Who are X-factors for every ACC team? Maalik Murphy, Damien Martinez, Malik Benson head the list (2024)

Who are X-factors for every ACC team? Maalik Murphy, Damien Martinez, Malik Benson head the list (1)

By Ari Wasserman and Manny Navarro

Jul 2, 2024

The majority of fans are familiar with the most important players in the ACC. It might be a big-time addition in the transfer portal, a star quarterback or a potential first-round NFL Draft selection.

We wanted to dig a little deeper, so we have selected an X-factor at every program — an under-the-radar player who will go a long way in determining his team’s success in 2024.

We are publishing a story for each power conference to complement an episode of “Until Saturday.” Here are our X-factors from the Big Ten.

Now it’s time for the ACC.

Boston College: New coach Bill O’Brien has quarterback Thomas Castellanos back and some new offensive weapons. But where the Eagles need to improve is on defense. It all starts with creating more pressure with defensive end Donovan Ezeiruaku, who had only two of his 13.5 career sacks last season. BC had 13 sacks as a team in 2023 to rank 130th nationally. — Navarro

California: The Bears have two capable quarterbacks in Fernando Mendoza and North Texas transfer Chandler Rogers alongside star running back Jaydn Ott. My X-factor is Notre Dame transfer Tobias Merriweather, a receiver who could make Cal hard to stop when teamed with fellow wideout Trond Grizzell. — Wasserman

go time 5️⃣ pic.twitter.com/SsPKqQsohZ

— Tobias Merriweather 🧘🏾 (@TM5IVE) December 21, 2023

Clemson: Getting more consistent decision-making from quarterback Cade Klubnik and better execution in the red zone is going to determine if the Tigers can bounce back and become an elite program again. But don’t underestimate how young and inexperienced Clemson is on defense. End T.J. Parker needs to emerge as a consistent force for this team to be good on that side of the ball. The Tigers return six combined starts on their defensive line, and Parker owns three of them. — Navarro

Duke: It’s unavoidable not to go with the obvious selection here — it’s quarterback Maalik Murphy. The Texas transfer is a 6-foot-5, 240-pound freak of nature with untapped potential. After serving as a backup for two seasons with the Longhorns, Murphy has the opportunity to run his own team. It should be fun to watch. — Wasserman

Florida State: FSU’s offense hit another gear last year with wide receivers Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson. The cupboard is a bit bare for quarterback DJ Uiagalelei in terms of returning production at the position. Malik Benson, an Alabama transfer, is viewed as the top option. He needs to play at an elite level for the Seminoles to once again be special on offense. — Navarro

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Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech returns basically its entire offense, one that made huge strides in the 2023 season. Haynes King is back at quarterback along with 1,000-yard rusher Jamal Haynes and the team’s two leading receivers. The X-factor is wideout Christian Leary, a former Alabama transfer with huge upside who has yet to reach his potential. This offense could take another step forward if Leary emerges as a consistent threat. — Wasserman

Louisville: After leading his team to an ACC Championship Game appearance in his first season, Jeff Brohm went back to the portal and addressed a lot of needs to make the Cardinals the most experienced team in the league. The one area still lacking is running back after Peny Boone, a 1,400-rusher at Toledo in 2023, left for UCF following the spring. Don Chaney, a Miami transfer with a long injury history and two career starts, and Maurice Turner, a junior, are tasked with replacing a talented combo of backs who were selected in the 2024 NFL Draft. — Navarro

Miami: All of the talk with Miami is about quarterback Cam Ward, but the pickup of the offseason was Oregon State running back transfer Damien Martinez. He’s the X-factor. If Miami can sustain success on the ground — with Martinez and what should be an outstanding offensive line — Ward should flourish in his final season of college football. — Wasserman

