Hot on the heels of our college football preseason All-American awards, our team of analysts got together to discuss preseason All-Conference teams ahead of the 2021 season. First up, our preseason ACC All-Conference teams give you insight into which players to watch out for this year. Several Clemson players are on show, as you’d expect from the team that has dominated the ACC’s representation in the College Football Playoff. However, the conference’s rich spread of talent predicts a potentially close campaign in the ACC this fall.
Preseason ACC All-Conference
Which talented playmakers make up our ACC All-Conference first-team?
Let’s kick off our list of ACC All-Conference teams with the first-team offense!
Quarterback: Sam Howell, North Carolina
After earning third-team All-ACC conference honors as a freshman, and second-team recognition last fall, Sam Howell finally ascends to the conference’s top. No quarterback in conference history has been as prolific as the North Carolina passer. Howell has thrown 68 touchdown passes through his sophomore season, more than departed Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.
Furthermore, the former four-star recruit led the conference in passing yards last fall. Rugged, mobile, and able to make all the throws, Howell is the conference’s top signal-caller heading into the fall. Although Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei flashed star quality in his two starts last year, he’s too unproven at this point to force his way into our preseason ACC All-Conference team.
Running Back: Zonovan Knight, NC State
A school record holder at Southern Nash, where he rushed for 2,054 yards as a senior, Knight has carried his remarkable form into his college career. The NC State running back scored on his very first collegiate carry against East Carolina, leading the team in rushing yards as a true freshman. Additionally, Knight has won the Ted Brown Award for the team’s top back in both of his seasons.
The NC State running back earns All-ACC honors as the conference’s top returning rushing touchdown scorer. Through two seasons, he has amassed 1,533 rushing yards, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. A patient, explosive, and physical running back, Knight has the potential to emerge into the national conscious running behind one of the nation’s best offensive linemen in Ikem Ekwonu.
Running Back: Jahmyr Gibbs, Georgia Tech
The second-ranked all-purpose back in the 2020 recruiting class, Gibbs exploded onto the scene as a true freshman last season. Gibbs is the very epitome of all-purpose — he contributed on the ground, as a receiver, and as a kick returner for the Yellow Jackets. The exciting freshman averaged 5.5 yards per rush and 12.6 yards per reception on his way to 763 scrimmage yards and 7 touchdowns. Moreover, the Georgia Tech dynamo added 205 kick return yards.
Although the Georgia Tech offense continues to trend away from its historical triple-option roots, there will be plenty of carries for Gibbs. As a result, it’s not unrealistic to expect a first 1,000-yard season for the young Yellow Jacket in his sophomore season.
Wide Receiver: Zay Flowers, Boston College
One of the nation’s most explosive and versatile receivers, Flowers became only the second player in Boston College history to earn first-team All-ACC conference honors last fall. The Eagles’ pass catcher led the conference in touchdowns (9), finished fourth in total yards (892) and yards per game (81.1). Meanwhile, he showed his big-play ability by averaging 15.93 yards per catch in 2020.
Flowers possesses elite speed, athleticism, and the ability to create ludicrous after the catch yardage. One of the most explosive receivers in the nation, he’ll reunite with quarterback Phil Jurkovec to provide one of the most potent duos in not just the conference but all of college football. With the departure of Hunter Long to the NFL, expect Boston College’s junior receiver to have an even more prominent role in the Eagles’ passing offense.
Wide Receiver: Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh
Few players made such an immediate impact as a freshman in 2020 than Pitt wide receiver Jordan Addison. The 6’0″ pass catcher from Frederick led all freshman receivers in catches per game last fall. Furthermore, he became the first Pitt freshman to lead the team in receiving yards since Tyler Boyd.
Addison’s 666 receiving yards led all ACC freshman receivers, while his 4 touchdowns were second among newcomers in the conference. After finishing second in the voting for ACC Rookie of the Year, his place on our ACC All-Conference first-team is a measure of the expectation and potential for the Pitt pass catcher. Don’t rule out a 1,000-yard season with Kenny Pickett back under center.
Wide Receiver: Jaquarii Roberson, Wake Forest
If Roberson racks up 100 receiving yards on September 3, he’ll become the first Wake Forest wide receiver to register five consecutive 100-yard games in program history. As impressive as that feat is, Roberson landing on our ACC All-Conference first-team is predicated on more than just being one of the most productive receivers on his own team. The pass catcher heads into his senior campaign as one of the most productive receivers in the whole nation.
Roberson equaled Dyami Brown with 8 touchdowns in 2020. The defense destroyer from the Demon Deacons had more yards per catch than Amari Rodgers last fall. With 926 receiving yards, he is the leading returning receiver to the conference. With the potential for Sam Hartman to become one of the best quarterbacks in the conference this fall, Roberson is set to be one of the most exciting receivers to watch on Saturdays.
Tight End: James Mitchell, Virginia Tech
Mitchell could have entered the 2021 NFL Draft, earning a Day 3 grade from several NFL scouts. However, he opted to return to Virginia Tech for his senior season, and in doing so, makes a spot on our preseason ACC All-Conference team. Mitchell led all conference tight ends in yards per catch last year, averaging an impressive 16.73. With Long and Brevin Jordan departed to the NFL, he is also the top returning tight end in terms of total yards.
A multi-sport high school star, Mitchell brings elements of that athleticism to the tight-end position. The Virginia Tech pass catcher has decent speed for his size, impressive agility, and can mix it up with the best of them in 50-50 contested-catch situations. Mitchell also has the ability to find the end zone, snagging 4 touchdowns last season.
Offensive Tackle: Tyler Vrabel, Boston College
Boston College has one of the best offensive lines in the nation this year, with starters returning across the board. The son of Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, offensive tackle Tyler Vrabel might be the best of them all. The 6’5″, 307-pound OT has 24 starts through his three-year college career after redshirting in 2018. He’s experienced, ridiculously strong, and equally adept as a pass protector and run blocker.
Vrabel’s ascension to ACC All-Conference first-team is even more remarkable, given he didn’t play offensive line until his junior year of high school. Expect him to receive more national acclaim as the blindside protector for Jurkovec in an exciting Eagles’ offense this season.
Guard: Ikem Ekwonu, NC State
Strong enough to represent his high school in wrestling and intelligent enough to earn college offers from Harvard and Yale. Ikem Ekwonu is a dangerous offensive lineman wrapped up in a smiling, bespectacled outer disguise. The NC State guard is the archetypal wolf in sheep’s clothing. He will lure you in and destroy you as an absolute mauler at the heart of the Wolfpack offensive line.
When you watch Ekwonu play, it confirms his reputation as the “most feared offensive lineman in the ACC.” His ability to finish a man into the ground is brutally sensational. Although he may see more time at offensive tackle this year, his play at guard is exceptional and fully justifies his inclusion in our ACC All-Conference team.
Center: Alec Lindstrom, Boston College
Another Boston College offensive lineman lands on our ACC All-Conference team, as center Alec Lindstrom occupies the first-team pivot. Violent, strong, athletic, and intelligent, Lindstrom has all the tools to dominate at the center position. The redshirt senior has started every game for the past two seasons, with his play last fall earning him a spot on the Rimington Award watchlist as one of the nation’s best centers.
A potential top-100 selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, Lindstrom will look to continue a family and program tradition of offensive line excellence. His brother Chris was a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Furthermore, the Eagles have sent over 70 players to the NFL via the draft since 1940.
Guard: Zion Johnson, Boston College
A common theme is emerging on the offensive line of our ACC All-Conference first-team. The Boston College line has to be in contention for the Joe Moore Award this year. There’s a phenomenal blend of experience and excellence, and in Zion Johnson, they have one of the top guards in the nation. Although he spent time at left tackle last season, he is expected to return to dominate from the interior this fall.
Johnson’s journey to being one of the premier interior offensive linemen in the country is unlikely and mesmerizing in equal measure. An unranked high school prospect, he landed in the FCS with Davidson. He excelled at the FCS level before transferring to BC and earning second-team All-ACC honors in his first year against FBS competition. Strong, quick, and sporting a mauler mentality, Johnson is a name to keep a close eye on this fall with the 2022 NFL Draft in mind.
Offensive Tackle: Zion Nelson, Miami (FL)
The 2019 Miami Hurricanes offensive line was an absolute dumpster fire, and freshman left tackle Zion Nelson took the brunt of the abuse for their performances. He was credited with allowing the most sacks and quarterback pressures in the country, resulting in losing his starting job for the 2020 season.
Admittedly, this isn’t the description befitting a selection to our ACC All-Conference first-team. However, that only accentuates the impressive nature of Nelson’s sophomore season turnaround. The Miami offensive tackle allowed just 2 sacks in his last six games of the year, building momentum for a junior campaign that could conclude with an early selection in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Flex: D’Eriq King, Miami (FL)
The offensive flex position would usually be reserved for a player who can impact the game in multiple ways, such as a receiver who can also carry the rock. Or conversely, a running back who is a dangerous receiving threat. However, in quarterback D’Eriq King, the Hurricanes have a multi-faceted offensive weapon under center.
In his first season in Miami, King threw for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns, with just 5 interceptions. Meanwhile, he added 538 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. The Miami quarterback even caught 2 passes for 16 yards last season, taking his career total to 520 receiving yards and 3 scores. King will be must-watch entertainment in Rhett Lashlee’s up-tempo offense this fall.