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College Football 2011 Preview: The Top 20 Players in the ACC

Danny FlynnSenior Analyst IMarch 25, 2011

College Football 2011 Preview: The Top 20 Players in the ACC

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    Boston College RB Montel HarrisElsa/Getty Images

    Will this be the year? Will the 2011 season mark the time when the ACC finally rises up and becomes one of college football’s true power conferences?

    The ACC has been down in the pecking order as of late, floating somewhere above the Big East but below conferences like the SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten.

    Will that all change in 2011? Well, If you’re a firm believer in teams like Florida State and even dark horses like North Carolina, then there’s definitely hope for optimism. But we have to see if the conference is ready to take that next step this season.

    One thing we do know is that there’s plenty of interesting talent throughout the conference this year. So we might as well have a look at who the top players are, right?

    Here are a few names that ACC fans should keep an eye on in 2011.

1. DT Quinton Coples, North Carolina

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    Quinton CoplesElsa/Getty Images

    The loss of star DE Robert Quinn almost seems inconsequential at this point, considering the Tar Heels defense knows they can survive without him.

    They proved that last season when DT Quinton Coples stepped in and became one of the breakout stars of the conference.

    Coples, who at 245 pounds can still be categorized as a defensive end playing out of position, took it upon himself to fill Quinn’s cleats and ended up leading North Carolina with 15.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.

    With DT Tydreke Powell and DE Donte Paige-Moss flanking him, Coples will be the focal point of one of the best defensive lines in college football this season.

2. DE Brandon Jenkins, Florida State

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    Brandon JenkinsElsa/Getty Images

    Ladies and gentlemen, Florida State football has returned to the spotlight.

    Head Coach Jimbo Fisher has the Seminoles back on the national college football scene once again, and one of the main reasons the team has been able to dust off the cobwebs and rise up in the ACC has been the improvement of the defense.

    The Florida State defense has gone from laughingstock to formidable unit in the span of just one season, and one of the key players in the transformation has been super pass-rusher Brandon Jenkins.

    Jenkins, a 6’3’’ 255-pound junior, finished the 2010 season with 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, numbers that ranked him just behind future Top 10 pick Da’Quan Bowers

3. S Kenny Tate, Maryland

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    I’m still puzzled as to why Kenny Tate decided to return to Maryland for one more season.

    Top flight talent + weak safety class + new incoming coach should have been an equation that equaled Tate entering the 2011 NFL Draft. But hey, what do I know?

    Terp fans should be thankful they get another year of watching the 6’4’’, 220-pound athletic behemoth roaming the field.

    Tate, who finished the 2010 season with a nice, even 100 tackles, will be Maryland’s best defensive player this season and he should contend for All-American honors.

4. CB Chase Minnifield, Virginia

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    Chase MinnifieldStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    This year’s senior cornerback class took some major blows with the early draft declarations of key players like Patrick Peterson, Brandon Harris and Aaron Williams.

    It’s a group that now needs a face at the forefront and Virginia’s Chase Minnifield could be just the guy.

    Minnifield took advantage of Ras-I Dowling’s injury troubles in 2010 and really carved out a name for himself.

    The talented 6’0’’ 185-pound senior finished second in the ACC with six interceptions and proved to be one of the elite talents at his position.

5. LB Sean Spence, Miami

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    Sean SpenceKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Sean Spence doesn’t belong on this Miami team. Spence is an old school Hurricane type of player who would fit in well with “Da U" teams of the glory days.

    The Miami native, who played for the city’s prestigious Northwestern High School, looks like the type of kid who has green and orange running through his veins.

    Zenon, one of my friends from Florida, has described the 6’0’’, 225-pound senior as simply gully and I’m guessing that’s a fitting characterization.

    Spence finished last season with 111 tackles and he should probably best that number in 2011.

6. RB Montel Harris, Boston College

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    Montel HarrisElsa/Getty Images

    The Boston College offensive line, a unit that will be breaking in three new starters in 2011, is going to look dramatically different from last season’s version that had future franchise tackle Anthony Castonzo leading the way. But don’t expect that to affect RB Montel Harris all that much.

    Harris, the conference’s leading returning rusher, finished last season with over 1,200 yards on the ground and eight rushing touchdowns.

    Even though the 5’10’’, 200-pound senior has had his fair share of dings in his career, he’s still a proven producer capable of carrying an offense.

7. LB Zach Brown/Kevin Reddick, North Carolina

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    Zach BrownStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Stud linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant may be gone, but that doesn’t exactly mean North Carolina has to go back to the drawing board when it comes to the linebacker position.

    The Tar Heels have two of the conference’s, scratch that, two of the country’s top linebackers in Zach Brown and Kevin Reddick.

