Friedlander: My midseason ACC 'Dudes Who Deserve Better' team
Ask anyone who plays college football why they do it and virtually all will tell you it’s because they love the game.
And they’re telling the truth.
Still, there’s something to be said for the benefits that come with name, image and likeness earnings and the personal glory that comes with scoring touchdowns and playing for a winning team.
Some are blessed with more of those opportunities than others.
This list of “dudes who deserve better” is a tribute to the many talented ACC players who are having great seasons despite limiting circumstances. And those whose limiting circumstances are preventing them from having great seasons.
Most play for teams with at least 2 losses.
These 10, in no particular order, are the kind whose efforts each Saturday often go unnoticed. But when you do notice, the reaction is usually the same. You shake your head and say to yourself: “Man, that dude deserves better.”
Antwaun Powell-Ryland, Virginia Tech DE
Unless you’re a fan of the Hokies or the Florida Gators, or you’re really into deep cuts, you’ve probably never heard of Antwaun Powell-Ryland. That’s because he plays far off the grid for a team that is struggling to gain bowl eligibility rather than battling for a conference championship.
But the Florida transfer is quietly putting together an All-ACC season in his first year in Blacksburg.
Powell-Ryland has recorded 7 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles – ranking 2nd in the league in all 3 categories. He has been a driving force in a steady improvement that has seen Tech win 2 of its past 3 games to get to within 1 victory of the .500 mark and within 3 of postseason eligibility with 5 games remaining.
Ryan O’Keefe, Boston College WR
A transfer from Central Florida, O’Keefe was brought in by coach Jeff Hafley to help replace 1st-round NFL Draft pick Zay Flowers. And he was well on his way to doing that after catching 21 passes in his first 4 games with the Eagles – including 6 for 64 yards against Florida State and 5 for 86 and a touchdown the following week against Louisville.
But early in the 3rd quarter against Virginia on Sept. 30, he was involved in a helmet-to-helmet collision with defensive back Malcolm Greene, suffering a neck injury. He was immobilized on the field and taken to the hospital. Though he was released a few days later, O’Keefe has yet to return to the field.
Boston College WR Ryan O’Keefe was immobilized, and had to be carried out on a stretcher after sustaining a neck injury after being hit by UVA CB Malcolm Greene
He was seen giving a thumbs up on his way into the locker room
O’Keefe was transported to Mass General Hospital🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/SLm0apiXBE
— Carter (@ncaacarter) September 30, 2023
Will Shipley, Clemson RB
Shipley figured to be one of the primary beneficiaries of the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley. Especially when it came to his contributions in the passing game.
But it hasn’t happened.
In fact, he’s taken a significant step back from his All-ACC sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,182 yards and 15 touchdowns while helping the Tigers to an ACC championship. He’s averaging 70.6 yards per game on the ground, 14 fewer than he did in 2022. His 3 rushing touchdowns are also down. And while he has caught the first 2 scoring passes of his career, his average catches and receiving yards are virtually unchanged.
While the new offensive scheme that has rendered him woefully underused and quarterback Cade Klubnik’s inexperience have helped to hold Shipley’s production down, he’s not completely devoid of blame. He’s had trouble holding onto the football, including a fumble at the 1-yard line that cost Clemson a touchdown in Saturday’s double-overtime loss at Miami.
Jacob Roberts, Wake Forest LB
An FCS All-American in 2021 and a 2nd-team All-Big South selection at nearby NC A&T last season, Roberts transferred to Wake in hopes of proving his ability at a higher level of competition. So in that respect, it’s already a mission accomplished.
“My first tackle at Wake Forest was a sack,” Roberts said after an opening-week victory against Elon. “That’s definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
As satisfying as the experience has been, Roberts has earned much more recognition than he’s getting. He’s been one of the few bright spots in the Deacons’ difficult season, leading the team in tackles with 55 and sacks with 5.
Jahmal Banks, Wake Forest WR
Roberts’ Wake Forest teammate Banks came into the season with 12 touchdowns, tied for the most among returning ACC players. He was expected to inherit the role of WR1 vacated by the departure of NFL draft pick AT Perry and blossom into stardom in his own right.
But it hasn’t happened yet. That’s more the fault of the Deacons’ inconsistent quarterback and offensive line play than his inability to get open or catch the ball. He’s still having a decent season with 38 catches for 433 yards. But his average of 11.4 yards per reception is down considerably from last year’s 15.1. And his 3 touchdowns put him well behind pace to match his 2022 total of 9.
