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2019 Pre-Spring ACC Rankings

By Southern Pigskin Staff
SouthernPigskin.com
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Southern Pigskin's official 2019 pre-spring power ranking of the ACC.

ATLANTIC

1. Clemson -- The defending national champions, winners of two of the last three titles, are officially college football royalty. Dabo Swinney's Tigers are here for the long haul. Get ready for more highlights and big plays. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, 30 touchdowns, and running back Travis Etienne, 24 scores, form the best backfield in the country, perhaps the best tandem in a while. Then there are the wide receivers, where Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers are all stars. This offense will be staggering. Clemson is a defensive line factory and, even without the departed greats onto the NFL, the new names will push for more of the same. End Xavier Thomas, 10.5 tackles for loss as a freshman, is the next-in-line.

Biggest Strength: Playmakers
Biggest Question: Secondary
Spring Player to Watch: Xavier Kelly, DT

2. Florida State -- Year one of the Willie Taggart era was a disappointment as the Seminoles finished with a losing record for the first time since 1976. Progress is expected moving forward as there now appears to be some depth on the offensive line and at linebacker. Without dismissed Deondre Francois, James Blackman is the past, present and future under center. He played well as a true freshman and threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns in his lone start a season ago. Blackman has a go-to target in Tamorrion Terry. With more stability up front, running back Cam Akers should have some room to work. A lot of young talent in the secondary, see safety Jaidon Woodbey, appears ready to shine.

Biggest Strength: Secondary
Biggest Question: Offensive line
Spring Player to Watch: Donte Lucas, OG

3. Syracuse -- Fresh off ten wins, Dino Babers has his system rolling with the Orange. Though record-setting quarterback Eric Dungey must be replaced, the expectation is that Tommy DeVito can step in and be productive. There are weapons outside, most notably Sean Riley, who doubles as an outstanding return specialist. Syracuse has terrific bookend edge rushers in Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. The duo combined for 20 sacks and 29 tackles for loss in 2018. As a freshman, safety Andre Cisco picked off seven passes. Additionally, the Orange may have the best special teams unit in college football with Lou Groza-award winning kicker Andre Szmyt, punter Sterling Hofrichter and Riley, an elite return man.

Biggest Strength: Special Teams
Biggest Question: Linebacker
Spring Player to Watch: Tommy DeVito, QB

4. North Carolina State -- There is some retooling to do in Raleigh as the core of recent success has moved on. That said, Dave Doeren has established a strong foundation for the Wolfpack, infrastructure that should help the program move forward. The competition to replace Ryan Finley at quarterback, featuring multiple talented options, will be interesting; at 6'2'', 210 pounds, Florida State-transfer Bailey Hockman may be the front-runner. There are playmakers waiting at wide receiver, including Emeka Emezie. Safety Jarius Morehead, 81 total tackles and three interceptions a season ago, is an active defender who moves into a leadership role on the unit. 

Biggest Strength: Program consistency
Biggest Question: Star power
Spring Player to Watch: Bailey Hockman, QB

5. Boston College -- What star running back A.J. Dillon has already done is remarkable. In just two seasons, he has 2,697 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns and that is with him missing some time last fall due to injury. Dillon will, again, be the focal point for a physical Steve Addazio football team. Quarterback Anthony Brown made great strides last year as a developing passer. Though there are some holes to fill defensively, linebackers will continue to be in the spotlight for the Eagles, with Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson returning. Boston College is in need of new playmakers along the line of scrimmage and in the secondary.  

Biggest Strength: Running back
Biggest Question: Secondary
Spring Player to Watch: Tanner Karafa, DE

6. Wake Forest -- The Demon Deacons won three of four to finish last season, including beating Memphis in the Liberty Bowl. Quarterback Sam Hartman had a nice freshman debut, while Jamie Newman played well in his place down the stretch. Wake Forest has options under center, even with Kendall Hinton moving to wide receiver. Cade Carney, who ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns, gives the Demon Deacons a returning 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield. Cornerback Essang Bassey is one of the best in the ACC, but the search for other ball-hawks is on. More pressure from the defensive edge is needed, where the continued progression of Carlos Basham will be key.

Biggest Strength: Offensive backfield
Biggest Question: Pass rush
Spring Player to Watch: Carlos Basham, DE

7. Louisville -- Former Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield takes over a program that essentially collapsed at the end of the Bobby Petrino era. A comprehensive reset is now underway for the Cardinals. Quarterback Malik Cunningham, a dynamic dual-threat talent, has the chance to be a good starting point. He will likely be the centerpiece of Louisville's rebuild, but will have to fortify his position atop the depth chart first. New defensive coordinator Bryan Brown is switching the Cardinals to a 3-4 scheme. Spring will obviously be important here as familiarity is established and playmakers, especially on the edge, are identified.         

