Biggest reason for hope for every ACC team
The offseason is the time for optimism, and as cliche reminds us, every team starts the season at 0-0. This week we’re taking a look at one reason for hope for every Power-5 program, starting with the SEC on Monday and moving on to the ACC today.
Clemson: Deshaun Watson is back under center
After falling just short in the National Championship last year, Clemson will aim to go one step further in 2016. Deshaun Watson played a major part in the team’s success and returns for his junior season widely recognized as the top QB in the nation. He’s also scheduled to go first overall in our very early mock draft. Watson was our sixth-ranked QB overall in 2015, finishing 13th in terms of pure passing grade. He made some terrific throws a year ago, but frighteningly appears capable of elevating his game again in his third year as a starter.
Boston College: Defensive dominance
A defensively-oriented program, Boston College will likely produce another tough stop unit in 2016. Despite losing a handful of starters to the NFL, the Eagles appear well-equipped to replace their lost talent. BC has talented players returning at every level of the defense. DE Harold Landry, SLB Matt Milano and CB Josh Johnson all graded as amongst the best at their positions in 2015. Each should be even more dominant with greater experience, providing the Eagles with one of the nation’s best defenses.
Duke: Run game will lead the Blue Devils
The Blue Devils’ offense already earns a matchup advantage in the running game by using the QB option. Thomas Sirk (+7.4 rushing grade) and Parker Boehme (+2.4 grade) are both particularly effective on the ground. In the backfield, junior Jela Duncan showed impressive potential in 2015 (+5.5 rushing grade). He broke 17 tackles on just 67 carries, and averaged 4.6 yards after contact per attempt. Although the offensive line lost a pair of starters in Matt Skura and Lucas Patrick, the Blue Devils have some promising backups — particularly in center Austin Davis. The running game should be the strength of the team once again.
FSU: Superstars Dalvin Cook and Derwin James
Florida State has a pair of freakish athletes on both sides of the ball in HB Dalvin Cook and defensive weapon Derwin James. Cook ranked seventh in 2015 with a +25.8 rushing grade. Of running backs with over 200 carries, Cook ranked third with an average of 4.0 yards after contact per attempt. His combination of power, shiftiness and vision is rare. James, meanwhile, is a disruptive force capable of fulfilling any assignment. The true freshman ranked second amongst safeties a year ago with a +29.8 grade, proving capable of generating pressure from hand-in-the-dirt 4-3 end.
Georgia Tech: Backfield duo of Willis and Lynch
The triple option requires multiple talented ball carriers for the system to work most efficiently. The performance of HBs Isiah Willis and Clinton Lynch suggest the Yellow Jackets have at least two backs that can handle the load. Lynch averaged an outstanding 9.5 yards per carry in 2015, while Willis averaged a respectable 5.7 yards a pop. Both players should play a major role in Georgia Tech’s offense in 2016.
Louisville: The front seven
Louisville lost their top defensive lineman to the Saints with the 12th overall pick in the 2015 draft, but they still have plenty of talent heading into the new season. NT DeAngelo Brown proved capable of both stuffing inside runs and collapsing the pocket. DE Pio Vatuvei ended 2015 in great form, amassing a +10.4 grade in the final six games. Most promising, however, is OLB Devonte Fields. He generated 49 combined pressures (20 knockdowns) a year ago, finishing with a +20.5 grade as a pass rusher.
Miami: Hurricanes’ game through the air
Despite a terrible offensive line which lacked a positively-graded starter, the Hurricanes were able to move the ball on offense thanks to sophomore QB Brad Kaaya and his supporting cast of pass catchers. Junior wide receiver Stacy Coley improved significantly last season, catching 46 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns. TE Chris Herndon, HB Joseph Yearby and HB Mark Walton all also made telling contributions and are set to see expanded roles in 2016.
UNC: Playmakers combine for a scary offense
The Tarheels came within a touchdown of knocking off Clemson in the ACC Championship game in 2015. QB Marquise Williams was the catalyst, making plays both as a passer and on the ground. WRs Bug Howard, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer caught a combined 114 passes and 18 touchdowns a year ago, offering hope that the losses of Kendrick Singleton and Quinshad Davis will not be significant. Add HB Elijah Hood into the equation, and North Carolina’s offense should be a scary proposition next year.
NC State: Outstanding defensive front
Not a single one of the Wolfpack’s defensive linemen graded negatively in 2015. Top pass rusher Mike Rose graduated, but Bradley Chubb appears poised to take over after a +15.7 pass rush grade a year ago. Starting defensive tackles BJ Hill and Justin Jones both return. The pair combined for seven sacks, ten hits and 27 hurries this past year, as well as 53 combined stops. While the backups remain unproven, the starting lineman should continue to perform at a high level.
Pitt: Secondary posts standout numbers
The Pitt Panthers have talent throughout their roster, but S Jordan Whitehead and CB Avonte Maddox stand out. Whitehead led the unit with a +11.3 grade, showing the requisite skills to matchup in man coverage, as well as roam the center of the field. He allowed a QB rating of just 63.6 when targeted and made 29 defensive stops. CB Avonte Maddox was a little inconsistent, but allowed only 51.5 percent of targets to be complete with three interceptions and 13 pass deflections.
Syracuse: Running back competition
The Orange of Syracuse should have a fresh rotation of backs with Ervin Philips and Jordan Fredericks in the backfield. Both ended the year with +4.1 grades on the ground. The latter received more carries, generating 567 yards on 107 carries and four touchdowns. He broke a tackle roughly once every 5.5 carries. Philips averaged a superior 5.7 yards per carry, but did less of the work himself, breaking a tackle only once every eight touches, and generating only 2.3 yards after contact. Both runners should make an impact in 2016.
Virginia: Balance in the backfield
It’s not always easy to find multiple skill sets in the backfield, but Virginia’s pair of Taquan Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus combined to form a strong one-two punch in 2015. Zaccheaus is better-suited to an early-down role, after registering a +9.6 grade on just 33 carries last year. Workhorse Mizell was not as productive receiving the majority of carries, and is probably better utilized in space in the passing game. His 75 catches for 721 yards with 22 broken tackles is certainly indicative of his talent catching the football.
Virginia Tech: Offensive weapons in Ford and Hodges
WR Isiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges have been the Hokies’ best playmakers for the past couple of years. Entering 2016, one would expect even greater improvement from the pair. Ford consistently generated separation a year ago, catching 75 passes for 1,164 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hodges, meanwhile, wins with his frame more consistently. He snagged 40 balls for 538 yards and six touchdowns, recording a +4.3 receiving grade.
Wake Forest: Depth at receiver
Three of Wake Forest’s top four receivers return next season. Although they lack a little star quality, their wideouts should make a consistent impact in 2016. Cortez Lewis lacks a little dynamism, but is solid overall. Tabari Hines made a few too many negative plays, but still ended the season with three touchdowns and five broken tackles on just 32 catches. Chuck Wade completes the unit by posing as a threat after the catch. He averaged 7.8 yards after catch per reception and broke 12 tackles on just 33 catches in 2015.