Garrett Shrader, Syracuse QB
When discussing “do-it-all” players in college football, Shrader has to be at or near the top of the list. And we’re not just talking about the ability to throw, run and even catch. Shrader literally did it all for the Orange at Purdue on Sept. 16. He threw for 184 yards, ran for 195 yards and scored 4 of his team’s 5 touchdowns in its 35-20 win.
That’s 83% of its total offense, for those at home without a calculator.
Garrett Shrader with the fake of the century 😮
If the Syracuse QB didn't slide, it would've been his 5th rushing TD of the game.
By the way, the Orange are now 3-0. pic.twitter.com/NRJZsCWtbR
— Mat Mlodzinski (@MatMlodzinski) September 17, 2023
Syracuse was already short on offensive playmakers even before top receiver Oronde Gadsden was lost to a foot injury in Week 2. Without him, Shrader has been left on even more of a desolate island.
He’s given it his best shot. But with little help and an offensive line that has done everything in its power to get him broken in half during a 3-game losing streak against ACC heavyweights Clemson, North Carolina and Florida State, the weight has gotten too heavy to bear.
Payton Wilson, NC State LB
Wilson isn’t just the Wolfpack’s best player. And possibly the best defensive player in the ACC with his league-leading 81 tackles, to go along with 7.5 TFLs, 2 fumble recoveries, an interception and a 1st down run on a fake punt. He’s the heart and soul of a defense that is the only reason why State isn’t even more of a disappointment than it already is this season.
The 6-4, 238-pound linebacker, who missed 2 of his 6 seasons in Raleigh with injuries, is an absolute warrior whose effort and desire are best summed up by the play in which he ran down Notre Dame receiver Chris Tyree at a clocked speed of 23.4 MPH to make a touchdown-saving tackle.
ATTENTION ALL CFB PLAYERS: If you want to get noticed by NFL scouts, play with type of relentless effort shown here by NC State’s Payton Wilson.
All strain. No give up.
This is an ILB hawking down a WR. 👀 pic.twitter.com/UUktM6dL5W
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) September 10, 2023
Wilson came back for a 6th year in part to help deliver an ACC championship to the school he loves. That’s not going to happen. After State’s most recent loss, a 24-3 drubbing at Duke, he felt it necessary to apologize to his team’s fans in his postgame comments. But if anyone deserves an apology, it’s him.
Malik Washington, Virginia WR
Washington escaped the turmoil at Northwestern, where he played his first 4 college seasons, for another struggling program dealing with external issues that have overshadowed its performance on the playing field.
He finally gained a measure of notoriety by catching a career-high 10 passes for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns, including the game-winner midway through the 4th quarter, in Saturday’s epic upset of then-No. 10 North Carolina.
But because of his team’s lack of success prior to that, he’s been mostly an afterthought to the likes of Keon Coleman, Johnny Wilson, Tez Walker and Jamari Thrash in the discussion of the ACC’s top pass catchers. Even though he leads the ACC in receiving with 56 catches for 783 yards and 6 touchdowns.
MJ Devonshire, Pittsburgh CB
Devonshire is an instinctive playmaker whose name would be on everybody’s midseason All-American and award lists if his team wasn’t mired in last place in the ACC at 2-5 overall.
As it is, the senior made one of the most impactful plays on the conference championship race by intercepting a Jack Plummer pass and returning it 66 yards for a touchdown in Pitt’s upset of previously undefeated Louisville on Oct. 14.
— WPIAL Insider (@WPIAL_Insider) October 15, 2023
It was his 3rd career pick-6. He has 6 interceptions in all, including another in the 4th quarter at Wake Forest on Saturday that would have been a game-clincher had the Panthers been able to pick up a 1st down and run out the clock.
Devonshire was a key contributor to Pitt’s ACC title team in 2021 and he proudly wore his championship ring to the league’s preseason media event in Charlotte back in July. He won’t be getting any new hardware this year. But it won’t be his fault.
Darrell Jackson Jr., Florida State DT
UNC’s Walker got a majority of the publicity and sympathy. His battle to gain an eligibility waiver elicited the most public anger, a factor that undoubtedly led the NCAA to reverse its decision and allow him to play.
But Jackson’s case is just as compelling. And to date, he’s still on the sidelines watching instead of helping Florida State work toward an ACC championship and College Football Playoff berth.
Like Walker, Jackson is a 2-time transfer. He began his college career at Maryland before transferring to Miami last year. He decided to leave the Hurricanes and come to FSU in order to be closer to his mother, who is dealing with a serious illness.
Even though coach Mike Norvell has said that Jackson can play in the postseason once the fall semester ends, the youngster’s continued ineligibility – along with the NCAA’s inconsistency in enforcing its 2-transfer rule – continues to be a source of frustration.