Ranking the best of the best in any conference is never an easy task. However, the Big East was perhaps the most difficult BCS league to rank. Rutgers' Khaseem Greene is an Athlon Sports' second-team All-American selection, but there's also a handful of young players ready to emerge in 2012. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater is coming off an impresive freshman campaign and should only get better in 2012. Pittsburgh's Ray Graham was well on his way to rushing for 1,000 yards last year but suffered a torn ACL in the victory over Connecticut.
As mentioned above, 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 Big East Players for 2012
1. Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers (SR)
Shifting Greene from safety to linebacker paid big dividends for Rutgers’ defense in 2011. He led the team with 141 tackles, recorded 14 tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles. Greene was named a first-team All-Big East selection and shared the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year honor with Cincinnati’s Derek Wolfe. Even with a new defensive coordinator, Greene is primed for another big season and is projected as an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012.
2. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh (JR)
A local product out of Pittsburgh Penn Hills, Donald was second in the Big East with 11 sacks and tied for second with 16 tackles for a loss in his first season as a starter. He will have to adjust to a 4-3 defense after playing every lineman position in the 3-4 last season. He started the final five games at end last season, but he’ll be a tackle in 2012.
3. Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh
After Oct. 15, Graham was second in the nation in rushing at 134 yards per game. Alas, his season came to an end the following week with a torn ACL against Connecticut. When healthy, Graham, who is Khaseem Greene’s half brother, was a big-play back (5.8 yards per carry) despite subpar offensive line play. He could flourish in Paul Chryst’s offense.
4. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
As expected, Bridgewater experienced ups and downs as a freshman last season. He threw an interception in his only pass attempt in the opener against Murray State but finished the year with five touchdown tosses over the final two games. Bridgewater’s play was crucial to keeping Louisville in the Big East title hunt last season and will only get better as a sophomore. With plenty of weapons at his disposal and a talented offensive line, Bridgewater should finish 2012 ranked among the top five players in the Big East.
5. Justin Pugh, OL, Syracuse
One of the nation’s top offensive tackles, Pugh enters his junior season with high expectations. He has started all 25 games over the last two seasons, culminating in two all-conference awards (2nd team in 2010 and 1st team in 2011). He has paved the way for back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers and is charged with protecting star quarterback Ryan Nassib this fall. With a great year at Syracuse, Pugh could leave early for the NFL following the 2012 season.
6. Ryne Giddins, DE, South Florida
Giddins as a huge catch for South Florida on the recruiting trail and has steadily climbed the ranks to be one of the Big East’s top defenders. He started two games in 2010 and recorded 3.5 sacks in limited action. Giddins stepped up his play last season, recording 5.5 sacks and 44 tackles in 12 starts. He also earned second-team All-Big East honors in 2011. Giddins is South Florida’s best speed rusher and is poised to have his best all-around year in 2012.
7. Logan Ryan, CB, Rutgers
As a Thorpe and Benarik Award watch lister, Ryan might be the top pure coverman in the Big East. The in-state product (New Berlin, N.J.) posted 67 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 14 pass break ups and three interceptions as only a sophomore on what was easily the league’s top defense. Ryan is getting plenty of NFL attention and could be tempted to leave for the next level with another stellar year of play in Piscataway.
8. Hakeem Smith, S, Louisville
After a Big East Rookie of the Year award back in 2010, Smith turned in a first-team All-Big East season as only a sophomore last fall. The Jonesboro, Ga., native has quickly supplanted himself as one of the most versatile safeties in the country. The junior has posted back-to-back 80-tackle seasons and has a chance to enter the NFL Draft in 2013 with another great campaign this year. Especially, if he can lead the Cardinals defense to a Big East Championship.
9. DeDe Lattimore, LB, South Florida
The speedy linebacking corps is the backbone of the USF defense, and Lattimore is the best of the bunch. A starter since his redshirt freshman season, Lattimore finished 2011 with 94 tackles, including 13 tackles for a loss and seven sacks.
10. Lyle McCombs, RB, Connecticut
The Huskies have had a recent tradition of churning out talented and productive tailbacks. McCombs proved a year ago that he is the next in line after rushing for 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns as only a freshman. The diminutive runner — listed at 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds — has a shot at Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors should a reworked offensive line gel quickly in front of him.
11. Mario Benavides, C, Louisville
Benavides was hobbled early last season due to a knee injury and his leadership and presence on the offensive line was clearly missed. In his absence, Louisville managed only one rushing score and managed 83 rushing yards against FIU. The Cardinals line improved once Benavides returned to the lineup, recording at least 100 rushing yards in eight of the last nine games. The senior should be the Big East’s top center and has been selected to the Rimington Award watch list.
