The ACC is loaded with quarterback talent at the top of the league for the 2021 college football season. Miami's D'Eriq King, North Carolina's Sam Howell and Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei are candidates for All-America honors this fall, while Florida State's McKenzie Milton and Boston College's Phil Jurkovec round out a strong top five. The next tier is headlined by Louisville's Malik Cunningham, Wake Forest's Sam Hartman, Pitt's Kenny Pickett and Virginia's Brennan Armstrong.
Ranking the quarterbacks by conference or nationally is no easy task. To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2021. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks based only on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors — pure talent, supporting cast, having a clear hold on the No. 1 position, previous production, 2021 projection, and scheme changes (just to name a few) — were considered to rank the quarterbacks in the ACC for 2021.
Ranking the ACC Quarterbacks for 2021
14. Gunnar Holmberg, Duke
David Cutcliffe knows how to develop quarterbacks, but the veteran coach will have his hands full in 2021. The Blue Devils struggled on offense in ’20, averaging only 24.8 points a game. Clemson transfer Chase Brice started all 11 games for Duke last fall but opted to depart for Appalachian State. Holmberg played in six games as a reserve last season and connected on 18 of 25 throws for 161 yards and two picks. The former three-star prospect played in one game as a freshman in ’18 and missed ’19 due to a knee injury. There’s a steep learning curve ahead for Duke’s quarterback room this year. Luca Diamont or freshman Riley Leonard could push Holmberg if he struggles early in ’21.
13. Tommy DeVito, Syracuse
The 2021 season is an important one for Syracuse coach Dino Babers. For the Orange to get back to a winning record and a bowl, jump-starting an offense that managed only 17.8 points a contest in ’20 is a must. Offensive line woes have limited this group the last two years but experience and better depth should help Syracuse in the trenches, which should give DeVito a better chance to thrive. The New Jersey native worked as the backup to Eric Dungey in 2018 but moved to the top spot on the depth chart and started 11 games the following year. DeVito threw for 2,360 yards and 19 touchdowns that season. However, the bulk of his production came in non-conference matchups. DeVito hoped to get on track last fall, but a foot injury suffered against Duke on Oct. 10 ended his season early. Can the junior deliver a breakout year? Or will Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader eventually unseat him for the starting job?
12. Braxton Burmeister, Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech hasn’t had much consistency under center, as four different players have led the team in passing over the last five years. And that carousel of change under center continued with the December departures of Hendon Hooker (Tennessee) and Quincy Patterson (North Dakota State). The job is Burmeister’s to lose this season, and the Oregon transfer showed some signs of promise in his first year in Blacksburg. The unusual nature of the 2020 season, along with injuries, prevented Burmeister from finding his form in the first three games. However, he completed 25 of 34 passes for 339 yards and one touchdown and ran for 42 yards over the final two games. Burmeister is still largely unproven, but his average depth of target (10.4) and strong showing at the end of ’20 provides upside for coach Justin Fuente this fall.
11. Jeff Sims, Georgia Tech
Sims was tossed into the fire right away as a true freshman last season. As expected, he experienced plenty of ups and downs, but the playing time should help Sims take a step forward in 2021. The Florida native was a big-time get for coach Geoff Collins on the recruiting trail after ranking as the No. 10 dual-threat quarterback in the ’20 signing class. Sims started his career by throwing for 277 yards in a road upset over Florida State and later posted 238 yards and two touchdowns through the air to close out the regular season with a victory over Pitt. The overall numbers (1,881 yards and 13 touchdowns to 13 picks) leave plenty of room to improve, and the Yellow Jackets’ staff will certainly need Sims to work on his accuracy (54.9). However, the talent is there to make a big jump as a passer, and Sims showcased his dynamic athleticism by running for 492 yards and six scores last fall.
10. Devin Leary, NC State
Leary has showed bits of promising play in each of the last two years and could finish higher on this list if he can put everything together in 2021. Last season, Leary got off to a fast start with 890 passing yards and eight scores to just two picks in his first four appearances. However, he suffered a season-ending leg injury against Duke and was sidelined until spring practice. The sophomore has plenty of help at his disposal this year with four starters back up front, along with one of the ACC’s top backfields and receiving corps.
9. Sam Hartman, Wake Forest
Hartman’s career started in promising fashion by winning the job as a true freshman in 2018. A leg injury ended his debut prematurely, which opened the door for Jamie Newman to seize the starting job for the last four games of ’18 and for the ’19 campaign. But with Newman opting to depart Winston-Salem prior to last season, Hartman regained his starting role and helped the Demon Deacons rank among the ACC’s top offenses by averaging 36 points a game in ’20. In nine appearances last fall, Hartman threw for 2,224 yards and 13 touchdowns to only five picks. Also, he tied for second among ACC quarterbacks by connecting on 10 passes of 40-plus yards.
