Florida State and Clemson are projected to be two of the nation’s best teams this fall, so it should be no surprise these two programs return some of the ACC’s top individual talents. Quarterback Deshaun Watson leads the way in Athlon’s top 40 players returning in the ACC for 2016, followed by Florida State running back Dalvin Cook at No. 2. The first defensive player on the board is Derwin James at No. 3, but Clemson defenders Ben Boulware (LB), Christian Wilkins (DL), Carlos Watkins (DL) and Cordrea Tankersley (CB) also make an appearance in the top 40.
With the season approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the best players in the nation within each conference. How did we come up with these rankings? Many factors were considered. Overall talent, production, level of competition, position importance and projected output in 2016 all factored into the rankings. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what players accomplished in 2015. Here’s a look at the top 40 players in the ACC for 2016:
Ranking the ACC's Top 40 Players for 2016
Just Missed: DeAngelo Brown, DL, Louisville; Matt Dayes, RB, NC State; Jay Guillermo, C, Clemson; Ken Ekanem, DL, Virginia Tech
40. Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
A breakout season should be in order for Trubisky in his first year at the helm for coach Larry Fedora.
39. Micah Kiser, LB, Virginia
Kiser led Virginia's defense with 117 stops in 2015. His presence is critical for a defense returning only two starters in the front seven.
38. Wyatt Teller, OL, Virginia Tech
Teller is a standout run blocker and helped pave the way for running back Travon McMillian to eclipse 1,000 yards in 2015.
37. Harold Landry, DL, Boston College
As a sophomore last year, Landry accumulated 4.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss in 12 games. He’s a rising star to watch for the Eagles in 2016.
36. Al-Quadin Muhmamad, DL, Miami
New line coach Craig Kuligowski is one of the nation’s top defensive assistants. He should help Muhammad take the next step in his development this fall. (Note: Muhammad was dismissed from Miami after this article was published).
35. Matt Milano, LB, Boston College
Steven Daniels will be missed, but Boston College isn’t starting from scratch at linebacker. Milano anchors this unit after a standout 2015 campaign (17.5 tackles for loss).
34. Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech
New coach Justin Fuente returns two of the ACC’s top playmakers in the passing attack, with receiver Isaiah Ford and Hodges (tight end) slated to pick up where they left off in 2015. Hodges grabbed 40 receptions for 530 yards and six touchdowns last fall.
33. Jordan Leggett, TE, Clemson
Leggett is the first of three Clemson receiving threats to make this list. A strong case could be made for the senior as college football’s top tight end after catching 40 passes for 525 yards and six scores in 2015.
32. Jaylen Samuels, All-Purpose/Tight End, NC State
Few players stuffed the stat sheet like Samuels did in 2015. Not only was Samuels the top target (65 catches for 597 yards and seven scores) in the Wolfpack passing game, he also rushed for 368 yards and nine touchdowns.
31. Ryan Switzer, WR, North Carolina
In addition to his ability to make an impact on special teams (seven career punt returns), Switzer is also one of the ACC’s top receivers. He grabbed 55 receptions for 697 yards and six touchdowns last year.
30. Des Lawrence, CB, North Carolina
North Carolina’s cornerback tandem of Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart is quietly among the best in the nation. Lawrence broke up 14 passes and picked off two throws in a solid 2015 campaign.
29. M.J. Stewart, CB, North Carolina
Stewart slightly edges teammate Des Lawrence as the top corner in Chapel Hill. As mentioned above, this tandem is one of the best cornerback duos in the nation. Stewart led the team with four picks and also broke up 14 passes last year.
28. Keith Kelsey, LB, Louisville
Kelsey and teammate Devonte Fields form arguably the nation’s best linebacker tandem for 2016. Kelsey is a sideline-to-sideline enforcer for coordinator Todd Grantham, leading the Louisville defense with 107 tackles in 13 games last year.
27. Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson
Playmaker. That’s the best way to describe Scott, as the junior plays a big role in Clemson’s screen game and utilizes his speed to stretch the field. Scott led the team with 93 catches for 901 yards and six scores last year.
26. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State
Nnadi is an underrated cog in Florida State’s defensive front. The Virginia native earned third-team All-ACC honors after recording 45 tackles (two for a loss) and two sacks. Nnadi’s impact on the defensive line goes well beyond what shows up in the box score each Saturday.
25. Josh Sweat, DE, Florida State
Sweat overcame a serious leg injury as a high school senior to compete right away at a high level as a true freshman in 2015. He played in all 13 games and accumulated 41 tackles (five for a loss), two sacks and recorded one interception. Sweat should have a breakout 2016 season.
24. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
Blanding has been a standout performer over the last two years and finished 2015 ranked second on the team with 115 stops, while also recording one interception, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. He should continue to develop into one of the ACC’s top defenders under new coach Bronco Mendenhall.
23. Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson
All signs point to a huge season from Wilkins. As a true freshman last fall, Wilkins played in all 15 games and recorded 33 tackles (4.5 for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. He also showcased his versatility by catching a 31-yard pass on a fake punt in the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. Wilkins is expected to see snaps on the interior and off the edge for coordinator Brent Venables in 2016.
22. Carlos Watkins, DL, Clemson
Clemson’s defense has produced its share of standouts off the edge in recent years, but the strength of the line is on the interior in 2016. In his first full season as a starter in 2015, Watkins earned first-team All-ACC honors after recording 69 stops (eight for a loss) and 3.5 sacks.
21. Ejuan Price, DE, Pitt
After a limited 2013 season and a lost 2014 campaign due to injury, Price stayed healthy and delivered a breakout year for coach Pat Narduzzi. Price led the way for Pitt’s defensive line, recording 48 stops (19.5 for a loss), 11.5 sacks and two pass breakups. Price tied for first among ACC defenders with 8.5 sacks in conference play last year.
20. Dorian Johnson, OL, Pitt
Johnson has been a stalwart on Pitt’s offensive line over the last two years and is an Athlon Sports fourth-team All-American for 2016.
19. Marquez White, CB, Florida State
Don’t be deceived by the stat sheet. White only posted two pass breakups and one interception in 13 games last year. However, there’s a good reason for that: Opposing quarterbacks rarely threw in his direction. White should push for All-America honors in 2016.
18. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
As a true freshman last season, Hyatt was trusted to protect the blindside of quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Georgia native started all 15 games and played the most snaps by a freshman offensive lineman in school history. Hyatt’s development was critical in the improvement of Clemson’s offensive line over the course of the season.
17. Ben Boulware, LB, Clemson
Clemson’s linebacker unit will miss B.J. Goodson, but coordinator Brent Venables has a good foundation to build around in 2016 with the return of Boulware. The senior is the heart and soul of the front seven, registering 82 tackles (eight for a loss), 3.5 sacks, seven pass breakups and three forced fumbles in 2015.
16. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Williams suffered a season-ending neck injury in the opener against Wofford last year but is back at full strength for 2016. Prior to the injury, Williams ranked as one of the nation’s top receivers after hauling in 57 catches for 1,030 yards and six scores in 2014.
15. James Conner, RB, Pitt
Conner’s return to the field is one of college football’s best storylines in 2016. It shouldn’t take long for the junior to return to his 2014 form – 1,765 rushing yards and 26 scores.
14. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
With Mackensie Alexander off to the NFL, Tankersley will slide into the No. 1 cover role for coordinator Brent Venables. Tankersley earned third-team All-ACC honors last year and broke up nine passes over 15 games.
13. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
Jackson is a dynamic playmaker for coach Bobby Petrino and one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback. As a true freshman last fall, Jackson threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores, while leading the team with 960 yards and 11 touchdowns. With a full offseason to work as the starter, along with Petrino’s ability to build an offense around him, Jackson is in for a huge 2016 season.
12. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
With much of the focus on Clemson’s offense devoted to the receivers and quarterback Deshaun Watson, it’s not crazy to suggest Gallman is underrated nationally after recording 1,527 yards and 13 scores last year.
11. Adam Bisnowaty, OL, Pitt
Bisnowaty anchors a Pitt offensive line that should rank among the nation’s best this season. The senior has started 30 games in his career and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2016.
10. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pitt
Whitehead earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors after a standout freshman season in 2015. The Pennsylvania native played in all 13 games, recording 109 tackles (six for a loss), one interception and six pass breakups. Not only is Whitehead one of the nation’s best safeties, but he’s also going to see time in a limited stint on offense. Whitehead’s versatility and all-around ability is a huge asset for coach Pat Narduzzi.
9. Isaiah Ford, WR, Virginia Tech
Ford was the only ACC receiver to reach 1,000 yards last season and finished 2015 by torching the Tulsa secondary for 227 yards in the Independence Bowl. Ford is one of the nation’s top receivers and needs 1,012 yards to set the new school record for most career receiving yards.
8. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Hood possesses a good blend of size, speed and power and emerged as one of the nation’s top running backs after recording 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first year as the starter in 2015. Hood could easily exceed those totals in 2016.
7. Roderick Johnson, OL, Florida State
Florida State’s offensive line should take a significant step forward in 2016, with Johnson leading the way as the anchor for coach Jimbo Fisher. Johnson earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy in 2015, which is awarded to the ACC’s top offensive lineman.The junior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2016.
6. DeMarcus Walker, DL, Florida State
One of college football’s most underrated assistant hires of 2015 was Florida State’s addition of Brad Lawing as the program’s defensive line coach. Lawing has a track record of developing talent in the trenches, and he was instrumental in pushing Walker to a breakout 2015 season. In 13 games, Walker accumulated 58 tackles (15.5 for a loss), 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
5. Devonte Fields, LB, Louisville
Fields needed a few games to regain the form that earned him Associated Press Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors at TCU in 2012. However, Fields quickly knocked off the rust and returned to form by midseason, finishing 2015 with 8.5 sacks over Louisville’s last four games. He also finished third among ACC defenders with 22.5 tackles for a loss.
4. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
New coach Mark Richt knows a thing or two about quarterback play, and the former Georgia coach should help Kaaya take the next step in his development this fall. After throwing for 3,198 yards and 26 scores as a freshman in 2014, Kaaya passed for 3,238 yards and 16 touchdowns last year.
3. Derwin James, DB, Florida State
James had a monster freshman season (91 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles) and is only scratching the surface of his potential. Even though James is one of the starting safeties, his versatility will allow coordinator Charles Kelly to use him in a variety of roles.
2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook overcame a few nagging injuries last year to set a new school record (1,691) in rushing yards and averaged a whopping 7.4 yards per rush on 229 carries. Not only is Cook the nation’s best big-play back, but he also possesses good power and was a factor (24 receptions) out of the backfield.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Watson set the bar high in his first full season as the starter. However, the junior is capable of elevating his game just a notch higher in 2016. That won’t be easy for a quarterback that accounted for 5,209 total yards and 47 overall scores, but Watson is capable of inching those numbers even higher with one of the nation’s top receiving corps in place, and the junior could lower his interceptions (13) just a bit. Of course, that’s just being picky for a quarterback that finished third in the Heisman voting in his first year as the starter. Watson should be the frontrunner to claim college football’s top honor and is easily the No. 1 overall player returning for the 2016 season.