- Jared Shanker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The stars of the ACC have moved on, which means it’s time for a new crop of standout players to emerge. Seven players received a vote for the offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year award in 2014, but only one of those seven, Pittsburgh's James Conner, returns this fall, opening the door for fresh faces.
On Wednesday and Thursday, we’ll look at five preseason candidates for offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year.
We’ll start with the offense, and the leading contender has to be Conner, as the junior running back is the reigning offensive and ACC player of the year.
Pittsburgh RB James Conner
As a freshman, Conner earned acclaim for his throwback style. Not only did the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder look like the running backs from eras prior, but he played both ways. He doubled as a defensive end, and he sealed the win in the 2013 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl with his dominant play on both sides. He followed that up with a sophomore season in which he only played offense, and amassed 1,765 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. As a junior, Conner has an opportunity to improve on his numbers from a year ago, as seasoned quarterback Chad Voytik should present more of an aerial threat to complement the ground attack.
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
There might not have been a better player in the conference in November and December. Once Cook gained his footing with the Seminoles' offense, he became a dynamic threat as a runner and receiver. He set the freshman rushing record at Florida State, and with the opportunity to become the focal point of the offense this season, the 2,000-yard mark is not out of the question. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher could rely on Cook more than he has on any other running back in his Florida State coaching tenure, and Cook is likely the most talented running back Fisher has signed. The sophomore will need to better secure the football, however, as the three fumbles in the Rose Bowl loss still bother him.
Florida State QB Everett Golson
Technically the graduate transfer is still competing for the starting job, but he will be given ample opportunity to take the offense's reins. There is no telling how Golson will fare in Fisher’s offense, but the former Notre Dame quarterback is talented. In his four games against ACC teams last season, he completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,211 yards and 12 touchdowns. No offensive player in the conference will have his OPOY chances tied more to team success than Golson, though. For the senior to be in the conversation, he will likely need to lead Florida State to a division title.
Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas
It’s a bit of a surprise Thomas didn’t garner a single vote for OPOY following his breakout 2014 campaign. He amassed 1,086 rushing yards in Paul Johnson’s option offense as a sophomore, but he is also proving to be the most capable passer Johnson has had as Yellow Jackets coach. Utilizing the deep ball, Thomas averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and threw 18 touchdowns to only six interceptions. The Yellow Jackets are among the favorites to win the ACC in 2015 in large part because of Thomas, as the Jackets are rebuilding at the other offensive skill positions. There a number of Georgia Tech games highlighted on the ACC calendar -- Clemson, Florida State, Georgia and Notre Dame -- which will provide Thomas with the chance to sway opinion.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
If Watson can stay healthy -- three injuries in his first year at Clemson doesn’t speak well to his durability -- then he could end up running away with this award. It was clear on his first throw at Clemson that he possesses a rare talent. The former No. 1 high school quarterback is recovering from a torn ACL but is on pace to start in the season opener. Benefitting Watson in his campaign to win OPOY is that the Tigers are loaded at receiver. Artavis Scott and Mike Williams are first-team All-ACC candidates. Watson is a budding star, and the only obstacles that have kept him from already reaching that plateau are the injuries. If he remains on the field for all 12 games, he’ll make a run at the Heisman Trophy.
A look at the top five candidates for ACC Offensive Player of the Year, which are led by the reigning POY, Pittsburgh RB James Conner.