Deshaun Watson leads 5 best returning QBs in the ACC
The ACC was blessed with some impressive quarterback play in 2015. Marquise Williams led the Tarheels to within a game of a potential playoff berth. Meanwhile, Jacoby Brissett — the top QB drafted from the conference — went in the early third round (91st overall pick to the New England Patriots).
Despite those losses, the conference still features a Heisman candidate, a junior standout and plenty of players with potential at football’s most important position. Here is how they currently rank:
- Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson is one of the most dynamic players in college football. While he could stand to become more consistent, he poses an almost indefensible threat. Watson led the conference with a 105.4 QB rating in 2015, throwing for over 4,000 with 35 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions. Including his freshman season, he has thrown 49 touchdowns to just 15 picks, with a completion percentage of 67.7. Despite his tender age, Watson’s passing skills are incredibly well developed. The Tigers’ signal-caller combines pinpoint accuracy with a deadly deep ball. His adjusted completion percentage of 77.1 last season was seventh overall, tying the mark set by first-round Memphis QB Paxton Lynch. Watson also managed 18 touchdowns on deep targets (20+ yards in the air) more than all but a single FBS QB.
The big plays can be jaw-dropping, and yet Watson has not completed his development. He could still improve under pressure in particular. With a clean pocket, Watson earned a +35.5 passing grade a year ago, and a QB rating of 114.3. Under pressure, his grade fell all the way to -10.5, and his QB rating to just 68.0. If Watson is able to deliver more consistently with a muddy pocket, he might become unstoppable.
- Brad Kaaya, Miami
Kaaya generated a ton of hype with his performances as a sophomore. The fortunes of the Hurricanes’ programme was unsurprisingly linked to the production of their signal-caller. Kaaya was far from perfect, but his +19.0 passing grade highlights the improvements he made in 2015. Overall he completed 238 of 391 targets (60.9 percent) for 3,242 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five picks.
Kaaya’s conservative approach is both a positive and negative. On the plus side, he limited turnovers and avoided crippling mistakes. On the other hand, the offense was not as explosive as it might have been. Only 16.4 percent of Kaaya’s passes travelled 20+ yards in the air, which was 31st of 57 quarterbacks. He was fairly effective throwing the deep ball, but was reluctant to test coverage downfield often enough. Kaaya is limited somewhat by a lack of arm strength. That deficiency is highlighted in the intermediate range (10-19 yards) where he completed only 35 of 73 targets. The issue is even more prominent outside the numbers, where Kaaya completed only five of 25 attempts for 75 yards and two interceptions. Still, with a reliable passer at the helm, the Miami program is heading in the right direction.
- Nate Peterman, Pittsburgh
The most overlooked quarterback in the ACC, Peterman may well be poised for a breakout year. In his first year as a starter, he completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,300 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Peterman does the little things well, especially in the pocket, where he displays an innate ability to avoid the rush and find throwing windows. He can also make every throw – recording a positive passing grade at every level of the defense – including on sideline targets where he displays the requisite arm strength. Peterman put in some impressive performances on the way to a +10.5 passing grade in 2015.
As with most inexperienced quarterbacks, including those above, he could stand to improve his production under pressure. Much like Watson, both Peterman’s QB rating and passing grade fell dramatically when disrupted. He managed a 106.9 QB rating and +25.5 grade with a clean pocket, compared with a QB rating of 61.7 and -13.5 grade under pressure. While he does a good job avoiding pass rushers, he doesn’t always execute the throw when off balance. Pittsburgh are something of a darkhorse with Peterman at the helm in 2016.
- Thomas Sirk, Duke
Sirk is primarily a running threat, but has enough passing talent to keep defenses from entirely committing to defending the box. In 2015, he completed 59 percent of passes for 2,616 yards, 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Where he falls short of his peers is with his accuracy. Sirk recorded an adjusted completion percentage of only 68.8 percent a year ago, which was 12th in the ACC (78th in the FBS). He has the physical makeup to become an effective passer, but questions remain about his adaptability at this stage of development. Sirk’s +0.9 passing grade in 2015 was solid, but it remains to be seen how much improvement he’s capable of making in that department.
Duke’s offense remains committed to running the football primarily, making Sirk a more attractive option. He carried 162 times last season, racking up 847 yards (5.2 average), 395 yards after contact and eight touchdowns. Sirk is an exceptional red zone threat, ploughing into the endzone 16 times in the past two seasons. He is not just a bruiser, however, tying for the team-lead a year ago with 20 broken tackles. Assuming he can bounce back from a torn Achilles, Sirk will likely continue to dominate in Duke’s offense.
- John Wolford, Wake Forest
Everything about Wolford’s season appears underwhelming, but he still recorded the sixth-highest passing grade in the conference, despite struggling through injury in the middle of the season. The diminutive signal-caller does not appear like a QB physically, lacks elite athleticism and registered poor numbers. Ultimately, he ended the year having thrown more picks (nine) than touchdowns (11). In fairness, a handful of those interceptions were not Wolford’s fault. He actually led the ACC in deep accuracy, hitting the mark on 54.5 percent of his targets, and finished sixth in adjusted completion percentage, throwing accurately on 71.2 percent of plays. Much of Wolford’s poor performance in 2015 can be attributed to a high ankle sprain he bravely, but perhaps unwisely, attempted to play through. Fully healthy, he could be poised for a breakthrough year.