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Quarterback Corner: ACC Devy Prospects

An in-depth break down of each starting quarterback in the ACC.

Following another exciting slate of College Football games from Week 3, it’s time for another installment of Devy QB Corner, courtesy of the Devy Nerds. Last week we visited the FBS Independents to analyze the play of Zach Wilson and a pair of less notable passers (Christian Anderson and Malik Willis) from Army and Liberty. This time around, we’ll discuss the ACC, a conference that is fully saturated with QB talent. The ACC is home to several future NFL stars and starters, including Trevor Lawrence, Sam Howell, and Ian Book. Beyond that trio, there are numerous other devy prospects worth monitoring, so here’s an in-depth breakdown of each program’s starter. 

ACC

Clemson Tigers

Starting QB: Trevor Lawrence (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Early First Round (2021)

Credit: Toronto Star

Lawrence entered the 2020 season as a near-lock to be the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. A polished pocket passer with decent mobility, the former five-star recruit checks every single box imaginable for a franchise QB. Lawrence’s performance through two games has done little to undermine that assessment. In Clemson’s season-opening victory over Wake Forest, Lawrence dissected the Demon Deacons defense with his eyes closed. Lawrence completed 22 of his 28 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown, scoring twice with his legs. Though he took some avoidable sacks, there were many more positives to take away from this game than negatives. 

On one throw, a completion to Amari Rodgers on a deep corner route, Lawrence delivered a perfect strike that bisected two Wake Forest defensive backs. It was an effortless completion from Lawrence, thrown with uncanny accuracy and zip. The game of football comes naturally to Lawrence, whose game is quite similar to Andrew Luck’s coming out of Stanford. PFF graded Lawrence’s performance as the best of any ACC quarterback, with a passing grade of 93.4. Lawrence is a generational talent; there’s no doubt about it. If you don’t believe me, ask Wake Forest. 

Lawrence and the Tigers played The Citadel in Week 3. It went just as you’d expect. Lawrence barely needed to lift a finger and still finished the day having completed 88.9% of his passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns.

The Tigers won this game 49-0 and didn’t score once in the second half. We also got to see highly touted freshman D.J Uiagalelei in this matchup, a silver lining for a blowout of this nature. 

North Carolina Tar Heels

Starting QB: Sam Howell (So.)

NFL Draft Stock: Early First Round (2022)

Credit: GoHeels.com

Howell endeared himself to the nation as a freshman in 2019, throwing 38 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. Howell’s arm strength and fearless nature were striking, and many believe him to be the top eligible passer for the 2022 NFL Draft. Howell was beyond outstanding for the Tar Heels last season, excelling on RPOs, throwing for 1,046 yards and six touchdowns on these plays. 

Though Howell started slowly in the Tar Heels season-opening win over Syracuse, his performance in the second half more than justified the hype train that has been building for him. Howell completed 73.5% of his passes for 295 yards and a touchdown.

While the Orange kept Howell and the Tar Heels offense in check for the first half, North Carolina scored 24 unanswered points to close out the game. The Orange played some stiff man coverage on Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome in this contest, rarely allowing the dynamic receiver duo to free themselves up. One of Howell’s interceptions came on a play where he threw an intermediate pass into tight coverage, and the ball was batted into the hands of a Syracuse defensive back.

Howell’s aggressiveness was admirable, though his decision-making abilities can be called into question with this throw, as it was a high risk, low reward play. The most concerning aspect of Howell’s performance was that his turnovers came on plays where he was not pressured. Yet if we take away those two plays, Howell was 23/28 for 278 yards and a touchdown when he was not under pressure. These numbers suggest that Howell is more to blame for his mistakes than Syracuse was for causing them.

Though it was far from smooth sailing for the sophomore gunslinger, his ability to rebound impressed me. Rather than roll over and let Syracuse upset his team, Howell took his game up to another level, displaying resilience in the face of scrutiny and adversity. That ability is something that teams will look for in a franchise QB.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Starting QB: Ian Book (Sr.)

