ACC: Charles Gaines

The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft has passed. Now let's take a quick look at the biggest draft deadline winners and losers across the ACC:

Winners

Clemson: The Tigers did lose an underclassman: punter Bradley Pinion. Head-scratching, yes. But the reason the Tigers are winners this year is that they held on to all their top offensive talent. While nobody was in position to declare early, it still is notable that this is the first time Clemson has not had an underclassman on offense turn pro since 2010. That could very well change once these freshmen start growing up, but for now, it is good to be co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott.

Duke: The Blue Devils had only one player who could have potentially left early: safety Jeremy Cash. When he announced he would return to school, there must have been a huge sigh of relief. Not only does the Duke secondary now return all its starters, it returns its best player. Cash had 111 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles this past season. With linebacker Kelby Brown (ACL) expected healthy for 2015, Duke potentially has two of the best defensive players in the ACC.

Notre Dame: So the Irish have only one toe in the ACC football waters, but they did end up a huge winner, and that is something teams with Notre Dame on the 2015 schedule need to know. All underclassmen who could have returned did: defensive lineman Sheldon Day, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center/guard Nick Martin and quarterback Everett Golson (at least for now). Stanley was the biggest surprise because some had projected him as a first-round pick on a few early mock drafts. While Golson's status remains unclear, getting Day, Stanley and Martin back means expectations will again be high in South Bend, Indiana.

Losers

Florida State: The Seminoles might be the biggest draft-deadline loser in the country, with five players turning pro early this year: quarterback Jameis Winston, cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. Of that group, Winston and Goldman are listed on the first Mel Kiper Jr. mock draft. Losing players to the draft is nothing new for the Seminoles, but they have taken heavy losses from their underclassmen in the past three years: 12 in all. Add to that losses from a terrific senior group, including Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Karlos Williams, and 2015 might end up being a bit of a rebuilding year for the Seminoles as they get a boatload of young guys ready to play. On the bright side, kicker Roberto Aguayo and linebacker Terrance Smith announced they would return to school.

Louisville: Many expected safety Gerod Holliman to leave after he tied an NCAA record with 14 interceptions, despite some questions about his pro potential. But losing defensive backs Charles Gaines and James Sample has to be a blow the Cardinals were not quite expecting. Louisville, which ranked No. 5 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, must now replace five of its top six defensive backs in 2015. Put another way, Louisville is losing players responsible for 21 of the 26 interceptions it had last season.

Miami: While we all expected running back Duke Johnson to leave, losing him is still tough for a Miami offense that revolved heavily around him in the past three seasons. Johnson leaves as the school's all-time career all-purpose yards and rushing yards leader. Add the departure of offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and now Miami has to replace its two best underclassmen, plus top seniors Clive Walford and Denzel Perryman.

ACC morning links

January, 6, 2015
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Underclassmen have increasingly declared for the NFL draft over recent years, and there appears to be no sign that the trend is letting up.

Louisville safety James Sample became the third player in the Cards' defensive backfield to announce he is leaving school early for the draft, posting his intentions Monday on his Instagram account. The move came as a bit of a surprise, especially when you consider he has only been in Louisville for four months after transferring in from junior college -- and he is not listed among Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 10 safeties.



Already, safety Gerod Holliman announced he would be turning pro. Cornerback Charles Gaines also has reportedly decided to follow the same path. Holliman seems to be in the best position, after tying an NCAA record with 14 interceptions and becoming a consensus All-American; Gaines had 11 passes defended this past year.

With these three players leaving early, Louisville must replace five of its top six defensive backs, as Terell Floyd and Andrew Johnson just finished their senior seasons. Louisville had 26 interceptions in 2014, tied for No. 1 in the nation. The Cards will lose players responsible for 21 of those picks.

But as Jeff Greer points out in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Louisville could be in good shape without them next season. Georgia transfers Josh Harvey-Clemmons and Shaq Wiggins are ready to make an impact after sitting out this past season because of NCAA transfer rules. Jermaine Reve returns as well, along with a host of young talent.

