CHARLOTTE – The ACC has won two of the past five college football national championships, cause for optimism after a silent start to the century. The titles by Florida State (2013) and Clemson (2016) helped flatten the college football world from the specter of SEC dominance. And they were delivered by a pair of transcendent quarterbacks.
Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson led their respective teams to victory in the waning moments of the title game against SEC opponents. At their respective schools, they’re once-a-generation type players who are now considered franchise NFL quarterbacks.
Peeking around the ACC, there’s no one in their class in 2018. That’s why this appears to be a bridge year for the ACC, as its difficult to envision any of the league’s projected starting quarterbacks being experienced and talented enough to author a national title run. In short, the ACC has a quarterback problem, and there’s few imminent solutions.
N.C. State’s Ryan Finley is the league’s most established signal caller, as he’s first-team preseason All-ACC by Athlon. While he’s thrived under coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, he’s also the poster boy for the ACC’s quarterback quandary. If that’s the best the league has to offer, it’s hard to see any team from the ACC raising a crystal ball in January.
The ACC isn’t alone in being bereft of high-end quarterbacks. In polling a handful of NFL scouts on Wednesday, this appears to be a destitute season for NFL prospects. Last year, NFL teams drafted five quarterbacks in the first round, and one scout told Yahoo Sports that’s the type of quarterback class that comes around every seven or eight years.
But this season, NFL scouts are going to be watching quarterback film with clothespins pinched on their noses. A year ago at this time, there were three clear-cut first round NFL Draft picks who’d established themselves – UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. The other two eventual first-rounders had been hyper-productive – Louisville’s Lamar Jackson won the Heisman and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield lit up Big 12 defenses.
This year? Well, not so much. But in the eyes of the NFL, there’s slim pickings. “When you look at this class,” another scout told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “I don’t know who you can stand on the table for as a first round pick this time of year. Last year, it was easy at this time of year to see three or four guys picked in the first round.”
Surely, players will emerge. West Virginia’s Will Grier, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham are the best bets. (Finley’s safe projection is the fourth round). But none of those high-end guys are in the ACC. A scout told Yahoo Sports that Duke’s Daniel Jones has a chance to emerge as a second-round type player, a scouts are intrigued by his size and strength. But he completed under 57-percent of his passes last season and a milquetoast touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-11). Duke’s David Cutcliffe, the league’s top quarterback tutor, pointed out that he doesn’t blame Jones for some of his percentage, as Duke’s receivers are limited and its line porous. “I don’t point that at Daniel at all,” Cutcliffe said of his completion issues.
The top quarterbacks, ultimately, aren’t at the top programs. And that’s an issue for the ACC. As for the actual national title contenders, there’s already rumblings of a quarterback controversy at Clemson. True freshman Trevor Lawrence enrolled early, spooked Hunter Johnson to Northwestern and will compete with the capable but limited Kelly Bryant for snaps. Then there’s Florida State, where they’ll be a quarterback battle with injured Deondre Francois returning after tearing the patellar tendon his left knee. Both he and James Blackman, who replaced him last year, fit Willie Taggart’s hybrid Baylor scheme.
Miami’s stocked defense with eight returning starters represents the best hope from the ACC’s Coastal Division. (It could have been considered the ACC Comatose division on a sleepy opening of Media Days if North Carolina’s Larry Fedora hadn’t decided to read from the Neanderthal Coach Playbook and go viral for all the wrong reasons).
Returning Miami starter Malik Rosier was benched for a spell last season and noted quarterback guru Mark Richt damned him with faint praise on Wednesday: “At this moment, he gives us the best shot.” Inspiring, huh?
The best quarterback on a Top 25-caliber team is Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson, whose 2,991 yards were the most of a Power 5 freshman quarterback last year. He percolates with promise, but Tech’s shaky offensive line and extreme defensive inexperience make any grandiose projections appear naïve. (The biggest smile on coach Justin Fuente’s face appears when the subject of 2019 got brought up, as it appears that may be when the Hokies will have fully regenerated in Fuente’s fourth season).
The Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi may have unintentionally summed up this underwhelming quarterback crop by offering his best version of media day optimism. “I think,” he said, “it’s above average.”
And that’s not going to get it done for anyone in the ACC this season. Not with Georgia and Alabama each having a pair of quarterbacks who could start for a majority of the teams in the ACC. That’s why it’s a safe bet to pass on any ACC teams winning the title this year, as there’s no quarterback dynamic enough to lead them all the way there.
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