What if we'd told you this time last year that the ACC's top receiver would be a transfer from Maryland playing for a first-year coach at Syracuse (Amba Etta-Tawo)? Or that a QB not named Deshaun Watson would run for 1,500 yards and 21 touchdowns (Lamar Jackson)? Or that first-year starters at Virginia Tech (Jerod Evans), Florida State (Deondre Francois) and North Carolina (Mitch Trubisky) would all throw for at least 3,300 yards and 20 touchdowns?
The point is, the biggest surprise at the end of the year is that we weren't expecting so many surprises at the start. The unexpected actually happens quite often, and it'll likely be the case in 2017, too. With that in mind, we're looking outside the box for a few ACC players who might end up atop the leaderboards by year's end.
Don't be surprised if ...
Syracuse's Dontae Strickland rushes for 1,000 yards.
Yes, the Orange like to throw the ball. Yes, Strickland could be upstaged by another runner before the season even starts. Yes, Syracuse was among the worst rushing teams in the country last year. But hey, we said we were going outside the box! It's worth noting that Strickland's four best games on the ground last year all came against solid defensive fronts, and Dino Babers' offense, when executed properly, should provide ample running room. In Babers' final season at Bowling Green, Travis Greene rushed for 1,300 yards and Fred Coppet rushed for 825 more. There are yards to be had at Syracuse, and Strickland is the most likely candidate to grab them.
Duke's T.J. Rahming leads the ACC in receiving.
It's not really so far-fetched. Remember when Conner Vernon and Jamison Crowder were annually among the top receivers in the league? Rahming is a worthy successor to that Duke lineage, has tallied 1,300 yards in his first two seasons, has arguably the best QB in the Coastal Division to work with, and down the stretch last season, as Daniel Jones blossomed, so, too, did Rahming. In his final three games against North Carolina, Pitt and Miami, Rahming totaled 28 catches for 333 yards.
Virginia's Kurt Benkert throws for 3,500 yards.
No one is mistaking Virginia for a playoff team. The Cavaliers will be lucky to get to six wins, as coach Bronco Mendenhall continues to rebuild the program. But Benkert was solid last year, and he's made huge strides this offseason according to Virginia's coaches. He won't be pushed by Matt Johns this time around, and he's arguably the only experienced weapon the Hoos' offense currently has. Add in that Virginia figures to be playing from behind somewhat regularly, and it's easy enough to envision Benkert putting up some impressive numbers by year's end.
Pitt's Dewayne Hendrix finishes with double-digit sacks.
Ejuan Price (and his 13 sacks) are gone, and Pitt looks particularly thin up front. But Pat Narduzzi's defenses tend not to sit back and relax. They attack the QB, so someone is going to pick up the slack. That someone might as well be Hendrix, a talented defensive end who transferred in from Tennessee two years ago but has seen just one game of action since. An injury ended his 2016 campaign on the third series of the year, but he figures to be a starter from Day 1 again this season, and if he's healthy, Hendrix could easily join the ranks of Bradley Chubb, Harold Landry, Clelin Ferrell and the other top pass-rushers in the ACC.
Miami's Dee Delaney picks off six passes.
If there's a player in the secondary poised to make a name for himself quickly in the ACC, consider Delaney's case. He's experienced (a grad transfer from The Citadel) and talented (he would've been a mid round NFL pick had he entered the draft). He's also playing on the back end of a defense that figures to be exceptionally good up front. So if teams can't run on Miami, and QBs tend to be throwing under pressure, the obvious outcome is ample opportunity for interceptions. If Delaney makes the most of those chances, he could end up the biggest name on a defense chock full of talent by the end of the year.