ACC: James Looney

The 2013 signing class has already made its mark on the ACC, from Tyler Boyd and Stacy Coley shining on offense to Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller starring on defense to Ryan Switzer racking up All-America honors on special teams. But for most players, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference — the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

See our previous projections here.

[+] EnlargeMarquel Lee
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesMarquel Lee posted 14 tackles as a true freshman.
Last up: Wake Forest

Class recap: Jim Grobe’s final recruiting class at Wake Forest included 19 three-star players and one four-star prospect (linebacker Lance Virgile), and for the first time in the former coach’s tenure with the Deacons, a number of true freshmen saw early action. Tyree Harris finished fourth on the team with 17 catches. Cory Helms was the first true freshman to start on the O line for Wake Forest since 1987, and he was joined by Josh Harris, who got a starting nod against Florida State. A handful of defenders saw limited action and work on special teams, too, and those roles promise to increase significantly under first-year coach Dave Clawson in 2014.

Second-year star: ILB Marquel Lee (6-3, 205)

Recruiting stock: A versatile athlete who played quarterback and linebacker in high school, Lee arrived as a three-star early enrollee last January. Rangy, with good speed, Lee was rated the No. 59 inside linebacker in the country by ESPN. He was solid against the run in high school, but adding size was a priority.

2013 in review: By enrolling early, Lee assured himself a shot at playing time as a true freshman, but with a veteran defense -- including Mike Olson, a redshirt senior at WLB -- there wasn’t room for a starting job. Lee finished the season having appeared in all but one game for Wake Forest, recording 14 tackles, largely on special teams.

2014 potential: That veteran defense from a year ago has morphed into a particularly green unit for Clawson, and that’s opened up plenty of playing time for Lee. Olson is gone, along with all four starting defensive linemen, and new coordinator Mike Elko has installed a 4-2-5 scheme that reshuffles the deck even further. Lee, however, appears a perfect fit. He can play sideline to sideline, which should allow him to excel in Elko’s system, and he has developed a reputation as a hard worker and a quick study. Lee was one of the major bright spots for the new-look Deacons this spring, and he wrapped things up with nine tackles in the spring game, tops among all defenders. With Lee alongside veteran Brandon Chubb, the linebacking crew could develop into a strength for the Deacons.

Also watch for: Helms and Josh Harris will be full-time starters on the offensive line this year. Helms, in particular, has taken on more of a leadership role on a particularly young offensive, too. Tyree Harris is slotted in as a starting receiver this season, too. Wake has virtually no established players at the offensive skill positions, which should allow Harris ample opportunity to excel. Meanwhile, the rash of departures on the defensive line (including the transfer of 2013 signee James Looney) means a handful of youngsters should get a crack at the rotation, led by ends Wendell Dunn, Duke Ejiofor and Ali Lamot.
Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko said a total of nine defensive linemen were available for the Deacs’ scrimmage on Friday.

Total. Nobody sidelined with an injury.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Floyd
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIDesmond Floyd played in six games last season and now finds himself with a starting role.
“That’s what we’ve got,” Elko said. “Obviously the sell in recruiting around here is, ‘If you want to play early, come play D-line at Wake.’”

The situation didn’t improve on Tuesday, when the school confirmed that sophomore backup lineman James Looney will transfer. The coaching staff has no choice but to rely on the incoming freshman class for some help, as only five starters return on defense – none up front. Elko said the starting lineup for the defensive line heading into Saturday’s spring game will be: defensive ends Zachary “Ziggy” Allen and Desmond Floyd, defensive tackle Josh Banks and nose guard Johnny Garcia.

Looney only played in six games last year as a true freshman and made three tackles, but at this point, the Deacs will take all of the help they can get. Gone is standout noseguard Nikita Whitlock, the heart and soul of the defense, along with defensive ends Kristopher Redding and Zach Thompson. Gone is the old 3-4 scheme, replaced by Elko’s 4-2-5 zone-based system.

“The D-line situation is obviously not ideal,” Elko said. “Switching from the three-down to the four-down has been a challenge, but we’ve had a couple of kids step up. Josh Banks, who played a little bit of a limited role last year, is actually a better fit for the four-down defense playing three-technique, so he’s had a really good spring for us. Des Floyd is another kid who played some last year who’s moved to our rush-drop end spot, who’s had a pretty good spring. I think our frontline will be OK. The challenge we’re going to have is our depth, and how people will wear us down as the year goes on.”

Elko said the staff installed about 80 percent of the new defense this spring, and spent much of the time moving players around to different positions, particularly among the front seven. He said he prefers the 4-2-5 because it gives the staff more flexibility to play to the athletes’ strengths and “find homes for more kids.”

The next step? Finding more kids.

“I think it’s probably going to take two full recruiting classes in here before the depth is where we want it to be,” Elko said. “I think you’re dealing with some kids getting caught in the wash with the switch defensively so you don’t have the full allotment of numbers you’re looking for. But I think the starting 11 will be a very good starting 11. One or two recruiting classes should help fill in the missing pieces.”