ACC Player Rankings: The Top 50 Players for 2012

Clemson's Sammy Watkins is one of the nation's top receivers.

Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson are the clear favorites to win the ACC title in 2012 and there's no shortage of players from those three teams in the top 50 players. Clemson's Sammy Watkins will serve a two-game suspension this year but ranks as the conference's best player. Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas should be better in his second season as the starter, while Florida State is loaded with defensive talent. 

Compiling the top 50 players of any conference is never an easy task. However, Athlon established a criteria to help compile the rankings. 

Here are five factors that contributed to the criteria for the rankings:
1. Projection on 2012 Performance 
2. Importance to team
3. Positional importance
4. NFL Draft stock
5. Career performance 

Athlon's Top 50 ACC Players for 2012

1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Despite his two-game suspension to start 2012, Watkins checks in as Athlon’s No. 1 player in the ACC. High expectations surrounded Watkins from the moment he arrived on campus, and he quickly emerged as Clemson’s top target, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 scores. The Florida native was also a dangerous weapon on special teams, averaging 25 yards per kickoff return and taking one back for a touchdown in the win over Maryland. Although Watkins could have trouble matching last season’s totals, expect the sophomore to finish as a first-team All-American.

2. David Amerson, CB, NC State
At 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, Amerson has uncommon size for a cornerback. He also put up uncommon results last season. His 13 interceptions last season were an ACC record and one short of the FBS record held by Washington’s Al Worley. Amerson had four multi-interception games last season and returned two picks for touchdowns. Hard to believe, but Amerson did not have any interceptions in his first season in 2010.

3. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
Thomas wasted little time in establishing himself as the latest productive and dangerous dual-threat quarterback to wear a Virginia Tech uniform. Last season, the sophomore set a new school single-season mark for total yards with 3,482 and accounted for a total of 30 touchdowns. He was the team’s second-leading rusher (469 yards) and passed for more than 3,013 yards, the second-most by a Hokie quarterback in a season, with all of this coming as a first-year starter.

4. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson 
The junior from Hampton, Va., led the ACC in total offense last year (289.0 ypg) and was a key reason why Clemson hoisted the conference championship trophy a year ago. He accounted for an ACC record 38 touchdowns in 2011 and ranks first in Tigers’ history in most every major passing category. His 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame fits Chad Morris’ system perfectly, and with a variety of supremely talented skill players around him, he should post another huge statistical season in Death Valley. The key for Boyd’s long-term legacy, however, will be how his team finishes the season. Cutting back on his interceptions, he threw nine of his 12 during Clemson’s 2-4 finish, will go a long way to repeating as ACC champs.

5. Joe Vellano, DT, Maryland 
The 6-foot-1, 285-pound defensive end from Rexford, N.Y., is the star of the Maryland roster. He led the nation in tackles per game (7.8) by a lineman last year. He has started all 25 games the last two years with 157 tackles, 18.0 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. While he doesn’t possess true down lineman size that the scouts on Sundays look for, his motor is unmatched by most of the nation and allows him to achieve at an All-American level. It is why he is ranked as the ACC’s top defensive lineman by Athlon Sports for the 2012 season.

6. Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State
Jenkins’ numbers dropped last year, but he still remains one of the nation’s top pass rushers. He recorded 13.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2010 but with defenses paying more attention to his side of the line, Jenkins finished with eight sacks and 12 tackles for a loss in 2011. The Tallahassee native has earned All-ACC honors each of the last two years and is on the preseason watchlists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lott Impact Trophy. With Bjoern Werner emerging as one of the ACC’s top ends on the other side, Jenkins and Florida State's defensive line should rank among the nation's best.

7. Omoregie Uzzi, OG, Georgia Tech
Uzzi is the leader of Georgia Tech’s offensive line, starting 24 games over the last two years and earning first-team All-ACC honors in 2011. He is a good fit in Georgia Tech’s blocking scheme, largely due to his good lateral ability and physical presence when clearing the way for rushers. The senior is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012 and was a big reason why the Yellow Jackets ranked second in the nation in rushing last season.

8. Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
Bernard burst on the scene in his first season in a North Carolina uniform as he became the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997. The leading rusher among all FBS freshmen, Bernard finished the season third in the ACC In rushing with 1,253 yards, scored 14 total touchdowns and was a first-team all-conference selection.  Bernard redshirted in 2010 after tearing his ACL on the third day of fall practice, but made an immediate impact in 2011 and enters this season as one of the ACC’s top running backs.

