The top 10 returning ACC players
With eight of the top 25 returning college football players, including the 2016 Heisman winner, ACC teams appear well set to challenge for another national title. Even with the loss of six of the top signal-callers in the conference, expect ACC teams to remain in the conversation come the 2017 postseason.
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Perhaps no quarterback carried his offense to a greater extent in 2016 than Lamar Jackson in Louisville. With an offensive line in disarray in front of him, and receivers dropping passes, Jackson’s numbers (and performances) predictably dipped toward the end of the year. He had built up enough credibility by that point to still take home the Heisman, but will need to thrive in spite of his supporting cast to make the Cardinals a contender in 2017. Jackson will continue to test defenses downfield next season after posting over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns on 20-plus-yard throws in Bobby Petrino’s vertical offense.
2. Florida State S Derwin James
An unfortunate season-ending injury deprived FSU of college football’s most versatile defender. In just 100 snaps in 2016, he managed three hurries, a batted pass and four defensive stops. James is a true weapon in the box, capable of dismantling opposing offenses with plays in the backfield. Recovering from a torn meniscus might take some time, but James’ freshman season indicates a truly special Seminole is developing down in Florida.
3. Clemson DI Dexter Lawrence
Speaking of freaky freshman, Dexter Lawrence also falls into that category. The Tigers won the National Championship in large part because of the team’s ability to replace the entirety of its 2015 defensive line upon their departure for the NFL. Lawrence instantly upgraded the interior, seamlessly integrating into one of the nation’s top defensive fronts. The raw power and strength of the teenager is nothing less than a biological anomaly. In total, he amassed 34 stops and 48 pressures (16 knockdowns) in 2016, setting the tone for what is sure to be a stunning college career.
4. Boston College ED Harold Landry
In the wake of another disappointing year for the Eagles, Harold Landry emerged as one of college football’s top edge rushers. He led all players at the position with 18 sacks, adding a further seven hits and 44 hurries. Those 69 pressures, from just 320 rushes, earned him second spot in our pass-rush productivity metric. Landry is a terror off the edge, his presence consistently crippling opposing passing games. In a conference stacked with edge rushing talent, Landry is right up there with the best.
5. NC State ED Bradley Chubb
Coming in at No. 5 is a more well-rounded edge defender. Bradley Chubb fails to generate pressure as consistently as Landry, but he finds other ways to make an impact. The Wolfpack defensive end has the power and discipline to disrupt at the point of attack. He finished with 39 defensive stops in 2016, more than Landry managed overall. Chubb also generated nine sacks, nine hits and 35 hurries, proving he can be pose a dual-threat in the ACC.
6. Louisville CB Jaire Alexander
The top returning corner in the conference, Jaire Alexander was an essential part of Louisville’s excellent start to the season. He enjoyed his best game in the clutch, picking off two Deshaun Watson passes while allowing a QB rating of 0 in Louisville’s game against Clemson. He never consistently reached those heights over the course of the year, but still ended his sophomore campaign with give picks, nine pass deflections and a QB rating allowed of only 61.6. Alexander gave up too many touchdowns (six), but it can’t be long before he learns to balance his aggression and emerges as one of the nation’s top corners.
7. Louisville LB Stacy Thomas
The Cardinals appear set for a run in 2017 with three of the top seven returning players registered with the school. Entering the year, Stacy Thomas received little buzz, with his partner at inside linebacker, Keith Kelsey, garnered the majority of attention. That situation will likely be flipped on its head when evaluators throw on the Cardinals’ 2016 tape. Thomas’ blend of outstanding instincts and aggression shedding blocks makes him one of the nation’s top run defenders. Coupled with impressive athleticism and range, Thomas’ skillset is indicative of a player with few weaknesses.
8. Clemson ED Christian Wilkins
Every decision Clemson’s defensive coaches made paid off last year. Shifting Christian Wilkins to the outside, despite his apparently incongruous physical profile, proved a masterstroke. Wilkins kicked on, using his intelligence to disrupt plays from the edge. He finished the season with nine batted passes, tied for the most since our college grading began three years ago. Although an inability to close on the quarterback hampered him at times, Wilkins was consistently able to collapse the pocket with power moves, accumulating 41 combined pressures. Versatility, strength and intelligence combine to make Wilkins one of the best edge defenders in the ACC.
9. Virginia Tech OG Wyatt Teller
The first and only offensive lineman on the list, Wyatt Teller is a throwback to traditional guard play. A converted defensive lineman, he brings a nasty attitude on every play, crushing tackles on in-line blocks in particular. Holding up against double teams involving Teller is almost impossible. Although his main strength is clearly … well, his strength, the Hokies guard is more than capable making blocks on the move. Teller locates effectively at to the second level, regularly making contributions at both levels on a single play. Perhaps no guard inflicts more fear on defensive tackles. Lining up inside Teller, potentially poised to down block, is an unenviable position.
10. Wake Forest ED Duke Ejiofor
The Demon Deacons boasted a strong defense in 2016, led by their athletic pass-rusher. Although consistency eluded Ejiofor, he flashed tremendous talent. In one game against Duke, he registered nine combined pressures (two sacks, two hits and five pressures) and a batted pass. That individual performance highlighted the junior’s potential, along with the improvement he displayed over the course of the year. Follow these edge rushers closely next season, they’re sure to hear their names early when the 2018 draft rolls around.