03 May

Florida State WRs emerging, Clemson QB developing among storylines

The 2024 ACC football season will be unlike anything in the league’s history. Now at 17 teams with the additions of Cal, Stanford and SMU, the conference spans from coast-to-coast. It features a varied makeup of programs with all kinds of expectations heading into the fall. There are multiple jobs with new coaches since the end of 2023 and a few teams with coaches still early in their tenures, but also ACC mainstays like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, NC State’s Dave Doeren and — if we are counting both the 1990s and the current run — North Carolina’s Mack Brown.

The league also enters 2024 with a chip on its shoulder after Florida State finished the regular season as a 13-0 conference champion but was left out of the College Football Playoff; the 2023 Seminoles were the first power conference program to carry that unfavorable distinction. Of course, the ‘Noles have a bit of a complicated relationship with the league at the moment. The school was the first to challenge the Grant of Rights agreement — potentially putting together an exit strategy from the league — by suing the ACC before Clemson followed suit. These things have very little to do with the work being put in during spring practice right now, but the chaos of potential conference realignment looms large around these programs off the field.

So, while the current state of affairs in the ACC is unprecedented and the future is unknown, those things need to be put to the side so we can focus on the coaches, players and storylines that will determine how things shake out in the fall. Let’s dive in to the key spring questions for all 17 ACC teams.

Boston College
How will Bill O’Brien’s arrival impact Thomas Castellanos? Though he was not the starting quarterback at the beginning of the year, it did not take long for the former UCF quarterback to cement himself as QB1 in Chestnut Hill. Castellanos gave the Eagles’ offense an extra dimension with his ability to make plays on the move; by the end of the season, he had racked up 1,103 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. There is still plenty of room for Castellanos to improve since he also threw 14 interceptions and completed just 57.3% percent of his passes, but those areas are places where it’s expected O’Brien will have an impact. As head coach for some of Deshaun Watson’s more successful NFL seasons and the offensive coordinator for Bryce Young’s Heisman Trophy-winning season at Alabama, O’Brien has the profile to be able to guide Castellanos to the next level of his development.

Can Fernando Mendoza carry over last year’s progress? A redshirt freshman in 2023, Mendoza took over the starting quarterback job for the final eight games of the season and performed adequately. He had 14 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, completed 63% of his passes and helped guide the Bears to three straight wins to close the regular season (Washington State, at Stanford, at UCLA) and finish bowl eligible at 6-6. The offense will be anchored by Jadyn Ott, who enters 2024 as one of the most proven running backs in the country, but it’s clear that Justin Wilcox and the offensive coaching staff want to improve the passing game; they would not have brought in Chandler Rogers from North Texas if they believed otherwise. Rogers is a redshirt senior who threw 29 touchdowns to just five interceptions last year for the Mean Green, and while Mendoza has experience in the program, it is Rogers who has the overall experience and production edge in the battle.

Can Cade Klubnik level up his game? Clemson’s coaching staff is challenging Klubnik, the former five-star prospect who enters his junior season with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions as a Tiger, and looking for him to improve in several ways in order to unlock the offense’s full potential. They want Klubnik to get stronger and have more pocket awareness (he took 28 sacks in 2023) as well as get a better feel for situational football after some of his more disappointing moments came in key spots of close losses. This is not a one-man scenario, though; Clemson needs pass catchers and a solid offensive line to help Klubnik in those efforts. Given his blue-chip pedigree, it’s fair to look for a big step forward from the Tigers quarterback in his second full season as a starter.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl – Clemson vs Kentucky
Clemson is looking for Cade Klubnik to develop into the star they believed he could be out of high school. getty images

Will Maalik Murphy prove to be a splash transfer signing? The outlook on Murphy has taken several twists and turns over the last 12 months. It started with beating out Arch Manning for the backup quarterback role at Texas behind Quinn Ewers — and doing so with some fairly impressive spring practice reviews — before finally having his number called when Ewers got hurt in late October. Murphy went 2-0 as a starter in Ewers’ absence, but the performance across those two games was mixed with highs and lows. The combination of his physical skills and limited on-field experience (71 pass attempts across seven games) made Murphy one of the more intriguing transfer portal quarterbacks. His commitment to Duke was viewed as a win for first-year coach Manny Diaz. Now, in spring practice, we can begin to see how much a win that portal signing was and whether it can dramatically change the floor or ceiling for Duke’s offense in 2024.

