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Thursday, August 7, 2014
By the numbers: Explosive players

By David M. Hale

Who’s the most explosive player in the ACC right now?

Odds are a few names quickly come to mind, but before the debate can really begin, we probably need to decide on some parameters. After all, what exactly does it mean to be “explosive?" We could be talking about simply the fastest players in the conference, but even that gets tricky. Do we go by burst off the line, top-end speed, elusiveness on the run? Besides, what’s speed without a little football skill to go with it?

And, of course, explosiveness comes in all forms. Lamarcus Joyner and Vic Beasley and Aaron Donald certainly provided their share of big-play explosiveness on defense last year, but the impact of a big hit or a drive-stalling sack is a little tougher to measure. So, for the purposes of this discussion, we’re limiting the applicants to offensive and special-teams players.

To be clear though, one thing “explosive” doesn’t mean, for the sake of this discussion, is “best.” We’re strictly talking explosiveness, electricity and athleticism here — not just the guys who put up the best totals and not the QBs tasked with throwing from the pocket. They’re quite likely to land on any “best of” list (which we already did last week), but that’s not what we’re looking for here.

One way of determining explosiveness would obviously be the number of big plays made, so let’s start there. Five returning ACC players were responsible for at least four plays of 50 yards or more last season. Here’s the list:

Jamison Crowder (Duke), 7
Ryan Switzer (UNC), 6
Stacy Coley (Miami), 5
Tyler Boyd (Pitt), 4
Kermit Whitfield (FSU), 4

That list might already serve as a good top five for the ACC, but let’s dig a little more because big plays of 50 yards or more certainly are more apt to occur in the return game, and the above list reflects that.

So let’s look at the receivers, too. A big play in the receiving game probably needs to be defined a bit more liberally, so let’s lower the bar to 20 yards. Obviously some of the responsibility for a 20-yard catch goes to the QB, but it’s also a sign of a receiver’s ability to separate from DBs and get upfield. Of course, some teams also passed a good bit more than others, and a few offenses (Clemson, FSU, Pitt) were blessed with multiple talented receivers, so we’ll divide the number of 20-yard plays by the total touches from scrimmage for our receivers to come up with a more accurate representation of who creates big plays the highest percentage of the time.

Among returning ACC receivers, six recorded 20-yard plays on at least 20 percent of their touches. Here’s that list:

Coley, 37.1%
Quinshad Davis (UNC), 26.0%
Joshua Stanford (VT), 25.0%
Braxton Deaver (Duke), 23.9%
DeVante Parker (Lville), 23.6%
Demitri Knowles (VT), 20.4%

We can do the same exercise for runners, but again, we should probably lower our “big-play” standard a bit more. Running backs and quarterbacks gaining 10 yards on a rush probably suffices, and that metric provides us with five players who managed big plays at least 17 percent of the time (a good break point given that the list gets a lot longer if we lower it to a more round number like 15 percent or 10 percent).

Karlos Williams (FSU), 27.5%
Duke Johnson (Miami), 19.3%
Terrel Hunt (Syr), 18.7%
Myles Willis (BC), 18.3%
James Conner (Pitt), 17.1%

But beyond just the big plays, there’s some value to consistency, too, right? The occasional highlight-reel big-play threat isn’t really as valuable as the player who is routinely biting off sizable chunks of yards. If we also look at returning players who averaged at least 10 yards per all-purpose play last season (min. 50 touches), we get one last list of eight players.

Coley, 21.8 yards per play
Knowles, 16.1
Boyd, 15.1
Rashad Greene (FSU), 14.8
Darius Jennings (UVA), 13.3
Switzer, 13.2
Crowder, 13.0
Willis, 11.7

Add it all up and we get a list of 17 ACC players who made the cut by at least one of these metrics, and odds are, we’re still probably leaving a couple “explosive” players out. And while we don’t expect to firmly settle this debate, 17 is probably too unwieldy a number to stick with, so let’s trim it down a bit.

A few names show up multiple times, so let’s keep them around for now: Coley, Knowles, Boyd, Switzer, Crowder and Willis.

A few other numbers really stand out: Williams and Johnson were head-and-shoulders above the other tailbacks, and both have been electric return men in their careers, too. Hunt, by virtue of being the only QB listed probably deserves a nod. And lastly, Whitfield didn’t have many touches last year (just 25), but 11 of them went for 30 yards or more — an astonishing 44 percent. (Of returning ACC players with at least 25 touches, the next closest was Coley, at 23 percent).

That leaves us with a top-10 list that probably works pretty well. How you might order that list is obviously a far tougher call, but for the sake of debate, here’s how mine would look.

1. Coley
2. Whitfield
3. Switzer
4. Johnson
5. Boyd
6. Crowder
7. Williams
8. Knowles
9. Willis
10. Hunt

Yes, Greene or Parker or Davis could easily make the list, too. And if you wanted to put Crowder or Williams atop the list, I could see the logic. And by year's end, we wouldn't be surprised if, with a bit more experience, Taquan Mizzell or Travis Rudolph or Wayne Gallman crack the list, too. For now, this is the list we’re sticking with. But we’re all for some debate in the comments section, too.