Sunday, August 14, 2022

Conference of quarterbacks: ACC loaded with talent, potential at position in 2022 college football season

CHARLOTTE — The 2022 ACC Football Kickoff — the conference’s annual media days event — wrapped on Thursday, and while off-field topics like conference realignment, revenue, NIL and more seemed to take up a ton of oxygen, the biggest on-field storyline for the conference centers around the sport’s most important position. While the future of college athletics might draw some concern, focus on the now and the ACC can take pride in being the conference of quarterbacks in 2022. 

There is no conference in college football that has the depth of proven quarterback options like the ACC, and the league’s top-tier of signal callers is loaded with too many options to easily sort out on a preseason awards ballot. Ten of the league’s 14 teams return quarterbacks with starting experience, and two more have ongoing battles that include transfers with starting experience from another school. Look up and down the ACC standings and there’s plenty of questions heading into the 2022 season, but there aren’t many programs that have unknowns — or even concerns — at the quarterback position. 

“I have never seen it,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said when asked about the depth at the quarterback position. “As a head coach in this league where all the seven coaches in the Atlantic had all their starting quarterbacks returning, I think you’re going to see a slugfest.”

Doeren, who has one of the best quarterbacks in the conference with Devin Leary and a team expected to compete for an ACC championship, knows there won’t be a single game on the Wolfpack’s league schedule where they won’t have to worry about the quarterback on the other side. 

“Every time you go out there, you have got to earn a victory. And if you are playing a team whose quarterback is not savvy and doesn’t have experience and yours is, you have a great advantage,” he added. “We don’t have that in any game as far as playing against a nonstarter.”

The ACC is not going to have this QB1 advantage over the rest of the sport every season, but the lineup in 2022 comes at a time when the conference has been able to boast about the success of its quarterbacks at the next level as well. There were 10 different quarterbacks from ACC schools who started at least one game in the 2021 NFL season, the most of any conference. Only two quarterbacks were drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft (Kenny Pickett and Sam Howell), but that number is almost certain to double — or triple — after this season, even in what’s projected a great draft class for quarterbacks. 

So let’s break down exactly where each ACC school is at regarding the quarterbacks, separating the league into tiers and starting with that crowded group at the top. Any one of these seven options could finish the season with an argument as the best quarterback in the conference, and each faces different circumstances and expectations for what it will take to get there. 

Tier I: Returning starter with star power 

NC State — Devin Leary: My vote for QB1 heading into the season is Leary, and that’s based not only on his production from 2021 but the expectations for him taking the next step in 2022. Leary had 35 touchdowns to just five interceptions last season, was excellent on third down and in the red zone and with another year in Tim Beck’s system has started to unlock that next level of expertise as the leader of the offense. 

MiamiTyler Van Dyke: The ACC Rookie of the Year threw for more touchdowns (25) than half of the league’s quarterbacks and he didn’t even take over the starting job until late September. He also finished the season with six straight games of at least 300 yards passing and three touchdowns, the first Power Five quarterback to record such a streak since Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy campaign in 2019. 

ClemsonDJ Uiagalelei: Arguably the highest ceiling of any ACC quarterback can be found at Clemson, where Uiagalelei looks to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore campaign. His nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions and ACC-worst passer rating showed what the floor can be, but after dropping significant weight and working on his mechanics this offseason, there’s a potential that he reaches those same heights we saw during his two stellar starts stepping in for Trevor Lawrence as a freshman in 2020. 

VirginiaBrennan Armstrong: Virginia had one of the most unique offenses in the ACC last season, but a coaching change has led to a scheme change, and there’s some intrigue into what to expect from the Wahoos on that side of the ball in 2022. First-year coach Tony Elliott inherits a great situation with Armstrong at quarterback and one of the better wide receiver rooms in the ACC. Armstrong threw for more than 400 yards per game last season and threw more passes per game than anyone in the conference, so while the coaching change might bring more balance to the offense, there’s no question that the senior quarterback is capable of lighting up opposing defenses. 

