Matt Porter’s 2017 preseason All-ACC football ballot, predicted order of finish

Hurricanes fans won't be happy to see Derwin James again. (Getty Images)

Hurricanes fans won’t be happy to see Derwin James again. (Getty Images)

It’s time. Well, almost time.

The football season is just weeks away, and that means conference media days. In Charlotte this week, we’ll submit our All-ACC ballot to the league’s office. Some of these choices were easy. Some were not. But all are correct.

Until the season proves them otherwise.

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THE PALM BEACH POST’S 2017 PRESEASON ALL-ACC FOOTBALL BALLOT

Quarterback
Lamar Jackson, Louisville, Soph.

Unless there’s a compelling reason to not take the defending Heisman winner, take the defending Heisman winner. Deshaun Watson’s gone, Deondre Francois has been inconsistent and the Coastal is rebuilding at quarterback. This should be unanimous. Jackson is special, and I would not expect him to fall off, unless his offensive line hasn’t improved since last year and personnel losses around him put too much pressure on his shoulders. And even then, he’s still going to do the video-game things he does.

Running backs
Mark Walton, Miami, Jr.
Dedrick Mills, Georgia Tech, Soph.

Hardly a stretch to pick Walton, the returning leader among ACC running backs in yards (1,117) and touchdowns (14). I’m less sure about Mills, who had a strong freshman year and happens to be the only Yellow Jacket on my ballot (balance is a slight, I repeat, slight consideration. Returning and expected production are the primary factors. Also, I hate your team. Need to account for that). Credit where it’s due: If yet-unproven Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick rip it up for Florida State against Alabama in Week 1, plenty will jump on that train. I’ll probably be one of them, because both, especially Akers, could be among the league’s best.

Wide receivers
Ahmmon Richards, Miami, Soph.
Deon Cain, Clemson, Jr.
Jester Weah, Pittsburgh, Sr.

No returning ACC player, regardless of class, had more receiving yards (934) than Richards last year. Cain has the talent (19.0 yards per catch) to shine no matter who the Tigers roll out at quarterback. Weah was a tough call for the final spot, but his ACC-best 24.2 yards per reception average pushed me to pick him. Maybe these three, Virginia Tech’s Cam Phillips and national title game hero Hunter Renfrow can rack up highlights like Mike Williams, Isaiah Ford, Stacy Coley, Amba Etta-Tawo and so many others did in 2016.

Tight end
Chris Herndon, Miami, Sr. 

Lot of Miami on here so far, and before you accuse me of a homer pick, trust me: no one has a better skillset than Herndon. He’s 6-4, 253 and fast, plus he has no issue playing in tight, split out and would be an outstanding fullback if put there full-time. Does everything. Speaking of, North Carolina State’s Jaylen Samuel is a player in a similar mold, but he’s five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter, and I think Herndon could beat him in a footrace. I’m sure I’ll hear something from the Triangle for not including one of their favorite sons, but there’s an all-purpose spot.

All-purpose
Jaylen Samuels, North Carolina State, Jr. 

Samuel wasn’t a factor when I watched Miami play N.C. State, with four catches for 28 yards, but he does a lot for  the Wolfpack. At 5-11 and 223 pounds, he’s tough to bring down.

Offensive tackles
Mitch Hyatt, Clemson, Jr.
Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh, Sr.
Offensive guards
Parker Braun, Georgia Tech, Soph.
Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech, Sr.
Center
Jon Baker, Boston College, Sr.

Hyatt, a three-year starter, is arguably the best left tackle in the conference and one of the reasons Watson had so much time to operate. Pitt’s O-line should be very good, and O’Neill is a big reason why. You may know him for the touchdowns, but he’s a killer blocker. Braun earned a host of freshman All-American awards last year. Teller has been a key piece for the rebuilding Hokies offense. Baker is the league’s best middleman.

Defensive ends
Bradley Chubb, North Carolina State, Sr.
Harold Landry, Boston College, Sr.
Defensive tackles
Dexter Lawrence, Clemson, Soph.
Derrick Nnadi, Florida State

The best position group in the league. By far the hardest calls to make. If the ACC asked us to vote for four defensive linemen instead of two ends and two tackles, I’d think it would be a little easier. But not much.

Clemson’s defensive line is ridiculous. I have no idea how Lawrence moves that well for a guy 6.5, 430, but it explains his production (78 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 23 quarterback pressures). He makes huge, powerful trenchmate Christian Wilkins look lesser, which is hard to do. End Clelin Ferrill, who had a monster close to the season (six tackles for loss, two sacks in the ACC championship, Fiesta Bowl and national title game), showed flashes of future greatness.

Went with Landry, who led the nation in sacks (a school record 16.5) and forced fumbles (seven), Chubb (sixth in the country in tackles for loss, 21.5) and FSU’s excellent Nnadi.  That means I left off a host of totally worthy Miami linemen — starting ends Chad Thomas and Joe Jackson, and tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh — and FSU end Josh Sweat. Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor (10.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss) is a fearsome end and one of Bruce Feldman’s Freaks. Every one of them deserves to be on the list, and may very well could be by the end of the year. The D-lines in the ACC are the best in the country, bar none.

