The ACC promises to be a quarterback league in 2012.
Every team but Miami returns its starting quarterback. Five returnees threw for more than 3,000 yards last season and a sixth, Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington, nearly ran for 1,000 yards.
“There were a lot of good quarterbacks in this league last year and it’s going to be that way again this year,” N.C. State senior Mike Glennon said at the ACC Kickoff.
But what about the running backs? The top two ACC rushers from 2011, Virginia Tech’s David Wilson (1,709 yards) and Miami’s Lamar Miller (1,272 yards) are in the NFL.
North Carolina’s Gio Bernard (1,253) and Clemson’s Andre Ellington (1,178) are the only two returning 1,000-yard rushers, though, Virginia’s Perry Jones was close (915 yards) as was Washington (987).
The college game, as a whole, has trended toward the spread offense with a pass-first mentality and away from 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality. The ACC has been slow to follow suit, but with Clemson and Maryland going to the spread a year ago, and UNC following this year under first-year coach Larry Fedora, the league is catching up.
Georgia Tech, which runs the triple option, led the ACC in rushing offense (316.5 yards per game) and the Jackets finished in the top five nationally under Paul Johnson for the fourth consecutive year.
The Jackets will run again in 2012, no surprise there, but it’s unclear how much company they will have. No other ACC team averaged more than 186 rushing yards per game last season. Virginia Tech, which was second in the ACC in rushing attempts (590 to 718 by Georgia Tech), must replace Wilson and four starters on its line.
Running back Michael Holmes redshirted last season and is the leading candidate to replace Wilson, the ACC player of the year; J.C. Coleman, Chris Mangus, Trey Edmunds and Tony Gregory are the other options.
Quarterback Logan Thomas, who threw for 3,013 yards in his first season as the starter, said the new running backs are inexperienced and lack name recognition, but they don’t lack talent.
“You might not know who they are now, but you will by the fourth game of the season,” Thomas said.
Bernard already is a known commodity. As a redshirt freshman, he became the Tar Heels first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997. He’s the top returning rusher in the league and he has one of the best offensive lines in front of him.
The only question is how will UNC’s transition to the spread offense affect Bernard’s role? In four seasons at Southern Miss, Fedora’s teams actually ran the ball more than they threw it.
Southern Miss, which went 12-2 last year, averaged 205.1 rushing yards per game in 2011 and 200.8 in 2010. That’s why Fedora is not worried about how his best playmaker will fit in his fast-break offense.
“When I say spread, immediately everybody thinks, ’Go fast and throw it every down,’” Fedora said. “That’s not who we are. There are teams that run the ball all the time, that don’t average 205 yards rushing.”
N.C. State struggled to run the ball a year ago. The Wolfpack averaged 104.8 yards per game, 11th in the ACC and 109th nationally. James Washington is fifth-leading returning rusher in the ACC, at 897 yards, but more important, according to Glennon, is the experience of the offensive line.
The Wolfpack returns four starters up front and six players with starting experience. State also gets sophomore running back Mustafa Greene back from a foot injury. Greene, the team’s leading rusher in 2010, missed all of the 2011 season. Sophomore Tony Creecy, who shone in the spring, also returns.
“Having an experienced offensive line, and all of our running backs helps,” Glennon said. “Our running game should be much improved.”