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True freshmen making big noise in ACC

There's a group message including 16 or 17 of the top quarterbacks in last year's signing class, Miami's Brad Kaaya said, and he chimes in once or twice a week to join the discussion.

They'll talk a little trash, commiserate over tough practices and occasionally, Kaaya said, joke about the ugliness of another team's uniforms. As the 2014 season has progressed, however, the QBs -- along with a host of other top freshmen, particularly in the ACC -- have had a lot of game film to discuss.

Kaaya is one of five true freshman quarterbacks to start games in the ACC this season, and throughout the conference, the Class of 2014 is making an instant impact. From Virginia Tech, where freshmen have ruled the offense, to Florida State, where the newcomers are playing key roles in a title defense, there's a massive youth movement going on around the league.

"Guys are coming in at all positions being prepared a lot earlier," said Kaaya, who leads the ACC in touchdown passes, yards per attempt and passing efficiency. "A lot of the high school offenses around the country are really benefiting quarterbacks. A lot of coaches are starting to adopt a lot of spread formations and pass, pass, pass. That's really preparing guys for college a lot more."

Prepared or not, the QBs have been thrown into the deep end this season.

Kaaya has started every game for Miami. John Wolford has done the same at Wake Forest and been the recipient of the highest sack rate in the country to boot. Reggie Bonnafon is now the starter at Louisville, AJ Long had his shot at Syracuse before getting hurt and this week Deshaun Watson returns from a broken finger to helm the Clemson offense. After nearly upending FSU and throwing six touchdown passes against North Carolina a week later, Watson quickly established himself as one of the most prominent members of the Class of 2014.

"He's to the nth degree of what you want in a quarterback," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's a great player, very talented, but he's smart, a natural leader, very humble, he's a giver, he's confident, great instincts. He's got everything."

But it doesn't stop with the quarterbacks.

Six of the top 25 receivers in the ACC are true freshmen. Five of the top 15 rushers are from the Class of 2014. The conference's leading tackler arrived on Virginia's campus just six months ago.

Wolford's top target at Wake Forest is freshman tight end Cam Serigne. Jameis Winston has quickly developed trust in freshman Travis Rudolph as a capable complement to star Rashad Greene. Jon Hilliman's 11 touchdown runs for Boston College rank second in the league -- the most by a true freshman in the ACC in more than a decade.

It's a tribute, in part, to all the young talent entering the league. Of the ACC's top 27 signees from 2014, 22 have seen the field this year -- including 10 of the top 11.

"I just think you see the level of play at every level evolving," said Bo Hines, an early enrollee this spring who starred in the spring game for NC State before emerging as the Wolfpack's most reliable receiver. "Players at high school are becoming more gifted from working out or coaching. I just think you see a closer playing field once you get to the next level."

The transition may not be as steep, but it still takes work and patience.

Before the season began, Frank Beamer was giddy over the impact his 2014 signing class could provide -- in particular, a tandem of receivers with a bright future. It wasn't necessarily clear that future would start immediately, given that Virginia Tech returned three receivers with at least 700 yards from last season, but Isaiah Ford had no doubts he'd be an impact player from Day 1.

Last spring and over the summer, Ford worked with his high school coaches on strength training, conditioning, route running and any other skills he thought needed refining to play with the big boys at the next level. By the time he got to Blacksburg, he was already comfortable with what Virginia Tech's coaches wanted to see from him.

"One of the biggest things coming in is I knew that's what I wanted to do so I prepared myself all summer," Ford said. "So when I stepped on the field for the first day, I had every intention of playing right away."

Ford leads the Hokies with 41 catches, 522 yards and five touchdowns this year, but his fellow true freshman Cam Phillips has been nearly as good. Overall, 60 percent of Virginia Tech's receiving yards and 67 percent of its rushing yards have come from either redshirt or true freshmen.

But as physically fit as the group arrived, Beamer said the key is that the kids are smart, too.

"I think that goes hand in hand with being able to play early and play at a high level," Beamer said.

It's also about earning respect quickly. Mistakes are inevitable, Ford said, but having a patient coaching staff and a strong work ethic goes a long way.

For Kaaya, it's a little different. By virtue of his position, he's expected to command a huddle, but that's not always easy when the guys around him have been through a lot more battles.

"I'm a freshman who just got here and hasn't proved himself. There are guys in the huddle who have kids and are married and are five years older than me," Kaaya said. "So for me, it was just working hard, showing guys I'm a hard worker, practicing well and making good decisions."

So far, that hasn't been nearly as big a problem as fans might have expected for Kaaya or a host of his fellow newcomers.

It's a credit to the quality of talent entering the ACC, but also to the players making the most of their opportunities, Hines said. Playing time is easier to win for true freshmen these days, but it's not won with talent alone.

"My goal was to be the most reliable guy on the field," Hines said. "You want to be the guy that they want to throw to on third down or clutch situations during the game, and I've always worked on being that guy."