By Dan Kelley on June 12, 2014
ACC football inserted itself into the national spotlight last season, with the Florida State Seminoles winning the BCS title and the Clemson Tigers winning the Orange Bowl. The conference has not looked stronger in recent memory. But, just like every year, stars depart and are eventually replaced by new ones. Here are 10 who could step into the spotlight in 2014.
Prior to last season, coaches could not stop raving about Brisly Estime's explosiveness in practice. They knew they would have to find a way to get the true freshman on the field, and they did so by making him an H-back. It took some time, but as the year went on, Estime became one of Syracuse's go-to receivers. In the Texas Bowl, he caught five passes for 47 yards and made a long punt return that set up the game-winning touchdown.
The North Carolina State Wolfpack's passing attack was a disaster last season. It was one of the many reasons the Wolfpack finished winless in the ACC. But now that Florida Gators transfer Jacoby Brissett is eligible, he will be the unquestioned starter, and North Carolina State's passing game could improve dramatically.
The Clemson Tigers may look to Mike Williams to replace Sammy Watkins as their big-play threat. While Williams almost certainly will not replace Watkins' production, he should be dangerous down the field. The 6-foot-5 sophomore averaged nearly 16 yards per reception last season, for 316 yards and three touchdowns. And Williams won't be asked to carry the passing game by himself, with veteran WR Adam Humphries lining up on the field with him.
Stacy Coley offered more than a few glimpses of his big-play potential last year, when he recorded 591 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Coley averaged nearly 18 yards per reception. This year, he may be the Miami Hurricanes' new number-one receiver, following the departure of Allen Hurns. He should be more than capable of stepping into that role. If Miami gets quality quarterback play this year, Coley may go over 1,000 yards receiving.
Like many of the players listed here, Will Gardner's opportunity to shine in 2014 is the result of departing talent. Gardner may have the biggest shoes to fill in the ACC, as he tries to replace Teddy Bridgewater. The abundance of talent surrounding Gardner, including WR DeVante Parker, should ease the transition though. Gardner also looked sharp in spring practice and seems to be adapting well to Bobby Petrino's offense.
Breon Borders is one of the main reasons why the Duke Blue Devils' secondary should be fine, even after losing both starting cornerbacks. As a freshman last season, Borders played behind all-ACC corner Ross Cockrell. But he saw plenty of time on the field, making 26 tackles, eight pass breakups and four interceptions. Expect opposing quarterbacks to avoid Borders as much as possible.
Taquan Mizzell probably will not be the starting running back for the Virginia Cavaliers this season, with 1,000-yard-rusher Kevin Parks returning. But if the Cavaliers don't escape the Coastal division basement, head coach Mike London may be out of a job. He will not want to keep Mizzell, one of his most prized recruits, off the field for long. Mizzell was one of the top running backs in the class of 2013 and a U.S. Army all-American.
With the loss of Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, the Florida State Seminoles will need a few young receivers to step up. One of those guys could be sophomore Jesus Wilson. With one of the best groups of receivers in the country last year, the Seminoles didn't need Wilson to contribute much as a freshman. This year though, Wilson looks ready create a bigger role for himself, after a strong spring.
While Vad Lee's decision to leave the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets was surprising, it may not be much of a problem. Lee was not an ideal fit for Paul Johnson's triple-option offense. Justin Thomas may actually fill that role better than Lee did. Thomas may not be as talented a passer as Lee, but he should make the Yellow Jackets' rushing attack more dangerous than it was last season.
Chad Voytik gave the Pittsburgh Panthers a glimpse of the future during their bowl game last year. After Tom Savage went down with an injury, Voytik took over and led the Panthers to the win, going 5-9 for 108 yards. Voytik will take over the starting job this year with an elite receiver in Tyler Boyd, a veteran offensive line and two solid running backs to help him. Pitt won't need him to be great. Of course, that does not mean he won't be.
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