By BRYAN PALMESE - ACC Insider
The Favorites: Virginia Tech & Florida State: After sorting through the parity that exists in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the two teams that rise to the surface should not come as a surprise. The Hokies and the Seminoles have enjoyed being the heavy hitters in the conference since joining (FSU in 1991 and VT in 2004), and 2009 will be no different. In Blacksburg, Virginia Tech has a tough September in which they open against Alabama, and entertain Nebraska and Miami to wrap up the month. Down in Tallahassee, the Seminoles enjoy a lighter schedule to start off the year, but finish with a few tough bouts down the stretch. If both teams can stay focused and win during the tedious stretches, they will face-off for the Championship Game in December. Virginia Tech's defense is stout, with 6'2 252-pound defensive end Jason Worilds anchoring the defensive line and Kam Chancellor and Stephan Virgil roaming the secondary. Florida State's offense will focus around the running game and utilize the strength of their offensive line. Though the offense will be run heavy, all eyes will be on the progression of junior quarterback, Christian Ponder. He hasn't dazzled yet, but the skills are there—he just needs to put it all together.
The Contenders: North Carolina & Georgia Tech: The Tar Heels and Yellow Jackets look to build upon successful 2008 campaigns and challenge for the top spot in the ACC. The UNC defense is deep with young and fast athletic talent, and several players could vie for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin (6’3, 300 lbs.), middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant (6’2, 235 lbs.), and cornerback Kendric Burney (5’9, 185 lbs.) will be a force that opposing offenses will not want to challenge. The Tar Heel offense has a healthy backfield, though quarterback T. J. Yates’ ability—or lack thereof—to take the 'Heels to the next level could pose problems as the season wears on. On the flip-side, Georgia Tech boasts the premier offensive player in the league in running back Jonathan Dwyer. Head Coach Paul Johnson's offense is challenging to defend against and the attitude that he preaches in Atlanta is infectious. The Ramblin' Wreck also features one of the top safeties in the country, Morgan Burnett. The Yellow Jackets are more balanced and should be the team that the Seminoles will have to keep an eye on in the competitive Coastal Division of the ACC.
The Sleeper: North Carolina State: When Head Coach Tom O'Brien came to Raleigh in 2007, he told the fans and the media that his blueprint would take a few years to blossom. After two years, the Wolfpack look ready to slide under the radar and make some noise. Quarterback Russell Wilson blew up in 2008 and took home Freshman of the Year honors. With a year under his belt, Wilson looks to further the success of the NC State offense. Receivers Owen Spencer, T.J. Graham and Donald Bowens are big-time threats and if Jamelle Eugene can stay healthy, the running game will be potent once again. On defense, Willie Young is emerging as one of the top pass rushers in the ACC. A solid unit from top-to-bottom also has a secret weapon in the secondary in cornerback DeAndre Morgan. The 5' 10 170-pound junior is a ballhawk with tremendous instincts and very deceiving speed. The Wolfpack open the season at home against South Carolina and then have a very weak schedule that they need to take advantage of. They play eight of their 12 games at home, though they do have late games at Blacksburg and Tallahassee.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB Jonathan Dwyer (Georgia Tech) vs. RB C. J. Spiller (Clemson): These two game-changing backs are equally as explosive as they are different in style. Jonathan Dwyer is a big power back with the rare gift of speed and agility for a 6'0' 235-pounder. The Georgia Tech stud won this award, as well as ACC Player of the Year in 2008, and is looking for a repeat in 2009. He is fluid, explosive, and has a nose for the end zone. Look for Dwyer's name to be called early on draft day 2010 should he decide to declare. C. J. Spiller is a shifty, lightning-quick running back that is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. He lines up in the Clemson backfield, but is a receiving threat as well as a fearsome return option on special teams. Spiller's name is already being whispered amongst Heisman circles and he will give Dwyer a serious run for his money.
Honorable Mention: QB Riley Skinner (Wake Forest), QB Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech), QB Russell Wilson (NC State), WR Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech), WR Jacoby Ford (Clemson)
Defensive Player of the Year: DT Marvin Austin (North Carolina) vs. FS Morgan Burnett (Georgia Tech): The North Carolina defense should be one of the top units in the conference and Marvin Austin is the player turning heads. The 305-pound versatile defensive tackle is a beast in the middle and is the key to plugging holes for the Tar Heels’ interior line. Austin was the #1 rated defensive tackle coming out of high school and he didn't disappoint as a true freshman, registering four sacks and 26 tackles. Last season as a sophomore, Austin was tied for the team lead in tackles (38) and demonstrated how he can dominate more as the game progresses. He punishes players with his strength, yet has swift feet and is very agile for a player of his physical stature. Down in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets have an All-American junior safety that is electrifying the defensive backfield. Morgan Burnett is a 611, 200-pound ballhawk that is being mentioned as one of the top defensive backs in the country. He is physical, fast, and has great hands, plus his natural instincts always keep him in position to make a play. Last season Burnett led the ACC in interceptions (seven), and passes defended (15), as well as leading the Jackets with 93 tackles. The Georgia product is also great at creeping into the box and stopping the run. If both of these players declare for the 2010 Draft, they will both hear their names called early.
