The ACC rookie of the year race: Stefon Diggs and ... who, exactly?

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The ACC conducts weekly awards voting, with schools nominating players to a geographically diverse panel of media members who cover the conference.

For several years, I’ve participated in this voting as Maryland’s representative. And while it takes some time, it also provides the benefit of having a list at the ready of the top performances in the conference from throughout the season.

Which brings things to the point of this post. Who, if anyone, is Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs‘ realistic competition for the ACC’s rookie of the year award with a month left in the regular season.

Diggs has 38 catches for 666 yards and four touchdowns, plus a kickoff return for a score. He’s surpassed 1,300 all-purpose yards. He needs only 29 yards to become Maryland’s top all-time freshman receiver.

In short, he has lived up to the hype. Only six five-star receivers since 2002 have managed more yardage as true freshmen as Diggs has, and it’s a stupendous list: Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Brown, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Michael Floyd and Arrelious Benn.

So it’s no surprise he’s the ACC rookie of the year front-runner. It seems reasonable to assert that any realistic possibility for that award would have been nominated for a weekly honor at least twice by now. So how do those options stack up? Let’s take a peek:

RUNNING BACKS

Duke Johnson, Miami: The Hurricanes’ well-regarded recruit has 83 carries for a team-high 455 yards and five touchdowns, with a 21/201/1 receiving line and an impressive 27.9-yard average on 16 kickoff returns (with one brought back for a touchdown) to go along with it. That’s solid work.

At the same time, Johnson had 40 carries for 320 yards and four touchdowns in his first four games, and 43 rushes for 135 yards and one score in the four games since. He’s tailed off considerably and is in a timeshare with veteran Mike James. There might not be as many opportunities as he needs to make a lake push.

Romar Morris, North Carolina. The backup for Giovanni Bernard has 63 carries for 333 yards and a touchdown, as well as a 12/204/2 receiving line. Here’s the thing: When you’re Bernard’s backup, you’re only needed so much.

Morris has rushed for 70 yards on three occasions – once when Bernard was hurt (Wake Forest), once when there was no reason to risk getting Bernard hurt after the first quarter (Idaho) and once against Miami’s meager rush defense (Bernard had 177 yards to Morris’ 77 that day).

He’s in line to become one of the ACC’s top rushers in time, but there just aren’t the opportunities to make a serious case for conference rookie of the year so long as arguably the league’s player of the year is in front of him.

Jela Duncan, Duke. One of David Cutcliffe’s best recruiting coups at Duke, Duncan has 81 carries for 385 yards and four touchdowns, as well as 10 catches for 56 yards. He’s a solid addition to the Blue Devils’ backfield and he emerged in late September after playing sparingly in the season’s first two games. But it would be difficult to argue he’s been better than Johnson to this point.

QUARTERBACKS

Vad Lee, Georgia Tech. A potentially intriguing option if (a) the Yellow Jackets rally from their 3-5 start to secure bowl eligibility and (b) he’s the force behind it. Neither is a sure thing.

Lee has played in six games, rushing 35 times for 262 yards and four touchdowns while completing 11 of 22 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, and he relieved an ineffective Tevin Washington in Saturday’s loss to Brigham Young. But for two months, he’s been a backup quarterback; at this point, he’d be an exceptionally tough sell on a year-long award.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

Eddie Johnson, Miami. The outside linebacker took over as a starter in the second game of the season and has rolled up 43 tackles (5.5 for loss), a sack, an interception and three forced fumbles. That’s impressive, and it probably is a good foundation to earn the conference’s defensive rookie of the year honor. But it’s not the same impact as Diggs.

PUNTERS

Alex Kinal, Wake Forest. First things first: A punter isn’t winning a conference rookie of the year award. Nonetheless, he’s enjoyed a solid debut season, averaging 40.5 yards a punt, dropping 20 of his 63 attempts inside the 20 and booting nine of them at least 50 yards. That doesn’t make him a threat to Diggs, but it does give Wake Forest someone to build their punt team around for the next few years.

In truth, it’s Diggs’ award to lose, and even a forgettable November without a scholarship quarterback to work with might not be enough to cost the Terp freshman the honor. And if he does put together a decent – or even better – finish against Maryland’s tough finishing schedule? The ACC’s rookie of the year honor will surely reside in College Park for the second time in three years.

Patrick Stevens

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