It was a very enjoyable football season for the ACC. Clemson very nearly ran the table, coming up just short to Alabama in the national championship game. Though North Carolina and Florida State were beaten in their bowl appearances, the Tar Heels were on the fringe of College Football Playoff contention entering the ACC title game and the Seminoles appeared in a New Year’s Six Bowl.
The conference returns a lot of talent for 2016, with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson being the headliner. But to replicate this past fall, ACC teams will have to overcome some major departures as well.
10 Toughest Players to Replace in the ACC in 2016
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Lawson had a huge junior season making several All-American teams and boosting his stock to the point where he may be picked in the top 10 of the upcoming NFL Draft. His 24.5 tackles for lost yardage led the nation and he showed in the national championship game that he can be a difference-maker even when he is not 100 percent healthy.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State
Derwin James is the latest physical freak to inhabit the Florida State secondary. But the rising sophomore has big shoes to fill with the departure of Ramsey. Not only did the 6-foot-1, 202-pounder have the skill set to play anywhere in the defensive backfield, he was the eyes, ears and brains for the Seminoles' last line of defense.
Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
On the subject of brains, I give you Cash. The Blue Devils star was the leader of a stingy Duke defense once he arrived in Durham by way of Ohio State. During his three seasons at Duke, Cash piled up 332 total tackles and was largely responsible for helping the team be in a position to win its first bowl game since 1960 with a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Indiana in late December. Cash, who didn't play in the bowl because of a right wrist injury that required surgery, finished his Blue Devils career in style, as he was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
When star running back James Conner was diagnosed with cancer and was lost for the season, everyone’s attention turned to Boyd. And the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder did not disappoint, hauling in 91 passes for 926 yards. It will be extremely difficult for Pittsburgh to replace Boyd’s production, especially since the team’s No. 2 receiver had just 26 receptions this past fall.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Interestingly, Alexander never had an interception during his time at Clemson. Of course, it’s difficult to get picks when you’re not being challenged. That was the case as Alexander effectively locked down his side of the field each and every game for two seasons. Alexander’s value was evident by the way Alabama was able to throw the ball after he left the national championship game with an injury.
Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina
Tar Heel fans are excited about next year’s projected starter Mitch Trubisky. However, at this time last year we heard about how Jeremy Johnson was going to be an upgrade at quarterback for Auburn. Williams was second team All-ACC behind Clemson star and Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson after passing for 3,068 yards and running for 948. Trubisky may be great; Williams was great.
Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson
Dodd burst on the scene like a rocket after seeing limited playing time during his first three years at Clemson. Dodd had 24 tackles for lost yardage and 12.5 sacks during Clemson’s run to Glendale, Ariz. He lived in the Alabama backfield during the title game, registering three sacks among his five tackles for lost yardage. Clemson is now faced with the daunting task of replacing both Lawson and Dodd along the defensive line.
Landon Turner, G, North Carolina
A four-year starter and an Associated Press All-American his senior season, Turner was the rock of the Tar Heels’ offensive line. With Turner anchoring the line, North Carolina won 11 games and the ACC Coastal Division title thanks in large part to an offense that ranked 18th in the nation in both total yards and rushing yards per game and ninth in scoring. The Tar Heels are in good shape on offense for 2016 from a personnel standpoint, but no one will be able to replace what Turner brought both on the field and off of it over the past four seasons.
Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State
One of several former Florida Gator quarterbacks that found success elsewhere, Brissett was a very efficient passer during his two years as the Wolfpack starter. He threw for more than 2,600 yards in each of his two seasons and connected on 43 total scoring throws against just 11 interceptions during that time. N.C. State will have a solid core back in 2016, but for success to occur Jalan McClendon will have to do an adequate job replacing Brissett.
Matt Skura, C, Duke
Clemson will lose guard Eric Mac Lain and North Carolina will be without guard Landon Turner next fall. But the most valuable departing offensive lineman is the Duke center. Skura did for the offense what teammate Jeremy Cash did for the defense: he played tough, hard-nosed football and knew where everyone needed to be at all times.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.