The ACC spring practice schedule is off and running, with programs all across the conference beginning preparations for the 2023 season. It's a season with high expectations for some of the league's flagship programs and a bounce back for the conference as a whole. The ACC hopes to snap a two-year drought from the College Football Playoff after having at least one team in the field every single season since the format debuted in 2014 until 2020.
Perhaps there may be a clearer path to putting a team in the CFP here in the final year of the four-team format thanks to a dramatic change in the league schedule. For the first time since the ACC Championship Game was first held in 2005, the conference title participants will not be decided by division winners, but instead by the top two teams in the 14-team standings by winning percentage. Division play is also gone in favor of a 3-5-5 scheduling model that ensures every team plays each other at least one every two years, bringing more competitive balance to the schedule and, ideally, allowing the league's two best teams to each have a final statement for the selection committee.
It's going to be strange to not see Atlantic and Coastal in the standings, but the changes come amidst a period of great upheaval across the entire sport. Speaking of upheaval, spring practice storylines across the conference include two new head coaches, a ton of coordinator changes and open quarterback competitions for about half of the conference. Let's get into all that, and more, with big spring questions for every ACC team.
Who replaces WR Zay Flowers? An All-ACC career from Flowers led to him being Boston College's all-time leader in career receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns after producing three of the program's most prolific receiving seasons in 2020, 2021 and 2022. For three straight seasons, there have not been questions about the wide receiver position at Boston College. In the wake of his exit, however, the biggest burning question for spring practice is how to replace him. Coach Jeff Hafley may not have found another Flowers but he did identify a good addition from the transfer portal by signing former UCF wide receiver Ryan O'Keefe. He'll be joined by returning players like Jaelen Gill and Joseph Griffin, who will try to make up for Flowers' production by committee as Boston College looks for a bounce-back year in 2023.
Can Garrett Riley restore the offensive standard? From 2011-20, Clemson ranked as the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the ACC in total offense nearly every single year. The Tigers were No. 1 in four of those season (2012, 2015, 2018 and 2019) and finished second four times. The two outliers came in gap years for the All-ACC quarterback transition from Tajh Boyd to Deshaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence.
Still, the Tigers fielded better-than-average and often elite offenses every year since coach Dabo Swinney first hired Chad Morris to energize the Tigers' offense prior to the 2011 season. So you can imagine the surprise and concern when the Tigers had one of the worst offenses in the ACC in 2021. Though things rebounded statistically in 2022, it was clear Clemson's offense needed some juice once again. Twelve years after Morris changed the direction of the program, Swinney has once again hired a bright offensive mind with deep Texas roots: Garrett Riley.
The challenge for Riley is to install his version of the Air Raid in a way that fits Clemson's personnel and ability to handle the system. Swinney insists the install has been going well this spring, even as the Tigers put in a tempo and spread-concept offense with more than a handful of wide receivers missing time due to injury. Clemson's offense is a top 2023 storyline not just for the ACC but the nationally as well, because the potential is through the roof. Riley has the advantage of stepping into a situation not with an unsettled quarterback rotation, but rather with a QB1 that should take kindly to his brand of offense. Cade Klubnik, the former five-star prospect out of Austin, Texas, is one of the top players in the conference you'd want running this system. If everything clicks, we should see the Tigers fielding one of the ACC's best offenses yet agin.
How does the team maintain success after exceeding expectations? This is a big-picture question in an admittedly position-focused look at most of the conference. While a lot returns from last year's nine-win squad, on the surface there's a real sea change going on with this roster. Reigning ACC Coach of the Year Mike Elko signed 26 high schoolers and seven transfers in the 2023 recruiting cycle, adding 33 new faces to the program this offseason.
It will be easy to focus on the return of QB Riley Leonard and several key skill position players as a reason to think repeating last season's success is a reasonable expectation, but surviving the ups and downs of a college football season require quality depth that needs to be built up this spring. Elko has 10 of his 26 true freshman and five of the seven transfers on campus already participating in spring practice, including former Miami defensive back Al Blades Jr. and Texas A&M defensive back Myles Jones. The next step for Duke football is competitive depth, and the influx of new talent and development that occurs in the spring is key piece to reaching that status.
How are the transfer portal additions fitting in? By the time we get to fall camp, the key questions will be more along the lines of whether the Seminoles are ready to handle real expectations. Many are projecting Florida State to compete for an ACC championship (it would be the program's first since 2014), and some have even identified this group as a team with top-10 potential. Florida State ranks No. 1 in the nation in Bill Connelly's returning production rankings; the expectations are fair given what the Noles are bringing back a ton from a 10-win team.
Those expectation-related questions aren't going to be answered in the spring, however, which is why our focus is on the newcomers. The transfer portal has been a key to Mike Norvell's success over the last two seasons, and he has a couple of instant-impact portal additions in spring practice looking to find their place in the lineup. Florida State has added four of the top 25 players in the transfer portal, according to 247Sports' rankings. Cornerback Fentrell Cypress (No. 4), defensive lineman Braden Fiske (No. 17) and the tight end duo of Jaheim Bell (No. 10) and Kyle Morlock (No. 22) highlight the touted additions this spring. With so much that's known about this roster, these instant-impact newcomers represent a path to making the jump to championship contention.
