Next Man Up: 7 potential breakout candidates for ACC's 2017 season
The Atlantic Coast Conference is witnessing a mass exodus of offensive talent. Clemson’s national championship-winning offense will be gutted by departures, including insta-legend Deshaun Watson at quarterback. North Carolina, Miami and Pittsburgh lose their starting backfields. Virginia Tech’s passing game will look nothing like Year 1 under Justin Fuente. Florida State loses one of the most prolific running backs in ACC history.
In total — due to early departures and graduation — the conference is losing eight of its top 10 in rushing yards, four of its top seven producers in passing yards and its top four receivers. Pro decisions will also affect a few ACC defenses, but nowhere near the rate of their offensive counterparts. Departures open the door for arrivals, though. Here are seven ACC players who will likely play much bigger roles in 2017.
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Mark Walton, Miami running back
The rising junior, a former four-star recruit, finds himself in an interesting situation. Mark Walton is the top returning running back in the conference — trailing only Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in rushing yards — after posting 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns during his first year in Mark Richt’s run-friendly system. The intrigue with Walton, a 5-foot-9 balanced runner, comes in the rest of the Hurricanes’ backfield, as both record-setting quarterback Brad Kaaya and running back Joseph Yearby declared for the NFL Draft.
Yearby, another former top recruit, functioned essentially as Walton’s backup in 2016, receiving less than half his carries. His departure, though, means 608 yards and seven touchdowns are off the board for Miami, which will undoubtedly find it difficult to immediately replace Kaaya’s proficiency. Walton is the surest bet on Miami’s roster, perhaps the surest bet for another 1,000-yard season in the league. With Dalvin Cook, James Conner, Matthew Dayes, Wayne Gallman and Elijah Hood leaving school, Walton is poised to take over the conference's rushing leaderboard.
Richt’s teams have produced 1,000-yard backs in four of the past five seasons — and the only reason he didn’t have one in 2013 at Georgia is because Todd Gurley dealt with injuries. His offenses typically thrive with two backs, which could mean an increased workload for rising senior Gus Edwards or sophomore Travis Homer, but Walton enters spring practice as the unquestioned feature back.
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Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh all-purpose back
The Panthers’ sophomore speedster did everything en route to a consensus 2016 All-American nod, and he could asked to do even more in 2017.
Quadree Henderson, the 5-foot-8 former three-star recruit, hardly played as a true freshman before exploding on the scene with 160.2 all-purpose yards per game (11th-best nationally) and 10 touchdowns.
As touchdown machine James Conner (1,092 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns) heads to the NFL early, Pitt’s offense is losing its starting backfield, tight end and two players along the offensive line. The Panthers have additional backfield pieces to step into Conner’s shoes – Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison should expect a big jump in carries — but Henderson’s ability to punish opponents in a variety of ways will be needed if the Panthers want to finish anywhere near the top-10 in scoring for the second straight season.
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Deon Cain, Clemson receiver
As Clemson collectively celebrated its first national title in 35 years, the obstacles awaiting the 2017 edition were readily apparent. No ACC team loses more offensive playmakers with Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott opting to go pro early. Add in the fact that tight end Jordan Leggett exhausted his eligibility and Dabo Swinney’s staff is looking to replace 4,593 passing yards, 1,762 rushing yards, 2,711 receiving yards and 67 total touchdowns among their top names.
Watson will certainly be the most difficult to replace — once-in-a-generation college quarterbacks are, by definition, rare commodities — but whoever gets the job will have 6-foot-1 target Deon Cain to rely on. As a sophomore, Cain tallied 724 yards and nine touchdowns even as Williams soaked up most of Watson’s attention. The former five-star recruit has proven himself capable of stepping into a central role.
The Tigers will not be starved for weapons outside of Cain. Ray-Ray McCloud and title-game hero Hunter Renfrow return to the fold. Three former four-star recruits (Cornell Powell, Diondre Overton and T.J. Chase) were forced to wait in the wings as true freshmen. The 2017 recruiting class is also expected to net two of the top wideouts in the country, including 6-foot-4 potential star Tee Higgins.
When you recruit like Clemson, breakout candidates are everywhere. Deon Cain is merely the frontrunner.
