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Top 25 Players in the ACC for the 2011 Season: Defense Dominates

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Top 25 Players in the ACC for the 2011 Season: Defense Dominates
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The ACC saw plenty of competition in 2010.

Now, as the off-season begins and spring practices begin, it's time to take a look at the class of the conference entering the 2011 season. With tremendous recruiting classes coming in to schools such as Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, and Virgina, the conference looks to be heading in the right direction.

The conference saw the re-emergance of Florida State last season, which is good for the conference, but teams like Virgina Tech, North Carolina State, and Maryland all made steady improvements.

Some former faces of the conference are gone; Tyrod Taylor, De'Quan Bowers, Robert Quinn, Christian Ponder, and Ryan Williams are all moving on to the NFL. Now it's time for some new faces to leave their mark on college football.

 

25. Tony Steward: Clemson, LB

The first true freshman on the list, Steward is a mammoth when it comes to size at the linebacker position.

He surprised a lot of people on signing day when he chose Clemson over the likes of Alabama and Florida State, but he will be able to make an immediate impact.

Steward combines great size with great speed and athleticism, and could potentially be the defensive freshman of the year for the 2011 season. While there are no stats to provide just yet, it's hard to imagine Steward not racking up a ton of tackles while being a mainstay at linebacker for the next three to four years at Clemson.

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24. Chris Thompson: Florida State, RB

Chris Thompson split time with Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones last year for Florida State, and still managed to rack up 846 yards on just 133 carries, a 6.4 yards per carry average. He had six touchdowns on the ground, and a receiving touchdown as well.

Thompson is the fastest back on the roster, and cracked the starting line up towards the end of the year.

Thompson, along with the other running backs, will be key in helping new starting quarterback E.J. Manuel transition into being a full-time starter.

 

23. Conner Vernon: Duke, WR

Conner Vernon had a great season a year ago as a sophomore; with 73 receptions for 973 yards and four touchdowns.

Vernon has great size at 6'2", 190 poundsand with quarterback Sean Renfree back, Vernon could have an even bigger season in 2011.

Vernon finished on the second All-ACC team last season, and returns as the top receiver in the conference.

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22. Danny O'Brien: Maryland, QB

Danny O'Brien was a true freshman last season, and had a good one.

He had 2,438 yards with 22 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He didn't officially take over as the starter until week four against Florida International, but from that point on, he never lost the job.

His best game came in the final regular season game against North Carolina State, where he threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.

O'Brien still has a lot of learning to do, but looks to be a consistent starter for years to come at Maryland. He could even prove to be top of the conference by the time the season concludes in 2011.

 

21. Zach Brown: North Carolina, LB

Zach Brown finished the 2010 season with 72 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and three interceptions.

Now that Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant have moved on to the NFL, Brown will be the returning play maker at linebacker.

Brown is 6'2", 225 pounds, and has good speed and cover ability. He will be asked to take on more of a leadership role in 2011, and he already has NFL Scouts excited about his play.

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Brown looks to have an even better season in 2011, and his production should increase.

 

20. Ray Ray Armstrong: Miami, DB

Ray Ray Armstrong is a very big and athletic defensive back, and as a sophomore last season he racked up 79 tackles, three interceptions, and one defensive touchdown.

Armstrong is massive by all accounts for a defensive backstanding 6'4", and weighing 220 pounds.

With new head coach Al Golden putting more emphasis on bringing Miami back to the glory days, Armstrong should thrive in 2011. He's very young and has tremendous upside.

Armstrong has first rounder written all over him in the future.

 

19. Xavier Rhodes: Florida State, DB

Xavier Rhodes made a huge impact for the Florida State defense as a redshirt freshman starter, and accompanied Greg Reid as one of the best cornerback duos in the conference, if not the country.

He started every game and earned second team All-ACC honors.

Rhodes had 54 tackles, two sacks, and four interceptions last year. Impressive numbers for a first year starterand he only looks to get better in 2011.

Rhodes is bigger and more physical than Reid, at 6'1", 210; but it's his cover ability that has opposing coaches singing his praises.

Rhodes should have another great year in 2011 as a second year starter.

 

18. Dwayne Allen: Clemson, TE

Dwayne Allen has the size, at 6'5", 255 pounds, to be a huge red zone threat for the Clemson offense.

He isn't known primarily for his pass catching ability; rather, he is known for his blocking, and with his size he provides great blocking for the running game.

Allen had 33 receptions for 373 yards and a touchdown last year, but could see more production in 2011 because of his size.

Allen was a second team All-ACC selection last year and, along with George Bryan of North Carolina State, he is a proven tight end in the conference.

 

17. George Bryan: N.C. State, TE

George Bryan is a monster tight end at 6'5", 265. He's a better blocker at this point than he is a receiver, but his production looks to increase next season.

He finished the 2010 year with 35 receptions for 369 yards and three touchdowns.

