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OAYP: 2019 ACC Position Rankings

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Your hub for every qualifying ACC returnee, ranked by the new OAYP advanced metric.

Earlier in the offseason I released the 2018 OAYP rankings as part of the debut of a new advanced metric to evaluate college football teams. Last season’s scores will obviously factor into the eventual 2019 preseason rankings, but those alone are only reflective, not predictive.

In order to make the aforementioned OAYP metric predictive, we’re factoring in individual player OAYP scores for projected starters and key contributors. Those numbers are a sort of spiritual descendant of adjusted yards per attempt, the quarterback metric first introduced in the book The Hidden Game of Football by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn, and Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen’s ‘approximate value’ measure.

The basic premise is to cross the efficiency measure of the former, but across all positions, with the value principles of the latter -- hopefully as a way of more accurately depicting a given team’s returning production. Returning good players is more valuable than returning only average or subpar players, and not all production is created equal, so this should ideally prove to be more predictive than simply looking at the raw number of returning starters or the percentages of returning production.

Below you’ll find all of the guys classified as superstars (marginal OAYP >1.0) for each position group. You can click the link on each header for breakdowns on the second tier players and potential breakout stars, as well as the full rankings for returning qualifiers.

QUARTERBACK

-Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (1.82)

Surprise, surprise. There probably won’t be a more talked about college football player over the next two years until he gets drafted by, I don’t know, the Bills or something like that and then wins 15 Super Bowls in a row.

The only freshmen quarterbacks in recent memory to have been as accurate, productive, and efficient as he was last year are Sam Darnold and Jameis Winston, both of whom got to redshirt for a year first. So far, the only returning quarterbacks that posted higher OAYP scores last year are Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm, and that list won’t grow much more as we keep going, if at all.

The college football viewing community at large, and quarterback evaluators in particular, gets too caught up in tall kids that can throw the ball a million miles from a standstill. That’s fine, if you’re into that sort of thing, and Lawrence can do that, but what separates him from the Jacob Eason’s and Josh Allen’s of the world is his decision making. According to PFF, there wasn’t a quarterback in the nation that was better at avoiding mistakes than Lawrence. Through the regular season, his 20:3 big time throw to turnover worthy throw ratio was the best. No one else with as many “big time throws” had less than five turnover worthy throws. Heck, he had more actual interceptions than turnover worthy throws, as a matter of sheer bad luck.

Lawrence is the most impressive freshman quarterback since, like, forever, and with that dynamic receiving corps in tow, will lead what promises to be one of the game’s more prolific offenses in recent memory.

RUNNING BACK

-Travis Etienne, Clemson (2.2)

B.J. Bennett recently claimed that Travis Etienne may end up in the G.O.A.T. conversation after what he did last year:

Etienne, a year ago, rushed for 1,658 yards and a national-best 24 touchdowns on just 204 attempts, a remarkable average of 8.13 yards per carry. He is the first player in major college football history with a 1,600-yard, 20-touchdown season at over eight yards a try. The only Power Five running backs this millennium with a 1,600-yard season and eight yards per attempt are Reggie Bush, Bryce Love and Etienne; the Clemson superstar had a half-dozen more total offensive scores than both…
Just as the 2018 Clemson Tigers have to at least be in the conversion for "greatest ever", Etienne's sophomore season, for running backs, has to be in the discussion as well. Etienne, still with more to come, has a resume, by some measures, that simply stands alone.

That’s obviously a heckuva statement, but, statistically, there is a case to be made.

He led the entire nation in touchdowns with 26, finished in the top four in rushing yards, despite averaging at least three carries per game fewer than anyone ahead of him, picked up over half of those yards after contact, and forced a missed tackle on more than 25% of his touches. If nothing else, I do firmly believe that Etienne was the best running back in the country last year, and will continue to be in 2019. He may not have had the raw yardage productivity that a couple of guys had, but from an efficiency standpoint, there’s no one better.

RECEIVER

-Tamorrion Terry, Florida State (2.58)
-Justyn Ross, Clemson (2.53)
-Tre Turner, Virginia Tech (1.49)
-Tee Higgins, Clemson (1.04)

With all due respect to my dear OAYP, Justyn Ross is the best wide receiver in the ACC and Tee Higgins is number two. However, for the ultimate purpose of OAYP, I understand the ranking. As mentioned in the explanation (which can be found as part of the QB rankings linked above), it is both a measure of efficiency AND value. So, though Ross and Higgins are probably better than Terry and Turner in a vacuum, the latter two are more valuable to their respective teams’ success than the former. Plus, a superstar is a superstar, which is why I place more emphasis on tiers than on the actual 1, 2, 3, etc. rankings. Anyway, these guys are all awesome no matter how you slice it.

