ACC survives NFL Draft's early entry trend
As the Jan. 15 deadline passed, only six ACC players with eligibility remaining had entered their names in the NFL draft.
That is a far cry from the 32 leaving SEC programs early, and more in tune with the rest of the nation’s power conferences. For the ACC, however, the most important player that could have gone pro stayed, and Clemson may contend for a national title with Tajh Boyd back for his senior season at quarterback.
Florida State, however, lost three players early, including defensive end Bjoern Werner, and will feel the effects of those departures as well as the many seniors leaving the program. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes and offensive lineman Melenik Watson joined Werner in departing early.
Clemson, which finished this past season 11-2 and ranked No. 11, did feel the bite of the draft’s lure, as prolific wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins entered his name last week. North Carolina (Gio Bernard) and N.C. State (David Amerson) are also losing players early.
In addition, ACC newcomer (in July) Syracuse lost offensive tackle Justin Pugh to the draft. Otherwise, the other eight current ACC schools and Pittsburgh, which becomes a member along with Syracuse, didn’t lose anyone.
Werner’s departure is probably the biggest blow to any team. Florida State will be very young and inexperienced at defensive end next season after losing its top three players at the position, including Brandon Jenkins, who was injured in September and opted not to redshirt.
A native of Germany, Werner had 42 tackles, 18 for a loss of yardage, 13 of which were sacks. He also broke up eight passes and notched five quarterback hurries.
UNC has talent on hand to replace Bernard, who amassed 1,228 rushing yards for 12 touchdowns along with 47 receptions for 490 yards and five scores. He also had two punt returns for touchdowns. Those numbers all came despite logging just 29 carries through North Carolina’s first five games because of injuries. But rarely does a program welcome such a talent, and Bernard may have been one of the best skill guys in UNC history.
Hopkins had an incredible junior season, grabbing 82 passes for 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was particularly huge for the Tigers with Sammy Watkins only an intermittent participant for a variety of reasons. But Clemson will have Watkins back next season and should be fine. Boyd is that good, and could post record-setting numbers, surpassing the school marks he set the last two seasons.
Hoping to find himself right on Boyd’s heels is Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, who announced Tuesday he’s returning for his senior campaign. To some, that Thomas even made an announcement was a surprise given his rather pedestrian numbers.
The top quarterback in the junior class, according to some gurus, and in the top six on most boards, Thomas completed just 51.3 percent of his pass attempts for 2,976 yards and 18 touchdowns to go against an alarming 16 interceptions. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, Thomas is still compared to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, so maybe he will hit on his potential next season, which could mean a complete turnaround for a Hokies team that went 7-6 this past fall.
FSU could have lost more players, but safety Lamarcus Joyner and linebacker Christian Jones are returning to provide needed experience and leadership to the Seminoles’ defense. Offensive lineman Bryan Stork, who has proven he can play either guard spot and also play tackle, should anchor a talented line for the defending ACC champions.
Losing just six players was another of several positives to meet the ACC since the regular season ended. The league held on to all of the head coaches that weren’t fired, it went 4-2 in bowl games, including Georgia Tech’s win over Southern Cal, Clemson’s over LSU and FSU’s Orange Bowl victory. And now most of the league’s star underclassmen will be back next fall to help the conference take another step forward.
The following are the top underclassmen in the ACC that chose to return to school:
-- Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
-- Brandon Thomas, OT, Clemson
-- Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
-- Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech
-- Jack Tyler, LB, Virginia Tech
-- James Hurst, OT, North Carolina
-- Kareem Martin, DT, North Carolina
-- Lamarcus Joyner, S, Florida State
-- Christian Jones, LB, Florida State
-- Bryan Stork, C, Florida State
-- Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami
-- Jeremiah Attaochu, LB. Georgia Tech
-- Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB, Boston College