Quarterbacks get most of both the credit and the blame, and it’s one of the reasons that non-quarterbacks rarely win the Heisman Trophy. So who are the best returning players in the ACC entering the 2013-14 season, not including those signal-callers who already get enough credit?
(Note: These players were picked both based on what they’ve already done and what they’re likely to do this season. But they have to have something resembling a body of work.)
Through eight games last year, Johnson logged 920 yards (6.3 per carry) and six touchdowns on 145 attempts before his season was cut short when he broke his ankle against Florida State. Miami was 7-0 with Johnson … and 2-4 without him. If he can stay on the field this year, the offense will likely revolve around Johnson completely, and he’s going to be a huge help to a new Miami quarterback (whoever that ends up being).
Erving — voted the ACC’s best linemen by the league’s coaches a year ago — is as good as it gets. He was given an early second-round grade by the NFL advisory board, and ultimately he decided that wasn’t good enough for him. You can’t teach Erving’s size and athleticism, and last year certainly showed that he’s put it all together.
If he was one of the nation’s best left tackles last year, and he’s still protecting his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback’s blind side this season, it would seem as if Erving’s stock will only rise.
The numbers show that Crowder is the best returning receiver in the league from a production standpoint — his 97.1 yards per game on 7.7 receptions per game trailed only the now-departed Sammy Watkins — but Crowder is more than that, too. He’s part of the reason Duke football made the leap from so-so to good to great — all in the span of his three seasons.
Playing opposite Conner Vernon as a sophomore, he had 76 catches for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns. Without the benefit of Vernon last year, he did even better — 108 catches for 1,360 yards and eight TDs. He also returned 26 punts for 401 yards and two scores last year. And he’s consistent — the fewest catches he had in a game was four, and he had at least six in 12 of Duke’s 14 games.
The senior wide receiver just keeps getting better and better each year, and if that trajectory continues, he’s going to be flat-out dominant this season. He had 38 catches for 596 yards as a freshman, 57 for 741 as a sophomore and then 76 for 1,128 last year.
At just 6-foot, 180 pounds, he’s not the physical presence you’d expect him to be with those kinds of numbers. Even though he was one of many threats at receiver for the Seminoles a year ago, he still has at least four catches in all but two games and averaged at least 10 yards a catch in all but three games. Capping that off with a nine-catch, 147-yard performance in the national title game wasn’t bad, either. Now, he’s the most proven receiver left on this roster and is sure to get plenty of looks. If history is any indication, he’ll make the most of them and then some.
Hard to ask for a much better freshman season than Pitt’s Tyler Boyd had in 2013 — 85 catches for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns, if you need him. He "only" had five 100-yard games, but he caught at least two passes in every game and averaged 10 or more yards per catch in all but two, including finishing the season in the bowl game win over Bowling Green with a ridiculous eight catches for 173 yards (or 21.6 per reception). It helped that he had Devin Street on the other side to take some attention away, and that might be an issue this year — but he came out of high school as one of the best receivers, and it’s pretty clear why.
Jackson helped pave the way for one of the nation’s best rushing attacks last year, and should do the same this season. The Seminoles were held to under 4.0 yards a carry as a team — a figure that includes sacks, of course — just twice in 14 games last year, and under 400 yards of total offense just twice as well (once in the national title game). The Florida State offensive line is even better than it was a year ago, and Jackson is a big reason why (plus Erving, of course).
He’s got the size of a big lineman, but the athleticism and quickness that someone as big as he is shouldn’t have.
For his first two years in Tallahassee — and very nearly three — Karlos Williams wasn’t even a running back. When it became clear that Florida State had a lot of depth in the defensive backfield, though, head coach Jimbo Fisher decided to put the safety in the offensive backfield. And boy, did that pay off. His first carry in college against Nevada went for 65 yards and a touchdown. That set the bar high, but he kept meeting it, finishing with 730 yards on 91 attempts and 11 touchdowns — that’s 8.0 yards per carry. Every 8.3 carries, he scored. That’s ridiculous.
FSU had an embarrassment of riches in the backfield a year ago, but now he’ll be the guy. As he made clear plenty of times last year while running at an opposing defender seeking to inflict more punishment than he receives, Williams is more than ready for that.
Though it was in the AAC, his 885 yards receiving for the Cardinals in 2013 would make him the fourth-leading receiver returning this year in the ACC, as would his 55 catches. His consistency last season was not at the level of a Crowder or a Greene, but it was pretty darn close — he had one catch twice, but four or more in nine games and five or more in six games. In Louisville’s final two games — at Cincinnati and the Russell Athletic Bowl against Miami — he really turned it on, making 18 catches for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
He might have a new quarterback throwing him the football, but add new head coach/offensive guru Bobby Petrino to the mix and big things are sure to come from Parker.
Believe it or not, Parks is the leading returning rusher in the ACC at 85.9 yards per game last year (1,031 total). But of 2013’s top-10 in rushing yards per game, Parks had by far the lowest yards per carry average (4.5). Of course, his 227 attempts were more than anyone not named Andre Williams — and that’s without Virginia getting a 13th game with a bowl berth. The senior often had his work cut out for him with a so-so offensive line and no passing game to take pressure off of him, but he still had at least 100 yards in six times and caught at least one pass in all but one game last year.
There’s no doubt he’s going to be a huge part of this Virginia offense — the problem will be, of course, that offense not being very good. But Parks certainly is.
Yes, another Florida State player.
This was a tough call between Stacy Coley of Miami and O’Leary — without Allen Hurns there to take a lot of his catches away, this is going to be Coley’s show — but ultimately, O’Leary gets the slight edge. It helps that O’Leary plays a big role in blocking for one of the nation’s best offenses in addition to his pass-catching. The senior has 11 career touchdown catches, the most in FSU history by a tight end. He totaled 33 catches for 557 yards (a whopping 16.9 per catch) and seven touchdowns in 2013.
After being one of the league’s best tight ends a year ago (behind only UNC’s Eric Ebron), he figures to have an even bigger 2014.