Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the upcoming season with a look at the top 25 players for 2011 in the ACC.
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?
Breakdown of the Top 25 Players
Florida State - 6
Boston College - 2
Virginia Tech - 5
Clemson - 1
Maryland - 3
Georgia Tech - 1
Miami - 3
Virginia - 1
North Carolina - 3
1. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College (JR)
2010 stats: 183 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF
After leading the nation with over 14 stops per game, Kuechly finished as the runner-up for the Butkus Award (college football’s best linebacker). He set the Boston College single-season tackles record with 183 last fall and enters the season eighth all-time in school history (341 total tackles in only two seasons). The ACC Rookie of the Year in 2009 is a two-time All-ACC pick and was a AP All-American in 2010. The Eagles finished No. 1 in the ACC in total defense and rushing defense last year.
Why he’s ranked 1st: Kuechly has posted 22 consecutive games with at least 10 stops and there is no reason to believe the nation’s leading tackler will slow down anytime soon. He is a preseason All-American and will lead a solid linebacking corps that also returns Kevin Pierre-Paul on the weakside. Kuechly should once again be the heart and soul of one of the ACC’s top defensive units and is the preseason favorite to win the Butkus.
2.Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina (SR)
2010 stats: 59 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 10 sacks, 2 FF, 12 QB hurries
Coples played a bit out of position in 2010, as he was shifted inside to man the interior of the defensive line. However, he still managed to post solid numbers (10 sacks) from a position that normally does not see that type of production in getting after the quarterback. He also finished strong down the stretch with sacks in five of his last six games. He was a first-team defensive tackle All-ACC selection last year
Why he’s ranked 2nd: With a shift to end this fall and loads of returning talent around him on the defensive line, there is no reason Coples won’t be wreaking havoc in opponent’s backfields once again. Coples is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American and should be able to focus on pressuring the quarterback alongside end Donte Paige-Moss and tackle Tydreke Powell. Expect for an increase in production with the move to the outside.
3. Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech (JR)
2010 stats: 39 tackles, 9 INT, 8 PBU
Hosley led the nation in interceptions last fall with nine (returned for 110 yards) – including a breakout performance against NC State with three picks off All-ACC signal caller Russell Wilson. The nine interceptions tied a single-season school record. He also contributed in a big way as a dynamic punt return man: 19 attempts, 239 yards, 1 TD. An AP first-team All-American and easy first-team All-ACC pick, Hokie fans won’t have to worry about passes thrown to Hosley’s side of the field.
Why he’s ranked 3rd: An Athlon Sports preseason All-American, Hosley is poised to work his way into the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He helped Virginia Tech lead the nation in turnover margin a year ago, and with the questionable quarterback play in the conference, Hosley could easily repeat his stellar 2010 season. Additionally, his ability to tilt the field in the punt return game will be invaluable to a Frank Beamer squad that is always dangerous on special teams.
4. Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State (JR)
2010 stats: 63 tackles, 21.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks, 2 FF
After registering only 12 tackles in 2009, Jenkins was one of the driving forces behind Florida State’s defensive improvement last year. The Seminoles generated 25 sacks in 2010, but tied for the national lead with 48 last season. Coordinator Mark Stoops deserves credit for the turnaround, but Jenkins’ emergence was also key. He ranked second in the ACC with 13.5 sacks – which ranked No. 5 for most in a single season at Florida State – and earned first-team All-ACC honors for his 2010 performance.
Why he’s ranked 4th: Even though he will have more attention coming his way after a stellar sophomore season, expect Jenkins to contend for the NCAA lead in sacks and should finish with All-America honors. The junior will also anchor one of the nation’s top defensive lines and is on many NFL radars as a potential early entrant into the draft next year.
5.Kenny Tate, LB, Maryland (SR)
2010 stats: 100 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 INT (TD), 3.5 sacks, 4 FF
Entering his senior season, Tate is facing a change in roles as he transitions from free safety to the “Star” position – a hybrid linebacker/safety spot. He led the Terps in solo tackles a year ago (58) and was second in total stops (100) – becoming the first defensive back to reach 100 tackles since Tony Jackson in 2000. He led the ACC in forced fumbles per game, while leading a secondary that ranked No. 9 nationally in efficiency defense.
Why he’s ranked 5th: A consensus 2010 All-ACC selection, Tate is on many preseason award watch lists including the Butkus, Lott, Nagurski and Bednarik honors. An Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-ACC pick at linebacker, the tackling machine will help lead the Terps defense in Randy Edsall’s first season. Edsall consistently had excellent linebackers at UConn and the big-play Tate will continue that tradition in 2011.
