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Who’s the Best Duo in the ACC?

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are a number of dynamic duos returning to the ACC this year, but which one is the best of the best?

Everyone loves a good duo -- Michael and Scottie, Batman and Robin, Mick and Keith, apparently some people like peanut butter and jelly even though the former is gross. Football is no different. A dominant tandem, at any position, is always a nightmare for opposing coaches and the partnership, at its best, usually heighten one another’s devastation. So, with programs across the country participating in spring practice or preparing to do so, what will be the top returning twosome in the ACC, in 2018?

As a starting point, I combed through my post-2018 ranking of the Top 100 players in the league and listed any returning selections from the same position group on the same team. However, as we are partly projecting, too, I included some close misses from the ranking that could be poised for breakout seasons in 2019.

Here are the eleven duos we’ll pick from:

- Clemson’s backfield of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne
- Clemson receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins
- Clemson offensive linemen Tremayne Anchrum and Sean Pollard
- Clemson defensive linemen Xavier Thomas and Nyles Pinckney
- Duke running backs Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown
- Miami linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney
- Miami pass catchers Jeff Thomas and Brevin Jordan
- Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter
- Syracuse defensive linemen Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman
- Virginia defensive backs Bryce Hall and Joey Blount
- Virginia Tech pass catchers Damon Hazelton and Dalton Keene


Now, rather than just do a basic evaluation of each duo and then rank them in the most boring way ever, I’ve devised a rubric of four prerequisites that must be met to filter out the best of the best from the best of the rest.

1. No Terrific Trios or Fearsome Foursomes

Sometimes certain position groups are just too good or too deep to even be considered a duo. For example, when we did this last year, though Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins might’ve been the best pair of defensive linemen in the country, you couldn’t talk about Clemson’s front four without mentioning Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. That’s not a duo, it’s an obstinacy, whereas, with all due respect to Sheldrick Redwine and Trajan Bandy, when you brought up Miami’s secondary you could get away with just highlighting Michael Jackson and Jaquan Johnson. Wake Forest’s offensive line got caught up here last season, as well.

The only elimination here this year is also an offensive line group. Note the word group as opposed to duo, because a duo is two, but Tremayne Anchrum, Sean Pollard, and John Simpson are more than two people. A right tackle and left guard, like Anchrum and Simpson, are hardly a duo, but a pair of guards certainly is. This unit ranked in the national top 20 in line yards, the top 15 in sack rate, and the top ten in stuff rate a season ago, but returning four starters, three of whom were in the Top 100 player rankings takes the Tiger O-line out of contention.

Remaining 10 Duos:

- Clemson’s backfield of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne
- Clemson receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins
- Clemson defensive linemen Xavier Thomas and Nyles Pinckney
- Duke running backs Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown
- Miami linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney
- Miami pass catchers Jeff Thomas and Brevin Jordan
- Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter
- Syracuse defensive linemen Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman
- Virginia defensive backs Bryce Hall and Joey Blount
- Virginia Tech pass catchers Damon Hazelton and Dalton Keene

2. No member of the duo can be engaged in a (fairly) serious position battle.

Brittain Brown was banged up last year, and his production dipped as a result, but in 2017, as a freshman, he tallied 862 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage, at a clip of 6 yards per play. Deon Jackson stepped up as Duke’s primary ball carrier in 2018, totaling 1,100 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns at 5.9 yards per touch, while also contributing on special teams. If Brown can stay healthy, the Blue Devil running backs are about as good a one-two punch as any in the league, however only one can start.

Part of what makes great duos so special is that they accentuate each other’s strengths and help to mitigate the weaknesses. That’s tough to do if they’re never or hardly ever on the field together. I suppose there’s a case to be made that the two are better off together because one can spell the other or vice versa, but that feels like reaching.