9. James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
A second-team All-ACC selection last season, Gayle tied for sixth in the conference and led Virginia Tech in sacks with seven. He also had 38 total tackles and was second on the team with 12.5 tackles for a loss. He was named the ACC’s Defensive Lineman of the Week on two different occasions in 2011 and started every game he played in (13), missing one due to injury.

10. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Werner is one of the most interesting stories in the ACC. As a German exchange student, he played only two seasons of high school football in the United States and quickly emerged as a key member of Florida State’s rotation in the trenches. Werner recorded 37 stops, seven sacks and 11 tackles for a loss last year and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-ACC selection for 2012. With Brandon Jenkins back on the other side for his senior year, Florida State should have one of the top defensive end combinations in college football.

11. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State
Despite a shoulder injury and little help from his offensive line and rushing attack, Manuel finished 2011 with 2,666 yards and 18 passing scores. Even more impressive than his passing yards was his 65.3 completion percentage and eight interceptions over 311 attempts. Manuel had plenty of highlights, throwing for 249 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl and 321 yards against NC State. With a loaded group of receivers, Manuel should have a chance to surpass last season’s totals. However, Florida State’s offense needs the offensive line to give him more protection, and the rushing attack to provide more balance in 2012.

12. Mike Glennon, QB, NC State
In many ways, NC State’s offense didn’t miss a beat in 2011 even with first-year starter Mike Glennon assuming the reigns from All-ACC performer Russell Wilson, who transferred to Wisconsin for his final season. Glennon tossed 31 touchdown passes, which is the second-most in a single season in school history, while passing for more than 3,000 yards and completing nearly 63 percent of his attempts. 

13. Oday Aboushi, OL, Virginia
The Brooklyn, N.Y., lineman has started the last two seasons on an improving Cavaliers offensive line. Aboushi was twice the ACC’s offensive lineman of the week on the way to second-team all-conference honors. Aboushi, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Palestine, was honored at a reception last season for Muslim-Americans hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

14. James Hurst, OT, North Carolina
Hurst has started every game but one in his first two seasons as North Carolina’s left tackle. He got his first start in the second game of his true freshman season and has been a mainstay at left tackle since. A Freshman All-American in 2010, Hurst received second-team All-ACC honors last season. He and teammate Jonathan Cooper became the first Tar Heel offensive line tandem to receive all-conference honors since 1993.

15. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
A two-time second-team All-ACC honoree, Cooper has the most starts (35) of any player on North Carolina’s roster. Cooper is a four-year starter on the Tar Heels’ offensive line as he made 10 starts at left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2009. For his career, Cooper has started every game he has played in, missing three in his first season because of injury. He pairs with tackle James Hurst to form one of the top left sides in the ACC.

16. Bryn Renner, QB, North Carolina
After sitting behind then-starter and current Houston Texans backup quarterback T.J. Yates, Renner took full advantage of his first opportunity to shine. The sophomore set a North Carolina single-season record in 2011 with 26 touchdown passes while becoming only the second player in school history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He also led the ACC and was 10th in the nation in passing efficiency as he completed nearly 70 percent of his throws.

17. Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
A second-team All-ACC selection last season, Fuller established himself as the next great Virginia Tech defensive back in 2011. After playing primarily in the Hokies’ nickel package in 2010, Fuller started all 14 games last season – half of those at nickel back/whip linebacker and the other seven at cornerback. Fuller led the team with 14.5 tackles for a loss and also added 4.5 sacks and two interceptions.

18. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
While Greg Reid will be missed, Rhodes was Florida State’s top cover corner and should keep the Seminoles ranked among the top 25 in pass defense in 2012. Rhodes had a strong freshman year, recording 58 stops and four interceptions and earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. His play in 2011 dropped off a bit, but at 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, Rhodes should easily bounce back into All-American contention.

19. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
When healthy, Ellington is one of the top backs in the ACC. He missed part of 2010 with a toe injury and was hobbled at various times last season. Ellington still managed to run for the eighth-best total in Clemson history in 2011 with 1,178 yards. The 5-9, 190-pound back has carried Clemson’s tradition of big-play backs by averaging 5.8 yards per carry in his career.

20. Lamarcus Joyner, S, Florida State
After playing in all 14 games at cornerback as a true freshman in 2010, Joyner moved back to safety in time for 2011 and emerged as one of the ACC’s top defensive backs. He recorded 54 stops and four interceptions, while earning first-team All-ACC honors. At 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds, Joyner is a tad undersized for safety, but his physical presence, speed and range make up for any concerns about his height.

