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Every new college football season brings the next wave of All-Americans into the spotlight.
With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The ACC saw names like Sammy Watkins and Giovani Bernard produce more than just All-ACC honors as freshmen last fall. Despite off-the-field issues facing both Watkins and North Carolina, both playmakers have a chance to lead their respective teams to the best record in the conference. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the ACC (listed alphabetically):
The ACC's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
The massive redshirt freshman receiver could be a game-changer for EJ Manuel and the Florida State passing game. At 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, Benjamin may be the most talented FSU pass-catcher since the deep collection of NFL talent of the late 90s and early 00s.
Travis Blanks, DB, Clemson
The Tigers' defensive woes are well documented. Prospects like Blanks should help new defensive coordinator Brent Venables attempt to improve a unit that was abused in the second half of the 2011 season. The hybrid talent, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, should be used all over the field in various roles after enrolling early last January.
Zac Brooks, RB, Clemson
Andre Ellington is a really good player but constantly misses time due to injury. There is no Mike Bellamy. And the rest of the depth chart lacks true upside. The coaching staff is counting on the Jonesboro, Ark., native to produce right away.
Kyler Brown, LB, Duke
From Matthews, N.C., Brown is expected to step in and help bolster the porous run defense that has all too often plagued the Duke defense. The redshirt freshman checks in at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and should rack-up the tackles this fall in Durham.
Deon Bush, S, Miami
The Miami area prospect just missed landing in the top 100 recruiting rankings, but Bush will be hard to keep on the bench this fall. He has all the tools to be successful right away and only minor injury issues will keep him from contributing immediately.
Joel Caleb, WR, Virginia Tech
The uber-talented wideout has already been singled-out in practice by Frank Beamer. He has big-play ability, and Logan Thomas will need some help making things happen on offense should the Hokies expect to compete in the ACC.
Ronald Darby, DB, Florida State
There is no reason to believe this special talent won't become a big star in Tallahassee. Considering the recent departure of Greg Reid, the buzz Darby has been receiving from coaches and teammates alike seems to be much more than simple lip-service. He could make fans forget about the troubled Reid very quickly.
Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina
It took him two weeks to get onto the practice field, but Davis finally has made his UNC debut. His long, rangy frame could be the missing piece for a North Carolina offense that has all the pieces needed to be one of the most balanced and explosive in the league. The offensive line, the running game and the quarterback are already in place.
Stefon Diggs, WR/RS, Maryland
The in-state speedster was the No. 5 overall prospect in the nation last fall and was a recruiting coup for the embattled Randy Edsall. The 6-foot, 185-pound dynamo will touch the ball in the passing game, ground game and return game. He should start right away and should be a close friend of unexpected new starting quarterback and fellow freshman Perry Hills.
Mario Edwards, DL, Florida State
Edwards is to the ACC what Anthony Johnson was to the SEC last fall. If he can pick up the mental aspects of the game quick enough to stay on the field, his raw physical ability should make him one of the brightest future stars in the league. Look for the massive 6-foot-3, 300-pound monster to bolster an already loaded defensive line in search of a conference crown.
Ereck Flowers, OL, Miami
If the big local product from the city of Miami continues to play like he has in camp, he could very well be the starting right tackle at The U. His work ethic and size – at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds — will provide much needed help along the offensive front for Al Golden.
Perry Hills, QB, Maryland
When C.J. Brown tore his ACL, one of two freshmen were going to get the call to start for new coordinator Mike Locksley. Caleb Rowe appears to have lost the job to the Hills, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound signal caller from Pittsburgh. On a team that won two games a year ago and features huge amounts of roster turnover, Hills has been thrust into the most important starting position on the field. Should he adapt quickly, he could easily be in contention for ACC Freshman of the Year. If he struggles, Randy Edsall could be looking for work.
Tracy Howard, CB, Miami
This talented defensive back might be the biggest impact freshman in the ACC this season. Miami fans can expect the speedy coverman from Miramar, Fla., to be on the field from the first snap of the ball. Miami will play a lot of young players, and the No. 2-rated defensive back prospect in the nation has already drawn excellent reviews in camp for his play and leadership.
Germone Hopper, WR, Clemson
With Watkins suspended for the first two games, the high-flying Clemson offense will provide plenty of opportunities for youngsters to make an impact. Hopper has gotten plenty of early looks in practice as one of the highest-rated prospects in the entire Clemson class. The 6-foot, 170-pound pass-catcher from Charlotte, N.C., was the No. 11-rated wide receiver prospect in the nation. Someone other than DeAndre Hopkins will catch passes in those first two games.
Jabari Hunt-Days, LB, Georgia Tech
The younger brother of Tech quarterback, Snyjyn Days, could provide immediate help at inside backer. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marietta, Ga., prospect redshirted last fall and knows Al Groh's system well enough to make a big impact this fall. Tech fans are hoping for some reinforcement for a defense that allowed 274 and 268 yards rushing in losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech respectively last fall.
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
The tiny tailback from Miami has speed to burn and will make some big plays this fall in a variety of ways. His 4.4 speed, to go along with the ability to catch the ball and make big plays on special teams will force Al Golden to get Johnson into his game plans. He may not have the size to unseat Mike James, or even be a 25-carry per game back, but Johnson will drop his fair share of jaws.
Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson
Defensive line coach Dan Brooks has been impressed with Watkins thus far and thinks he will compete for a starting spot right away. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound, top-100 recruit from Forest City, N.C., will team with D.J. Reader to bolster a defensive line that desperately needs a boost.
Three RB Tandems To Watch:
Brandon Ross and Wes Brown, RB, Maryland
The high school teammate of Diggs, Brown, is a burly runner who will team with Ross, the redshirt freshman from New Jersey, in an effort to replace Davin Meggett. The ground game has always been a huge part of Edsall's coaching MO, but these two youngsters will attempt to build on the lone bright spot on the Terrapins' resume from last year — the ACC's No. 3-rated rushing attack.
Michael Holmes and JC Coleman, RB, Virginia Tech
Holmes could be this year's Bernard as he steps in as the top back in the Hokies' offense. While Holmes may not be a spectacular talent like David Wilson or Ryan Williams, he makes few mistakes and is as consistent as they come as a freshman. Coleman, who is dealing with a fractured hand, showed in a recent scrimmage that it will be tough to keep his big-play ability off the field for too long.
Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell, RB, Duke
The pair of freshman tailbacks are already being counted on by David Cutcliffe to perform quickly in 2012. He believes in the two youngsters so much that former star running back prospect Desmond Scott has been moved to wide receiver. Look for both to get plenty of chances for an offense that ranked dead last in the ACC in rushing last fall.
Other Names To Watch:
Marvin Bracy, WR/RS, Florida State
Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
Junior Gnockonde, LB/S, North Carolina
Eli Harold, LB, Virginia
Nick Hill, WR, Duke
Kiaro Holts, OL, North Carolina
Dylan Intemann, OL, Wake Forest
Raphael Kirby, LB, Miami
Alex Kinal, K, Wake Forest
Donaldven Manning, CB, Virginia Tech
Bradle Pinion, P, Clemson
Shakeel Rashad, LB, North Carolina
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
- by Braden Gall
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