As I mentioned above, the three Louisville underclassmen are just the latest from the ACC to declare for the draft. Players have until Jan. 15 to do so. Here is a look at who has said they will turn pro:
There could be more underclassman news in the days to come. Florida State's bevy of highly-rated draft prospects have yet to announce their draft intentions. Among those to keep an eye on: kicker Roberto Aguayo, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby and -- last but not least -- quarterback Jameis Winston.

Here are a few other headlines across the ACC:
When you think Bobby Petrino, you immediately think offense.

But that has not been the case for Louisville this season, and that could be a good thing for the Cards as they prepare to host No. 2 Florida State next Thursday night.

Defense has to take priority in this matchup.

Defense is exactly how the Cards have won this season.

Time to embrace that defensive mentality, Louisville fans.

[+] EnlargeGerod Holliman
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsGerod Holliman and the Louisville secondary will face a strong Florida State offense.
Louisville ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense, but that is not a stat that gets defensive coordinator Todd Grantham going.

What has him most encouraged is the way his defense has limited scoring opportunities. That has jumped out at Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, too. When asked for his first impressions on the Louisville defense, Fisher said, "Not many people get points and not many people get yards."

In the six ACC games Louisville has played, the Cards have held all their opponents to below their scoring average. In all but one game, they have held their opponents below their total offense average.

They are aggressive, they are stingy, and they can easily set the tone against a Florida State offense that has struggled to move the ball at times throughout the course of the season.

"Any time you're in big games, you’ve got to be able to play a balanced game, offensively and defensively, but at the same time, anytime you can be sound on defense and hard to score on, it gives your offense a chance to stay on track and not have to abandon the game plan," Grantham said in a phone interview this week.

"So as long as the score’s in a low number and it’s a one-possession game, then everybody can stay with the game plan. The issue that always occurs is when you get down multiple points and people have to abandon what they do. So our job is to be hard to score on and keep that number to a low number."

Florida State has not faced a scoring defense quite as good as this one. While Clemson and Notre Dame might have presented the strongest challenge to the Seminoles up front, Louisville has the stronger secondary, a group that has thrived playing a pattern-match scheme that is predicated on defensive backs truly understanding receiver routes.

The Cards also stress having players win one-on-one matchups not only in the secondary but in the front seven as well. They have been able to do so a majority of the time this season. As an example, Louisville has safeties Gerod Holliman and James Sample, along with cornerback Charles Gaines -- in the top 11 in the ACC in passes defended. That’s more than any other team.

Louisville also has three players ranked in the top 11 in the ACC in sacks -- Lorenzo Mauldin, Sheldon Rankins and Keith Kelsey. That’s tied for the most with Virginia.

"I felt we had individuals who could be really good at their positions, so we talk about that as winning your one-on-one matchups," Grantham said. "As you go through the day and you work, try to be the best at your position and if you’re the best at your position, and we can get you in one-on-one situations, you’re going to affect the game, which is good for our team. We’ve been able to get some matchups that are positive for us and those guys have made some plays."

Controlling what happens in the pass game could be critical for Louisville, considering how big a threat Jameis Winston is to take over at any moment. If the Cards can take away options like Rashad Greene and Bobo Wilson, their chances improve greatly.

No team has held Florida State to fewer than 30 points with Winston as the starter; nobody has scored 30 on Louisville this season.

It is obvious that Louisville will have to hold the score down to win. At least the Cards have practice doing that.

Cannot ask much more than that headed into the biggest challenge of the season.

ACC morning links

October, 17, 2014
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Remember the ACC’s preseason media poll? OK, we don’t blame you for ignoring it. That was probably a good idea.

In any case, here’s how the Coastal votes stacked up:
1. Miami
2. Duke
3. Virginia Tech
4. North Carolina
5. Georgia Tech
6. Pittsburgh
7. Virginia

Those top four teams all received at least 23 first-place votes (Tech got 1, Pitt got 2, Virginia got none). And after Thursday’s Virginia Tech loss to Pitt, three of those top four teams now have two losses in conference play already. On Saturday, Virginia has a chance to complete the foursome by beating Duke, while securing its spot atop the Coastal Division. And this is why we shouldn’t make preseason predictions.

