ACC football improved last season. Given the depths of 2007, that may be damning with faint praise, but the progress was undeniable.
So is this: The conference should be better still in 2009.
For only the second time in 16 years, the league's offensive and defensive players of the year return: Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer and Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich.
Dwyer is among a gaggle of skill players who should upgrade the ACC's long-dormant offenses. Eight of last season's top 10 rushers are back, Virginia Tech's Darren Evans and Tyrod Taylor among them; the three best quarterbacks in 2008 — North Carolina State's Russell Wilson, Duke's Thaddeus Lewis and Wake Forest's Riley Skinner — also return.
The league's 12 head coaches answered questions about their spring drills via teleconference Wednesday, and nothing said contradicted the notion of a conference on the uptick.
Defending champion and probable preseason favorite Virginia Tech enhanced the ACC's image most last season. The Hokies won at Nebraska and defeated Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl, snapping the conference's eight-year Bowl Championship Series losing streak.
With eight starters returning, the Hokies' mercurial offense should score consistently for the first time since 2005. Guard Jaymes Brooks, a Denbigh High grad who made his first college start in the Orange Bowl, could be one of the team's best players, coach Frank Beamer said.
Senior linebackers Purnell Sturdivant and Brett Warren led Tech in tackles last season, but replacements Barquell Rivers and Jake Johnson are generating positive reviews midway through spring practice.
Few, if any, expect Virginia to challenge Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division. Expect plenty of intrigue, though, as head coach Al Groh banks his job security on a spread offense orchestrated by new coordinator Gregg Brandon.
Naturally, Groh wants to manage expectations. Hence his remarks that Brandon "is not the tooth fairy" and the spread "is not Star Wars."
"It's still up to player performance," Groh said.
The first public performance is Saturday's spring game, when quarterbacks Vic Hall and Jameel Sewell figure to put on a show. But a more critical position is arguably linebacker, where the Cavaliers must replace Jon Copper, Clint Sintim and Antonio Appleby, who combined for 126 starts in their Virginia careers.
Virginia Tech's most serious division challenge should be Georgia Tech. Coach Paul Johnson's option attack ranked fourth nationally in rushing last season, and if quarterback Josh Nesbitt cuts down on turnovers, the Yellow Jackets will be a load.
"People will get better defending it," Johnson said of his offense. "But we're going to get better running it, too."
While Virginia Tech rates the Coastal favorite, the Atlantic Division is a crapshoot — each of the six teams was either 5-3 or 4-4 in conference play last season. But if forced to pick front-runners, opt for Florida State and North Carolina State.
Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said the biggest disappointment of spring drills was a hand injury sustained by redshirt freshman quarterback E.J. Manuel of Virginia Beach's Bayside High, whom coaches project as the No. 2 behind Christian Ponder.
During the first practice, Manuel hit his throwing hand on a defensive lineman's helmet and suffered a compound fracture of a finger. He missed the remaining sessions and is expected to be healed come August's preseason drills.
N.C. State stages its spring game Saturday, and all proceeds will benefit the Kay Yow/Women's Basketball Coaches Association Cancer Fund and the Kay Yow Memorial Endowment.
Among the most gracious figures in ACC history, Yow coached Wolfpack basketball for 34 seasons. She died in January after a 22-year battle with breast cancer.
N.C. State returns first-team, All-ACC quarterback Russell Wilson, who last season as a freshman threw 17 touchdown passes and one interception. But Wilson also plays baseball for the Wolfpack, duties that limited his spring football participation and created opportunity for redshirt freshman Mike Glennon, the younger brother of former Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon.
"Certainly if he had been full-time football, he'd be a lot better at this point," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said of Wilson.
Read into that what you will.
Wilson injured his knee while scrambling in N.C. State's bowl loss to Rutgers, and O'Brien said his incumbent must do a better job of finding secondary receivers.
"Our major concern," O'Brien added, "was that he ran too much last year."
If the likes of Wilson, Evans and Dwyer remain healthy, the ACC's major concern could be a crowded bandwagon.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.