We all know how good Deshaun Watson is at Clemson. We also know what Kendall Fuller means to Virginia Tech and how much the Yellow Jackets rely on Justin Thomas. But each year, great seasons are born on the improvement of unheralded players.
Here is a selection of some of the potential wild card players (and one coach) in the ACC going into the fall.
Boston College Eagles
Offense: Harris Williams, Offensive Line
Boston College loses all five starters from last year’s offensive line. Williams started all 13 games in 2013 but missed all of last season after injuring his ankle in the opener against UMass. The sixth-year senior will have to provide leadership for this young group, whether he is at center or guard.
Defense: Isaac Yiadom, Cornerback
BC needs the sophomore to take hold of one of the cornerback spots. Should Yiadom fail, BC will probably fill the void by moving its one returning starter in the secondary, Justin Simmons, from his natural position of safety. The coaching staff would prefer to have Yiadom succeed.
Mitch Hyatt, Offensive Tackle
In order for Clemson to win the ACC title, quarterback Deshaun Watson must stay healthy. That puts a lot of pressure on the guy protecting his blind side. And it looks like that guy will be the true freshman Hyatt. Hyatt enrolled in January, so he did get reps with the Tigers this spring.
Defense: Ben Boulware, Weak-side Linebacker
Clemson will have seven new starters on its defensive front. Though there are some pieces ready to go on the defensive line, questions remain at linebacker. Boulware is the most experienced of the unit and plays with an intensity that can rub off on the other members of the defense.
Florida State Seminoles
Offense: Mario Pender, Running Back
With Dalvin Cook currently in limbo, Pender’s role will be increased. He averaged five yards per carry as a sophomore and reached the end zone four times. Pender will get more touches and with only three starters back on offense, he must do something with those chances.
Defense: Chris Casher, Defensive End
Casher came to FSU as a highly touted prospect. However, the junior is currently sitting third on the depth chart at defensive end. The Seminoles are in desperate need of a pass rush and if Casher is healthy (and motivated) he could supply that pressure.
Offense: Brandon Radcliff, Running Back
Reggie Bonnafan is expected to be the quarterback and he is a better runner than thrower. The receiving corps is young. So the Cardinals will probably lean heavily on Radcliff and the running game. The junior will look to carry over last year’s late-season surge.
Defense: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Safety
Harvey-Clemons is the ultimate wild card. He was one of the top prospects in the nation when he signed with Georgia in 2012. After being dismissed from UGA, Harvey-Clemons found a home with his old defensive coordinator Todd Grantham at Louisville. His talent his without question, assuming he can stay on the field.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Offense: Nyheim Hines, Wide Receiver/Running Back/Kick Returner
Hines doesn’t really have a defined position. Wherever he lines up, offensive coordinator Matt Canada will look to get the ball in his hands. Hines is an electric playmaker and should become a favorite of quarterback Jacoby Brissett early in the season.
Defense: Kentavius Street, Defensive Tackle
In 2014, Street signed with the Wolfpack despite holding offers from LSU, Ohio State, Florida, Clemson, Georgia and several other top programs. With NC State searching for help up front on defense, the time is now for Street.
Offense: Erv Phillips, Running Back
The Syracuse offense does not possess a lot of big-time threats and the Orange are now short one more with the news that running back Ashton Broyld has been dismissed from the team. Phillips was slated to split time with Broyld, but now he has a bigger load to carry.
Defense: Zaire Franklin, Middle Linebacker
The Cuse has one solid linebacker in Marquez Hodge. Franklin closed 2014 in a way that has many wondering if he can be Hodge’s equal. The two will have to carry a very green Orange defense.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Offense: Tyree Harris, Wide Receiver
The Deacons would like a complement to solid tight end Cam Serigne. Harris showed great promise as a freshman in 2013, but redshirted last season. His speed could open up some space for Serigne.
Defense: Ryan Janvion, Safety
Wake Forest has some experience and athleticism along the defensive line and especially at linebacker. Janvion is the leader of a defensive backfield that may really struggle on the corners. If Janvion can help the outside guys develop, Wake may have a pretty good defense.
Duke Blue Devils
Offense: Thomas Sirk, Quarterback
One of the primary reasons for Duke’s recent rise up the ACC standings has been the play of quarterbacks Sean Renfree and Anthony Boone. Now it’s Sirk’s turn. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe is a master at getting the most out of that position and Sirk’s performance will play a key role in determining the Devils’ fate in 2015.
Defense: Kyler Brown, Defensive End
With star linebacker Kelby Brown’s career over after a second torn ACL, his brother Kyler will be asked to do many different things for the Duke defense. He will have his hand in the dirt at times and will be standing up as an outside linebacker at others.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Offense: Broderick Snoddy, A-Back
Snoddy has carried the ball just 65 times in three years. But with 2014’s top three running backs departed and Dennis Andrews booted off the team, Snoddy inherits the premier spot behind quarterback Justin Thomas.
Defense: Francis Kallon, Defensive Tackle
In the spring, head coach Paul Johnson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Francis is the key.” He stated that if Kallon becomes a factor inside, Patrick Gamble could play outside. Depth is a concern along the line so any impact that Kallon can make will be welcomed.
Offense: Kc McDermott, Left Tackle
The offensive line is a huge question mark for Miami and McDermott is the new left tackle for star quarterback Brad Kaaya. The sophomore came to Miami with a four-star ranking and a good pedigree; his brother Shane was a three-year starter for the Hurricanes.
Defense: Chad Thomas, Defensive End
The former five-star recruit played in 12 games last year but contributed very little. If the Hurricanes are going to improve this season, that must change. Like many on this year’s Miami squad, Thomas is long on potential but short on performance to date.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Offense: T.J. Logan, Running Back
Logan was recently named to the Paul Hornung Award Watch List. The Hornung Award is presented each year to the country’s most versatile player and Logan certainly is versatile. Last season he led the Heels’ running backs in rushing, caught 26 passes, and also averaged 25.3 yards on kickoff returns.
Defense: Gene Chizik, Defensive Coordinator
The Tar Heels’ defense was a train wreck last fall, ranking 116th in scoring defense and 117th in total defense. Chizik, who guided Auburn to the 2010 BCS National Championship, has a huge task in turning around this side of the ball.
Offense: Adam Bisnowaty, Offensive Tackle
Running back James Conner is a star. So is Tyler Boyd at wide receiver. Quarterback Chad Voytik showed progress last year. But those guys need help up front and Bisnowaty is the most experienced of the returnees.
Defense: Lafayette Pitts, Cornerback
Pitts has had a nice career at Pittsburgh, starting 38 games. With Pat Narduzzi taking over as head coach, a more attacking style of defense will be implemented. The new coach likes aggressive corners that can make plays, which really hasn’t been Pitts’ game during his otherwise solid career.
Offense: Taquan Mizzell, Running Back
Like many on this list, Mizzell came in with high expectations and has yet to flourish. With starting tailback Kevin Parks no longer around, Mizzell has a golden opportunity. There is uncertainty at quarterback, so Virginia needs Mizzell to explode.
Defense: Mike Moore, Defensive End
The Cavaliers’ defense had an impressive 34 sacks last year. But Moore is the leading returning pass rusher and he had just three sacks. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta loves to send pressure and if Moore is a handful for opposing offensive lines, more lanes to the quarterback will open.