On the field, Pitt looked significantly better than it had in its previous three games -- all losses. Chad Voytik wasn’t great in the passing game -- 10-of-17 for 92 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, while not completing a ball to a wideout other than Tyler Boyd -- but he more than made up for it with his legs. Voytik ran 17 times for 135 yards (not counting sacks), including a 49-yard run that set up the Panthers’ decisive touchdown.

That’s been a trend for the Hokies’ defense this season. In six games against FBS teams, Virginia Tech has allowed four quarterbacks to run for at least 120 yards. Non-QB runs against Tech are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but quarterbacks (not including sacks) are averaging 7.8 yards per carry this season.

What was clear from Thursday’s game is that the Hokies have a lot of troubles at the moment, but with Tyler Murphy and Anthony Boone still on the schedule down the road, this is one that needs to get fixed quickly.

A few more links:
Miami and Louisville already are quite familiar with each other, but that familiarity will probably mean nothing heading into their opener on Labor Day.

Already, their matchup has quite a different feel than it did just one week ago after two major news stories broke this past weekend. Louisville receiver DeVante Parker will have surgery on his foot and is out six to eight weeks; Miami, meanwhile, named true freshman Brad Kaaya its starting quarterback.

That begs the question -- how will both offenses be impacted?

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesLouisville and Miami meet in the season opener, a rematch of the Russell Athletic Bowl, and Hurricanes tailback Duke Johnson will be among the many new faces who didn't play in the December game.
We already knew both units would look far different than the groups we saw the last time they played, a 36-9 Louisville romp in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville lost star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who torched the Canes for 447 yards passing. Miami gained a healthy Duke Johnson, who missed the bowl game with an ankle injury.

Johnson brings a new dynamic to the matchup at running back. But so does new Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who runs a completely different offense than the one Miami could not stop last season. Parker was set to be the focal point of that offense, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound freak of an athlete with the capability of having a 1,500-yard season.

Without him, Louisville does have other options. The Cards are fortunate to have one of the deeper receiver groups in the ACC. Eli Rogers, Kai De La Cruz, and Michaelee Harris all return. Tennessee transfer Matt Milton and sophomore James Quick are players to watch. So is tight end Gerald Christian, expected to have a bigger role in the offense.

But with a new starting quarterback in Will Gardner, there is little doubt Parker would have been a security blanket of sorts and the immediate go-to player among the receivers. The other players are solid, but Parker is the one with first-round NFL draft potential thanks to his size and speed (he runs a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash).

Miami gets the benefit of having a stronger Johnson back on the field. His impact on this team is undeniable. With him, Miami was ranked No. 7 in the nation last year. Without him, the Canes dropped four of their final six games. In the Russell Athletic Bowl, Johnson stood on the sideline and watched Miami running backs muster 73 total yards on the ground.

It is obviously huge that he is back. But with a true freshman under center, one has to assume the Cards' defense will be geared toward stopping Johnson and making Kaaya beat them. Kaaya has the skill players around him to help, but the pressure will rest squarely on him to make the right reads and the right decisions in the face of all the pressure.

How will he handle that? Maybe even bigger -- how will he handle the spotlight, making his first start on the road in front of a nationally televised audience? Miami coaches have praised Kaaya for his unflappable demeanor, and say they have run him through pressure situations in practice.

But no practice simulation can prepare a freshman for the bright lights that await, especially as the Miami quarterback. Though Louisville lost some of its best players on defense and will be employing a new scheme, the Cards do return Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks), linebacker James Burgess (72 tackles) and top cover corner Charles Gaines to make life difficult for Kaaya.

It is plain to see the differences are everywhere. Kaaya and Parker just add to that theme, making this matchup perhaps the most difficult to predict heading into Week 1.
In the ACC, we didn’t have to wait until season’s end to get a taste of just how tough the job of the new College Football Playoff selection committee might be. We put our heads together to compile the conference’s preseason power rankings, and though we had a consensus on the top three spots, No. 4 was complete chaos.