6.Chase Minnifield, CB, Virginia (SR)
2010 stats: 48 tackles, 6 INT
An All-ACC first-team selection in 2010, Minnifield finished second in the conference and fifth in the nation with six interceptions last fall. Those included two big picks in the upset win over then No. 22 Miami. He led a Wahoos pass defense that allowed less than 200 yards per game, finishing 25th nationally and third in the ACC. Also used as a punt returner, Minnifield produced all over the field for the revamped UVa 3-4 scheme.
Why he’s ranked 6th: In year two of the 3-4 defensive gameplan, all Cavalier defenders should be more comfortable in their roles. A third-team All-American preseason pick by Athlon (first-team All-ACC), Minnifield will lead a secondary that returns loads of talent, including both starting safeties. Minnifield – who battled an ankle injury the final third of the season – should be in for big things in 2011.
7.Brandon Washington, OG, Miami (JR)
Washington led one of the best Miami offensive lines in recent memory last season. The only returning first-team All-ACC offensive lineman, Washington helped the Canes lead the ACC in total offense (421.3 ypg). He was a two-time ACC offensive lineman of the week last fall and helped improve the Miami rushing attack from 70th nationally in 2009 to 30th last year.
Why he’s ranked 7th: With three other returning starters alongside Washington, this Miami offensive line has a chance to produce the best rushing attack in Coral Gables since the early 2000s. The Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American, and first-team All-ACC performer anchors what will undoubtedly be the strength of the 2011 Miami offense.
8. Sean Spence, LB, Miami (SR)
2010 stats: 110 tackles, 16 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 6 PBU
After a solid freshman season in which he earned 2008 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and disappointing sophomore campaign, Spence bounced back with a stellar third year in Miami. He claimed the team MVP trophy and garnered second-team All-ACC honors.
Why he’s ranked 8th: Fans caught a glimpse of why Spence was so highly touted coming out of high school as a freshman, before his sophomore slump in 2009. But he bounced back and helped lead the nation’s No. 3 pass defense a year ago. A preseason first-team All-ACC pick just missed Athlon Sports All-American honors. Spence has bulked up to 224 pounds and the ferocious hitter will be the leader of the Canes defense in 2011.
9. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State (SO)
2010 stats: 58 tackles, 4 INTs, 12 PBU
Rhodes had a lot of pressure on his shoulders last season, entering the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman cornerback. Although Rhodes was thrown into the fire, he responded with a terrific year. Rhodes was named the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned Freshman All-American honors last season.
Why he’s ranked 9th: Rhodes is the first of two Florida State cornerbacks to make this list. Greg Reid checks in at No. 11 and should give the Seminoles one of the top cornerback combinations in the nation. Rhodes is one of the rising stars in college football and with another year under his belt, should challenge for a spot on the first-team All-ACC at the end of 2011. Jayron Hosley is clearly the conference’s best corner, but Rhodes may not be far behind following this season.
10. Tydreke Powell, DT, North Carolina (SR)
2010 stats: 47 tackles, 2.5 sacks
The overall numbers may be modest, but Powell is on the cusp of breaking through as one of the ACC’s top linemen. He collected 42 tackles in his first two years in Chapel Hill, but made 47 stops in 13 starts last year. Powell is regarded as one of the conference’s top run-stuffing tackles and also forced one fumble last year.
Why he’s ranked 10th: Don’t let the stats deceive you. Powell is one of the conference’s top linemen and should have another steady season. The Tar Heels own one of the best defensive lines in the nation, and the combination of Powell and end Quinton Coples will be dangerous for opposing offenses. Look for Powell to make the Tar Heels run defense stingy once again, while earning first-team All-ACC honors.
11. Greg Reid, CB, Florida State (JR)
2010 stats: 65 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INTs, 14 PBU, 17 PBU, 3 FF
Although Reid had a bad performance against Oklahoma in Florida State’s second game of last season, he bounced back to claim honorable mention All-ACC honors. Reid went into the offseason with momentum on his side, earning Defensive MVP honors of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. His two forced fumbles in the bowl was a key factor in Florida State’s victory. Reid’s contributions to Florida State aren’t limited to defense, as he is one of the top return men in the ACC. Reid averaged 10.1 yards on 31 returns, including one for a touchdown against Samford. His 742 kickoff return yards last year were a single-season record at Florida State.
