One of the biggest reasons the ACC had its best football season yet is an obvious one: quarterback play.
It became clear early on the league had the best top-level talent, confirmed now with the latest Mel Kiper Jr. position rankings headed into the 2017 NFL draft. Five ACC players are listed among the top 10: Mitch Trubisky (1), Deshaun Watson (3), Brad Kaaya (5), Jerod Evans (6) and Nate Peterman (7).
No other conference has more than one player ranked.
Four players are underclassmen, making the pain of their departures more acute. Some players brought flash and immediate victories as short-term starters; others brought a longevity that is often hard to find. Watson, Kaaya and Peterman started for multiple seasons. So did Justin Thomas, who just finished his Georgia Tech career with 38 career starts (and two wins over Georgia).
In all, seven ACC teams have to replace their starting quarterbacks – more than a season ago. But that does not necessarily mean the league is about to embark on a down 2017. There should remain reason for optimism despite the heavy losses the league is taking at the marquee position on the field.
Why? For starters, the ACC returns two of the best quarterbacks in the country in Deondre Francois and Lamar Jackson. Remember Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner? Though his season ended with three straight losses, Jackson did win the Heisman. He did rush for more than 1,500 yards. He did pass for more than 3,000 yards. He rack up 51 touchdowns.
Francois won ACC Rookie of the Year honors, throwing for more than 3,000 yards himself despite getting hit more often than not. His status as an iron man earned him respect not only from teammates but opponents, too. With Francois back, many have pegged Florida State as a preseason College Football Playoff contender. So there’s that.
Eric Dungey reportedly is healthy at Syracuse, ready to resume a career that showed major promise under Dino Babers this past season. If he is able to play a full season, Dungey will throw for 3,000 yards and people across the country will sit up and take notice. Consider that one of the first “bold” predictions of 2017. Let’s also not forget Syracuse has a commit from ESPN 300 QB Tommy Devito.
Over at Duke, coach David Cutcliffe will have a decision to make between Thomas Sirk and Daniel Jones. Without question, Jones impressed observers this past season with his poise and potential as a redshirt freshman (2,836 yards, 16 TDs). Jones could very well be in line to become the best Duke quarterback Cutcliffe has coached.
Pitt has brought in former USC quarterback Max Browne, an ESPN 300 player in the class of 2013; Boston College believes it has its quarterback of the future in redshirt freshman Anthony Brown; NC State returns Ryan Finley, who quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards in 2016.
Here is another reason for hope: The reason ACC teams emerged with solid quarterbacks is because ACC teams have beaten their competitors on the recruiting trail. Francois, Watson and Jackson all chose their respective schools over SEC suitors; Kaaya over Pac-12 suitors.
Watson and Kaaya arguably leave the two biggest holes. To fill them, Clemson has one incoming ESPN 300 talent in Hunter Johnson, plus 2016 ESPN 300 quarterback Zerrick Cooper (along with Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel). Miami has ESPN 300 prospects of its own to turn to as well: Jack Allison (2016) and N’Kosi Perry (2017), plus incoming 2017 freshman Cade Weldon, set to compete with Malik Rosier, Evan Shirreffs and Vincent Testaverde Jr.
At the very least, there are options for both. North Carolina and Virginia Tech, then, are the teams that have the biggest concerns. Neither North Carolina nor Virginia Tech has a clear backup plan because they did not expect to change starting quarterbacks so quickly. The Hokies do have class of 2016 ESPN 300 QB Joshua Jackson, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if both schools ended up with a graduate transfer to shore up the position.
Without question, the league is losing incredibly talented players. But that alone shouldn’t send the ACC into a downward spiral. Not with the potential that remains.