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ACC's most indispensable players

3/30/2014

A week ago, Jameis Winston skipped a day of spring practice and headed to Clemson with Florida State’s baseball team, leaving the Seminoles football squad with Sean Maguire running the first-team offense in what was part practice session, part disaster drill.

As our Florida State beat writer Jared Shanker wrote afterward, as adept as Maguire might be, the Seminoles simply don’t have a solid Plan B if Winston went down. How could they? Heisman Trophy winners don't grow on trees, and Winston is, without question, the most irreplaceable player in the ACC -- and perhaps in all of college football.

While the Heisman winner sets the bar, however, Florida State is hardly the only program that would be declaring a state of emergency if its star went down with an injury. With that in mind, these are the next five most indispensable players in the ACC.

Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke

Duke shocked the college football world last season by winning the ACC Coastal Division and nearly knocking off Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl behind one of the conference’s most explosive offenses, and no one was more integral to that success than Crowder.

The rising senior was targeted a whopping 174 times last year, meaning he was on the receiving end of nearly 40 percent of all of the Blue Devils’ passing plays. His 108 catches were more than triple the number hauled in by any other returning receiver on Duke’s roster, and combined with his role as Duke’s top punt returner Crowder finished with 1,832 all-purpose yards for the season -- fourth most in the ACC.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

Johnson was Miami’s best playmaker as a sophomore in 2013, and after he went down with an ankle injury against eventual national champion Florida State on Nov. 2 (having racked up 97 rushing yards in the first three quarters), the Hurricanes’ offense simply wasn’t the same. In the first seven games of the year with a healthy Johnson, Miami was 7-0 and averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a team. In the five full games without Johnson to end the year, the Hurricanes limped to a 2-3 finish, averaging just 3.5 yards per rush, culminating with an ugly 28 carries for 14 yards in the bowl game against Louisville. Johnson is out for spring practice as he continues to rehab his ankle, but he’ll likely shoulder an even bigger burden offensively this fall with a new QB taking over the offense and last year's backup, Dallas Crawford, moving to safety.

Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB, Louisville

If nothing else, Louisville’s new defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, will know just how tough things can be without Mauldin by the time the spring is done. Mauldin, one of just two returning starters in the Cardinals’ front seven, is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, but he remains an integral part of Grantham’s new 3-4 scheme. Mauldin started all 13 games for Louisville last season, finishing with 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, but he’ll move from defensive end to outside linebacker this year. If all goes well, he could develop into one of the league’s top pass rushers. If the injury lingers or Mauldin can’t play catch-up in Grantham’s system during fall camp, however, Louisville’s revamped defensive front could be in for a long season.

Shaq Mason, OG, Georgia Tech

For Georgia Tech, the most crucial cog is probably Paul Johnson’s triple option system, and that certainly won’t change this year. But the rest of the offense? There’s going to be a major overhaul in 2014. Gone are three of Tech’s starting linemen, its two leading rushers and its starting quarterback (the latter trio accounting for 60 percent of the Yellow Jackets’ rushing attempts in 2013). Still, the Tech running game has found success year after year because Johnson has continued to have linemen get the job done, and Mason is one of the best he has had on the Flats. A first-team All-ACC performer last year, Mason has 26 starts under his belt -- seven more than the rest of the Jackets’ linemen combined — and was the conference’s lineman of the week in each of Tech’s biggest wins in 2013 (Duke and UNC).

Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson

In the past two years, Clemson has lost just two ACC games -- both to Florida State, and both keeping the Tigers from playing for a conference title. In those two games, Beasley -- the team’s leader in sacks each season -- combined for just two tackles and no sacks. As Clemson looks ahead to a 2014 season without its signature offensive stars in Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and its two starting cornerbacks, the focus is squarely on a defensive line that returns four starters, including Beasley, an All-American. If the Tigers are going to compete with FSU for the Atlantic Division crown, it likely means Beasley not only has to be healthy but also productive, including far more effective against the Seminoles’ veteran offensive line.