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ACC: Breakout players

The SportsXchange

Breakout players are those who finally live up to the most optimistic expectations of their abilities and become impact contributors for their football team. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, there are candidates everywhere for so-called breakout seasons.

Often, stars are made when a fresh opportunity is created.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, most every team has multiple candidates for such a designation.

Virginia is breaking in a new quarterback, redshirt sophomore David Watford, and Florida State is looking for replacements for two defensive ends drafted in the top 40, Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine.

The Sports Xchange polled its network of ACC correspondents to identify a breakout player for every team in the conference. Here is a look at those ACC breakout prospects (listed in alphabetical order of school):

Boston College: LB Kevin Pierre-Louis.

Now a senior, Pierre-Louis is the kind of athlete who should benefit from the team's new and aggressive defensive style. He's on the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy as the defensive player of the year and was also tabbed for preseason ACC honors. Consider him a key to things getting better on defense.

Clemson: RB Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell.

McDowell has toiled in relative obscurity behind C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington over the last four seasons, but now it's his time to shine. McDowell is cut from the Ellington mold -- smallish but powerful, and capable of explosive bursts -- and if the Tigers could get similar production (Ellington closed his Clemson career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons), offensive coordinator Chad Morris will be more than content. McDowell showed flashes last season in relief of Ellington, amassing 450 yards and scoring five touchdowns.

Duke: WR Jamison Crowder.

He showed enough of the big-play capabilities a year ago, when he was still an understudy to ACC all-time WR Conner Vernon. Now it's Crowder's turn to squarely fall into the spotlight, though his impact could depend in part in how the Blue Devils break in QB Anthony Boone. The junior has nine touchdowns to his credit in his career, but he'll likely need at least that many this season in order for the Blue Devils to approach reaching their potential.

Florida State: DB Tyler Hunter.

It's hard to say a guy who Fisher has consistently called "phenomenal" and "amazing" during preseason practice is under the radar, but with the departure of All-ACC CB Xavier Rhodes to the NFL, the chance to make that game-changing interception or QB sack on third down on a corner blitz is now Hunter's for the taking after only getting three starts last year. Despite his limited role in 2012, the junior still tied Rhodes for the team lead in picks with three. Hunter's quickness and instinctive ball skills have been likened to that of former Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu of LSU, and he is also a danger in the punt return game, finishing second last year behind Greene for the team lead in total yards. He is expected to see time returning punts again this year with Greene and senior Kenny Shaw.

Georgia Tech: LB Jabari Hunt-Days.

He started last season as a redshirt freshman. He has size, speed and strength and seems to have a motor that doesn't stop. A year ago Hunt-Days started all 14 games and wound up third in tackles (84). He had two double-digit tackle games: Clemson and Southern Cal.

Maryland: DE Quinton Jefferson.

Coaches and players alike are already singing of the lightly used sophomore's emergence this season. Jefferson has the right size, great quickness and now, the maturity, to make things happen. "The main thing you see is that he understands he may play and be a starter," said defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. "That in itself will make you grow up. We're expecting big things from him. He has extraordinary quickness. His pass rush is clean. He's young and has a good motor."

Miami (Fla.): Duke Johnson.

The plan is to get this electrifying runner even more touches than the 193 he got as a freshman last year (139 rushes, 27 receptions and 27 kickoff returns). His 892 yards and two touchdowns were school records for kick returns, and his 947 yards rushing were a school record for a freshman.

North Carolina: WR Quinshad Davis.

As a freshman last year, Davis caught 61 passes to lead the team in the category. Fedora has been quoted as saying Davis has the potential for 100 receptions this season, and the receiver agrees. "It's very realistic," Davis told the Raleigh News & Observer.

North Carolina State: LB D.J. Green.

He should have plenty of incentive after missing the 2012 season because he was ruled eligible. He's a senior and has shown the potential in the past of being an impact player. Green was considered perhaps the most athletic linebacker on the team in 2011, so if he can pick up from that standpoint, he could be ready for a big year. With a secondary lacking experience behind him, the Wolfpack will be counting on big things from Green.

Pittsburgh: CB/KR Lafayette Pitts.

The Panthers ranked 17th in total defense last season and no small reason was the play of Pitts. As a redshirt freshman he started all 13 games and had a team-best nine pass breakups. Pitts also averaged 24.3 yards on 30 kick returns. Expect more recognition on what will again be a strong defense and perhaps he can break a kick return against one or more of the high profile ACC opponents.

Syracuse: RB Ashron Broyld.

Broyld can play quarterback, he can play running back and he can move out into the slot. He's a good enough athlete that everyone's excited about what he can do once he gets on the field. After battling injuries as a freshman, he's looking for a breakout campaign in his second year. Now, the task becomes figuring out how to get the ball in his hands in a position to make plays.

Virginia: CB Demetrious Nicholson.

Nicholson is a known quantity at Virginia, as he's been a starter at the back end of the defense since his first game as a true freshman. Now a junior, Nicholson is coming off a season in which he broke up 15 passes but didn't tally any interceptions. That total has to go up in 2013. Nicholson thinks he's up to the task. He's also going to be tasked to defend the opposing team's best receiver on a weekly basis.

Virginia Tech: DE Dadi Nicolas.

The Hokies are expecting big things from Nicolas, who should provide a big spark for the team's pass rush. He had two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in limited playing time last season, but he should have a much bigger role this year. One of his teammates compared Nicolas to New York Giants pass rushing maestro Jason Pierre-Paul. Nicolas is in a battle for one of the starting end spots, but even if he doesn't start, he should have plenty of opportunities to make plays.

Wake Forest: DE Zach Thompson.

Thompson receives regular mention from coach Jim Grobe as a player worth watching even though he otherwise might be operating under the radar. Thompson has started 28 games in his career, so he has experience on his side. He figures to benefit from a healthier defensive line around him. And if NG Nikita Whitlock can draw attention from the interior, it could open avenues for Thompson to have a significant impact.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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