In the 411 series, I’ll briefly profile four teams, one player, and one coach you should get to know in each conference. I’m taking a look at teams on the rise, immediate impact transfers, under-the-radar talent, and more. The series opened up with the AAC, and now, we take a look at the ACC (yes, Mike Vallerie, I’m going in alphabetical order).
Want to skip ahead? In this article:
- NC State Wolfpack
- Boston College Eagles
- Clemson Tigers
- Louisville Cardinals
- Tyler Van Dyke, QB, Miami
- Robert Anae, OC, Syracuse
NC State Wolfpack
NC State is like the Samwise Gamgee or Neville Longbottom of football teams: strong and reliable. Still, it doesn’t always receive the credit they deserve and are usually overshadowed by a few peers. In Dave Doeren’s ninth season, the veteran coach led the Wolfpack to a 9-3 record and ranked #20 in the AP Top 25. Only four points separated NC State from an 11-1 record and, ultimately, a three-point heartbreaker to Wake Forest kept the Wolfpack from their first-ever ACC Championship Game appearance. Outscoring their opponents 397-236, NC State’s 33.1 points per game was good for #26 in the nation, while allowing 19.6 points per game was good for #18 in the nation.
Ahead of the 2022 campaign, NC State boasts 81.0% returning production: eleventh-most in the nation. The weapons and a winnable schedule are in place. Could this be the year they have their shining moment?
QB Devin Leary is back and is demanding your attention. He’s a late, rising CFF asset with legitimate NFL upside. In 2021 and year four out of high school, Leary completed 283-of-431 pass attempts (65.7%) for 3,433 yards, 8.0 yards per pass attempt, 35 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a QBR of 71.9. His 35:5 TD-INT rate bested the likes of Kenny Pickett, Sam Howell, Sam Hartman, Brennan Armstrong, and Tyler Van Dyke. During a six-game stretch, Leary maintained an impressive 18:0 TD-IT rate. In a post-Pickett and Howell world, Leary could very well be the face of the ACC in 2022.
WR Thayer Thomas and WR Devin Carter – two of Leary’s top three targets – also return. Thomas and Carter combined for 82 receptions, 1,152 yards, and 14 touchdowns. The passing game should not miss a beat with the slot and outside receiver filled with productive, experienced players.
Jordan Houston has seen declining production each season. Now, he’s NC State’s most experienced running back. Typically, this wouldn’t seem very promising. However, Houston waited patiently and stayed with the Wolfpack when most would have transferred for more playing time. It isn’t surprising that someone with such resiliency, and a praised work ethic, would display all of the right traits during spring ball. In the spring game, Houston did well running between the tackles and showed speed and good field vision by bouncing runs to the outside when inside gaps were filled. Especially considering his receiving ability, Houston is a major C2C sleeper.
Notable Incoming Transfers
NC State added wide receiver Darryl Jones earlier this year. Although the Maryland graduate transfer has but a small sample size of statistics, he has years of experience. And perhaps, he saved the best for last. During the Terrapins’ 54-10 blowout win over Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl, Jones had four receptions for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
The Pack lost the one-two punch that was RB Zonovan Knight and RB Ricky Person Jr. In 2021, the dynamic duo combined for 275 carries, 1,389 yards, and eight touchdowns. With Knight and Person declaring for the NFL Draft, it is up to veteran Jordan Houston to carry the torch.
Due to exhausted eligibility, Leary will also be without his go-to target and receiving yards leader, Emeka Emezie. Since 2018, Emezie had four consecutive 500+ yard seasons, and his 229 career receptions make him NC State’s all-time leader in catches. In 2021, Emezie had 60 receptions for 802 yards and six touchdowns.
Just as the Wolfpack returns most of their playing production, they also retained and returned their coaching staff. Continuity from players and coaching personnel certainly provides a competitive advantage. Between NC State, Clemson, and Wake Forest, the Atlantic Division should be a tight race.
Boston College Eagles
Boston College – 56-57 since 2013 – is almost exclusively a six or seven-win program each season. The Eagles haven’t had an eight win season since 2009… 13 years ago… the iPhone was two years old, The Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” was atop the Billboard 100, and Boston College’s star QB and alumnus, Matt Ryan, was is the second year of his NFL career.
In 2021, Jeff Hafley’s second season with the program, the Eagles posted a 6-6 record, opened the campaign 4-0, and kept it close with Clemson. Will returning playmakers and a new offensive staff be the key to getting past the six-win slump?
The three most crucial players for BC’s offense – QB Phil Jurkovec, WR Zay Flowers, and RB Pat Garwo III – return in hopes of making some noise.
