QBs, WRs fuel NC teams’ top offenses

The fate of the college football season is up in the air, but the state’s schools continue to preparing for a 2020 campaign

Wake Forest is expecting quarterback Sam Hartman to have no trouble taking over for the departed Jamie Newman, who left for Georgia as a graduate transfer. (Adrian Kraus / AP Photo)

Amid growing pessimism that the 2020 college football season is on its last legs, the ACC provided a badly needed ray of hope Monday when its athletic directors decided to continue moving forward in an effort to play.

There’s still no guarantee the season will begin on Sept. 12 as currently scheduled. Or that it will be played at all, even as athletes from across the country — led by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence — take to social media in hopes of influencing the decision-makers not to pull the plug.

With ACC still churning full speed ahead, including the addition of a nonconference game between North Carolina and Charlotte, there’s at least the possibility of some college football this fall.

Going on that assumption, here’s a ranking of the offenses state teams will be putting on the field in 2020:

1. Wake Forest: North Carolina, with dynamic quarterback Sam Howell, is getting all the preseason attention — including a No. 19 preseason ranking — but it’s the Deacons that figure to put up the biggest numbers, even with quarterback Jamie Newman having left for Georgia as a graduate transfer.

Consider that the past three seasons have been the three highest-scoring in school history, with each producing better than 400 points. Last year’s team ranked second in the conference in passing with an average of 288.3 yards per game.

While Newman will be missed, replacement Sam Hartman started in front of him as a true freshman in 2018. Last season, he filled in for an injured Newman and threw for 308 yards in a win against Florida State.

On the receiving end is arguably the best wide receiver in the ACC, redshirt junior Sage Surratt, who was well on his way to leading the league in receptions before suffering a season-ending injury. Surratt still finished with 66 catches for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Complementing the Deacons’ explosive passing attack is a ground game anchored by speedy Kenneth Walker, who rushed for 579 yards as a true freshman, including a 92-yard touchdown burst against Utah State.

2. UNC: Speaking of freshman sensations, no one made a better first impression in the state — or anywhere in college football, for that matter — than the aforementioned Howell. The ACC’s Rookie of the Year led the Tar Heels from behind in the fourth quarter to beat South Carolina in his college debut and nearly engineered an upset of Clemson on his way to throwing for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns.

As talented an arm as Howell possesses, his ability to put up even bigger numbers this season is aided by perhaps the best stable of receivers in the ACC. It’s a group led by the duo of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, both of whom produced better than 1,000 yards last season while combining for 21 touchdowns.

On the ground, Michael Carter Jr. and Javonte Williams both have the capability of going the distance every time they touch the ball, with both rushing for better than 900 yards last year.

Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas (12) throws the ball during the second half of the New Orleans Bowl NCAA college football game against UAB in New Orleans, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019. (Brett Duke / AP Photo)

3. Appalachian State: The Mountaineers will be playing for their third coach in the past three years, but Shawn Clark should still have plenty of offensive continuity with Zac Thomas returning for his third season as starting quarterback. He threw for 2,718 yards and 28 touchdowns last year in leading App State to an average of 38.8 points per game.

Like Howell, Thomas has a stable of experienced targets for his passes, led by seniors Thomas Hennigan and Corey Sutton. Although the running game has questions after the early departure of Darrynton Evans, the Mountaineers feature several talented returners ready to step in and fill the void.

4. East Carolina: Every potent offense starts with a productive trigger man, and the Pirates have one in junior Holton Ahlers. The homegrown talent is coming off a breakout season in which he passed for 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns — including a 535-yard performance against Cincinnati and a six-touchdown effort against SMU.

Holton’s top receiving target is his former high school teammate C.J. Johnson, who set school freshman records with 54 catches and 908 receiving yards last season. He’s joined in an underrated receiving corps by juniors Tyler Snead and Blake Proehl, while the running game has a chance to improve with the addition of Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden.

5. Duke: After a 2019 season in which the Blue Devils were next-to-last in the ACC in total offense and 11th in scoring defense, coach David Cutcliffe moved to improve his offense by bringing in graduate transfer quarterback Chase Brice from Clemson.

A four-star recruit, Brice has passed for 1,023 and nine touchdowns in limited action as a backup to Trevor Lawrence over the past two seasons. But it’s yet to be seen how he handles a full-time starting role.

There are also questions surrounding his supporting cast. Top running back Brittain Brown is coming off shoulder surgery that limited him to 12 carries last year, and the team’s top returning receiver, Jalon Calhoun, had just 46 catches as a true freshman.

6. NC State: The Wolfpack scored even fewer points than Duke last season, averaging just 16.1 points against ACC competition while going 1-8 in the conference. But coach Dave Doeren has brought in a new offensive coordinator in Tim Beck to try to solve the problem.

Beck has plenty of pieces with which to work, starting with the 1-2 running back punch of Zonovan Knight and Jordan Houston. There are plenty of receivers to go around as well, including tight end Cary Angeline and six incoming freshmen, but C.J. Riley has to stay healthy and Emeka Emezie has to raise his game from a disappointing 2019 season.

The biggest wild card is at quarterback. While sophomore Devin Leary has a strong arm and newfound confidence after being named the starter this spring, he has to improve on a 48.1 completion percentage after assuming the job late last season.

7. Charlotte: The 49ers are coming off the first bowl season in program history, but they have to replace the focal point of their offense, 1,000-yard rusher Benny LeMay. Among his potential successors is Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison.

Second-year coach Will Healy will also have to rebuild his offensive line, which has only two returning starters. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Reynolds is back, though, as are his top three receivers — Victor Tucker, Tyler Ringwood and Cameron Dollar.