Honorable Mention: DE Jason Worilds (Virginia Tech), DE, Ricky Sap (Clemson), DE Willie Young (North Carolina St.), LB Dekoda Watson (Florida St.), LB Alex Wujciak (Maryland), CB Ras-I Dowling (Virginia), CB Vic Hall (Virginia), CB Patrick Robinson (Florida St.), FS Deunta Williams (North Carolina), FS Kam Chancellor (Virginia Tech)
Breakout Seasons: FS Morgan Burnett (Georgia Tech), RB C. J. Spiller (Clemson) & QB Russell Wilson (North Carolina St.): Let's preface this category by saying that Jonathan Dwyer at Georgia Tech is not in this group because he broke out in 2008. Moving forward, Clemson's C. J. Spiller is a highlight reel waiting to happen and his sub-4.4 speed is pure entertainment. Spiller can do it all in the blink of an eye and will be one of the nation's top all-around offensive players in 2009. He does not have to share carries with former teammate James Davis ('09 Browns draft pick), which will only give him more opportunity to showcase his playmaking abilities. Morgan Burnett flat out does it all and makes it look effortless. Georgia Tech's front four will allow Burnett to float around depending on the looks. He has great closing speed and uses space well, which allows him to jump into the run game (seven tackles-for-loss; one forced fumble) or drop back into coverage (10 career interceptions). Russell Wilson made a splash in Raleigh in 2008 and he should remain one of the top offensive threats in the conference in 2009. Wilson's athleticism is the first thing you notice about him, but the positives don’t end there. He has amazing leadership qualities that bring a “never quit” attitude to the Wolfpack. To say that Wilson is elusive would be an understatement. When you combine his vision, arm strength, and high football IQ, it adds up to the ideal collegiate quarterback. The former Virginia high school standout can beat you through the air (133.9 quarterback rating) or on the ground.
Best Pro Prospect: RB Jonathan Dwyer (Georgia Tech): When it comes down to an every-down player at the next level, Jonathan Dwyer is it. He might not be as flashy or attention-grabbing as some players around the country, but this running back will be a stud in the NFL. Dwyer has the frame (6’0, 235-pounds) to take the punishment of 20-25 carries a game, in addition to the speed and vision to hit the next level and make defenders miss. The Yellow Jacket star put up 107 yards-per-game in 2008 and ranked 17th nationally. When you watch Dwyer touch the ball, he is reminiscent of Edgerrin James or Clinton Portis. Dwyer's teammate Morgan Burnett and Clemson stud running back C. J. Spiller are also considerations, but Dwyer is master of this domain.
College Football Insiders’ Picks:
Conference Champion: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Yes, Virginia Tech and Florida State are the favorites, but that is why the game is played every week. Georgia Tech has a top-flight quarterback in Josh Nesbitt, and Demaryius Thomas is a prime-time weapon at wide receiver. In the triple-option offense that is run in Atlanta, both Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones will get plenty of looks out of the backfield. Dwyer is the big name but Jones should make a name for himself in 2009, much like the former did in 2008. On defense, Tech boasts one of the top defensive backs in the land in Morgan Burnett. However, the talent does not stop in the backfield. Junior defensive end Derrick Morgan and senior linebacker Sedrick Griffin will help bolster the front seven and ease the loss of Michael Johnson. The Jackets’ schedule lines up nicely and their only real road tests come when they travel to Miami and Florida State. They enjoy home games against UNC, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Georgia. With so many evenly matched teams in the conference, the title is up for grabs in 2009.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB C.J. Spiller (Clemson): When the smoke clears on the 2009 season, C. J. Spiller will overtake Jonathan Dwyer. Awards like this often go to players featured on SportsCenter and those that take fans' breath away. Spiller is flashy and has the talent to shine every week at Clemson. There is talent on the Clemson roster, but Spiller will get a lot more looks than Dwyer will for Georgia Tech.
Defensive Player of the Year: FS Morgan Burnett (Georgia Tech): Morgan Burnett is the premier defensive player in the ACC and he will be recognized for it in 2009. He is a rover that can cover from sideline to sideline and is strong enough to be involved in run support. If he was a corner, opposing offenses would never throw to him because of his ability to force turnovers. Marvin Austin will excite many in Chapel Hill, and Kam Chancellor looks good in Blacksburg, but Burnett will be the right choice.
Photo Credit: David Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics Communications, Clemson SID, Georgia Tech Sports Information Office
Monday, August 17, 2009
By BRYAN PALMESE - ACC Insider