In 2020, Jurkovec played in 10-of-11 games and went 205-of-336 (61.0%) for 2,558 yards, 17 touchdowns, five interceptions, and maintained a QBR of 71.3. His 255.8 yards per game were among the top five ACC quarterbacks. If there was any question of Jurkovec’s impact, an injured wrist that kept him out half the season illuminated his value. There are still some unknowns with Jurkovec, especially now with a new offensive coordinator. But a healthy, post-injury Jurkovec was dominant against Georgia Tech. During that game, he went 13-of-20 (65.0%) for 310 yards, 15.5 yards per attempt, and two passing touchdowns and displayed his potential mobility with eight carries, 71 yards, and three rushing touchdowns.
Flowers led the Eagles’ receiving unit in both yards and touchdowns for back-to-back seasons. In 2021, Flowers had 44 receptions for 746 yards and five TDs. Those numbers were a step back from 2020 (892 yards, nine touchdowns), but with Jurkovec out, QB Dennis Grosel struggled to click with Flowers, especially on deep shots. Flowers, the usual go-to and treat, had 361 yards and 4-of-5 touchdowns from 20+ yard pass attempts. In 2020 and with a healthy Jurkovec, Flowers had 424 yards, and 6-of-9 touchdowns came from 20+ yard pass attempts. When BC’s offense finds its groove, Flowers is quick, possesses blistering speed, and is known to ‘break some ankles’ along the way. His draft stock was rising early in the 2021 campaign. Perhaps one last go-around will launch him.
A silver lining of BC’s offensive woes without Jurkovec was the emergence of Garwo. And by “emerge,” I mean “explode.” During Game 2 against UMass, he posted 15 carries for 160 yards. Two games later, Garwo backed up his breakout performance with 25 carries, 175 yards, and a pair of touchdowns against Mizzou. Indeed, it left no doubt that he was a playmaker and formidable opponent. His season total of 205 carries for 1,045 yards, seven touchdowns, 87.0 yards per game, and four 100+ yard games not only led the Eagles’ ground attack but, statistically, made him a top-four rusher in the league.
…I wouldn’t be quick to peg Garwo as having any NFL upside…yet.
Considering Jurkovec’s return and a new offensive coordinator, it is unclear what Garwo’s role might be in BC’s 2022 offense. Nonetheless, Garwo’s 2021 performance made it difficult to ignore his contribution. With Jurkovec’s ability to stretch the field, Garwo should see defenses put less emphasis on the run game, providing him with additional lanes up the middle. Moreover, expect Garwo to play a more significant role in the short passing game, as well.
There will be a class reunion on Chestnut Hill as Notre Dame transfer tight end George Takacs teams up with Jurkovec. As the Boston Herald said best, “depth chart casualties” at Notre Dame. Jurkovec transferred to Boston College in 2020, while Takacs transferred this March. Takacs – primarily used as a blocking TE – started five games in 2021 and had three receptions for 36 yards and one touchdown.
You can’t have it all. The return of Jurkovec, Flowers, and Garwo is significant and much needed. Still, the Eagles will be without offensive linemen Zion Johnson, Alec Lindstrom, and Ben Petrula, leaving Christian Mahogany and Tyler Vrabel (son of Titans’ head coach Mike Vrabel). In 2021, BC’s offensive line ranked #32 in PFF’s Grade for Pass Blocking and #11 in Run Blocking.
BC also loses TE Trae Barry. In 2021, Barry was the Eagles’ second-leading receiver in yards (362) and touchdowns (4).
To add to the list of former Notre Dame personnel making their way to, ironically, one of the most Irish cities in America is now offensive coordinator John McNulty. At Notre Dame, McNulty was the TEs coach for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. His coaching tenure includes offensive coordinator stints at Rutgers from 2007 to 2008, as well as for the 2018 season. McNulty also has NFL experience, having served in various position coach roles with the Jaguars, Cowboys, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Titans, and Chargers.
In 2007, with McNulty as OC, the Scarlet Knights became the first program in FBS history to have a 3,000-yard passer, 2,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers. During that same season, Rutgers went 8-5 and outscored opponents 426-292. But during his second stint in 2018, Rutgers went 1-11 and were outscored 162-377. Their 13.5 points per game were the fewest in the entire FBS.
Although the Scarlet Knights return key playmakers, McNulty will have his hands full with an offense that regressed in 2021, a young offensive line, and – as evident with Jurkovec’s injury – a quarterback room without depth.
A 10-3 record, bowl win, and Top 25 finish would be the dream for most college football programs. But when you are Clemson, those accomplishments are pedestrian compared to their yearly goals and historical results.