North Carolina:Mack Brown’s high-scoring offenses have been led by NFL Draft picks Drake Maye and Sam Howell. Returning 1,500-yard rusher Omarion Hampton is expected to be the focal point this year. But he’ll have four new starting offensive linemen blocking for him and Texas A&M quarterback transfer Max Johnson this fall. UNC gave up 2.85 sacks per game last year, 111th nationally. Center Austin Blaske, a 6-5, 320-pound graduate transfer from Georgia with 158 snaps in four years, will be among those tasked with making sure the Tar Heels improve on that. — Navarro

NC State: Like with Miami, the big-time quarterback transfer, Grayson McCall from Coastal Carolina, is all the buzz for NC State. But the key guy in the Wolfpack’s offense will be wideout Kevin “KC” Concepcion, the 2023 ACC Rookie of the Year. Expect him to have a monster sophom*ore season. — Wasserman

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Pittsburgh: New offensive coordinator Kade Bell has a lot of work to do to flip the Panthers’ fortunes following a 3-9 season that included plenty of offensive lowlights. But you can’t just ignore what Pat Narduzzi lost on his defensive front either. Nate Temple suffered a season-ending injury in the spring, and Dayon Hayes left for Colorado after the spring game. Nate Matlack, a Kansas State transfer with seven career starts, is the most experienced defensive lineman on the team. Pitt needs him to play a big role. — Navarro

COMMITTED

H2P pic.twitter.com/PrdP0SRwBh

— Nate Matlack (@nmatlack1) December 17, 2023

SMU: The Mustangs have a host of talented running back options —Jaylan Knighton, Brashard Smith, Camar Wheaton and LJ Johnson Jr. — who were all highly touted high school recruits. It would be ideal to see one emerge as a dominant lead back. Preston Stone is back and healthy at quarterback, and the Mustangs have a ton of weapons in the backfield. — Wasserman

Stanford: Troy Taylor has a lot to fix after his defense allowed 37.7 points per game last season (132nd nationally) and his offense produced only 20.6 per game (112th). Most of the Cardinal’s issues start up front. One player Stanford could ill afford to lose, though, is wide receiver Elic Ayomanor, who led the team with 62 catches for 1,013 yards and six touchdowns. He lifted the Cardinal to a thrilling come-from-behind win at Colorado last year (13 catches, 294 yards, three touchdowns) and gives them a true No. 1 wideout. — Navarro

Syracuse: The Orange are moving from a 3-3-5 to a 4-2-5 defense and would love to get more pressure on the quarterback, so the X-factor has to be Texas A&M transfer Fadil Diggs. He appeared in 33 games (with 20 starts) for the Aggies and recorded 75 career tackles, including 18.5 for loss and eight sacks. — Wasserman

Virginia: Tony Elliot has gone 6-16 in his two seasons in Charlottesville, but things started to look at least a little bit better on offense in Year 2. It was Virginia’s defense that got significantly worse, finishing last in the ACC in points allowed (33.8) and tying for last nationally in sacks with 11 total. Edge rusher Kam Butler led the team with 3.5 sacks despite playing in only four games due to injury. He’s back for his sixth year and will need to be disruptive. — Navarro

Virginia Tech: The Hokies have perhaps the best cornerback tandem in the ACC between Dorian Strong and Mansoor Delane. And they hope to help out their defensive backs by getting better play from the defensive line. In steps D-tackle Aeneas Peebles, a transfer from Duke who had 8.5 tackles for loss and earned third-team All-ACC honors in 2023. — Wasserman

Wake Forest: Life without Sam Hartman did not go well for the Demon Deacons. They went from leading the ACC in scoring in 2022 (36.1 points per game) to 13th (20.3) after Hartman left for Notre Dame. Hank Bachmeier is the fourth-most experienced starting quarterback in the ACC (37 starts between Louisiana Tech and Boise State) and has to deliver for Dave Clawson’s team to bounce back following a subpar 2023 season. — Navarro

(Photos of Maalik Murphy, Damien Martinez: Scott Wachter, Soobum Im / USA Today)

Who are X-factors for every ACC team? Maalik Murphy, Damien Martinez, Malik Benson head the list (2024)

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