Like the selection committee members, we each come armed with our own criteria for the No. 4 spot, so we figured it would be a worthy exercise to see just how the votes shook out.

Matt Fortuna picked Pitt: In a season in which the Coastal Division is wide open, things are set up to break nicely for a Pitt squad entering its second season of ACC play.

The Panthers finally have some program stability, as head coach Paul Chryst enters Year 3 with his fingerprints all over the program. They have a quarterback in Chad Voytik who showed plenty of promise in lifting the team to a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win in December. They have strong running backs and a very experienced offensive line, which one has to figure will only be much better than it was a year ago. There is also, of course, sensational receiver Tyler Boyd.

The defense does have some question marks, particularly in the thin secondary, but the schedule sets up nicely for a possible run to Charlotte, N.C., as Pitt gets Virginia Tech and Duke at home and gets Boston College instead of Florida State as its rotating Atlantic opponent.

Andrea Adelson picked Louisville: The Cards are one of three teams in the ACC coming off consecutive double-digit win seasons. The other two have the first two spots in our power rankings. Though it is true Louisville might have racked up those wins in a weaker conference, there is no denying the talent that remains on this team as it transitions into a tougher league.

Louisville has one of the best receiver groups in the ACC, depth at running back (including former BCS national championship game MVP Michael Dyer), a veteran offensive line, a sack master in Lorenzo Mauldin, hard-hitting linebackers in Keith Brown and James Burgess, and a lockdown cornerback in Charles Gaines. Plus, new head coach Bobby Petrino has coached winners at all his previous stops, and took Louisville to a BCS game in his first stint with the Cards.

This team has the pieces in place to compete right away in the ACC.

Jared Shanker picked Virginia Tech: The Hokies won almost as many games in 2010 and 2011 (11 each year) as they did in 2012 and 2013 combined (13), but I'm still giving the benefit of the doubt to Beamer Ball: great special teams and great defense.

The special teams have been average over the past few seasons, but it's clear the recipe has worked in Blacksburg: eight consecutive seasons with double-digit wins from 2004-2011. The quarterback situation is once again shaky, but running back Trey Edmunds could be one of the ACC's top rushers by season's end. There is also a lot of pressure on Frank Beamer to win in 2014 because of the average seasons of late coupled with mediocre returns on the recruiting trail, but I think the heat will be a positive for Beamer and the Hokies. Rarely has Beamer's name been associated a list of coaches on the hot seat, so it could help light a spark within the program.

David Hale picked North Carolina: OK, I didn’t actually have the Tar Heels at No. 4 on my ballot (I went with Louisville) but that is the funny thing about how the voting went. There was a wide variety of input on the fourth spot, but North Carolina was No. 5 across the board. And perhaps that, more than anything, is the argument for why the Heels are the most deserving of the bunch.

Sure, North Carolina has some flaws. The offensive line has questions, the defensive line lacks depth and as coach Larry Fedora is quick to mention, this is a particularly young team. But compare the Heels to Pitt or Louisville or Virginia Tech (or Miami, for that matter) and there isn’t anyone with significantly fewer questions than UNC. What Fedora’s crew does have going for it, however, is last season's strong finish (6-1 down the stretch), talent and depth in several key areas, and playmakers aplenty.

In other words, we can all disagree about who might be a little better than North Carolina, but no one seems to be arguing that the Heels won’t be good. In the chaos that is the Coastal, that’s saying something.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Louisville Cardinals:

Key returners: WR DeVante Parker, WR Eli Rogers, RB Dominique Brown, LB Lorenzo Mauldin, CB Charles Gaines

[+] EnlargeDeVante Parker
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsDeVante Parker is a big-time NFL prospect and is expected to have a monster season in Bobby Petrino's offense.
Key losses: QB Teddy Bridgewater, DE Marcus Smith, LB Preston Brown, S Calvin Pryor, S Hakeem Smith

Most important 2014 games: versus Miami, Sept. 1; at Clemson, Oct. 11; versus Florida State, Oct. 30; at Notre Dame, Nov. 22.

