With fall camps up and running around the league, there’s ample optimism among ACC teams about the season to come. But there are still big questions, too, which means some key players are under the microscope. With that in mind, we’re looking at each team’s biggest wild card: the guy who might be the difference between a big season and bitter disappointment.
First up, the Atlantic Division.
Boston College: QB Anthony Brown
It isn't exactly breaking ground to suggest that BC needs to find a quarterback. That has been par for the course since Steve Addazio arrived five years ago, and the past two seasons, the Eagles rank 64th out of 65 Power 5 teams in completion percentage (49.9%) and passing TDs (22) and 63rd in Total QBR (37.9). Brown seems like the best option, simply based on upside, but an even bigger perk to his winning the job would be that it might secure the position for the Eagles for the foreseeable future. If Brown wins the job, he’d be Addazio’s eighth starting QB.
Clemson: RB Tavien Feaster
Sure, the focus is all on the quarterbacks, but here are two key facts worth remembering: 1. No QB is going to be Deshaun Watson. Yes, production might vary from Kelly Bryant to Hunter Johnson, but neither will be reaching the epic highs Watson produced last season. 2. Even with Watson running the show, the running game was hardly a success last season. On non-QB runs, the Tigers averaged just 4.77 yards per carry, 45th in the Power 5. Now someone needs to fill the void left by Wayne Gallman, and the struggles after his concussion against NC State last season didn’t offer a rosy outlook. Feaster is the guy with the most upside, and coaches have raved about his more refined skill set this offseason.
Florida State: LT Rick Leonard
It is somewhat of a surprise that Jimbo Fisher already effectively announced Leonard as his starting left tackle, but it's a good sign that the FSU coach is comfortable with the progress Leonard has made. If the senior can hold down the left tackle job full-time, it opens real options across the rest of the line, particularly at the right tackle spot, where Derrick Kelly has gotten first-team reps and Josh Ball and Brock Ruble are also in the mix. Keeping Deondre Francois upright is the biggest wild card for FSU this season, and Leonard and the line will be tested early, with Alabama, Miami and NC State all up by Week 4.
Louisville: RB Reggie Bonnafon
The offensive line is the obvious question mark for Louisville, but there might also be a limited ceiling for that group’s improvement in just one season. Bonnafon, however, makes for a far more intriguing possibility. He moved from QB to receiver last season and mixed some highs (his red zone performance was spectacular) and lows (lots and lots of drops), enough that now he’ll shift to running back. His success could be huge for an offense that needs to find a steadying force in the backfield beyond Lamar Jackson, and his versatility as a passer, runner and receiver makes him a unique weapon. Could Bonnafon become a Quadree Henderson-type of player? The tools are there, so it’s just a matter of refining that talent and identifying the right role.
NC State: CB Nick McCloud
Yes, NC State should be very good up front on defense this year. But the back end? Well, that’s a bigger question after three of last year’s starters departed. McCloud looks to be the option to step in for Jack Tocho at corner, and his ceiling is high. He got a start last year against Vanderbilt in NC State’s bowl game, and he was one of just two true freshmen to see action on defense for the Wolfpack. With plenty of pressure coming up front, there should be opportunities for plays -- and as NC State learned against Florida State last year, someone needs to make them if the Wolfpack are going to compete for the division. (And, yes, we know a kicker would be nice, too.)
Syracuse: FS Antwan Cordy
How bad was Syracuse’s secondary last season? The Orange allowed 8.88 yards per pass (64th in Power 5) and saw 48 percent of deep balls (throws of 15-plus yards) completed (worst in Power 5), and when the defense didn’t blitz, Syracuse allowed more yards per pass than any other Power 5 team (9.23 per pass). Enter Cordy, who took a medical redshirt last season after breaking his arm in Week 2. He’s by far Syracuse’s best defensive back, and he fills a huge need at free safety. But is he enough to help erase all those ugly plays from a year ago? And is his return from injury a panacea or just a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud? Don’t forget, in that Week 2 game when he was hurt last season, Louisville put up 62 points and Lamar Jackson seized control of the Heisman race.
Wake Forest: QB Kendall Hinton
Hinton won the starting QB job midway through the 2015 season, and two weeks later, he was injured. He threw just 50 more passes the rest of the year. He won the job again two weeks into the 2016 season. Again, he got hurt immediately and didn’t play another down. Now, we enter 2017, and Hinton is again slated to be Wake’s starter. There’s a reason Dave Clawson believes in the young QB, but the question is whether Hinton can stay on the field. If he can, Wake’s offense can be more dynamic than it was a year ago, and with myriad veterans returning, the Demon Deacons have a chance to push even the better teams in the Atlantic.