ACC Quarterback Rankings – Part Two
In part one, we looked at ACC quarterbacks 14 through eight. This week, we’ll look at the top tier of ACC passers in part two of our ACC Quarterback rankings.
7. Duke – Daniel Jones
Jones threw for 2,836 yards and 16 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He showed the potential to be the next great quarterback for David Cutcliffe. However, his numbers dipped to 2,691 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions, last fall. His completion percentage also dropped over six points, to 56.7 percent. The Blue Devils return only two starters on the offensive line, and only one reserve with any experience, so improvement is not guaranteed. Jones also must hold on to the football better, with eight fumbles in 2017. At least some of the reason for the fumbles is his efficient and high-usage contribution in the run game. Duke was 6-3 last fall when Jones carried at least ten times.
Exciting sophomore running back Brittain Brown also returns. If the replacements along the line can just be solid, Duke should be good on the ground. The Blue Devils also return their top four receivers and tight end Daniel Helm. Seniors T.J. Rahming (12.2 yards per catch) and Johnathan Lloyd are explosive and efficient (68% catch rate), respectively. Jones should bounce back in 2018 as long as the offensive line can keep him clean on first and second down.
6. Virginia Tech – Josh Jackson
Jackson was inconsistent in 2017, but still impressive overall for a redshirt freshman. Remember, Virginia Tech expected to have two years to groom Jackson, but Jerod Evans stunned the coaching staff by declaring for the NFL Draft after one year on campus. With new Head Coach Justin Fuente, Jackson still led the Hokies to nine wins. He threw for 2,991 yards and 20 touchdowns last fall, all while appearing to lack both accuracy and arm strength at times. Its hard to know how much to rely on his freshman performance since the Hokies were horrible running the football. This led to far too many passing downs, a recipe for disaster and turnovers (nine interceptions).
Leading rusher Deshawn McClease returns, but he’s a 5-9/190 power back. So, depth is a major concern, and no rusher has any proven explosive ability. The Hokies also lose star receiver Cam Phillips, but everyone else returns. The offensive line returns three starters and a plethora of young but talented recruits. Jackson’s job isn’t about to become easier just yet, but hopes are high heading into 2018. Just don’t ask about the defense, where departures set up a new challenge for star defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
5. Louisville – Jawon Pass
Lamar Jackson is gone, and Louisville would not have even made a bowl without him last year. Despite this, not many seem worried about Coach Bobby Petrino’s offense. This isn’t (yet another) slight of Jackson either. Pass is just that good, and Petrino isn’t exactly employed for his moral leadership and life championships – he can coach offense as well as anyone. Pass, a star recruit in 2016, played in six games as Jackson’s backup last year. In that small sample, he threw for 238 yards and two scores on just 23 attempts. He’s much less mobile than Jackson, but he can still buy time and make things happen with his legs.
Like Jackson, Pass has a big-time arm and might even be ahead of where Jackson was with his accuracy. He’s a fantastic talent and a hard worker, and there might not be a better system for Pass to reach his potential. Pass is ranked higher on this list than some others, and above some experienced returning starters, but he should exceed expectations despite replacing a legend.
4. Florida State – Deondre Francois (or James Blackman)
New Head Coach Willie Taggart recently declared Francois the starter for week one against Virginia Tech. Francois beat out Blackman in fall camp, but it’s fair to expect this competition to continue, at least in practice, during the season. Each player flashed in moments playing as freshman, Francois in 2016 and Blackman as a true freshman in 2017. Blackman was forced into action so soon as a result of Francois’ week-one knee injury, so health and confidence will play a role in this race. Francois appears healthy, though, so his biggest question may be off-field and leadership.
Francois did throw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2016, while Blackman threw for 2,230 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017. It’s both hard and easy to be confident in each passer, so it may come down to the question-marks. For Blackman, his mobility and accuracy held him back at times, but he was a true freshman behind a porous offensive line. Francois still must address his leadership, but he’s also better built to sustain a beating if healthy and can make all the throws.
3. Syracuse – Eric Dungey
Syracuse simply has to keep their star quarterback, Dungey, healthy for a full year. He hasn’t finished a season yet, but he can be an all-conference player when available. In the 26 games he has played, Dungey’s thrown for 7.1 yards per attempt, with a 131.5 quarterback rating. He’s thrown 40 touchdowns, against 21 interceptions, with one of the weakest supporting casts in the conference. He’s added over 1200 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. This all sounds great, and befitting of a top-tier quarterback.
The downside, besides health, is Dungey performed worse in 2017 than in either of the two prior years, despite star receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips. They’re both gone. Dungey must progress for Syracuse to return to a bowl game, which is a good bet. And just in case, Syracuse can turn to four-star redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito. He has been working with the first team in fall camp at times and could push Dungey and earn playing time this year.
2. NC State – Ryan Finley
NC State simply produces quarterbacks, with nearly every starter moving on to an NFL career. Finley will be the next, as he’s thrown back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons, connecting on 65 percent of his passes in 2017. The Wolfpack lose a ton on defense and their top rushers. But, Finley retains one of the ACC’s top receiving corps. Star receiver Kelvin Harmon (1017 yards, four TDs) and 2017 breakout-star Jakobi Meyers (727 yards, five TDs) both return, along with impressive depth pieces Stephen Louis (583 yards, two TDs) and Emeka Emezie (163 yards, one TD). Finley has all the tools for a huge senior year.
It’s not quite all good news though, as displayed in Finley’s performance against the best defenses he faced in 2017. His passer rating fell dramatically against better competition, and he really struggled on the road at Notre Dame and Boston College. Finley, now a sixth-year senior, must thrive in difficult situations for NC State to match the nine wins from a season ago.
1. Clemson – Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence
Bryant replaced the legendary Deshaun Watson admirably, but this is one of the preeminent programs in college football. Bryant won’t just hold onto the job, he’ll have to fight off a five-star true freshman. That freshman, Trevor Lawrence, will have to beat a guy who contributed over 3,400 total yards and 24 touchdowns. He led Clemson to the playoff, where he was overmatched by Alabama in much the same way Jalen Hurts was by Georgia just one game later.
Lawrence is a better natural thrower than Bryant, but how soon he competes for the job will come down to earning trust and displaying a knowledge of the offense. In both of these areas, Bryant admirably replaced the void left by Watson. If Lawrence can display these traits, Coach Dabo Swinney will have a hard time keeping him away from the starting unit. Clemson was hampered by a severe lack of explosiveness in the passing game, particularly against strong defenses. Clemson ranked 124th nationally in IsoPPP (which measures the explosiveness of successful passes); this is the one area where Lawrence would provide a definitive upgrade.
As shown in the chart above, Bryant performed okay against top defenses but threw seven interceptions with only five touchdowns in those seven games. Still, Bryant produced a solid passer rating and contributed heavily on the ground against the toughest defenses, and they won each game besides Alabama. If Lawrence becomes the starter sometime this fall, he will have earned the job.