For the first time since 2006, there is no head coaching turnover in the ACC. So it stands to reason that the turnover among assistant coaches has also remained relatively low.
There are just four new coordinators across the conference, compared to 12 a year ago. Three are on the defensive side: John Papuchis at North Carolina; Jay Sawvel at Wake Forest and Peter Sirmon at Louisville. Shawn Watson takes over for Matt Canada at Pitt.
Each faces his own unique challenge, but among the four, the change at North Carolina has presented the most questions. In 2015, Gene Chizik decided to leave his family behind in Auburn, Ala. to give coaching another try after a three-year hiatus, pairing up with Larry Fedora to help fix a struggling Tar Heels defense (that might be putting it kindly).
Given his track record, the thinking went that Chizik would present a quick fix in relatively short order. With his help, North Carolina won the Coastal Division for the first time in his first year and was a finalist for the Broyles Award. But Chizik decided to call it quits after just two years to spend more time with his family (they never joined him at North Carolina).
His work remains incomplete and difficult to judge, at least in the short-term.
North Carolina remains one of the more underperforming units in the ACC. Did Chizik make improvements? Absolutely. But the Tar Heels are still one of the worst rushing defenses in the country, and never allowed fewer than 225 yards on the ground in his two seasons as coordinator. Scoring defense and total defense got better, but North Carolina remains in the bottom half of the ACC in both categories.
Papuchis spent time working under Chizik, so there should not be a radical departure from philosophy. Making the transition as smooth as possible was imperative, especially since the move came after National Signing Day.
What is missing is the same piece that has been missing since before Chizik arrived. This is a defense that still doesn’t have a significant pass rush and has no consistency from its front seven. That should be the first priority -- establishing a more physical identity up front. It’s what Chizik wanted to do this past season but was unable to, either because he didn’t have the personnel or because too many injuries hindered their progress.
ESPN 300 defensive end Jake Lawler should have an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Jalen Dalton has shown flashes but not enough as a starter; Dajaun Drennon and Tomon Fox need to stay healthy to realize their full potential.
The other three coordinators walk into good situations. Louisville had a good run of success on defense under Todd Grantham, and returns one of the best secondaries in the ACC. Wake Forest’s defense continues to be one of the more underrated units in the conference and should be strong up front again with Duke Ejiofor back.
Watson also has plenty to work with at Pittsburgh, which is deep at running back and should be solid once again on the offensive line. What made the Panthers so good on offense last season was their ability to play power football and keep teams guessing with creativity, misdirection and unpredictability. (It would be a shame if Piesman winner Brian O'Neill doesn’t get an opportunity to defend his title).
Watson, like the other new coordinators, has no plans to scrap what Canada did previously. Indeed, the coordinators might be new, but their tasks are similar in one respect: they each plan to build on what is already there.