NFL Draft Stock: 6th-7th Round (2021)

Credit: Sports Illustrated

Book is a game manager, but he’s a damn good game manager. The Fighting Irish run their offense through Book, a decisive and deliberate passer with excellent instincts. Book is a Case Keenum type of passer who uses his little bit of mobility to his advantage. Though Book’s stats against Duke were nothing special, his second-half performance allowed the Fighting Irish to pull away in what had been a dog fight to that point. PFF gave Book’s performance a mediocre passing grade of 50.1 for this game, but his impact was far more significant than this number indicates.

Book’s game management was once again on display in Notre Dame’s 52-0 blowout of USF in Week 3. He completed 12/19 passes for 143 yards, scoring three touchdowns with his legs. The Bulls were overpowered by Notre Dame’s ground game in this matchup, while Book barely needed to test the defense with his arm. The best you can say about this performance is that Book led the offense effectively without turning the ball over, demonstrating his athleticism with his performance on the ground. 

A great leader with experience playing in a Pro-Style offense, some team will gladly scoop Book up as their backup in favor of a more toolsy passer. He’s an NFL QB, and there’s no doubt about it. But is he a starting-caliber quarterback? Who’s to say at this point. 

Louisville Cardinals

Starting QB: Malik Cunningham (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: 5th Round (2022)

Credit: Courier Journal

Cunningham was quite impressive in 2019, demonstrating excellent mobility and accuracy, catalyzing the Cardinals offense once he assumed the starting role. Cunningham continued to build off his momentum from last season in Louisville’s season-opening victory over Western Kentucky. The dual-threat completed 19 of 34 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns, scoring a fourth touchdown with his legs. This matchup was a gimme for Cunningham and the Cardinals. Therefore only so much can be read into his performance. 

Week 3 brought a far tougher test to the table, in the form of the Miami Hurricanes. Cunningham was impressive in a losing effort, completing 72.2% of his passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Louisville played from behind for most of this game, which allowed Cunningham some freedom to show off his skill set. I like him as a prospect due to his athleticism and tremendous accuracy, and this game was a great example of those traits. 

Cunningham has shown off the dynamic running ability through two games that has allowed him to garner so much interest as a prospect. Sure, there are still some elements of his game that need to be smoothed out if he hopes to become an NFL caliber passer, but Cunningham has a bevy of natural tools to work around. PFF graded Cunningham as their third-best clean pocket passer in 2019. Moreover, his deep passing metrics paint him as one of the better longball threats in the nation. Some feel as though Cunningham lacks “NFL arm strength” and thrived last season because there wasn’t much film on him for team’s to study. There are also a decent amount of Cunningham truthers out there, many of them coming from analytical communities. If the numbers continue to work in his favor, some NFL organizations will be convinced to take him. 

Pittsburgh Panthers

Starting QB: Kenny Pickett (Sr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Credit: PittPanthers.com

According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett was the Panthers’ top graded returning player for the 2020 season. Pickett is nothing too impressive from a devy perspective. At 6’2, 220 lbs, Pickett possesses decent size for the position. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he can get the ball where it needs to be with adequate accuracy. Pittsburgh drew a cupcake matchup in their season opener against subdivision foe Austin Peay. Pickett led the Panthers to a 55-0 victory over the Governors, completing 70% of his passes for 277 yards and a touchdown. Pickett played precisely how one would expect a senior quarterback for a power conference team to play against an FCS defense. Though his performance was one of the highest-graded among starting QBs in Week 2, it did come against Austin Peay. 

Pickett’s strong performance in Pitt’s season-opening victory carried over to the team’s Week 3 battle with conference rival Syracuse. Facing an Orange defense that locked up Sam Howell and the Tar Heels, Pickett looked incredibly poised and comfortable operating in the pocket. The senior completed 69.4% of his passes for 215 yards and three total touchdowns, turning the ball over only once. He moved the ball efficiently while dropping a handful of impressively placed throws. It seems as though Pickett is beginning to take his game to the next level, so he will be an intriguing player to monitor in the next few weeks. Simultaneously, this performance came against a Syracuse team that failed to do anything of note on offense (more on that later). The Panthers didn’t have to lean on Pickett too hard, but he did get the job done. 