Can the transfer portal provide passing game improvement?: Georgia Tech lost quarterback Jeff Sims to Nebraska through the portal, but it's bringing in multiple wide receivers and a potential quarterback replacement as it looks to build on coach Brent Key's late-season success in his first full year. It's possible Georgia Tech will have three newcomers starting at wide receiver, with Abdul Janneh (Duquesne), Chase Lane (Texas A&M) and Christian Leary (Alabama) all arriving with a chance to play a significant role.
The Yellow Jackets also welcome former Texas A&M quarterback Haynes King into the fold, along with former Georgia tight end Brett Seither. All of these wholesale changes do not come as a massive surprise considering Georgia Tech ranked last in the ACC in passing offense last season. Key's ability to impact a team's toughness and competitiveness was evident last year in a 4-4 effort as interim coach after the team started 1-3, but long-term success will require more than winning at the margins. It will require more production on offense, and in the modern game that means being able the throw the ball more effectively.
How will all the pieces fit together in the passing attack? Basically everything seems to be starting over at Louisville with the beginning of the Jeff Brohm era. There's a new head coach, new assistant coaches, and offensively the departure of one of the program's best quarterbacks in Malik Cunningham is a loss. There's a true quarterback competition for the first time in a while, and an influx of transfers at positions are key to the passing attack. The arrival of Jack Plummer from Cal comes with experience of playing for Brohm at Purdue, but he'll have to hold off Cunningham's backup last year, Brock Domann, to secure the QB1 role.
There is also a ton of competition at wide receiver, where transfers Jamari Thrash (Georgia State), Jadon Thompson (Cincinnati) and Jimmy Calloway (Tennessee) are among the players looking to find a role. The good news for this loaded room is that Brohm's offenses have allowed plenty of opportunities — Purdue led the Big Ten in pass attempts in three of the last four years, and ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in passing yards per game every year since 2018 — but how the pieces fit will take some time to figure out.
Are the rookies already ready to go? Miami's top-10 recruiting class features several players who are already on campus and participating in spring ball. Two of those early enrollees with the combination of buzz and potential are the five-star offensive tackles, Francis Mauigoa and Samson Okunlola. They are two of the highest-rated players in Miami's class and arrive with game-ready size: Mauigoa stands at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds and Okunlola at 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds.
The offensive line also includes transfer talent like Javien Cohen, but Cohen is an interior player and there are snaps available on the outside if Mauigoa and Okunlola are far enough along in their development by the fall. Seeing Miami not only jump up in the recruiting rankings but do so on the strength of multiple elite offensive linemen speaks to Mario Cristobal imprinting his identity on Miami's recruiting efforts. If Miami can be elite along the offensive line, it's going to go a long way in helping the offense as a unit improve its production.
Who emerges from a deep RB room? No quarterback questions here as ACC Player of the Year Drake Maye returns to Chapel Hill for another season of what's expected to be an incredibly productive year. But one offensive question that coach Mack Brown has zeroed in on in the early stages of spring practice is getting more clarity at the running back position.
North Carolina has talented players in that room but perhaps there's too many, and last season didn't see any one of them become a traditional lead back. In fact, it was Maye who led the team in rushing yards and attempts, which is great for total offense numbers but will make any coach nervous. Elijah Green and Omarion Hampton sit at the top of the pecking order, with George Pettaway running third. British Brooks and Caleb Hood aren't clear for full contact yet as they recover from season-ending injuries but will join the picture prior to fall camp, along with incoming freshman Jordan Louie. Brown wants to narrow this group of six capable backs to three that will play significant snaps, hoping that a more consistent rotation and heavier workloads leads to better production.
What will the offense look like under Robert Anae? NC State is in a period of program transition after a stellar group of upperclassmen helped lead the Wolfpack to 25 wins over the last three seasons, with a top-25 finish in 2021 and a 17-9 record against ACC opponents in that span. Now, the challenge for 2023 and beyond is to build on that success and continue raise the bar, which starts with a new look on offense. Former offensive coordinator Tim Beck accepted the offer to be Coastal Carolina's new coach, prompting Dave Doreen to hire Robert Anae to guide the team's offense. Anae has been a three-time nominee for the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach during his career, recently overseeing one of the most productive offenses in the country at Virginia in 2021 and a versatile ground attack at Syracuse last season.
Joining Anae as a newcomer in the program is quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who single-season school records for touchdown passes, passing yards and total offense leading that Virginia offense in 2021. The quarterback battle has Armstrong competing with MJ Morris, a talented sophomore who flashed in limited action last season. That takes center stage this spring, but an even bigger-picture question is how that battle, and what Anae is looking from the offense as a whole, can dictate what to expect from Wolfpack on offense this fall.