8. Brennan Armstrong, Virginia
Filling the shoes of Bryce Perkins was no easy assignment for Armstrong last season. However, after tossing two interceptions in each of his first three contests in 2020, the Ohio native seemed to play better over his final six appearances. Armstrong finished the year by torching Abilene Christian for 383 passing yards and threw for 287 yards and a touchdown and ran for 130 yards in a win over Boston College. For the season, Armstrong threw for 2,117 yards and 18 touchdowns and added 552 yards and five scores on the ground. Also, the underlying analytics show promise with an average depth of target of 10.8 and 10.5 air yards on each attempt. With a full (and normal offseason) to work as the No. 1 quarterback, Armstrong is poised to take another step forward in his development in 2021.
7. Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Awarding all players a free year of eligibility allowed Pickett to return for his fifth season in the Steel City. And with a big year in the stats department, Pickett is likely to own the Pitt school records for total offense and passing yards in a career. Over 39 appearances with the Panthers, Pickett has passed for 7,984 yards and 39 touchdowns. Also, his career completion percentage sits at 60.4 going into 2021. Pickett’s average depth of target is a solid 9.4 yards, and his 10 completions of 40-plus yards tied for second among ACC quarterbacks last fall.
6. Malik Cunningham, Louisville
Cunningham seemed poised to rank among the top quarterbacks in the ACC after throwing for 2,065 yards and 22 touchdowns and adding 482 yards and six scores on the ground in 2019. Unfortunately for Louisville, the Alabama native regressed on the stat sheet last fall. Over 11 games, Cunningham threw for 2,617 yards and 20 scores but also tossed 12 picks. He ran for 609 yards and seven touchdowns, which propelled the Cardinals’ signal-caller to finish No. 4 in the ACC in total offense (293.3 ypg). Even though last year didn’t quite live up to preseason expectations, the guess here is Cunningham puts everything together and helps Louisville rebound in ’21.
5. McKenzie Milton, Florida State
If Milton is back to 100 percent (or anywhere close to the level we saw at UCF), he will provide a huge upgrade to Florida State’s quarterback room and offense. The Seminoles have struggled to get consistent and steady play under center since Jameis Winston left for the NFL, but Milton has the potential to change that in 2021. He threw for 8,683 yards and 72 touchdowns and ran for 1,078 yards and 20 scores over 33 appearances with the Knights. However, Milton hasn’t played since suffering a significant leg injury during the 2018 season. The senior looked sharp in Florida State’s spring game, which should give coach Mike Norvell plenty of optimism for 2021.
4. Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
Jurkovec worked as a backup for two years at Notre Dame before transferring to Boston College for an opportunity to start under new coach Jeff Hafley. The Pennsylvania native shined in his first extended playing time at the FBS level and nearly led the Eagles to wins over Clemson and North Carolina. In 10 starts, Jurkovec threw for 2,558 yards and 17 touchdowns and added 150 rushing yards and three scores. Jurkovec tossed only five picks and connected on 61 percent of his passes. After impressing in an unusual 2020 season, a complete offseason to work under coordinator Frank Cignetti should help Jurkovec take the next step in his development.
3. D’Eriq King, Miami
The arrival of King and coordinator Rhett Lashlee completely transformed Miami’s offense last season. After the Hurricanes averaged 25.7 points a game in 2019, the pairing of Lashlee’s play-calling and King’s all-around ability bumped that total to 34 a contest last fall. King is one of the nation’s most dynamic signal-callers, and his leadership is also a big reason why the ‘Canes could push for a finish in the top 10 this season. The Texas native threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns to only five picks and ran for 538 yards and four scores in his first year in Coral Gables. An ACL injury suffered in the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma State is not expected to affect him in 2021. Expect King to push for All-America honors this fall.
2. D.J. Uiagalelei, Clemson
The Tigers have to replace the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft (Trevor Lawrence), but there are zero concerns about the quarterback position in Death Valley. Uiagalelei – a five-star prospect from the 2020 signing class – has already showed he’s plenty capable of keeping Clemson’s offense at the top of the ACC. The California native threw for 342 yards and three scores in a win over Boston College last year and followed up that performance by torching Notre Dame for 439 yards and two touchdowns in South Bend. Uiagalelei’s overall performance as a true freshman (914 yards and five touchdowns through the air) showed a small glimpse of what’s to come in ’21, as the sophomore should finish the year among the top quarterbacks in the nation.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2021
1. Sam Howell, North Carolina
Howell was the first big victory on the recruiting trail for coach Mack Brown in his return to Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina native has been instrumental in the Tar Heels’ rise over the last two years. After throwing for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns in a standout freshman season, Howell took his performance up a notch as a sophomore. His completion percentage jumped from 61.4 in 2019 to 68.1 in ’20, while also throwing for 3,586 yards and 30 scores over 12 contests. Howell led all qualifying quarterbacks in the ACC with an average of 10.3 yards per attempt and he connected o 10 completions of 50-plus yards. While the skill talent around Howell is new this fall, don’t expect that to slow down the talented junior, as he’s poised for another big season and likely an early departure to the next level.
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