Why he’s ranked 11th: Reid has shown improvement throughout both years in Tallahassee, but falls behind teammate Xavier Rhodes in terms of cover ability. Reid tied with Virginia Tech’s Jayron Hosley for the ACC lead with 17 passes defended last season. Despite a slight frame at 5-foot-8, the junior is a physical corner that is not afraid of contact. With Reid and Xavier Rhodes, Florida State will boast one of the nation's top cornerback combinations.
12. David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech (JR)
2010 stats: 619 yards, 5 TD, 15 rec., 234 yds, 4 TD, 584 kick return yards, 2 TD
With Ryan Williams and Darren Evans atop the depth chart last year, Wilson started the season as a special teams dynamo. Wilson’s gamebreaking speed allowed him to lead the ACC in kick returns (26.55 yards) – including a game-winning 90-yard kickoff return touchdown against Georgia Tech with 2:23 remaining. As the third-stringer for the better part of the last two years, Wilson posted 2,096 all-purpose yards and 15 TDs. His raw athletic ability was on display when he earned All-American honors in the triple jump at the NCAA Outdoor Championship last year.
Why he’s ranked 12th: Now with Ryan Williams and Darren Evans gone to the NFL, the starting tailback gig falls to Wilson. Running behind what should be the conference’s top offensive line – and with the Hokies breaking in a new quarterback – Wilson expects to be the focal point of the offense. The preseason first-team All-ACC pick can expect huge numbers in his first season as the starter in Blacksburg.
13. Montel Harris, RB, Boston College (SR)
2010 stats: 1,243 yards, 8 TD, 18 rec., 112 yards, TD
Harris has finished first or second in the ACC in rushing in each of the last two seasons. The senior finished as the league’s top runner last fall with 103.6 yards per game, despite missing the last two games of the year. He enters 2011 as the ACC’s active rushing leading with 3,600 yards (good for second best in BC history). His 21 100-yard games are a Boston College and his 27 touchdowns are third all-time in school history. He is 15th on the ACC’s all-time rushing list.
Why he’s ranked 13th: Harris is one of only three first-team All-ACC players returning to action. With a school-record 756 carries, he should be the focal point of an always blue-collar, physical Boston College rushing attack. The fourth-year starter will benefit from three starters on the offensive line returning and the development of Chase Rettig at quarterback. However, a knee injury at the end of last season and the emergence of backup Andre Williams could prevent him from topping last year's rushing totals.
14. Andrew Datko, OT, Florida State (SR)
Offensive line coach Rick Trickett is one of the best in the business and it’s no surprise Florida State has improved significantly since his arrival. Datko missed three games due to injury last season, but allowed only one sack in 11 games. He has started 36 games in his career and plays a key role in the Seminole offense by protecting the blindside of EJ Manuel.
Why he’s ranked 14th: With no stats to compare, it’s very difficult to judge offensive linemen. With Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon exhausting their eligibility, it’s up to Datko to be the leader of the Florida State offensive line. As long as Datko can stay healthy, he should be one of the conference’s top tackles and could contend for All-America honors.
15. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State (JR)
2010 stats: 861 yards, 4 TDs, 4 INTs, 170 rush yds., 1 TD
The ACC lost a lot of starpower at quarterback after last season, which makes choosing the preseason first-team All-ACC quarterback nearly impossible. Maryland’s Danny O’Brien is back, but Manuel has shined in limited action. Manuel went 4-2 as a starter with Christian Ponder sidelined due to arm injuries over the last two years. He also led the Seminoles to a victory in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl, after Ponder left due to a concussion.
Why he’s ranked 15th: Deciding between O’Brien and Manuel in the rankings was one of the toughest calls to make. O’Brien enters the year with better numbers and more starts, but the upside is clearly with Manuel. Jimbo Fisher has done an excellent job with quarterbacks since he set foot in Tallahassee and Manuel should be his next success, as we like the junior to finish as the top quarterback in the ACC.
16. Danny O’Brien, QB, Maryland (SO)
2010 stats: 2,438 yards, 22 TD, 8 INT, Rush TD
After throwing for nearly 2,500 yards last season, O’Brien is the ACC’s second leading returning passer. Considering he barely played in the first three games of the 2010 season, it was an impressive showing for O’Brien. His 134.54 QB rating makes him the ACC’s most efficient returning passer and even showed his athletic ability by catching a touchdown against Clemson game last fall. O’Brien’s stellar play in his first season earned him FWAA freshman All-American honors.
