It’s fair to say I had a pretty hard time making this list on both sides of the ball for pretty different reasons. On the offensive side, there’s a lot more uncertainty as to how good the guys replacing Tutu, Dez, and Hawkins will be. Meanwhile, on the defensive side, the mix of established and talented starters and experienced and coveted transfers makes it pretty difficult to narrow down the top 5 best! So, with that being said, let’s dive in and get started!
1. Marshon Ford –
Photo Courtesy of @ford_marshon
The top guy on this list might come as a surprise to most. However, I doubt you will find anyone on the team, or even in the ACC, who shows up week after week and just simply does what’s necessary to help the offense and ultimately help the team win games. Whether that’s setting the edge against an OLB and allowing the run game to open up or slipping behind the coverage for a wide open touchdown reception, Ford gets it done effectively and consistently.
Ford started his career as walk-on, but heading into his redshirt sophomore season, he’s already one of the top TEs in all of the ACC. Last season, he amassed career highs in receiving yards (309), receptions (25), and scored 6 touchdowns, all while playing with a torn labrum for the majority of the season. I fully expect Ford to reach the 500 receiving yards and 40 receptions mark this coming up season with his expanded role in the offense.
2. Malik Cunningham –
3. Jalen Mitchell –
Jalen Mitchell is the team’s lead returning rusher from last season. I believe he’ll be the one to receive the most touches in what I expect to be a three-headed rushing attack in Mitchell, junior Hassan Hall, and true freshman Trevion Cooley.
Mitchell didn’t see too many snaps until later in the season after Javian Hawkins decided to sit out to prepare for the NFL Draft, but when he did get them he definitely made the most of the opportunity. In just a little over 50 attempts, he amassed almost 350 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and 2 touchdowns. His breakout game came against Wake Forest where he ran for 168 yards on 20 touches, which included two massive gains of 70 yards and 47 yards.
Mitchell isn’t the fastest or most explosive back, but he’s an absolute wrecking ball between the tackles and he has a habit of falling forward and gaining the extra yards. He is definitely different from the backs normally featured in Satterfield’s offense. Yet different doesn’t always necessarily mean worse in some cases, and I very much think this could be one of those cases.
4. Braden Smith –
At #4, I have who I believe will finish the season as the team leader in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. It’s second year WR Braden Smith, out of NWMCC.
Smith is a name a lot of fans are familiar with because of his explosive debut against WKU. In that game, he had 4 catches for 110 yards, including a 63 yarder on 3rd-and-long deep in the Cards own territory. He had at least one catch in every game of the season, including a game-high 7 receptions against Syracuse, but he wasn’t able to find the endzone or really recreate the magic we saw in that first game against WKU. To be completey fair though, last season was very far from normal and transitioning from JUCO to high level Power 5 football is going to be an adjustment for any player no matter how talented you are.
That’s why I expect Braden Smith to have a more consistent season this year and possibly be the go-to guy for Malik. Standing at 5’10 and weighing in at 190 LBs, Smith has the size and speed to play on the outside or in the slot, and he also has the speed and route running ability to get open at a high rate.
The loss of Tutu to the pros leaves a massive hole for someone like Smith to potentially fill. I think after a year in the system, and being a former QB, he has the skills, athleticism, and advanced football IQ to fill that void.
5. Cole Bentley –
The 5th spot was probably the most difficult for me to rank. I knew it would be someone on the offensive line, but I wasn’t exactly sure who it would be. Multiple guys having a case for the best player on the OL, in my opinion. Ultimately, I chose the multi-year starter at center and 5th year senior, Cole Bentley.
The 6’3 315 LBs Bentley has been a steady force at center for a few years now and was named to the Rimington Award watchlist, which is the award given annually to the nation’s best center. Bentley was regularly graded as one of the top centers in the ACC week after week by PFF, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of the same consistency this season. Bentley isn’t the most athletic offensive lineman, but he has nice footwork and plenty of power and strength to go along with it. He also has pretty long limbs for a 6’3 lineman which helps him a lot on the interior, especially in pass protection.
Bentley might not be the best OL at the end of the season, or even right now in a lot of fans opinions. However, to me, he’s earned that spot due to his solid play and leadership over the years. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Bentley caught some NFL scouts’ eyes and got picked up late on day 3 or as an UDFA.
My honorable mentions for offense are offensive linemen Caleb Chandler and Trevor Reid, and wide receiver Tyler Harrell. Like Bentley, Chandler is another consistent and tenured vet on the interior offensive line who has earned praise this offseason. Trevor Reid and Tyler Harrell are more mysteries than guarantees, but their athleticism and physical traits make them impossible to keep off the field and it’s something that very well could gain the attention of scouts around the NFL.
1. Kei’Trel “Tre” Clark –
Tre Clark wasn’t very well known when he transferred from Liberty, but he quickly made his presence on the team felt. He showed up for fall camp last year and showed that he had what it took to be the alpha dog and lockdown corner the secondary desperately needed. One season later, and we’re talking about Clark potentially being a first round pick in the near future and being the best corner to dawn a Cardinals uniform since Jaire Alexander.
