ACC quarterback play better than expected
Posted September 12
The Atlantic Coast Conference was the best league in college football last season largely because of outstanding quarterback play. But most of the best QBs moved on following 2016. Teams with returning quarterbacks – Louisville, Duke, Virginia, NC State, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Florida State – considered themselves lucky. FSU, of course, lost its young star Deondre Francois to injury in Week 1. So now Jimbo Fisher is like so many other coaches in this ACC, trying to break in a new starter.
It’s still early in the season, but at this point I would have to say the returning quarterbacks have been at least as good as advertised, and the new guys have played much better than fans and media might have expected. (Note: I am not listing every quarterback in the league here, just the ones that I have seen.)
Lamar Jackson: Along with Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky and Brad Kaaya, to name a few, Jackson helped set the bar for quarterback play in the ACC. And that bar occupies a very lofty perch. Good as the others were, it was Jackson who won the Heisman Trophy. Jackson served notice Saturday in Chapel Hill that he will remain in the Heisman conversation again in 2017. All LJ did against North Carolina was pile up 525 yards of total offense, the most ever against a Tar Heel team.
Jackson’s play created space for U of L’s other ball carriers. Though the Cards’ running backs were completely shut down by Purdue, they flourished against the generous defenders in light blue. Malik Williams gained 149 yards, even more than his quarterback gained on the ground, and that is a rare event.
UNC coach Larry Fedora could not find enough superlatives to describe Jackson’s play. The head Tar Heel felt like most of the day his defense had people in the right place, but “he was just better than we were.”
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said Jackson threw the ball exceptionally well. That was (in part) because his receivers were so wide open. As Fedora put it: “We weren’t even close to receivers when they were catching the ball.”
Louisville as a team finished with 705 yards of offense. Only ECU going against the worst-in-school-history 2014 UNC defense and Baylor a year later in the 2015 bowl debacle have piled up more yards against the Chapel Hill program than LJ and Louisville produced Saturday, and both of those were road games.
But Lamar Jackson is hardly the only quarterback threat in this league. The latest ACC stats show that four of the league’s top 10 rushers and six of the best 17 are quarterbacks! And while Jackson is the only quarterback averaging more than 500 yards per game in total offense – a truly incredible number – several other QBs average more than 300 yards of offense per game.
Ryan Finley: Unlike the large number of ACC quarterbacks who run on a regular basis as part of their team’s offense, Finley typically runs only as a last resort. He averages 388 yards of total offense per game, but only 10 yards of that comes from rushing. Finley is completing 74 percent of his passes, best in the league thus far. NC State owns the highest season team completion percentage in the ACC record book, 72 percent in the Philip Rivers era. So Finley’s aerial game is, at the moment, occupying some pretty rare air! It is worth noting that Finley has put up these numbers playing behind a makeshift offensive line. As the line improves, NC State’s running backs will gain more yards, and that can only help Finley’s passing.
Daniel Jones: In some ways, his performance vs. physical Northwestern was as impressive as Jackson’s game against porous UNC. Northwestern last season allowed 404 yards in total defense per game. Jackson gained more than that against the Big Ten Wildcats by himself! DJ passed for 305 yards and ran for 108 more, quadrupling the output of his highly respected quarterback counterpart Clayton Thorson. Jones threw for two touchdowns and ran for two. He shook off an early interception which snapped his nation’s longest streak of 202 consecutive passes without a pick. Most impressively, he converted 15 of 22 third down possessions. That’s 68 percent. Not even Lamar Jackson did that.
Eric Dungey: Though his Syracuse team lost to Middle Tennessee, Eric Dungey, in Dino Babers’ offense, has become a statistical force in the ACC. Dungey in two games has rushed for 52 yards per game and passed for 254. Sometimes on Twitter I see posts saying “slide Dungey slide!” He takes chances that lead to him getting hit for sure. But over the past two seasons we have seen that Dungey can put up big numbers on any given Saturday if he stays healthy.
John Wolford: Three years ago when John Wolford was a freshman, he played behind arguably the worst offensive line in recent ACC history. Wolford got sacked repeatedly, even against lightly regarded non-conference opponents.
Back then I never thought in 2017 I would say this, but Wolford is quietly becoming one of the league’s more efficient quarterbacks. Wolford rushes for 70 yards per game, making him one of those six quarterbacks competing with running backs to see who in the ACC is best at running the football. Wolford plays for a run-oriented team at Wake Forest, but when he is called on to throw he delivers: 70.6 percent completion rate for an average of 11 yards per completion.
Last Saturday against the highly regarded Boston College defense, Wolford hit 13 of 19 passes for 151 yards. He ran for 92 more. Wolford accounted for two of the Deacons’ four touchdowns, and against the fierce BC pass rush, led by Fayetteville’s Harold Landry, Wolford sustained just two sacks. And, he did not turn the ball over.
Although I have been a fan of Wake’s other top quarterback, Kendall Hinton, since the days when I watched him play at Southern High School, Wolford is moving his team and providing good leadership.
I have not seen Miami’s Malik Rosier and at this point he has played just one game. I am quite impressed with three new starters that I have seen.
