Best returning player on every ACC team
Deshaun Watson, Derwin James and Devonte Fields are among the top ACC players returning to the field this season.
Best returning player on every ACC team
The ACC looks set to feature some elite talent again next season. Although not every programme is blessed with a Heisman-candidate, each boasts at least one quality player with the potential to make a significant impact in 2016. Here are the top talents every school has to offer.
Clemson: QB Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson has all the tools to be an elite passer. He is not quite there yet, but with a few minor adjustments he can become the nation’s best quarterback. Watson is already one of the FBS’ top players. The genuine dual-threat he provides is almost impossible to defend. He is capable of challenging every level of a defense with his combination of arm strength and touch, resulting in our seventh-highest passing grade. Watson improved in our overall rankings, finishing third when his production on the ground is also considered. The Tigers’ quarterback still has two years of eligibility to improve, the only question is whether he’ll need both.
UNC: CB MJ Stewart
Running back Elijah Hood can consider himself a little unlucky to miss out, but it just goes to show the level of talent at this North Carolina programme. The Tar Heels secondary has the potential to dominate the ACC, with the combination of Stewart and Des Lawrence looking particularly ominous for opposing quarterbacks. Stewart’s fluidity enabled him to shutdown a tough slate of opposing slot receivers. He ended the year with a QB rating allowed of just 54.4, allowing less than half his targets when lined up at nickelback to be complete. Stewart has the potential to be the nation’s top corner.
Boston College: LB Matt Milano
Milano looks set to continue the Eagles’ tradition of producing outstanding linebackers. He certainly has the versatility to succeed, proving adept as a pass rusher, in the box and in space. Although at his best coming downhill, Milano appeared more athletic than his teammate Steven Daniels, flashing the ability to run with tightends up the seam. The 78.8 QB rating he allowed is also indicative of Milano’s coverage qualities. He looks set to ensure Boston College’s linebacker play is once again amongst the best in the FBS.
Miami (FL): HB Joseph Yearby
The Hurricanes have some talented players on the offensive side of the ball entering 2016. Junior Brad Kaaya emerged as a potential NFL QB prospect a season ago, but remains in need of improvement to become an elite level passer. His partner in the backfield, Joseph Yearby, was comparatively more impressive. Yearby earned a +19.6 overall grade, the majority of which came on the ground, ranking 19th in the FBS. He proved particularly elusive, generating 48 broken tackles on just 203 rushes. Other ‘Canes like Kaaya and Al-Quaddin Muhammad generate the headlines, but it is Yearby who is most consistently effective.
FSU: S Derwin James
Freakish Florida athletes seem to crop up frequently nowadays. James is not yet at Jalen Ramsey’s level, but he is not far off. He’s less likely to spend time at corner, one of the few spots he did not man in 2015, but can be a difference-maker closer to the line of scrimmage. Whether required to rush with his hand in the dirt, or play deep centre-field, James can be counted on to make an impact. He recorded top 20 grades in coverage, as a pass rusher and against the run last season. James’ combination of movement skills and physicality makes him FSU’s top player entering 2016.
Louisville: DE Devonte Fields
The Cardinals were so stacked up front in 2015 that Fields would not have won this award a season ago (he is not quite at Sheldon Rankins’ level yet) and was not even certain to take top spot this year. Fellow lineman, DeAngelo Brown, also came into consideration. While Brown is more reliable, his skillset is also more common. Fields’ explosion is rare. It helped him earn a +35.3 overall grade, including 13 sacks, seven hits and 29 pressures as a pass rusher. His form toward the end of the season suggests he’ll likely improve on those numbers.
Virginia Tech: WR Isaiah Ford
Despite struggling through poor quarterback play a year ago, Ford still managed to accumulate a +12.3 receiving grade. He has a balanced skillset which enables him to threaten every level of a defense. Ford used his speed to earn almost half of his yardage on down field throws, generating a number of big-plays. He also displayed shiftiness in the open-field, breaking ten tackles on 75 receptions last season. Assuming the Hokies are able to find a competent passer, Ford should continue to improve.
