ACC: R.J. Prince

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.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Lawrence
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIFormer three-star recruit Des Lawrence is expected to be a starter for the Tar Heels in 2014.
Next up: North Carolina

Class recap: Larry Fedora brought in the No. 21 overall class (and No. 5 in the ACC) in 2013, and he used a good portion of his freshmen right off the bat. T.J. Logan led UNC running backs in rushing, Khris Francis carried 63 times, Bug Howard was a key member of the receiving corps and, of course, Switzer won All-America honors as a punt returner.

Second-year star: CB Des Lawrence (6-foot-1, 175 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Lawrence wasn’t the most coveted talent, and among UNC defensive backs, he was widely overshadowed by ESPN 300 member Brian Walker, UNC’s top signee in 2013. But Lawrence did rank as the No. 47 safety, and was a three-star prospect from Charlotte with good height and athleticism.

2013 in review: A knee injury early in training camp scuttled some early enthusiasm for Lawrence, and he missed the first six games of the season. It’s probably coincidence that UNC finished 6-1 after Lawrence’s return, but he did finally record his first tackle on Nov. 9 against Virginia and saw his playing time mount as the season progressed, finishing with 11 tackles (one for a loss).

2014 potential: The excitement surrounding Lawrence upon arrival at North Carolina was tempered early last season, but coaches knew what they had in him. He entered spring penciled in as a starter at cornerback alongside Walker, his fellow 2013 signee, and showed no signs of slowing down this spring. The Tar Heels’ secondary was burned for too many big plays last season (75 plays of 15 yards or more) and Fedora believes Lawrence and Walker can help turn that tide in 2014. Lawrence will need to show he can be more effective in supporting the run and utilize his size with more physical receivers, but he’s got ample talent to blossom quickly, and UNC is willing to let its young corners learn on the job this season.

Also watch for: The freshmen who played last season are all expected to take a big step forward in 2014, particularly the running backs. Walker will see his role increase significantly alongside Lawrence, and both could blossom into solid players this year. Dajaun Drennon could fill a role in a depleted group of defensive ends, R.J. Prince is pushing for a starting job on a thin line, and Lucas Crowley projects to take over as the starting center. And all of that ignores the biggest wild card, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky remains in competition to win the starting job over incumbent Marquise Williams. In other words, the Class of 2013 was big as freshmen, but it could have a massive impact in Year 2 in Chapel Hill.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Following Wednesday’s practice, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora was pressed on his running back rotation. The Tar Heels have a wealth of talent at the position, including T.J. Logan, Romar Morris, Khris Francis and early enrollee Elijah Hood, and the question posed was whether Fedora could manage to get each of them enough carries during the season.

The UNC coach simply laughed. He knows better than to bask in any apparent riches.

“I’ve never had too many great players,” Fedora said. “I can assure you of that.”

[+] EnlargeBentley Spain
Miller Safrit/ESPNNorth Carolina early enrollee Bentley Spain could see immediate playing time on the offensive line in 2014.
If Fedora needed a reminder of how quickly talent can evaporate, he need look no further than the men opening the holes for his vast cadre of running backs. On the offensive line, North Carolina is scrambling.

The attrition began before last season even ended, when All-ACC left tackle James Hurst suffered a leg injury in the Belk Bowl, ending his Tar Heels career with three quarters left to play. Center Russell Bodine followed Hurst out the door, opting to enter the NFL draft after the bowl game. Then Caleb Peterson, who started 12 games last season, underwent shoulder surgery that will sideline him throughout the spring.

Now the Tar Heels are cobbling together an offensive line with just a handful of bodies, many of whom have virtually no gameday experience.

“It’s tough,” Fedora said. “Some tackles are playing in at the guard position and it’s making it tough. It’s not their normal position. The continuity of those five guys up front is pretty chaotic right now.”

The left tackle spot is perhaps the most glaring vacancy of the spring on offense, and while Fedora is looking at three options -- sophomore John Ferranto, redshirt freshman R.J. Prince and early enrollee Bentley Spain. They’re all rotating in at guard, too, to simply fill space.

The shuffling inherently leads to mistakes, and the youngsters are still getting used to the adversity. But more than that, the players behind them are eager to help pick up the slack.

“It takes a while for an offensive line to jell,” Logan said. “The running backs, we’re trying to take our games to the next level, and if they come out with us and compete, they’re going to get a lot better.”

In the end, Fedora said, a little adversity can go a long way toward developing players in the spring, and the hope is that the struggles during the next few weeks will result in a stronger offensive line when the season begins in September.

It’s a situation Fedora knows well. A year ago, the line was in flux, too, but Peterson and Jon Heck learned on the fly and grew stronger from the struggles. This year, Fedora hopes the same will be true of some of the newcomers -- particularly Spain, who was one of the top offensive line recruits in the country and drew raves from his coach for his offseason conditioning work.

“We want to try to create as much adversity for them as possible, and it’s not hard because we have no continuity right now,” Fedora said. “There’s frustration that sets in because they’re not having the success they want to have, and it’s a little more difficult up there. But everything that they’re doing, every rep, you hope it’s a learned experience. Sometimes you learn more through failure than you do success.”

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