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Roundtable: The ACC Sports Journal’s 2018 Midseason ACC Football Awards

Fall is finally in the air, which means we’ve hit the midpoint of the ACC Football season. No. 3 Clemson hosts No. 16 NC State this weekend, in case you (somehow) hadn’t heard. With a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, the two programs will face one another with Atlantic Division supremacy on the line; after 60 minutes of action, the winner will be crowned the ACC’s de facto midseason champ.

But before the Tigers and Wolfpack get going, the ACC Sports Journal staff huddled up to go through our midseason ACC football awards. David Glenn, Josh Graham and I picked our early favorites for several pieces of hardware: Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year (for some reason, those guys wouldn’t let me default vote for Draymond Green) and Rookie of the Year. (Note: We all think Travis Etienne is a very good football player.)

 

Coach of the Year

David Glenn: Dave Doeren, NC State

With its 5-0 start, the Wolfpack joined Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame as the only Power Five unbeatens in mid-October. That’s pretty heady company, of course, and it’s an especially impressive accomplishment because State sent a school-record seven players into the NFL Draft earlier this year.

There has been no hangover from that celebration, in part, because Doeren followed his successful 2016 hiring of Boise State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz (who ended up bringing three-year starting QB Ryan Finley with him) with the impactful 2018 addition of accomplished defensive guru Ted Roof, who has partnered with co-coordinator Dave Huxtable to stabilize a defense that lost its entire front six to the NFL and/or graduation.

 

Brian Geisinger: Dabo Swinney, Clemson

The approach here is simple: vote for the league’s best coach who happens to coach the best team. After wading through some murky quarterback controversy waters, Clemson has emerged as strong as ever — or seemingly close to it. The Tigers rank No. 3 in the latest AP Poll and No. 2 in ESPN’s FPI. At 6-0, Clemson has outscored its opponents by 166 points (nearly 28 points per game); in the three ACC wins, the Tigers are +92 in the point differential column, too.

Clemson has the best players in the league, no doubt, but Swinney continues to steer this ship in the right direction.

 

Josh Graham: Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia

The Cavaliers were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division, but thus far, they are 4-2 overall and with last weekend’s upset win over the Hurricanes, 2-1 in the ACC. Replacing a quarterback like Kurt Benkert is never easy, but junior Bryce Perkins has thrown 11 touchdowns to seven interceptions and has completed over 62 percent on his passes.

 

Player of the Year

David Glenn: Travis Etienne, Clemson RB

While Clemson’s amazing defensive line clearly serves as the foundation for the Tigers’ success, it’s just as clear that they wouldn’t have started this season 6-0 without Etienne, their sensational sophomore running back. There are plenty of ACC players with eye-popping midseason numbers, and Etienne (see below) is one of them, but there aren’t nearly as many who offered some of their best performances for those games where a victory otherwise might have been a defeat.

In the Tigers’ 28-26 nail-biter win at Texas A&M, Etienne had only eight carries for 44 yards (both season lows), but he also provided one of his biggest runs (28 yards) of the year, his longest reception (18 yards) of the season, and a crucial touchdown. In the Tigers’ 27-23 victory over Syracuse at Death Valley, with no Kelly Bryant (transfer) or Trevor Lawrence (injured) available at quarterback, he truly carried his team to victory, with 27 carries for 203 yards and all three of his team’s touchdowns.

 

Brian Geisinger: Travis Etienne, Clemson RB

Two weeks ago, I went into more detail on Etienne and the numbers behind his Heisman Trophy campaign. However, let’s make a few updates after his overwhelming performance at Wake Forest.

Etienne leads the ACC in rushing yards (761), yards per carry (9.2) amongst players with 30+ carries, and touchdowns (11). He’s also averaging an astounding 9.3 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity (yards created by the ball carrier after the offensive line has done its job), according to Football Study Hall.

For the season, Etienne has 23 carries of 10+ yards (more than both NC State and FSU), 10 carries of 20+ yards and five carries of 30+ yards — all of which are tops in the ACC.

 

Josh Graham: Travis Etienne, Clemson RB

Through six games, Etienne has produced 761 rushing yards, which ranks sixth in the country and is just five yards short of his full-season rushing total in 2017. Also, he’s already scored 11 touchdowns. He’s the best player on the best team — and deserves to be the ACC’s midseason MVP.

