Which ACC players are poised for a breakout year?
Breakout players and the emergence of new faces are one of college football’s annual traditions. Players can go from a backup position into a starting role to earn all-conference honors or produce a big season. Incoming or redshirt freshmen can also make an impact in their first season on campus. Regardless of how players arrive on campus, it’s no secret a new wave of standouts will emerge next season.
With spring practice finished for all 128 teams, this is the first opportunity for coaching staffs to get a look at how their team stacks up for 2016. Additionally, this is also the first chance for players to step up into the spotlight and emerge as a breakout candidate.
Who are the names to watch in 2016 as players on the rise in the ACC? Here are 15 names to watch now that spring ball has finished in the conference:
ACC's Top 15 Players on the Rise for 2016
Andrew Brown, DL, Virginia
Placing Brown in this list is a bit of a gamble. He was a big-time pickup on the recruiting trail in 2014 as a five-star recruit for former coach Mike London. However, over the last two years, Brown has played in only 16 games and has just 10 tackles and one sack on the stat sheet. Despite the minimal production from 2014-15, Brown needs to be a key cog up front on Virginia’s defense under new coach Bronco Mendenhall. With Mendenhall and assistant Ruffin McNeill pushing Brown to improve, the junior should have a breakout performance in 2016.
Geron Christian, OT, Louisville
The offensive line is Louisville’s biggest question mark entering the 2016 season, but there are pieces for coach Bobby Petrino to work with. Christian is one of the players to watch in the trenches, as the Florida native returns after starting all 13 games at left tackle as a true freshman last season. At 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, Christian has good size to anchor the left side of the line and will only get better with another year to work in the weight room.
Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State
Mike Rose (10.5 sacks) departs Raleigh, but NC State’s defensive line still has talented pieces in place. Chubb recorded 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for a loss in 13 games last season and is poised to take on a bigger role with Rose out of eligibility. The Georgia native is a converted linebacker with good speed off the edge to wreak havoc against opposing offensive linemen.
Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse
It’s no secret Dungey was one of the big winners of Syracuse’s coaching change and the hire of Dino Babers. The Orange are shifting their offensive style to more of an up-tempo, wide-open spread attack, which should play well in the Carrier Dome. And there’s a track record of success under Babers, as his offense at Bowling Green in 2015 averaged 42.2 points a game. Dungey showed promise in eight games last year, throwing for 1,298 yards and 11 scores. With a new wide-open offense in place, Dungey should post huge numbers in his first year under Babers.
Duke Ejiofor, DL, Wake Forest
Wake Forest’s defense might have been one of the ACC’s most underrated units last season. The Demon Deacons limited opponents to just 24.6 points a game and ranked second in the ACC in red zone defense. And with a strong core returning in 2016, Wake Forest’s defense should be near the top of the ACC once again. Ejiofor is one of the leaders for coordinator Mike Elko, as he recorded 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss in only seven games last year. With a full season of snaps ahead, Ejiofor should easily surpass those totals and push for All-ACC honors.
Dewayne Hendrix, DE, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh already boasts one of the ACC’s top linemen in end Ejuan Price, and the pass rush could get even better with the addition of Hendrix as a transfer from Tennessee. Hendrix ranked as the No. 117 overall recruit in the 2014 signing class and played in seven games during his first year with the Volunteers. After sitting out a year due to transfer rules, Hendrix is poised to claim a starting job opposite of Price and provide another potential standout to Pat Narduzzi’s defense.
Derwin James, S, Florida State
James could be too established for this list, but the sophomore is poised for a monster year. The Florida native played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2015 and recorded 91 stops (9.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. James could be used in a variety of roles for coordinator Charles Kelly, and his versatility will be a huge bonus for a defense that loses Jalen Ramsey.
Harold Landry, DE, Boston College
Boston College’s defense didn’t have much help from its offense last year, yet managed to hold opponents to only 15.3 points a game and finish first nationally in fewest yards per play allowed (4.1). Even though coordinator Don Brown left for Michigan, the Eagles should have one of the ACC’s top defenses in 2016. Landry is one of the building blocks for Brown after a promising sophomore campaign. In 12 contests, Landry recorded 60 tackles (15.5 for a loss), 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Expect Landry to push for first-team All-ACC honors in 2016.
Travon McMillian, RB, Virginia Tech
McMillian recorded Virginia Tech’s first 1,000-yard season in three years by rushing for 1,042 yards and seven scores last season. He emerged as the Hokies’ go-to option in the second half of 2015 and rushed for at least 80 yards in each of the team’s last eight games. McMillian also recorded three consecutive 100-yard performances late in the year and rushed for 82 yards on 16 attempts against Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. With a full season to work as the starter, another 1,000-yard campaign is certainly within reach for McMillian.
Brant Mitchell, LB, Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech’s defense surrendered 31.3 points in ACC contests last season, and with a revamped secondary in place for 2016, improvement on this unit has to start up front. The good news for the Yellow Jackets? There’s talent in the front seven, headlined by end KeShun Freeman, tackle Patrick Gamble and linebacker P.J. Davis. Another player likely to join the list of standouts on defense in 2016 should be Mitchell. In 12 appearances as a true freshman last season, Mitchell impressed by recording 36 tackles (2.5 for a loss), one sack and two interceptions.
Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE, Miami
New line coach Craig Kuligowski was regarded as one of the best in the nation at Missouri, and his arrival in Coral Gables should provide a good boost to Miami’s defensive line. Muhammad flashed potential late last year, recording two sacks over the final three games. The New Jersey native finished 2015 with 54 overall stops (8.5 for a loss), five sacks and one pass breakup. Look for Muhammad to emerge as one of the ACC’s top defensive linemen in 2016.
Marquies Price, DE, Duke
Price’s contribution to the stat sheet was minimal last year. In 10 appearances, the Georgia native recorded 11 tackles (3.5 tackles for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. However, the sophomore is expected to have a breakout campaign for Duke’s defense in 2016. The Blue Devils are replacing a handful of key performers in the trenches from last year’s unit, including tackle Carlos Wray and end Kyler Brown. Expect Price to emerge as a key cog in the front seven for coordinator Jim Knowles.
Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
Florida State’s receiving corps returns three players with at least 50 receptions, but coach Jimbo Fisher needs more from this unit in 2016. Tate is a name to remember this fall after a huge spring, which was capped by catching six passes for 100 yards and two scores in the Garnet and Gold Game. Even though the Seminoles have proven targets at the top of the receiving corps, why might Tate be an appealing option for more snaps? At 6-foot-5 and 218 pounds, Tate would provide the passing game some much-needed size on the outside.
Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
Marquise Williams leaves big shoes to fill after earning second-team All-ACC honors last season, but North Carolina’s quarterback position is in good hands with Trubisky. In limited snaps over the last two seasons, Trubisky has completed 82 of 125 passes for 1,014 yards and 11 scores. The junior may not be as dynamic of a runner as Williams was, but he certainly isn’t a statue in the pocket. Trubisky could push for All-ACC honors in 2016.
Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
For the second consecutive season, coordinator Brent Venables has plenty of work to do in rebuilding Clemson’s defensive front. However, just as the Tigers showed last year, there’s no shortage of talent and the drop off in production should be minimal. Wilkins flashed his talent in 15 appearances last season, recording 33 tackles (4.5 for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. His versatility is also a huge asset for Venables, as Wilkins could see snaps at end and tackle. A breakout year is coming for Wilkins in a full-time role this fall.