Biggest Shoes to Fill in the ACC in 2021
Clemson Offensive Skill Players
The Tigers have become a program that can probably just reload from year to year, but don't overlook the losses. Clemson is losing some of its best players in program history. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was a star from the moment he stepped on campus and possibly even before that. Lawrence helped the team win a National Championship as a freshman, was a constant candidate and finalist for all the national awards, and leaves as a top 5 passer in program history. He was also an underrated runner as he amassed 943 rushing yards and had the 5th most rushing TDs of any Clemson QB. Travis Etienne joins Lawrence in Jacksonville as they begin their pro careers. Etienne ran for nearly 5,000 yards and 70 touchdowns in his college career and is one of the all-time great college running backs. He had underestimated power for a smaller-built back and was an adept receiver out of the backfield, so mush so that Jacksonville has him playing receiver in camp. The offense will also be without the 1900 combined yards and 14 touchdowns of Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers.
The receiving corps gets a bit of a reprieve with the return of first-round prospect Justyn Ross--who missed 2020 with a neck and spine injury. Joseph Ngata, EJ Williams, and Frank Ladson Jr will be counted on to step up in the other receiver spots. Highly-touted sophomore DJ Uiagalelei will start his journey as the prime signal-caller after playing well in relief as a freshman. Lyn-J Dixon has spent the last three years as Etienne's backup and has been groomed as the heir apparent. The return of tight end Braden Galloway should also keep this offense consistent as the new guys find their footing.
Boston College Linebacker
Boston College will be breaking in an entirely new group of linebackers in 2021. All-ACC performers and leading tacklers Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson have both departed for the NFL. McDuffie finished his career with 233 tackles including 15.5 for loss and 8.5 sacks. Richardson started for three seasons and totaled over 300 tackles with 32.5 for loss and 10 sacks. John Lamot also leaves after 237 tackles in his career. That's outstanding production that cannot be easily replicated. Temple transfer Isaiah Graham-Mobley is the top replacement in this bunch. Graham-Mobley was a mainstay at linebacker for the Owls but is two years removed from his best season. If he can recapture that version of himself on the field, the Eagles will have one less hole on defense. Ourlads projects redshirt juniors Nick DeNucci and Vinny DePalma to join him in the starting lineup.
Boston College Running Back
When AJ Dillon went to the NFL, David Bailey eased the pain. Overall, Bailey ran for 1600 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging just under five yards per carry in his Boston College career. Bailey has since transferred to Colorado State, so Boston College will be looking for a new RB1. Senior Travis Levy will likely assume those duties but has far fewer rushing yards and touchdowns over the course of his career. West Virginia transfer Alec Sinkfield has joined the team and has very similar numbers to Levy. It may behoove BC to use a backfield-by-committee approach in 2021.
Boston College Tight End
Hunter Long was quietly one of the best players to play for Boston College. In 2020, he became just the third Eagles' tight end to be named to the Football Writers Association of America All-America team and was the first BC player since Luke Kuechly to add the same honors from the Associated Press and Sporting News. Jacksonville State transfer Trae Berry has had a productive career and will try to prove himself at the FBS level in 2021. Spencer Witter is the only other tight end they have who has any college receptions, but he doesn't have anywhere near the same production.
Duke Pass Rushers
Defensive ends Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph were forces to be reckoned with in Durham. Dimukeje leaves ranking 2nd in school history in sacks (just a half sack shy of tying the all-time mark) while starting 49 games and earning All-ACC honors twice. Rumph finishes just four sacks behind his teammate in 13 fewer games. He was also a two-time All-ACC player and named an All-American by PFF and Sports Illustrated in 2019. The Blue Devils also see Drew Jordan, who was a key role player in 48 games, transfer to Michigan State for his final season of eligibility. Ben Frye is the most seasoned returning player and is expected to take one of the empty spots. The other will be filled by either seldom-used sophomores RJ Oben and Caleb Oppan or freshman Aaron Hall.
Damar Hamlin, Paris Ford, and Jason Pinnock all head to the pros. Hamlin was constantly among the team's leaders in tackles and pass breakups and formed a lethal safety combo with Ford, who had a knack for interceptions and was a hard hitter. Both safeties were All-ACC performers. Pinnock was a starting cornerback and tied for the team lead in interceptions last year. It is always difficult to replace three starters in one unit. On the bright side, starting corner Marquis Williams returns, and expected starters AJ Woods, Brandon Hill, and Erick Hallett II have started games in their careers.
