In 2012, the ACC Coastal Division had two very talented teams at the top in the Miami Hurricanes and the North Carolina Tar Heels. There was just one problem. Both of these programs were self-restricted from capitalizing on that success–each school had self-imposed bowl sanctions stemming from NCAA infractions–and playing for the conference’s title.
This year, both schools are free to attend the annual event in Charlotte and take that next step toward potential BCS glory. With that, we’re now going to take a look at some of the players on both squads that can aid in that goal, as well as some from other programs that will be looking to make sure that the ‘Canes and Heels stay home once again this year when championship time rolls around. Oh, and also, there’s that new team in the conference from that Steel City in Pennsylvania.
- RB Duke Johnson: As a true freshman last season, Johnson certainly made people well-known of his existence. Rushing for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns, the young back showed that he immediately belonged playing among the big boys. With a majority of the offensive unit back this year, I can easily see Johnson breaking that 1,000-yard plateau and maybe making a serious case as a legitimate Heisman candidate. I’d expect him to be more involved in the passing game as well, as he’s also a huge threat to rack up some serious receiving yardage out of the backfield.
- CB Tracy Howard: Defense last year for the Miami Hurricanes was nowhere near the strong-suit of the team, especially against the pass. One of the key contributors to improving this should be sophomore cornerback Tracy Howard. Al Golden and the coaching staff have been raving about Howard’s offseason commitment in addition to his obvious maturity. Howard was a coveted DB coming out of high school–Miami seemingly stole him from the Florida Gators–and his tremendous cover and tackling skills should be evident this season. The 5-11, 185-pounder could help provide that boost to improving the defense against some pretty solid passing attacks they’ll be seeing this year.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
- RB David Sims: You simply can’t have a breakout list with the Yellow Jackets on it without mentioning one of the running backs in Paul Johnson’s vaunted triple-option attack, and senior David Sims is that guy. Named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List last month, Sims will look to make a larger mark this year in Atlanta. With three of the five starters on the offensive line returning, coupled with GT having to break in a new QB, Sims will be looked upon to carry a good portion of this offense–literally. With 1,368 career rushing yards in an offensive attack which sees carries spread out among multiple backs, I’d have all the confidence in the world in Sims if I were Johnson as well.
- QB Vad Lee: While I did mention that the Yellow Jackets will be breaking in a new signal caller, the player being giving the keys to the GT offensive vehicle seems more than capable of handling the responsibility. Vad Lee is a talented dual-threat athlete that may end up being the most overall gifted QB that the Yellow Jackets have had there in the Paul Johnson era. Not only can he handle the complicated designed runs out of the option formations, he is quite the precision passer too.
- DE Eli Harold: As the Virginia defense goes into 2013 aiming to pick up the aggressiveness, one of the leading forces behind this charge should be sophomore defensive end Eli Harold. In limited action last season as a freshman, Harold registered 32 tackles and 2 sacks. He comes into 2013 a little bigger–6-4, 230-pounds–and could be a force to be reckoned with pass rushing off the edge.
- TE Jake McGee: McGee, a junior, was a pivotal part of the Virginia offense last season as he hauled in 28 passes for 374 yards and 5 touchdowns. This year, the Cavs are going through a bit of a QB transition and McGee should become an even more important outlet option than he was before. He played tremendously in the spring game and we could easily see that receiving yardage number be on the better side of 500 this season.
- RB Isaac Bennett: With the transfer of sophomore Rushel Shell, the brunt of the ball-carrying responsibilities was thrust on junior Isaac Bennett. While Bennett may not be as versatile as Shell, he definitely has the makings of someone that can contribute a lot to this Pitt offense this year. Bennett is tough, has incredible vision and can catch the ball well out of the backfield. He can easily make Pittsburgh faithful forget that the whole Rushel Shell debacle happened earlier this spring.
- WR Tyler Boyd: When you think of the Pittsburgh passing game, only one name comes to mind–Devin Street. With that though comes the realization that most defenses will focus their energy on making sure Street is readily locked down. This is where you’re going to learn the name of true freshman Tyler Boyd. This young man is the definition of versatility and has opened the eyes of the entire coaching staff since arriving on campus. He has great hands, can take a hand-off when needed, runs crisp routes and has that elusive speed that makes up a potentially great collegiate wideout.
Duke Blue Devils
- QB Anthony Boone: Duke enjoyed the success that it did last year due in large part to having the talented Sean Renfree at the helm of the offense, but you shouldn’t expect a huge drop-off in production at the position, even with Renfree gone. Junior Anthony Boone has proven throughout spring and summer workouts that he’s more than ready to keep this Duke program headed in the right track. He’s comfortable in the pocket and displays a calm mobility that shouldn’t result in too many mistakes. This young man has just enough returning around him–including four offensive linemen–to warrant some success.
- FS Jeremy Cash: Cash, a former Ohio State Buckeyes transfer and redshirt sophomore, will step on the field for the Blue Devils for the first time this year and should be a solid piece immediately. The Duke passing defense needs vast improvement from last season and All-ACC CB Ross Cockrell needs help in that secondary. Cash has great cover skills over the top and can tackle well in open space. At 6-2 and 210-pounds, Cash can also lay the big hit, maybe installing a little fear in ACC receivers when they attempt to invade the middle of the field.
North Carolina Tar Heels
- DE Kareem Martin: In his last year in Carolina blue, senior Kareem Martin has his sights set on the NFL and will need a breakout year to prove it. In 2012, Martin notched 40 tackles and 4 sacks, but I firmly believe we’ll see a huge jump in that sack number this season. The senior has improved his pass rushing technique even more over the offseason and should open up a lot of scouts eyes with his athleticism coming off that edge.
- G Caleb Peterson: With the loss of Jonathan Cooper from the guard position, the redshirt freshman Peterson will have some huge shoes to fill, however he has the tools to make this a smooth transition. Showing signs of promise last season, there were whispers that Peterson would play in 2012 a bit, but they ultimately decided on redshirting the 6-5, 300-pound monster. As the year goes on, Peterson could prove to be a focal point of that offensive line.
Virginia Tech Hokies
- RB Trey Edmunds: A redshirt freshman, the Virginia Tech coaching staff toyed with the idea all year last offseason of trotting this athletic, versatile back on the field immediately, but decided against it. Now with a rash of injuries and suspensions hitting the VT squad, Edmunds must now emerge as the main contributor from the backfield. We’ll all get to see the attributes that warranted the hype of Edmunds being the next great back in Blacksburg.
- WR Demetri Knowles: It’s no secret that the VT offense was nowhere where it needed to be last year and Logan Thomas needs help. That help in the passing game should come in the form of sophomore wideout Demetri Knowles. As a true freshman last season, Knowles grabbed 19 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown. With a hopefully improved offensive line, as well as a healthy, returning D.J. Coles opposite him, Knowles will have a lot of chances to showcase his receiving skills.
Jack is a College Football Columnist for Saturday Blitz. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackJ14CFB