Bryan was first team All-ACC last season, and is the cream of the crop for tight ends in the conference. He is currently rated as the fourth best tight end for the class of 2012 by Scout.com.

Bryan looks to add to his statistics in 2011, and with Russell Wilson back to get him the ball, he should be able to accomplish just that.

 

16. Tydreke Powell: North Carolina, DT

Tydreke Powell picked up for the dismissed Marvin Austin last year, and had a great season at defensive tackle for North Carolina.

He is very powerful against the run, but can also get in the backfield in a hurry. He had three sacks last year and one forced fumble, with 47 total tackles.

Powell is already flying across NFL Scouts' draft boards for 2012 and with a productive 2011 season, he could be hearing his name called very early in the 2012 NFL Draft.

 

15. Donnie Fletcher: Boston College, DB

Donnie Fletcher is a big cornerback at 6'1", 196 pounds, and he has big play ability.

Last season he had 56 tackles and 5 interceptions. Fletcher has been productive all three years so far at Boston College, and with a stout front seven in front of him, he will be expected to continue to be a ball hawk in the secondary, and to be productive.

Fletcher has the potential to be an All-ACC caliber player in 2011.

 

14. Andrew Datko: Florida State, OT

Andrew Datko was part of the offensive line when line coach Rick Trickitt took over at Florida State, and he has improved each year.

Datko has great size at left tackle, 6'6", 303 pounds; and has great footwork.

He will need to add some size if he wants to play left tackle at the next level, but he could start out at right tackle and develop into a franchise left tackle over time.

Datko will be given the task to take over the line, now that Rodney Hudson and Ryan McMahon have moved on to the NFL.

 

13. Marcus Forston: Miami, DT

Marcus Forston is a solid defensive tackle, and has been since the day he stepped onto campus at Miami.

He has the size, 6'3", 305; plus the power to dominate the interior.

Forston was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, and has been productive his entire career at Miami thus far.

He accounted for 12 tackles for lost last season, and while he isn't the type of tackle that racks up sacks, he's an excellent run stuffer.

 

12. Blake DeChristopher: Virginia Tech, OT

Blake DeChristopher is one of the key reasons why the running backs at Virgina Tech have had so much success in the past few seasons.

He's got great size at 6'5", 320 pounds, and good feet. With him on the line, Virgina Tech should easily produce another 1,000 yard rusher this season.

DeChristopher is already on NFL scouts' radars, and with a solid senior season, he could be one of the top tackles taken in next years NFL draft. He was second team All-ACC last year.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

 

11. Andre Ellington: Clemson, RB

Andre Ellington will enter his junior season as the starting running back for Clemson.

Up until this point he has shared the running duties with other running backs, and although he might do the same next season, he will be expected to carry the load.

Ellington had just 118 carries last season, but had 686 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry.

Ellington isn't exactly a small back, but he won't overpower linebackers either. He's 5'10", 180 pounds and is known more for his speed rather than his power.

Ellington could end up having a monster junior year in 2011, and could approach the 1,000 yard mark with ease if he gets more carries, which he is expected to get.

 

10. Brandon Jenkins: Florida State, DE

With De'Quan Bowers moving on to the NFL, the sack master of the ACC is now Brandon Jenkins.

Jenkins finished with 14 sacks last season with 21.5 tackles for loss. He tallied up 56 total tackles on the season.

Jenkins is a speed rusher, and he isn't an over-powering type of end, but his knack for getting to the quarterback makes him a special defensive end.

Jenkins will be looked at to continue his growth as a defensive play-maker going into his junior season in 2011. If he matches the production from a year ago, the young Florida State defense could thrive in 2011.

Jenkins was first team All-ACC last year.

 

9. Montel Harris: Boston College, RB

Montel Harris took a step back from his monster sophomore season in 2009 when he had 1,457 yards and 14 touchdowns.

His junior season showed a decrease in yards, to 1,243, and touchdowns, to eight, but he is still the top rusher in the conference.

Harris finished the 2010 season with six straight games of 100+ yards rushing, and he might have matched his sophomore season totalshad he not sat out the final regular season game against Syracuse and the bowl game against Nevada.

Harris finished last season on the first team All-ACC squad.

Look for Harris to have a bounce back year in his senior season, and to be a huge offensive threat for the Eagles.

 

8. Sean Spence: Miami, LB

Sean Spence stepped onto Miami's campus four years ago, and has been a star on the defense ever since.

Spence isn't exactly the biggest linebacker at 6'0", 220 pounds, but he flies to the ball and is a tackling machine.

Spence was second team All-ACC last season.

He finished last year with 110 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. He's the leader of the defense and will be looked upon to have another great year in his senior campaign in 2011.

 

7. Greg Reid: Florida State, DB

Greg Reid has done nothing but progress during his time at Florida State.

