- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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One question I get asked almost weekly is who the new stars will be in the ACC this year -- players who aren’t household names right now, but have a legitimate chance to play their way into your living room conversations this season. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you most of them aren’t true freshmen. Unless they’re at the top of the depth chart this spring (as in the unusual case of Miami’s Thomas Finnie), there’s no way to tell how much of an impact, if any, they’ll have. The redshirt freshmen, first-year starters and junior college players are the ones most likely to truly leave a lasting impression. And while you might be familiar with some of these names, the rest of the college football world likely isn’t.
Here are this season’s group of rising stars in the ACC:
BOSTON COLLEGE: CB C.J. Jones. The Eagles are looking for a starter to replace the spot manned by both Chris Fox and DeLeon Gause last season. Jones earned time as a backup and played in 12 games with 16 tackles.
CLEMSON: QB Tajh Boyd. This one was tough because there are a lot of familiar names returning on Clemson's roster, and most of the incoming class won't arrive until summer camp. So we'll go with the one new starter the rest of the college football world will be introduced to. Boyd will be tasked with leading Clemson in a new offense in his first season as full-time starter.
FLORIDA STATE: JUCO transfer Jacob Fahrenkrug. He’s the heir apparent on the offensive line to Rodney Hudson and the coaches have raved about him.
GEORGIA TECH: CB Ryan Ayers. The redshirt freshman can compete with anyone on the team for the title of fastest player on the roster. With the Jackets losing all four starters in the secondary, he becomes an important part of the equation.
MARYLAND: PK Nathaniel Renfro or Nick Ferrara. The Terps lost a four-year starter in punter/placekicker Travis Baltz, and this is one of Maryland’s biggest areas of concern. Ferrara handled kickoffs last year and was No. 2 behind Baltz at both kicker and punter, but he’s a placekicker first, and has to get back on track with consistency. Renfro joins the team this summer.
MIAMI: CB Thomas Finnie. The Miami Central grad enrolled in January and has been listed as a starter on coach Al Golden’s first two depth charts. He had 45 tackles and one interception as a high school senior.
NORTH CAROLINA: JUCO transfer Sylvester Williams. He enrolled at Carolina in January after two seasons at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College He had 52 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and five blocked kicks in 2010. He could contribute immediately as a starting defensive tackle.
NC STATE: LB D.J. Green. He played mostly on special teams and some at safety last year, but has been listed as a starting linebacker for spring workouts.
VIRGINIA: WR Miles Gooch. He made the switch this spring from quarterback to receiver and could be a dependable option this fall behind the two most productive returners, Kris Burd and Matt Snyder. With Burd and Tim Smith (still recovering from his fall surgery) limited this spring, Gooch will get a lot of work catching passes and learning routes as he makes the position switch. He has been a big, physical, athletic receiver this spring, and depending on how several incoming freshmen develop, Gooch can find himself in the rotation.
VIRGINIA TECH: DE Zack McCray. He enters the spring at the No. 2 spot, but the staff likes his potential. The redshirt freshman was listed as the No. 35 defensive end in his class by ESPN’s Scouts Inc.
WAKE FOREST: OLB Zachary Allen. The true freshman from Pahokee, Fla., has made an immediate impression on the staff since enrolling in January. He had 53 tackles, six sacks and a pair of interceptions as a high school senior.