Every offseason, college head coaches have to deal with roster turnover — whether that’s due to players graduating, leaving early for the draft, putting their name in the transfer portal or retiring from football due to injury. All of this attrition causes open competition for starting spots on each team’s roster, some position battles being more significant to a team’s success than others.
As teams gear up for the 2021 season, the 33rd Team will take a look at the top position battles in each Power 5 conference, rating them on the impact they will have on their chance at winning their respective conference and predicting who we think will end up earning the starting job.
Clemson: Starting RB
The Clemson Tigers once again are the favorites to win the ACC and are national championship contenders, so it is no surprise to see that their starting RB battle is one of the most intriguing battles in the conference. Clemson lost one of the nation’s best running backs of the last couple of seasons when Travis Etienne moved on to the NFL. Although it’ll be hard to replace his level of production right away, the Tigers have enough talent in their room to give their young QB, D.J. Uiagalelei, a reliable running game.
Clemson has three players who will be fighting for the starting job. The top three are Lyn-J Dixon, Kobe Pace and highly touted freshman Will Shipley. Dixon has the most experience of all three backs, while Shipley was the highest-rated recruit coming out of high school between the three. Shipley was the No. 2 RB and the 32nd player in the country in the 2021 class according to 247Sports. Head coach Dabo Swinney has a tough decision to make, and it is expected that the three will compete for the job up until the end of fall camp.
Look for Swinney to turn to his most experienced back, Lyn-J Dixon, to win the starting job, while Pace and Shipley split time as his backup. Dixon was a four-star prospect coming out of high school, and is also a senior. Although he may not be the next Travis Etienne, he should have a very productive season in 2021.
Predicted Starter: Lyn-J Dixon
North Carolina: Starting RB
North Carolina enters 2021 with high expectations and they are the No. 1 challengers to Clemson this season. Coach Mack Brown has jumpstarted this team into a serious contender. Last season was their second straight with a winning record, and they look to take another big step with Heisman hopeful Sam Howell at QB. The Tar Heels lost a lot of weapons last season, most notably Dyami Brown out wide, and their dynamic RB duo in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. Replacing the RB duo is going to be the story for this team. Howell is a Heisman contender, and he takes away a lot of the worries of losing their top receiver. However, he is going to need a reliable running game if they want to truly be contenders this season.
The Tar Heels have a bunch of talented RBs on their roster, and a running back by committee approach is the most logical decision. But the question is, who will be the main guy when it comes down to crunch time? The decision will most likely come down to Ty Chandler and British Brooks. Ty Chandler is a graduate transfer from Tennessee who in his career has 421 rushes for 2,046 yards and 16 total touchdowns. His game experience in the SEC makes him a very intriguing option. The next guy is British Brooks, who is a senior and was the starter in the Orange Bowl last season. Even though Brooks is a senior, he has not carried the ball many times (34) in his career, due to Carter/Williams being above him on the depth chart. He was also the special teams captain last season. Chandler should be the guy who wins this job, considering he has the most production and experience between the two.
Expect Brooks to be heavily involved in the offense as well, while some of the younger guys such as junior Josh Henderson, sophomore D.J. Jones and redshirt freshman Elijah Green become the backups for the two older running backs.
Predicted Starter: Ty Chandler
Miami: Starting DEs
The only thing harder than replacing a first-rounder is replacing two first-rounders, and that is exactly what the Hurricanes need to do in 2021 – and they need to do it at a premium position. Jaelen Phillips, Gregory Rousseau and Quincy Roche were dominant while they played for the Hurricanes, and all three were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. The battle at both defensive end spots is something that is going to dominate headlines when talking about the Hurricanes heading into the season and replacing these guys will not be an easy task. Luckily for Miami, they have a handful of very talented and unique players who will all have a real shot at the starting jobs.
