With the 2022 college football season just weeks away, the ACC has some of college football’s biggest stars. This includes Tyler Van Dyke, Will Shipley, and Sam Hartman, but what about the players not getting talked about as much? Harrison Vapnek and Marissa Myers break down eight of the conference’s key players who are flying under-the-radar ahead of the 2022 season.
Xavier Restrepo (Wide Receiver, Miami)
When Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke took over as the full-time starter in late September, sophomore wide receiver Xavier “X” Restrepo quickly became one of his favorite targets. Restrepo finished 2021 with 26 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns, primarily playing in the slot. Last year’s starting slot receiver, Charleston Rambo, caught 79 passes for 1,172 yards and seven touchdowns. It is assumed that Restrepo will be tasked to fill a decent sum of that production. At a press conference last week, Restrepo said it was going to be a really fun year from the offense and gave credit to new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis for teaching him more about playing football than he had ever been taught. With a new look coaching staff ready to help guys like Restrepo take the next step, he could be one of many Hurricanes primed for a big season ahead.
Jacolby Criswell (Quarterback, North Carolina)
It’s hard to put a quarterback in the category of “under-the-radar players”, but there certainly has not been enough buzz around the North Carolina quarterback competition. The battle between redshirt sophomore Jacolby Criswell and sophomore Drake Maye is an intriguing one (especially in a division that’s fairly wide open), and one that I think Criswell should win. In very limited playing time last season, Criswell completed 13-of-21 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown, while also having a rushing score. His dual-threat ability (10th rated dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 class) serves as a difference maker for the North Carolina offense that is replacing three-year starter, Sam Howell. Criswell impressed in North Carolina’s spring game with his accuracy throwing outside, something Sam Howell was inconsistent with at times last year. If Criswell wins the starting job and plays well, he could be a future All-ACC quarterback in Chapel Hill.
Calijah Kancey (Defensive Tackle, Pittsburgh)
Despite being an All-ACC First-Team member and a Third-Team Associated Press All-American, Calijah Kancey is one of the least talked about elite players in college football. Kancey led the Panthers last season with a whopping 13 tackles for a loss, along with seven sacks which were the second most on the team. Kancey is on the preseason watch lists for Lombardi (best lineman), Walter Camp (best player), Outland (best interior lineman), and Nagurski and Bednarik (best defensive player), so expectations are set high for him, without a ton of buzz. With Pittsburgh’s offense expected to take a step back with the losses of Jordan Addison and Kenny Pickett, the defense, which was inconsistent at times last season, will need more stability, and Kancey allows the Panthers to do so.
Anthony Johnson (Defensive Back, Virginia)
It is no secret that Virginia last season had one of the worst defenses in all of college football. The Cavaliers will have to improve on that, and it starts in the secondary. The Cavaliers ranked 87th in passing defense and gave up nearly eight yards per attempt. Anthony Johnson was one of the lone bright spots in the back end of Virginia’s defense and he could have one more leap in him. Johnson last season was fifth on the team in tackles with 44, alongside five pass breakups, and tied for a team-high in interceptions. Johnson is entering his fifth year facing ACC competition (three years at Louisville and now two at UVA), so he is well experienced against this set of ACC quarterbacks. If Virginia can improve in stopping the pass, it starts with Johnson.
Jordan Houston (Running Back, N.C. State)
The top two running backs for the N.C. State Wolfpack last season were Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person. Both Knight and Person are off to the NFL so the team needs someone to step up at the running back position. That player set to step up is Jordan Houston. Last season, Houston had 20 rushing attempts that went for 83 yards and a touchdown, and in 2019 before the emergence of Knight and Person, he had 101 rushing attempts for 526 yards and two touchdowns. He does a great job of showing his vision to either see the right gaps he needs to run through or quickly cut and bounce outside. He also has the receiving ability that hasn’t been fully utilized by the Wolfpack yet and he has been excellent in pass protection. With Houston as the starting running back the run game will be just as productive as last year.
Jared Verse (Defensive End, Florida State)
Last season it was Jermaine Johnson who transferred to Florida State and made his name known on defense, this season it will be Albany transfer Jared Verse. Last season at Albany he had 52 tackles with 11.5 going for a loss, 9.5 sacks, and 13 quarterback hurries. At 6’4, 248 lbs he not only wins reps with his power but his first step off the line. With his high-end athleticism and now playing at a Power Five level, Verse will be a player that makes his name known across the nation. This is exactly what the Seminoles need on the defensive line to try and replicate the success they had last season.
Antonio Williams (Wide Receiver, Clemson)
The wide receiver room for Clemson last season wasn’t exactly one to write home about. In terms of passing yards, they only had 2,485 which ranked 103rd in the nation. The leading receiver for the team was Justyn Ross who had 514 yards and tied for the most receiving touchdowns which were three. Ross is now in the NFL but they do return Joseph Ngata and Beaux Collins. Even with that though Clemson needs the receiving room to not drop 27 passes and help either D.J. Uiagalelei or Cade Klubnik. If this group struggles again, look for Antonio Williams to make an impact as a true freshman. In high school, Williams had 2,458 yards and 23 touchdowns over 137 receptions. At 6’8, 180 lbs he has the quick-twitch ability to navigate through defenders and create yards after the catch. Williams is a playmaker and should elevate the receiving room when he is on the field.
Bryce Steele (Linebacker, Boston College)
A former four-star heading into his sophomore season, Bryce Steele will be looking to help out Boston College’s linebacking group that struggled last season. The speed and physicality that Steele plays with are exactly what the Eagles need on defense. In the limited playing time he saw in 2021, in seven games he accumulated 27 total tackles and two quarterback hits. With his experience at not only linebacker but safety as well it shows up on film with how quickly he is able to react and diagnose plays. All of this factored in will allow Steele to be a three-down player for the Eagles in 2022 and see a significant increase in playing time.