Though Pickett remains an undraftable player in my book, that could change very soon. The Panthers could be a feisty team in the ACC this year, so perhaps Pickett’s draft stock could benefit from the added national attention that might result from a successful run against their conference rivals. Even so, I see Pickett as a backup at best in the NFL. 

Syracuse Orange

Starting QB: Tommy DeVito (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Credit: Cuse.com

A former four-star recruit out of Don Bosco Prep, Tommy DeVito, has some good qualities as a passer. Unfortunately, none of them were on display in Syracuse’s loss to North Carolina. DeVito completed only 41.9% of his passes for 119 yards, rushing the ball 16 times for only 30 yards. Though this performance was rather mediocre, Devito was decent as Syracuse’s starter in 2019, completing 63.2% of his passes for 2,360 yards and 19 touchdowns.ย 

Devito snapped an eight-game long streak without throwing an interception in Syracuse’s Week 3 matchup with Pittsburgh, completing only 60% of his passes for 32 yards. DeVito was briefly replaced with cancer survivor Rex Culpepper, who threw for more yards on six fewer attempts, mostly coming on a 69-yard touchdown pass. If DeVito continues to struggle, he could very well squander this opportunity to Culpepper permanently. 

DeVito is a conservative passer who knows his limitations. One thing that DeVito does have working in his favor is his impressive mobility, even by modern QB standards. If he can hone in on his skills as a passer, DeVito could be a handful for ACC defenses. It’s hard to see DeVito stirring any NFL buzz, given his limitations. DeVito’s value is limited to C2C leagues, where he’s a backup at best. 

Boston College Eagles

Starting QB: Phil Jurkovec (So.)

NFL Draft Stock: 3rd Round (2022)

Credit: Boston Globe

A former blue-chip Notre Dame commit, Jurkovec elected to transfer to B.C for the 2020 season, receiving an immediate eligibility waiver from the NCAA. While we’ve only seen him throw 18 passes before this season, Jurkovec’s upside is apparent. At 6’5, 235 lbs, Jurkovec has ideal measurables for the NFL, with tremendous arm strength to boot. He also happens to be a pretty good athlete, one capable of running option plays for the Eagles historically run-heavy offense. 

These traits were fully on display in Jurkovec’s first career start against Duke in Week 3. The redshirt sophomore completed 74% of his passes for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jurkovec showed off some impressive zip on his throws, placing them perfectly into his receivers’ hands more often than not. He also broke off a 17-yard run at one point, a perfect example of his athleticism. We saw Jurkovec’s former teammate Ian Book struggled mightily against this very same defense last week, so this performance has opened my eyes to his upside. 

Though he started slowly against Duke, Jurkovec’s second-half performance was as outstanding as I’ve seen from a Boston College passer since the days of Matt Ryan.

With Jurkovec’s size, athleticism, and arm strength, he could be an extraordinary player. The Eagles may have stumbled upon a gem. 

Florida State Seminoles

Starting QB: James Blackman (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Credit: TomahawkNation.com

An excellent athlete, Blackman has struggled to put it together as the starter for the Seminoles. He nearly lost his starting role to four-star recruit Chubba Purdy this offseason, hanging onto it mostly because Purdy suffered a season-ending collarbone injury. In FSU’s close defeat to Georgia Tech, there were both good and bad moments for Blackman. The toolsy former three-star recruit completed 53.4% of his passes for 198 yards and a touchdown. Blackman’s tendency to panic under pressure continued to bog him down in this contest. When pressured, Blackman completed only 47.1% of his passes for 86 yards and an interception. Blackman was moderately better without pressure, completing 55.6% of his passes for 106 yards and a touchdown in these spots. 

