Immediate Returns: 6 ACC freshmen to watch in 2017

Featuring returning talent to spare, it was a quiet year for freshmen in the Atlantic Coast Conference, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Only three first-year players ranked in the league’s top-10 in passing, rushing or receiving yards: Miami wideout Ahmmon Richards and quarterbacks Deondre Francois (Florida State) and Daniel Jones (Duke). In total, Richards was the only freshman to receive All-ACC mention on offense.

The narrative was slightly different on the defensive end.

Superstar freshman tackle Dexter Lawrence, a consensus top-five player in the 2016 class, immediately stepped in and complemented a Clemson defensive line that helped the Tigers win a national championship. Alongside Lawrence, safety Jessie Bates III (Wake Forest) earned second-team All-ACC mention and Miami featured an impressive all-frosh linebacking corps led by Shaquille Quarterman.

The tables could turn in 2017. Here are six incoming freshman who could make an immediate difference this fall.

Cam Akers, Running Back, Florida State

In the wake of losing one of the best running backs in ACC history in potential first-round pick Dalvin Cook, Florida State will be searching for answers behind Francois this spring. Fortunately for Jimbo Fisher’s staff, the program boasts depth that every other program — excluding Alabama, maybe — would bend over backwards for. Cam Akers is the crown jewel of the group. A consensus top-10 recruit, Akers is a prototypical feature back, clocking in at 5-foot-11, 213 pounds with an every-down skill set.

There will be competition in the form of returning back Jacques Patrick, a four-star back out of the 2015 class, and fellow signees Khalan Laborn and Zaquandre White. No other recruiting class featured the talent level Florida State reeled in on Wednesday, but Akers is the one to watch. Fisher has not shied away from featuring freshman running backs in recent years — both Cook and Devonta Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing in their first seasons. Akers could be next in line.

“Backs realize that there’s different roles. You can play two at a time,” Fisher said of his three running back recruits. “ … Great players don’t care. I’ve never been around a great player that I’ve ever recruited that worried about the depth chart. They know they’re great players and they know they’re going to play.”

Tee Higgins, Wide Receiver, Clemson

The national champion Tigers lost three of their top four receivers in Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett and Artavis Scott. But Tee Higgins, the nation’s No. 2-rated receiver, could be the next Mike Williams. The 6-foot-5 product of Oak Ridge, Tenn., fits the mold of a redzone target capable of high-pointing the football and challenging corners downfield. Of course, immediately filling the shoes of a 1,300-yard receiver without Deshaun Watson at quarterback will not be simple, but Clemson has a well-established track record of churning out top receivers from Williams to Sammy Watkins to DeAndre Hopkins.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney seems to think he’s found another one.

“Mike Williams just walked out the door. Here’s a 6-5 guy that we’ve had in camp,” Swinney said of Higgins when asked about instant-impact recruits. “We have a good working knowledge of (him) as far as the skill set.”

Playing time will not be handed to Higgins. The Tigers return Deon Cain, a former five-star recruit in his own right who should step into the No. 1 role, title-game hero Hunter Renfrow and a host of former bona fide signees waiting in the wings: Cornell Powell, Diondre Overton and T.J. Chase. Clemson also signed another four-star talent in 5-foot-9 speedster Amari Rodgers, but Higgins looks the part of a future No. 1.

Colin Wilson, Running Back, Louisville

There are limits to what do-it-all Heisman winners can accomplish as solo acts. Lamar Jackson will need help next season.

The Cardinals lost their top three receivers — James Quick, Jamari Staples and tight end Cole Hikutini — and running back Brandon Radcliff (903 yards) to graduation this offseason. Enter Colin Wilson, one of the top recruits of Bobby Petrino’s second tenure at Louisville. A 6-foot-1 athlete who ran for more than 3,900 yards in high school, Wilson could step in as the feature back on Day 1, something the program has not seen since Victor Anderson eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2008.

“Earlier in the year, you could see he was getting better,” Petrino said. “He’s explosive. He’s powerful. He can catch the ball with his hands away from his body. Everything that we ask our running backs to do he can do. I think he has a chance to really help us.”

Devon Hunter, Safety, Virginia Tech

This much is clear: Devon Hunter arrives in Blacksburg as one of Virginia Tech’s top recruits in years. Per 247’s composite score, Hunter is the school’s highest-rated incoming freshman since Kendall Fuller — a legacy signee at defensive back who eventually became a third-round draft pick — committed in the 2013 class.

As senior safety Chuck Clark moves on, Hunter will have a chance to compete for instant playing time — something Justin Fuente’s coaching staff believes he is capable of.

“Just a dynamic football player,” Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster said of his new 6-foot-1, 205-pound safety. “He’s a guy we’re counting on to be an impact football player right way at one of our safety spots. He’s a big, physical kid. He’s already ahead of the game physically.”

DeeJay Dallas, Wide Receiver, Miami

The Hurricanes’ passing game will look dramatically different in Year 2 under Mark Richt. Record-breaking quarterback Brad Kaaya is turning pro alongside one of the nation’s best tight ends, David Njoku. Senior wideout Stacy Coley (754 yards, nine touchdowns) is also graduating.

Miami coaches believe DeeJay Dallas, a 5-foot-10 early enrollee out of Brunswick, Ga., will start right away. Quarterback is the most pressing need for the program, but somebody will need to draw attention away from Richards, who is poised to stake his claim as one of the nation’s best receivers in 2017 — or punish opponents that place too much attention on the rising sophomore. Dallas could be the beneficiary.

“He’s so versatile, he can really probably play three different positions for this team. We did need speed. We know Ahmmon can really run on the edge, and we have some other guys in the program that run well,” Richt said on Wednesday. “If you have a super fast guy on this side of the field and you don’t have much speed to balance it, then guess what? The defense starts to tilt towards the speed and all of a sudden you get guys double-covered and all that.”

Marvin Wilson, Defensive Tackle, Florida State

In the same vein as Lawrence, Houston’s Ed Oliver and Michigan’s Rashan Gary in the 2016 class, Marvin Wilson is a premier lineman who could help the Seminoles immediately. The nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle was the nation’s biggest Signing Day commitment and, though it will be extremely difficult to follow in the footsteps of last year’s class, he can help a unit that loses All-American end DeMarcus Walker.

Florida State was already stingy against the run (3.64 yards per carry, 22nd nationally) with Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi in the middle, but if Wilson delivers on his promise he should see playing time for a possible national title contender.