Bob Holliday

ACC QBs: A story of haves and have nots

Posted July 30

The ACC in 2017 is a story of the haves and the have-nots when it comes to quarterbacks.

The Atlantic Advantage

Let’s begin with the haves. That means Louisville, which not only returns its starting quarterback but the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. And watch out ACC defenses: Lamar Jackson’s teammate Jaire Alexander says he looks better than ever.

“Lamar is definitely more accurate,” Alexander said. “He puts a zip on the ball that I might not even want to pick off sometimes, you know.”

Florida State returns marvelous sophomore Deondre Francois. All he did last year was pile up 3,350 yards passing and another 200 or so running while leading the Seminoles to a 10-3 record.

NC State returns the experienced and well-seasoned Ryan Finley, who moved the offense in Boise, Idaho before doing the same in Raleigh, North Carolina last year.

Pack starts 2017 with different Day One

Syracuse has dynamic Eric Dungey, hoping to stay injury free this fall, while Wake Forest counts both Kendall Hinton and John Wolford on its quarterback two deep for 2017.

So every team in the Atlantic has an experienced hand under center except Boston College and Clemson. The Tigers, in fact, have lost 78 percent of the production from last season’s national championship team. But Dabo Swinney has known his program would have a significant offensive void to fill.

“You go recruiting. That's what you do,” Swinney said. “You don't sit around and pout about it. That's just the nature of college football. Guys, there's change every year. You know, when Tajh Boyd was gone, it was, 'How are you going to replace Tajh Boyd?'

"We went and got a guy named Deshaun Watson. He did okay.”

Quarterback Chaos in the Coastal

Coastal Division coaches can empathize with Dabo Swinney as almost all of them must replace a starting quarterback. The only exceptions: Virginia, which returns Kurt Benkert, and Duke which will build its offense around up and coming sophomore Daniel Jones.

Blue Devil coach David Cutcliffe, nationally known as a developer of quarterbacks, acknowledges it’s a bonus when the quarterback returns, adding, “One of the things that Daniel did prove, any quarterback that's ever going to be a great player has to learn to fail and return quickly, and he has proven that he can do that.” Jones threw eight interceptions early in the season, but played error free football later in the season, especially in an upset win over arch-rival North Carolina.

North Carolina, of course, is one of the five Coastal schools that must replace someone really good at quarterback. In Carolina’s case, starter Mitch Trubisky was the second player picked in April’s NFL draft. LSU transfer Brandon Harris will compete for the starting job along with holdovers Chazz Surratt, Nathan Elliott, and Logan Byrd.

Larry Fedora offered this on the August competition in Chapel Hill: “The guy that's going to win that job is going to be a guy that can lead our football team, one. He's got to be able to make good decisions and take care of the football, and if he does those things, keeps moving those chains beyond the white lines, then he can be a guy that can help us be successful.”

But winning the job in August is no guarantee the quarterback will deliver in September.

Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who went through the quarterback replacement process last year, offers this cautionary tale: “You can lose a guy before you make a guy, and I think you have to be very controlled in how you call plays and situations you put him in.” Fisher adds, "I think it's very important for quarterbacks to have success early because I think you can lose confidence -- once you lose confidence, it's a hard thing.”

Fisher believes finding a quarterback that “matches up” with the guys around him is important.

Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente, who must replace prolific runner/passer Jerod Evans, thinks that supporting cast may be as important as the quarterback himself.

“I'm sure the local Virginia media will probably roll their eyes when I say this,” Fuente said. “But I believe the biggest thing for us is the supporting cast, in terms of the other wide receivers and getting some more production out of our running back position as we move forward so that whoever does play quarterback has a chance to be productive.”

At Miami, where the Hurricanes must replace NFL draft pick Brad Kaaya, running back Mark Walton feels responsibility to help the new guy-either Malik Rosier, Evan Shirreffs, or Cade Weldon.

"I'm going to make sure I do my job picking up any blitz and making sure I hold my own blocking protection to give him enough time to make the right throws so he can be comfortable back there throwing the ball so he won`t have rush a decision and make a bad play," he said.

Hurricanes’ coach Mark Richt, however, knows breakdowns will occur. He wants to see how the newcomer responds.

“What are you going to do when the protection breaks down,” Richt said. “Are you going to throw it up for grabs? Are you going to start running wild and get the ball stripped and they scoop and score? When the drive is over, I want a punt, I want a field goal, or I want an extra point. If you end up in a turnover, it's usually the quarterback that made a decision that caused that turnover.”

If Miami’s Richt has not reached a comfort point at quarterback, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson apparently has.

Johnson must replace three year starter Justin Thomas, arguably the most dynamic combination runner/passer to operate Tech’s unique spread option offense. And yet because Matthew Jordan filled in successfully last season when Thomas was hurt, Johnson says the job is now “Matthew’s to lose,” but he also notes “I think we've got four guys at that position that I could call a game for right now.”

Knowing how much Paul Johnson puts into play calling, that’s quite a statement. He adds, that these four quarterbacks, “are going to have the luxury of being surrounded -- it's very similar to three years ago when Justin was first starting and he was surrounded by a bunch of guys that had experience and had played a lot of football.”

Paul Johnson will remind you that particular GT team, with a rookie quarterback flanked by a veteran backfield and offensive line, won the Orange Bowl.

Pitt must replace Nathan Peterman, also an NFL draft pick. Coach Pat Narduzzi likes the depth and quality of competition the Panthers now have at quarterback -- something he could not say when he first took the coaching reins there three years ago.

The Emotional Factors

Skill matters of course. But as we drill down into the comments of ACC players and coaches, it would seem the emotional factors matter most.

Daniel Jones, that rare returning Coastal quarterback, notes that his coach, David Cutcliffe is an accomplished quarterback technician, but also says, “As a young quarterback, I'd say more than anything just his support and confidence in me was a big part of my progression last year.”

Mark Richt has the experience of having played the quarterback position at Miami, though it was some decades ago and he was not the starter. But he knows what happens between the lines is heavily influenced by what happens between the ears.

"I want to see who can handle the pressure of that job,” Richt said. "I need a guy I can trust. Can you hit your target? Can you make good decisions? Can you handle the pressure of being the starting quarterback at Miami? Those are the things I've got to find out, and the last one I won't know until they actually become the starting quarterback.”

In truth, even after the starter is established, coaches must keep developing options at quarterback. Duke’s Cutcliffe, one of the few who already has his guy, worries about that.

"In a division like ours, everybody in our division is growing and getting better and we've got some physical football teams," he said. "So I'm as much concerned about the other positions as I certainly am quarterback.

Turnover-plagued Duke falls to Virginia, 34-20

"But I can promise you this: I am very grateful that we have a quarterback that's a returning starter. I just hope and pray we can keep him healthy.”

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