and hammering out the depth chart.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Duke or Elko, who is also working on energizing the program with open practices and other community outreach efforts. If this spring is more about teaching the fundamentals of what Elko wants on the field, then his off-field efforts reflect building a foundation of buzz within the fanbase. Duke is in a much better position now than when David Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, so Elko doesn’t need to tear everything down. Instead, he’ll try to build anew on top of the progress the program has seen in the last decade.
Who steps up on the defensive side of the ball?: In his lone season in Tallahassee, former Florida State defensive lineman Jermaine Johnson recorded 18 tackles for loss, 12 sacks and was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. No defensive transfer in the entire ACC was as impactful. His play in the trenches made everything a little bit easier for a group that finished as a top-five defense in the conference in yards per play allowed.
Adam Fuller and new hire Randy Shannon are working as co-defensive coordinators for Mike Norvell heading into a pivotal Year 3. Shoring up the defensive side of the ball will take some pressure off quarterback Jordan Travis and an offense that’s still finding its footing. While Johnson himself might not be able to be replaced, the Seminoles need some instant impact in his absence.
Do the Yellow Jackets have the dudes to make a jump in 2022?: Geoff Collins has secured two of the highest-rated recruiting classes in program history as he overhauls an offense that spent 11 years running the option. Still, lofty recruiting rankings and offseason excitement have yet to be converted into the kind of performances necessary to make the jump. Georgia Tech had the fifth-most talented roster in the ACC last season, per 247Sports, but that group finished sixth in the ACC Coastal with a 2-6 conference record. Some of the stars from Collins’ early classes either haven’t developed as expected or haven’t stuck around — like running back Jahmyr Gibbs, now at Alabama.
In an effort to change the on-field results, Collins has brought in plenty of fresh faces. Six of the 10 on-field assistants have changed since last season, and the Yellow Jackets have eight commits from the transfer portal in a class that ranks No. 2 in the ACC, according to the 247Sports Transfer Portal rankings. One of the fresh faces is former Akron quarterback Zach Gibson, who may push Jeff Sims for the starting job. However, Georgia Tech is done with spring practice at the time of this writing, and the quarterback question remains unanswered.
Heading into Year 4, Collins has yet to win more than three games in a season. With all the moving pieces, there is a question as to whether the roster is ready to deliver on those high-pressure expectations.
Can Malik Cunningham get some co-stars in the Louisville offense? Cunningham was the center of the solar system for Louisville’s offense last season, more so than most quarterbacks. He accounted for more than two-thirds of the offensive production and was the best player for a team that made it back to a bowl game after a disappointing 2020. Cunningham threw for 19 touchdowns with just six interceptions and ran for 20 touchdowns — a total that had him tied for fourth nationally — during a dual-threat effort that had him No. 14th nationally in total offense per game (305.8 yards).
The key to Louisville’s offense taking the next step, and for Cunningham to be viewed as one of the league’s best signal-callers, might be not an increase in production, but better balance around him. That turns the spring focus to the skill position for reliable options at running back and wide receiver. A First Responder Bowl loss to Air Force to fall to 6-7 was a disappointment, but four of the Cardinals’ seven losses were by one possession. Flipping those results into a winning season is doable, but Cunningham can’t do it alone.
What is Josh Gattis’ plan for Tyler Van Dyke and the offense?: When D’Eriq King was shut down last year due to injury, Van Dyke — then a freshman — emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the league . New coach Mario Cristobal inherits a good situation with not only Van Dyke, but a handful of other freshmen who saw significant playing time last season. Now, it’s time to turn the attention to how that young core can be the foundation of an ACC championship-winning program.
Cristobal hit a home run by luring offensive coordinator Josh Gattis away from Michigan. Gattis has been targeted as a coach on the rise since his time as an Alabama assistant, and last year he was named the Broyles Award winner for his work in the Wolverines’ College Football Playoff run. How Gattis decides to blend the tools from an offense that moved with pace to a scheme that he and Cristobal want to put in place at Miami will determine how successful Van Dyke, the reigning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, will be in 2022.
How will the QB battle determine the offensive direction?: Replacing Sam Howell was never going to be an easy task, but Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo recruited the position well and have two capable options in Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye. Both are former four-star prospects who saw limited action as Howell’s backup, and it’s possible both could be a needed to help North Carolina’s offense succeed in 2022.
At 6-foot-5 with a big arm, Maye has the pedigree as the son of a former UNC football player (Mark) and brother of UNC basketball national champion (Luke), not to mention being an Alabama commit early in his recruitment. Criswell is just over 6-feet with a little more beef at 235 pounds and a running ability that had him named as one of the top dual-threat players in his recruiting class.
It speaks to how gifted Criswell is as a playmaker that Maye is not the heir apparent to Howell, and how that battle goes this spring could give us a hint as to what Longo wants to do with the offense. The playbook is wide open for either quarterback to take the reins and lead the offense after the departure of the school’s record holder for career passing yards and career total offense.
Can the Wolfpack improve in the ground game? On paper, NC State had all the pieces for a fantastic rushing attack in 2021. The offensive line had future pros in Ikem Ekwonu and Grant Gibson, and the one-two punch of Ricky Person Jr. and Bam Knight appeared to be one of the best running back tandems in the ACC. Things didn’t work quite as expected, however, and NC State finished No. 13 among the 14 ACC teams in rushing yards per game and No. 11 in yards per attempt. Ekwonu, Gibson, Person and Knight are all gone, but quarterback Devin Leary remains, as do expectations of competing for an ACC Championship after finishing tied for second in the ACC Atlantic last season.