Remaining 9 Duos:

- Clemson’s backfield of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne
- Clemson receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins
- Clemson defensive linemen Xavier Thomas and Nyles Pinckney
- Miami linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney
- Miami pass catchers Jeff Thomas and Brevin Jordan
- Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter
- Syracuse defensive linemen Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman
- Virginia defensive backs Bryce Hall and Joey Blount
- Virginia Tech pass catchers Damon Hazelton and Dalton Keene

3. Obviously, the best duo in the South must be the best on it’s own team.

Clemson, Miami, and Syracuse all have at least two remaining eligible duos. Now, theoretically, a single team could have the top two (or three, or four, etc.) duos in the league, but this isn’t a ranking, or even a tiering. There’s one duo that’s the best, and a bunch that, while very good, are not.

Despite losing maybe the best defensive line in college football history, Clemson should be just fine up front. Brent Venable returns a nearly unanimous first team Freshman All-American in Xavier Thomas, who had 3.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, and Nyles Pinckney who could have started for all but maybe ten teams in the country last year. The scary thing about Clemson is, these guys have no chance of moving on.

Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins came in at #13 and #14, respectively, in the post-2018 Top 100 ACC player rankings, putting both in line for potential top five spots in the preseason rankings to be released this summer. 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. Yet, even they may not be better than the guy throwing them the ball and the dude that he hands it off to.

Ross and Higgins are both surefire top 10 preseason selections, but Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne were each already in the post-2018 top 10. I have a lot more to say about these two, so I won’t step on it here, but, suffice it to say, they’re the Clemson duo that’s moving on.

Jeff Thomas almost left Miami and Brevin Jordan’s season was cut short by injury. I anticipate these two having monster 2019 campaigns, contingent on the quarterback play and any (more) unforeseen circumstances, but Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney take this one in a walk.

As far as ‘Cuse, we have a bit of a philosophical argument. Even as good as Andre Szmyt and Sterling Hofrichter are, almost any edge rushing duo is going to be more valuable to their team’s success than its kicker and punter. Granted, if any kicker-punter duo is the exception to that rule, it’s Szmyt and Hofrichter.

Still, Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman tied for second in the conference with ten sacks a piece, and combined for 29 tackles for loss. It is worth asking whether or not the loss of Chris Slayton in the interior could see that productivity slip, but these are two bonafide stars in the ACC. Nevertheless, we’re not trying to find the “most valuable duo”, we’re trying to find “the best”. There’s a difference. There aren't a lot of better duos, but there are a few better returning edge defending duos in college football than Robinson and Coleman. There isn’t a better special teams pairing than Szmyt and Hofrichter. They move on.

Remaining Duos:

- Clemson’s backfield of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne
- Miami linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney
- Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter
- Virginia defensive backs Bryce Hall and Joey Blount
- Virginia Tech pass catchers Damon Hazelton and Dalton Keene

4. This duo has to actually have an argument as the best.

This rule used to be about contending for titles, but I’m scrapping that. Maybe I need to reevaluate my own arbitrary rules, or the order in which they appear, but too often a less-than-deserving pair of players slips to the final round. No more.

I think we all know who’s going to win, but I want to talk about Clemson’s backfield, Miami’s linebackers, Syracuse’s special teams, and Virginia defensive backs some more. It’s my piece and I can do whatever I want. I do not, however, want to talk very much about Damon Hazelton and Dalton Keene in the same set of paragraphs as the others.

Hazelton is a good player. His eight receiving touchdowns put him in a tie for fourth in the ACC last year, and he was ranked #57 in the post-2018 Top 100. Keene is fine. He was literally the last one in, sitting at #100 in that same ranking. That’s a good not great duo that would look out of place next to the aforementioned ones, so let’s move on.

Remaining 4 Duos:

- Clemson’s backfield of QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne
- Miami linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney
- Syracuse kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter
- Virginia defensive backs Bryce Hall and Joey Blount

The Case for Lawrence and Etienne

Travis Etienne was my preseason Heisman pick last year, well before most anyone, save perhaps the most fervent Clemson homer, was looking at the Louisiana-product. He didn’t win, obviously, but I still feel pretty good about that pick. While not the most outstanding, according to those voters, he was the most exciting player in the country. He has six more carries of 20+ yards than any other Power Five back in the nation, despite having about 70 fewer attempts. It’s a joke that he didn't win the Walker Award.

Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence was the most impressive freshman quarterback since, like, forever. 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.

The Case for Quarterman and Pinckney

Quarterman and Pinckney were two of the top three leading tacklers on a championship caliber defense in 2018. Miami was not a championship caliber team because of the offense, and the quarterback play in particular, but the Hurricane defense was almost certainly one of the five best in college football.

Both tallied double digit tackles for loss on a squad that finished tenth in line yards per carry allowed, third in stuff rate, and number one in the country in both sack rate and front seven havoc rate.

The super versatile Pinckney shined in all aspects of the game, but was especially dominant in coverage, allowing just 22 yards on receptions, and posting the highest coverage grade of any ACC linebacker, according to PFF. Quarterman simultaneously earned his third consecutive All-ACC selection, this time as a first teamer. A bastion of consistency, he has started every game since he stepped foot on campus in 2016, and is fresh off his best season yet, posting 82 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, six sacks, two pass breakups, six QB hurries, and a forced fumble.

The Case for Szmyt and Hofrichter

Syracuse had the best special teams unit in the country last year.

Szmyt hit all 61 of his PAT tries and went 30 of 34 on field goal tries, good for tenth in the nation in field goal percentage, all while averaging a a full attempt per game more than all but one of the nine players ahead of him. Based on his output, relative to the expected output from each of his kicks, distance-wise, Szmyt net about .6 more points per try than the average kicker -- the 10th highest disparity in all of the FBS.

Hofrichter, though just 38th in yards per punt, was far better than the numbers would suggest. Nearly half of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line and the Orange were well above the mean in allowed punt return success rate.

Where he really stood out, though, was on kickoffs, where he ended up in the top 20 in yards per kickoff with the 31st highest touchback rate, and a top ten allowed success rate.

The Case for Hall and Blount

Bryce Hall, #6 in the post-2018 Top 100, was the best cornerback in the ACC last year, and is hands down the best returning player in the conference that doesn’t go to Clemson.

His 24 passes defensed were the most in college football, he allowed a sub-50% catch rate, and gave up just 97 yards after catch in the regular season on 67 throws into his coverage, which, according to PFF, was the fewest among qualifying ACC corners.

Joey Blount, despite having to overcome some injuries and serving in a more limited role, was one of the most impactful multi-faceted players on what was quietly among the game’s top tier pass defenses. The sophomore racked up 65 tackles, five for a loss, two picks, three pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.

Despite the loss of Juan Thornhill, this might not actually count as a duo because Brenton Nelson is back, and even though he wasn’t even as good as he was in 2017, Nelson at his best is one of the better defenders in the league. It’s fine, we’ll let it slide.

Winner: Lawrence and Etienne

Come on… who else could it be? The best duos aren’t just a pair of great players. They’re pairs of great players that make each other better. They’re gifted talents that complement one another.

Traditionally, passing the ball is a more high-risk, high-reward proposition than running the ball in the sport of football. Lawrence was such an effective decision maker, and Etienne such an explosive runner, that the opposite was almost true for Clemson. The latter was so dynamic that the passing game was essentially just a luxury. With Higgins and Ross on the perimeter, it’s a heckuva luxury, but a luxury nonetheless. Honestly, with Lawrence behind center, it might not even matter of he was throwing to two future first round draft picks. My mom and sisters could probably do numbers in that offense.

And they absolutely made one another better. Clemson ran the second most RPO’s in the country last year and averaged 1.15 more yards per carry on such snaps than their season average for all rushing plays, plus Etienne had the most yards of any running back on RPO’s.

Etienne by himself, though close, is not unstoppable. Neither is Lawrence. Together, they are. And when both are an option at the same time, everyone else might as well just quit.

That’s the power of a great pair -- two elite players joining forces to form an entity that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

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