The ACC was hit hard by early departures as more than two dozen players declared for the 2018 NFL Draft. And while reigning conference champion Clemson wasn’t spared from this exodus, things could have been much worse for the Tigers.
Defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, as well as linebacker Kendall Joseph and left tackle Mitch Hyatt all decided to return for one more season, making Clemson one of the “winners” of this year’s draft deadline.
But there are certainly some “losers” in the ACC. That’s what happens when you bid good-bye to a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, one of the best defensive backs in the country, a playmaking linebacker and 1,100-yard rusher, to name a few.
So what are the biggest holes ACC teams have to fill for 2018 and who could be in line for these jobs?
Gone: Lamar Jackson, QB
The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner and a finalist last season, Jackson is the first quarterback in NCAA history to post back-to-back 3,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing seasons. In just three seasons, Jackson threw for more than 9,000 yards with 69 touchdown passes while running for more than 4,000 with another 50 scores.
In: Jawon Pass, rising redshirt sophomore
Not surprisingly, Pass played sparingly this past season. But when he was on the field, he was productive, throwing for 238 yards and two touchdowns while adding 62 on the ground with a score. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and head coach Bobby Petrino’s system should be a good fit for his dual-threat skill set.
2. Florida State
Gone: Derwin James, S
James bounced back from a serious knee injury that wiped out his 2016 season to earn first-team All-ACC honors and All-American recognition by multiple outlets. A first-round talent who could go in the first 10 picks in the draft, James filled the stat sheet this past season with 84 tackles, two interceptions, a sack, 11 pass breakups and a blocked kick in 12 games.
In: A.J. Westbrook, rising senior
New Florida State head coach Willie Taggart has plenty to sort out on his team, including who fills James’ safety spot. Westbrook may be the safest choice, since he has experience, making four starts this past season. Stanford Samuels III is another name to watch, but he could be slotted in elsewhere in the secondary. Hamsah Nasirildeen also could work his way into the mix following a solid true freshman campaign that included two starts.
3. Virginia Tech
Gone: Tremaine Edmunds, LB
Edmunds was the anchor in the middle of a Hokies defense that finished fourth in the nation in points allowed per game (14.8 ppg). A first-team All-ACC honoree, Edmunds also was a finalist for the Butkus Award thanks to his 109 total tackles, 14.0 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. One of the top linebackers in this year’s draft, Edmunds could end up being a first-round pick.
In: Dylan Rivers, rising sophomore
One of the top signees in Virginia Tech’s 2017 recruiting class, Rivers is the pick here somewhat by default as the Hokies are basically starting over at linebacker. Besides Edmunds’ early departure, Virginia Tech also is losing starter Andrew Motuapuaka and key reserve Anthony Shegog. With so much uncertainty at the position, it’s possible that a younger player, including incoming freshman Keshon Artis, will work his way into the mix by the time fall camp opens.
4. Virginia Tech
Gone: Tim Settle, DT
Settle did his part plugging up the middle and disrupting things at or behind the line of scrimmage for the Hokies. The mammoth (6-3, 335) tackle was named second-team All-ACC after registering 12.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
In: Jimmie Taylor, rising redshirt sophomore
The good news for defensive coordinator Bud Foster is that Ricky Walker (4.5 sacks, 12.5 TFL) didn’t follow Settle to the NFL, but he’ll still need to find a new tag-team partner. Taylor could fill that role, although he’s not the same type of physical specimen (6-2, 256) compared to Settle. Taylor played in seven games but was credited with just two tackles.
5. NC State
Gone: Nyheim Hines, RB
The Wolfpack will benefit from the return of quarterback Ryan Finley, but will definitely miss Hines’ presence in the backfield. The ACC’s fourth-leading rusher (1,112 yards), Hines was second on the team with 13 total touchdowns.
In: Reggie Gallaspy II, rising senior
A backup the past two seasons to a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, Gallaspy (right) should get the chance to carry the load as a senior. He has averaged a respectable 4.6 yards per carry over his three seasons, and had 70 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the Sun Bowl win over Arizona State.
6. Florida State
Gone: Josh Sweat, DE
Sweat led the Seminoles in sacks this past season with 5.5 and was second in tackles for a loss with 12.5. He finishes his Florida State career with 14.5 sacks and 29 tackles for a loss while playing in 37 games (31 starts).
Brian Burns will man one of the defensive end spots after collecting 4.5 sacks and a team-high 13.5 tackles for a loss. Who will claim the other starting job remains to be seen. The two likeliest candidates at this point appear to be rising sophomore Joshua Kaindoh and redshirt sophomore Janarius Robinson. Kaindoh, one of the highest-rated members of the Seminoles’ 2017 recruiting class, registered four sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss in 13 games while Robinson had a sack in eight appearances.
Gone: Deon Cain/Ray-Ray McCloud, WRs
It’s cheating a bit to include both Tigers wide receivers but it also makes sense. Cain and McCloud were the team’s No. 2 and 3 receivers this past season, combining for 97 catches, 1,237 yards and seven touchdowns. Both averaged better than 10 yards per reception as well.
In: Tee Higgins/Amari Rodgers, rising sophomores
Hunter Renfrow (team-high 60 receptions) will be Clemson’s No. 1 target, at least to start the season. Higgins and Rodgers were both highly regarded recruits coming out of high school and are expected to take on bigger roles in 2018. Higgins, who averaged 20.3 yards on his 17 catches as a true freshman, could emerge as the Tigers’ next dynamic wide receiver, and perhaps as early as this fall.
8. Florida State
Gone: Auden Tate, WR
Tate led the ACC with 10 touchdown catches and was the Seminoles’ top scorer as well. In just two seasons (25 games), Tate had 16 touchdown receptions while averaging 14.7 yards per catch.
In: Keith Gavin, rising junior
Nyqwan Murray (team-high 60 receptions) will be Florida State’s top target with Gavin a strong candidate for the other starting spot. Gavin finished third on the team in receptions in catches (28) and third in yards (289). With Tate and tight end Ryan Izzo’s departures, Gavin should move up in the pecking order.
Gone: Jordan Whitehead, S
Whitehead was limited to just nine games due to injury, but still left his mark. He was third on the team in tackles with 60, recorded an interception and was credited with four pass breakups. He also had a role on offense, rushing for 142 yards and a touchdown while averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
In: Dennis Briggs, rising redshirt senior
Briggs started the first three games at safety in Whitehead’s absence and played in all 12. He not only registered 33 tackles, an interception and three pass breakups, he was the only junior on the team to elected a captain this past season by teammates.
Gone: Jaire Alexander, CB
Alexander did not play up to his preseason billing as one of the top cornerbacks in the nation as injuries limited him to just six games. In 2016, he tied for second in the ACC with five interceptions and also returned a punt for a touchdown. In his six games this past season he did record a pick along with four pass breakups.
In: Russ Yeast, rising sophomore
Considered one of the top players from Indiana coming out of high school, Yeast took full advantage of an opportunity to play when Alexander got injured. The true freshman made 12 appearances, including seven starts. A pair of transfers – P.J. Mbansor (Oklahoma State) and Rodjay Burns (Ohio State) – also may get an opportunity to compete for Alexander’s spot.