Leary has a chance to be one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC this season, and the defense brings back much of the core that helped lead an excellent unit in 2021. These are nitpicking questions for a team heading into one of the most-anticipated seasons of the Dave Doeren era, but establishing a more consistent rushing attack is the last piece of the puzzle to making this one of the more well-rounded teams in the conference.
How will the OC change work out?: The easiest storyline is the loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett and the battle to replace him, headlined by USC transfer Kedon Slovis and Pickett’s multi-year backup Nick Patti. But just as significant to the future of the offense is what to expect with a change at offensive coordinator.
Pickett credited Mark Whipple, now the offensive coordinator at Nebraska, for helping the Panthers become one of the most dangerous passing teams in the country. Coach Pat Narduzzi looked across the conference and found Whipple’s replacement at Boston College with Frank Cignetti, bringing the Pittsburgh native home to the program where he started as a grad assistant and later spent two years as the OC under Dave Wannstedt in a stint that saw Dion Lewis be named Big East Player of the Year. How Cignetti wants his offense, which is undoubtedly boosted by All-American talent in Jordan Addison, to look will play a big role in the quarterback battle. That decision will dictate expectations for the Panthers as they enter 2022 carrying the title of “reigning ACC champions.”
Will offseason changes bring stability on the offensive staff?: Dino Babers arrived at Syracuse after a successful stint at Bowling Green carrying the reputation as an innovative and successful offensive coach. But finding continuity on that side of the ball has been difficult, and now Babers heads into 2022 with his fourth coordinator in seven seasons. The good news is that there is excitement around the hire of Robert Anae, who led a successful 2021 season with Virginia. Bronco Mendenhall’s sudden resignation made Anae, regarded for his ingenuity as well as the record-setting production of Brennan Armstrong a season ago, available for hire. When you consider Babers’ own evolving offensive styles, it’s no surprise this would be a match.
Garrett Shrader took over as the team’s starting quarterback early in the 2021 season and was at his best as a true dual-threat weapon utilizing his rushing ability. His versatility seems to fall right in line with the kind of creativity Anae showed at Virginia, and it could lead to good results for Babers and the Orange this fall.
What’s Tony Elliott’s plan for Brennan Armstrong and the offense?: Armstrong was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country last season, narrowly finishing second to Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe with 427.3 yards of total offense per game. He decided to return to Charlottesville for his senior season, giving a high floor for the offensive expectations in Tony Elliott’s first year. Elliott won national championships and guided some of the ACC’s best offenses during his time as an assistant and offensive coordinator at Clemson, so there’s going to be even more attention paid to how Armstrong and the offense perform this fall after such a prolific year in 2021.
But how will Elliott’s plans for the offense differ from Mendenhall and Anae? Virginia frustrated opponents last year with offensive schemes not often seen around major college football, leaving somewhat of a transition period for that group if Elliott wants to install something similar to his offenses at Clemson. Adding to the intrigue is that multiple offensive line starters left the program in the wake of the coaching change. Virginia has a new head coach with a strong offensive pedigree and returns a record-setting starting quarterback, but how those two — and the the rest of the offense — will mesh is still a question to be answered.
What are reasonable expectations for Brent Pry in Year 1?: Even Hokie fans might need to keep their game programs handy, because this roster has seen as much turnover in the last two years as any in the conference. The good news for Pry, who arrives at his first head coaching job after a successful run as Penn State’s defensive coordinator, is that the most experience appears to be on the defensive side of the ball. If that group is able to buy in to Pry and new defensive coordinator Chris Marve, the Hokies should see improvements in the pass rush and overall defensive numbers in 2022.
Offensively is a whole other issue, with both Braxton Burmeister and Knox Kadum transferring out of the program. Meanwhile, the quarterback room welcomes a pair of transfers in Grant Wells (Marshall) and Jason Brown (South Carolina) to battle with Connor Blumrick, the lone quarterback with any starting experience. There’s also the issue of finding new pass catchers after losing Tayvion Robinson, Tre Tuner and James Mitchell, as well as top running back Raheem Blackshear. Offensively, this team is starting from scratch, leaning on the transfer portal and trying to use this spring to gel all the pieces under new schemes with new coaches.
Virginia Tech is a proud program that fired Justin Fuente and hired Pry because it wants compete for ACC championships again. But considering the turnover, is it reasonable to expect that can happen quickly in Blacksburg? This spring will at least give us some indication of where Pry and his staff believe the team is ready to go and where more improvement is needed heading into summer workouts and fall camp.
Who’s up next after another running back departure to the portal?: Kenneth Walker III transferred out of the program after 2020 and landed at Michigan State, emerging as one of the top rushers in the country the following season. Wake Forest’s offense, which admittedly relies more on Sam Hartman and the passing game for explosive plays, didn’t skip a beat as the Demon Deacons rolled to the program’s second-ever ACC Atlantic Division title and 11-win season. Christian Beal-Smith was part of that rotation with Walker and ready to answer the call as the group’s new alpha, but now he too is transferring out of the program — this time to South Carolina.
This is where pivotal questions really start to bend towards curiosities, because Wake Forest did have two younger players behind Beal-Smith who each logged more than 100 rushing attempts and 500 rushing yards: Justice Ellison and Christian Turner. The question is how each will respond to their new roles and increased workload, and whether there is a third name to watch in the rotation heading into 2022. With Hartman back along with A.T. Perry and a deep room of capable wide receivers, there’s no big-picture concerns about the offense, just filling in the gaps for our expectations of what’s ahead for an annually explosive unit this fall.