He was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school three years ago, and has been a play-maker ever since he stepped on campus. Last season he finally broke out at the corner position, and had a monster year.

He finished the year with 14 pass break-ups and three interceptions. He also had 61 total tackles, 51 of which were solo.

Reid looks to have an even better season in 2011, and will be looked upon as a leader of the defense even though he will be the smallest player on the unit at 5'8", 174 pounds.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Reid has big play ability and  is an ever-evolving cornerback.

 

6. Quinton Coples: North Carolina, DE

When you look at the 2010 North Carolina team, the term "overachievers" comes to mind.

With nearly all of their top defensive players being suspended for off the field issues, it's amazing to consider just how well this team did and how great of a job Butch Davis did.

That being said, Quinton Coples had a monster year when you look at his production.

He finished the year with 10 sacks and 59 tackles, with 15.5 tackles for loss. Take those statistics into consideration and add in the services of Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn, who didn't play a single down in 2010.

How good would Coples have been along the line with those two players?

Coples was first team All-ACC last year.

Coples is the face of the defensive line, and he has great size, at 6'6" weighing 275 pounds. His athleticism is off the charts, and he will be talked about all year as next year's De'Quan Bowers.

 

5. Jayron Hosley: Virginia Tech, DB

Jayron Hosley made quite the splash in the college football world last seasonfinishing the season with nine interceptions and eight pass breakups.

By the time the end of the season came around, teams stopped throwing in his direction.

Hosley may be the top shut-down corner in the country next season, and he will look to have another monster year in his junior season in 2011.

Hosley was second team All-ACC last season.

Hosley will continue the great tradition of defensive backs at Virgina Tech and he could be a lottery pick when the 2012 Draft comes around.

 

4. Nigel Bradham: Florida State, LB

Nigel Bradham was the number one linebacker coming out of high school four years ago, and he has gotten better and better each year in the program.

Last year, as a junior, he had 92 tackles and five sacks. He was the standout from a linebacking crew that had two senior starters, but Bradham stuck out the most out of all of them.

Bradham has a rare size and speed combination for his big frame. He's 6'2", 241 pounds, and has been recorded in the 4.4 range in the 40 yard dash. He is very athletic and very instinctive, and should have an enormous senior season.

Bradham is another player that expects to be taken high in the 2012 NFL Draft.

 

3. Russell Wilson: N.C. State, QB

Russell Wilson continued his impressive career last season with a monster junior season.

He finished with 3,563 yards passing with 28 touchdowns. He added 435 yards rushing with nine touchdowns on the ground. He's an ultimate leader and his athleticism is off the charts.

He's only 5'11", 201 pounds, but he has big-play ability written all over him.

He's the reason for North Carolina State's recent success; and although he may be a better baseball player, he's the face of the conference when it comes to offense in the ACC.

Wilson was second team All-ACC last year.

With Wilson returning, N.C. State will again challenge for the ACC Coastal division crown.

 

2. Kenny Tate: Maryland, FS

Kenny Tate is considered a freak in terms of his athleticism, physicality, and overall prowess as a defender and an NFL prospect.

He's 6'4", 220 pounds, and, in terms of productivity, he's the top safety in the country returning.

He recorded 90 total tackles last season, four sacks, three interceptions, and three forced fumbles. Many could attribute his season to the lack of the playmaking ability of the linebackers and defensive lineman in front of him, but you can't take away from how good of a player Tate is.

Tate finished first team All-ACC last year.

Tate will be taken early in next years NFL draft, and whoever gets him will get an almost complete player. There is little that Tate needs to improve on to make him stick out even more than he already does.

 

1. Luke Kuechly: Boston College, LB

Luke Kuechly is the class of the conference.

He's a giant in the middle of the Boston College defense, and with all of the hype surrounding former Boston College star Mark Herzlich a year ago, Kuechly was the diamond of the defense.

Time and time again, he displayed amazing defensive ability to go along with awareness and athleticism. He totaled 183 tackles, 110 of them being solo to go along with two sacks, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions.

There are few who have had more productive seasons than that, and in my opinion he is the best defensive player in the country.

He has good size at 6'3", 225 pounds, and still has time to grow. He enters his junior season as the class of linebackers in the country; and while he won't wow you with speed, he has a knack for the ball and his highlight tape speaks for itself.

Kuechly finished as a first team All-American last year, and first team All-ACC.

Honorable Mention

E.J. Manuel: Florida State, QB

Cam Johnson: Virginia, DE

Kyle Wilber: Wake Forest, DE

Bruce Taylor: Virgina Tech, LB

Donte Paige: Moss-North Carolina State, DE

Erik Highsmith: North Carolina, WR

Andre Branch: Clemson, DT

Donovan Varner: Duke, WR

Josh Harris: Wake Forest, RB

Sean Renfree: Duke, QB

DeAndre Hopkins: Clemson, WR

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