North Carolina State: Offensive hybrid Jaylen Samuels
The versatile Samuels made an impact split wide in the formation, lined up tight on the end of the line and in the backfield. He is a unique offensive talent, capable of blocking from any alignment. Samuels stands out, however, with the ball in hand. He broke a tackle at a rate better than one in every five touches, showing the ability to break tackles between the tackles as well as in space. The Wolfpack’s new quarterback will need all the help he can get, making it likely Samuels’ role will only expand.
Pittsburgh: S Jordan Whitehead
The least experienced player on the list, Whitehead’s performances as a freshman were incredibly impressive. Equally capable of playing both the run and the pass, the Panthers can be confident about utilising their versatile weapon on the back-end in 2016. His ability to diagnose plays was particularly impressive, contributing significantly to his +11.6 overall grade. Whitehead gave up very little in coverage, allowing a QB rating of only 63.6 a season-ago. Standing out on a struggling team, at a position which is often exposed by others’ mistakes, is no mean feat. Whitehead’s development is going to be fascinating to watch.
Duke: DT AJ Wolf
The Blue Devils’ recent success has been built on a spread of talent, rather than exceptional individuals. They lost a number of talented players to the NFL, leaving a big void for 2016. One of the players most likely to step up next season is defensive tackle AJ Wolf. He was effective, if unspectacular, a year ago. Overall, Wolf finished with a +17.9 grade, posting a particularly impressive +16.6 run defense grade. He is yet to develop a ton of pass rush moves, finishing with only 15 combined pressures, but has potential in that area. Wolf’s lack of production is also partly due to his two-down role; he still managed a positive pass rushing grade in 2015. Wolf could become one of those rare, outstanding, individuals on the team next season.
Wake Forest: DE Duke Ejiofor
The Demon Deacons did not have much team success a season ago. A young pass rusher did emerge, however, offering promise for the future. Ejiofor managed only seven games after missing the early part of the year, proving his talent in that run. Unlike some of his peers, his grade came entirely against top competition. Overall he managed 4 sacks, 2 hits and 16 pressures over the final seven games, earning his 22 combined pressures from just 196 snaps. Ejiofor’s production could go through the roof if he’s able to complete a full, healthy, season.
Georgia Tech: HB Clinton Lynch
The triple-option undoubtedly helped Lynch’s production, but it would be unfair to attribute all his success to scheme. He backed up an outstanding redshirt season with an impressive sophomore campaign. Overall, he has a +25.9 combined grade in his two full years with the Yellow Jackets. Last season alone, he managed a +13.2 rushing grade, scoring five times on just 48 attempts. His role will surely expand in 2016 after also managing a +3.2 grade out of the backfield. Lynch added a further three scores from those limited opportunities. As their best playmaker, Georgia Tech should feed Lynch next season.
Syracuse: LB Parris Bennett
Bennett won a starting job in the spring, and continued his good form into the season. In just seven completed games before getting hurt, he earnt a +7.9 grade. Bennett made an impact in every facet of play. He was particularly reliable against the run, missing just four of 56 attempted. The young linebacker also made a sizeable number of plays, finishing with 25 total stops. He is in his element in the box, but can also function in space. Overall Bennett allowed a QB rating of only 69.3, ending his season with a +2.6 grade in coverage. The Orange may not compete in 2016, but Bennett’s comeback will be key to their future outlook.
Virginia: HB Taquan Mizzell
Mizzell does not quite possess Samuels’ versatility, but he can be utilised at various positions on offense. He split wide on 170 of his snaps a season ago, looking best suited when afforded space to operate. Mizzell actually broke more tackles in the passing game (22) than as a runner (15), despite seeing less than half the touches. He still graded positively on the ground, but his rushing grade was ultimately dwarfed by his grade as a receiver. Mizzell ended the year with a +1.5 grade on 163 handoffs, compared with a +11.6 grade on 75 catches. A solution at quarterback will enable Mizzell to focus on his best position.