Brad Kaaya – Miami
- Sophomore Quarterback
- 6’4″, 220 pounds
Kaaya entered training camp last season as a long shot to win the Miami quarterback job as an 18-year old freshman. However, sometimes long shots pay off, and it did for the Hurricanes in 2014. Kaaya not only won the starting job, but lead the ACC in touchdown passes with 26, and secured ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
Kaaya connected on 221 of his 378 passes last season, good for 3,198 yards and those 26 touchdown passes. He also only threw 12 interceptions, a credit to the poise and decision making that received praise last season. The Hurricanes not only found a serviceable signal caller in Kaaya, but one who should reach higher limits before he inevitably moves onto the NFL in the future.
Shadrach Thornton – NC State
- Senior Running back
- 6’1″, 210 pounds
Shadrach Thornton, who is entering his senior season at NC State has had an up-and-down tenure with the Wolfpack over four years. He lead the team in rushing as a freshman before running into off the field issues as a sophomore that lead to a suspension. 2014 appeared to bring a change to Thornton, however.
Staying out of trouble last season, Thornton returned to his freshman form, falling just short of breaking the 1,000 yard mark. He finished with 907 yards on 164 carries with nine touchdowns, leading the Wolfpack running corps in all categories. He received an All-ACC honorable mention in 2014, and could be poised to take the next step in 2015.
Deshaun Watson – Clemson
- Sophomore Quarterback
- 6’2″, 205 pounds
The biggest “gut instinct” pick on this list might be the sophomore quarterback from Clemson. Watson missed a lot of time in 2014 after replacing the departing Tajh Boyd. He recovered from a broken hand, then was finally shutdown with ACL surgery before the team’s bowl win over Oklahoma in December. He finished with 1,466 passing yards and 19 total touchdowns (14 passing) in eight games. Watson’s athleticism, and potential as a “game changer” was undeniable however, even in limited action.
Former offensive coordinator Chad Morris departed to become the head coach at SMU, leaving a co-coordinator duo of Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott to handle the offense. Head coach Dabo Swinney has promised the team’s fast paced offense will not change dramatically, despite the coordinator change. If the offense that averaged over 500 yards per game in 2012 and 2013 can remain at a similar level, and Watson can stay healthy, the sky could be the limit for the sophomore and the Tigers.
Isaiah Ford – Virginia Tech
- Sophomore Wide Receiver
- 6’1″, 175 pounds
Isaiah Ford was a late addition for Virginia Tech in the 2014 recruiting class who elevated himself up the depth chart in the preseason, and backed it up with a solid 2014 campaign. The Hokies sputtered often a season ago, but Ford managed to keep himself productive. He lead the Hokies in receptions (56), yards (709) and yards per game (54.5), while picking up an honorable mention on the 2014 All-ACC list.
Ford also hauled in six touchdown receptions last season, one off the team lead. 16 of the Hokies 19 touchdown receptions in 2014 were caught by freshmen, including Ford. The group is expected to excel in 2015 with a year of experience under their belt, and Ford should be at the forefront of that.
Bucky Hodges – Virginia Tech
- Sophomore Tight End
- 6’6″, 250 pounds
Another young target on the Hokies receiving corps last season was then redshirt freshman Bucky Hodges. Hodges was new to the tight end position after converting from quarterback, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him in 2014. He lead Virginia Tech in receiving touchdowns with seven, and also amassed 562 yards on 45 catches.
Hodges proved to be a valuable redzone threat by utilizing his 6’6″ frame, and showed off his athleticism, laying out for several highlight reel catches. With the likes of Nick O’Leary (Florida State) and Clive Walford (Miami) moving on, a tight end spot on the All-ACC team could be ripe for the picking for Hodges in 2015.
Mackensie Alexander – Clemson
- Sophomore Cornerback
- 5’11”, 180 pounds
Alexander was able to make a name for himself as a freshman on a top ranked Clemson defense that placed four players on the All-ACC team in 2014 — no small feat for the newcomer. Alexander was an honorable mention last season, despite having deceptively “unimpressive” stats. he finished without a sack or interception, but did contribute 21 tackles and six broken up passes.
