With fall camps up and running around the league, there's ample optimism among ACC teams about the season to come. But there still are some 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.
On Tuesday, we looked at the Atlantic Division. On Wednesday, the Coastal.
Duke: S Jeremy McDuffie
Perhaps no player earned more praise this spring from head coach David Cutcliffe than McDuffie, a track star who has emerged as Duke's starting safety. McDuffie is a blazer, no doubt, but can he handle coverage? Can he make plays down the field? Can he keep opponents from going deep again and again? These are big questions for a defense that allowed nearly nine yards per pass last season (worst in the Power 5) and an astonishing 16.25 yards per completion, the worst rate by a Power 5 team since 2005.
Georgia Tech: DT Desmond Branch
The Yellow Jackets' offense should be fine, even without Justin Thomas at QB. The defense returns eight starters and looks solid, particularly on the back end. But the pass rush? Hoo boy, that's a big question. Even with veterans across the line a year ago, the Jackets ranked 117th in sack rate and were among the bottom half of the Power 5 in QB contact rate, pressure rate and stuffed just 14.2 percent of designed runs for a loss or no gain (62nd in Power 5). Now Ted Roof has to rebuild that line, and the options are limited, particularly on the interior. Branch has some upside though, turning in solid games as a reserve against Vanderbilt and in Georgia Tech's bowl win. If the D-line blossoms, particularly inside, the Jackets might have one of the better defenses in the league. If it doesn't? Things get a lot trickier.
Miami: QB N'Kosi Perry
This goes without saying, right? Perry is all most Miami fans want to talk about at the moment as the Hurricanes eye a Coastal Division title. So is Perry -- whom Mark Richt repeatedly has mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Ward -- worth the hype? It would be a lot to ask of any true freshman -- especially one who didn't enroll early -- to come in and flourish right away. But if Perry can be a weapon in the run game and make a few downfield passes each game, the rest of the talent on the roster should be good enough to keep the Hurricanes competitive. And if Perry does develop into something more? Well, now we're talking about a potentially special season in South Florida.
North Carolina: RB Jordon Brown
Who isn't a wild card on North Carolina's offense? If a player made any sort of a contribution last year, odds are he's gone now. That's particularly true in the backfield, where the Tar Heels lost their top three backs. Brown figures to be the best option -- he actually got some reps a year ago -- but is hardly a sure thing. His best competition comes from other smaller runners Michael Carter (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) and Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt (5-9, 185), which only further confuses the issue. The bottom line, however, is someone needs to emerge from the group to provide UNC with a consistent ground attack or it really won't matter if LSU transfer Brandon Harris fits in his new surroundings.
Pittsburgh: DE Dewayne Hendrix
Pitt allowed 2.5 yards per dropback when pressuring the QB last season, middle of the pack among Power 5 defenses. When it didn't get to the QB, things got markedly worse -- 8.2 yards per dropback, 55th in Power 5, including 24 of the 28 passing touchdowns the Panthers allowed. Remember, Ejuan Price graduated, Jeremiah Taleni and Rori Blair were dismissed, and Allen Edwards is the only returning player with more than one sack to his name last season. Enter Hendrix, who sat out 2015 after transferring from Tennessee and missed virtually all of last season following a Week 1 injury. Hendrix has ample talent, but after two years sidelined, can he disrupt opposing passing games the way that Price did? Pitt's defense was a disaster at times last season, and turning things around in 2017 will start with Hendrix making a real impact up front.
Virginia: The freshman running backs
The passing game at UVA looks surprisingly spry, but if the Cavaliers can't get a ground game going, it could be another long year. Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid (1,872 total yards, 14 touchdowns) both are gone, and the top running back remaining, Daniel Hamm, had just three carries last season. And it’s not as if the veteran group last season was strong. Virginia averaged just 113 yards per game rushing, good for 121st nationally. Freshmen Lamont Atkins and Jamari Peacock both enrolled early, and both will be necessary immediately. At 230 pounds, Peacock already projects as a solid replacement for Reid, but Atkins' role is a bigger question. He might be the most talented runner on the roster already, but needs to develop into a well-rounded player.
Virginia Tech: RB Travon McMillian
It's strange to pick one of the few offensive holdovers as a wild card, but how else to describe McMillian's career at Virginia Tech? The junior tailback has five career 100-yard games, all against Power 5 defenses, but he also has 12 career games with fewer than 40 yards rushing. After putting up 131 in a dominant win over Miami last season, McMillian had just 53 carries the rest of the year, averaging just four yards per rush. Last year, Virginia Tech ranked 121st nationally in rushing average on non-QB runs, and with the loss of QB Jerod Evans and receivers Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford, it's imperative the running game finds some consistency if the Hokies want to repeat as Coastal champs.