Following the conclusion of the 2014 season, the ACC was forced to wave goodbye to many of its heralded big-name stars such as Jameis Winston, Duke Johnson, Vic Beasley, Nick O’Leary and Jamison Crowder.
The conference has lost a ton of great talent. Luckily, however, the league is stocked full of young rising stars who are ready to shine and take their place in the spotlight this fall.
Here’s a look at every ACC team’s most valuable player for the 2015 season.
Boston College Eagles: RB Jon Hilliman
In 2013, Andre Williams put together the greatest season by a Boston College running back ever, when he ran for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns.
It was obviously an unenviable task for any running back to try to follow that kind of historic performance, let alone a true freshman. Jon Hilliman proved, however, that he was ready to step into the big shoes left by Williams.
Hilliman may not have come close to Williams’ incredible rushing totals, but the former 4-star recruit from New Jersey still had a highly impressive debut. He showed he could be the team’s new workhorse back, as he carried the ball 211 times for 860 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
It certainly didn’t take long for the Eagles to find the long-term replacement for their record-setting rusher.
Clemson Tigers: QB Deshaun Watson
Last offseason, the Clemson coaching staff faced the challenge of trying to replace three-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd, a player who had been an experienced veteran presence behind center.
Initially, head coach Dabo Swinney chose senior Cole Stoudt to be Boyd’s replacement during spring practice. Swinney even definitively stuck behind Stoudt after the team’s season-opening blowout loss to Georgia.
Soon enough, however, it became clear that Stoudt was not the answer. Instead, the best option was really Deshaun Watson, a former blue-chip 5-star recruit from Georgia.
The dynamic dual-threat freshman ended up providing the much-needed spark the Tigers offense needed, as he very nearly led the team to an upset win over Florida State during a valiant relief appearance.
Unfortunately, injuries derailed what was shaping up to be a dazzling debut season and he ended up playing in just eight games. Still, when Watson was healthy, he was truly one of the most exciting quarterbacks in all of college football.
He’ll enter his second year as one of the sport’s must-watch signal-callers.
Duke Blue Devils: S/KR DeVon Edwards
This past season, DeVon Edwards proved to be a versatile playmaker for both Duke’s defense and the team’s special teams.
The 5’9’’, 175-pound safety finished the season with a whopping 133 total tackles, including 77 solo stops, 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. It was a total that tied for 12th most nationally and the second most in the ACC. Edwards also had nine pass breakups and five forced fumbles.
Not only was the junior a defensive difference-maker, he was also one of the top kick returners in the country. His 25.6 yards per kick return average ranked 21st nationally.
Duke’s pass defense has shown steady improvement since the ball-hawking safety entered the fold back in 2013. With Edwards, Jeremy Cash, Byron Fields, Deondre Singleton and Breon Borders all returning, the Blue Devils will have their best secondary of the David Cutcliffe era in 2015.
Florida State Seminoles: RB Dalvin Cook
Dalvin Cook rushed for 103 yards on just 15 carries in Florida State’s semifinal loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. However, it’ was Cook’s two crucial, costly fumbles in the third quarter that everyone remembers from that game.
It was a disappointing end to what was otherwise a spectacular season for the young Seminole rusher.
After arriving in Tallahassee last summer as a heralded 5-star recruit from Miami, Cook quickly proved that his high school hype was indeed legit. He was one of just three running backs in the ACC to top the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2014.
Now that key veteran offensive skill players such as QB Jameis Winston, RB Karlos Williams, WR Rashad Greene and TE Nick O’Leary have all departed, it will be up to Cook to step up and put the Florida State offense on his back in 2015.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: QB Justin Thomas
Paul Johnson’s run-heavy flexbone triple-option offense doesn’t need superstar quarterbacks in order to be effective. All the system needs to run smoothly is a signal-caller who is a decisive decision-maker.
This past season, Justin Thomas proved that he had the necessary traits and the skills to thrive in the role.
In his first season as a starter, Thomas proved to be the stable offensive leader the Yellow Jackets needed. He led the team to an 11-3 record and an ACC Coastal division title.
Although the 5’11’’, 189-pound junior didn’t have much of a chance to show off his passing skills, when the opportunity did arise, he impressed, averaging over nine yards per throw and tossing 18 touchdown strikes.
Now that Thomas has a year of experience running Johnson’s offense, he should be even more efficient and productive in 2015.
Louisville Cardinals: DE Sheldon Rankins
Back in 2013, Sheldon Rankins had to take a backseat to the defensive end duo of Marcus Smith and Lorenzo Mauldin. Once Smith moved on to the NFL, though, it opened up a spot for Rankins to step in and prove himself in 2014.
The 6’2’’, 305-pound senior made the most of the opportunity, as he flourished in the team’s new look 3-4 defense. Rankins totaled 53 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, and he even picked off two passes.
In the team’s inaugural season in the ACC, Louisville ranked third in the conference in run defense thanks in large part to the contributions of Rankins. The powerful end will be counted on to eat up blockers and shut down opposing ball-carriers once again in 2015.
Miami Hurricanes: QB Brad Kaaya
Miami’s past two quarterbacks—Stephen Morris and Jacory Harris—both showed tremendous promise and potential early in their collegiate careers. Ultimately, however, neither of them ended up becoming the type of savior signal-caller that Hurricanes fans were hoping for.
The Miami faithful are once again putting their hopes into a young quarterback: Brad Kaaya. Only this time, it looks like the payoff will match the initial excitement.
