The ACC may have lost its most talked-about attraction: Heisman-winning QB Jameis Winston, who chose to leave Florida State and declare for the 2015 NFL draft. Luckily, though, the league will welcome back plenty of established big-name stars such as Pitt WR Tyler Boyd, Virginia Tech CB Kendall Fuller, Florida State S Jalen Ramsey and Pitt RB James Conner.
The conference is also home to some intriguing young up-and-coming players who look like they’re primed to become some of the ACC’s premier performers in 2015.
Here’s a look at five players who appear destined to be apart of the conference’s next wave of breakout stars.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
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.
Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
As a unit, the Virginia Tech offense wasn’t all that inspiring in 2014, ranking 12th in the ACC in both scoring offense and total offense and averaging less than five yards per play.
One of the lone bright spots of the otherwise lackluster offense was WR Isaiah Ford.
As just a true freshman, Ford proved that he had the ability to be a game-changing playmaker for the Hokies. The speedy 6’1’’, 174-pound pass-catcher totaled 56 catches for 709 yards and six touchdowns in his debut campaign. His 37 receptions of 10 yards or more was the fifth most in the ACC.
If he can get more consistent play from the quarterback position, Ford has the chance to be one of the most productive receivers in not just the ACC, but the entire country in 2015.
DeVon Edwards, S, Duke
Jeremy Cash was the Duke safety who earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2014. However, it was actually fellow safety DeVon Edwards who was the most productive tackler in the the Blue Devil defensive backfield.
Edwards ranked second overall in the ACC with 133 tackles, which included 77 solo stops, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also broke up nine passes and forced five fumbles.
As if his efforts on defense weren’t enough, the 5’9’’, 175-pound junior was also one of the top kick returners in the conference, ranking fourth in the ACC with a 25.7 yards per return average.
With both Edwards and Cash returning to lead the way in the back end of the defense, Duke’s normally soft secondary should emerge as one of the top defensive backfields in the ACC in 2015.
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Miami has a rich tradition of producing outstanding running backs such as Lamar Miller, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James. However, the Canes’ latest star rusher—Duke Johnson—turned out to be the most prolific and productive back in school history.
Johnson—who ran for 3,519 yards and 26 touchdowns during his three-year collegiate career—has left some big shoes to fill in the Miami backfield. Luckily, the offense will be able to turn to Joseph Yearby, a talented young sophomore who is loaded with potential.
After an outstanding career at Miami Central High School, the former 4-star recruit made the short trip to Coral Gables last offseason, and quickly showed coaches that he was ready to be a key offensive contributor.
Though he had to take a backseat and defer most of the carries to Johnson, Yearby still managed to show what he was capable of. He carried the ball just 86 times, yet he still managed to rush for over 500 yards, as he averaged nearly six yards per carry.
Now that Johnson is gone, Yearby will have the chance to prove that he has what it takes to be the program’s next great running back. The 5’9’’, 192-pound Miami native will team with fellow sophomore Brad Kaaya to give the Hurricanes one of the top quarterback-running back tandems in college football for the 2015 season.
Tarvarus McFadden, CB, Florida State
The battle to fill the hole left at the quarterback position following the departure of Heisman-winner Jameis Winston will be the main storyline in Tallahassee this offseason. However, the quarterback position is far from the only starting job that will be up for grabs.
The Seminole defense lost a host of key contributors from this past season, most notably DT Eddie Goldman, DE Mario Edwards Jr. and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. All four were underclassmen who opted to declare early for the draft.
Safety Jalen Ramsey, a first-team All-ACC performer in 2014, will return to anchor the secondary. Obviously, though, the defensive backfield has been diminished by the loss of both starting cornerbacks.
Luckily, Florida State signed two of the premier blue-chip defensive back prospects in the 2015 recruiting class: 5-star safety Derwin James and 5-star CB Tarvarus McFadden. Both James and McFadden should be instant impact players, but McFadden will be the one with the better chance to earn a starting job right away in his first season.
The 6’2’’, 198-pound corner from Fort Lauderdale has the rare size-speed combination combined with elite coverage skills to develop into shutdown cornerback.
Being thrown right into the heat of battle can be a scary proposition for some incoming freshman, but McFadden is confident that he can handle the challenge.