The Tigers’ streak of six straight league titles came to a halt, but not without some dramatic tension. Clemson had a path to reach the ACC Championship: a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. Ultimately, the cards fell perfectly into place…against them. Despite Clemson’s efforts and defeating Wake Forest 48-27, NC State scraped by North Carolina. Wake Forest handily defeated Boston College in their regular-season finales.
According to many preseason previews and predictions, Clemson’s “down year” should live foregone in 2021. With so many predicting the Tigers to
bounce “pounce” back and dominate the conference again, can Dabo’s crew live up to the hype? Will Clemson reign supreme yet again?
In his first starting season, D.J. Uiagalelei is back after going 208-of-374 (55.6%) for 2,246 yards, 6.0 yards per pass attempt, nine TDs, and ten INTs. He also added 105 carries for 308 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Statistically, his best game was against Louisville: going 18-of-30 (60.0%) for 220 yards, two touchdowns, and added a rushing touchdown. But, throughout the final four games, Uiagalelei completed 54.0% of his passes and threw one interception each game. He ended the season 14th in the league for completion percentage (11th if filtered by conference-only games) and had the lowest QBR in the ACC. His 2021 was plagued by slow starts and shaky performances: placing the ball on the wrong shoulder and not easily able to improvise. His arm has seen flashes, but it may not be enough to hold off star recruit Cade Klubnik for the starting job. Take spring ball with a grain of salt, but some of his same tendencies were on display.
Clemson may have questions at QB, but they have a two-headed monster with running backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace. Make it a three-headed monster if Phil Mafah can produce as he has during the spring with Shipley and Pace sidelined due to injuries. In 2021, the three combined for 321 carries, 1,672 yards, and 20 touchdowns. In terms of scoring and efficiency, the ground game carried the offense in 2021.
Notable, or only one? Either way, Clemson only signed one transfer in QB Hunter Johnson. The graduate transfer comes back to Clemson by way of Northwestern. Johnson – a former five-star recruit in the 2017 class – committed to Clemson and played 76 snaps throughout seven games with the Tigers. Though limited in action behind Kelly Bryant, Johnson completed 21-of-27 pass attempts (77.8%) for 234 yards, 8.7 yards per pass attempt, two touchdowns, and an interception. He then transferred to Northwestern in 2018 and sat out his sophomore year due to the [at the time] transfer rule. While with the Wildcats, Johnson completed 95-of-182 (52.0%) for 856 yards, 4.7 yards per pass attempt, five TDs, and eight INTs.
Johnson will give Clemson some depth and experience. Initially, Johnson expressed an interest in returning in a coaching capacity. But, with an extra year of eligibility, Johnson agreed to take advantage of the opportunity. He can mentor Uiagalelei and Klubnik, then seamlessly transition to a coaching or intern position the following year.
Early January, wideout Justyn Ross declared for the NFL Draft. Ross – a redshirt junior and year four out of high school – was incredibly productive his first two seasons with the Tigers. In 2018, Ross had 46 receptions, led the receivers with 1,000 yards, and hauled in 9 touchdowns. He led the receivers with 66 receptions the following year and accounted for 865 yards and eight touchdowns. However, Ross missed the 2020 season due to an abrupt spine and neck issue that could have ended his playing career. In 2021, unbeknownst to most, Ross was playing with a hairline fracture in his foot. After undergoing surgery, he missed the final two games of the regular season (as well as the bowl game). Ross still led the receiving corps with 46 receptions, 514 yards, and three touchdowns through ten games despite the injury.
Although I primarily highlight offensive players and coaches in this series, I would be remiss not to mention that defensive coordinator Brent Venables left Clemson to become Oklahoma’s next head coach. In 2021, Clemson’s defense made up for the passing game’s shortcomings: holding opponents to an average of 14.8 points per game. The Tigers’ defense allowed the nation’s sixth-fewest total yards, third-fewest yards per play, and eighth-fewest yards per game.
Wes Goodwin – in his first on-field position with Clemson – replaces Venables. If the offensive line is not improved and the quarterback – no matter who it may be – is slow to start, they will need the defense to maintain such momentum.
The Tigers also lose associate head coach/offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Tony Elliott to Virginia. On December 10, 2021, the Clemson alumnus and coach was named the Cavaliers’ next head coach. Replacing Elliott is passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter.
If there is one team I cannot gauge, it is Louisville.
