New faces get plenty of hype this time of year, whether it’s a transfer QB like Everett Golson or a highly touted freshman like Mitch Hyatt. But some ACC contenders could get an even bigger impact from some old teammates who missed most of last season. With that in mind, here’s our list of the veterans returning from injuries who could make the biggest impact in 2015.
Deshaun Watson, QB/Clemson
Well, duh. At this point, saying Watson’s health is crucial for Clemson’s playoff push is like saying the crowd gets a little loud in Death Valley. But to be sure, having Watson on the field completely changes Clemson’s offensive attack. On deep balls last year, Watson had seven TDs, one interception and a QBR of 99.8. His replacement, Cole Stoudt, had two TDs, two INTs and a woeful 10.5 QBR.
Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech
The list of Hokies hoping to move from the training room to the playing field is a long one, including tailbacks Trey Edmunds and Marshawn Williams and defensive tackle Luther Maddy. All could be huge for Virginia Tech this season, but Facyson’s return might be the biggest. As a true freshman in 2013, he racked up five interceptions and eight pass breakups, and Virginia Tech allowed just 2.1 pass plays per game of 20 yards or more. With Facyson out last season, that rate nearly doubled. Perhaps as significantly, a healthy Facyson allows Bud Foster to use Chuck Clark’s versatility in the secondary.
Braxton Deaver, TE, Duke
The Blue Devils’ passing game took a major hit with the departures of Anthony Boone, Jamison Crowder and Isaac Blakeney, but Deaver’s return from a knee injury has Duke hoping it’s found an established target to help ease that transition. With Deaver sidelined last season, Duke had just 127 receiving yards by its tight ends -- 45th among Power 5 schools. A year earlier, Deaver was among the most productive TEs in the nation, racking up 46 catches for 600 yards, with the Blue Devils ranking as the 10th-most productive tight end group in the Power 5.
Kc McDermott, OT, Miami
McDermott got intermittent playing time as a true freshman to start the 2014 season, but a torn MCL against Duke in late September ended his season. It wasn’t a major blow to last year’s O-line, but his health could be a huge boost to this year’s unit, which must replace three starters, including All-ACC left tackle Ereck Flowers. Keeping QB Brad Kaaya on his feet and opening holes for what should be an explosive ground game are paramount, but Miami faces no bigger question mark than its offensive line. McDermott’s health and improvement in 2015 is paramount.
Nile Lawrence-Stample, DT, Florida State
It’s hard to pinpoint one major problem with Florida State’s defense last season because a lot went wrong. The loss of stars like Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith was huge. The injuries to the linebacking corps proved problematic. The secondary underperformed, and the freshmen didn’t emerge quite as quickly as coach Jimbo Fisher might’ve hoped. But for all of those concerns, the one glaring hole that should be able to be fixed this year is the return of Lawrence-Stample to the middle of the defensive line. He was set to fill Jernigan’s role in 2014, but tore a pectoral muscle in FSU’s third game and didn’t return. Not coincidentally, the Seminoles recorded a dismal 1.2 sacks per game (118th nationally) and allowed a half-yard more per rush than they had a year earlier.
Others to watch
Syracuse QB Terrel Hunt: The Orange had the second-worst offense in the nation after Hunt went down in early October last year.
Georgia Tech DL Jabari Hunt-Days: The Yellow Jackets needed a boost to their pass rush, and they’ll get it with Hunt-Days’ return from academic issues.
BC OL Harris Williams: The Eagles are reconfiguring their entire O-line, but getting Williams back from an ankle injury offers some stability to build around.
Pitt DE Ejuan Price: The lack of a pass rush was evident for the Panthers last year, and Price’s absence with a chest injury was a big contributor. He’ll be back to bolster Pat Narduzzi’s new-look D in 2015.