Terry emerged as one of the nation’s premier deep threats as a redshirt freshman, in 2018. His average depth of target was nearly 20 yards downfield, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he finished third in the league in receptions of 30+ yards, despite catching 11 fewer balls than Ross, and 16 fewer than Syracuse’s Jamal Custis -- the two players ahead of him. Florida State’s quarterbacks also fielded a 117.5 passer rating when targeting Terry, as opposed to a 74.7 rating when targeting anyone else. In other words, it’s pretty clear who James Blackman should be looking for as often as possible in 2019.

Meanwhile, Tre Turner is ready to emerge in a similar way for Virginia Tech. He was a big play threat last year, but trailed Damon Hazelton, Eric Kumah, and slot receiver Hezekiah Grimsley in targets. Thanks to the ability he showed as a freshman, and the opportunity spawned by Kumah’s transfer to Old Dominion, Turner has a chance to be the next Isaiah Ford or Cam Phillips in Blacksburg. He boasts the fourth highest yardage per reception mark and passer rating when targeted among ACC returnees, and promises to carry that momentum from late last year into next season.

Then, of course, there’s the dynamic duo from Clemson. They finished fifth and sixth in the conference in receiving yards, in the top ten in yards per reception among players with at least 25 catches, and were first and second in touchdowns. The incomparable Justyn Ross just recorded 1,000 yards, at 21.7 yards per catch, good for fourth in the country, with nine touchdowns as a true freshman. His highlight reel is already a must-watch. And Tee Higgins, 936 yards and an ACC-best 12 scores, may have never lost a jump ball in his life. This might be the best pass catching tandem in the nation.

TIGHT END

-Jack Freudenthal, Wake Forest (1.38)
-Carl Tucker, North Carolina (1.28)

A former walk-on, Jack Freudenthal emerged as a reliable safety valve for Wake Forest last season. He had big shoes to fill as Cam Serigne’s replacement, and while he wasn’t as productive as his predecessor, he was even more efficient. Serigne averaged 12.6 yards per reception during his senior season with a 20.5% touchdown rate. In 2018, Freudenthal went for 13.7 yards per catch with a 26.7% touchdown rate. He returns as the team leader in yards per target and second in success rate, and will be leaned on more heavily after the departure of Greg Dortch and Alex Bachman.

Meanwhile, UNC’s Carl Tucker returns with the highest yardage per reception average among qualified returnees at the position and is especially dynamic with the ball in his hands. 48.9% of those 16.56 yards per reception came after the catch. Tucker could thrive under new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, whose tight ends averaged 15.96 yards per reception during his time at Ole Miss.

OFFENSIVE LINE

-Tremayne Anchrum, T, Clemson (2.13)
-Sean Pollard, G, Clemson (1.19)

Clemson may have lost a four year starter and consensus All-American at left tackle in Mitch Hyatt, but they return three starters who happen to comprise the top three of the ACC marginal OAYP rankings, not to mention Gage Cervenka who saw significant time at center and guard last year. Anchrum and Pollard both earned second team all-conference honors, while Simpson ended up on the third team for a group that ranked in the national top ten in stuff rate, the top fifteen in sack rate, and the top twenty in line yards per carry. Individually, Anchrum allowed the fewest QB pressures in 2018 of any returning ACC tackle with at least 250 snaps in pass pro, according to Pro Football Focus.

EDGE RUSHER

-Jonathan Garvin, Miami (1.96)
-Alton Robinson, Syracuse (1.66)
-Xavier Thomas, Clemson (1.53)
-Trevon Hill (VT 17), Miami (1.49)
-Rashad Weaver, Pitt (1.15)

Like I said, with five guys meeting the superstar threshold, and just one falling into the second tier, this group is top heavy. Granted, because marginal scores are dependent upon the other players’ raw scores, a lack of true superstardom could contribute to some of these guys earning inflated marginal scores. There’s no obvious Bradley Chubb, Clelin Ferrell, or Brian Burns in here. That said, a few of these guys could certainly become that kind of impact player this season, and all are obviously very good, regardless.