21. Nitkita Whitlock, DT, Wake Forest
The self-proclaimed 5-foot-9 and ¾ defensive tackle (don’t forget those three-quarters by the way) has come a long way from Texas prep outside linebacker with no offers to play Division I football. Heading into 2012, Whitlock has become one of the peskiest defensive lineman in the nation after a second-team All-ACC, 64-tackle, 14.0-TFL season in 2011. 

22. Bruce Taylor, LB, Virginia Tech
Taylor led the team in tackles in 2010 and was doing the same through the first eight games of last season before suffering a leg injury that cut his junior campaign short. Despite missing the last six games, Taylor still earned honorable mention All-ACC recognition after posting a total of 53 tackles, seven tackles for a loss and five sacks in less than eight full games.

23. Dalton Freeman, C, Clemson 
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior from Pelion, S.C., is the unquestioned leader of the Tigers offensive line. He is the lone returning starter from a group that led the ACC in passing offense and finished second in scoring. Protecting the deep collection of skill players is atop his priority list, and should he do that, Clemson could repeat as ACC champs.

24. Jeremiah Attaochu, LB, Georgia Tech 
Despite missing two games a year ago, Attaochu led the team in sacks (6.0) and tackles for a loss (11.5). He is developing into one of the most dynamic edge players in the ACC and can be unblockable on the outside. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Washington, D.C., is only a junior and has a chance to explode onto the national scene. Improving the ACC’s seventh-ranked rush defense would go a long way to getting Tech back to the title game.

25. Earl Wolff, S, NC State 
In one of the nation’s top secondaries, Wolff locks down the back end. He is a physical player at 6-foot-0 and 207 pounds and it showed with his 105 tackles last year — good for second on the team. He intercepted three passes while playing for a defense that led the ACC in turnover margin (+1.08/game). The senior from Raeford, N.C., returns for his final season with eyes on a conference championship.

26. Merrill Noel, CB, Wake Forest
Jim Grobe’s penchant for redshirting freshmen paid off again as Noel was widely recognized as a freshman All-American last season. The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year had an astonishing 19 pass breakouts to go with 66 tackles and two picks.

27. Steve Greer, LB, Virginia
The only major holdover from the Al Groh era, Greer is an anchor at linebacker for his second coach and second scheme (from 3-4 to 4-3) in Charlottesville. The fifth-year senior led the Cavs in tackles last season with a career-high 103 stops despite missing the bowl game. 

28. Kevin Reddick, LB, North Carolina
Reddick is a four-year starter at linebacker who finished second on team in tackles last season with 71 total stops, 39 of those solo. He was the Tar Heels' leading tackler in 2010 with 74 (48 solo stops) and was named to The Sporting News' All-ACC Freshman team in 2009.

29. Conner Vernon, WR, Duke
Vernon has racked up 2,675 receiving yards and 13 touchdown passes on 198 catches in three seasons for the Blue Devils, leading the team in receiving the last two seasons. He could threaten school and ACC records by the end of the season.

30. DeAndre Hopkins, WR Clemson
Hopkins is a clear No. 2 receiver on a team with Sammy Watkins, but he’s poised to make a statement of his own in 2012. The junior caught 72 passes last season (fourth-most in Clemson history) for 978 yards with five touchdowns. He also had three 100-yard receiving games in the final seven.

31. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State
Thanks to Sammy Watkins’ emergence last season, it was easy to overlook Greene’s freshman totals. He caught 38 passes for 596 yards and seven scores but was slowed by an injury that forced him to miss four games midway through the year. With a full offseason to heal back to 100 percent, Greene should be one of the ACC’s top receivers and the No. 1 target for quarterback EJ Manuel.

32. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
If ACC fans weren’t familiar with Jernigan after his standout freshman season, it might be time to get acquainted. He quickly emerged as Florida State’s top defensive tackle, recording 30 stops and six tackles for a loss. Jernigan is already garnering plenty of attention this preseason, as he was named to the Outland Trophy watchlist and is an Athlon Sports third-team All-ACC selection. With another offseason to work in the weight room and with coordinator Mark Stoops, look for Jernigan to build off his impressive debut season.  

33. Perry Jones, RB, Virginia 
Few backs in the nation play as versatile a role as Jones does for the Wahoos. He had 20+ carries only three times last year and nearly got to 1,000 yards rushing, but he also posted 48 receptions for 506 yards in the passing game. His big-play, open-space ability even landed him on the punt return team for a few games. Expect another solid year from the non-traditional running back from Chesapeake, Va.  

34. Anthony Chickillo, DE, Miami
The sophomore from Tampa, Fla., is one of the few proven commodities along the Miami defensive line. He never takes a play off and has all the physical tools at 6-foot-4, 250-pounds to become an All-ACC star. Yet, he is still young and has plenty of growing to do. Should some names develop around him, Chickillo could become the Canes top defensive player.

