Every college football team has players most would consider underrated. However, defining underrated players is no easy assignment, as that term varies in meaning between fans and experts. With the 2016 season approaching, Athlon Sports wanted to take a look at some players deserving of more preseason accolades or discussion. In an effort to get to 15 names, we tried to stick to players that had yet to earn all-conference honors in their career. However, a few exceptions were made.
The balance of power in the ACC clearly rests with the Atlantic Division in 2016, as Florida State and Clemson are expected to challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff, while Louisville ranks as a top 15-20 team in most preseason projections. However, the cupboard isn't bare on the Coastal side. North Carolina's cornerback duo of Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart is quietly among the best in the nation, while linebackers P.J. Davis (Georgia Tech) and Matt Galambos (Pitt) are two of the league's most underrated players.
The ACC's 15 Most Underrated Players for 2016
Josh Banks, DT, Wake Forest
Banks has quietly anchored the interior of Wake Forest’s defensive line the last two seasons. The North Carolina native started all 12 games for the Demon Deacons in 2014 and finished the year with 36 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble. Prior to a suspension that ended Banks’ 2015 campaign after the ninth game, he recorded 24 stops (two for a loss) and one sack. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound tackle won’t accumulate big stats, but his impact his felt beyond the box score for coach Dave Clawson’s defense.
Related: ACC Predictions for 2016
Casey Blaser, OL, Duke
The interior of the Blue Devils’ offensive line must be revamped with the departure of guard Lucas Patrick and center Matt Skura, but the return of tackles Gabe Brandner and Blaser provide a solid foundation for 2016. Blaser emerged as a key cog for Duke’s offensive line in 2014 and started all 13 games for coach David Cutcliffe. In 2015, Blaser once again started all 13 games and earned honorable mention All-ACC honors. Expect Blaser to deliver a standout senior season as the anchor for Duke’s front five.
DeAngelo Brown, DT, Louisville
Sheldon Rankins leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches for coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense. While Rankins will be missed, the Cardinals aren’t completely rebuilding up front. Brown has been a key part for the defensive line over the last two years, finishing 2015 with 40 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and two sacks. The Georgia native should push for all-conference honors this fall.
P.J. Davis, LB, Georgia Tech
At 5-foot-11 and 231 pounds, Davis doesn’t possess the prototypical size for a linebacker, but the Georgia native is a standout playmaker for coach Paul Johnson’s defense. Davis has accumulated 237 tackles (20 for a loss) and four forced fumbles in his three seasons with the Yellow Jackets. His best overall year took place in 2014, recording 119 stops and three forced fumbles in 14 appearances.
Matt Galambos, LB, Pitt
With eight starters back, Pitt’s defense is expected to take a step forward in the second year under coach Pat Narduzzi. This unit is anchored by All-America candidates in end Ejuan Price and safety Jordan Whitehead, but Galambos is quietly making a push to be considered among the ACC’s best at linebacker. The Pennsylvania native has played in 39 career games and accumulated 198 overall stops in that span. Galambos also thrived under Narduzzi last fall, as he finished 2015 with 88 tackles (10 for a loss) and five sacks.
B.J. Hill, DT, NC State
Mike Rose (10.5 sacks in 2015) must be replaced, but with Bradley Chubb and Hill leading the way up front, NC State’s defensive line should still rank among the best in the ACC. Hill was instrumental on the interior and helped NC State finish fifth in the ACC against the run last fall. He also recorded 51 tackles (11 for a loss) and forced three fumbles. After two steady seasons with the Wolfpack, the junior is due for a breakout campaign this fall.
Steve Ishmael, WR, Syracuse
Inconsistency and injuries at quarterback have hindered Syracuse’s passing attack over the last few seasons. As a result, Ishmael’s numbers haven’t quite matched his potential. In 12 appearances last year, Ishmael grabbed 39 passes for 570 yards and seven touchdowns and averaged a healthy 14.6 yards per catch. Under new coach Dino Babers and rising star Eric Dungey at quarterback, Ishmael should have a career season in 2016.
Danny Isidora, OL, Miami
Even with four starters returning, Miami’s offensive line enters 2016 as one of the team’s biggest concerns. This unit struggled to open holes in the ground game (3.7 ypc) and gave up 19 sacks over 13 games. One player new line coach Stacy Searels won’t have to worry about in terms of performance is Isidora. The Florida native enters 2016 with 26 consecutive starts and is expected to anchor the line after earning honorable mention All-ACC honors last fall.
Des Lawrence/M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina
Both Lawrence and Stewart earned a mention on the ACC’s all-conference team last season, but it’s probably fair to say these two players deserve more credit on the national level. Lawrence played in 14 games in 2015 and finished the year with 59 tackles, two interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Stewart was just as effective, recording 62 tackles (2.5 for a loss), four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. The play of Lawrence and Stewart was a big reason why North Carolina ranked 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Jackson Matteo, C, Virginia
Virginia returns only 10 starters, so a lot of new faces will be stepping into key roles for first-year coach Bronco Mendenhall. Matteo should be one of the leaders for the Cavaliers’ offense this fall, as the senior anchors the line after starting all 12 games in 2015. Matteo was named to the Rimington Trophy award watch list for 2016 and earned a spot on Athlon Sports’ projected All-ACC (fourth) team.
Travon McMillian, RB, Virginia Tech
McMillian emerged as Virginia Tech’s go-to back in the second half of last season and finished 2015 with 1,042 yards and seven scores on just 200 carries. After recording only 32 carries through the first five games last year, McMillian posted double-digit attempts in each of the final eight contests, including 33 against Boston College. He also recorded three 100-yard efforts and scored twice in Virginia Tech’s bowl win over Tulsa. McMillian is poised to take on an even bigger role in 2016 under new coach Justin Fuente.
Matt Milano, LB, Boston College
Boston College’s defense was one of the nation’s best in 2015, and despite a few personnel losses, the Eagles should rank near the top of the ACC in 2016. New coordinator Jim Reid won’t have standout linebacker Steven Daniels at his disposal, but this unit is still anchored by Milano and fellow standout Connor Strachan. Milano recorded 60 tackles (including a team-high 17.5 for a loss last season), 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Milano should be one of the ACC’s top linebackers in 2016.
Related: ACC 2016 All-Conference Team
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Loaded. That’s the one word that best describes the 2016 receiving corps at Clemson. Mike Williams returns after a season-ending neck injury, Artavis Scott is an All-America candidate after grabbing 93 receptions in 2015, and there’s additional support provided by tight end Jordan Leggett and sophomore receivers Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson and Ray-Ray McCloud. While Scott, Williams and Leggett are likely to garner most of the attention from opposing defenses, Renfrow is another weapon for quarterback Deshaun Watson. As a freshman last fall, Renfrow grabbed 33 receptions for 492 yards and five scores, including seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama. After a standout performance in the College Football Playoff last year, Renfrow should see a few more passes in his direction in 2016.
Marquez White, CB, Florida State
Jalen Ramsey was the unquestioned leader and top player in Florida State’s secondary last season, but White quietly turned in a standout 2015 campaign and is poised to emerge as an All-America candidate this fall. White’s statistics last fall – 25 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups – were low due to teams avoiding his side of the field. White did not earn All-ACC honors last season but should be one of the league’s top defenders in 2016.