Linebackers
Shaq Quarterman, Miami, Soph.
Micah Kiser, Virginia, Sr.
Zaire Franklin, Syracuse, Sr.

Frankly, I’m not convinced Quarterman is the best linebacker on his own team, but he had the most tackles for loss (10.0) of any ACC freshman since Luke Kuechly in 2009. Kiser (134 tackles, third nationally; team-high 6.5 sacks) is a bright spot for Virginia, which is coming along slowly. If he didn’t surprise them by returning for his senior year, they’d be in bigger trouble. Franklin (27 career tackles for loss) has been a steady standout for Cuse. Virginia Tech’s rangy Tremaine Edmunds and Clemson’s Kendall Joseph (13.5 tackles for loss) missed the cut.

Safeties
Derwin James, Florida State, Jr.
Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh, Jr.
Cornerbacks

Jaire Alexander, Louisville, Jr.
Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State, Jr.

James is a flat-out star, one of the best players in the country and a force on all three levels of the defense. Here’s hoping he’s fully healthy after last year’s knee troubles, because he’s fun to watch. Same goes for Whitehead, limited to nine games last year by an arm injury. Teams will go out of their way to avoid Alexander and McFadden, who led the country in picks (eight) and was of five finalists for the Nagurski Award (top defensive player). Safety Quin Blanding, former five-star recruit who chose Virginia, is living up to the billing but was a snub here.

Kicker
Michael Badgley, Miami, Sr.

Tops among ACC returners in made field goals (21-of-26), is third among returners in percentage and has made some nails pressure kicks. His long is 57 yards, tying a UM record. He wholeheartedly believes he can hit from the opposite end zone.

Punter
A.J. Cole, North Carolina State, Jr.

Bailed out the Pack on more than a few occasions. Gets the nod over Louisville sophomore Mason King, the ACC’s top returner in punting average, and another good sophomore, Syracuse’s Sterling Hofrichter.

Return specialist
Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh, Jr.

Easy call here. Henderson was a consensus first-team All-American, All-ACC kick returner and All-ACC honorable mention at wideout, He led FBS in kick return yards and housed three runbacks. I watched him dice Miami’s pretty-good special teams for a 100-yarder, but I wouldn’t need an in-person observation to tell you he’s one of the best in the country.

Preseason player of the year: Lamar Jackson

Have a feeling James will be the first ACC player drafted, and have the biggest impact, but let’s see if he’s healthy first. (I may regret this by halftime of the Alabama game.)

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Florida State 

Will a potential 1-vs.-2 matchup against Alabama set the tone for a magical season — or leave the Seminoles looking a little vulnerable heading into Week 3 against Miami?

2. Clemson

Can’t lose a talent like Deshaun Watson and not take a step back, especially when FSU’s looking ready. Gets FSU at home, and in mid-November.

3. Louisville

Most likely the third-best team in the ACC, and unfortunately for the Cards, the third-best in the Atlantic. Jackson is a must-see, but the pressure rises while the talent around him dips (see Winston, Jameis; 2014).

4. North Carolina State

Speaking of unfortunate alignments: The Wolfpack would challenge for the Coastal crown. They won’t sniff one in this year’s Atlantic.

5. Boston College

Another good defense, another season ignored by most everyone in Boston.

6. Wake Forest

A few sneaky-good pieces on defense and tight end Cam Serigne means Deacs won’t be a pushover. A bowl game is a possibility.

7. Syracuse

Dino Babers’ offense is exciting and his quarterback, if healthy, is good. Cuse doesn’t have enough else to compete.

COASTAL DIVISION

1. Miami

Will this be the year? Even though no one knows who the quarterback will be, the Hurricanes should have enough on defense to navigate a friendly schedule. If Mark Richt can solve the QB riddle by Week 3 at Tallahassee, Miami could push the Noles. If not, they could meet in the ACC title game, which [sing it with me] hasn’t happened since Miami joined the conference in 2004.

2. Pittsburgh

Betting on QB transfer Max Browne to sync with Pitt’s good group of wideouts, and for Pat Narduzzi’s defense to start working. Whitehead’s health will go a long way.

3. Georgia Tech 

If new quarterback Matthew Jordan is healthy — and he expects to be — the Jackets’ offense could look good, with capable linemen and backs.

4. Virginia Tech 

As usual, defensive playmakers on all three levels. Hokies were hit hard by the draft and graduation, though offensively minded Justin Fuente still has the benefit of the doubt.

5. Duke 

Daniel Jones has a chance to turn his title of “Coastal’s best returning quarterback by default” to just “best quarterback.” Not unlike Syracuse in the Atlantic, Duke doesn’t have a ton around him.

6. North Carolina 

Could be a tough year, with immense personnel losses. The Larry Fedora Escape Watch is on.

7. Virginia 

Not there yet, but the Hoos could double their win total — 2 to 4 — in Bronco Mendenhall’s second year.

ACC championship

Florida State over Miami

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