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Jacques Patrick & Co., Florida State running backs
Whoever gets the starting running back nod for Florida State will be filling the biggest shoes in the conference outside of Clemson, S.C. Dalvin Cook was virtually unstoppable when healthy during his collegiate career, tallying three straight 1,000-yard campaigns and 46 total touchdowns. Cook finished his three-year Florida State career with the second-most rushing yards and fourth-most rushing touchdowns in ACC history, and now he’s projected to be the No. 1 running back off the draft board.
With an overload of talented young running backs and rising sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois, Jimbo Fisher’s offense still features plenty of explosiveness in the backfield. As a sophomore, Jacques Patrick was efficient in his limited attempts, gaining 5.74 yards per carry on 61 attempts. Standing 6-foot-2, there are concerns about him running too high, but he’s the most experienced option on the roster to date.
There will be competition, though. Rising sophomore Amir Rasul will push for playing time. The Seminoles' recruiting haul also claims three of the premier backs in the 2017 class at the moment: Cam Akers, Khalan Laborn and Zaquandre White. Akers, who is in the conversation for the nation's top overall recruit, is already on campus and could challenge for the starting job right away. If Laborn and White stick to their commitments, there will be more talent than available carries. That's a good problem to have.
For now, know this: Florida State will miss Dalvin Cook, but every other team in the conference envies its replacement options.
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Cam Phillips, Virginia Tech receiver
Justin Fuente’s offense, coupled with longtime stalwart Bud Foster’s defense, was an immediate revelation in Blacksburg, propelling the Hokies to 10 wins and the ACC title game behind a JUCO transfer at quarterback. Virginia Tech finished 33rd nationally in scoring (a jump of four points per game from 2015) and appeared poised to replicate the feat in 2017.
Then productive quarterback Jerod Evans followed his best targets, Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, into the NFL draft, and the Hokies’ offense is re-starting from square one.
Well, almost square one. Cam Phillips returns as one of the most reliable receiving options in the ACC. After two seasons of 40-plus catches, the 6-foot-1 wideout’s breakout arrived this past season, hauling in 76 passes for 983 yards and five touchdowns. He was a welcome complement to Ford, the school’s all-time leading receiver, and now he’ll have the opportunity to step into the spotlight — and perhaps challenge for Ford's career records.
The Hokies still need to settle their quarterback situation, of course, but Phillips’ targets should take a leap next season.
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Next North Carolina Quarterback
Larry Fedora’s offense is practically recession-proof. In each of his five seasons in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have scored at least 32 points per game with three different quarterbacks and a rotating cast of playmakers. Such proficiency will be challenged yet again as quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the potential No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and running back Elijah Hood opted to leave early along with senior standouts Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins.
North Carolina has recruited like a top-30 program nationally under Fedora, so skill-position standouts can be expected to surface over time. But the quarterback position remains a question mark in the post-Trubisky era, perhaps the biggest unknown behind center Fedora has faced to date.
Chazz Surratt, a 6-foot-3 dual-threat quarterback and the program’s top-rated recruit in the 2016 class, is the player to watch. Surratt has yet to throw a collegiate pass after redshirting this past season. Two former three-star recruits, Nathan Elliot and Logan Byrd, are also on the roster.
Still, every full-time starting quarterback under Fedora at North Carolina has thrown for at least 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns. Even if the offense takes a step back — a definitive possibility considering former options Bryn Renner, Marquise Williams and Trubisky entered the starting job with much more experience — there’s a decent chance that a productive campaign is in the cards for Surratt if he wins the job in camp.
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Ahmmon Richards, Miami receiver
In his first full offseason as Miami’s head coach, Mark Richt will need to replace the most productive quarterback in program history, a running back with 2,000 career rushing yards and one of the top tight ends in the country. And that’s just the NFL early entries.
Senior wide receiver Stacy Coley is also off the table for an explosive Hurricanes offense, leaving a young and inexperienced group behind. Richt’s program will undoubtedly lean on its (potentially) dominant defense next season, but one name to keep an eye on is Ahmmon Richards.
The Freshman All-American led all first-year players with 71.8 receiving yards per game in 2016, eventually posting three consecutive 100-yard games against Pittsburgh, Virginia and NC State. In the bowl game against West Virginia, the 6-foot-2 speedster served as his team's spark plug. If he keeps developing and Miami finds a dependable answer at quarterback, Richards could put himself into the conversation as one of the top receivers in college football.