The first guy is Zach McCloud, who was converted from LB to DE and is entering his sixth season with the team. The second player is Deandre Johnson, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, who has NFL talent. Johnson started 2020 very strong, finishing with 4 sacks in the team’s first two games, but he fizzled out a little bit. He was someone who could have possibly been drafted in the later rounds in the 2021 draft, so he will be looking to improve his stock next season. Another intriguing option is Jahfari Harvey. Harvey was the next man up after the dynamic duo of Phillips and Roche, and he appeared in all eight games. In the Cheez-It Bowl, he led all DEs with 64 snaps (Phillips, Roche and Rousseau all opted out). Another player who is in the mix is Chantz Williams, who is entering his second season with the team. The Cheez-It Bowl was the only time they played a game without their studs. In that game, Harvey, McCloud and Cameron Williams were all utilized. Cameron Williams is currently not on the fall camp roster, and Deandre Johnson was not on the team at the time, so there will be change from that game.
Look for the battle to come down to McCloud, Johnson and Harvey. McCloud has impressed the coaches so far, and his experience on the team is something that will only help him in the battle. Expect McCloud to win one of the starting DE spots. Johnson, the redshirt senior from Tennessee, is the logical choice for one of the spots, since he has shown he has the ability to produce, and has started at least seven games in each of the past three seasons. Expect Harvey, a redshirt freshman, to be the next guy up behind McCloud and Johnson, while Chantz Williams plays more of a reserve role for them.
Predicted Starters: Zach McCloud and Deandre Johnson
Pittsburgh: Starting OTs
If Pitt wants to compete for an ACC title, they are going to need to protect their QB Kenny Pickett. Pickett has thrown for 7,984 yards and 39 touchdowns in his four-year career at Pitt. Pickett missed two games last season with an ankle injury, and his play suffered when he returned from injury. That is something the team cannot afford in 2021, so protecting him is key.
The two tackle spots are both up for grabs and there are three guys who have a legitimate shot at winning the job. Carter Warren and Gabe Houy are both redshirt seniors, while Matt Goncalves is a redshirt sophomore. Houy started eight games at right tackle and Warren started eight games at left tackle for the Panthers last season. Goncalves is the wild card in this battle, because despite barely seeing time in the starting lineup, he has been very effective when he was. Goncalves stepped into the starting lineup for three games when both Houy and Warren missed time with Covid-19, and he shined for the Panthers in those three games. Goncalves was named a freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. They even opted to start Goncalves over Warren in their final game against Georgia Tech, a game where Warren was available to play in. This battle is going to for sure come down to the end of fall camp.
Despite the emergence of Goncalves, the starters should be Warren at left tackle and Houy at right tackle. Warren has started 21 games in the past two seasons and Houy has been the guy at right tackle for awhile now as well. Even though Goncalves started the final game over Warren last season, that was most likely due to the timing of Warren coming back from Covid-19, along with the fact that Goncalves was playing well enough where they felt they didn’t need to rush Warren back. Although we expect Warren and Houy to start the season as the starters, both will be on a short leash since Goncalves has flashed the ability to be a solid player.
Predicted Starters: Carter Warren – LT, Gabe Houy – RT
Virginia Tech: Starting RB
The Hokies were able to rely heavily on their star running back, Khalil Herbert, last season. Unfortunately for them, Herbert was drafted in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. That is a lot of production no longer on the team, and the Hokies are going to need someone to step up in a big way.
The starting RB job is going to come down to a few guys: Raheem Blackshear, Keshawn King, Marco Lee and Jalen Holston. This is an older group, as everyone on this list is at least a junior with the exception of King, a sophomore. Despite being an older group, there has not been much production and game experience from the group as a whole. Holston has the second-most production, yet he has never had a 300-yard season and has a career high of 14 carries in a game. This group was also not that highly touted coming out of high school. King was the only four-star coming out of high school according to 247Sports, with the rest of the group being ranked as three stars.
We expect this competition to come down to Blackshear and Holston. Blackshear played at Rutgers from 2017-2019 and appeared in 11 games last season for the Hokies. Holston has been with the Hokies since 2017. We expect Blackshear to win the job due to his pass-catching ability. He was recruited out of high school as a WR, and his pass-catching ability will be the difference between him and Holston. Expect the Hokies to line up Blackshear in both the backfield and in the slot as well. He will be a fun guy to move around for offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen. We also expect Holston to get a lot of snaps at RB this season, especially since they have the ability to move Blackshear to the slot. This is also due to the fact that Blackshear has never been the workhorse before in his college career.