All this week, we’re taking a fresh look, position by position, at how ACC teams stack up, from the best of the conference to the units that might surprise to the positions that will prove to be an Achilles' heel for some teams’ 2017 title hopes.
Last up: Special teams
This is a broad category, of course. Kickers and punters get the most attention here, but certainly a great return man, such as Pitt’s Quadree Henderson, or a sterling coverage unit, as Virginia Tech displayed last season, makes a big difference. There isn’t one team that hits it out of the park in each phase of special teams, but a few cover most of the bases, while a few more have some big red flags.
Best overall: Virginia Tech Hokies
Perhaps the Hokies weren’t quite back to quintessential Beamer Ball, but last season did mark a return to the fundamentals that made Virginia Tech special teams so ... well, special. The Hokies ranked second in the ACC in punt coverage and first in kickoff coverage, employed a solid kicker and punter -- both of whom are set to return for 2017 -- and had a true spark in the return game thanks to Greg Stroman. It wasn’t that the Hokies jumped off the page on special teams, but they did everything pretty well and avoided the big mistakes. Most of the time, that’s exactly what a coaching staff is hoping for.
Runner-up: Clemson Tigers
The Andy Teasdall era certainly was fun, but Clemson’s punter mixed some highlights with some noteworthy low points, too. So while he’ll be missed, it’s a vacancy the Tigers should be able to fill nicely, and the rest of the special-teams units look strong. Greg Huegel returns at kicker, while Ray-Ray McCloud showcased game-changing ability in the return game last season. Meanwhile, Clemson blocked five kicks (tied with Miami for most in the ACC), and the athletic depth the team has allows Dabo Swinney to utilize top-tier talent on every special-teams unit. There are, of course, some loose ends that require attention, with kick and punt coverage at the top of the list.
Sleeper group: NC State Wolfpack
OK, OK, we already hear the groans. NC State would’ve been a 10-win team last season if it had a kicker. In fact, perhaps no team in the country suffered more because of its special teams in 2016 than the Wolfpack. But that’s exactly what makes them a sleeper now. Set aside kicking for a moment. Nyheim Hines is as dangerous a return man as there is in the ACC aside from Pitt’s Henderson. A.J. Cole's punting was solid, and he should improve as a junior. The coverage units were above average. Oh, but the kicker. Look at it this way: There’s plenty of room for improvement, and anything better than outright disaster in the kicking game qualifies as a marked step forward for the Wolfpack.
Achilles’ heel: Florida State Seminoles
There’s plenty of potential here, to be sure. FSU has enough talent on its roster to field coverage units far bigger, faster and stronger than anyone in the ACC. It’s just that, in 2016, that talent didn’t translate to results. The Seminoles finished dead last in the league in net punting and punt-return average. They lose their top kick returner and punt returner. Their kicker, Ricky Aguayo, had his moments, but he was hardly the deadly accurate machine his older brother proved to be. All of this is fixable, of course, but the point is that, for a team poised to make a run at a national title, it’d be nice to feel a little more comfortable with the special teams than FSU fans currently should.
Our top five: 1. Virginia Tech, 2. Clemson, 3. Louisville, 4. Pitt, 5. Miami