Ranking the Big East's Top 25 Players for 2011

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Geno Smith is in for a big season with Dana Holgorsen calling the plays.

Geno Smith is in for a big season with Dana Holgorsen calling the plays.

By Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming college football season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in the Big East.

Several factors worked into the criteria for developing the 25 players: 

Previous production was weighed, but a heavy emphasis was placed on what we expect will happen in 2011.

In addition to just how good we think a player is, we weighed what impact he will have on his team’s success?

Positional importance – although running backs always produce the stats, we gave linemen a bump in our rankings to show how valuable they are to the team.

Pro potential – how highly-regarded is the player by NFL Draft standards?

1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (JR)
2010 stats: 2,763 yards, 24 TDs, 7 INTs, 217 rush yards
Smith is coming off a solid debut season as West Virginia’s starting quarterback and big things are in store for the junior in 2011. His 24 touchdown tosses ranked second in West Virginia single-season history, while setting sophomore passing records for yards and total offense last year. Smith earned second-team All-Big East honors and finished first in the conference in pass efficiency. He posted two games of four touchdown tosses and threw for 212 yards and three scores in the 35-10 victory over rival Pittsburgh.
Why he’s ranked 1st: With Dana Holgorsen taking over as head coach/offensive coordinator, Smith will easily shatter last season’s totals. Holgorsen is one of the top offensive minds in college football, and the Mountaineers should have the Big East’s best offense. Smith’s foot injuries are the only concern, but if the junior stays healthy, he will be first-team all-conference quarterback in December.

2. Zach Collaros, QB, Cincinnati (SR)
2010 stats: 2,902 yards, 26 TD, 14 INT, 202 rush yards, 4 TD
After filling in brilliantly for Tony Pike as a sophomore in 2009, the dynamic dual-threat led the Big East’s top offense in 2010 (417.3 ypg). The post-Brian Kelly Bearcats scored more points (27.1) and threw for more yards (260.7) than any other team in the league.

Why he's ranked 2nd: Entering his second full season as the starter, Collaros has high expectations. He has landed on both the Maxwell and O’Brien Award preseason watch lists. There is plenty of talent returning at the skills positions in the form of receiver DJ Woods and running back Isaiah Pead. Assuming Cincinnati can replace the production from receiver Armon Binns, Collaros, who missed the Syracuse loss a year ago, should improve his production across the board.

3. Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut (SR)
2010 stats: 39 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10 TFL, 2 INTs
Reyes has been a consistent performer in his first three seasons at Connecticut and all signs point to a monster senior year. He has made 29 starts and tallied 18 tackles for loss over the last three years. Reyes is only one of two defenders returning who earned first-team All-Big East honors last year.

Why he’s ranked 3rd: Reyes is a preseason second-team All-America selection by Athlon Sports. Although the stats aren’t huge, Reyes can dominate the game in the middle and will be the leader of a defense that returns 10 starters. New coordinator Don Brown will bring an aggressive approach to Storrs, but don’t expect that to hurt Reyes and his production this year.

4. Brandon Lindsey, DE/LB, Pittsburgh (SR)
2010 stats: 51 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 10 sacks
Despite losing Greg Romeus to injury early last season, Pittsburgh’s pass rush never missed a beat. Lindsey was largely an unknown quantity going into last year, playing in 20 games and registering four sacks with 5.5 tackles for loss. However, Lindsey quickly emerged as one of the Big East’s best pass rushers, finishing second in the conference with 10 sacks.
Why he’s ranked 4th: Lindsey is on the move in Pittsburgh’s new 3-4 defense. Coordinators Keith Patterson and Paul Randolph will be moving Lindsey to a hybrid end/linebacker position, but he will remain one of the top pass rushers in the conference. Expect the senior to reach 10 sacks once again in 2011.

5. Bruce Irvin, DE, West Virginia (SR)
2010 stats: 21 tackles, 14 TFL, 14 sacks

Coaches never know what to expect from JUCO recruits in their first year on campus, but Irvin turned out to be an instant impact player. Irvin did not play all three downs last year, but found a niche as West Virginia’s pass rush specialist. He collected two sacks in the Champs Sports Bowl against NC State and three in a mid-September matchup against Maryland. He earned second-team All-Big East honors, despite being a primarily a specialty player for the Mountaineer defense.

Why he’s ranked 5th: Irvin will be an interesting player to watch this season. After spending most of last year in a specialty role (third-down sack artist), Irvin will be asked to play on all three downs. How will he transition into the role? Although Irvin proved he is one of college football’s top pass rushers, he will need to hold up against the run and prove he can be effective for at all times when the defense is on the field.

6. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia (JR)
2010 stats: 58 rec., 787 yards, 8 TD, 159 rush yards, TD

Austin posted eight games in which he caught at least five passes, finishing third in the Big East with 58 receptions. The sure-handed, open-field dynamo was also used in the rushing attack a few times per game at over 10 yards per carry. He began to blossom near the end of the year, scoring six of his nine total touchdowns over the last five games. Austin also set a career high in receiving yards (121) against Rutgers in the final game of the regular season.

Why he's ranked 6th: The Mountaineer not named Geno Smith with the most to gain from the addition of new head coach Dana Holgorsen is Austin. With Cincinnati's Armon Binns and Jock Sanders finishing his eligibility at West Virginia, Austin is the leading returning receiver in the conference and could be in store for huge numbers as the top target in Holgorsen’s “Air Raid” high-flying passing attack.

7. Keith Tandy, CB, West Virginia (SR)
2010 stats: 57 tackles, 6 INT (51 yards), 17 PD
Due to the departure of Brandon Hogan, Tandy will shift from right to left corner this fall. The third-year starter led the Big East in interceptions a season ago. He was voted as a first-team All-Big East selection by the coaches and got some All-American recognition. His 17 passes defended were good for fifth nationally. He earned Big East Defensive Player of the Week after a 10-tackle, 1 INT game against South Florida.

Why he's ranked 7th: As a veteran of the Big East – he has started 27 of his 32 career games – Tandy enters his final season with eyes on a Big East championship. He returns to a unit that led the conference in total defense (261.1) and scoring (13.5) a year ago – both of which were good for third nationally. The Mountaineers’ cornerback has been named to the preseason watch list for the Nagurski, Bednarik and Thorpe Awards.

8. Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati (SR)
2010 stats: 1,029 yards, 6 TDs, 26 receptions, 190 yards, 1 TD

The transition from Brian Kelly to Butch Jones proved to be more difficult than some expected. The Bearcats had a few ups and downs on offense, beginning with a lackluster showing in the opener against Fresno State. Despite running behind a so-so offensive line, Pead turned in a solid season. After gaining only 36 yards in the opener and tallying zero carries in the next two games, he earned Cincinnati’s first 1,000-yard seasons since Richard Hall in 2004.
Why he’s ranked 8th: Cincinnati’s offensive line is a concern once again, but Pead should post another 1,000-yard season. The senior averaged 6.5 yards per carry last year, but needs to be more consistent overall. Pead posted 169 yards against Oklahoma, but posted less than 100 rushing yards five times in Big East play last year. As long as Pead stays healthy, expect to see him finish the season as one of the top two running backs in the conference.  

9. Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh (JR)
2010 stats: 922 yards, 8 TD, 24 rec., 213 yards, 2 TD, 501 kick return yards

Graham exploded onto the scene in a Week 4 blowout win over FIU, rushing for 277 yards and three scores on 29 attempts. He reached double-digit carries in six of the next nine games, despite splitting time with starter and leading rusher Dion Lewis.
Why he's ranked 9th: Graham returns as the second leading rusher in the conference from a year ago. Under first-year head coach Todd Graham – whose Tulsa offenses ranked No. 1 nationally in 2007 and 2008 – expect the junior's explosiveness to utilized to the fullest. The new spread read-option attack has Graham on the preseason Maxwell and Doak Walker awards list to go along with preseason All-Big East consideration.

10. Moe Petrus, C, Connecticut (SR)
Petrus has emerged as one of the top centers in college football and enters 2011 with 39 consecutive starts. Much of the success from Connecticut's rushing attack has been due to Petrus' solid play over the last three years. The Huskies have had a 1,000-yard rusher every year that Petrus has been in the starting lineup. He earned second-team All-Big East honors last year and has been named to the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award.
Why he's ranked 10th: With quarterback and running back question marks, Connecticut's offense could be among the worst in the conference. However, the line could be the best in the Big East and one of the top 10 in the nation. Expect Petrus to earn first-team all-conference honors this year, while contending for a spot on an All-America team at the end of 2011. 

