FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2015, file photo, North Carolina State tight end Jaylen Samuels (28) runs for a touchdown against Mississippi State in the first half of the Belk Bowl NCAA college football game, in Charlotte, N.C. Wolfpack offensive coordinator El
Nell Redmond, File
August 03, 2016

The Atlantic Coast Conference is home to maybe the best and most important player in college football this season.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and the leader of a team with hopes of getting back to the College Football Playoff - and finishing the job this time around.

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook could also make a run at the Heisman Trophy. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya might get into the Heisman mix as well, and North Carolina running back Elijah Hood is maybe the most unheralded member of the great class of junior ball carriers around the country.

The ACC has no shortage of potential All-Americans and award winners, but these six players could play pivotal roles for their teams this season.

DeAngelo Brown, NT, Louisville

The Cardinals' defense looks loaded, despite losing its best player, defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins, to the NFL. Brown is a powerful nose tackle that Louisville will need to clog up the middle and stay on the field to let the Cardinals' athletes make plays.

Shaq Quarterman, LB, Miami

The Hurricanes' run defense was abysmal last season. There is hope among fans of the U. that new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and his 4-3 defense will fix much of the mess they blame on former coordinator Mark D'Onofrio. There is also much optimism about Quarterman, an early enrolling freshman who has already locked up the middle linebacker job.

Travis Rudolph, WR, Florida State

The Seminoles quarterback competition between Sean Maguire and Deondre Francois will be the main event of fall practice. Improved play by Florida State's receivers will also be needed this season, especially from Rudolph. He led the team with 56 catches for 916 yards, but too often the junior had little impact on games in 2015.

Jaylen Samuels, TE, North Carolina State

It's hard to pin a position on the 223-pound junior. Tight end. Fullback. Maybe H-back? Whatever you want to call him, new Wolfpack offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz would be wise to get the ball to Samuels more often. He scored 16 touchdowns on 121 combined carries and catches last season.

Thomas Sirk, QB, Duke

Sirk is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg and remarkably is aiming to be ready to start fall practice with his teammates on Aug. 8. Sirk was Duke's leading rusher (803 yards and eight touchdowns) on top of his 2,625 yards passing last season. Backup Parker Boehme is a similar player with promising upside, but having Sirk healthy would huge for the Blue Devils.

Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson

The 315-pounder gained some fame by catching a pass off a fake punt in the Tigers' playoff victory against Oklahoma. Fun stuff, but Wilkins' work up front as a freshman was even more praise-worthy. With Clemson sending two defensive ends to the NFL, Wilkins will be expected to fill a bigger role this season. He has a chance to develop into the best defensive lineman in the country.

Extra point

Six more pivotal players: Patrick Towles, QB, Boston College; Brisly Estime, WR, Syracuse; Andre Smith, LB, North Carolina; Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech; Dontez Ford, WR, Pitt; KeShun Freeman, DE, Georgia Tech.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at

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