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We’ve been breaking down the top returning offensive players of college football by position and conference over the last couple of weeks, and now it’s time to turn our attention to the five quarterbacks in the ACC who pushed an otherwise talented trio down to honorable mention status.
The ACC lost the quarterback who ended up being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Though Trevor Lawrence has moved on, the conference still has arguably (and I do mean arguably) the best collection of QB talent in all of college football.
Even Florida State, a program that has struggled at the position over the last few seasons, now has a promising quarterback battle brewing between UCF transfer McKenzie Milton and last year’s starter Jordan Travis.
Without further ado, it’s time for the selections:
Honorable mention: Kenny Pickett, Pitt; Brennan Armstrong, Virginia; Jeff Sims, Georgia Tech
Kenny Pickett, Brennan Armstrong and Jeff Sims are all talented enough to make the top 5 returning quarterbacks list for the ACC, but they only managed to make honorable mention. The talent and depth the conference brings to the table is just that good.
5. Malik Cunningham, Louisville
Malik Cunningham is one of the conference’s top 5 quarterbacks, even if he did struggle with turnovers in 2020. As a three-year starter, he’s seen his fair share of ups and downs, but he’s a fantastic runner and an improving passer who should continue to get better.
Last season, Cunningham threw for 2,617 yards and 20 touchdowns. Those are rock solid numbers when you 1) include his 609 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground and 2) point out that he averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, second-best amongst the returning quarterbacks in the ACC.
He also tossed 12 interceptions though, which is second-most among those returning, trailing only Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (13). He’s going to have to cut that number down, and he’s going to have to do it without the trio of Dez Fitzpatrick, Tutu Atwell and Javian Hawkins, who have all moved onto the NFL.
The FanDuel Sportsbook currently has Cunningham’s Heisman odds sitting at +6000 (tied at No. 20 with Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown and Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr.), which sounds about right.
4. Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
Boston College utilized the transfer portal properly in 2020, and it paid off big time. Phil Jurkovec spent two seasons behind Ian Book at Notre Dame, but did not want to spend a third after completing 12 of his 15 pass attempts for 222 yards and two scores.
Jurkovec made the switch to the Eagles and proved to be a perfect fit for Jeff Hatley’s offense. His solid arm and good decision-making led to plenty of success: he threw for 2,558 yards, 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 10 games last season.
Four of his first five games saw him top 300 yards passing with a 9:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He didn’t have quite the same success down the stretch and dealt with some spotty accuracy against Clemson and Notre Dame (46.9 completion percentage), but he still led Boston College to a 6-4 record.
The Eagles should return one of the better offensive lines in the conference, and Jurkovec will also have one of the ACC’s top returning wide receivers in Zay Flowers (56 catches, 892 yards, nine touchdowns). That bodes well for Jurkovec.
3. D’Eriq King, Miami
Some will argue that D’Eriq King deserves to be higher on this list, but that torn ACL he suffered against Oklahoma State in the Cheez-It Bowl last season is concerning. Will he even be ready in time to face off against a top 5 Alabama?
Still, talk about getting a difference-maker out of the transfer portal. King is right up there with previous transfers such as Joe Burrow, Justin Fields and JT Daniels. He may not be an NFL talent, but he made a tremendous difference for Miami last season. A squad that lost to Louisiana Tech 14-0 in a bowl game back in 2019 finished in the top 20 just a year later.
King’s 23 touchdown passes rank second amongst returning ACC quarterbacks. He also added 2,686 yards through the air to go along with 538 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. And the best part? Despite over 3,000 yards and 27 touchdowns of production, he tossed only five interceptions.
If he can stay healthy and the Hurricanes can stay relevant, King wouldn’t be a terrible pick for the Heisman. His +1600 odds over at the FanDuel Sportsbook make even more sense now that the Hurricanes have also added Oklahoma transfer wide receiver Charleston Rambo to their offense.
2. DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson
DJ Uiagalelei was built in a lab. There’s no other way to put it, folks. This guy is 6-foot-5, weighs 250-plus pounds and has a rocket launcher attached to his arm. But even with his elite size and arm strength, which can sometimes hamper agility, the former five-star prospect also brings impressive athleticism to the table.
Trevor Lawrence missed two games last season due to COVID, and Uiagalelei lit up the scoreboard during his absence. In those two lone starts against Boston College and Notre Dame, Uiagalelei completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 781 yards and four touchdowns. He also added another two scores on the ground.
Clemson went 1-1 in those two starts, but Uiagalelei helped the Tigers overcome a 28-7 deficit against Boston College to secure the one win. The other was the 47-40 double overtime loss to fellow Playoff team, Notre Dame.
With Justyn Ross Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and several other talented pass-catchers all returning, Uiagalelei is primed for a full-on breakout season in 2021. The guys over at the FanDuel Sportsbook certainly see it, which is why the Clemson quarterback has +1100 odds for the Heisman Trophy (tied for No. 3 with JT Daniels and Bryce Young).
1. Sam Howell, North Carolina
Statistically speaking, there hasn’t been a more impressive quarterback than Sam Howell in all of college football over the last two seasons. The two-year starter has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 7,227 yards, 68 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions.
In 2020 alone, Howell threw for 3,586 yards, 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while improving his completion percentage from 61.4 percent in 2019 to 68.1 percent this past season. His 10.3 yards per attempt ranks first amongst returning quarterbacks in college football.
Howell also added another 146 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in 2020.
This guy has the makeup of a future top NFL draft pick, so much so that he probably won’t even be compared to another North Carolina quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, during the pre-draft process. They’re already complete opposites when it comes to starting experience.
The only concern for Howell is that his supporting cast took a big hit from last season. His top two receivers, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, are off to the NFL, and they’re taking their combined 109 receptions for 1,783 yards and 14 touchdowns with them.
Howell also loses arguably the best 1-2 punch at running back in the country, Javonte Williams (second-round pick) and Michael Carter (fourth-round pick). Those two combined for 2,957 total yards (2,385 rushing, 572 receiving) and 33 touchdowns last season.
That’s cause for concern, but even if Howell takes a slight step back, he can still be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He does return wide receiver Khafre Brown (15 catches, 337 yards, two touchdowns), and Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler should alleviate some of the RB losses.
The only reason his Heisman odds are only at +1400 is because people don’t expect North Carolina to contend enough to win him the award. Well, that and his possible regression due to the loss of surrounding talent.
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Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.