It was a banner football season for the ACC with a 9-3 bowl record and a national championship. One of the primary reasons for the league’s success was the number of quality quarterbacks in the conference. In 2017, many of the ACC teams that had great signal-callers will be breaking in new starters at the position.
Here is a look at the 10 most difficult ACC players to replace, with the quarterbacks leading the way.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
An unquestioned team leader, Watson’s impact goes way beyond his on-the-field performance. And his actual play was legendary. He was a two-time Heisman finalist that led his team to pair of national title game appearances and one championship. He posted consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons and accounted for 116 total touchdowns. Replacing Watson will not be difficult; it will be impossible.
Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
Despite Watson’s historic exploits, Trubisky may be the first quarterback taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Mentor, Ohio, product showed in limited action in 2015 that he would be ready to replace outgoing quarterback Marquise Williams. And Trubisky certainly made the most of his starting opportunity, finishing with 30 touchdown passes and just six interceptions in 2016. The next line of Tar Heel quarterbacks are much bigger question marks.
Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech
Evans’ decision to turn pro was a shock to many around the college football world. He did not look like a finished product during his one fall in Blacksburg and he is projected as a late-round draft choice at best. Still, along with new head coach Justin Fuente, Evans changed the complexion of the Hokies’ offense, accounting for 4,398 total yards and 41 total touchdowns in 2016. That’s a lot of production heading out the door.
Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
A three-year starter for the Hurricanes, the Miami offense will be a little different now that Kaaya is gone. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder was not a weapon as a runner, but he made proper decisions, only throwing 12 interceptions over the past two years.
Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech
It takes a special type of quarterback to run Paul Johnson’s system for the Yellow Jackets and Thomas fit the mold perfectly. After a subpar 2015 for Thomas and the team, both bounced back in a big way this fall, going 9-4 and beating Kentucky in the Taxslayer Bowl. Matthew Jordan, who led the Jackets to a big win over Virginia Tech when Thomas was injured, will probably get the first crack at the job this spring.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cam Akers is a dynamic running back that just enrolled at Florida State. The chances are very good that the Mississippi native is the starting tailback next fall. And he will have some very large shoes to fill. Cook now holds school records for career rushing yards and career rushing touchdowns, marks he set in just three years.
James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
Conner’s story is inspiring, but his contributions as a running back at Pitt were equally impressive. His 3,733 rushing yards and 52 rushing touchdowns trail only Tony Dorsett in the Panthers’ record books. Because of Conner's absence in 2015, Qadree Ollison emerged as the feature back. But with Conner active this past fall, Ollison disappeared. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior will have another chance without Conner around in 2017.
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
The Tigers retain some high quality receivers in Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Ray-Ray McCloud. But as Alabama will tell you, Williams was a beast. Cain is a downfield threat while Renfrow and McCloud are accomplished at getting open to move the chains. But none is a total package like Williams. Coupled with breaking in a new quarterback, there should be a serious adjustment period for the Clemson passing game.
DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
The Seminoles will go into 2017 ranked in the top five, if not No. 1. But Dalvin Cook will not be their only major loss. The FSU defense had an up-and-down season, but through it all stood Walker. The senior was sixth nationally with 21.5 tackles for lost yardage and the 134 yards lost on those stops ranked No. 2. His 16 sacks were a big part of those numbers and he was a force that lived in the opposing backfield. The Noles will get star safety Derwin James back from injury, but Walker’s absence will be felt.
Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson
The Tigers have a plethora of dynamic options on defense. But Boulware was different. He led the team with 131 tackles, 11.5 of which resulted in lost yardage. While his play was stellar, his leadership was off the charts. Plus, he wasn’t shy about speaking his mind and shouldering all the pressure going into a big game.
10 Others That Will Be Missed
Matt Dayes, RB, North Carolina State
Amba Etta-Tawo, WR, Syracuse
Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
Jay Guillermo, C, Clemson
Bucky Hodges, WR/TE, Virginia Tech
Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina
Ejuan Price, DE, Pittsburgh
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
— 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.