Both Garvin and Robinson ranked in the national top 25 last year in tackles for loss, and the top five among returning players. Both players are in similar situations after losing a dominant force in the interior of their defensive lines -- Gerald Willis for Miami and Chris Slayton for Syracuse. However, they will both benefit from another solid edge defender on the other side.

Meanwhile, Xavier Thomas, even in a reserve role, had one of the most impressive campaigns of any true freshman in college football last year -- and there were a lot of them. According to Pro Football Focus, he led all true freshman edge rushers with 26 total pressures, and posted the highest overall grade in that group. Clemson’s defensive line won’t be what it was a season ago, arguably the best ever, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be awesome. The way Brent Venables develops front seven talent, Thomas should be competing for All-American honors this season.

Trevon Hill was the other solid edge defender I mentioned when discussing Jonathan Garvin. Joe Jackson is off to the NFL, but his spot should be filled by the former Virginia Tech standout. He was one of the few bright spots for the Hokie defense early in 2018, before leaving the team after week three. Obviously, it can be difficult to project a transfer, but he walks into a favorable situation as Miami boasts what could be the best defensive front in the ACC.

Rashad Weaver did it all for Pitt in 2018, posting 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and four pass breakups. He also graded out higher in run defense than any returning ACC edge defender. In fact, only six other players matched or bettered his production in all four of the aforementioned categories last year, two of which were Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year David Long and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen. Weaver made a big leap from year one to year two. Another jump like that will see him join the ranks of the national elite.

DEFENSIVE LINE

-Tanner Karafa, Boston College (1.15)
-Marvin Wilson, Florida State (1.09)
-Miles Fox (ODU 17), Wake Forest (1.02)

Tanner Karafa has shown a nice, upward linear progression throughout his time at Boston College. From a little used redshirt freshman in 2016 to a solid rotational piece in 2017, to a productive starter last year, he has all the tools to become the next great BC defensive linemen in 2019. He’s the only returning starter from last year’s group, so he’ll have to shoulder an increased leadership burden, but he returns more sacks than any other Eagle, the second most tackles for loss and run stuffs, and he allowed the second lowest success rate on the team in 2018, only behind Zach Allen.

That being said, Florida State’s Marvin Wilson may actually be the best bet as to who will be the league’s top defensive lineman in 2019. As a former five-star, the number one defensive tackle in the country for the Class of 2017, he’s had the pedigree, and now he has the production. According to Pro Football Focus, he returns the highest overall grade among returning ACC interior defenders and the most combined QB pressures with 34. Last season left one wanting a little more from him in run defense, but nose guards at his size that move and wreck a pocket like he can don’t come along everyday.

Miles Fox was a great offseason pick-up for Wake Forest, and projects as a solid, upper echelon defensive linemen, but this slotting feels a little hot. The ACC, for all of its struggles a season ago, is a different ballgame than Conference USA, where he thrived two years ago. I would have been fine with even a second tier marginal rating on Fox, but this one is just too high for my money.

LINEBACKER

-Isaiah Simmons, Clemson (2.52)
-Shaq Quarterman, Miami (1.78)
-Jordan Mack, Virginia (1.15)
-Michael Pinckney, Miami (1.07)

If the other three are superstars, and I think it’s fair to say that they are, Isaiah Simmons is a super-duper-star. A hybrid linebacker/safety, Simmons’ skillset is perfect for the modern game. As college offenses from sea to shining sea continue to innovate and explore spread concepts and exploit spacing, defensive coordinators dream of versatile chess pieces like him to counteract the opposition. As comfortable in coverage as he is beating a ball carrier to the edge or even as a blitzer, the only aspect of the game where there is even slight room for improvement is between the tackles.

When you picture a prototypical inside linebacker in your mind, you picture Shaq Quarterman. From a size, speed, functional strength standpoint, his boasts the quintessential profile for the position. He’s started every game since he stepped on campus at Miami and earned freshman All-Amercian honors in 2016, and finished in the top two on the team in tackles all three years. If he simply mimics his production from last season, he’ll be just the fifth player in the country, since 2000, to post 330 career tackles and 45 tackles for loss. He’s also perfectly complemented by his partner in crime, Michael Pinckney, who had the highest coverage grade among ACC linebackers last year and allowed a measly 40.6 passer rating on throws into his coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, and finished in the top five among returnees in run stop percentage.