As a freshman in 2014, Kaaya displayed all the skills it takes to develop into a special player. He threw for over 3,100 yards and 26 touchdowns and he showed off the kind of prodigious passing ability that helped make him a coveted 4-star recruit at Chaminade High School in California.
After going just 6-7 in his first season, the 6’4’’, 209-pound pro-style pocket-passer now has to prove that he can handle the spotlight, rise to the occasion and lead the Canes to victories over high-profile opponents in 2015.
North Carolina Tar Heels: QB Marquise Williams
Marquise Williams will miss North Carolina’s spring practice session with a hip injury. Fortunately, judging by Williams’ breakout performance in 2014, he should be just fine this fall, even without the few extra practices.
Williams has already cemented his status as one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. This past season, he threw for over 3,000 yards, rushed for 783 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns.
If the 6’2’’, 220-pound senior can get back to full health by the time the 2015 season starts, he should once again be one of the most feared playmakers in the conference.
NC State Wolfpack: QB Jacoby Brissett
After sitting out the 2013 season following a transfer from Florida, Jacoby Brissett made an immediate impact during his first season as a starter in Raleigh. The former Gator took control of the Wolfpack offense and proved to be a dynamic dual-threat playmaker. He threw for over 2,600 yards, rushed for over 500 yards and accounted for 26 total touchdowns while throwing just five interceptions.
The eight wins—including a victory in the St. Petersburg Bowl—that the Wolfpack accumulated during Brissett’s first season at the helm is an encouraging sign.
The former 4-star recruit from Florida has been able to revive and breathe new life into his collegiate career. Now it’s up to Brissett to show that he can beat the best opponents that the conference has to offer in 2015.
Pittsburgh Panthers: (Tie) RB James Conner and WR Tyler Boyd
New Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi may be a defensive-minded coach, but the two Panther players that Narduzzi has to be most excited about are actually on the offensive side of the ball.
RB James Conner and WR Tyler Boyd are two of the top playmakers in all of college football, and they’re both equally important to their team’s success.
This past season, Conner ranked seventh in the country with 1,765 rushing yards, while Boyd ranked 11th nationally with 1,261 receiving yards. The two players combined to account for 34 of Pitt’s 52 total touchdowns.
They will once again be the two key cornerstone players that the Panthers will build around in 2015.
Syracuse Orange: LB Zaire Franklin
Syracuse has to replace eight of its top 10 tacklers from the 2014 season, including future NFL Draft pick Durell Eskridge.
This will clearly be a rebuilding year on defense, but luckily, the Orange have a young up-and-coming potential leader that they can build around in LB Zaire Franklin.
As a freshman, Franklin ranked sixth on the team with 44 tackles, including 31 solo stops. The 6’0’’, 238-pound middle linebacker proved that he has the toughness, instincts and football IQ to develop into the centerpiece and linchpin of the defense for the future.
Syracuse hasn’t had a defender top 100 tackles since 2010, when Derrell Smith racked up 114 stops during his senior season. Franklin looks like a potential candidate to end that drought in 2015.
Virginia Cavaliers: FS Quin Blanding
You won’t find a 2014 Freshman All-American team that didn’t include Quin Blanding’s name. The FWAA, ESPN, Sporting News, USA Today and 247Sports were just some of the prominent media outlets that took notice of the standout performance that Blanding put together during his debut campaign and rewarded him with the honor he deserved as one of the top freshman of the 2014 season.
The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year instantly made a name for himself in the league, as he totaled 123 tackles, including 60 solo stops, and three interceptions.
The former blue-chip 5-star recruit from Virginia Beach turned out to be every bit as good as advertised.
The highly athletic 6’4’’, 215-pound sophomore is one of the most unique physical specimens in all of college football. When you combine Blanding’s rare size-speed ratio with his natural playmaking instincts the result is a safety that possesses true game-changing ability.
Virginia Tech Hokies: CB Kendall Fuller
The Fuller family has already produced two NFL Draft picks. Vincent Fuller was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL draft, and Kyle Fuller was selected by the Chicago Bears with the 14th overall pick in the 2014 draft.
It appears that Vincent and Kyle’s little brother Kendall is set to follow in his older siblings’ footsteps, considering he’s already developed into a coveted pro prospect.
After putting together a fantastic freshman campaign in 2013, this past season, Kendall got the chance to step out of his brother’s shadow and prove that he was just as good as Kyle.
The former ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year made the most of the spotlight, as he turned in a spectacular sophomore season. Fuller emerged as one of college football’s premier lockdown corners, earning first-team All-ACC honors along with numerous All-American accolades for his performance.
Throughout Frank Beamer’s tenure, Virginia Tech has been a defensive back factory, producing numerous standout stars in the secondary. The 6’0’’, 190-pound Fuller is the latest Hokie DB that has NFL scouts buzzing.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons: DT Tylor Harris
All it took was one highlight play for Tylor Harris to show what kind of dominant impact interior force he can be. That play occurred against Louisville, when Harris stripped Cardinal QB Reggie Bonnafon, scooped up the ball in the end zone and scored the first touchdown of his career.
It was the type of momentum-swinging play that makes you wish Harris played for a better team that would have been able to better capitalize on his outstanding individual effort.
Unfortunately, the 6’4’’, 305-pound nose tackle plays for a disappointing Demon Deacon squad that has suffered through a losing season in each of his three years there.
Since he plays for such an off-the-radar team, Harris doesn’t get much national attention. But he’s still one of the fiercest run-stuffers in the ACC.