Led by Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, the ACC has a solid group of quarterbacks returning for the 2016 season. Watson is the Heisman frontrunner and a big reason why the Tigers are a favorite by some to reach the national championship. But there’s more than just Watson returning to the conference. Miami’s Brad Kaaya, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson are all among the nation’s top 25 quarterbacks. And the depth extends to promising options like Florida State’s Deondre Francois and Syracuse’s Eric Dungey.
With fall practice starting for all 128 teams, Athlon is updating its quarterback rankings from earlier this year. Here’s an updated look at how the projected starting quarterbacks in the ACC rank for 2016:
To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2016. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, 2016 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the ACC for 2016.
ACC 2016 Preseason QB Rankings
14. Matt Johns, Virginia
Johns threw for 2,810 yards and 20 scores in his first full season as Virginia’s starter in 2015. Despite the experience gained from last year and finishing in a tie for third among ACC quarterbacks in passing touchdowns, Johns isn’t guaranteed to start in 2016. New coach Bronco Mendenhall and coordinator Robert Anae plan on an open competition this fall, as Johns battles East Carolina graduate transfer Kurt Benkert and senior Connor Brewer for the starting job. If Johns wins the No. 1 job, he needs to be a few spots higher on this list.
13. Jalan McClendon, NC State
McClendon finished spring practice with a slight edge over redshirt freshman Jakobi Meyers for the starting nod. However, this battle isn’t a two-man race anymore, as Boise State graduate transfer Ryan Finley joined the mix this summer. McClendon is still the favorite to take the opening snap on Sept. 1 against William & Mary, but this battle could extend into the season. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, there are big shoes to fill in replacing Jacoby Brissett. McClendon played in eight contests last year, completing 8 of 14 passes for 69 yards.
12. John Wolford, Wake Forest
Wake Forest is another team with an unsettled quarterback situation headed into fall camp. The Demon Deacons have struggled on offense over the last two seasons, finishing near the bottom of the ACC in scoring. Quarterback play isn’t necessarily the area to blame for the lack of production, as the offensive line has struggled mightily in recent years. However, improvement is coming for the Demon Deacons in 2016, as the offense returns eight starters and two experienced options at quarterback. Wolford gets the nod here after throwing for 3,828 yards over the last two years. However, sophomore Kendall Hinton brings more dual-threat potential to the offense and has a stronger arm than Wolford.
11. Patrick Towles, Boston College
Injuries hit Boston College’s offense hard last season, as the Eagles managed only 9.1 points in ACC action. But with more experience returning in the trenches, Towles stepping in at quarterback, and a healthy Jon Hilliman at running back, the Eagles should take a step forward on offense in 2016. Towles transferred to Boston College as a graduate transfer from Kentucky. He threw for 5,099 yards and 24 scores in three years with the Wildcats and should provide some immediate help for a passing attack that generated only one play of 40 yards or more last fall.
10. Jerod Evans, Virginia Tech
Regardless of whether Evans or Brenden Motley wins the job, Virginia Tech should improve on offense under first-year coach Justin Fuente. Evans ranked as the No. 7 junior college recruit and was regarded as a four-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite in the 2016 signing class. The Texas native averaged 395.5 passing yards a game and tossed 38 scores at Trinity Valley Community College last season. Assuming he wins the job, Evans is a good candidate for a breakout campaign this fall.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
9. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
The ACC has a solid group of quarterbacks returning in 2016, but it wouldn’t surprise us if Dungey climbs this list by the end of the year. New coach Dino Babers is a standout offensive mind and was instrumental in developing high-powered attacks at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green over the last four seasons. Dungey showed promise in eight games last fall, throwing for 1,298 yards and 11 scores. He should thrive under Babers’ direction and is due for a breakout year in 2016.
