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10 ACC Heisman Contenders

By Matt Osborne
SouthernPigskin.com
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Chris Weinke was the last ACC player to win the Heisman Trophy, doing so in 2000.

It has been 13 years since the ACC last produced a Heisman Trophy winner: Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke in 2000.

Despite that lengthy drought, the conference has a plethora of playmakers capable of making legitimate runs at college football’s most prestigious individual award this season.

Here is a look at 10 ACC players who have to be considered serious Heisman contenders heading into the fall (listed alphabetically):  

No. 1 – Clemson QB Tajh Boyd

Boyd was named ACC Player of the Year last season after completing over 67% of his passes for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns while adding an additional 514 yards and 10 scores on the ground. The Clemson offense will once again be littered with talent this fall, and Boyd’s efficiency should only continue to improve during his senior campaign. If he can cut down slight on his interception totals, he has a chance to have an even better year than last season when he finished fifth in the FBS in passer rating (165.58).

No. 2 – Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Diggs had a remarkable freshman season in College Park, finishing sixth in the conference in receiving yards (848) and second in the league in kickoff return average (28.5). The receiving numbers, in particular, are extremely impressive considering the absolute turmoil at the quarterback position for Maryland last year. With a more stable situation under center, Diggs is primed to have a breakout season on a national scale. He will also continue to be one of the most dangerous special teams players in the country.

No. 3 – Miami RB Duke Johnson

Johnson finished third in the ACC in rushing as a true freshman despite not even leading his own team in rushing attempts. With Mike James no longer in the mix, there is no question that Johnson is now the focal point of the Hurricanes’ offense. He will also benefit greatly from the fact that the Hurricanes return 10 starters, including the entire offensive line, from an offense which finished fifth in the league in total offense last fall. It is also important to keep in mind that Johnson is an outstanding special teams weapon, having finished third nationally in kickoff return average in 2012 (33.0).

No. 4 – Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee

With all due respect to former Georgia Tech signal caller Joshua Nesbitt, Vad Lee is the best combination of athleticism, power and passing ability that the Yellow Jackets have had under center since Paul Johnson took over as head coach. Lee ran for 544 yards in his backup role behind veteran Tevin Washington last season, but he certainly displayed that he is capable of producing jaw-dropping plays in the blink of an eye. Washington led the Yellow Jackets in rushing attempts last fall, and there is a good chance that Lee will do the same in 2013. With his increased athleticism, though, Lee will be able to do more with those carries. (Georgia Tech's 2013 Offense)

No. 5 – Miami QB Stephen Morris

Morris had a very successful first season as a full-time starter in Miami, throwing for 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns. He was also surprisingly proficient at protecting the football for a first-year starter, tossing just seven interceptions during the course of the year. Morris had a handful of huge games last season – three games with over 400 yards passing – but must learn to be more consistent if he wants to truly be considered for the Heisman Trophy at the end of the year. Given all of the weapons at his disposal, look for Morris to improve upon last season’s impressive statistics.

No. 6 – North Carolina QB Bryn Renner

Renner was a bit overshadowed by Giovani Bernard in the North Carolina offense last fall, but that will certainly not be the case in 2013. Returning two of the leading pass-catching threats in the conference in wide receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron, offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will place more of the offensive onus on Renner’s shoulders this fall. Renner has thrown for more than 3,000 yards each of the last two seasons, and he greatly cut down on his interceptions totals in his second year as full-time starter. In Larry Fedora’s high-powered attack, Renner should become a household name nationally by the end of the season.

No. 7 – Syracuse RB Jerome Smith

Despite playing alongside star quarterback Ryan Nassib last season, Smith finished second in the Big East in rushing with 1,176 yards. Heading into this fall, he is the lone returning running back in the conference to have rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. With Syracuse still looking for a solidified starter at quarterback, and with three starters returning along the offensive front, look for Smith to get even more opportunities to showcase his talents in 2013. The one statistical category he will need to improve upon to garner Heisman consideration is rushing touchdowns, as he produced just three all of last season. 

No. 8 – Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas

There is no denying that Thomas has been extremely volatile the last couple of seasons, but there is also no denying his immense talent and potential. Thomas regressed in every major passing category last fall, but much of his inefficiency had to do with the lack of overall talent on the Hokies’ offense. Inconsistency has plagued Thomas in the past, but if he is able to put everything together on a more frequent basis this fall, he has the skill set to be one of the best quarterbacks in the entire country. Many experts expect Thomas to be a major beneficiary of new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.

No. 9 – NC State RB Shadrach Thornton

Thornton finished sixth in the ACC in rushing last season despite not playing in the first three contests of the year and getting fewer than 10 carries in three other games. He had just four games where he rushed for more than 100 yards last fall, but three of those contests came in the final month of the season. New head coach Dave Doeren employed a very potent running attack at Northern Illinois, and without the threat of a consistent runner at quarterback, Thornton will have plenty of opportunities to put up gaudy rushing numbers in 2013.

No. 10 – Clemson WR Sammy Watkins

Opposing defenses will certainly place a great deal of emphasis on stopping Watkins, but with his supreme athletic abilities, it simply won’t make much difference. Watkins caught 57 passes for 708 yards last fall despite missing three games due to either injury or suspension. With DeAndre Hopkins making the move to the NFL, Watkins is now the unquestioned No. 1 receiver in this explosive Clemson offense. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris excels at getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers, and Watkins will surely find the pigskin in his clutches frequently this fall.

Matt Osborne - Matt Osborne currently serves as the director of recruiting and lead editor for Southern Pigskin. His work has been published in a number of national publications, including USA Today. Although he loves all levels of football, Matt's number one joy in his life is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattOsborne200. For media requests, please email Matt at matt@southernpigskin.com.