Can Phil Jurkovec recapture his best form? Kenny Pickett is the winningest starting quarterback in Pitt history and finished his stellar career as the Panthers' all-time leader in passing yards, pass completions, passing touchdowns and total offense. Not only did Pickett contribute to the bottom line with 32 wins in 49 career starts, but he also made spring practice easy as the team's starter from 2018-22. After years of that consistency at the quarterback position, coach Pat Narduzzi is now in his second straight spring practice with an open quarterback battle. For the second straight spring practice, that battle includes a notable Power Five transfer.
Phil Jurkovec's move from Boston College to Pitt comes not only with the familiarity of being a conference foe, but it also reunites quarterback with coach in a way that could be promising for the Panthers' offense. Pitt hired Frank Cignetti Jr. away from Boston College prior to the 2022 season, and it was under Cignetti's guidance that Jurkovec had his best season with the Eagles. Jurkoevec, then a transfer from Notre Dame, threw for 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 10 games during the 2020 season, finishing in the top five among ACC quarterbacks in passing yards per game and guiding the Eagles to a sixth-place finish in the league standings. Injury issues — both for Jurkovec and Boston College in general — prevented the Eagles from recapturing that success in the two seasons that followed, but Pitt fans are hoping that reuniting with Cignetti will bring out the best in Jurkovec in 2023.
Who's up next in the secondary? When everyone was healthy, Syracuse had one of the best secondaries in ACC last season. But that group has lost three starters, and now suddenly a team that ranked second in the league in passing defense has huge holes to fill in spring practice. Garrett Williams, who suffered a torn ACL in October, is off to the NFL Draft, and both cornerback Duce Chestnut and safety Ja'Had Carter hit the transfer portal after the season (Chestnut got picked up by LSU, Carter off to Ohio State). Now, there is some transfer portal influx that will help, such as Jaeden Gould from Nebraska and Jayden Bellamy from Notre Dame, but getting those players up to speed with what Syracuse wants to do and finding a good rotation with the existing defensive backs are big keys for the Orange this spring.
Is Tony Muskett ready for prime time? Virginia lost three-year starter Brennan Armstrong to the transfer portal, but also brought in one of the most intriguing portal additions in the conference. Tony Muskett was a two-time all-conference quarterback at FCS Monmouth and pacing towards another strong season in 2022 before it was cut short due to injury. Muskett leaves Monmouth as the program's all-time leader in pass efficiency and ranks in the top five in the school's record books for passing touchdowns (51), passing yards (5,687) and completion percentage (64.2%). Whether Muskett can translate his FCS success to the ACC level is the biggest pivot point in expectations for what Virginia can accomplish on offense this season. He's a strong downfield passer that can really open up the offense, and if the offensive line can take a step forward we could see explosive plays return for a team that ranked No. 129 nationally in plays of 20-plus yards.
Will new faces spark improvement on offense? It takes a concerted effort to not make every single question about the quarterback position and/or the offense. At Virginia Tech, however, the thing that has to be improved dramatically after Brent Pry's 3-8 debut season is so painfully obvious it must be addressed. The Hokies need better play at quarterback, wide receiver and in the running game in 2023, and spring ball is where those transformations need to start.
Quarterback Grant Wells is going to get a push from Baylor transfer Kyron Drones, and they'll have a new-look set of receivers to work with after the Hokies added Ali Jennings (Old Dominion), Da'Quan Felton (Norfolk State) and Jaylin Lane (Middle Tennessee) through the transfer portal.
In terms of the ground game, there's some continuity up front with Kaden Moore as the leader of the offensive line; however, there are plenty of carries up for grabs at running back, where finally healthy Malachi Thomas is battling North Carolina A&T transfer Bhayshul Tuten for starter's snaps. For an offense that ranked 13th in the ACC and outside of the top 100 nationally in yards per game, yards per play, passing offense and rushing offense, all competition, development and improvement is a positive sign.
Is the system stronger than the player? Quarterback Sam Hartman is Wake Forest's all-time leader in career completions, attempts, total touchdowns and total yards, and the team's on-field success during his half-decade career in Winston-Salem qualifies him as one of the greatest Demon Deacons in program history. Now, he's off to Notre Dame for one more year of college football, while Wake Forest moves into the post-Sam era with hopes of maintaining that competitiveness against the best teams in the ACC.
Coach Dave Clawson has pointed out how Wake Forest's offense has been productive under multiple quarterbacks, from John Wolford to Jamie Newman, but after Hartman's extended time under center the strength of the system will be put to the test in his absence. The staff as confidence in Mitch Griffis, and he has been going through the development process in the program for three years to be ready when his number is called. His limited full game experience, a 21 for 29 showing for 288 yards and three touchdowns against VMI last season, was encouraging, but the challenge will be much different against FBS and ACC defenses. For a player who has been committed to Wake Forest since 2018, there has been a lot of preparation for his ascension to QB1. If Griffis, and the Wake Forest system, are both operating at peak performance, the Demon Deacons might not miss a beat.