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Louisville's Devonte Fields could be a dominant force on defense

ACC Kickoff is upon us, but before the media’s picks for players of the year are released later this week, ESPN writers Andrea Adelson, Jared Shanker, Matt Fortuna and David Hale are taking a crack at some of the names to watch.

Here are our picks for Defensive Player of the Year candidates -- from the obvious names to potential surprises.

The pick: Louisville OLB Devonte Fields

After transferring to Louisville last year, Fields’ first few games were hardly explosive. Then again, the entire Cardinals’ roster struggled through a 2-4 start to the season. But by mid-year, Fields came alive, recording 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss from Oct. 24 on (seven games) -- both tallies tops in the nation during that stretch. There will be no acclimation period this time around, and Fields has the added help of playing on a unit filled with established stars. Louisville may not be the dominant force in the Atlantic, but these awards are often about numbers, and Fields looks like the best bet to put up huge stats on the defensive side of the ball. -- David Hale

The runner-up: Florida State DB Derwin James

James might be the guy to ease the replacement of Florida State secondary leaders like Jalen Ramsey and Lamarcus Joyner before him. The only reason that is a "might" and not a "definite" is because, well, James is that darn versatile. He’s 6-foot-3, 213 pounds. He can line up at defensive end. He can take on offensive linemen in certain pass-rush scenarios. He can blow up plays in the defensive backfield. His freshman stat line -- 91 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five breakups among it -- speaks to that uniqueness. And, as a rising sophomore, he is only going to get better. -- Matt Fortuna

The sleeper: Pitt DE Ejuan Price

His name is still a bit under the radar, even in ACC circles, but Price actually led the conference in sacks per game (0.89) a season ago. His 11.5 sacks ranked third in the ACC, but he didn't have the benefit of an extra few games like sack leaders Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. Expectations are for Dewayne Hendrix to emerge opposite Price along the defensive line, which will only benefit Price, a sixth-year senior. He will have nonconference opportunities early to generate some September buzz. Penn State and Oklahoma State both play Pittsburgh early in the season. Penn State was 111th in sacks allowed last season, and Oklahoma State was only marginally better at 91st. North Carolina follows Oklahoma State, and the Tar Heels are dealing with a season-ending injury to a starting tackle already. -- Jared Shanker

The deep sleeper: Boston College DE Harold Landry

Don Brown has left Boston College, leaving many to wonder whether the Eagles' defense will be as aggressive and effective this season. Coach Steve Addazio firmly believes that they will be, and a big reason is the returning talent in the front seven. BC was terrific behind the line last season, and Landry is a star in the making. He posted 4.5 sacks a year ago and has the potential to be among the top sack producers in the league. You could argue that another losing season would eliminate any BC player from the discussion. But let's not forget that Aaron Donald won Defensive Player of the Year on a 6-6 Pitt team in 2013. If Landry is dominant, he could have a shot at the top prize. -- Andrea Adelson

Other names to watch: FSU DE DeMarcus Walker, Louisville LB Keith Kelsey, Clemson LB Ben Boulware, Pitt S Jordan Whitehead, Virginia S Quin Blanding, BC LB Matt Milano, Virginia Tech DE Ken Ekanem, Duke DB DeVon Edwards, Miami DE Al-Quadin Muhammad.