Biggest Strength: New message
Biggest Question: Leadership
Spring Player to Watch: Tabarious Peterson, OLB

COASTAL

1. Miami -- The quarterback situation aside, the Hurricanes should continue to be dominant on defense. Standout linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney have combined for 452 total tackles and 60.5 total tackles for loss and end Jonathan Garvin, 17 tackles for loss this past year, is the next-big-thing up front. There is plenty of skill position talent, led by speedy wideout Jeff Thomas, who decided to return to the team and dynamic running back Deejay Dallas, who is ready for a bigger role. Tight end Brevin Jordan is also a star. Clearly, there are concerns at quarterback, but Miami has options. Should Ohio State-transfer Tate Martell be granted immediate eligibility, he becomes the front-runner.     

Biggest Strength: Linebacker
Biggest Question: Quarterback
Spring Player to Watch: N'Kosi Perry, QB

2. Virginia -- Pretty quickly, Bronco Mendenhall has molded the Cavaliers into a contender. Virginia nearly made the ACC Championship Game last season, then promptly shutout South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl to finish the year. The secondary, led by star cornerback Bryce Hall, is one of the nation's best. Hall broke up 22 passes, picked off two more and forced two fumbles in 2018 and headlines a deep and aggressive group, a unit that could be even more effective with a more consistent pass rush. Bryce Perkins proved to be a revelation at quarterback, throwing for 2,680 yards, running for 932 more and scoring 34 total touchdowns. He will need a new running-mate to emerge.

Biggest Strength: Secondary
Biggest Question: Running back
Spring Player to Watch: Jordan Redmond, DT

3. Virginia Tech -- The Hokies, even with the nation's longest active bowl streak, are looking for program consistency. They may have found it in former Kansas quarterback Ryan Willis. After throwing 24 touchdown passes in 2018, he gives Virginia Tech some stability. Add in ex-Ball State playmaker Damon Hazleton, Eric Kumah, Tre Turner and Hezekiah Grimsley at receiver and Dalton Keane at tight end and Virginia Tech will have one of the league's premier passing attacks. Multiple underclassmen showed promise for the Hokies on defense last fall, most notably cornerback Caleb Farley, players now ready to become playmakers under legendary coordinator Bud Foster.   

Biggest Strength: Passing game
Biggest Question: Pass rush
Spring Player to Watch: Dax Hollifield, LB

4. Pittsburgh -- It was somewhat of a strange season for the Panthers, who won the wacky ACC Coastal but also lost seven games. Advancing to the conference championship game was a statement, as was the way the Panthers did it. Carrying that brand forward will require some work, however, as the running back depth chart has been reshuffled. Though Pittsburgh will be big and physical up front, the next collection of downfield runners will have to be found to compliment returning quarterback Kenny Pickett. Big-play Maurice Ffrench can change games at wide receiver and in the return game alike. Defensively, Rashad Weaver leads the front charge after 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.   

Biggest Strength: Offensive line
Biggest Weakness: Secondary
Spring Player to Watch: V'Lique Carter, ATH

5. Duke -- Experience shifts from the passing game to the running game for David Cutcliffe's Blue Devils. Backs Deon Jackson and Brittan Brown form a nice one-two combination capable of carrying the load offensively. Quarterback Quinten Harris, a senior, is a proven playmaker; backing up potential future first round NFL Draft pick Daniel Jones a year ago, he scored 12 total touchdowns compared to throwing just one interception. There is very little returning production out wide, however, as a rotation needs established. More disruption will be a must from the front seven, but Mark Gilbert, 6'1'' and back from injury, is one of the top cover corners in the ACC.  

Biggest Strength: Running back
Biggest Weakness: Wide receiver
Spring Player to watch: Noah Gray, TE

6. North Carolina -- The return of the Mack has energized the Tar Heels, with Mack Brown, North Carolina's head coach from 1988-1997 before going to Texas and winning a national championship, coming home again. There is young talent on the roster, but not near as many proven commodities. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo will want to throw the football, so all eyes will be on the quarterbacks. Returnees Nathan Elliott, 2,169 passing yards last season, and Chaz Surratt, 1,342 yards two years ago, both have big game experience, but incoming blue-chipper Sam Howell may also get a chance. At this point, the defensive depth chart, especially in the back seven, has to be considered pretty open.

Biggest Strength: Coaching staff
Biggest Weakness: Defensive playmakers
Spring Player to Watch: Nathan Elliott, QB  

7. Georgia Tech -- Geoff Collins, coming to Atlanta from Temple, has brought a more contemporary style to the Flats. Correspondingly, the Yellow Jackets are moving on from Paul Johnson's famed flexbone-option scheme. The offensive makeover will be comprehensive and dramatic. How the depth chart shakes out will be fascinating, especially along the offensive line and with players like quarterback Tobias Oliver, who rushed for 876 yards and 12 touchdowns as largely a reserve last fall. Running backs Jordan Mason and Jerry Howard should transition smoothly. Georgia Tech is in need of excitement on the perimeter on offense and on the edge on defense. 

Biggest Strength: New momentum
Biggest Question: Offensive identity
Spring Player to Watch: Jalen Camp, WR