Jordan Mack missed four games last year with a shoulder injury, but fought his way back and finished the season on a high note with 40 tackles in Virginia’s final four games, including the 28-0 shutout of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Even so, he’s managed 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in the past two years, ranks third among returning ACC linebackers in run stop percentage, and should have his best season yet in 2019 as a leader on what projects to be one of the three or four best defenses in the ACC, at worst.

CORNERBACK

-Bryce Hall, Virginia (2.38)
-Mark Gilbert (17), Duke (1.74)
-Trajan Bandy, Miami (1.64)
-Essang Bassey, Wake Forest (1.28)
-Dane Jackson, Pitt (1.27)
-AJ Terrell, Clemson (1.27)

In a stacked cornerback class, not only in the ACC but nationally, Bryce Hall still stands out from the pack. He’s a big, long, fluid athlete with plenty of speed -- basically the perfect modern cornerback. A starter since he was a freshman, all that experience finally came to the forefront last year as he garnered All-American honors, led the nation in pass breakups and total passes defended, and graded out as Pro Football Focus second best CB overall and in coverage, second only to Washington’s Byron Murphy. Bearing all that in mind, I feel comfortable calling Hall the best returning cornerback in college football.

I hope you didn’t forget about Mark Gilbert. The Duke star suffered a season ending hip injury in week two last year, so I had to use his 2017 numbers. Granted, only time will tell if he is back to his old self, but #28 for Duke two years ago was one of the nation’s best at his position. Whereas Bryce Hall primarily plays off or zone coverage, Gilbert is at his best man-to-man on an island. In 2017, he allowed a 2.8 passer rating on slants and a 17.7 passer rating on 9-routes. He also ranked in the national top five for both picks and passes defended. If Gilbert is right, he’s a Thorpe Award candidate.

Last year, Trajan Bandy was a part of an elite Miami secondary that helped “The U” finish first in total pass defense and second in yards per attempt allowed. Now, as the lone returning starter, he’s the face of it. He emerged as a dynamite slot corner as a freshman before moving outside and making the leap to elite boundary corner last year, finishing in the top five in the ACC in picks, and the top ten in breakups and total passes defended, while limiting opposing receivers to a sub-50% catch rate, allowing fewer than 20 receptions in the regular season, and rocking the Turnover Chain more than any other Cane.

Essang Bassey isn’t as long as Gilbert or as thick as Hall, but, like Bandy, he plays bigger than his listed height and weight. Boasting elite footwork and ball skills, Bassey may be quicker than fast, which is scary because he’s got straightaway speed to burn. He’s just that agile. He finished 2018 second in the league in breakups and third in total passes defended, and somehow that was still a slight step back from 2017. While Hall was good two years ago, he wasn’t great, Gilbert was hurt last year, and Bandy wasn’t a true starter throughout 2017, as a freshman, Bassey has arguably been the ACC’s most consistent cornerback over the past two seasons.

It looks like Dane Jackson and AJ Terrell are basically tied for the fourth spot, and for all intents and purposes they may as well be. They are actually in order, but it takes a bunch of decimals to get there and I don’t think it looks very good aesthetically, but the point is, the formula says there’s almost no discernible difference in the two.

In any case, Jackson has been a solid two year starter at Pitt, and while he didn’t record any interceptions last year, he did finish third in the conference in breakups behind only Bassey and Hall, and forced four fumbles. Meanwhile, Terrell finished in the top five in the ACC with three interceptions, including the pick-six off Tua Tagovailoa in the title game. With another solid year, Terrell could play himself into a first round draft selection.

SAFETY

-Andre Cisco, Syracuse (1.66)

An All-American as a true freshman last year, the first true freshman to ever do so in Syracuse history, Andre Cisco’s honors could already fill multiple pages and his name is forever scrawled throughout the school record books, no matter what happens in the future. He tied for the national lead with seven interceptions in 2018, and with former Boston College standout Hamp Cheevers off to the NFL, he returns as the lone leader. He also tallied 18 total passes defended, good for the national top ten, allowed fewer than 50% of throws into his coverage to be completed, and gave up a mere 54.4 passer rating and 0.58 yards per coverage snap. He was one of the preeminent reasons for Syracuse’s meteoric rise to national relevance a season ago, and he’s nowhere near finished.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP