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Offseason rankings: Breaking down the top returning QBs in the ACC

ACC spotlight: Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) is sacked by LSU Tigers defensive end Tashawn Bower (46) in the 2nd quarter of the 2016 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl between the LSU Tigers and Louisville Cardinals on December 31, 2016, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
(Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

The ACC enjoyed an amazing postseason run — winning 10 of 13 games, including Clemson’s national championship — that was typified by some of the nation’s best quarterbacks.

The ACC went 1-2 in the Heisman Trophy race — Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson — while featuring a good mix of veterans and newcomers.

There’s a good cast returning in the ACC, but it could have been great. Four underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft.

Watson, not surprisingly, will leave the Tigers after accomplishing everything (except winning the Heisman). North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky already has been mentioned as the first quarterback to be drafted. Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans also bolted. In a mild surprise, Miami’s Brad Kaaya bypassed his senior season, leaving Coach Mark Richt scrambling for Plan B.

Overall, though, 2017 should be a good crop of ACC quarterbacks. Any time the Heisman Trophy winner returns to the league, things are off to a good start.

Here are my picks for the ACC’s top five QBs next season:

1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Who else?

He raised the bar — and suspended disbelief — during a stunning September. He nearly turned the Heisman Trophy race into a mockery.

With some subpar games in November, there was a late-season stumble. But on balance, no one had a better season than Jackson.

He passed for 3,543 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

He had eight 100-yard rushing games and rushed for 21 more scores. Overall, he rushed for 1,571 yards — the fourth-best rushing season ever for a Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback.

“Lamar’s numbers speak for themselves,’’ Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said.

Loudly.

2. Deondre Francois, Florida State

As a redshirt freshman, Francois helped the Seminoles to the program’s biggest comeback victory, rallying from a 28-6 deficit against Ole Miss. He was the quarterback during a 33-32 Orange Bowl win against Michigan.

He had nice statistics, passing for 3,350 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
But his greatest quality couldn’t be quantified.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher praised Francois’ toughness, which also endeared him to veteran teammates.

There were rough moments, such as a 63-20 loss at Louisville, a final-play home defeat against North Carolina and a bitter back-and-forth loss against Clemson.

Overall, though, after a 10-3 season, Francois served notice that the Seminoles have the necessary leadership at quarterback to help FSU reach the highest levels in 2017.

3. Eric Dungey, Syracuse

Even though Dungey has missed seven games with injury in two seasons, his talented presence cannot be denied. When healthy, when surrounded by effective weapons, Dungey has the makings of a big-time star under coach Dino Babers.

Last season, his timing was unfortunate. At the high point of his season, he was knocked out of a 54-0 loss against Clemson and won’t surface again until spring drills.

Just before his injury, in the head and shoulder area, Dungey had orchestrated a spectacular 31-17 upset victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies. He completed 28 of 53 passes for 311 yards, while also rushing for 106 yards.

He followed that up with a stunning 434-yard passing performance against Boston College.

And then … season over.

Dungy’s powerful arm, quick feet and sharp instincts give the Orange a real weapon at quarterback. Overall last season, Dungey completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,679 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

At the time of his injury, Dungey was 16th nationally in passing yards per game (297.7).

October 15, 2016: NC State's Ryan Finley (15) during 2nd half action between the Clemson Tigers and the NC State Wolfpack in an ACC battle at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. (photo by Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire).

October 15, 2016: NC State’s Ryan Finley (15) during 2nd half action between the Clemson Tigers and the NC State Wolfpack in an ACC battle at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. (photo by Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire).

4. Ryan Finley, N.C. State

Finley, a graduate transfer from Boise State, has one season of eligibility remaining. And he’s hoping to build on a strong finish to the 2016 season.

He had a flurry of mistakes at mid-season — six interceptions in three games — to start a 1-5 skid that nearly cost the Wolfpack a shot at a bowl game.

But N.C. State prevailed against North Carolina 28-21 in the regular-season finale. Finley had one of his best performances during a 41-17 victory against Vanderbilt at the Independence Bowl, completing 19 of 30 passes for 235 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Overall, Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 3,055 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

October 15, 2016: NC State's Ryan Finley (15) during 2nd half action between the Clemson Tigers and the NC State Wolfpack in an ACC battle at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. (photo by Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire).

October 15, 2016: NC State’s Ryan Finley (15) during 2nd half action between the Clemson Tigers and the NC State Wolfpack in an ACC battle at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, SC. (photo by Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire).

5. Kurt Benkert, Virginia

Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, had his moments. Just not enough of them.

He set a program record with 421 passing yards in a victory against Central Michigan. He followed that up with 336 passing yards in a win against Duke.

But those were the only two victories for the Cavaliers (2-10), who finished the season with a seven-game losing streak.

Benkert, who was sacked 31 times and appeared awfully restless under pressure, was benched in the late season in favor of former starter Matt Johns.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said nothing is guaranteed. He’s preaching an open competition during spring drills.

Benkert’s live arm will still be a compelling factor. Overall, he passed for 2,552 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

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