12. Jarred Holley, S, Pittsburgh
Holley is entering his fourth season as a starter for his third head coach with the Panthers. Holley set a career high in tackles last season with 67, but he’s also proven to be a ball hawk with five interceptions as a sophomore and three as a redshirt freshman.
13. Steve Beauharnais, LB, Rutgers
It’s easy to overlook Beauharnais considering he plays next to All-American candidate Khaseem Greene. However, the senior is one of the Big East’s premier defenders, as evidenced by his 16 tackles for a loss and five sacks last year. Beauharnais will have to adjust to a new coordinator but he should close out his Rutgers’ career with a standout senior season.
14. Mark Popek, OL, South Florida
In his first full season as starter, the left tackle anchored an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks in the Big East and led the conference in rushing.
15. B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida
Few players since Michael Vick have possessed the type of speed, explosiveness and running ability that Daniels showed early in his career. Developing into a great quarterback, however, takes more than athletic ability. Entering his fourth year as the starter, Daniels is poised for his best season. He has elevated his completion rate all three seasons and posted easily his best statistical season in 2011 (3,186 total yards, 19 total TD). With a stable coaching staff and his best supporting cast yet, USF fans can expect big things from the Tallahassee native in 2012.
16. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse
After leading Syracuse to a bowl game in his first season as a starter in 2010, Nassib watched his numbers improve in 2011, but the Orange slipped to a 5-7 record. His 2,685 passing yards and 259 completions were a Syracuse single-season high, while tying the school-record for touchdown passes in a year (22). The Orange finished last in the Big East in scoring and total defense last season, so it’s up to Nassib and the offense to carry this team in 2012. With Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales back at receiver, Nassib should have a chance to surpass last season’s totals.
17. Montel Harris, RB, Temple
A knee injury sidelined Harris for nearly all of last season, but when healthy, he is one of the top backs in the Big East. The senior transferred to Temple from Boston College for his final year of eligibility and enters 2012 as the NCAA’s active leading rusher with 3,735 yards. Harris should team with Matt Brown to form a dangerous one-two punch against Big East defenses. The senior could finish 2012 higher on this list but also needs to prove his knee is 100 percent.
18. Trevardo Williams, DE, Connecticut
The undersized defensive end from Bridgeport, Conn. has yet to miss a game in his three-year Husky career. He set career highs with 43 total tackles, 15.0 tackles for a loss and led the Big East with 12.5 sacks last fall.
19. Walter Stewart, DE, Cincinnati
The Ashville, Ohio native has never missed a game in his Bearcat career and could be in for a breakout final season. He posted 44 total tackles, 11.0 tackles for a loss and 6.0 sacks, while helping Cincinnati's defense show big improvement last year.
20. Sio Moore, LB, Connecticut
From North Carolina originally, Moore is in for big things in 2012. He has 196 total tackles over the last two seasons and has played in opposing backfields the entire time. Need proof? How about 6.5 sacks in 2011 and 27.5 career tackles for a loss?
21. Scott Vallone, DL, Rutgers
The defensive line will lean heavily on Vallone again as the starting linebackers and defensive backs return almost entirely intact. He had 58 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss last season.
22. Ryan Griffin, TE, Connecticut
Griffin will never be the flashiest pass-catching tight end in any league, but his all around play as both an in-line blocker and experienced receiver make him the best tight end in the Big East. His leadership will be invaluable along the line this fall.
23. Adrian Bushell, CB, Louisville
Bushell joined Louisville just before the start of last season and finished as a first-team All-Big East selection. Despite not having much time to get acquainted with his new surroundings, he recorded 50 tackles, one interception and blocked two kicks. Bushell should be Louisville’s top corner and build upon a promising 2011 season.
24. Kayvon Webster, CB, South Florida
The former nickelback emerged in his first season as a full-time starter, recording a career-high 49 tackles and returning a fumble 96 yards for a touchdown in the win over Notre Dame.
25. Marquis Spruill, LB, Syracuse
As a sophomore, Spruill was thrust into a leadership role in an inexperienced group of linebackers. That won’t be the case in 2012.
26. Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse
Lemon was quarterback Ryan Nassib’s top target last season, catching 68 passes for 834 yards and six touchdowns. He earned second-team All-Big East honors and enters 2012 as Syracuse’s No. 1 option in the passing game once again. Lemon ranks fifth on Syracuse’s career receptions list and should push for at least 70 in 2012.
27. Devin Street, WR, Pittsburgh
Arguably the best deep threat and most talented wideout in the league, Street has a chance to post huge numbers in Paul Chryst’s new offensive scheme. He posted 471 yards on 33 catches over the final six games of the year last fall. Expect 1,000 yards from Street in 2012.
28. Duron Harmon, S, Rutgers
After spending his first two years as a backup, Harmon emerged as one of the leaders in the secondary in 2011. He made 49 tackles and picked off five passes, en route to earning first-team All-Big East honors. With another offseason to work as the starter, Harmon build upon last year's success with another All-Big East campaign in 2012.