8. Thomas Sirk, Duke
Sirk is one of the toughest quarterbacks to rank on this list. The senior suffered a torn Achilles in February but is expected to return in time to start the opener. Of course, it’s fair to wonder just how close to 100 percent Sirk really is after a major injury. In 12 appearances last year, Sirk threw for 2,625 yards and 16 scores and led the Blue Devils with 803 yards and eight touchdowns. If Sirk is 100 percent healthy and shows no ill-effects from the torn Achilles, he could be closer to a top-five quarterback in the ACC.
7. Nathan Peterman, Pitt
Peterman quietly posted a solid debut as Pitt’s starting quarterback in 2015. He unseated Chad Voytik for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart early in the year and threw for 2,287 yards and 20 scores. Peterman also added 232 yards and one touchdown on the ground and finished second among ACC quarterbacks by completing 61.5 percent of his throws. New coordinator Matt Canada is a solid replacement for Jim Chaney (left for Georgia) and should keep Pitt’s offense performing at a high level. However, the Panthers have to find a replacement for standout receiver Tyler Boyd.
6. Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech is leaning heavily on Thomas to rebound after a disappointing 3-9 campaign in 2015. The Yellow Jackets aren’t as bad as last year’s record indicated, and with more experience and big-play ability returning on offense, getting back to a bowl game is a realistic expectation. Thomas is the catalyst for the triple-option attack, as he averaged 200.4 total yards per game and 26 overall scores in 2014. However, Thomas struggled with a revamped supporting cast and generated only 488 rushing yards and six scores last year. A rebound season should be in order for the senior in 2016.
5. Deondre Francois, Florida State
After an uneven season of production from Everett Golson and Sean Maguire, Florida State’s quarterback situation should be in better shape in 2016. Maguire is still in the mix after recovering from offseason ankle surgery, but the Seminoles have two talented freshmen – Francois and Malik Henry battling for time. Francois still has to edge Maguire for the starting spot, but the redshirt freshman gained valuable reps with the No. 1 unit in spring practice and brings more overall talent and upside to the position. Francois ranked as the No. 64 overall prospect in the 2015 247Sports Composite.
4. Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina
Marquise Williams departs Chapel Hill after earning second-team All-ACC honors last fall, but coach Larry Fedora isn’t too worried about the quarterback position. That’s due to the progress and development of Trubisky over the last two seasons. The junior is one of the nation’s rising stars under center and steps into the No. 1 role after completing 40 of 47 passes for 555 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. Trubisky is surrounded by a standout supporting cast, including one of the nation’s top running backs (Elijah Hood) and a deep receiving corps.
3. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
The combination of Bobby Petrino’s offense and Jackson’s dynamic playmaking ability is going to provide plenty of headaches for the ACC in 2016 and beyond. Jackson showcased his potential and raw talent as a true freshman last season, throwing for 1,840 yards and 12 scores and adding 960 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Jackson’s emergence as the starting quarterback helped Louisville finish 2015 by winning six out of its final seven games. Now that Petrino has a full offseason to build around Jackson’s ability, expect the sophomore to have a breakout year and challenge for All-ACC honors.
2. Brad Kaaya, Miami
Kaaya is already one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks, but new coach Mark Richt should help the junior take the next step in his development this fall. After throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 scores as a true freshman in 2014, Kaaya had a solid sophomore campaign, ending the 2015 season with 3,328 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. Kaaya missed one game due to a concussion but increased his completion percentage to 61.2 percent and ranked second among ACC passers with 28 passes of 30 yards or more.
1. Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson set the bar high in his first full season as the starter. However, the junior is capable of elevating his game just a notch higher in 2016. That won’t be easy for a quarterback that accounted for 5,209 total yards and 47 overall scores, but Watson is capable of inching those numbers even higher with one of the nation’s top receiving corps in place, and the junior could lower his interceptions (13) just a bit. Of course, that’s just being picky for a quarterback that finished third in the Heisman voting in his first year as the starter. Watson should be the frontrunner to claim college football’s top honor and is easily the No. 1 overall player returning for the 2016 season.