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August 18, 2008
Can ACC shake rep as graveyard for passers?
Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan's emergence as a Heisman Trophy candidate last season drew some skepticism from outside Atlantic Coast Conference country.
Ryan's doubters wondered why he was getting so much attention for posting relatively ordinary numbers. Although Ryan threw for 4,507 yards, he also was intercepted 19 times and ranked 61st in the nation in passing efficiency.
Why did Ryan garner such acclaim? The answer was twofold.
First was that you had to watch Ryan in person to get a true appreciation of him. The moxie he showed in rallying Boston College past Virginia Tech and the savvy he utilized while toying with Georgia Tech's highly regarded defense couldn't be reflected in mere numbers.
Ryan also stood out so much because he played in the ACC, which has earned an unwanted reputation as the worst of the "Big Six" conferences for quarterback production.
No ACC quarterback has ranked among the top 20 in passing efficiency in the past four seasons. And over the past four years, twice as many quarterbacks have been drafted from Division I-AA schools as from the ACC.
"I really don't know (why)," Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski said. "It's really not a throwing league, per se. There are teams that just don't air it out a lot. I don't know."
Jagodzinski may as well be speaking for the rest of the league. Coaches and players across the conference have trouble explaining their conference's lack of quarterback production. The only certainty is that the poor quarterback play has adversely impacted the way the rest of the nation views the ACC.
Although the ACC has produced more first-round picks (25) and overall draft choices (115) than any other conference over the past three years, hardly anyone unaffiliated with the ACC rates it among the nation's elite leagues.
The ACC has given its critics plenty of ammunition by failing to win a BCS game since Florida State's 1999 national championship, but the ACC's reputation as a defensive conference also might play a role in that perception.
In each of the past four seasons, at least five ACC programs have ranked among the nation's top 25 in pass efficiency defense. And in each of the past three seasons, only one ACC representative has been ranked higher than 43rd in the nation in scoring.
"I'm sure playing the great defenses we play every week in the ACC isn't going to help you put up gaudy numbers," Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon said.
It also apparently doesn't help ACC quarterbacks impress NFL scouts.
When the Atlanta Falcons selected Ryan with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, it marked just the second time an ACC quarterback had been drafted in the past four years. (See chart at bottom of story) That figure moves up to three if you include Adrian McPherson, who was kicked off Florida State's team late in the 2004 season before the New Orleans Saints took him in the fifth round of the 2005 draft.
In all fairness, the Big 12 only had two quarterbacks drafted in the past three years. That short list includes Texas A&M's Reggie McNeal, who moved to wide receiver in the NFL. But even the ACC's biggest backers would concede the Big 12 enters the 2008 season with a much more impressive quarterback collection.
Nine teams in the Big 12 have quarterbacks who produced at least 3,000 yards in total offense last season. Half the teams in the ACC haven't even named their 2008 starting quarterbacks.
Clemson senior Cullen Harper is the ACC's preseason player of the year and a legitimate star. Wake Forest's Riley Skinner already has etched his name into school history after leading the Demon Deacons to a conference title as a redshirt freshman. Duke's Thaddeus Lewis has performed well without much of a supporting cast.
Once you get past those three, though, the rest of the ACC quarterback crop features plenty of instability.
Will defending league champion Virginia Tech use a two-quarterback system for the second straight year? Can North Carolina's T.J. Yates overcome offseason shoulder surgery and regain his early season form from a year ago? Which freshman will win the right to run Miami's offense? Can Florida State's Drew Weatherford put it all together as a senior and hold off a challenge from Christian Ponder? The questions go on and on.
The ACC's passing problems are all the more puzzling because it wasn't that long ago that many of these teams produced star quarterbacks with assembly-line precision.
"Florida State went through a run where they had a lot of really successful quarterbacks," North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. "(So did) Miami, prior to joining this conference. When Michael Vick was at Virginia Tech, he was a pretty lethal quarterback."
Indeed, Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke helped Florida State win national titles in 1993 and '99. Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Heisman Trophy winners Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta helped Miami forge a reputation as "Quarterback U." North Carolina State's Philip Rivers ended his college career as the second-leading passer in NCAA history.
But since Rivers' departure, N.C. State quarterbacks have combined to throw 69 interceptions and only 50 touchdown passes. Florida State hasn't produced an all-ACC quarterback since Weinke's Heisman Trophy season of 2000. And as soon Miami left the Big East for the ACC, Quarterback U. stopped living up to its nickname.
Miami's Kyle Wright was the No. 1 pro-style quarterback of the 2003 recruiting class – ahead of JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn and Ryan, among others – but he never lived up to expectations. Wright shared playing time last season with Kirby Freeman, who transferred to Baylor after completing just 31 percent of his passes in '07.
What caused the run to end? Glennon isn't the only ACC quarterback to cite the high caliber of defenses.
"It's tough week in and week out going against quality defenses," Clemson's Harper said. "Virginia Tech is a very good defense. Boston College, Florida State - they're all good. It's not like you can just go out there and put up good numbers because you're good."
A look at recent draft results underscores what Glennon and Harper are saying. The ACC's 25 first-round picks over the past three years include nine defensive linemen and five defensive backs. Consider that two of the NFL's most dynamic defensive players last season – Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams and San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie – played in the ACC.
"When you talk about speed in this league, there are so many schools that are built and predicated on speed," Davis said, "and speed is the one thing that has a chance to give quarterbacks a bad time."
Coaching also deserves at least part of the blame for the demise of the ACC quarterbacks.
Florida State's struggles at the quarterback position coincided with the promotion of Jeff Bowden to offensive coordinator after the 2000 season. Wright played for a different offensive coordinator each of his last three years at Miami. On balance, the ACC traditionally has featured a much stronger lineup of defensive coordinators than offensive coordinators.
ACC schools have begun to address that issue. Half of the league's 12 schools have changed coaches in the past two years, and two-thirds of the league's members have hired new offensive coordinators during that time.
Duke's new coach is David Cutcliffe, who worked with Peyton Manning as a Tennessee offensive coordinator and guided Eli Manning as Ole Miss' coach. Bowden resigned under pressure late in the 2006 season and was replaced by Jimbo Fisher, a former LSU offensive coordinator who helped make Russell the top overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Ryan matured into a first-round pick as a senior after the arrival of offensive coordinator Steve Logan, a former East Carolina coach who previously had mentored current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard.
Ryan connected on more than twice as many touchdown passes and threw for nearly 1,600 more yards as a senior than he did as a junior. Ryan's emergence in his final year raises hope that perhaps some other ACC quarterback will follow a similar path this fall.
"I think there will be better numbers from quarterbacks around the league," Weatherford said. "We have a lot of experienced veteran quarterbacks coming back. (Glennon and Tyrod Taylor) at Virginia Tech. Myself at Florida State. And obviously Cullen at Clemson. I expect all of us to have really good years. The guy at Wake Forest, he should have a great year again. Skinner's an extremely skilled and talented guy. I think there will be really good quarterback play in the ACC."
ACC fans can only hope the next Rivers or Ryan emerges from that group.
NO QB HARVEST HERE
When the Atlanta Falcons selected quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, it made the former Boston College star the exception to the rule. This chart shows the ACC lags behind many other conferences in the number of quarterbacks drafted the last four years. The overall selection is included in parentheses.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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