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College Football's Pivotal Players: Six from the ACC


On Monday, teams around the nation will move from preseason camp mode and into game-week preparation.

We’re starting to see coaches name starting quarterbacks and settle on position battles.

Although questions are still out there before the season, some weigh more heavily than others. As the preseason winds down, we’re picking who we believe to be “pivotal players,” or in other words, key players who need to step up where their teams need them most.

Athlon Sports’ characteristics of a “pivotal player:”
• He plays for a conference or division contender.
• He plays at a position of weakness for his team.
• He’s an unestablished player with potential to solidify his team’s position of weakness.

We begin our look at pivotal players with the ACC with other conferences to follow.

Nick Becton, OT, Virginia Tech
Running back seems to be the most obvious void for Virginia Tech, but the Hokies have had little trouble filling that spot over the years. The bigger concern may be offensive line, where the Hokies lost Blake DeChristopher among others. Becton had been projected as a starter at times in his career, but he’s been limited to part-time duty due to injury. Virginia Tech needs him to stay healthy to protect Logan Thomas’ blind side. Right tackle Vinston Painter was a major in-state recruit in 2008, but he has yet to start a game for the Hokies.
Related:Logan Thomas is a rising star in the ACC

Bashaud Breeland, CB, Clemson
Clemson’s defensive shortcomings are well-documented, but what are the Tigers going to do about it? First, they hired Brent Venables. Now, they need a handful of defensive players to emerge. The defensive line lacks depth, but we’re going to focus on the secondary in a league full of quality veteran quarterbacks. Without their top cover corner (Coty Sensabaugh), the Tigers need Breeland to take the next step. As a redshirt freshman last season, he had a critical interception to spark Clemson’s rally to defeat Maryland and added another pick in the ACC Championship Game.
Related:Clemson S Blanks among top freshmen to watch in ACC

Cameron Erving, OT, Florida State
At West Virginia, offensive line coach Rick Trickett earned a reputation of developing unlikely all-conference and All-American offensive linemen. Erving may be in that mold. He was an unheralded defensive line recruit and then an unheralded defensive line backup. He moved to left tackle last season, his first time playing on the offensive line. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has raved about the 6-foot-6, 309 sophomore since the spring. The Seminoles now need him to keep E.J. Manuel healthy. That was tough to do as Florida State quarterbacks were sacked 41 times last season.
Related:Clemson at Florida State tops list of ACC’s must-see games

Jeff Greene, WR, Georgia Tech
Don’t get too wrapped up in Georgia Tech’s option offense to believe receivers are irrelevant for the Yellow Jackets. Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill have taken advantage of defenses creeping up to stop the run by averaging more than 20 yards per catch -- Thomas led the NCAA with 29.3 yards per catch. The Yellow Jackets don’t return a wide receiver who caught a pass last season. The 6-4, 200-pound sophomore Greene may have the most potential of the Yellow Jackets’ receiving corps. Georgia Tech may only need one good receiver, if Greene can deliver, that at least gives defenses more threats to ponder.
Related: “Georgia Tech can run, but they can’t hide an inconsistent passing game,” says opposing coach in Athlon’s ACC anonymous scouting reports

Sterling Lucas, LB, NC State
NC State lost every starting linebacker, most notably Audie Cole. If there was any consolation, the fifth-year senior Lucas spent last season redshirting during his recovery from a knee injury. He’ll bring leadership to a position that needs stability. The only returning linebacker with experience, Lucas was named defensive captain before the start of preseason practice. He had 86 career tackles from 2008-10.
Related: Wolfpack’s Amerson checks in at No. 2 in top 50 ACC players

Tim Smith, WR, Virginia
Productive wide receivers haven’t been a strong suit for Virginia in recent years. Kris Burd’s 913 receiving yards last season were the most for the Cavaliers in a decade -- and even that came with only three touchdowns and 13.8 yards per catch. The junior Tim Smith could be a deep threat after averaging 17.1 yards per catch last season. That is, if the Cavs settle on a quarterback.
Related:ACC storylines: Will Cavs’ QB Michael Rocco hold off pressure from Phillip Sims?

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-David Fox 

Follow @DavidFox615