NFL Early Entrants Will Shake Up ACC In 2017

    Clemson isn't the only ACC team losing star players early to the 2017 NFL Draft. Top league contenders will need to replace key contributors from their 2016 squads.

    January 17, 2017

    Clemson isn’t the only ACC team losing star players early to the 2017 NFL Draft. Top league contenders will need to replace key contributors from their 2016 squads.


    Earlier on Tuesday I wrote about the challenges Clemson will face when defending its College Football Playoff national championship in 2017 because of a slew of personnel losses. A good number of those departures were of the early entrant variety, so the Tigers’ depth will be tested throughout next fall.

    But Dabo Swinney and Co. were not alone in being hurt by early entrants into the 2017 NFL Draft, which puts a little damper on a league that enjoyed a 9-3 mark this past postseason—the best in all of college football. In all, 18 ACC players declared early for this spring’s draft.

    Let’s take a look at which teams were affected the most by the decisions of some of their draft-eligible players to declare and not return to school.

    Clemson

    It was the worst-kept secret in sports that Deshaun Watson would declare early after taking care of business in the classroom, attending two Heisman Trophy ceremonies and helping lead Clemson to its first national championship since 1981. While coordinator Brent Venables has had to replace star defenders the last two offseasons, overhauling the offense will now take center stage for Swinney and co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. Watson was starting for the Tigers by the middle of his freshman year after being an early enrollee, so top 2017 QB Hunter Johnson may be in the mix throughout the offseason. But it’s likely that a veteran gets the call, such as rising junior Kelly Bryant, at least initially.

    Losing Mike Williams and Artavis Scott at wide receiver, as well as running back Wayne Gallman, certainly hurts, but there will be plenty of playmakers in place for the Tigers to field a productive offense, such as Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud. Steady play at QB is needed, though, as the leadership of Watson simply cannot be replaced.

    Virginia Tech

    Justin Fuente enjoyed a phenomenal debut season in Blacksburg, as he helped his Hokies to comeback wins and an ACC Coastal division title. His offense with dual-threat quarterback Jerod Evans running the show was fun to watch, but he will have his work cut out for him this offseason as he tries to keep the Hokies competitive in the ACC.

    Evans, who was likely set up for a big ’17 campaign with some improvement as a passer, is headed to the NFL along with wide receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges. Evans often carried would-be tacklers, so his loss really affects the ground game in addition to the team’s aerial attack. Meanwhile, Ford had two 1,000-yard seasons during his VT career and Hodges was a matchup nightmare. There is no question that Fuente is one of the brighter offensive minds in the Power Five, but that’s a lot of lost production to replace.

    Miami

    Linebacker Jermaine Grace and defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad were off of the football team in 2016 for violating NCAA rules, so really the ‘Canes are just replacing quarterback Brad Kaaya, tight end David Njoku and running back Joe Yearby. There is no doubt that losing Njoku and Yearby hurts because they put up nice numbers in 2016, as Njoku had nearly 700 receiving yards and eight scores while Yearby tallied seven scores on the ground. But that is production that can be replaced because the ‘Canes have nice offensive pieces returning to Coral Gables.

    What can’t really be replaced is the leadership from Kaaya, who has started since his true freshman season. Imagine what Mark Richt could have done from his first year to his second year tutoring Kaaya. Now the ‘Canes must find a suitable replacement, which could be Jack Allison, who possesses ideal size and throwing ability. But he needs to have a much better spring than he had last offseason. Malik Rosier is the lone QB on the roster with game experience, but does he have the goods to start a full season? Young players N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon will also push, along with Evan Shirreffs and Vincent Testaverde.

    North Carolina

    Larry Fedora’s name has been mentioned a lot over the past two coaching carousels because he has done very well in Chapel Hill. Come 2017, he will have his work cut out for him due to losing key pieces at a variety of positions – whether to graduation or early NFL entrance.

    In terms of those that are leaving early, replacing quarterback Mitch Trubisky will be the toughest task – especially after a season in which the signal-caller completed over 68 percent of his throws for 3,748 yards, 30 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. Fedora is left with little experience at the position, as Logan Byrd and Chazz Surratt both redshirted during their freshman season, and redshirt freshman Nathan Elliott played very little as Trubisky’s backup. Unless a grad transfer comes in and learns the offense, this is what Fedora will have to work with in ’17.

    Running back Elijah Hood is also leaving after originally saying that he would return. UNC missed Hood when he was banged-up during his career, and the Tar Heels will now permanently deal with his loss. And while defensive tackle Nazair Jones is leaving early, this is a squad that ranked 109th in rushing yards allowed per game in ’16, so defensive coordinator Gene Chizik already had his work cut out for him.

    Florida State

    Dalvin Cook was another player that we knew would be playing his last season in 2016 barring something crazy happening. Cook put a bow on a tremendous career in Tallahassee during the Seminoles’ Orange Bowl win over Michigan, rushing for 145 yards and a touchdown. The good news for the ‘Noles is that early enrollee Cam Akers is arriving on campus with a tremendous amount of potential. Still, though, Cook set school records and also had the ability to find the end zone as a receiver out of the backfield. That won’t be replaced overnight.

    In addition to Cook, wide receiver Travis Rudolph is also leaving early. While he was plagued with bouts of inconsistency and had seven games with three catches or less in ’16, he was still a veteran presence. The same is true for left tackle Roderick Johnson, who started 31 straight games at the position. He was the team’s anchor on the O-Line. Rick Leonard, who moved from defensive end, actually may be the top option to replace Johnson. He played better late in the season on the right side but is extremely raw, so Derrick Kelly may be better suited at this point. No matter who steps in, Johnson may actually be the toughest to replace.

    It helps FSU that star quarterback Deondre Francois handled himself well while getting battered this past year. He will continue to make strides, but he’ll need a new blind-side protector.

    NOTES: In addition to the early entrants mentioned above, partial ACC football member Notre Dame is losing standout quarterback DeShone Kizer, while Pitt is losing inspirational running back James Conner and NC State will need to replace safety Josh Jones.

    MORE: Departures Of Several Stars Will Test Clemson’s Repeat Bid In 2017

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