Top 10 ACC Players Poised to Have a Breakout Year
For the past few years, the ACC has been Clemson and everybody else.
While Dabo Swinney's Tigers appear poised to return to the College Football Playoff this year, several other programs enter the 2020 season with legitimate hope as well.
A lot of that buzz stems from marquee players who could help elevate their programs. But guys like North Carolina's Sam Howell, Miami's D'Eriq King and Florida State head coach Mike Norvell need plenty of help.
Several players appear poised to have breakout seasons, from a Louisville quarterback who looks to surge to elite status like Lamar Jackson once did to a slew of runners to some exciting freshmen. Add Notre Dame to the equation for the 2020 season, and this year is going to be fascinating.
Factoring in opportunity to thrive, skill set, natural ability and team needs, let's take a look at the top 10 ACC players poised for a breakout season in 2020.
David Bailey, RB, Boston College
AJ Dillon will no longer be plowing through defenses at Boston College, as the bruising running back declared for the NFL draft after his junior season and now plays for the Green Bay Packers. Gone with him are three consecutive seasons of at least 1,100 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
That's a lot of production for new coach Jeff Hafley to replace on the ground. Luckily, David Bailey is back.
The 6'0", 236-pound junior was a perfect complement to Dillon a season ago, rushing for 844 yards and scoring seven touchdowns. He is more than capable of becoming one of the ACC's top running backs.
Though Dillon was underappreciated nationally, it's because he played for a mediocre Eagles team. Hafley got used to winning at Ohio State, so it bears watching how long it takes him to build a winning mentality on Chestnut Hill.
With Phil Jurkovec gaining immediate eligibility at quarterback after transferring from Notre Dame, the Eagles have a lot of excitement right off the bat, and this doesn't feel like a complete rebuilding job.
Much of that is because of Bailey, a workhorse who can sustain the punishment. He was named to the Maxwell Award watch list, an award given to the nation's top player, according to 247Sports' Tyler Calvaruso.
He should be among the nation's top runners.
Micale Cunningham, QB, Louisville
In his first season at Louisville, head coach Scott Satterfield led the Cardinals to a shocking 8-5 record. The work he did on offense in particular was nothing short of amazing.
Redshirt freshman running back Javian Hawkins churned out one of the nation's top seasons at his position, finishing with 1,525 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Quarterback Micale Cunningham also took a major jump, and though consistency was an issue, the 3-star prospect showed star quality.
Don't be surprised if he has a Bryce Perkins-type breakout campaign in 2020.
In 2019, Cunningham seized the starting gig and finished the year with 22 passing touchdowns, six rushing scores and 2,547 yards from scrimmage in 12 games. He also completed 62.4 percent of his pass attempts.
With a year in the system, what could he produce as an encore?
At 6'1" and 200 pounds, Cunningham won't blow anyone away with his physical traits. But the powerhouse programs in Alabama will regret not pursuing him harder if he goes from a developmental prospect to a potential star.
If Cunningham posts 35 touchdowns this season, the Cardinals could wind up besting last year's record and continue to surge in the right direction. He has a great opportunity to do just that and form one of the best 1-2 offensive punches in the nation with Hawkins.
Akeem Dent, CB, Florida State
If new head coach Mike Norvell can work the offensive magic at Florida State that he has elsewhere, the Seminoles may be headed for a big rebound year. They have plenty of talent on the other side of the ball, including defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, defensive back Hamsah Nasirildeen and linebacker Amari Gainer.
There are others blossoming, too.
Sophomore defensive back Akeem Dent started five games at safety as a freshman, finishing with 35 tackles and seven pass breakups. He's moving back to cornerback this season, according to Tomahawk Nation's Brett Nevitt, which excites him.
"It feels like home," Dent said, per Nevitt. "I came in as a cornerback. Definitely feels like home, somewhere where I have a lot more knowledge of the position."
At 6'1" and 191 pounds, Dent has the size, speed and versatility to play any position in the secondary. Along with Nasirildeen, Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and Asante Samuel Jr., the Seminoles appear to be building a no-fly zone.
Dent has been through plenty of coaching tumult, but he has the tools to be a dynamic playmaker if he gets some consistency around him.
Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Georgia Tech
As Geoff Collins starts Year 2 of the biggest overhaul in the nation—transitioning Georgia Tech from Paul Johnson's triple-option offense to a pro-style spread attack—he'll have a lot of new toys with which to play.
Collins already found one dependable running back last season in Jordan Mason, who will be a junior and is coming off an 899-yard season. But the Yellow Jackets also pulled off one of the biggest recruiting coups in the nation by securing a commitment from 4-star prospect Jahmyr Gibbs.
They had to sweat it out through the late signing period as everybody from Georgia to Ohio State to Florida and others made late pushes to flip him, but Gibbs ultimately stood firm.
The 5'9", 191-pound game-breaker is a compact missile of a runner who can do it all. He's going to be impossible to keep off the field.
"That guy's a special player now," offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude told the Associated Press' George Henry. "He brings a different dynamic to that set. He's very dynamic out of the backfield."
Gibbs is the kind of instant-impact playmaker any team in the nation could have used. Recruiting wins like this will speed up the arduous rebuilding process for Collins.
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
At 6'4" and 216 pounds, Kyle Hamilton isn't a run-of-the-mill safety. He doesn't play a cookie-cutter position, either.