 

Offensive Player of the Year

David Glenn: Travis Etienne, Clemson RB

There are only eight ACC players who average at least one touchdown scored per game. Etienne averages two, thanks to his 11 rushing TDs and one receiving score through the Tigers’ 6-0 start. His 11 rushing TDs, which rank fourth in the nation, are more than seven ACC TEAMS have so far this season, and his 72 total points rank sixth nationally.

Etienne’s 127 rushing yards per game (which rank fifth nationally) are 32 yards more than any other ACC player who qualifies to be among the league leaders, and his 9.2 yards per carry mark is by far the best in the conference as well.

Brian Geisinger: Travis Etienne, Clemson RB

Josh Graham: Travis Etienne, Clemson RB

 

Defensive Player of the Year

David Glenn: Gerald Willis III, Miami DL

While there are plenty of more well-rounded teams than Miami, the Hurricanes’ defense continues to be one of the most dominant units in the nation, and Willis (at defensive tackle) consistently has been a disruptive force right in the middle of the Turnover Chain action. Among ACC defensive linemen, nobody averages more than his five tackles per game.

Among all ACC defensive players, nobody has more than his 13 tackles for loss. His 1.9 TFLs per game average ranks fourth nationally, and he’s not just beating up on inferior opponents; he looked unblockable at times in UM’s season-opening loss to LSU. The Outland Trophy committee, which offers an annual award to the top interior lineman in college football, honored Willis as its player of the month in September.

 

Brian Geisinger: Gerald Willis III, Miami DL

From the jump of the season, Willis has looked like just a different dude. He exploded out of the gate against LSU and continues to be a catalyst for the nation’s most destructive defensive line.

He’s tied for No. 1 in the ACC with 13 tackles for loss (1.9 per game); fellow Hurricane Jonathan Garvin also has 13. According to Football Study Hall, Willis has a team-leading 15 run stuffs — tackles behind or at the line of scrimmage. That’s no small feat, considering the talent around him.

Currently, Miami’s defensive line ranks No. 1 in the FBS in Havoc Rate, too. The front four has recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass on 12.7 percent of the plays it has faced.

 

Josh Graham: Clelin Ferrell, Clemson DE

It’s hard to pick just one of Clemson’s terrific defensive linemen for this award. The combination of Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant has become one of the most disruptive defensive fronts in recent memory. However, Ferrell leads the way with eight tackles for loss and six sacks.

 

Rookie of the Year

David Glenn: Andre Szmyt, Syracuse P

There is no shortage of worthy candidates here, but it’s hard to beat the story of Szmyt, who was a relative unknown even to most of the Syracuse coaches in 2017, while serving a redshirt year as a walk-on placekicker. Fast forward to this month, when Orange head coach Dino Babers awarded him a scholarship, and national media outlets such as ESPN and The Sporting News named him to their midseason All-America teams.

How’d Szmyt do it? Well, first, he overwhelmed the SU coaches during August camp to earn the starting kicking job. Then, during the Orange’s 4-2 start, he converted 16 of 17 field goal attempts (including three from 50 yards or more!) and all 30 of his extra points. Szmyt ranks first in the ACC and fourth in the nation with 78 points, and his 2.67 field goals per game are most nationally.

 

Brian Geisinger: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson QB

Going back to the 2000 season, only 10 ACC quarterbacks have completed over 68 percent of their passes and thrown for 10+ touchdowns and at least 800 yards in the first six games of a season. Only two rookies can claim that distinction: Jameis Winston during his Heisman Trophy season in 2013, and now Trevor Lawrence. In 19 seasons of ACC football, Lawrence is the only true freshman to hit those benchmarks at this point of his career.

Surrounded by an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, Lawrence — who ranks 25th nationally in ESPN’s Total QBR — has been pretty darn good: 69-of-100 through the air (69 percent completion rate), 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He’s also averaging 8.7 yards per attempt — No. 1 in the ACC.

 

Josh Graham: Andre Cisco, Syracuse DB

This is a pretty loaded category considering Clemson recently named freshman Trevor Lawrence its starter, plus Sam Hartman and Sage Surratt have had several flashes of greatness at Wake Forest. However, Cisco is the right choice up to this point. He’s tied for fourth place in college football with four interceptions — also, adding three pass break-ups — and has been integral in the Orange starting 4-2.

 

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