Projected win percentage: 56 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 8 wins

Instant impact newcomer: QB Will Gardner. Taking over for Bridgewater is no easy task, but new coach Bobby Petrino believes Gardner is up for the challenge. Gardner has prototypical size for a quarterback (6-foot-5, 226 pounds) with the arm strength to boot. Plus he'll be coached by an offensive mastermind in Petrino, whose specialty is developing quarterbacks. Even though Gardner is unproven, anticipation is high that Gardner can become an elite quarterback in this system -- starting this year.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Gardner develops at warp-like speed and the defense immediately thrives in the new 3-4 scheme, finding players to step in and fill major holes along the line and in the secondary. Louisville pulls the surprise card as a new member of the ACC and posts a winning record against the four toughest teams on the schedule (Miami, Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame) to hit the double-digit win total for a third straight season.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Gardner fails to develop as anticipated and the offense sputters along, unable to take advantage of the talent it has at the skill positions. The defense cannot find adequate replacements for Marcus Smith, Preston Brown, Hakeem Smith or Pryor and struggles against a much tougher schedule. Louisville cannot quite manage the difficulties the ACC presents and ends up barely above .500.

Best NFL prospect: Parker. ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Parker listed as the No. 3 senior receiver in the nation. Parker has the size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), power, speed (4.3-second 40-yard dash) and productivity to become a first-round draft pick. A monster season is expected in the Petrino offense, a big reason he made the preseason All-ACC team.

Biggest question mark: Safety. Because the Cardinals have little in the way of proven players or depth at the position, they already moved starting cornerback Terrell Floyd to one safety spot. The hope is that Gerod Holliman finally reaches the potential he showed in high school and starts alongside Floyd. Junior college transfer James Sample and a slew of redshirt freshmen are in the mix as well, but none of them have played a down for the Cards just yet.

They said it: "Our expectations are going to be high. I've always believed that you set expectations high. We have a group of young men that we're coaching that know how to prepare, that have played in big games and know how to win. We expect to compete for a championship. That's what we want to get done." -- Petrino
Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong recruited some ridiculously speedy football players, but his offensive and defensive schemes were not built on playing fast.

Strong wanted power football on both sides of the ball. So his players trained that way in the weight room. Players bulked up. They were never tested in the 40-yard dash, but rather on the mile. That way, they would have the physical power they would need to win one-on-one matchups, and the endurance they would need to outlast their opponents in the fourth quarter.

Philosophies have shifted now that Bobby Petrino has taken over the program. He wants to play fast, so the message in the weight room has been transformed. Under new strength and conditioning coach Joe Miday, the emphasis has focused on speed and power. Players are now tested on 110-yard sprints and 40-yard sprints. Linebackers train with skill position players to help improve their speed and quickness. Tempo is faster in the weight room, too, that way they can practice as fast as they will play once the games begin.

[+] EnlargeDeVante Parker
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY SportsDeVante Parker recently clocked 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the fastest time he has ever posted.
There have been immediate results in just a few short months. Receiver DeVante Parker, already blessed with terrific size and strength, clocked 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- the fastest time he has ever posted. The number surprised many observers, perhaps because Parker was never truly unleashed in the run-first offense Strong employed. Parker said his time is a direct result of the new strength staff.

"Oh yeah, I am a lot faster now than I used to be," Parker said. In detailing the reasons, he said, "The new staff likes to work on what you need to work on so you can improve, and it will show during the game. Last year, it was more on your body than it is now. Now, they want you to be fast, too. Last year, they just wanted us to be bulky -- we didn't really work on speed. But now we do and it's a big advantage for us."

One of the biggest reasons Louisville is now emphasizing the shorter distances as opposed to the mile is because players require a burst of speed to make plays. The average play lasts roughly 8 seconds. So if a player can maximize his speed in that window, he will have an advantage over his opponent and remain fresh into the fourth quarter. Louisville already has an edge of sorts here because Strong brought in so many fast players, from running back Corvin Lamb to cornerback Charles Gaines. Ten players posted 40-yard times of 4.46 or better in March.

Playing fast also requires a slimmed-down and toned-up player.

