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Who does each ACC contender need to step up in 2013?
Despite what coaches have said at media days in the last two weeks, not all position battles and breakout players are equal. Some will be more pressing than others.
That’s why Athlon Sports is taking a look at what we’re calling “pivotal players.” We took a look at teams that are a piece or two away from a conference or division title and the players those teams need to perform in order to win big.
Last season in the ACC we tabbed Florida State offensive tackle Cameron Erving as a pivotal player to the Seminoles’ ACC title hopes. Erving didn’t earn All-ACC honors, but he started all season for the conference championship-winning Seminoles.
We also picked Clemson cornerback Bashaud Breeland as a pivotal player for the Tigers, who needed to improve play on the back end of the defense. Breeland struggled with injuries, and Clemson shows up here again looking for someone to step up in a leaky secondary.
In other words, a pivotal player can go either way and be the difference in a title-winning season.
Our criteria for pivotal players:
1. He plays for a conference or division contender.
2. He is an unproven commodity in some way.
3. He plays at a position his team needs to perform in order to win a division or conference title.
We begin our look at pivotal players with the ACC with other conferences to follow:
Anthony Chickillo, DE, Miami
Chickillo’s sophomore slump wasn’t the only reason the Hurricanes slipped in sacks (from 2 per game to 1.1) and tackles for a loss (from 6.2 to 4.4). His fellow starting end didn’t have a sack all season. Still, Miami needs Chickillo to return to his form from his freshman season to contend for an ACC title. The 6-4, 269-pound defensive end led Miami with four sacks last season, which is a pretty clear indictment of the Hurricanes’ pass rush. As the the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chickillo had eight tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2011.
Trey Edmunds, RB, Virginia Tech
Logan Thomas didn’t play like the first-round draft pick he was projected to be, but the Hokies’ running game didn’t produce last season, either. The 3.7 yards per carry was their worst since 2007. With Michael Holmes dismissed, Virginia Tech’s numbers at a position of weakness are already down. The redshirt freshman Edmunds could solidify the position if he can improve ball security. He’s shown nice potential, and he has the frame at 6-1, 215 pounds to take a pounding. That’s good news since projected starter J.C. Coleman stands at 5-8, 177 pounds.
Caleb Peterson, OG, North Carolina
Left guard Jonathan Cooper, the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft, was the Tar Heels’ top offensive player last season. He’ll be replaced by a redshirt freshman in Peterson on a team that has aspirations of reaching the ACC title game. A strength last season, the Heels’ offensive line returns only two starters (left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine). North Carolina has ample skill position talent, so Peterson’s development on the offensive line could be a key to the Heels’ success in the ACC.
Darius Robinson, CB, Clemson
Clemson’s pass defense was pressing issue before the 2012 season and never really got fixed, even though the Tigers went 11-2. Clemson allowed 7.3 yards per pass attempt (ninth in the ACC) and 23 touchdowns through the air (tied for eighth). Robinson missed the final six games last season, but he’ll be one of the Tigers’ DBs front and center in the opener against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. If Robinson can’t solidify the Clemson secondary, the Tigers have promising freshman Mackensie Alexander waiting in the wings.
Darren Waller, WR, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets would like to be able to take advantage of Vad Lee’s ability as a passer, but Georgia Tech needs a receiver to emerge. Waller has only eight career catches, but the 6-5, 228-pound receiver has a size and speed mix reminiscent of Damaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Expectations for the redshirt freshman Winston are already high for Winston, who is slated to be Florida State’s first rookie starting quarterback since Drew Weatherford in 2005. FSU’s skill talent on offense hasn’t been bad — the last two Seminoles starting quarterbacks were first-round draft picks — but the Noles haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn, a first-team All-ACC receiver since Craphonso Thorpe or a first-team All-ACC quarterback since Chris Weinke. That's a crazy drought for a Florida State team used to swimming in top talent. Winston, the freshman at quarterback from Hueytown (Ala.), is the key to Florida State’s long-term plans, but he’ll be put on the spot early when he tries to keep up with Clemson’s high-powered offense on the road on Oct. 19.