Florida State
Which difference-makers emerge at wide receiver? If we’re willing to assume that DJ Uiagalalei is going to take over for Jordan Travis at quarterback, the biggest question for Florida State’s offense is going to be replacing the production of multiple NFL Draft-bound pass catchers. Florida State’s three leading receivers — Keon Coleman, Johnny Wilson and Jaheim Bell — combined to account for 50% of all the receptions from last season, 51% of the receiving yards and 60% of the touchdown catches. The “good problem to have” aspect is there are options, both from the portal with former Alabama wide receiver Malik Benson but also from the much-improved high school recruiting pipeline as former five-star prospect Hykeem Williams gets more work in his sophomore season.

Georgia Tech
How does the passing attack build on the success of 2023? Quarterback Haynes King proved to be an inspired addition for Brent Key as King oversaw an offense that had one of the biggest single-season improvements in the ACC. King threw for 2,842 yards and 27 touchdowns, and not only is he back, but so are many of the key pass catchers from last season. Leading receiver Eric Singleton Jr. returns after a freshman campaign that saw him finish second in ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and earn Freshman All-America honors from 247Sports. The Yellow Jackets also have Malik Rutherford and Christian Leary back as well, which sets the stage for Georgia Tech to have one of the top passing attacks in the conference. So, the key to meeting those expectations starts with taking the next step here in spring, and that’s one of many goals for the Yellow Jackets over the next couple weeks.

What transfers emerge as the top difference-makers? For the second year in a row, Louisville has loaded up on transfer portal talent to give the Cardinals their best chance at remaining competitive without having to reboot the roster. Of the 26 transfer portal signees, 24 are with the team for spring practice. Among that group are plenty of players expected to be key contributors in 2024. Edge rusher Tyler Baron from Tennessee and wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks from Alabama are the headliners, but there’s also sixth-year quarterback Tyler Shough, now on his third power conference stop after two years at Oregon and three at Texas Tech. Which of these players gels the best with the current group — Shough did not start spring ball fully healthy, it should be noted — will be informative for what to expect from Jeff Brohm’s group as they eye a return trip to the ACC Championship Game.

Is Cam Ward the key to a Mario Cristobal breakthrough season? When Miami hired Mario Cristobal away from Oregon, the South Florida native and former Hurricanes offensive lineman sold a vision of returning “The U” to the land of championship contention. But in two seasons with Cristobal at the helm, Miami has yet to sniff even conference title contention, going 6-10 in ACC play and 12-13 overall across 2022 and 2023. Quarterback Cam Ward chose Miami after initially declaring for the NFL Draft, and the best of his performance at Washington State suggests that he’s the kind of electric playmaker needed to wind up on the winning side of close games. Miami is loaded up along both lines of scrimmage and has a pair of high-end wide receivers with Xavier Restrepo and Jacolby George, so the table is set for Ward to have a good season. If so, Miami could be a dark horse to reach the levels Cristobal spoke of and contend for an ACC title in 2024.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Washington State at Washington
Miami is hoping Cam Ward can get the Hurricanes over the hump in 2024. getty images
North Carolina
Who replaces Drake Maye? Mack Brown has enjoyed five consecutive seasons of having future NFL talent at quarterback, and though he held open competitions prior to naming both Sam Howell and Drake Maye the starter, this does feel like the most uncertainty there’s been at the position since his return to Chapel Hill. One of the earliest transfer portal pickups in the offseason cycle for the Tar Heels was Max Johnson, who brings 30 games (22 starts) of experience across four seasons at LSU and Texas A&M that saw him amass 47 touchdowns and more than 5,800 passing yards. Johnson’s primary competition appears to be redshirt sophomore Conner Harrell, who showed potential as a starter in the bowl game with Maye out but lacks the experience and production that Johnson brings to the table.

NC State
Can the Wolfpack maintain success with a retooled roster? NC State has evolved into a steady and reliable winner, totaling 34 wins over the last four seasons with two top-25 finishes. It’s a program that has logged recent wins against both Clemson and Florida State, and in 2024 has a favorable schedule draw with some eyeing the potential of competing for an ACC title. But doing so requires strong work this spring for a roster that has largely been retooled with 32 new players (transfers and early enrollees) joining the team for spring ball. Among the notable additions is former Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall, who at his peak was breaking the FBS pass efficiency record at the time but has dealt with injuries in recent years. The foundation of his program is solid and the portal additions — McCall included — address some needs. But capitalizing on a seemingly favorable schedule requires bringing everyone up to speed this spring.