Under offensive-minded HC Mike Norvell, Blackman is expected to take some significant steps forward this fall. At 6’5, 195 lbs, Blackman is exceptionally slight, even by collegiate standards. Regardless, he possesses powerful arm strength that often gets clouded by his ball placement issues. PFF had Blackman ranked as the 79th best-returning passer this season following an up and down 2019 campaign. Though FSU’s offensive line has done Blackman no favors during his tenure as the starter, he seems unequipped to handle the mental rigor of playing QB in the NFL. Barring a complete turnaround for Blackman and the Seminoles under Norvell, it’s hard to envision him becoming a worthwhile investment for devy leagues. With Purdy waiting in the wings, we may see Blackman transfer after this season too. 

Miami Hurricanes

Starting QB: Dโ€™Eriq King (Sr.)

NFL Draft Stock: 6th Round (2021)

Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Times

King was a high profile transfer for the Hurricanes, coming over from Houston with immediate eligibility for the 2020 season. King is as dynamic of a runner as you’ll find at the QB spot. King’s debut for the Hurricanes was nothing crazy. Against UAB, the dual-threat completed 65.2% of his passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Though he didn’t do much with his arm, King’s legs proved to be a massive problem for the Blazers, as he finished the day with 83 rushing yards and a touchdown. 

In Miami’s Week 3 win over No. 18 Louisville, King showed marked improvements as a passer. The Cardinals’ defense successfully took away King’s running, but he responded with a benchmark game as a passer. King completed 60% of his passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns, exploiting Lousiville’s overcommitment to stifling the run game. It was a welcome sign to see King rely on his arm in this game, and his impressive performance gives him a draft stock boost in my book. 

I’d like to see King continue to improve as a passer this season before christening him an NFL QB. However, his athletic ability helps his overall chances of making it to the NFL. We’ve seen similar players (Greg Ward Jr., Denard Robinson) transition successfully from college quarterback to NFL skill player. While King has the tools to play receiver or running back, there’s still time for him to make the necessary improvements to become a draftable quarterback. Whether those improvements will be made is unknown. King is entertaining to watch and easy to root for, but there are too many glaring weaknesses in his game to definitively call him a future NFL starting QB. 

Virginia Tech Hokies

Starting QB: Hendon Hooker (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: 5th Round (2022)

Credit: ACCSports.com

Hooker played well once he took over as the Hokies starter in 2019, transforming the offense’s direction with his efficient play. Hooker has ideal size at 6’4, 220 lbs, with tantalizing arm strength and mobility to boot. The former four-star recruit shined as the starter in his first season, accounting for 18 touchdowns while throwing only two picks. Hooker demonstrated excellent decision-making abilities while also demonstrating the ability to test a defense when the opportunity presented itself. We’ve seen players like Jamie Newman and Jordan Love rise up draft boards with very similar measurables and statistics. Though I wouldn’t call him a potential franchise quarterback yet, it would not surprise me at all if Hooker developed into that type of player. Virginia Tech has yet to play this season. 

North Carolina State Wolfpack

Starting QB: Bailey Hockman (Sr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted 

Credit: NewsObserver.com

Hockman surprisingly started N.C State’s season opener against Wake Forest, though we had been anticipating to see Devin Leary in this role. A three-star JUCO recruit, not much was known about Hockman before this game. At 6’2, 210 lbs, Hockman has average size and displayed decent arm strength in the Wolfpack’s victory. He completed 69.5% of his passes for 191 yards, scoring twice. To put it succinctly, Hockman’s performance was solid but unspectacular. Hockman was competent, but he lacks the “it” factor we like to see in a QB prospect. 

Virginia Cavaliers

Starting QB: Brennan Armstrong (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Credit: CavalierDaily.com

Armstrong is taking over for last year’s starter Bryce Perkins, who graduated and now finds himself on the Rams practice squad. A former three-star recruit, Armstrong, is listed at 6’2, 215 lbs. Armstrong only attempted 25 passes before this season, completing 68% of those passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s hard to be very excited about him, especially with his team not scheduled to play for at least one more week. Armstrong and Bailey Hockman are easily the least intriguing prospects in this conference, as of right now. 

