Starring roles? ACC still has plenty of depth at QB

Mark Richt dodged plenty of questions about his quarterback situation last week, insisting four players still have a chance at the job. And he’s eager to see each of them take reps when camp opens. Still, the mystery looms large. Miami is the pick to win the ACC Coastal, and certainly the surrounding talent appears good enough to do just that.

Then Richt was posed another fair question about QBs. Does his mystery at Miami mean as much given similar status at Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Virginia Tech? Isn’t the Coastal simply one big QB question mark?

"Well," Richt said, "Duke’s got a pretty good one."

And there’s the tricky thing about taking quarterbacks in the ACC this year. Sure, Clemson and Miami, Virginia Tech and UNC are all replacing stars at the position. But dig a little deeper down the standings from 2016 and it’s still pretty easy to find talented QBs in the league.

That “good one” at Duke is Daniel Jones, who was a last-minute addition to the Blue Devils’ starting lineup after incumbent Thomas Sirk went down with an injury in fall camp last season. The beginning of Jones’ redshirt freshman campaign was a mixed bag, but over the second half of the season, he completed 63 percent of his throws, accounted for 13 touchdowns and just one turnover and posted an adjusted QBR of 77.6 -- better than Lamar Jackson, Jerod Evans and Brad Kaaya during that same stretch. And according to his head coach, Jones has only gotten better since then.

"He’s physically different," David Cutcliffe said. "He is stronger, I believe faster, knowledge, X's and O's. All of that's better."

If Jones’ rapid development was a bit lost in the shuffle last year, Syracuse QB Eric Dungey might be working even more under the radar.

Injuries derailed Dungey’s season the past two years, but despite working in two completely different systems, he’s completed 63 percent of his throws and accounted for 37 touchdowns in just 16 career starts. In coach Dino Babers’ high-flying offense this year, his stat line could explode. In fact, just combine the numbers of Dungey and his backup, Zack Mahoney, from 2016 and you’ll get a line (31 touchdowns, 3,962 yards, 15 turnovers) that pretty closely resembles that of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (3,774/36/14).

"I’ve put on about 20 pounds since last season, so I'm finally at a playing weight that I'm comfortable with," Dungey said. "Staying healthy, it's obviously important. That's the most important thing, is getting reps in this offense."

At NC State, Ryan Finley is toiling comfortably in the shadows, too.

In his first season after transferring in from Boise State, Finley accounted for 19 touchdowns, nine turnovers, 41 plays of 20 yards or more and 7.6 yards per attempt. Those numbers mirror Nathan Peterman's 2015 campaign at Pitt, after transferring from Tennessee, in which he posted 21 touchdowns, nine turnovers, 40 plays of 20 yards or more and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt. In Year 2, Peterman blossomed into a star, and Finley certainly has the weapons around him to do the same this season.

Add in Jackson, the defending Heisman winner, and Florida State’s Deondre Francois, and that’s already a pretty solid set of quarterbacks before even considering the long list of newcomers eager to win a job. Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson, Miami’s N’Kosi Perry and Clemson’s Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper were all ESPN300 recruits, and Pitt’s Max Browne and North Carolina's Brandon Harris were two of the highest-profile transfers this offseason.

So, yes, last season might have been the Year of the Quarterback in the ACC, but the step back in 2017 might not be as big as most observers think. It’s just that the names and locations will look a bit different.

“Look around,” Dungey said. “Then there’s going to be new guys emerging. It’s the league we play in. It’s the best conference in college football.”