Not surprisingly in the ACC, the teams that did the best, for the most part, lost the most underclassmen to NFL Draft early entry. The league as a whole has only 10 players choosing to forgo their final years of eligibility — with defending national champion Florida State leading the way with four. But there are still some surprises, and some teams that might not be able to reload on the fly.
Sammy Watkins has been one of the best receivers in college football since he stepped foot on the field as a freshman, and he’s likely going to be one of the first 5-10 players selected. Clemson had to have been preparing for his exit.
However, both Bryant and Breeland received fourth-round grades, so their early departures were a bit of a surprise. Clemson was already relatively thin at wide receiver when you got past Watkins, much more so now without Bryant. Adam Humphries, Stanton Seckinger, Charone Peake and Germone Hopper are all returning players with some experience, and Clemson is going to bring in some freshmen capable of playing, but it’s going to be a question mark. (Of course, so will the quarterback position in the absence of Tajh Boyd.)
Breeland’s departure was perhaps the most surprising of all. He’s only been a starter for one year, and while he put up some nice numbers this season — 10 pass breakups and four interceptions — he was third-team All-ACC. Without him, there will be just two returning upperclassmen on the two-deep in the secondary on Clemson’s final depth chart. The good news is that three of those DBs were freshmen, and they’re bound to keep improving. The Clemson secondary was shaky at times this season, but with the unexpected news that pass-rushing defensive end Vic Beasley will return to school for his final year (he received a second-round grade), the back end already received a huge boost in 2014.
All four of these guys were basically no-brainers. They were four of FSU’s best players all season long, and each one certainly appears to be more than NFL-ready. As for Benjamin, his loss will certainly be felt, but leading receiver Rashad Greene is still there, as is talented freshman kick returner/wideout Kermit Whitfield and Christian Green. Potential young contributors could include 6-foot-4 Isaiah Jones (who played in five games) and Jesus Wilson, a 5-foot-9 speedster.
Considering Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston is back to throw them the football, all is not loss.
As for the tailback position, Karlos Williams will likely be the guy next year in the absence of Wilder and Freeman. He was the Seminoles’ second-leading rusher in spite of switching to the position early in the season. He’s an explosive athlete, and he’s as fast as he is physical. As his instincts improve and he learns the position, he could get even better, which is terrifying.
The only real question mark remaining would be depth without a solid three-back rotation, but Ryan Green was the fifth-leading rusher with 180 yards (4.9 a carry on 33 attempts), while Mario Pender, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall after missing the 2013 season due to academic issues, rejoined the team in July. Pender was ranked the No. 5 running back in the country coming out of school in 2012 — it’s clear he has plenty of talent. All you need is a few backs that are capable, explosive and quick. But again, like with the wideouts, you’re losing proven commodities and still have to replace them.
Defensive tackle — or the defensive line in general, really — is the biggest concern, if there is one. Jernigan will be the only starter gone, though Jernigan’s backup at nose guard, Jacobbi McDaniel, was also a senior. And so the middle of that FSU line is probably the biggest question mark, but considering how Jimbo Fisher has been recruiting lately — not to mention how much time FSU’s second and third-stringers got in games this year — the Seminoles will likely be just fine. Nile Lawrence-Stample is one talented guy who will try to fill that void, and he should have help in the incoming recruiting class.
Who’s gone: Eric Ebron, TE; Russell Bodine, C
Obviously, the Tar Heels will feel the loss of one of the best tight end in school history and this season’s leading receiver. They have a lot of young talent on the offensive side of the ball, as the latter half of the year showed, but the only other tight end with a catch this season was junior Jack Tabb, who also played linebacker.
UNC knew on some level that Ebron would likely leave school early all along. But the questions remain: Is Tabb capable of replacing him? Could young and developing wideouts replace Ebron with the tight end spot becoming more of a blocking position in Larry Fedora’s offense?
It’s never a good thing to lose a starting center, and Russell Bodine’s decision to go pro was a little bit of a surprise. Fortunately for the Tar Heels, though, Lucas Crowley received plenty of experience this season as injuries forced Bodine to move to guard while Crowley became the primary center. UNC’s offense barely missed a beat with the true freshman handling snaps. Other spots along the line remain a bit of a question mark, but just like the UNC skill position players, the young offensive line got better and better with each game. Crowley’s ability to adapt to the position so quickly was particularly impressive.
Who’s gone: Jerome Smith, RB
Perhaps one of the more underappreciated players in the ACC this season, he averaged 4.6 yards per rush and finished with 914 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Orange. He hit 1,110 yards in 2012. He graduated from Syracuse in December of 2013, and he said he "felt like it was his time to go." Smith was projected as either a seventh-rounder or an undrafted free agent, so it will be interesting to see what happens there.
Syracuse’s running game, though, should be fine.
Prince Tyson-Gulley will be a senior, and he was the third-leading rusher on the team with 456 yards and four touchdowns. The second-leading rusher behind Smith was quarterback Terrel Hunt, a sophomore who racked up 500 yards on 106 carries and seven touchdowns. It remains to be seen if he’ll hold on to the starting job next season, but there will almost certainly be a role for him in that offense. Combine those two with freshmen backs George Morris II and Devante McFarlane (Morris had 79 carries for 334 yards; McFarlane added 48 for 292) and a developing offensive line, and the Orange will likely keep running the football as much as they did this past season.