After a disappointing 4-7 record in 2020, Louisville was expected to take a step forward in 2021. However, injuries, four one-score game losses, and a 31-point loss to in-state rival Kentucky culminated in a win improvement of only two games. Now, the pressure is on the Cards and, primarily, the coaching staff to capitalize upon the returning talented, veteran group. Louisville could be a 9-3 team…or a 5-7. While the offense has made strides and can score, the Cards’ defense seems to be lackadaisical at best.
Their schedule doesn’t allow for a single misstep, though. Opening the season, back-to-back away games at Syracuse and UCF could set the tone for the remainder of the year. And even if the Cards are [likely] favored against Boston College and Virginia on the road, the Eagles and Cavaliers have big-time playmakers that can wear Louisville down. They’ll have away games at Clemson and Kentucky and at home against a quality NC State by the end of the season.
Life, liberty, and Louisville in need of some luck.
Down 0-23 to Ole Miss, Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield did not hold back during an ESPN halftime interview: pegging the teams’ poor performance on QB Malik Cunningham. No matter if the comments were warranted or not, Cunningham had gone 5-of-14 for 17 yards, an interception, and had nine carries for 56 yards.
But if Cunningham is one adjective, he is tenacious. It was a bit of a redemption story, as Cunningham concluded the season having gone 209-of-337 (62.0%) for 2,941 yards, 8.7 yards per pass attempt, 19 touchdowns, and six interceptions. Such statistics had him hovering around sixth and seventh in the league. But it is Cunningham’s legs that make him quite literally a dual-threat. With 173 carries, 1,031 rushing yards, and a whopping 20 touchdowns, Cunningham led the ACC in rushing touchdowns, fifth in rushing yards, and led all college quarterbacks in both statistical categories. Behind Lamar Jackson, he is the second Louisville quarterback to post a 1,000-rushing yard season. If he makes a concerted effort to improve as a pocket passer, the dynamic quarterback is a sleeper Heisman contender.
Other key skill position guys returning include running back Jalen Mitchell, tight end Marshon Ford, and Ahmari Huggins-Bruce. With Cunningham focusing on throwing more to save his legs, it is fortunate that the Cards have Mitchell (and a key transfer) to lean on. In 2021, Mitchell had 155 carries for 722 yards and five touchdowns. Like BC’s Garwo, he might be good for CFF, but much more needs to be seen.
Last season, Ford led all Cardinal receivers with 49 receptions, 550 yards, and two TDs. One year out of high school, Huggins-Bruce had 29 receptions, 444 yards, and four TDs. Now, more than ever, Ford and Huggins-Bruce will be essential to a group down three receivers.
Louisville did not shy away from exploiting the transfer portal: landing several defensive players and running back Tiyon Evans and receivers Tyler Hudson and Dee Wiggins. Evans – the top-ranked JUCO transfer RB in the 2021 class – totaled 81 carries for 525 yards and six touchdowns during his lone season with Tennessee. He was the Volunteers’ leading rusher until an ankle injury sidelined his momentum for most of the season. Before the injury, Evans had three 100+ yard games against Bowling Green State (120 yards, 1 TD), Missouri (156 yards, 3 TDs), and South Carolina (119 yards, one touchdown).
Hudson heads to the Ville after three seasons with Central Arkansas (FCS). In 2019, he started as a true freshman and made a splash in the FCS with 55 receptions, 975 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Now considered a four-star transfer, Hudson has been highly productive throughout his college career. With the Bears, he amassed 167 receptions for 3,049 yards (1,016 average yards per season) and 27 touchdowns. His receiving yards market share has notably increased each season, as well.
- 2019 (freshman) – 0.25
- 2020 (sophomore) – 0.37
- 2021 (junior) – 0.40
Consider this a hint to add Hudson to your C2C draft list.
The portal giveth and the portal taketh away…primarily from the Cards’ receiver room.
Evans, Hudson, and Wiggins fill holes left by running back Hassan Hall and receivers Justin Marshall and Jordan Watkins, who transferred from Louisville. Hall to fellow ACC foe Georgia Tech, Marshall to Buffalo, and Watkins to Ole Miss.
As of April 12, wide receiver Tyler Harrell entered the transfer portal. His departure is a blow to a unit without their #2 and #5 leading wideout. Harrell – who had a breakout in 2021 – had 18 receptions for 523 yards, a colossal 29.1 yards per reception, and six TDs. Marshall, Watkins, and Harrell combined for 76 receptions, 1,374 yards, and 11 touchdowns: 45.0% of Louisville’s receiving production and 52.0% of Louisville’s receiving touchdowns from 2021.
Louisville hasn’t had a true offensive coordinator since 2020. After Dwayne Ledford departed for the Atlanta Falcons, OC responsibilities were split amongst offensive assistant coaches. But in January, Satterfield found his guy, Lance Taylor.
