Jacques Patrick has the tough task of following in the footsteps of Florida State's all-time leading rusher
The ACC saw more than a dozen underclassmen declare for the upcoming NFL Draft, most of whom probably did not come as a surprise to their teammates and fans. Still, this is a league that was arguably the best in the nation in 2016, and it will be replacing players like a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and multiple 1,000-yard rushers — no easy feat to duplicate.
Who are the new names you should get to know for 2017, and what kind of shoes are they looking to fill? Here is a list of the 10 ACC faces that need to step up next season in light of their predecessors’ early draft departures.
Gone: Deshaun Watson, QB
What more needs to be said about Watson, who exits Clemson with a 32-3 record, three MVP awards over the four College Football Playoff games he played in, more than 11,000 yards of total offense and 115 touchdowns?
In: Kelly Bryant, rising junior
Dabo Swinney has said Bryant will enter spring atop the depth chart. Of course, it would be too much to ask Bryant to be the next Watson, and he’ll also face stiff competition for the job from Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson.
2. Florida State
Gone: Dalvin Cook, RB
Cook exits FSU as one of the best players in program history, and his Orange Bowl performance was a fitting finale. Cook rushed for 4,464 yards and 46 TDs in just three seasons, adding 935 receiving yards and two TD catches, often while playing hurt.
In: Jacques Patrick, rising junior
Patrick has rushed for 655 yards and nine TDs in reserve duty the past two seasons, but he — nor anyone else, for that matter — will likely not replicate what Cook was able to do. Elite tailback prospect Cam Akers has enrolled early and could figure into the picture from the start as well.
3. North Carolina
Gone: Mitch Trubisky, QB
Trubisky was a full-time starter for just one year, but he impressed enough to earn serious early consideration to be the top QB drafted in 2017, having thrown for 3,748 yards with 30 TDs and just six picks.
UNC returns four second-year players at QB, but none who have extensive experience: Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt, Logan Byrd and Manny Miles. Could the Tar Heels’ answer come via a graduate transfer, such as Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire?
Gone: Brad Kaaya, QB
This wasn’t too surprising, considering that Kaaya was a three-year starter, but his absence makes QB among the biggest question marks for a team that finally looks ready to make a run at an ACC Coastal Division title. Kaaya exits Coral Gables as the Hurricanes’ all-time leader in passing yards (9,968), completions (720) and attempts (1,188).
In: Malik Rosier, rising redshirt junior
The Canes have a handful of options here — including Jack Allison and incoming freshman N’Kosi Perry — but Rosier is the most experienced of the bunch, and will probably get the first chance to run Mark Richt’s offense.
5. Virginia Tech
Gone: Jerod Evans, QB
Evans was one of the biggest surprises of the ACC in 2016, leading the Hokies to a Coastal title and 10-win season behind 3,552 passing yards and 29 TDs and another 846 and 12 scores on the ground. The only bigger surprise may have been his decision to leave early, which means someone will have to grow up fast for Virginia Tech.
In: Josh Jackson, rising redshirt freshman
Jackson dang near won the job in fall camp before redshirting, but he’ll still have a crowded field to beat out come 2017, as Virginia Tech welcomes in A.J. Bush from Nebraska and Ryan Willis from Kansas.
Gone: Mike Williams, WR
Williams recovered from a broken neck suffered in Week 1 of 2015 to lead Clemson’s receiving corps this past season, catching 98 balls for 1,361 yards and 11 TDs. He was arguably the most dangerous red-zone threat in the country and he could very well be a first-round pick come this spring.
In: Deon Cain, rising junior
Fans are familiar with Cain, who has shown flashes of promise in his first two years but also managed to get suspended for the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma. With Williams and Artavis Scott both gone now, though, Cain may find himself as the Tigers’ No. 1 target, after a 2016 that saw him catch 38 passes for 724 yards and nine TDs.
7. North Carolina
Gone: Elijah Hood, RB
Hood rushed for 2,321 yards and 25 TDs over the past two seasons, and he declared after initially stating his intentions to return for his senior year. The combined loss of Hood and Mitch Trubisky gives the Heels plenty of backfield questions for 2017.
In: Jordon Brown, rising redshirt freshman
Simply enough, Brown is the only returning scholarship back from the 2016 roster, so the Heels need some reinforcements. Perhaps they’ll get some help from incoming recruit Michael Carter.
8. Virginia Tech
Gone: Bucky Hodges, TE
Hodges exits Virginia Tech as the school’s career leader among tight ends in catches (133), receiving yards (1,747) and TDs (20). The losses of Hodges, Jerod Evans and Isaiah Ford mean that offensive wizard Justin Fuente may have his work cut out for him in Year 2.
In: Chris Cunningham, rising redshirt sophomore
Cunningham caught six passes for 48 yards and four TDs in his first season of playing time, giving him the inside track to replace Hodges at the Hokies’ top tight end.
Gone: James Conner, RB
Conner became an inspiration this season after rushing for more than 1,000 yards and setting the ACC career TDs mark after beating cancer in the offseason. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year will be missed enormously in the Steel City, but the Panthers have loaded up on running backs in recent years.
In: Qadree Ollison, rising redshirt junior
Ollison was the ACC offensive rookie of the year in 2015 after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in place of Conner, who had missed most of that season with a knee injury. Ollison had just 127 yards in 2016, but with him, Chawntez Moss and Darrin Hall all returning, Pitt has several capable backs.
10. Florida State
Gone: Roderick Johnson, LT
Johnson is the reigning two-time winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given annually to the ACC’s top blocker. Losing him in addition to Dalvin Cook means a national title contender has huge holes to fill at two key positions.
In: Ethan Frith, rising junior; or Rick Leonard, rising senior
Frith was listed as Johnson’s backup this season, but with so many talented underclassmen across the FSU O-line, the race to replace Frith is still very much open-ended. Leonard, meanwhile, started at right tackle last season and could provide some veteran stability for Deondre Francois’ blind side.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.