Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst, the preseason all-ACC quarterback, threw 17 interceptions and seven touchdowns last year and at times was booed mercilessly during his team's disappointing 6-5 season. Virginia's Marques Hagans is widely considered the second-best returning quarterback in the conference, despite throwing only nine touchdowns and playing poorly in some of his team's biggest games in 2004.
As the ACC prepares to play its first football season with two divisions and a league championship game, many of its 12 teams open preseason camp this weekend without proven players at quarterback. Only seven teams return their starting quarterbacks from a year ago, and two of those players are in jeopardy of losing the starting job before their teams start the season next month.
From College Park to Tallahassee to Coral Gables, Fla., ACC coaches will be searching for quarterbacks before the season begins. Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen has all but settled on junior Sam Hollenbach, who takes over for Joel Statham, who struggled mightily as the starter last season. The Terrapins ranked 108th among 117 Division I-A teams in offense last season, and their 17.7 points per game were second fewest in the ACC.
Inexperience at quarterback isn't only the ACC's problem. While two-time defending national champion Southern California returns Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at quarterback, several of the sport's traditional powers, including Oklahoma, Auburn and Georgia, will have young players under center.
Breaking in a young quarterback "is terrible," said Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer, who played two freshman quarterbacks last season. "It's really difficult."
Defending ACC champion Virginia Tech also will be breaking in a new quarterback when practices start today. But at least the Hokies can turn to a familiar face with a very familiar last name while trying to replace Bryan Randall, the 2004 ACC player of the year. Junior Marcus Vick, the younger brother of former Tech all-American and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, won the starting job during spring practice.
Vick, from Newport News, Va., missed all of last season while serving a university-imposed suspension. He played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2003, throwing for 475 yards and two touchdowns. Vick came off the bench to help lead the Hokies to a 31-7 upset of then-No. 2 Miami on Nov. 1, 2003, so at least Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer knows Vick can perform under pressure.
"I don't have any concerns," Beamer said. "I think Marcus is going to have a great year. He's prepared for it, and he's worked hard. He understands he's the leader and a lot of people are counting on him. That's what the quarterback needs to do."
A lot of Virginia's success this season will be determined by the play of Hagans, who performed fairly well last year during his first season as a starter. Hagans, who mostly played wide receiver and on special teams during his first two seasons with the Cavaliers, completed 62.8 percent of his passes with only five interceptions in 261 attempts. But Virginia ranked 91st in Division I-A in passing, and Hagans threw for only 205 yards combined in critical losses to Miami and Virginia Tech.
Still, the Cavaliers are considered a dark horse to win the Coastal Division because of Hagans's experience and athletic ability.
"This kid generates energy and generates enthusiasm," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "He was a first-year starter at the position. He had his team in position to win the conference on the last day of the season. His team led the conference in offense and scored the most points in school history."
Florida State finds itself in unfamiliar territory after losing starting quarterback Wyatt Sexton to Lyme disease during the summer. Sexton, who last year took the starting job from senior Chris Rix, will miss the entire season. Now, the program that produced Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke will be forced to start either redshirt freshman Xavier Lee or Drew Weatherford, neither of whom has taken a snap in a college game.
"In the past, you always had to wait until you were a junior to play quarterback at Florida State," Seminoles Coach Bobby Bowden said. "But I'm excited about these kids because they're young. When Chris Rix was a redshirt freshman, he played recklessly. He was running and jumping and diving. I'm looking for these kids to make some big plays."
Miami, which was once known as Quarterback U. for producing passers such as Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde, will start an inexperienced player at quarterback, too. Sophomore Kyle Wright, who threw nine passes behind starter Brock Berlin last season, takes over the starting job. Wright was ranked the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country during his senior season at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif.
"There's a reason Kyle Wright was the player of the year when he was coming out of high school," Hurricanes Coach Larry Coker said. "He's been with us for a couple of years. The young-player-with-no-experience excuse doesn't hold water for us. He's got to get the job done, and we've got to help him out."