Quarterbacks passing the torch: Inexperience behind center could level the playing field in the ACC
PINEHURST, N.C. -- This fall will mark the season of the first-year starting quarterback in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Five of the conference's top six rated passers from last season have departed including ACC Player of the Year Tyrod Taylor and Christian Ponder, selected 12th overall in the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
Seven of the conference's 12 teams have lost their starting quarterbacks from last season, including Florida State and Virginia Tech, which are expected to contend for division titles. Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia will also be breaking in new starting quarterbacks.
What does it mean?
What Clemson coach Dabo Swinney considers to be a defensive conference could see scoring further depressed, and with only Duke and Maryland returning quarterbacks that were effective in extended playing time last year, it means ACC divisional races could be wide open.
Duke sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree is the ACC's returning leader in passing yardage from last season
(3,113 yards) and thinks the conference races could be wide open.
"Certainly when you look at statistics, quarterbacks who have had the most starts tend to do the best, enough can't be said about experience," Renfree said. "Last year, I struggled at times, and I think other guys who have come in their first year and struggled will tell you that. I think (the inexperience) will even things out a little more.
"Those top teams will still be good, and they have good quarterbacks, but they will go through learning curves here and there."
Clemson is one of those teams that figures to go through learning curves with a new starting quarterback in Tajh Boyd.
Renfree's advice to Boyd?
"Just play the game," Renfree said. "Sometimes first-year guys think too much, and if they struggle they start to think more. My advice is put all that on the side and just play. Nobody expects a first-year guy to be perfect, so just go play the game. Guys who start in the ACC are going to be good players. They are starting for a reason."
The Atlantic Division features only one proven quarterback in Maryland's Danny O'Brien, which is the main reason Maryland was tabbed in an ESPN poll to be this season's surprise team in the ACC.
A Kernersville, N.C. native, O'Brien was not heavily recruited out of high school, choosing Maryland over East Carolina and Duke. O'Brien won ACC Freshman of the Year honors last year, leading the Terps to wins in seven of his 10 starts, throwing 22 touchdowns against eight interceptions.
Maryland had nine wins last season thanks to a plus-15 turnover ratio.
"If you look at any successful team it starts with consistent quarterback play," O'Brien said. "You have to win the turnover battle, and that starts with the quarterback because we are touching the ball every play. ... There's no substitute for being out there, knowing the nuances. That just comes through time and experience."
From a physical tools standpoint, the most impressive quarterbacks are the 6-4, 234-pound redshirt junior E.J. Manuel, who has started six games in his career at Florida State, and Virginia Tech's 6-6, 242-pound sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas, who has 26 career attempts.
Both inexperienced starters also face the greatest expectations.
Manuel is expected to return his Seminoles to the ACC title game; ditto for Thomas.
Unlike many quarterbacks in the ACC this season, Manuel has already earned some big-game experience, beating Clemson and South Carolina last season.
Manuel has watched some of the other quarterbacks from the class of 2008 have success, like former Ohio State quarterback Terrell Pryor, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Oklahoma's Landry Jones. Former former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is already in the NFL.
"They all got a chance to play early; it was one of those things I had to grow up about," Manuel said. "I was highly recruited and all that stuff, but I knew I came to Florida State for a reason and I wasn't going to play right away. I know I was behind the 12th overall pick in the draft, so it makes me feel a lot better about myself."
For Manuel and many of the other young quarterbacks in the ACC, their time has arrived.