Is a bounce-back season in store in 2024? Pat Narduzzi was on a run of churning out consistent winning seasons, making six bowls in eight years with an ACC championship in 2021 and top-25 finishes in both 2021 and 2022. That’s what made last year’s 3-9 season so disorienting. Now, there’s an assumption for a bounce back because of Narduzzi’s standard, but there are not a lot of obvious answers for how this team takes a big step forward. One place to start is on offense where new offensive coordinator Kade Bell has arrived from Western Carolina with a new scheme that’s reportedly a bit more up-tempo and easier to install than what the Panthers have been working with the last couple of seasons. Pitt ranked last in the ACC in both total offense and scoring last season, so getting the offense right is a great place to start the turnaround efforts.

Is Preston Stone poised to be the ACC’s breakout star in 2024? Of the three newcomers to the conference, the one that enters with the most momentum is SMU after winning AAC title on their way out of the league in 2023. If SMU is going to have a successful debut as an ACC member, then it will likely include a strong showing from quarterback Preston Stone, who checked a lot of boxes during his first season as a starter. Stone ranked in the top-15 nationally for both passing touchdowns (28) and passer rating (161.3), and had nine games with multiple touchdown passes across his 12 starts before a season-ending injury in the regular-season finale. He started spring practice limited as he continues to recover from that broken leg, but coach Rhett Lashlee is pleased with his progress and he’s been able to get in some individual work with hope of going in 7-on-7 before the end of spring. Stone’s health is a key to SMU riding the momentum of an AAC title into its ACC era, so getting him back in rhythm is a big offseason storyline for the Mustangs.

Preston Stone and his gun-slinging ability leads SMU into its ACC era this season. getty images
Can Elijah Brown push for the starting job? Both Ashton Daniels and Justin Lamson are back after sharing the quarterback duties throughout the first year of the Troy Taylor era in Paolo Alto, California. Daniels was the more effective passer, but he had just 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and both quarterbacks were significant parts of the rushing attack for a Cardinal offense that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in both scoring (11th) and total offense (10th). Enter Elijah Brown, a four-star prospect from California power house Mater Dei High School with two state championships to his name. As an early enrollee, he’ll get a crack at the starting job this spring. When there’s a top-end pass-catching option like 1,000-yard receiver Elic Ayomanor at your disposal, it becomes crucial that Stanford take advantage with quality quarterback play.

Can Kyle McCord get in sync with Oronde Gadsden? First-year coach Fran Brown has done some important work in the transfer portal, but when it comes to projecting how things are going to go in Year 1, there is a heightened importance on getting quarterback right. Well, the Orange have a capable option with former Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord. All eyes are going to be on how McCord establishes chemistry with Oronde Gadsden, the hybrid tight end-wide receiver who was first team All-ACC in 2022 but suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of 2023. When healthy, Gadsden is one of the best pass-catchers in the league. Being on the same page as McCord is crucial to the Syracuse offense reaching its ceiling.

Does Virginia have the next future pro WR on the roster? The quarterback debate between Tony Muskett and Anthony Colandrea has filled more minutes on the Cover 3 Podcast than you would expect, but when projecting forward, there is a more pressing matter for Virginia’s offense. Malik Washington caught 110 passes last season and totaled 1,400 receiving yards, but now he’s in the NFL Draft process while his former teammate, Malachi Fields, enters spring with an expectation to take over as WR1. Fields was second on the team in receptions (58), receiving yards (811) and touchdown catches (5) last season, and the expectation is he will see an increase in all three categories as the result of a more significant workload with Washington off to the NFL.

Virginia Tech
Can the on-field product match the off-field buzz? The dark horse conversation in the ACC heading into 2024 includes Virginia Tech because there’s proof of concept in Brent Pry’s plan and the schedule sets up favorably to enter November with a spot in the ACC title race. The Hokies have loads of skill talent back from a group that exceeded expectations in 2023 with a 5-3 conference record and a bowl win, making Virginia Tech a team that everyone is keeping an eye on this spring. It’s been a while since Virginia Tech has entered a season with some legitimate hype, but if the on-paper strengths play out on the field, this is one of the most dangerous teams in the league.

Wake Forest
Which quarterback can seize their opportunity? Wake Forest has two veteran quarterbacks vying for the starting job: one who has been a bit of a journeyman and another who has spent more than five years in the program. Both Hank Bachmeier, the former Boise State and Louisiana Tech quarterback, and Michael Kern, an early enrollee at Wake back in January 2019, seem to be the favorites for the starting role. The question for Dave Clawson and his offensive staff is whether they see more bonuses from the player experienced in the system or the player with more experience on Saturdays in the fall. Bachmeier has appeared in 38 games while Kern has just 16 games under his belt, and both are on their sixth year of college football. Still, Kern has shown flashes of the potential that drew the coaching staff’s attention to him as a recruit. This spring is all about which veteran signal-caller can grab hold of the QB1 duties.

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