Florida State Seminoles: Willie Byrn

Last weekend’s NFL draft in which 42 ACC players were selected was a reminder of how much talent was departing the conference. But just as Sammy Watkins, Aaron Donald and Kyle Fuller say goodbye, the focus turns to the players who’ll step into the spotlight in 2014.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami tailback Duke Johnson rushed for 920 yards in 2013, despite missing five games due to injury.
PASSING YARDS
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)

Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.

RUSHING YARDS
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)

Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.

RECEIVING YARDS
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)

Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.

TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley has 21 sacks in his career.
Of note: Duke’s front four took a big hit with the loss of three senior starters, but the back seven should be one of the most experienced and productive in the conference. Of the 25 ACC players with at least 50 solo tackles last season, 12 return this season.

INTERCEPTIONS
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)

Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.

SACKS
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)

Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.

(*Target totals courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)

Much has been made about the enormous turnover at quarterback in the ACC, where nine of the league’s 14 teams will feature a different starter in Week 1 of 2014 than at the conclusion of 2013.

The new arms throwing the football will be a major storyline for the spring, but the players on the other end of those passes will be much different this year, too. Eight of the top 12 receivers in the ACC last season are moving on, including likely first-round NFL draft picks Sammy Watkins, Eric Ebron and Kelvin Benjamin.

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh's Tyler Boyd could be one of the ACC's top wideouts in 2014.
Combine the high turnover at quarterback with the loss of so many top receivers, and it’s fair to say the passing games in the ACC will look much different in 2014. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some impressive returning talent. Nine receivers who were targeted at least 70 times last season return.

The obvious standout is Jamison Crowder, who was targeted a whopping 174 times in 2013. Nationally, only Fresno State’s Davante Adams (180 targets) was thrown to more often, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It’s also worth noting that Fresno State had 203 more passing attempts than Duke did. Crowder was on the receiving end of 37 percent of Duke’s passing attempts last season, compared with just 27 percent for Adams. Among ACC receivers, only Boston College’s Alex Amidon accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s throws (41 percent). Given his contributions on special teams, too, there's a case to be made that, aside from Jameis Winston, no player in the ACC means more to his team than Crowder.

It’s worth noting, too, that Duke is one of the five ACC teams with the quarterback position already settled, with Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette both returning for 2014, giving the Blue Devils easily the most tested quarterback-receiver combo in the conference.

Beyond Duke’s established QB/WR combo, Florida State is in good hands with senior Rashad Greene returning for his senior season. In 2013, he was on the receiving end of 27 percent of Winston’s throws, and with Benjamin and Kenny Shaw both gone, Greene’s role figures to only get bigger in 2014.

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Believe it or not, the third-most tested combo in the conference is at Virginia, where QB David Watford returns along with receiver Darius Jennings, who was targeted 78 times last year. Of course, the Virginia passing game was far from effective for much of the season -- and Jennings only hauled in 49 percent of his targets with a paltry 4.3 yards/target average -- but the rapport Watford and Jennings were able to build throughout 2013 offers some hope for the Cavaliers’ offense.

In terms of pure explosiveness, North Carolina could have an interesting combination with Marquise Williams back at quarterback and emerging talent Quinshad Davis at receiver. Davis hauled in an impressive 67 percent of his targets and gained an average of 10.1 yards per target last season, including 10 touchdowns. Of course, he’ll need to prove he’s as effective without Ebron hogging so much of the attention from opposing defenses this year.

Similarly, the ACC will get its introduction to Louisville standout DeVante Parker in 2014. While Parker won't have the luxury of Teddy Bridgewater throwing to him, his numbers last season were immensely impressive. He averaged nearly 11 yards each time he was thrown to, and he hauled in two-thirds of his targets.

While Crowder and Greene represent the cream of the crop for receivers with returning quarterbacks, the player with perhaps the most upside of the group is Tyler Boyd. Pitt might be in search of a new starting quarterback to replace Tom Savage, but few first-year starters will have a weapon as reliable and explosive in the passing game as Pitt has in Boyd. As a true freshman in 2013, Boyd finished third in the conference in targets (behind only Crowder and Watkins), hauled in nearly 70 percent of his targets (tops among returning receivers with at least 70 targets) and his 10 catches of 25 yards or more is second only to Crowder among returning receivers in the conference.

But perhaps the most intriguing names on this list are the trio from Virginia Tech. The Hokies account for one-third of all the ACC’s returning receivers with at least 70 targets, meaning that while Frank Beamer works to find his new quarterback, he’ll have a veteran group of receivers to target. Of course, experience only matters if there’s talent to back it up and that’s the big question in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech ranked 63rd nationally in passing offense last season, 68th in yards per attempt and 89th in QB rating. While Demitri Knowles, Willie Byrn and Joshua Stanford were all among the ACC’s most targeted receivers, they also hauled in just 56 percent of the balls thrown their way and averaged just 7.9 yards per target. They’ll need to be far more reliable in 2014 with a new QB throwing to them.