Last season, Clark was an absolute menace in coverage. He only managed to haul in 1 interception, but he was among the top players in the nation in pass breakups with 10 and he routinely shut down his side of the field against quality talent week after week. Standing at just 5’10 and weighing 180 LBs, he isn’t the most physically imposing corner, but he certaintly makes up for it in near flawless technique in coverage and a top tier confidence a CB1 needs. Tre is great in both press or zone coverage.
I fully expect Clark to be the best player on the defense and have a First Team All-ACC caliber season. Clark will be highly regarded by NFL scouts and media for his technique, athleticism, and long arms.
2. Monty Montgomery –
At #2, I have who some fans would argue is the top dog on our defense, Monty Montgomery. And that’s no disrespect to Monty from my end. I’m just EXTREMELY high on Tre Clark. Montgomery is an absolute wrecking ball on defense at the middle linebacker position, and I think the best is yet to come with an increased role in the defense.
Standing at just 5’11 and weighing 225 LBs, Monty isn’t the biggest MLB, but he’s definitely one of the more explosive and high motor MLBs in the ACC. Monty very much reminds me of a Devin Bush type of MLB who absolutely gets after it against the run and in the pass rush despite their shorter stature. His burst and quickness off the snap is absolutely exceptional. I think the biggest step he needs to take to be seen as a serious NFL prospect is to improve in coverage. I believe Monty has the athleticism and talent to be able to improve at least enough to get drafted and make a 53-man roster.
Monty has a combined 9 sacks over the past 2 seasons, which actually leads the team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him reach that total this season alone, or at least get close to it. With an increased snap count, Monty is going to get more opportunities than ever to get after the QB and do what he does best, which is wreak havoc.
3. Yaya Diaby –
Yaya Diaby is a player that many fans expected to lead the Cardinals in sacks last season and fill up the stat sheet. While that wasn’t the case, when you turn on the film, it’s evident Diaby played well and it’s very reasonable to believe this season we will see his talent show more in the box score.
Diaby constantly demanded double teams and opened things up for the blitzing linebackers on numerous occasions throughtout the season. He didn’t record any sacks, but there were at least 6 I saw that were created by the double teams Diaby drew. His pass rush moves were a bit raw, but his strength and explosivness are undeniable on tape. Also, full access to the facilities and weight room will help, as it seemed he did have trouble against bigger OTs. Diaby is now up to 273 LBs which is around 20 pounds heavier than what he weighed in at last season. That extra muscle and weight is going to help Diaby out tremendously. I think he’s been able to retain his explosiveness even with the extra weight, based on how the coaches have spoken about him this off season. The scary thing is, he may be even more explosive now!
Yaya Diaby has all the physical tools necessary and has actually enhanced them this off season. Diaby is primed to establish himself as a top 3 player on a top 25 defense this upcoming season. Personally, I think he will.
4. Kenderick Duncan Jr –
Photo Courtesy of @Dunc27_
5. Yasir Abdullah –
How well Yasir Abdullah plays off the edge will dictate how far this defense will go, and personally, I think this is the year Abdullah breaks out big time. Coach Dennison has spoken nothing, but glowing things about him coming out of fall camp and I think that comes as little to no surprise for anyone who pays attention to the Cards.
Abdullah had his best season so far last year, as he collected a career high in sacks (3) and tackles for loss (7) in just eight games. Standing at 6’2 and weighing 235 LBs, Abdullah has great burst and explosiveness at the Dog outside linebacker position. He is also strong enough to get off most offensive tackles when he needs to. He uses that strength and explosiveness very well against the run and he consistently chases runners down from behind due to his speed.
I think after another offseason of polishing his pass rush technique to go with his raw ability and motor, Abdullah could be primed for an All-ACC type of season and some possible draft buzz.
My honorable mentions for the defensive side of the ball are transfer safety Qwynnterrio Cole, 5th year senior and multi-year starter at ILB CJ Avery, and the RS Junior DB and multi-year starter Chandler Jones.
Qwynnterrio Cole is another transfer, like Duncan Jr, who I expect to immediately be an impact player on the defense and get some legit draft buzz. He is extremely solid against the run. While he misses a tackle here and there and could use some work in coverage, overall, he is MUCH better than what we had last season.
Cards fans mostly know the deal with CJ Avery! I heavily debated putting him on the top 5 due to his pedigree and being the teams leading tackler, but realistically, I think he sits just outside the top 5. Still wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him as the teams leading tackler this season once again.
Chandler Jones is another name Cards fans are really familiar with. Before Tre Clark burst onto the scene, many thought Jones was next in line to be CB1. However, he’s adjusted well to playing the opposite side of the field and has arguably been the best press corner on the team due to his size and athleticism. Satterfield has also stated we could see him at safety this season which speaks to his versatility and knowledge of the scheme.