Alexander combines speed and physicality better than only a few of the nation’s truly elite corners, and has a nose for the ball once it’s in the air. He is the total package in the secondary, which not only made him a highly sought after 5-star recruit, but will likely take him from an All-ACC honorable mention, to just All-ACC.
Deon Bush – Miami
- Senior Safety
- 6’1″, 200 pounds
Following a disappointing ending to 2014, which saw Miami drop their last four games to finish 6-7, safety Deon Bush quickly announced he would be returning for his senior season. Bush said he would wait on an opportunity at the NFL because he hadn’t won at Miami yet. While the Hurricanes should put together a stronger campaign in 2015, Bush may also have a personal gain in the form of an All-ACC team appearance waiting for him as well.
Bush proved to be perhaps the best all around threat on the Hurricanes secondary unit in 2014 while earning All-ACC honorable mentions. He finished second on the Hurricanes secondary in tackles with 53, while also adding a pair of sacks and interceptions, and recorded five forced fumbles. Bush put off the NFL for another season — sometimes a risky proposition — but 2015 may do nothing but elevate his draft stock.
On paper the Pitt defense has struggled with a thin on talent defensive unit the last two seasons, while still managing to turn out a pair of top 35 total defenses. However, outside of departing linebacker Anthony Gonzalez no member of the defense gained much attention on a national level.
That figures to change however with the departure of offense-first former head coach Paul Chryst, and the arrival of former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Who will step up for the Panthers’ defense however? Will it be the hard working Matt Galambos, who now has a chance to be the team’s top linebacker? Will a defensive back like Reggie Mitchell, who transferred from Wisconsin in 2013 finally realize his potential at Pitt? Time will tell, but with a defensive mind like Narduzzi roaming the sidelines, expect a Panther to finally emerge on the All-ACC list in 2015.
Paul Davis – Georgia Tech
- Junior Linebacker
- 5’11”, 220 pounds
Perhaps the biggest snub from the All-ACC list a season ago should be able to rectify the situation in 2015. Davis lead the Yellow Jackets in tackles a season ago with 119, which was also good for fifth best in the ACC. He also recorded four sacks and had one interception, which he returned 41 yards for a touchdown. Davis notoriously plays a bigger and more physical game than his size would indicate, and his exclusion from last years All-ACC team was largely looked upon as a travesty, despite stiff competition from other linebackers. This season should bring another opportunity for Davis to make the jump from honorable mention to member of the list.
Chuck Clark – Virginia Tech
- Junior Cornerback/safety
- 6’0″, 210 pounds
Kendall Fuller will likely leave Virginia Tech as the best of the Fuller brothers to come through Blacksburg. Fuller secured All-ACC first team honors last season, with 54 tackles and two interceptions (one pick six). Could Fuller get the “Richard Sherman treatment”? A defensive back who’s true value lies in his presence on the field, not in his stat line? If so the benefit may fall onto another Hokie defensive back, junior Chuck Clark.
Clark finished with a solid stat line in 2014 over 13 games, with 73 total tackles (8.5 for a loss), a sack and a half, an interception, and 11 other passes deflected. He also was key in the Hokies week two upset of future National Champion Ohio State with 10 tackles, and had a beautiful interception against Cincinnati in the Military Bowl. With the departure of Detrick Bonner, Clark may see time more time at safety in 2015, where he might be more valuable to Bud Foster’s defensive unit. Time will tell if he can elevate to the next level, but if quarterbacks look to avoid Fuller, they may not find an easier option in Clark.
The loaded All-ACC from 2014 saw many departures, most from players that will now be playing on Sundays. There appears to be no shortage of talent ready to take their place in 2015. These players just scratch the surface of what should be an interesting ride next season as players look to make the jump from “honorable mention” to the upper echelon of the ACC.