35. Morgan Moses, OL, Virginia
The Cavaliers resurgence under Mike London began with recruiting victories like Moses, who came to UVa with five stars next to his name. He helped pave the way for Jones and Kevin Parks en route to finishing fourth in the ACC in rushing last fall. Additionally, the 6-foot-6, 335-pounder helped the Virginia finish third in the league (23rd nationally) with only 1.23 sacks allowed per game. Look for Moses to lead the Wahoo rushing attack once again in 2012.

36. Demetrius Hartsfield, LB, Maryland 
The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder from Raleigh, N.C., had to fill the void when Kenny Tate got hurt a year ago. He performed more than admirably by posting 12.0 tackles per game, good for fifth nationally and second in the ACC.

37. Christian Jones, LB, Florida State
Jones is on the move this year, switching from the strongside to the weakside of the linebacking corps. Although the change in positions isn’t that big of a deal, Jones helped in coverage from the strongside in 2011 and that assignment is expected to go to converted safety Nick Moody in 2012. Moving to the weakside should help Jones be more of a playmaker for Florida State’s defense this year.

38. J.R. Collins, DE, Virginia Tech
Collins earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last season after starting all 14 games and leading Hokie defensive linemen with 57 total tackles. He also contributed 9.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and picked off a pass.

39. Kenny Tate, LB, Maryland
Tate received a medical redshirt after missing all but four games last season, giving the Terrapins a major boost on defense. He had 100 tackles, 8.5 for a loss and three interceptions in his last full season in 2010. He’s a former safety looking to play a full year at linebacker.

40. Everett Dawkins, DT, Florida State
The Seminoles are overflowing with depth on the defensive line. Ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner are two of the best in the ACC, while sophomore Timmy Jernigan is a rising star in the middle. In his first full year as the starter last season, Dawkins recorded 25 tackles and earned honorable mention All-ACC honors.

41. Kevin Parks, RB, Virginia 
All this record-setting back needs is touches. He is built low to the ground, which makes him impossible to hit cleanly, and plays much bigger than his 5-8 frame,. All he did in his first two college games last year was score five touchdowns. 

42. Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech
An honorable mention All-ACC selection at safety in 2011, Exum is expected to start at cornerback for the Hokies this fall. Exum led the team with 89 total tackles and had 10 pass break ups to go with one interception.

43. Derrick Hopkins, DE, Virginia Tech
Hopkins started all 14 games last season, including five of them alongside older brother Antoine, on the Hokies’ defensive line. Derrick finished his first season as a full-time starter with 51 total tackles, five tackles for a loss and three sacks.

44. Tanner Price, QB, Wake Forest
Price was one of the most improved players in the ACC last season, passing for 3,017 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. He improved his completion percentage from 56.8 percent to 60 percent as well.

45. Brandan Bishop, S, NC State
David Amerson garners much of the attention in the Wolfpack secondary, but Bishop and fellow safety Earl Wolff form a solid duo. Bishop has nine interceptions and 204 tackles over the last three years.

46. Malliciah Goodman, DE, Clemson
A senior and a returning starter, Goodman (51 tackles, eight quarterback hurries) is the key player on a Tigers defensive line lacking depth and veterans.

47. Michael Campanaro, WR, Wake Forest
With Chris Givens moving onto the NFL, Campanaro will become the new No. 1 receiver for quarterback Tanner Price. He had a huge sophomore year last season, catching 73 passes for 833 yards and two scores. The junior will have a chance to push those totals even higher in 2012. 

48. Orwin Smith, RB, Georgia Tech
Smith is a home-run threat out of the backfield for the Yellow Jackets, averaging an national-best 10.1 yards per carry. Eleven of his 61 touches went for touchdowns.

49. Kevin Pierre-Paul, LB, Boston College 
With Luke Kuechly departing, KPP will have to be a leader now on the weakside. The slightly undersized (6-1, 212) junior from Norwalk, Conn., finished second on the team in tackles with 74 stops.

50. Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
After transferring from junior college, Williams made his presence known immediately as he was one of four North Carolina defensive players to start all 13 games in 2011. Williams finished his junior season with 54 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.


Team Breakdown of Athlon's Top 50 ACC Players

Boston College - 1
Clemson - 6
Duke - 1
Florida State - 9
Georgia Tech - 3
Maryland - 3
Miami - 1
NC State - 4
North Carolina - 6
Virginia - 5
Virginia Tech - 7
Wake Forest - 4

 

by David Fox (@DavidFox615), Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven) and Mark Ross

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