Roundtable: Early ACC POY Candidates

With spring football concluded and summer around the corner, it’s not too early to start making some projections on how things might go around the ACC this coming fall on the gridiron. examines some of the top returning players around the league as we contemplate some of the early candidates for ACC Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors.

[callout2]Question: Who are the early favorites for ACC Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors?[/callout2]


James Conner will be a popular pick on the offensive side, but I’m going to go with a guy who was absent from the list of All-ACC players in 2014. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was the best quarterback in the conference last season when healthy, and I think he runs away with the award this year if he can avoid injury. Not only can Watson kill you with both his arm and legs, but he also has his two star receivers coming back in Artavis Scott and Mike Williams. You can’t ignore Conner, and guys like Marquise Williams, Justin Thomas and Dalvin Cook deserve attention, but Watson at 100 percent is a no-brainer for me.

The last time a defensive back won ACC Defensive Player of the Year was in 1998 (Virginia’s Anthony Poindexter), so I’m hesitant to pick anyone outside of defensive ends and linebackers. The guy I like the most is Virginia Tech’s Dadi Nicolas. The Hokie defensive end is arguably the best pass-rusher in the ACC, and I say “arguably” because you can make a case for his teammate, Ken Ekanem. In my opinion, Vic Beasley was the only defensive end in the conference better than Nicolas a year ago. With another fantastic player on the other end of the D-line, opposing offensive lines can’t key in on Nicolas as much, and I think he could be in for an outstanding year.


For offensive player of the year, I’m going with the best player on the league’s best offense: Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Cook ran for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman this year, and that was after starting the season fifth on the depth chart at running back.

With a new quarterback trying to fill the void left by Jameis Winston, it seems likely that Jimbo Fisher will rely more heavily on the running game. Cook still probably won’t get a James Conner level of carries, but his big-play ability should allow him to challenge for the league lead in rushing and touchdowns.

On defense, I’ll go with the guy that was the league’s best freshman two years ago, and the best sophomore defender last year. Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller will become a first-round NFL draft pick with his performance this season. He’s had 24 pass defenses and seven interceptions in his first two seasons, and the only thing that could stop his coronation is if teams decide to stop throwing at him–a wise decision. Fuller gets the nod over Duke’s do-everything safety Jeremy Cash.


I don’t see how anybody could be considered a bigger favorite for the ACC Offensive Player of the Year award than Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. Had he been healthy for his entire freshman season, we would’ve been comparing his numbers to Jameis Winston’s the year before. The guy completed 67.9 percent of his passes for nearly 1,500 yards. He threw for 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions.

In the four games in which he played a starter’s share, Clemson barely lost in overtime to Florida State, blew out both North Carolina and NC State and knocked off arch rival South Carolina. He did that as a freshman! In large part because I think Watson will take even more steps forward as a quarterback, I think Clemson is the clear favorite to win the ACC championship. When you’re the star quarterback of the best team in the conference, you’re almost a lock for the player of the year trophy.

On the defensive side of the ball, I like Jeremy Cash to bring home the hardware. The Ohio State transfer has been one of the best defensive backs in the country since coming to Duke. The two-time All-American has racked up more than 100 tackles in each season with the Blue Devils, and he’s football’s version of a stat-sheet stuffer from the safety position.

There are several good defensive players returning to the ACC, but I don’t think any of them will have the sort of spectacular seasons that make them shoe-ins for the player of the year award. I think Cash will win the honor partly because it will be a career achievement award and partly because he’s one of the most important players in the conference, and he does it from the defensive side of the field.


In what will likely be a popular choice among media and fans alike, my early pick for ACC Offensive Player of the Year is the young man who earned that recognition last season — James Conner of Pittsburgh. As a mere sophomore, Conner ran roughshod over the league last fall, easily leading the conference with 1,765 rushing yards. He had seven games with at least 120 rushing yards, as well as eight games with more than one touchdown. Conner would have likely been an early pick in the NFL Draft this spring had he been eligible, but the third-year junior had to come back to Pittsburgh for this coming fall.

It's been a good long while since a defensive back won the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year award, but players like Duke's Jeremy Cash and Florida State's Jalen Ramsey (pictured above, AP photo) could reverse that trend in 2015
It’s been a good long while since a defensive back won the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year award, but players like Duke’s Jeremy Cash and Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey (pictured above, AP photo) could reverse that trend in 2015

Even though defenses around the league will be geared to stop him next season, and he won’t have the benefit of NFL Draft selection T.J. Clemmings up front blocking for him, Conner figures to once again be the class of the ACC’s crop of running backs. His combination of speed, power, and trucking ability makes him not only one of America’s top returning college backs, but arguably the top running back prospect nationally for the 2016 NFL Draft. Pitt fans best enjoy Conner’s third season in the Steel City next fall, because the Panthers’ best running back since Tony Dorsett probably won’t stick around for his senior year.

On the defensive side of the ball, I have to give the early nod to Jalen Ramsey of Florida State. After becoming the first Seminole cornerback since Deion Sanders to start as a true freshman back in 2013, Ramsey was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2014 as a sophomore, recording 79 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and a team-high 12 pass breakups along with two interceptions. Ramsey’s 12 pass breakups ranked second in the ACC.

Also a standout in track for Florida State, Ramsey has started all 28 games so far in his Seminole career. He returns to Tallahassee for his junior season as one of the country’s top defensive backs, likely in contention for multiple national postseason awards such as the Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski Awards. And while certainly another Gerod Holliman could emerge out of nowhere to steal some of Ramsey’s thunder, it’s going to take quite an autumn for somebody to supplant him from the All-ACC first-team secondary.