Duke is hoping quarterback Quentin Harris can fill the void left by Daniel Jones' departure
Clemson won the national title thanks in large part to the lack of activity by their players last year at this time. As underclassmen from around the country declared for the NFL draft, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, and Clelin Ferrell all told the next level to wait and went back to Clemson for one more year. Dabo Swinney’s team did lose two receivers to the NFL last year in Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud, but the Tigers probably would not have hoisted the trophy on Jan. 7 if they had not been able to retain that incredible defensive line talent.
A year later, Clemson has finally said good-bye to those stars and a few more as well. And they are not the only ACC program that will have to replace top talent with remaining eligibility. Six schools (Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Syracuse, Virginia, and Virginia Tech) were spared an early departure. But the other eight programs will have to find a way to replace productive underclassmen that have decided to move on.
Here the 12 biggest voids caused by early NFL entries from ACC teams and how the schools plan on filling those gaps in 2019.
Gone: Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, DL
Fellow linemen Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant have exhausted their eligibility, but Lawrence and Ferrell had time remaining at Clemson. But their less than shocking exits mean that the Tigers will have four new starters along the defensive line next season. Lawrence was considered a top-10 NFL draft prospect before his PED suspension late in the year and Ferrell was the 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year who compiled 27 sacks and 50.5 tackles for a loss in his stellar career.
In: Nyles Pinckney and Xavier Thomas
The interior of the defensive line is a bit more concerning than the end positions. Thomas may not have been a starter, but he played a considerable amount as a true freshman and was as productive as any of the more experienced linemen. K.J. Henry and Justin Foster give the Tigers talented depth at both end spots. Pinckney came on strong at the end of the year, especially in the College Football Playoff after Lawrence’s suspension. He will be the anchor in the middle and will get help from rising redshirt sophomore Jordan Williams.
Gone: Daniel Jones, QB
It seems like Jones has been in Durham for a decade, but in reality he still had another year of eligibility left. But in a weak quarterback year — and with Jones already possessing a Duke degree — the 6-foot-5, 215-pounder decided to make the jump. With him goes 8,201 career passing yards and 69 total touchdowns.
In: Quentin Harris, rising fifth-year senior
When Jones missed games early in the season with a collarbone injury, Harris took over and led the Devils to victories over Baylor and FCS opponent North Carolina Central. He completed just 50 percent of his passes but had a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Harris will get pushed by sophomore-to-be Chris Katrenick and redshirt freshman Gunnar Holmberg.
3. NC State
Gone: Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers, WR
It’s bad enough that the Wolfpack passing game will take a hit with QB Ryan Finley leaving Raleigh. But making matters worse is that NC State will also lose their two 1,000-yard receivers. Both Harmon and Meyers were key components for the Pack in each of the past two seasons.
In: Thayer Thomas (rising redshirt sophomore) and C.J. Riley (rising redshirt junior)
Emeka Emezie has established himself as a major threat, but Thomas and Riley need to take the next step after solid 2018 seasons. Thomas caught 34 balls this past fall and Riley 28, numbers that head coach Dave Doeren expects to see double next year.
4. Florida State
Gone: Brian Burns, DE
In what was an ugly season in Tallahassee, Burns stood out with 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss. A solid contributor since he set foot on campus, Burns is projected to go in the first round of the draft.
In: Janarius Robinson, rising redshirt junior
Robinson came to Florida State as a top-100 prospect in the Class of 2016. It took a while for him to get on the field, but he had 27 tackles backing up Burns this fall. Hopefully, Josh Kaindoh will be completely healthy next season and be able to lock down the strong side while Robinson develops at the other end position.
Gone: Trayvon Mullen, CB
If Mullen knew that he was leaving school, he picked the best time to shine. With six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a big interception in the national championship victory over Alabama, Mullen took home Defensive MVP honors.
Corner is one of many positions where Clemson has recruited well and there is no shortage of viable candidates for Mullen’s old job. Mario Goodrich, Kyler McMichael, and LeAnthony Williams all saw time as freshmen (Williams was a redshirt) and 5-star corner prospect Andrew Booth signed with Clemson in December.
