Once upon a time, it used to be very easy to decipher which college football players were "leaving early" for the NFL draft. If someone had eligibility remaining, that player was considered an early entry. Then came the four-game redshirt rule and the 2020 COVID-19 season where everyone received an extra year on the house, and determining who actually is an early entrant became muddied.
As a result, there is a slew of guys are leaving for the NFL before their time is due. Here are 10 key ACC stars that will be moving to the next level and a player that may fill his collegiate shoes in 2022.
Gone: Sam Howell, QB
Howell was not only the signature Tar Heel for the past three years, he was also the heart and soul of the program. In 2021, UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo needed his star thrower to be more of a presence in the running game and Howell came through with 828 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. His unselfishness and competitive spirit will be sorely missed.
In: Drake Maye
The good news is that, in Maye, Carolina is replacing Howell with a top-end, highly recruited talent. Maye saw extensive action in the Wofford game in which a banged-up Howell was held out and the freshman completed seven of nine passes with a touchdown. He's not expected to be a huge threat with his legs, but at 6-foot-5 he will be a presence in the pocket. A one-time Alabama commit, Maye also had offers from Georgia, Clemson, and Ohio State.
Gone: Ikem Ekwonu, OT
At 6-foot-4, Ekwonu doesn't have ideal tackle height, but he has long arms and a tenacity that can't be taught. Most analysts project the unanimous All-American to go within the top 10 picks of the draft, leaving a massive hole on the left side of the Wolfpack offensive line.
In: Anthony Belton
Being the backup to perhaps the top offensive lineman in America doesn't allow for a lot of playing time. But Belton was a highly thought of recruit coming out of Georgia Military College during the 2021 recruiting cycle. The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder has the size but will have to fend off several other challengers for the job. He does appear to be the most physically ready of all the NC State left tackle contenders.
Gone: Zonovan Knight, RB
And Ricky Person, making this a position of transition for NC State in 2022. As a team, the Wolfpack finished with 1,514 rushing yards, which was 104th in the nation. Knight and Person combined for 1,389 of those yards. Combined with the loss of Ikem Ekwonu up front, running the ball will be a concern next fall.
In: Jordan Houston
Houston was the only Wolfpack running back other than Knight or Person to rush for a touchdown this season and the fourth-year player will get the initial shot at the starting position this spring. With head coach Dave Doeren comfortable splitting carries, Delbert Mimms should also get a chance to contribute. One other to keep an eye on is incoming freshman Michael Allen, the highest-rated player in the Class of 2022.
Gone: Jaquarri Roberson, WR
After two huge seasons in Winston-Salem, Roberson has decided to move on to the NFL. In catching 71 passes for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns, Roberson earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2021. He is currently projected to go in one of the middle rounds.
In: Ke'Shawn Williams
With Dave Clawson's system in place and Sam Hartman back to throw the ball around, the Demon Deacons' passing offense will continue to thrive. Williams showed tons of promise as a redshirt freshman, catching 27 passes for 404 yards, and has the potential to develop into a top option alongside star A.T. Perry.
Gone: Justyn Ross, WR
After missing all of 2020 with a neck injury, Ross returned this past fall but did not put up the same impressive numbers that he did in his first two years at Clemson. Part of that may have been because of the other pieces in the Tigers' offense not being as productive as they were in recent years, but some of his explosiveness seemed to be lacking as well. Regardless, Ross was Clemson's leading receiver and will probably be selected late on day two or early on day three of the NFL draft.
In: Beaux Collins
Depth could be an issue for Clemson at receiver, but the top-end talent is there. Collins showed as a true freshman that he has the makings of a No. 1 target for the Tigers going forward. He saw his role expand as the season went on and injuries hit the Tigers, finishing second on the team to Ross with 31 catches. A doubling of his production in 2022 would not be a surprise.
Gone: Jermaine Waller, CB
The second-team All-ACC performer tied for the league lead with four interceptions. Despite battling injuries for a good part of his career, Waller had seven career picks and 17 total passes defended. He also carries a middle-round draft grade.
In: D.J. Harvey
The new Hokie coaching staff has plenty of young options at corner, but Harvey came in as the only consensus four-star prospect in the Class of 2021 and had offers from programs like USC, Notre Dame, Auburn, and Oregon. The opportunity is there and he has the ability to claim Waller's vacant starting spot.
Gone: Andrew Booth Jr., CB
An exceptionally gifted corner, Booth struggled with consistency at times during his Clemson career. In 2021, he tightened things up and was rewarded with first-team All-ACC honors. A potential first-round selection, his stock could really rise with a strong showing at the NFL Scouting Combine.
In: Fred Davis
Davis was a high four-star prospect in the Class of 2020 whose progress was hampered by an off-the-field incident last July. He did see action in nine games this past season and had six total tackles. If, for whatever reason, Davis cannot rise to the challenge, Nate Wiggins is another corner that the Clemson staff is very high on.
Gone: Jashaun Corbin, RB
Corbin transferred from Texas A&M after the 2019 season and was the leading ground gainer amongst Seminole running backs in 2020, but he totaled just 401 yards. This past season, he ran for 887 yards with seven touchdowns and was a third-team All-ACC selection.
In: Treshaun Ward
FSU will go from Jashaun to Treshaun, as the Noles' backup running back appears poised to be the primary ball carrier in 2022. In his third year in Tallahassee, Ward had 515 yards rushing and four scores while also proving to be a receiving threat with 22 catches.
Gone: Charleston Rambo, WR
While he only spent one year at Miami after transferring from Oklahoma, Rambo made a huge impact with 79 receptions for 1,172 yards and seven touchdowns. He also became significantly more dangerous once Tyler Van Dyke became settled at the quarterback position, averaging seven catches and 125 yards with five total touchdowns over the last six games of the season.
In: Jacolby George
With Mike Harley's Miami career also over, Van Dyke will need some younger receivers to make an impact. The good news is that there are a few exciting options. George only had seven catches on the season but they went for 183 yards. Furthermore, he averaged nearly 11 yards per punt return, placing him 12th nationally in that category. George could be the big-play receiver needed to complement tight end Will Mallory and fellow receiver Key’Shawn Smith.
Gone: Tre Turner, WR
Turner never quite lived up to the expectations many had for him after he burst onto the scene at the end of his freshman season. But he does rank fifth all-time at Virginia Tech in both receiving yards and receptions despite inconsistent quarterback play during his time in Blacksburg. With Tayvion Robinson now at Kentucky, the Virginia Tech passing game will be a major concern heading into 2022.
In: Da'Wain Lofton
Kaleb Smith will be the leading returning receiver, but the pass catcher with the highest upside is Lofton. Not a huge prospect coming out of high school, the Fort Worth, Texas, product played in every game and had five receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown in the season's final two after registering just two catches in the previous nine contests.
– 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.