The ACC enters 2016 as a conference on the rise. Both Clemson and Florida State have made appearances in the College Football Playoff over the last two years, and both teams are positioned for another run next fall. But the league’s overall depth is improving, thanks to a Louisville team that’s on the rise, as well as stellar coaching hires at Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Miami and Virginia this offseason. The overall talent level in this league is high, as two players – Florida State running back Dalvin Cook and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson – are among the nation’s top frontrunners to win the Heisman next fall.
As spring practice begins around the ACC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2016.
With spring practice just underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list could look a lot different by the time fall practice begins. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2015 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2016, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2016, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the ACC for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
ACC's Pre-Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2016
10 to Watch on Offense: Jaylen Samuels, TE, NC State; Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech; Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson; Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina; Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami; Dorian Johnson, OG, Pittsburgh; Jon Heck, OT, North Carolina; Jay Guillermo, C, Clemson; Caleb Peterson, OG, North Carolina; Matt Dayes, RB, NC State
10 to Watch on Defense: Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson; Brad Watson, CB, Wake Forest; Marquez White, CB, Florida State; Harold Landry, DE, Boston College; Josh Harvey-Clemons, S, Louisville; Micah Kizer, LB, Virginia; Brandon Facyson, CB, Virginia Tech; DeVon Edwards, S, Duke; M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina; Matt Milano, LB, Boston College
25. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat is a name to remember for 2016 and a player that could easily climb these rankings by the end of spring practice. After suffering a serious leg injury as a high school senior, Sweat was relentless in his recovery and returned in time to play in all 13 games for the Seminoles last season. Sweat recorded 41 stops (five for a loss), two sacks and two pass breakups as a true freshman in 2015. With another offseason to work in the weight room and develop under line coach Brad Lawing, expect to see Sweat as one of the breakout stars for Florida State in 2016.
24. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech’s 2015 season was a disappointment, but there’s reason for optimism entering spring practice. The Yellow Jackets return plenty of experience at running back, receiver and on the offensive line, which should translate into improvement. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Thomas is back to run the option attack. He threw for 1,345 yards and 13 scores last season and ran for 488 yards and six touchdowns. That’s a drop from his 2014 totals (1,086 rushing yards). Thomas should have a rebound year in 2016.
Related: Ranking the ACC Rosters for 2016
23. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Williams was poised to build off an impressive 2014 campaign (57 catches for 1,030 yards) last fall, but a neck injury against Wofford in the opener ended his season. All signs point to a return to full strength for Williams, giving quarterback Deshaun Watson another target in one of the nation’s top receiving corps.
22. Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson
Scott only averaged 9.7 yards per catch last season, but he’s a key cog in Clemson’s passing attack in the screen game. On 93 receptions in 2015, Scott recorded 901 yards and also reached paydirt six times.
21. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
Mackensie Alexander received most of the attention in the Clemson secondary, but Tankersley quietly developed into another All-ACC cornerback on the other side. In addition to recording 48 tackles, Tankersley picked off five passes and led all Tigers with nine pass breakups last season. He should slide into the No. 1 corner role for Clemson.
20. Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson
Standout ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson are gone, but the cupboard isn’t empty for coordinator Brent Venables. Watkins is back for his senior campaign and should continue to dominate the interior of the line after recording 7.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks in 2015.
19. Adam Bisnowaty, OT, Pittsburgh
Bisnowaty and teammate Dorian Johnson are both worthy of mention in this space. However, a slight edge goes to the Bisnowaty as the anchor of a Pittsburgh line that should be one of the best in the ACC next season. Bisnowaty has started 30 games over the last three years and earned second-team All-ACC honors last year.
18. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks on the rise and a dangerous dual-threat option for coach Bobby Petrino. After throwing for 1,840 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushing for 960 yards and 11 scores last season, Jackson is only going to get better as a sophomore with a full offseason to work as the starter.
17. Keith Kelsey, LB, Louisville
Kelsey is the first of two Louisville linebackers to appear on this list. After ranking second on the team in tackles in 2014, Kelsey paced the Louisville defense with 107 stops (12 for a loss) last season and recorded 3.5 sacks. The Florida native should push for first-team All-ACC honors in 2016.
16. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
The best news of the offseason has to revolve around the health of Conner in his recovery from Hodgkin lymphoma. Coach Pat Narduzzi has indicated he believes Conner will play in 2016, and the junior is attending the team’s offseason conditioning workouts. Pittsburgh won’t have to rush Conner back this fall with capable backup Qadree Ollison recording 1,121 yards last season.
15. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
New Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall has a strong reputation on the defensive side of the ball from his tenure at BYU. Additionally, his acumen and background on defense should help Blanding continue to develop as a player after a solid start to his career with the Cavaliers. Blanding is a former five-star recruit and is coming off back-to-back seasons of over 100 tackles. He should be in the mix for All-America honors at safety this season.
14. Ejuan Price, DE, Pittsburgh
The Panthers received good news in early February when Price was granted a sixth year of eligibility for 2016. The Pennsylvania native is one of the top edge rushers in the ACC and finished 2015 with 11.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for a loss and one forced fumble.
13. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
Ford was the ACC’s only 1,000-yard receiver last season, and his 1,164-yard campaign was the best mark in school history. Ford also averaged a healthy 15.5 yards per reception and grabbed 11 touchdown scores. He should benefit from the hire of Justin Fuente - a proven offensive mind at TCU and Memphis - as the program’s new head coach.
12. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Hood was North Carolina’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012 by recording 1,463 yards and 17 scores on 219 attempts. He also ranked third among ACC running backs last season by averaging 106.8 rushing yards in conference games. Expect to see Hood even more involved in 2016.
11. Devonte Fields, LB, Louisville
Fields was one of the Big 12’s top defenders at TCU, but an off-field incident forced him to spend a year at Trinity Valley Community College. The Texas native returned to the FBS level and was a force off the edge for coordinator Todd Grantham. Fields closed 2015 on a tear, recording seven sacks over the final three games, including three against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. He also registered 64 tackles (22.5 for a loss) last season.
10. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
Whitehead won ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2015 and is poised for an even bigger role with the Panthers next fall. After a limited role on offense last season (132 yards), the Panthers plan to utilize Whitehead as more of a two-way player in 2016. While the Pennsylvania native is due to see a few more snaps on offense, he’s still one of the top defensive backs in the ACC. Whitehead recorded 108 tackles, one interception and six tackles for a loss in 2015.
9. Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson
Boulware is just one of four returning starters for coordinator Brent Venables from last year’s standout defense. Boulware earned first-team all-conference honors from the ACC coaches and is the team’s top returning tackler for 2016 (82 stops last year).
8. DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
Florida State’s defensive line showed marked improvement under the direction of Brad Lawing last season. The Seminoles finished last in the ACC in sacks in 2014 (17) but improved that number to 32 in 2015. Walker thrived under Lawing’s tutelage in 2015, recording 10.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles.
7. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
Clemson’s offense runs through quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the ground attack shouldn’t be overlooked with Gallman leading the charge. The Georgia native recorded 1,527 yards and 13 scores last year and caught 21 passes for 213 yards and one touchdown. Not only is Gallman versatile enough to pop a big play on the ground, he also has the strength and power to get the tough yards between the tackles.
6. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
Kaaya is one of the big winners from Miami’s coaching change, as former Hurricane quarterback Mark Richt should help the junior take his game to the next level. Kaaya missed one game due to injury last season but still threw for 3,238 yards and 16 scores.
5. Derwin James, S, Florida State
James became a bigger part of Florida State’s defense over the course of 2015 and is poised to challenge for All-America honors as a sophomore next fall. In 13 games last year, James recorded 91 stops (9.5 tackles for a loss), 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, James is already one of the most physically impressive safeties in the nation.
4. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Hyatt was one of the nation’s top true freshmen last season and a key cog in Clemson’s run to the national championship game. The Georgia native started all 15 games for the Tigers, set the school record for most snaps played by a true freshman offensive lineman and earned third-team All-ACC honors.
3. Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
Johnson enters 2016 with 18 consecutive starts at left tackle and is the anchor for a Florida State offensive line expected to take a step forward next fall. The Missouri native won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC’s top offensive linemen last season and was voted first-team all-conference.
2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Despite a nagging hamstring and ankle injury in October, Cook still managed to rush for 1,691 yards and 19 scores last season. Additionally, Cook recorded 100 yards in four out of his final five games, including 183 yards in a 27-2 victory over rival Florida. He should be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson is the catalyst behind Clemson’s high-powered attack, and after a standout sophomore campaign, the bar is set high for the junior quarterback in 2016. In 15 games last year, Watson threw for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdowns and added 1,105 yards and 12 rushing scores. Watson should open 2016 as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.