ACC weekend rewind: Week 9

October, 28, 2013
10/28/13
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Another top-10 clash between undefeated teams is on the horizon. Before we get to that, however, we'll take a look back at how we got there in our Week 9 weekend rewind.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireDavid Cutcliffe has Duke pointed in the right direction.
The good: Duke may deserve its own "great" category (more on that in a bit), but the ACC finds itself at the center of the college football world for the second time in three weeks. Florida State took care of business against NC State, Miami survived a scare from Wake Forest and here we go again, as the No. 3 Seminoles and No. 7 Hurricanes take aim for conference (and possibly national) supremacy. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be in Tallahassee for the clash between the in-state rivals, marking the third time in 10 weeks that the show will originate from an ACC campus.

The bad: Pitt players used the words "complacent" and "overconfident" to describe the second half of their 24-21 loss to Navy, per the Post-Gazette's Sam Werner. What exactly the 4-3 Panthers were complacent or overconfident about is up for debate. Pitt lost a lot of leeway in its quest for another bowl berth, as it dropped a very winnable game and the chance to carry the momentum of a two-game winning streak into Saturday's trip to Georgia Tech. Navy scored 10 points in the final 3:52 to steal the victory. The schedule will be considerably more difficult for the Panthers down the stretch, as they face both Notre Dame and Miami over the final four weeks of the season. (On a positive note, congratulations to Devin Street for becoming the school's all-time receptions leader with 186.)

The ugly: Georgia Tech turned the ball over five times and still won at Virginia by 10, which should probably tell you all that you need to know right now about the Cavaliers. The Yellow Jackets escaped with the victory despite forcing just one turnover and holding the ball for nearly 10 fewer minutes than Virginia. Mike London took two huge gambles, first failing on an early fourth-and-1 try in field goal range and then calling a run play from the 1 with six seconds left that was stuffed for the last play of the first half. Georgia Tech, by the way, had Vad Lee throw the ball a whopping five times, completing three of those throws for 75 yards with no touchdowns and one pick. Kudos to the ground game, which had three 100-yard rushers, but this contest otherwise filled the "ugly" column capably.

The Blue Devils: Because really, what more can you say about them? Duke is 6-2 and likely going to a bowl for the second year in a row, which would be a school first. It is simply a remarkable feat for a program that, until last season, had not been to a bowl since 1994. The Blue Devils' 13-10 win over No. 14 Virginia Tech was their first victory over a ranked team since 1994, and their first road win over a ranked team since 1971. Hats off to David Cutcliffe for his rebuilding job in Durham, something everyone can appreciate a little more after seeing the coach get doused with a Gatorade shower following the stunning upset in Blacksburg.

Speaking of Tobacco Road … : About time, North Carolina. The Tar Heels finally put a complete game together, running over Boston College in a 34-10 win that ended a four-game losing streak. Bryn Renner was on point, completing 18 of 21 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. And the defense was stout, holding the Eagles to just 261 total yards of offense and limiting Chase Rettig to 10-for-20 passing for 57 yards. Maybe, maybe, things can open up a bit now for UNC, which is 2-5 but has a much easier second-half slate that should give it a chance to gain bowl eligibility, starting this week at NC State.

The refreshing take: Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher lifted his starters for most of the second half after a 42-0 halftime lead. NC State made the 49-17 final seem a lot closer than it was in the second half, but credit Fisher for why he would not put his starters back in: "I’m not going to go out there and embarrass this game and the integrity of how you’ve got to play. If that’s the way they’re going to do it, they need to re-evaluate. If they can’t tell we dominated that game early and put it away -- I just think that's bad for college football, in my opinion." FSU fell to No. 3 Sunday in the latest BCS standings. In State College, they probably wish the nation's No. 4 team had such perspective.

The quote: Virginia Tech receiver Willie Byrn, via The Virginian-Pilot's Andy Bitter: "What more can the defense do, really?" The Hokies held Duke to 198 total yards of offense, picked off four passes and held the ball for nearly twice as long as the Blue Devils. Credit Byrn for being more humble in defeat than defensive coordinator Bud Foster, though.

Mr. Reliable: Clemson went blue collar in its recovery from the Florida State loss, relying on fifth-year senior running back Roderick McDowell to help the Tigers escape Maryland with a 40-27 win. McDowell carried the ball 30 times for 161 yards, and the Tigers ran the ball 57 times for a season-best 247 yards. McDowell notched two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, his first two scores of the season. He lost one fumble, as did Sammy Watkins, but the Tigers were still able to impose their will on a defense that had been stout against the run.

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