Beyond top 25: ACC's breakout candidates

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4
4:00
PM ET
Last week, ESPN.com ranked its top 100 players in college football, and here on the ACC blog, we counted down the top 25 in the conference. Of course, these lists are fun for the preseason, but once the games get going, what we all believed was true in August has a way of looking pretty silly by December. In fact, of our 2013 preseason top 25, just 12 also made our end-of-season top 25.

In other words, there were no doubt a few ACC players whose names were left on the cutting room floor in our countdown, but who may well be among the league’s elite this season. Here’s an admittedly imprecise look at a few to keep an eye on.

JUST MISSED

If we’d been making a top 30 or 40 list instead of 25, these guys definitely would’ve made the cut. As it stands, they'll likely see their names on our end-of-year list.

WR Stacy Coley (Miami): Don’t be surprised if the Canes’ sophomore receiver ranks in the top five of our end-of-season list. No returning ACC player averaged more yards per touch last year (min. 50 touches) than Coley (21.8). He’ll need some help from an unproven quarterback, but Coley has the talent to be an All-American if things break right for him this season.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville): Already a star with 9.5 sacks and 12 TFL last season, Mauldin is poised to explode as he moves from defensive end to outside linebacker in Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 system. At Grantham’s previous stop at Georgia, he helped Justin Houston and Jarvis Jones parlay similar moves into super stardom.

DE Eli Harold (UVA): Virginia’s defensive line may not get much national publicity, but it’s jam-packed with talent, headed up by Harold, who racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 TFL last season. Both of those totals rank second among returning ACC players behind Clemson All-American Vic Beasley.

GETTING HEALTHY

Injuries set them back, but these players are poised for big comebacks in 2014.

S Isaiah Johnson (GT): A burgeoning star on Georgia Tech’s defense, a knee injury cost Johnson all of 2013. He’s “past 100 percent” now though and expects to make a huge impact after a long wait to get back onto the field.

S Tyler Hunter (FSU): Last summer, Hunter was the unquestioned leader of FSU’s revamped defense, but a scary neck injury ended his season in Week 3. What might’ve been a career-ending injury turned out to be just a setback, and now Hunter will be the veteran voice in an immensely talented secondary that has led the nation in passing defense the past two years.

DT Mehdi Abdesmad (BC): As a junior last season, the 6-foot-7 Abdesmad looked poised for a breakthrough, recording sacks against USC and Florida State before a knee injury ended his season. If he can return to form quickly, he's in position to replace the 8.5 sacks BC lost with the departure of Kasim Edebali from its D-line.

WR Charone Peake (Clemson): When they arrived on campus as freshmen, Peake and Sammy Watkins were both considered can't-miss prospects. Now Watkins is impressing in Buffalo Bills camp and Peake is still looking for his breakthrough season. Despite an injury-ravaged 2013, he's being counted on as the top option for Cole Stoudt in 2014.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATES

These players have already made some noise in the past but could make the jump to the league’s elite in 2014.

S Durrell Eskridge (Syracuse): Eskridge blossomed into a key contributor on Syracuse’s defense last year, recording 6.5 tackles per game (14th among returning ACC players) and four interceptions, but as the Orange look to replace key starters inside, Eskridge’s impact in 2014 only figures to expand.

QB Jacoby Brissett (NC State): Dave Doeren believes Brissett, a transfer from Florida who spent last season waiting in the wings, is a perfect fit for his offense, and the veteran has the confidence and trust of his teammates -- something NC State sorely missed at the position last year. Our preseason top 25 lists just one quarterback (Jameis Winston), so a few others have to state their case, too. Brissett should be chief among them, but fellow transfers Tyler Murphy (BC) and Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech) could certainly be in the mix, too.

OT Matt Rotheram (Pitt): Pitt's O-line was a disaster last year, but adding a more mobile quarterback in the backfield and a year of experience to the unit should help. Rotheram was the one bright spot through much of 2013, and he's now poised to get a hefty share of the credit should the revamped line take the next step in 2014.

UNPROVEN TALENT

They haven't seen the field (much) yet, but they’re in line for significant roles this season and could make the most of the opportunity.

LB Matthew Thomas (FSU): The Seminoles return plenty of talent from their national-championship run, but the linebacking crew is definitely an area with a few question marks. It’s a talented, but unproven group, but Thomas tasted action early last season before going down with an injury, and he showed he can make an instant impact -- perhaps in an edge-rusher role similar to what Christian Jones did for FSU's D last season.

RB Wayne Gallman (Clemson): It’s hard to project how the carries will be distributed in a crowded Clemson backfield, but two things are clear: The Tigers want to run the ball more in 2014, and Gallman has the potential to be a star. Coaches and teammates raved about his improvement in the spring, and Gallman will get every shot to win a job as a centerpiece of the new-look Clemson offense in fall camp.

OT Bentley Spain (UNC): Larry Fedora admits he doesn’t know quite what to make of Spain yet after the early enrollee missed a hefty chunk of the spring with an injury. Still, Spain is in line for the starting left tackle job at UNC, and with talent at quarterback and tailback behind him, it could be a quick start to his career.

DEEP SLEEPERS

The names aren’t familiar outside their own fan bases, but don’t be surprised if they’re making some noise by year’s end.

LB Marquel Lee (Wake): New Deacons coach Dave Clawson has his work cut out for him trying to find talent to fill out the depth chart, but he may have discovered an early gem in Lee. The sophomore was the star of Wake's spring game, and with so much turnover up front for the Deacons, Lee will get plenty of chances to make plays once the season begins.

CB DreQuan Hoskey (UVA): Here’s an interesting tidbit, courtesy of STATS LLC: No defender in the ACC was picked on more last season than Hoskey, who was targeted by opposing quarterbacks 81 times in 12 games. There were mixed results, of course, but it's worth noting that he wasn't burned for a TD on any of those plays. Next most targets without surrendering a touchdown among ACC defensive backs? Lamarcus Joyner with 37. He's part of a very crowded secondary, but Hoskey will get his chances to make an impact in 2014.

RB Shaquille Powell (Duke): He's overlooked because Duke returns its leading rusher from 2013 (Josh Snead) but teammates have raved about Powell's progress, and it's worth noting that while Snead is back, the Blue Devils still must replace 51 percent of last year’s rushing attempts after losing Brandon Connette, Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan.

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