With Lamar Jackson gone, ACC in search of offensive stars

Lamar Jackson led the ACC in both rushing and passing last season, but to truly understand the Louisville Cardinals quarterback's offensive dominance, look beyond the stats to something else.

Jackson easily won ACC Player of the Year honors as the only offensive player to pick up a vote. The voting for ACC Offensive Player of the Year was more lopsided: Jackson got 57 out of 59 votes. Kelly Bryant and Jaylen Samuels each got one.

So it is safe to say the ACC is in need of an offensive showstopper now that Jackson has left for the NFL. There are plenty of candidates, but what will be fascinating to watch as spring unfolds is whether the combined talent can swing the ACC back toward a league that has more balance between its offensive and defensive stars.

That is how the ACC looked two years ago, when players like Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky and others proved the conference had the best quarterback group in the country. Add in Dalvin Cook, Mike Williams, Ryan Switzer and others, and the ACC ended 2016 with its fair share of offensive talent across the board.

But last season, defensive standouts came to dominate, between Bradley Chubb, the Clemson defensive line, Derwin James, Micah Kiser, Tremaine Edmunds and a host of others. Not to mention the Turnover Chain at Miami, the physical embodiment of an all-out, relentless, aggressive defense.

With the entire Clemson defensive line returning (not to mention the Turnover Chain), it makes sense to think that defense will once again define the ACC in 2018. Especially because Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell are so dominant, and Clemson is expected to be the popular choice from the ACC to make another College Football Playoff appearance.

That should not suggest there is a shortage of talent on offense, and looking at returnees does not include true or redshirt freshmen. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry are newcomers to keep an eye on. But they also have to beat out incumbents during spring quarterback competitions, so their situations remain up in the air.

With that said, here are five returning players sure to garner much more buzz as spring gets underway.

Cam Akers, RB, Florida State. Plenty will focus on the quarterbacks in the new system Willie Taggart is bringing to the Seminoles, and Deondre Francois or James Blackman will have an opportunity to put up big numbers. But it is important not to overlook what the running back does in this offense, especially one as talented as Akers, who set the FSU freshman single-season rushing record a year ago. In eight years as a head coach, Taggart has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher once. In 2016, he had two: Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack at USF.

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College. Dillon emerged last year as a true freshman, rushing for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns, including multiple 200-yard days. Now consider he had 178 total yards in his first four games. “Where do I think he can be? If he stays healthy, I think he can win the Heisman Trophy here at Boston College,” coach Steve Addazio told David Hale last month. Remember, this is the same team that produced 2,000-yard rusher and 2013 Heisman finalist Andre Williams.

Eric Dungey, QB, Syracuse. The potential is there for Dungey to pass for 4,000 yards this season but the Orange have to find a way to keep him healthy. That has been the biggest drawback to his progress under Dino Babers over the past two seasons. Dungey worked to transform himself physically this offseason to increase his durability. That, combined with a third year in this offense, have expectations for his potential soaring. “I really expect fantastic things and I really expect him to finish the season,” Babers said.

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson. We saw flashes of potential a year ago thanks to his shiftiness and breakaway speed. Despite limited carries, he still ranks fourth in Clemson history with 7.2 yards per carry. But one of the reasons he wasn’t on the field all the time was his liability as a pass blocker, and that is something the Clemson coaching staff is targeting for improvement this spring. Expect to see a much more complete back when fall rolls around.

Ryan Finley, QB, NC State. Finley considered leaving school early for the NFL draft after a junior season in which he threw for 3,518 yards, completed 65 percent of his passes and finished second in the conference in quarterback efficiency to Jackson. But coach Dave Doeren said Finley did not receive a first- or second-round grade and opted to come back to not only improve his draft stock but lead the Wolfpack. Though NC State loses Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines, plenty of talent returns, including 1,000-yard receiver Kelvin Harmon.