Josh Jackson: Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente does not care if his quarterback leads the Hokies in rushing. It happened last year with Jerod Evans, who led VT rushers by a wide margin. I could see the trend continuing with Josh Jackson.
The redshirt freshman has the ability to make plays with his feet and his arm, and that dual threat played a huge part in Tech’s win over explosive West Virginia. Every time the Mountaineers would score on a big play, Jackson would calmly drive Virginia Tech in the other direction, making first downs, moving the chains, taking time off the clock and scoring some much needed rest for the Hokies’ defense. His play reminded me of Jones at Duke in that way.
Jackson at this point has completed 57 percent of his passes but seems to save his best throws for third down, when it matters most. He ran for 101 yards against West Virginia and ranks 13th in the ACC in rushing, ahead of three Triangle running backs – Shaun Wilson of Duke, Nyheim Hines of NC State and Michael Carter of UNC.
After watching young Jackson lead the Hokies to victory against West Virginia, I tweeted “give him the Rookie of the Year award now!” Then I watched TaQuon Marshall of Georgia Tech.
TaQuon Marshall: The fact that Georgia Tech ultimately lost a game to Tennessee that it thoroughly dominated did not diminish my appreciation for the new guy running the show on the field for the Yellow Jackets. I have watched Coach Paul Johnson’s unique triple option offense for a decade now, and Marshall has the potential to be Johnson’s best quarterback yet. He has a muscular look for a guy measured at 5’10, 185 pounds. He also has speed, toughness, an understanding of the offense and, by the standards of triple option quarterbacks, he has pretty good passing skills. Combine those traits in one quarterback and that makes the Georgia Tech offense pretty difficult to defend.
Against Tennessee, Marshall ran for 249 yards, breaking the ACC single game record for yards gained on the ground by a quarterback. When you outrun the likes of Woody Dantzler, Justin Thomas and even Lamar Jackson, that’s pretty noteworthy. Marshall also completed 5 of 9 passes against the Vols for 120 yards. That’s 24 yards per completion. And remember against Georgia Tech, incompletions are usually a drive-killing godsend for opposing defenses. Marshall has only thrown six incompletions in two games. Technically, as Marshall is a junior, he won’t win the Rookie of the Year award. But he’s a new starter at quarterback who is playing like a veteran.
Kelly Bryant: This junior plays the position in the mold of Deshaun Watson, although let’s be clear, there is only one Deshaun Watson. Bryant ranks among the ACC’s top six in total offense, averaging 68 yards per game on the ground and 208 through the air. He’s completing 68 percent of his passes, and that’s a really good number for a new starting quarterback. Bryant completed 19 of 29 passes against a physical Auburn defense that knocked him of the game for a series or two. Bryant showed some toughness. His Tiger team trailed Auburn 6-0 when he left to get treatment. When he returned, Bryant led Clemson on a long touchdown march, mixing passes to Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow with some nice runs. That put the home Tigers ahead of the visiting Tigers 7-6. And Bryant repeated the long march on the first drive of the second half. To be sure, defense is the star at Clemson this season, but write this down: Bryant quarterbacked his team to an essential win over Auburn, the ACC’s first victory against the SEC after three losses.
Chaz Surratt: UNC’s quarterback situation is unique. The Tar Heels still have not named a starter. Surratt earned the start against Louisville and played well enough to win honors as ACC Rookie of the Week. Surratt completed 12 of 14 passes for 168 yards. He ran the ball effectively in his first game against Cal, piling up 66 yards on 16 carries.
No Tar Heel ran well against U of L in Game 2. Surratt in fact took a 30-yard sack. And maybe it was that play where Surratt tweaked his knee. And so, just as it appeared he was winning the right to direct Larry Fedora’s offense on a regular basis, Surratt spent the second half on the sideline.
Brandon Harris: Where Surratt looked comfortable running the offense in the opening game against Cal, Harris seemed to labor. But given playing time in the second half against Louisville, Harris made the most of his opportunity. Harris completed 17 of 23 passes for 216 yards and certainly gave his team a chance to win. Most of all, Harris got the ball to UNC’s senior playmaker Austin Proehl.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino had high praise for Proehl after the game. Proehl caught 8 passes for 120 yards. I’m not sure why, but Proehl and Harris seem to have some kind of connection, because Proehl caught 6 passes for 93 yards with Harris in the game after getting just 27 yards on two catches from Surratt. Harris and Proehl also connected a couple of times in the Cal game. Two quarterbacks? Maybe. UNC alternated Jason Stanicek and Mike Thomas in the 1992 season and went to a bowl game. I can see a rotation in 2017. Maybe.
Quarterbacks doing their part
UNC is 0-2 for the first time in the Larry Fedora era. Still, the Tar Heels have two guys who have shown they can move the team and score points. Quarterback play is NOT the problem! To this point, we could say the same thing about most of the other teams in the league. Although expectations were a bit low for the quarterback position after the departure of seven really good starters (plus the injury to Deondre Francois), to this point quarterbacks are doing their part to keep the ACC on college football’s top rung.