Hamilton is tall, rangy, athletic and plays all over the backside of the defense for Notre Dame. This year, he'll have the opportunity to play closer to his Atlanta home as his team plays an all-ACC schedule.
As a true freshman last year, Hamilton played in all 13 games but started only one against USC. Anybody who saw him play, though, knew it was only a matter of time before he was racking up big-time stats.
On a loaded defense in 2019, he wound up with 41 tackles and four interceptions, including a pick-six against New Mexico. He is no stranger to the league he'll be playing against, either, as he hauled in interceptions against Virginia, Virginia Tech and Boston College last year.
Head coach Brian Kelly said Hamilton is "one of the best guys in the country playing that position," according to Irish Illustrated's Tim O'Malley. Though he was third in the safety rotation last season, he'll be a building block for years to come.
Hamilton was a major recruiting coup for the Irish, who went into the hotbed of SEC and ACC country and plucked a guy who would be starting for any other team in the nation. Look for him to have an All-America-caliber season.
Cam'Ron Harris, RB, Miami
Instead, the rising junior could break out and be a major playmaker for a vastly improved offense.
The 5'10", 210-pounder finished last year with only 576 yards and five touchdowns. With 2019 leading rusher DeeJay Dallas off to the Seattle Seahawks, Harris should be far more productive in 2020.
Miami should be a ton better on offense with Houston transfer D'Eriq King behind center. He is one of the nation's most dynamic playmakers with the ball in his hands, and his athleticism should transform the team.
With King at the helm, bigger things are coming for Harris, who is poised to have a monster season with better surrounding pieces and a potential star handing off to him.
Levi Jones, LB, North Carolina State
Levi Jones is joining a loaded linebacker group at NC State, but he has the talent to be an impact player right away.
At 6'3" and 230 pounds, Jones seems like an ideal fit to replace Brock Miller, who entered the transfer portal to play his final season elsewhere. If Jones plays up to his potential, he will be a great complement to Payton Wilson, who played a ton as a true freshman and looks like a budding star.
Pack Pride recruiting analyst Michael Clark predicted Jones will lead North Carolina State in sacks this season, which is high praise considering he hasn't played football in two years and has never stepped foot on the field for the Wolfpack.
Jones' father, Robert Jones, played in the NFL. So did his uncle, Jeff Blake. His brothers, Cayleb and Zay Jones, are still playing in the league. Bloodlines like that lead to plenty of excitement, especially for a NC State team needing it after an awful season.
To rebound, the defense needs to carry the Wolfpack. Jones can be a huge piece of the puzzle.
Joe Ngata, WR, Clemson
With junior receiver Justyn Ross sidelined by season-ending spinal surgery and Tee Higgins off to the NFL, Clemson needs more receiving help alongside Amari Rodgers.
Joe Ngata may be the most exciting possibility of the bunch.
The 6'3", 215-pound sophomore caught 17 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns last year. While he and fellow sophomore wideout Frank Ladson Jr. missed the start of fall camp after "following protocol," according to head coach Dabo Swinney (via 247Sports' Anna Hickey), they are ready to go.
Another youngster to watch is E.J. Williams, who the Tigers "hit a home run" with, according to offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. Ajou Ajou could also factor into the receiving rotation.
But Ngata is the most physically imposing option, and he could break out as a deep threat for Trevor Lawrence with some of the more well-known names now gone.
With Lawrence flinging darts, one (or more) of Clemson's receivers are bound to have big seasons. Expect Ngata to be among them.
Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina
With quarterback Sam Howell and receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown returning for the North Carolina Tar Heels, will there be any offensive yards left over for a running back?
You'd better believe Javonte Williams will find some. Head coach Mack Brown will utilize him in different ways to ensure the young playmaker has a way to impact games.
Williams wasn't even the Tar Heels' leading rusher last year, and Michael Carter will join him again this season. The former arguably had a better season than Carter a year ago, though.
Williams finished the year with 933 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per carry and led the team with five touchdowns. He also showed his versatility with 17 catches for 176 receiving yards.
With Howell flinging darts, two electrifying receivers, Williams and Carter at running back and the way Brown is recruiting on defense, it's easy to see why everybody around Chapel Hill is excited about the direction of the program.
Expect to hear a lot about North Carolina's prolific offense this season, and for Williams to be right at the forefront of it. He has a few seasons of eligibility remaining to keep posting big rushing numbers, too.
Noah Taylor, LB, Virginia
This may be a rebuilding year for the Virginia Cavaliers, who must replace do-it-all starting quarterback Bryce Perkins, but the Hoos defense still has plenty of firepower.
They're going to build around quality, smart playmakers, including linebacker Noah Taylor, who can do a ton of things while roaming all over the field. He should team with Charles Snowden to give head coach Bronco Mendenhall the kind of tandem to give quarterbacks fits.
Snowden is a 6'7", 235-pound mauler, and Taylor is 6'5" and 215 pounds. They combined for 12.0 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss last season.
"You've got two guys coming off opposite edges, and an offense can't block both of those guys at the same time," UVA linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga told Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Mike Barber. "They've gotta decide who they want to go after."
Virginia is going to build this year's team around its defense, and the linebacking corps is the strength.
If Taylor can take another step forward from last year, when he finished with 57 tackles, including 13.5 for a loss, seven sacks, two interceptions and four pass breakups, he'll cause a lot of panic for offensive coordinators and make himself a lot of NFL money soon, too.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.