Left tackle Jamon Brown is the perfect example. Strong wanted him to bulk up, and he reached nearly 350 pounds last season. But Petrino ordered Brown to lose weight to become quicker on his feet. This is especially important for offensive linemen, who will be asked to go 80 or more plays per game (with about 15-20 seconds between snaps). By contrast, Louisville averaged 69 plays per game last season and ranked No. 2 in the nation in time of possession.

Brown is now down to 325 pounds, and has five more pounds to lose. Guard John Miller also is down nearly 15 pounds to 311. Miday has been working for years on emphasizing speed, first at up-tempo Marshall and then with Petrino last season at Western Kentucky. He has gotten results at both stops. Given the players already in place at Louisville, there is no doubt we will see one of the fastest teams in the ACC in 2014.

With the potential for more.

"I think I can hit 4.2," Parker says of his 40-time. "I just want to keep working on my legs so I can get faster."
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Next up: The secondary

Best of the best: Florida State

Where do we begin? FSU's defensive backs may be the best in the nation. Start with safety Jalen Ramsey, who started as a true freshman last season, earned freshman All-America honors and should step right into the role all-everything DB Lamarcus Joyner filled last season. Both Ramsey and corner P.J. Williams shined this spring, and they were recognized as such by sharing the team's Hinesman Award (spring standout), along with Jameis Winston. Ronald Darby has the potential to become a shutdown corner, Tyler Hunter has made a strong comeback from neck surgery that forced him out of the final 11 games of last season and Nate Andrews is looking to build off a standout rookie campaign that saw him lead the Seminoles in interceptions, with four.

Next up: Virginia Tech

If FSU's secondary is the best in the nation, Virginia Tech's probably isn't far behind. The Hokies return all four starters from a unit that ranked No. 8 nationally in passing defense last season. Corners Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson were thrust into immediate meaningful action in 2013 because of injuries and neither disappointed, tallying a combined 11 interceptions. Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner added two picks apiece, with Jarrett serving as the team's leading returning tackler this fall as well (71 in 2013). Injuries limited several key pieces of the secondary this spring, but if it's any consolation, that could prove valuable long-term for the next-in-line at DBU. It's how Fuller and Facyson were able to thrive so early, after all.

Possible sleeper: Duke

The departure of Ross Cockrell will be tough to fill, but the Blue Devils have a ton of talented and experience playmakers returning. And there could be more opportunities coming their way, thanks to the fact that they have a very green defensive line. Safety Jeremy Cash had four of the secondary's 16 interceptions last year (the team had 18 total), but his biggest impact may be up front, where he tallied 9.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, in addition to tallying 121 tackles in 2013. Corner DeVon Edwards came on strong down the stretch and finished with three picks, and safety Deondre Singleton added one pick and two forced fumbles as well. Corner Breon Borders, meanwhile, holds the distinction of picking off the Heisman winner Winston twice last season as a freshman, and he is looking to build off a four-interception rookie campaign.

Problem for a contender: Louisville

It's all on the corners now. Replacing safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor is a huge task for Todd Grantham in his first season as Louisville's defensive coordinator, and he at least benefits from a pair of returning starters at corner in Terrell Floyd and Charles Gaines. Still, there could be a pair of redshirt freshmen starting at safety (Charles Williams and Richard Benjamin), though Gerod Holliman and Michael Johnson might figure into the mix.
Last weekend’s NFL draft in which 42 ACC players were selected was a reminder of how much talent was departing the conference. But just as Sammy Watkins, Aaron Donald and Kyle Fuller say goodbye, the focus turns to the players who’ll step into the spotlight in 2014.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami tailback Duke Johnson rushed for 920 yards in 2013, despite missing five games due to injury.
PASSING YARDS
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)

Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.

RUSHING YARDS
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)

Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.

RECEIVING YARDS
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)

Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.

TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley has 21 sacks in his career.
Of note: Duke’s front four took a big hit with the loss of three senior starters, but the back seven should be one of the most experienced and productive in the conference. Of the 25 ACC players with at least 50 solo tackles last season, 12 return this season.

INTERCEPTIONS
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)

Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.

SACKS
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)

Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.

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