Wake ForestSam Hartman: One of the most prolific quarterbacks in Wake Forest football history, Hartman has be an anchor in the offensive explosion we’ve seen from Dave Clawson’s program in recent years. So much of what the Demon Deacons do is based on the quarterback making the right read, and Hartman — along with a fantastic group of big-play wide receivers — has gotten better each season. He was one of just six quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards per game while totaling 38-plus touchdowns last season, and Wake’s chances to record another double-digit win season lie with Hartman maintaining that elite production.

LouisvilleMalik Cunningham: While he doesn’t have the gaudy passing numbers of Armstrong or Hartman, Cunningham has ACC Player of the Year potential based on what he’s already done for the Cardinals as a starter. The Louisville quarterback was one of just five players — and the only quarterback — in the conference to total 1,000 rushing yards, and his 20 rushing touchdowns led all players in the league and ranked T-4th nationally. Louisville took a lot of close losses last season, so if a couple of those results flip, we could see Cunningham get more recognition in those All-ACC, Player of the Year-type races.

Boston CollegePhil Jurkovec: Jeff Hafley revealed this week that Jurkovec was really only healthy for one game in 2021, and his decision to battle through what was thought to be a season-ending hand injury only reflects on the character of this potential future pro. Jurkovec has great size, and when he was healthy back in 2020, exploded onto the scene with four 300-yard passing games in his first five career starts, becoming the first Boston College quarterback to accomplish that feat. Now finally healthy with his favorite target Zay Flowers back as well, the Eagles’ passing attack should be strong again in 2022.

Tier II: Returning starter with breakthrough potential

SyracuseGarrett Shrader: Coach Dino Babers brought in Robert Anae as the team’s new offensive coordinator, and that bodes well for Shrader when you look at the production of Virginia’s offense with Anae calling the shots last year. Shrader might not be asked to air it out like Armstrong did, but the creativity in the play-calling and schemes could be really dangerous with the weapons in Syracuse’s backfield. Shrader has good running ability, and running back Sean Tucker is one of the best in the conference, so they could be a tough pair for linebackers to keep track of this fall.

Florida StateJordan Travis: There’s a steady confidence in what Travis can do, thanks to his experience with Mike Norvell and his play against similar opponents. Florida State had — and will again have — one of the toughest schedules in the country. That impacted Travis’ overall numbers last season, but against ACC opponents he threw 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions and added some solid ground production as well.

Georgia TechJeff Sims: Injuries had a huge impact on what was a disappointing campaign for Sims in 2021, as he appeared in portions of eight games and logged just six starts. Sims was one of the top freshman quarterbacks in the country in 2020, and now it’s his goal to tap back into that form at a time when Georgia Tech needs some quality play on offense to snap the three-year streak of three-win seasons.

Tier III: Jury still out

Pitt — Kedon Slovis or Nick Patti: Slovis transferred in from USC, and his best performances with the Trojans suggest he could join that group of elite ACC quarterbacks. Consistency was an issue though, which opens the door for Patti, the backup to Kenny Pickett over the last couple of season, to use his experience in the program as an advantage to win the battle.

North CarolinaJacolby Criswell or Drake Maye: The way Phil Longo’s offense has operated in his time as North Carolina’s offensive coordinator has set an expectation that the Tar Heels can be productive with either player as the starter. It helps to have All-ACC wide receiver Josh Downs in the offense to stress defenses and provide a go-to option in key situations. Criswell and Maye were both four-star prospects coming out of high school and have the size to be effective dual-threat options like Sam Howell, and anything close to Howell levels of production will help the offense maintain the Longo standard.

Virginia TechGrant Wells or Jason Brown: New head coach Brent Pry has both of his starting quarterback options coming from the transfer portal, and while they might appear different based on their recent history, either quarterback could fit into what the Hokies want to do offensively. Wells was an extremely productive quarterback for Marshall, throwing for more than 3,500 yards last season, while Brown used his dual-threat ability to help guide South Carolina to wins against Florida and Auburn in two of his four career starts with the Gamecocks.

DukeRiley Leonard or Jordan Moore: First-year coach Mike Elko has acknowledged the inexperience at the position with two underclassmen battling for the starter’s snaps, and he said this week that what he’s looking for out of fall camp is a little bit more consistency from both players. Schematically, either player is fit to run what the Blue Devils want to do, and Elko said the battle will continue through fall camp with a decision coming closer to the season opener against Temple on Sept. 2. 

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