Why he’s ranked 16th: O’Brien finished the season strong with two wins over NC State and ECU – including his best career game against the Wolfpack with 417 yards, 4 TDs and no interceptions. Although the new coaching staff will likely create a much-more conservative offense, O’Brien still has a chance to be the league’s best signal caller. With receiver Torrey Smith gone and some transition time to the new offensive scheme, O’Brien’s numbers may not match their 2010 totals.
17. Bruce Taylor, LB, Virginia Tech (JR)
2010 stats: 91 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 12 QB hurries
Taylor blossomed into the next great Hokie backer last season, starting all 14 games and leading the team in tackles and tackles for loss. He also earned second-team All-ACC honors last year. His big-play ability is a proven commodity, as his penchant for game-changing plays behind the line of scrimmage. He had a monster game in the seven-point win against Georgia Tech with 14 tackles, two tackles for a loss and two sacks.
Why he’s ranked 17th: Taylor is an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-ACC selection and big things should be in store for 2011. His ability to rush the passer from his linebacker spot will prove to be invaluable as the Hokies need to replace plenty of talent up front along the line.
18. Jaymes Brooks, OG, Virginia Tech (SR)
Brooks is the first of two Virginia Tech linemen to make this list for 2011. The senior has started the last 27 games at right guard and earned second-team All-ACC honors last season. Brooks has helped to lead the Virginia Tech rushing attack to a finish among the top 25 nationally in rushing offense over the last two seasons.
Why he’s ranked 18th: With Logan Thomas taking over for Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, the Hokies will probably lean a little more on the rushing attack this year. David Wilson should be one of the ACC’s top rushers and the offensive line will be a big reason why. Brooks should be the anchor and one of the ACC’s top linemen this season.
19. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson (JR)
2010 stats: 686 yards, 10 TD, 12 rec., 109 yards, TD, 238 return yards, TD
An injury ended Ellington’s 2010 campaign after eight games. Through those eight games last year, Ellington posted four 100-yard games and 11 total touchdowns. He was on pace for a breakout season and has the talent to explode in 2011.
Why he’s ranked 19th: The Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-ACC performer should have a 1,000-yard season if he can stay healthy. He has game-changing ability and should be the focal point of an offense that features a solid offensive line returning in front of him.
20. Ray-Ray Armstrong, S, Miami (JR)
2010 stats: 79 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 3 PBU
Armstrong was one of Miami’s top defenders, despite starting only three games last year. In 13 games played last season, he ranked third on the team with 79 tackles and tied for the lead with three interceptions. Armstrong also showed his playmaking ability with an interception return for a score against Florida A&M. Although he wasn’t a regular starter, Armstrong earned second-team All-ACC honors.
Why he’s ranked 20th: Armstrong was the most difficult player to rank on this list. The junior was an elite prospect coming out of high school and has all of the physical tools to be one of the top safeties in college football. However, he needs to be more consistent to be considered among the best in the conference. Under new coach Al Golden, Armstrong could blossom into the star that his recruiting hype suggested and easily outperform this ranking in 2011.
21. Joe Vellano, DT, Maryland (JR)
Vellano was an unknown entering last year, but finished as a second-team All-ACC selection. Vellano led the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks and is an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-ACC pick.
22. Nigel Bradham, LB, Florida State (SR)
Bradham has led Florida State in tackles in back-to-back seasons. A solid career, but probably hasn’t lived up to recruiting hype – which could change with a big senior year.
23. Blake DeChristopher, OT, Virginia Tech (SR)
Has 37 starts over three years and a second-team All-ACC selection last year. Should open plenty of holes for David Wilson and Virginia Tech’s rushing attack.
24. Donte Paige-Moss, DE, North Carolina (JR)
Could be one of the ACC’s breakout performers after registering seven sacks last year. Quinton Coples will draw the attention on the other side, which will allow Paige-Moss to approach double-digit sack totals.
25. Omoregie Uzzi, OG, Georgia Tech (JR)
Earned second-team All-ACC honors last year and will be counted upon to clear the way for quarterback Tevin Washington and a stable of talented running backs in 2011.
Just Missing the Top 25:
Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina
George Bryan, TE, NC State
Audie Cole, LB, NC State
Donnie Fletcher, CB, Boston College
Rashard Hall, S, Clemson
Dwight Jones, WR, North Carolina
Sean Renfree, QB, Duke
JR Sweezy, DT, NC State
Vaughn Telemaque, S, Miami
Conner Vernon, WR, Duke
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami
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