29. Matt Brown, RB, Temple
At 5-foot-5 and 165 pounds, Brown doesn’t have the ideal size to be an every-down back. However, he was been a perfect complement to Bernard Pierce over the last three years, rushing for 2,275 yards and 18 scores. Brown will be expected to work in the same role in 2012, as Boston College transfer Montel Harris is likely to be the lead back.
30. Sam Barrington, LB, South Florida
Another cog in USF’s impressive linebacker trio, Barrington had a career-high 72 tackles last season along with 6.5 tackles for a loss. He’s entering his third year as a starter.
31. Preston Brown, LB, Louisville
Replacing middle linebacker Dexter Heyman is the biggest concern for coordinator Vance Bedford this fall. However, Bedford and Charlie Strong hope shifting Brown from the outside to the interior will keep Louisville’s defense ranked among the top 10 nationally in rush defense. Brown recorded 84 stops last year.
32. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB, Connecticut
The Huskies’ pass defense fell apart when Wreh-Wilson was hurt last season. The senior had four interceptions and two touchdowns in his last full season in 2010.
33. Drew Frey, S, Cincinnati
Sixth-year senior set career high last season with 73 tackles and eight pass break ups. He’s one of three returning starters in the Cincinnati secondary.
34. Dan Giordano, DL, Cincinnati
Senior defensive end kept pressure on quarterbacks with five sacks and seven QB hurries.
35. Sterling Griffin, WR, South Florida
After catching 40 passes in the first seven games, Griffin’s momentum was slowed due to a broken foot suffered in the 37-34 loss to Cincinnati. The junior should be B.J. Daniels’ No. 1 target in 2012.
36. Kaleb Johnson, OT, Rutgers
Johnson turned in a solid freshman campaign, recording 11 starts at right tackle and was named a FWAA Freshman All-American. He is expected to start on the left side in 2012 and could push for All-Big East honors.
37. Chris Jacobson, OL, Pittsburgh
Jacobson can be Pitt’s best lineman when healthy, but he’s suffered season-ending knee injuries in 2007 and 2011.
38. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
With Teddy Bridgewater’s development comes opportunity for Parker. As only a sophomore, six of his 18 total catches last fall went for touchdowns.
39. K’Waun Williams, CB, Pittsburgh
The junior could be headed to a breakout season after recording 64 tackles and six pass break ups last season.
40. Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers
Is 32.5 yards per catch good? That is what the freakishly talented (6-6, 220) Coleman did as a sophomore on only 17 receptions. He was second on the team with six TD catches.
41. Adam Masters, OL, Connecticut
With Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan gone, Masters will need to become the new senior anchor of the line.
42. Jawan Jamison, RB, Rutgers
Jamison overshadowed the much more touted Savon Huggins a year ago by leading the team in carries (231), yards (897) and touchdowns (9) as only a freshman.
43. Shamarko Thomas, S, Syracuse
Thomas will be the headliner in a Syracuse secondary that must improve after allowing 258.3 passing yards per game in 2011. He has posted back-to-back seasons of 67 tackles but has yet to record his first career interception.
44. Dwayne Gratz, CB, Connecticut
The second half of the Huskies senior cornerback tandem, Gratz had three interceptions and 4.5 sacks last season.
45. Jory Johnson, LB, Connecticut
Johnson broke through in his first year as a starter, recording 97 tackles and two interceptions. He should team with Sio Moore and Yawin Smallwood to form one of the Big East’s best linebacking trios.
46. Michael Smith, WR, Connecticut
Smith missed last season due to academic reasons, but he led the Huskies’ in receiving (46 catches, 615 yards) in 2010.
47. Jesse Joseph, DE, Connecticut
Injuries prevented Joseph from improving upon his 2010 numbers – 39 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for a loss. With a full offseason to recover, he will be expected to rank among the Big East’s top pass rushers.
48. R.J. Dill, OT, Rutgers
Dill transferred from Maryland to Rutgers for his final season of eligibility. He will be the Scarlet Knights’ most experienced lineman after recording 33 starts with the Terrapins.
49. Ryan Turnley, C, Pittsburgh
In his first year at the position, Turnley started at 13 games at center despite dealing with injuries all year. With a healthy line and Ray Graham around him, Pitt’s rushing attack should be improved under Chryst.
50. Roy Philon, DT, Louisville
Philon was a key cog in Louisville’s run defense last season and should only get better as a junior in 2012. He recorded 36 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2011.
Team Breakdown of the Top 50 Players
Cincinnati - 3
Connecticut - 10
Louisville - 7
Pittsburgh - 7
Rutgers - 9
South Florida - 7
Syracuse - 5
Temple - 2
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