ATLANTA — Much has changed in one year for some of the early surprises playing significant roles in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
At this time last year, TaQuon Marshall, who began his career as a running back, was no higher than third on Georgia Tech’s list of quarterbacks.
Steve Ishmael was playing in the shadows of other Syracuse wide receivers for the third straight season.
Travis Etienne was Clemson’s final commitment in the 2017 signing class.
Now, the three are thriving in lead roles for their teams.
Marshall and Ishmael have prominent places among the national scoring and receiving leaders, respectively.
Marshall, a junior, was finally announced as Georgia Tech’s starter only minutes before the Yellow Jackets’ opener against Tennessee. He has flourished in the difficult job of replacing Justin Thomas. He again led the powerful spread-option attack in last week’s 33-7 win over North Carolina.
For those looking from the outside, it’s a shock to see Marshall leading the ACC in rushing and sharing the national scoring lead among non-kickers.
For those who had seen Marshall on the practice fields, his strong start for the Yellow Jackets (3-1, 2-0 ACC) was expected.
“He’s been doing this since he got here, even at A-back,” running back Qua Searcy said Tuesday. “TaQuon has always been a playmaker.”
Marshall moved to quarterback last year, where he was listed behind Thomas and Matthew Jordan. Some thought Jordan’s edge in experience would help him win the starting job this season.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson kept quiet about his decision this summer even when he saw Marshall clearly pulling ahead.
“It became pretty apparent to me after the first few weeks of fall camp that there was a separation,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Like Marshall, Ishmael’s breakout has come late in his college career. Ishmael, a senior, has eclipsed 100 yards receiving in every game this season and leads the nation with 10.2 catches per game.
Through only five games for Syracuse (2-3, 0-1), Ishmael already has set career highs with his 51 catches for 632 yards. He had another big game in last week’s loss to North Carolina State.
“I look at last year as I didn’t make the most of my opportunities,” Ishmael said. “I didn’t help enough to help us win games. I wasn’t locked in and I felt like I didn’t really get a chance to help like I wanted to. This is my last year and we’ve got a chance to lift the program.”
Etienne leads No. 2 Clemson (5-0, 3-0) with 311 yards rushing even after being held to 19 yards in last week’s win over Virginia Tech.
Still, Etienne has shown big-play skills.
“When the ball’s in his hands, he knows what to do with it,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “He has a great ability to make people miss in space and he’s got another gear. He’s got a very special gear.”
Among other early surprises in the league are Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson, Duke kicker Austin Parker and Wake Forest wide receiver Greg Dortch.
Jackson, a redshirt freshman, has thrown 12 touchdown passes with only three interceptions for No. 12 Virginia Tech. He threw for 372 yards and five touchdowns in a 64-17 win at East Carolina.
Duke (4-1, 1-1) ranked last among FBS teams with only three field goals in 2016. Parker, last year’s starting punter, solved the problem this season when he took on placekicking duties. He has made 9 of 11 field goals and 19 of 20 extra points.
Dortch has given Wake Forest (2-1, 1-1) a much-needed reliable deep threat who can stretch the field. The redshirt freshman leads the team with 30 receptions for 352 yards and five touchdowns. He leads all ACC freshmen with six catches per game.