Taylor brings experience from both the college and NFL levels. And since 2019, he has been the running backs coach and run game coordinator. While at Stanford from 2014 to 2016, Taylor coached the likes of Heisman runner-ups Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love.
While much is to be seen with Taylor in the coordinator role, he has a proven record of recruiting, player development, and a history of solid running back units.
Tyler Van Dyke, QB, Miami
The ACC was chock-full of QB talent in 2021 and three names, in particular, headlined the show: Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, and Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman. While distracted by Pickett’s “tiny hands,” Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke may have been an afterthought, even with his accolades’ ACC Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year. If he can build upon his rookie season, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to anticipate national acclaim and recognition next.
Van Dyke took the reins after D’Eriq King’s early-season injury and truly had a breakout season. What he accomplished through an abbreviated nine-game start was impressive: going 202-of-324 (62.3%) for 2,931 yards, 25 touchdowns, and six interceptions. His first three starts were essentially growing pains as he went 45-of-85 (52.9%) for 737 yards (245.6 yards per game) and threw for five TDs and three INTs. He wasn’t the same player from the NC State game onward. Through the last six games, a vastly improved Van Dyke went 157-of-238 (65.9%) for 2,194 yards (365.6 yards per game) and threw for 20 TDs and three INTs.
If you read “The 411: American Athletic Conference,” you may remember that historically, pass yards per attempt is consistently one of the most highly significant determinants of scoring margins. He didn’t have Brennan Armstrong’s yards or Pickett’s touchdowns. However, Van Dyke’s 9.0 yards per pass attempt not only led the conference but was eighth-most in the nation. Van Dyke was only second to Sam Howell’s 10.3 yards per pass attempt in Year 2 out of High School.
Don’t stop at his career stats, though. Van Dyke has the tools and advanced stats to make him an intriguing prospect in both the Draft and fantasy leagues. Van Dyke – a 6’4″, 224 lb, former 4-star recruit – has a cannon of an arm that literally and figuratively launched him into some big-time throw leaderboards.
Of course, there are many moving parts that could impact his productivity and performance in 2022. Will head coach Mario Cristobol (and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis) implement a complimentary offense to Van Dyke’s strengths? Is there a scenario in which Jake Garcia beats out Van Dyke for the starting job?
Robert Anae, OC, Syracuse
Ahead of the 2020 season, Sterlin Gilbert was hired by Syracuse head coach Dino Barbers to serve as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. However, after two seasons and an offense that never came together, Gilbert was not retained after the 2021 season.
By December 2021, Virginia offensive coordinator/inside wide receivers coach Robert Anae and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck were hired onto Syracuse’s coaching staff in the same roles. The duo has a successful history together, having both coached at BYU and Virginia, and there is no doubt that they are intriguing hires to ‘Cuse fans hungry for something more.
Last season, Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader and RB Sean Tucker combined to form a rather prolific ground game. Together, they racked up 419 carries for 2,277 yards and 26 touchdowns. The brain trust of Anae and Beck are now tasked with elevating a passing attack that only averaged 135.5 yards per game: the sixth-fewest yards per game in all of college football. Spring ball has elucidated what Anae would like to see more of, including deep shots downfield and even some trick plays sprinkled in.
With Syracuse passing at a 33.2% rate in neutral situations last season and considering they aim to improve the aerial assault (or lack thereof), it is reasonable to assume that Anae will increase that rate. Reliance on the run did not procure offensive success no matter how dominant Shrader and Tucker were on the ground. Consistently rushing is playing to survive on downs, and passing in neutral situations is playing to win.
Anae is no stranger to a dual-threat quarterback, though. Since 2013, Anae (and Beck) have coached four seasons and three quarterbacks who accumulated at least 500 rushing yards in the season: Tysom Hill (BYU; 2013), Bryce Perkins (Virginia; 2018, 2019), and even Brennan Armstrong (Virginia, 2020).
In 2021, Anae helped orchestrate the nation’s second-best passing offense, with Virginia averaging 392.6 yards per game. Additionally, the Cavaliers led the conference in total offense per game (514.4) and yards per play (6.9). Through eleven games, Armstrong went 327-of-501 (65.3%) for 4,444 yards, 8.9 yards per pass attempt, 31 touchdowns, and ten interceptions and added 97 carries for 256 yards nine rushing touchdowns.
Anae has been alongside ex-BYU and Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall since 2005. Now, Anae will be Dino Babers’ fourth OC in seven years. Maybe the fifth time’s the charm? Syracuse could have a fun, spread offense if Anae, Baber, and key playmakers can mesh well.