Pittsburgh Defensive Line
The Pitt d-line also loses a bunch of playmakers. While DT Jaylen Twyman opted out of 2020, the rest of the unit balled out. Rashad Weaver returned from injury to put himself on the NFL's radar and earn consensus All-America honors with 7.5 sacks and 14.5 TFL. Patrick Jones played two straight years as one of the most dominant defensive ends in the ACC and earned All-America honors with nine sacks in 2020. In total, the Pitt defense piled up 46 sacks in 2020 at an average of 4.18 per game-- the 2nd highest rate in the country. Defensive tackle Keyshon Camp and many key reserves return, but Deslin Alexandre is the only one of them to have had more than four sacks in a season. Alexandre and John Morgan will look to pick up where Jones and Weaver left off at defensive end.
North Carolina Backs & Receivers
The big question for Sam Howell and the UNC offense this year will be how do they replace all those playmakers? And, furthermore, did they make him what he's projected to be or did Howell make them what they are? The Tar Heels lose a ton of talent- including top running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and top wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. Carter and Williams leave as possibly the most successful duo in program history after both ran for over 2,000 yards in their careers and finished in the top 15 of the school's all-time leading rushers (Carter is 4th and Williams is 14th). Newsome and Brown also finished in the top-10 of the program's receiving yards leaders at 5th and 7th respectively. There may be no other program trying to replace more offensive production in 2021. Senior Antoine Green and Beau Corrales will be the elder statesmen while lead returning receiver Kahfre Brown and the rest of the next wave of young players prove their worth.
Miami Defensive Ends
Miami lost two first-round defensive ends in Jaelan Phillips and Gregory Rousseau and a hybrid late-round pass-rusher in Quincy Roche. Roche performed pretty well in his one year with the Hurricanes, but it was nowhere near the 13 sack season he had in his final year at Temple. Phillips took over after Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season and came away with eight sacks while playing his way into the first round. While Rousseau didn't play last season, he finished 2019 as the top returning pass-rusher after a 15.5 sack season. Linebacker Zach McCloud will reportedly switch to defensive end for his final season. He has speed as a former linebacker and the size to put his hand in the dirt. Tennesse transfer Deandre Johnson, who can also play linebacker, figures to take the spot on the other side.
Eric Coley is the only non-freshman projected starter for the Orange's five-man secondary in 2021. Aman Greenwood and Ja'Had Carter have started games but are still freshmen and Ifeatu Melifonfu, Andre Cisco, and Trill Williams were all drafted into the NFL. All three of the draft picks were over six feet tall, which is a desirable trait for guys in the secondary in toady's game. Freshman All-America corner Garrett Williams will see more action with the inexperienced Chase Atkinson rounding out the group.
All-ACC players Charles Snowden and Zane Zandier graduate. Both had a great influence on the defense. Snowden's length at 6'7" made him hard to miss and was a key to his pass-rushing. He finishes his career 15th all-time on Virginia's sacks list and had nearly 200 tackles. Zandier was a hard-hitting tackle machine with over 250 in his career. Nick Jackson and Noah Taylor return to the squad as starters. Elliott Brown, Hunter Stewart, and Josh Ahern are all among the candidates to join them.
Louisville Wide Receivers
Both Tutu Atwell and Dez Fotzpatrick depart. Fitzpatrick is 9th in career receptions and 6th in career receiving yards in Lousiville history. Atwell was the speedy receiver who could change games instantly and has the 8th most receiving yards in school history. Both players are tied for the school record in touchdown catches. In an attempt to follow the dynamic duo, the Cardinals will be turning to former Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts, sophomore Jalen Smith, and a bevy of players with minuscule college experience including Justin Marshall and Jordan Watkins.
NC State Nose Tackle
Alim McNeill was an impressive athlete and advantage upfront for the Wolfpack. Defensive tackles don't get a ton of sacks, but McNeill had a stellar 10 career sacks and 17.5 TFL. He also intercepted a pass for a touchdown. CJ Clark started at nose in the bowl game and will have to hold off Davin Vann and Joshua Harris in 2021.