Gone: Joe Giles-Harris, LB
The redshirt junior battled injuries in 2018 but still managed to register 81 tackles from his linebacker position. Giles-Harris has an honorable mention All-ACC performer as a redshirt freshman then a first-team selection as a sophomore and junior.
In: Brandon Hill, rising redshirt junior
Because of Giles-Harris’s MCL injury late in the year, Hill saw plenty of action and performed well, finishing eighth on the team with 42 tackles. With fellow linebacker Ben Humphreys’ time up at Duke, Hill will team with Koby Quansah on Duke's second level.
7. Wake Forest
Gone: Greg Dortch, WR
Dortch only played 20 games for the Demon Deacons, but he had 17 touchdown receptions during his Wake Forest career. Not only a reliable pass catcher, Dortch also had two punt return touchdowns this season and was effective as a kickoff returner too.
In: Jaquarii Roberson, rising redshirt sophomore
Roberson only played in three games this fall, but one was a start in the Birmingham Bowl when Dortch was scratched with a hand injury. The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder has the shiftiness needed in the slot inside fellow wideouts Alex Bachman and Sage Surratt.
Gone: Tre Lamar, LB
The Clemson linebacker was a finalist for the Butkus Award after finishing third on the team in tackles. But in reality, the Tigers' other two linebackers — Kendall Joseph and hybrid safety Isaiah Simmons — may have been more impactful.
In: Chad Smith, rising fifth-year senior
The Tigers received good news when Simmons announced that we would return to school, but Dabo Swinney will have to replace Joseph as well as Lamar at linebacker. Smith was a valuable reserve this season and should fit in somewhere.
Gone: Joe Jackson, DE
Much like Burns at FSU, Jackson had three productive seasons with the Hurricanes. A pass-rushing terror, Jackson had 8.5 sacks in 2018 and 22.5 over his career. Also like Burns, his ability to hold up against the run is what needs to improve for him to have an impact at the next level.
In: Scott Patchan, rising fifth-year senior
The Hurricanes have Jonathan Garvin (17.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks in 2018) to anchor the defensive line but he'll need a running mate. Patchan is the safe choice to replace Jackson at the other end spot. He was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Jackson this fall and has been in Manny Diaz’s system the past three years. But watch out for Greg Rousseau, a member of the 2018 recruiting class that missed last year with an injury.
Gone: Travis Homer, RB
Both 2017 and '18 were remarkably similar seasons for Homer with just under 1,000 yards each year and virtually the same number of touches. And in both seasons, the Miami back was a second-team All-ACC selection.
In: DeeJay Dallas, rising junior
The former 4-star prospect from Brunswick, Georgia, had a solid sophomore season with 617 rushing yards and six scores on the ground. Dallas will be a key component in an offense that could once again struggle throwing the football.
11. North Carolina
Gone: Anthony Ratliff-Williams, WR
The Mack Brown era will begin in Chapel Hill without the Tar Heels' most dangerous offensive player over the past two years. Despite subpar quarterback play, Ratliff-Williams had 77 catches for 1,319 yards combined in 2017 and '18. He will also be missed as a kick returner, where he had two touchdown returns in his career.
In: Dyami Brown, rising sophomore
Dazz Newsome should become the top target after grabbing a team-leading 44 balls last year. As for complementary options, there could be plenty to choose from. Brown may be the most exciting of the bunch. He had 17 receptions as a freshman and came to Carolina as a top-200 recruit that held offers from Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, and Florida State. Also watch out for incoming freshman Kafre Brown, a 4-star prospect with an elite offer list.
12. Boston College
Gone: Hamp Cheevers, CB
Though he closed 2017 in a strong fashion, not a lot was known about Cheevers coming into 2018 as he had played in only five games during his career. But his seven interceptions this season tied for the most nationally.
In: Elijah Jones, rising redshirt freshman
Jones was able to take advantage of the new rule allowing players to appear in four or fewer games and maintain a year of eligibility. The former 3-star prospect out of the Bronx played exactly four games and had six tackles and four passes defended.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.