11. Mike Ryan, OT, Connecticut (SR)
The Huskies owned one of the Big East’s best rushing attacks last season, thanks to Jordan Todman and a solid offensive line. With a lackluster passing attack, Connecticut faced several defenses that decided to stack the box in an effort to stop Todman. Connecticut ranked No. 35 nationally in rushing offense and second in the conference behind Louisville, generating nearly 175 yards per game. Todman departed for the NFL, but the line is in good shape. Ryan missed one game due to injury last season, but earned first-team All-Big East honors.
Why he’s ranked 11th: Ryan falls just behind Moe Petrus as the top player on Connecticut’s line, which should be one of the best in the Big East. Expect another solid year at tackle, and Ryan could be a candidate for All-America honors.

12. Jarred Holley, S, Pittsburgh (JR)
2010 stats: 54 tackles, 5 INT

Holley tied for second in the Big East a year ago with five interceptions, while contributing to the nation’s No. 8 ranked overall defense. As the quarterback of the secondary, Holley was also a big reason why Pitt finished 15th nationally in scoring defense at 19 points per game and 22nd nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Why he's ranked 12th: Holley is the leader of a secondary that has to replace essentially the rest of the starting lineup. Yet, the front seven returns nearly completely intact and will be switching to a much more aggressive 3-4 scheme. This transition should allow for the game-changing safety to patrol and attack more from the backend of the defense. Expect a lot of big plays from the preseason first-team All-Big East selection.

13. JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati (SR)
2010 stats: 111 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 5 PBU, 2 FF
Schaffer doesn’t get much credit nationally, but he’s quietly emerged as one of the Big East's most reliable defenders. The senior has posted back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles and earned second-team All-Big East honors last season. Cincinnati showed some progress against the run last year, and Schaffer's contributions certainly helped. 
Why he’s ranked 13th: Schaffer will be counted upon to be one of the team leaders for Cincinnati this year. Although the Bearcats made improvements against the run last year, more will be needed to get back to the postseason. Schaffer should have another season of over 100 tackles and ranks as the Big East’s top linebacker.

14. Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse (SR)
2010 stats: 57 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 FF
The defense was directly responsible for at least three of Syracuse's eight wins and Jones was a huge part of the turnaround. The Orange improved their scoring defense from 81st nationally in 2009 to 17th in 2010 at under 20 points per game. The total defense also saw marked improvement, going from 37th nationally to 7th overall. By getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Jones has helped Syracuse finish as the league’s best pass defense and improved Syracuse’s pass efficiency defense from 113th to 21st nationally last year.

Why he's ranked 14th: Jones should team up with fellow bookend Mikhail Marinovich to form one of the nation’s most underrated end duos. If Jones can put together more games like his 2010 performance in the upset win over West Virginia (eight tackles, two sacks), the Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-Big East pass rusher should have the Orange in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1999.

15. DJ Woods, WR, Cincinnati (SR)
2010 stats: 57 rec., 898 yds., 8 TDs, 87 rush yds., 2 TDs

Armon Binns was clearly Zach Collaros’ go-to guy last year, but Woods was once again a solid No. 2 option. He has posted back-to-back seasons of at least 50 catches and averaged nearly 23 yards per kick return last year. The biggest criticism of Woods wasn’t his overall production, but the six fumbles lost. Despite his struggles with turnovers, Woods earned second-team All-Big East honors. Cincinnati was one of the nation’s worst teams in terms of turnover margin, something the Bearcats have to fix if they want to contend for a Big East title.
Why he’s ranked 15th: With Binns finishing his eligibility, Woods should become the leading receiver for Cincinnati. The senior needs to be the leader of a young Bearcat receiving crew and will be counted upon again to make an impact on special teams. Look for Woods to easily top 60 catches and earn first-team All-Big East honors at the end of the year.

16. Sio Moore, LB, Connecticut (JR)
2010 stats: 110 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT
The Huskies have produced some quality linebackers in recent years and it looks like Moore is the next Connecticut defender to earn first-team All-Big East honors. Moore finished second on the team with 110 tackles last year and was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week after collecting 17 tackles in a key win over West Virginia. Prior to last season, Moore didn't have much experience, collecting six stops in four games.
Why he’s ranked 16th: Moore is expected to be the leader of the linebacking corps, especially with two new starters around him. Coordinator Don Brown is expected to make Connecticut's defense more aggressive this year, which should give Moore plenty of opportunities to wreck havoc in opposing offenses backfields this season.

17. Justin Pugh, OT, Syracuse (SO)
Doug Marrone is a former offensive lineman, so it’s no surprise the front five receives a little extra attention in spring practice. Pugh has developed into Syracuse’s top lineman in a short time, earning second-team All-Big East honors last season. In his first year on the field, Pugh started all 13 games and was a key reason why running back Delone Carter topped 1,000 yards in 2010.
Why he’s ranked 17th: With no stats, it’s very difficult to grade offensive linemen. However, Pugh has established himself as one of the Big East’s top tackles and is entering only his sophomore year. Look for Pugh to lead the way for new running back Antwon Bailey to get 1,000 yards this season.

18. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut (JR)
2010 stats: 57 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 INTs, 5 PBU

Pass defense was not a strength at Connecticut last year, ranking seventh in the Big East and 67th nationally. The Huskies should see some improvement in the secondary this year, especially with four starters back. Wreh-Wilson started all 13 games for Connecticut last season and showed a knack for making plays with the ball in his hands, taking two interceptions back for a score. He also collected seven tackles against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. 
Why he’s ranked 19th: The Big East does not return a handful of standouts at cornerback, but West Virginia’s Keith Tandy and Wreh-Wilson are the best of the bunch. Wreh-Wilson has some work to do to catch Tandy as the top corner in the league, but he should turn in an all-conference season.

19. Hakeem Smith, S, Louisville (SO)
2010 stats: 88 tackles, 6 TFL
As only a freshman, Smith entered 2010 as an unknown and left as the team’s leading tackler – including a 13-tackle performance in a key eight-point win over Syracuse. The Cardinals ranked ninth nationally and second the Big East against the pass allowing only 167.4 yards per game.

Why he's ranked 19th: Smith has a chance to build on what was an excellent freshman season. Running mate free safety Shenard Holton returns alongside to man the backend of the defense, which could be even better up front under defensive-minded head coach Charlie Strong. Cornerback is a major area of concern for Louisville, which makes Smith's emergence even more critical for this defense in 2011.

20. Antwon Bailey, RB, Syracuse (SR)
2010 stats: 554 yards, 2 TD, 35 rec., 306, 3 TDs

As a backup to Delone Carter, Bailey proved that he has what it takes to be a feature ballcarrier for Syracuse. The versatile tailback finished as the team’s second leading rusher, as well as the team’s No. 2 receiver (35 receptions). In the road upset of West Virginia, fans caught a glimpse of Bailey’s potential when he carried 19 times for 94 yards and caught two passes.

Why he's ranked 20th: Although he is 20 pounds light than Carter, Bailey should fill-in admirably behind what is one of the league’s top offensive lines. And with quarterback Ryan Nassib returning, new coordinator Nathaniel Hackett can barely contain his enthusiasm for the 2011 version of the Orange offense. Look for Bailey to be the focal point of a unit with eight returning starters.

21. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers (JR)
2010 stats: 44 rec., 418 yds., 2 TDs, 309 rush yds., 4 TDs, 3 passing TDs

Arguably the Big East’s most talented receiver, but coming off a disappointing sophomore year. Likely won’t play as much from the Wildcat role, but new coordinator Frank Cignetti will find ways to get him the ball.

22. Julian Miller, DE/DT, West Virginia
2010 stats: 54 tackles, 14 TFL, 9 sacks

The departures of Chris Neild and Scooter Berry will force Miller to move to tackle this year. Miller registered nine sacks last year, but those numbers could be cut due to moving inside.

23. Lucas Nix, OL, Pittsburgh (SR)
Panthers struggled to get consistent play up front last year and will be dealing with a new scheme in 2011. Nix should be the top lineman and a likely All-Big East selection. 

24. Chas Alecxih, DT, Pittsburgh (SR)
2010 stats: 57 tackles, 9 TFL, 7.5 sacks

Stats may drop as he helps to anchor the interior of Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme. However, he should help run defense be among the best in the conference.

25. Scott Vallone, DT, Rutgers (JR)
2010 stats: 44 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks

Will be the leader of a remodeled defensive line. Was moved to nose tackle for 2011, but could be in for a breakout season as Rutgers’ top lineman.

Just Missing the Top 25

Mark Harrison, WR, Rutgers
Mario Benavides, C, Louisville
Phillip Thomas, S, Syracuse
Steve Beauharnais, LB, Rutgers
Sam Barrington, LB, South Florida
DeDe Lattimore, LB, South Florida
Don Barclay, OT, West Virginia
Dave Teggart, K, Connecticut
Quenton Washington, CB, South Florida
Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati
Jeremy Wright, RB, Louisville

Other Big East Content:

Athlon's 2011 Big East Predictions
Athlon's 2011 All-Big East Team

Ranking the College Football Programs: Big East

A New Twist on the Backyard Brawl

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<p> Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in the Big East.</p>
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