The Heisman Trophy may be the most coveted trophy in all of sports.
Ten of the last 11 winners of this priceless award have been quarterbacks. And since 1950, only one time has a non-offensive skill player — e.g., quarterback, running back or wide receiver — claimed the historic award (Charles Woodson, 1997). Yes, the quarterback is the most important position on the field. Yes, few players touch the ball more than a workhorse running back. But just because big uglies, heavy-hitters and pass rushers don't often get the famed trip to Radio City Music Hall in New York City, it doesn't mean they don't deserve it.
So expect to see more than just signal callers, pass-catchers and tailbacks on Athlon Sports' conference-by-conference Heisman Contenders.
The ACC's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:
1. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech (JR)
In only his first full season as the starter, Thomas showed why he has such a high ceiling. He threw for over 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns while rushing for 469 yards and 11 more touchdowns on the ground – which tied a school record for rushing TDs by a quarterback at a school with a long history of scamblers. His 6-foot-6, 262-pound frame has drawn Cam Newton comparisons, and while he isn’t nearly as explosive, Thomas has the capability of posting huge numbers and winning an ACC title this fall. He just needs to play better against Clemson.
2. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (JR)
Last fall the Tigers quarterback led the ACC in total offense at 289.0 yards per game. His 3,828 ranked first in the league as did his 33 touchdown passes. He added 218 yards rushing and five more scores on the ground. With a loaded collection of receivers and running backs returning this fall, Boyd should be able to post another huge year under the tutelage of Chad Morris. A big performance on the road against Florida State would go a long way to getting Boyd to New York.
3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (SO)
Few players have ever been ready to compete at a Heisman level right out of high school like Watkins. As a true freshman, Watkins led the ACC in all-purpose yards: 1,219 receiving, 231 rushing, 826 kick return and 12 punt return yards. He scored a total 13 touchdowns and would likely be No. 1 on the this list if his ability to contribute in all 12 Clemson games weren’t in currently in question.
4. Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina (SO)
Another freshman in the ACC, Bernard burst onto the scene with four touchdowns in his frist two career games. He then rattled off five straight 100-yard efforts, to finish with 1,253 yards and 13 scores in his first year on a collegiate gridiron. With arguably the top offensive line returning in front of him and a stellar quarterback we’ll address in just a moment, the South Florida product is poised for a huge second year in Chapel Hill.
5. Bryn Renner, QB, North Carolina (JR)
The strong-armed Tar Heel passer had an excellent first year as the starter in Chapel Hill. He led the ACC in completion percentage (68.3%) and topped the 3,000-yard mark to go with 26 touchdowns. Take away two tough games against Clemson and Rutgers in which he tossed three interceptions in each, Renner’s TD:INT ratio would have been an admirable 23:7. With a new up-tempo offense installed behind an awesome offensive line and running game, Renner has all the pieces in place to push for the stiff-armed trophy. His team’s bowl eligibility (or lack thereof) is what will likely keep him out of Manhattan in December.
6. Mike Glennon, QB, NC State (SR)
There was a reason Tom O’Brien let Russell Wilson walk to Wisconsin and his name is Glennon. In his first season as the starter, the lanky Glennon finished second to only Boyd with 31 touchdown passes and topped the 3,000-yard mark. He finished the year with a flurry, tossing 11 touchdowns in three straight wins over Clemson, Maryland and Louisville. He has a all the talent to be a pro passer and is playing on the sleeper team to watch in the ACC this fall.
7. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State (SR)
This will be the uber-talented Manuel’s final chance to realize his recruiting potential. His physical skill drips off his massive 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame. He has a big arm and in battled injuries during his first full season under center in 2011. Manuel still mustered 2,666 yards and 22 total touchdowns against only eight interceptions for an offense that lacked play-makers. Look for his final season to be his best in Tallahassee.
8. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson (SR)
Finally, Ellington is a senior. The Tigers tailback enters his final year after 454 career touches in three season in Death Valley. He has scored 26 times and is coming off his first 1,000-yard season after battling injuries for the better part of his career. If he can stay healthy, and hold off talented back-ups, Ellington has a chance to be the league’s top rusher in the explosive Clemson offensive attack.
9. David Amerson, CB, NC State (JR)
It is hard to argue that Amerson isn’t the nation’s top coverman. He led the NCAA with an absurd 13 interceptions — returning them for a total of 205 yards and two for touchdowns. He totaled 59 tackles for one of the ACC’s better defensive units. He has to guard the opponents top receiving threat and will start the season checking the Tennessee Vols superstar Justin Hunter. A big game against that passing attack in primetime in the Georgia Dome could vault Amerson into the Heisman mix in short order.
10. Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State (SR)
One of the nation’s top defensive lineman was the focal point of most offensive line coaches a year ago and it hurt his statistics. Still, Jenkins finished second in the league in sacks (8.0) and led the Noles in tackles for a loss (12.0). He has posted 104 total tackles over the last three years and will lead what could be the best Florida State defense in over a decade.
11. Tevin Washington, QB, Georgia Tech (SR)
Started hot and cooled off throughout ACC play, but returns in a great offensive scheme behind a stellar offensive line and deep stable of backs. Could easily top his 987 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing in 2012.
12. Sean Renfree, QB, Duke (SR)
Underrated passer finished third in ACC in total offense per game (236.1) and 18 total touchdowns. He trailed only Renner and Manuel in completion percentage (65.0%) in the league and has a star wideout to lean on in Conner Vernon. But he still plays for Duke.
13. Orwin Smith, RB, Georgia Tech (SR)
Finished second amongst ACC running backs in TDs (11) and will be running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. Rarely will a Tech back get enough carries to reach Heisman status, but Smith has the big play ability — try 10.1 yards per carry — to star in this league.
14. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson (JR)
Despite being the No. 2 option for Boyd, Hopkins finished fifth in the ACC in catches (72) and fourth in yards (978). He has the skillset to compliment Watkins and produce big numbers in Morris’ system.
15. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State (SO)
The freshman was on the verge of a breakout campaign until an ankle injury forced him to the sideline for four games. Greene posted a huge 12-catch, 163-yard, TD performance the week earlier against Wake Forest. He should be Manuel’s top target.
16. Erik Highsmith, WR, North Carolina (SR)
Despite being the No. 2 for the Tar Heels, Highsmith posted 51 receptions, 726 yards and five scores. With a new, high-flying offense under Larry Fedora, a great running game and tremendous quarterback, Highsmith should flourish as the top target.
17. Mike James, RB, Miami (SR)
The Canes were a mess in 2011 and the running game was no exception. But Al Golden is committed to growing his rushing attack and James will get the first look. He scored four of his seven touchdowns in the final four games of the year.
18. Lamarcus Joyner, S, Florida State (JR)
In his first season as a safety (he played corner as a freshman), Joyner delivered on his lofty recruiting stature. He finished fourth in the ACC with four picks and flashed play-making skill on special teams. His leadership and athletic ability make him one of the best safety prospects in the nation.
19. Kevin Parks, RB, Virginia (SO)
The carry split in Charlottesville is tough to pinpoint but Mike London wants a power running game and Parks gives him that. The record-setting prep back scored fime times in his first two career games and is much better suited for short yardage and goalline carries than Perry Jones. These two could easily be flipped and both could get 200 touches.
20. Perry Jones, RB, Virginia (SR)
The smaller more explosive Jones compliments the (also small) stronger and more physical Parks perfectly. Jones got more carries (184 to 152) and will catch tons of passes (48 receptions for 506 yards, 3 TD last year). Both backs will get plenty of touches.
21. Conner Vernon, WR, Duke (SR)
The top target for Renfree finished with 70 receptions for 956 yards and six scores last year. He is a tremendously dependable player in a system that is very passing game friendly. But it’s still Duke.
22. Kevin Reddick, LB, North Carolina (SR)
One of the top LB prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft should have a huge senior season as the leader of the Tar Heel defense. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Reddick should only build on his 71-tackle season.
23. Tanner Price, QB, Wake Forest (JR)
As only a sophomore, Price posted arguably the top TD:INT ratio with 20 scoring strikes and only six interceptions. He topped the 3,000-yard mark and led the Deacons to the postseason.
24. Tobias Palmer, WR, NC State (SR)
Entering his final season of eligibility, Palmer has a chance to explode onto the ACC scene. He showed flashes of ability with 37 receptions, 495 yards and five scores a year ago. His big-play skill plays well with star quarterback Mike Glennon.
25. Marcus Davis, WR, Virginia Tech (SR)
Few players have the raw athletic ability of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound wideout. If he can play with more consistency, he will be Thomas’ top target and will buld upon his 30-catch, 510-yard, 5-TD season of 2011.
Other Names to Watch:
Wes Brown/Stefon Diggs, RB/WR, Maryland (FR)
Burly runner could be the feature back while explosive dynamo is this year’s Watkins.
Greg Reid, CB, Florida State (SR)
Dynamic and explosive but needs to be more consistent on the outside.
Michael Holmes, RB, Virginia Tech (FR)
Could be next great Hokie back, but has rebuilt O-Line and deep backfield to hold off.
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Dependable, consistent bookend opposite Jenkins on league’s top D-Line.
James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
Should lead what should be one of the nation’s best defenses.
Athlon's 2012 ACC Team Previews
Related: 2012 Athlon Sports ACC Predictions
-by Braden Gall