- 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 we looked at five preseason candidates for ACC offensive player of the year. Now the focus shifts to the defense, where predicting the defensive player of the year is a crapshoot. The three players to garner votes last season have all moved on, so here are five players from among the many that will compete for the award.
Virginia safety Quin Blanding
The defensive rookie of the year a season ago, Blanding is on the cusp of becoming one of college football's most recognizable defensive names. If the Cavaliers weren't a nonfactor annually, he already might have been. As a true freshman, he accumulated 123 tackles and three interceptions. Blanding will take on an even bigger role as a sophomore, and his expanded duties will make him a bigger threat to shut down offenses each play. This should be Blanding's breakout season nationally, and his numbers will reflect that.
Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller
A first-team All-ACC performer and third-team All-American a season ago, the junior Fuller is already on the radar of NFL teams. In 2014, Fuller ranked sixth nationally with 15 pass breakups, and he added two interceptions. On top of his stellar coverage skills, Fuller is a presence along the line of scrimmage as a tackler and pass-rusher. As with any defensive back, his contributions aren't always easily measured, so Fuller will need to fill up the stat sheet some to make a run at the award. He's capable of doing that.
Clemson DE Shaq Lawson
The Tigers need players on the defensive line to elevate their performance with the mass departures along the unit, and most eyes are shifted toward Lawson. His snaps were limited as a sophomore as the Tigers were loaded on the defensive front, but now Lawson becomes the focal point of a group that finished seventh nationally in sacks last season. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior is gifted, and he's made himself a presence in opposing backfields during his short time at Clemson. The problem for Lawson is that if he does his job too well, those pressures on the quarterback will lead to errant throws and into the waiting arms of Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who also has a great chance at winning the award. Alexander might be the better preseason pick, but the statistics a defensive lineman can generate lend themselves well to postseason awards.
Virginia Tech DE Dadi Nicolas
Much like with Lawson, Nicolas' productivity will boost the résumé of Fuller. It will also help the case of fellow Hokies defensive end Ken Ekanem, who led the team in sacks in 2014. Nicolas, a second-team All-ACC performer last season, was the more disruptive of the two, and his 18 tackles for loss ranked 16th nationally. With Clemson's Vic Beasley off to the NFL, Nicolas, who had 35 quarterback pressures last season, is the ACC's top pass-rusher. Nicolas does more than just get into the backfield, though. On special teams, Nicolas blocked two kicks.
Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said Ramsey will move back to cornerback, but don't be surprised if the Seminoles move Ramsey all over the field. He spent 2014 serving in several roles and excelled in all of them. The junior and first-round talent knows how to find his way into the box score by intercepting passes, sacking quarterbacks and blocking kicks. One byproduct of being the leader of Florida State's defense is the spotlight will be on Ramsey part of the time. The garrulous defensive back comes from the "Prime Time" mold, though, and he will make sure the limelight remains on him the rest of the time through his play and pestering of receivers.
23hJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon