The Watch List: 2019 ACC Season Preview

Updated: August 18th 2019

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the Spring and Summer as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Storylines to Watch

Heisman Contender: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson. At just nineteen years old, Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback in college football.  He has a big arm and elite 6060/215 size.  Given his frame, he is also surprisingly mobile.  Lawrence excels in clutch situations, illustrated by his 6:0 TD:INT ratio in Clemson’s three postseason games last year. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to say that he’s one of the best twenty quarterbacks in America today; if NFL teams had the chance, many would replace their current starter with Lawrence two years before he’s even draft eligible.  Barring a major injury to him or a key Tiger teammate, I expect Lawrence to lead Clemson to another College Football Playoff appearance and pace the Heisman race along the way.

Underclassman to Watch: Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson. The most promising target for Lawrence is fellow sophomore Justyn Ross.  Ross earned national recognition after a spectacular showing in the college football playoff, including one truly unbelievable catch against Alabama.  In those two games against Notre Dame and Alabama, Ross combined for 12-301-3, about a third of his season totals.  He’s the conference’s leading returning receiver from last year and is likely to lead the line again.  He has a huge catch radius, sticky hands and looks like a punt returner with the ball in his hands.  If he and Lawrence progress together as we expect, we could be looking at Ross joining Lawrence as a Top 5 prospect in two years.

Newcomer of the Year: Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina. New Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo are moving the team to an air raid offense this season.  They might have just the pilot in true freshman Sam Howell.  Howell, the state’s all-time leader in total yardage, flipped from Florida State to UNC on signing day.  Phil Steele ranked him as the 8th best quarterback in the class while 247Sports had him as the 3rd best dual-threat quarterback.  I watched some highlights and he really is a great rusher, the high school competition couldn’t handle his speed or finesse moves.  It also looks like he can sky the ball – one his his throws went sixty yards on the fly and was delivered inch-perfect.  If Howell can win the job and battle through the early growing pains, North Carolina will return to bowl eligibility.

Coaching Carousel: Manny Diaz, the new head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, operated his own coaching carousel this offseason.  In December, Diaz accepted the head gig at Temple.  It was a positive step in Diaz’s career progression, going from Miami’s defensive coordinator to Temple’s head coach.  However, just a few days later, Miami head coach Mark Richt retired.  Diaz jumped at the chance to return to lead the staff he had been a part of for the previous three seasons.  Diaz has an interesting back story that was captured on a recent episode of Real Sports on HBO (Diaz’s dad was the mayor of Miami from 2001-2009).  I’m torn on how I feel about Diaz and what happened this Winter.  On one hand, I couldn’t envision myself bailing on a job just eighteen days after accepting it; on the other hand, it’s hard to fault somebody for taking their dream job.

Player to Watch

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Travis Etienne may hold the record for the player I have written about the most in my The Watch List series.  My first mention came back in September of 2017 when Etienne was just a freshman on his way to a 766-13 rookie season.  It’s always interesting to see how my initial assumptions about a player hold up and in Etienne’s case my notes from two years ago mirror my notes from two months ago.  Back in 2017, I described Etienne as “the hammer to close out Clemson’s wins” and that he is “undeniably fast and explosive.”  My recent film notes said that he “was not afraid to lower his shoulder and run up the gut” and in my first 2020 mock draft I noted that he “has the speed to outrun just about any defender to the boundary.”

Before I share some plays that showcase Etienne’s speed and surprising power, I wanted to take a closer look at his stats.  In 2017, Etienne averaged an impressive 7.2 yards per carry, which led the ACC.  He bested the conference again last season but improved his number to 8.1 (good enough for third in the FBS).  With averages like that, you would expect Etienne to be a big play threat so I wanted to compare him to the other four backs who are currently in my Top 5.  I also wanted to see if his chunk plays resulted in a higher scoring rate.

  • Travis Etienne
    • Runs over 10 yards: 44
    • Runs over 20 yards: 23
    • Scores every 8.4 touches (!!)
  • Jonathan Taylor
    • Runs over 10 yards: 61 (!!)
    • Runs over 20 yards: 16
    • Scores every 21.4 touches
  • D’Andre Swift
    • Runs over 10 yards: 32
    • Runs over 20 yards: 11
    • Scores every 17.2 touches
  • Trey Sermon
    • Runs over 10 yards: 27
    • Runs over 20 yards: 9
    • Scores every 15.7 touches
  • JK Dobbins
    • Runs over 10 yards: 24
    • Runs over 20 yards: 4
    • Scores every 23.6 touches

After reviewing the stats, I think it’s safe to say that Etienne is the best home run threat in the class.  He breaks big plays more often than the other top backs and more frequently converts them into points.

It’s easy to find highlights of Etienne illustrating my points above about his breakaway ability.  I picked this highlight from Wake Forest because when you watch it on YouTube you can pause it and see just how much faster he is than the fastest defenders.  At one point near the end of the run, when Etienne is crossing the ten yard line, he has a thirteen yard cushion.  That’s crazy for a play that started with him nearly bottled up behind the line of scrimmage.  Before Etienne hits the after burners, he shows his patience and his willingness to follow his lead blocker through a hole.  Once he gets a glimmer of open field, he’s gone.  His track-inspired celebration at the goal line is a reminder that he knows just how fast he is too (he reportedly once ran a hand-timed 4.24 40 yard dash).

Whenever I watch Etienne, I am always pleasantly surprised with the power that he runs with.  He has perfect size at 5100/200 which gives him a low enough center of gravity to stay upright through contact but also to churn forward for valuable yardage.  In this goal line snap, he receives the shovel pass and immediately runs into trouble.  He gets wrapped up at the two yard line, manages to squirm free, and lunges for the end zone.

When you watch the two above highlights it can be hard to square the fact that they are in fact the same prospect.  That’s what I love about Etienne, he seems to be the best of both worlds.  It’s not all rainbows and butterflies, though because there are a few areas where Etienne can improve.  If he wants to be considered a true three-down back in the NFL, Etienne needs to show us that he can be a productive receiver in 2019.  With a career receiving line of just 17-135-2, he’s merely been a dump off option (keep in mind, one of those receiving touchdowns was the shovel pass seen above).  As a pass blocker, I believe Etienne understands his assignments but lacks the strength to hold his blocks for very long.

I expect him to take another step forward this season and show us that he is a complete running back.  When he does, Etienne will challenge for the RB1 spot.

Honorable Mentions

Cam Akers, RB, Florida State: Akers joined the ‘Noles with a ton of hype as an incoming freshman, however much of that potential has been unrealized. Whether Akers has been the victim of, or part of the cause of, Florida State’s disappointments is the question. There’s no denying that their offensive line has been bad but star players sometimes transcend. Akers has shown flashes while compiling nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage, but he was uneven in the two games I watched. He did not pop off the screen like I expected him to. My preconceived notion of Akers was that of a scat back but he may actually be better between the tackles. As such, I was surprised to see Akers succeed in short yardage situations, he was regularly able to get leverage and fall forward to convert. He’s a good receiver so I’d like to see more of him in pass protection to better judge his viability as a versatile third down back. Akers has the ceiling to be a Top 5 back in this class but right now I have a number of other players I am more confident in.

AJ Dillon, RB, Boston College: I was critical of Dillon earlier this Summer and took some heat about it on Twitter, including from AJ himself. Dillon is the best power back in the class, however, I felt he was lacking in speed and elusiveness when I first studied him. Some readers rightfully pointed out that the tape I watched (Miami 2018) was after Dillon injured his ankle and fought to finish the season. I found a highlight reel from his pre-injury explosion against Wake Forest (33-185-1) and he definitely was more dynamic and quick. Bruce Feldman recently included Dillon on his annual “Freaks List” so I’m willing to admit that I owe Dillon a more in-depth study this season. One critique still stands: he needs to get more involved as a receiver. He ran a surprising number of routes in that Miami game and did get two receptions, however, those two represent a quarter of his career receptions. Regardless of how he progresses as a receiver, Dillon’s battering ram style will surely find a role in the NFL.

Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson: Higgins is an NFL-caliber X receiver who effectively uses his 6040/200 body in a number of ways. In my notes, I called him the “Curl and Comeback King” because of his ability to box out defenders. His length allows him to outjump defenders and win 50/50 balls. Higgins typically lines up on the line of scrimmage and to the boundary, so he is comfortable along the sideline. I was also impressed by his long speed which is above average for his size. Higgins may play second fiddle to Justyn Ross this season but a 60-1,000-8 season is well within his reach and would set the stage for him to declare early.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height.  When studying a player I rely on game film “cuts” which are most frequently found on Youtube. If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels.  Keep in mind these highlight reels are the best plays of that player. When I have the option, I will choose to watch a game versus the better defense. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2020 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

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