Duke Blue Devils

Starting QB: Chase Brice (Sr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Credit: DukeChronicle.com

A graduate transfer from Clemson, Brice played alright in his first start for the Blue Devils. Brice completed only 54% of his passes for 259 yards. Though that may sound underwhelming, Brice didn’t turn the ball over and did the best he could with the cards he was dealt. The Blue Devils kept the game close until the fourth quarter when Notre Dame began to run away with the game. 

Considering how inferior Duke’s team was on paper compared to Notre Dame, it would have been ludicrous to expect anything more out of Brice in his first career start. In Duke’s Week 3 clash with Boston College, Brice had some good moments, particularly on RPOs. Like Sam Howell at UNC, Brice’s athleticism and ability to make quick reads makes him an ideal fit for these concepts. Though unlike Howell, Brice lacks top-end arm strength and often sails passes that he will have to connect on if he has any hope of reaching the NFL. Unfortunately for Brice, his performance was undercut because he failed to lead Duke’s offense to points for over three quarters, while also throwing a pair of ugly interceptions. According to PFF, Brice leads all ACC passers in positively graded plays, though this is a rather subjective statistic. Brice is a game manager at his core, lacking the natural ability to elevate his teammates.

I don’t see Brice as a draftable passer right now. That could change if he can overcome his teammates’ limitations this season, though I won’t get my hopes up. Brice is a talented player who could suffer from his circumstances. 

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Starting QB: Jeff Sims (Fr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Photo Credit: 247 Sports

Sims was the 10th ranked dual-threat recruit at his position in the class of 2020. He pushed incumbent starter James Graham out of his role upon joining the Yellow Jackets. Though Graham was one of the worst passers in college football last season, it’s still remarkable to see a true freshman supplant an established starter immediately. Moreover, it’s a shock to the system to see a Georgia Tech QB who actually throws the ball. 

Sims’ debut against Florida State was about as good as it gets for a true freshman QB. He finished the day with 277 passing yards, 64 rushing yards, and a passing touchdown. Though he threw a couple of picks, Sims did complete an impressive 68% of his passes, helping the Yellow Jackets overcome a two-score deficit heading into the second half. 

Sims’ second start against UCF was far rockier. Though there were a handful of moments where he looked truly dynamic — particularly with his legs –Sims completed only 50% of his passes and turned the ball over numerous times. He finished the day with 82 rushing yards and 244 passing yards, scoring twice. Central Florida took full advantage of Sims’ inexperience, scoring most of their points off of turnovers. There are lessons to be learned for the young passer with this game. He needs to cut down on the turnovers, but he needs to stay true to himself as a playmaker at the same time. 

Sims has a lot of college ball in front of him before knowing whether he has what it takes to be an NFL QB. However, from what we’ve seen thus far, the future could be very bright.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Starting QB: Sam Hartman (Jr.)

NFL Draft Stock: Undrafted

Credit: GoDeacs.com

With Jamie Newman out of the picture, Hartman has reclaimed the starting gig for the Demon Deacons. Unfortunately, his return was against the defending ACC champions, the Clemson Tigers. To put it lightly, Hartman got the crap kicked out of him by Clemson’s defense. Both Michael Kern and Mitch Griffis checked into the game in relief of Hartman. It’s hard to tell where Hartman’s flaws end and Wake Forest’s begin. Hartman is in the inevitable position of playing QB for a below-average team in a tough conference. Without Sage Surratt to throw to, Hartman’s chances of developing into a viable devy prospect are slim. Of the three passers we saw against Clemson, Kern was the most impressive, so perhaps he will have taken over this role by the next time we revisit this conference. 

The Demon Deacons offense looked far better in Week 3 against NC State, with Hartman leading the charge. Though found themselves on the wrong side of a 45-42 shootout, Wake Forest’s offense was buoyed by a strong rushing performance by Kenneth Walker III. While Walker and his 131 rushing yards did the heavy lifting, Hartman looked strong as well, completing 63.8% of his passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t look like a star by any means, but competence is not a bad trait compared to what we saw from Hartman in his first outing of the year. He’s still way out of range to be an NFL passer, but this step is in the right direction. 

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