    So I’m going to take it upon myself and cheat a little bit by putting both Reddick and Brown at this spot.

    North Carolina’s two top tacklers combined for 146 stops last season, and they both possess NFL potential.

8. RB Andre Ellington, Clemson

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    Andre EllingtonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    I’m sorry to tell you Clemson fans, but you will most likely never see another player do the things that C.J. Spiller did in a Tiger uniform. But I will admit, this Andre Ellington kid has some nice skills.

    Ellington, a former four-star recruit, showed flashes of greatness in 2010, rushing for 684 yards and 10 TDs in eight games before a toe injury abruptly ended his season.

    If the 5’10’’, 190-pound junior comes into the season at 100 percent, he could be a major weapon for a Clemson offense that loses QB Kyle Parker and RB Jamie Harper.

9. LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College

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    Luke KuechlyEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    Sometimes in sports, it’s hard to distinguish between the players who are truly great and those who are simply compilers.

    I’ll be honest, I’m still not sure which category Boston College LB Luke Kuechly fits in just yet.

    Kuechly, a 6’3’’, 235-pound junior, has accumulated over 340 tackles the past two seasons, which for you non-statistics nerds, is an absolutely insane number.

    But do those numbers really tell the whole story with Kuechly?

    I don’t know.

    I’m not convinced that he’s great just yet, but you can’t deny that the young man knows how to fill up a stat sheet.

10. LB Nigel Bradham, Florida State

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    Nigel BradhamStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Every year, I come up with a mental list over the summer of college football players who I would never, ever want to be hit by.

    This year, I’d expect Nigel Bradham to crack the top 10, again.

    Bradham is a ferocious 'backer with the type of strength and speed to intimidate nearly every ball carrier who has the unfortunate task of having to run in his direction.

    The 6’2’’, 240-pound senior,has 190 tackles over the last two seasons, and I have feeling that every one of them hurt equally.

11. CB Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech

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    Jayron HosleyStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    For some reason, if there’s one thing that Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer knows how to do, it’s produce quality defensive backs.

    While guys like Macho Harris, Brandon Flowers and Jimmy Williams may be hit-or-miss in the NFL, Beamer sure knows how to get the most out of them while they’re in Blacksburg.

    The latest in that line is CB Jayron Hosley. Hosley, a 5’11’’, 170-pound junior, led the country with nine interceptions and led the ACC with 17 passes defended last season.

    Something tells me quarterbacks won’t be so eager to test the Hokie DB this season.

12. DT Brandon Thompson, Clemson

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    Brandon ThompsonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    DE Da’Quan Bowers leaves a big hole to fill along the Clemson defensive line, but luckily for the Tigers they have one of the conference’s premier up-and-coming pro prospects in DT Brandon Thompson to help ease the loss.

    Thompson had 7.5 tackles for loss last season and has the type of penetrating ability you look for in a top-flight tackle.

    The 6’2’’, 310-pound senior should be a menace for opposing offensive linemen to handle this season.

13. OG Brandon Washington, Miami

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    Brandon WashingtonJamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Would it be an overstatement if I said I would draft Miami’s Brandon Washington over any of the available interior offensive linemen in this year’s NFL Draft?

    Probably not, considering Washington has pretty much everything you would look for in an offensive linemen.

    The 6’4’’, 320-pound senior is one of the best offensive linemen in college football and he should pave the way for Miami’s eclectic backfield to produce at a high rate in 2011.

14. RB David Wilson, Virginia Tech

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    David WilsonGeoff Burke/Getty Images

    Bye bye, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans.

    Hello, David Wilson.

    Wilson, one of the fastest players in all of college football, will now have his to chance to shine in the Hokies' backfield.

    The 5’11’’, 200-pound junior is a highlight reel waiting to happen and now that he’ll have a major increase in carries, he should be one of the conference’s most productive backs.

    Wilson finished the 2010 season averaging nearly 5.5 yards per carry.

15. LB Audie Cole, North Carolina State

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    Audie ColeStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Audie Cole is one of those linebackers who looks like he’s on a special mission every time he steps foot on the field.

    Cole, who will be moving inside to try to replace the departed Nate Irving this season, flourished in 2010, finishing the year with 86 tackles and five sacks.

    You can tell when you watch him that Cole takes pride in the way he plays the game and he’s the type of linebacker who plays with an old-school, "I’m here to get things done" mentality.

16. CB Greg Reid, Florida State

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    Greg ReidKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    When it comes to cornerback combos, it doesn't get much better than Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes.

    The dynamic duo will be one of the best in college football this season, and it’s hard to actually make a case for one player being better than another, but I’ll defer to the more experienced Reid in this case.

    The 5’8’’, 175-pound junior may not have the prototypical size you would want in a lockdown cornerback, but he has just about everything else.

    Reid, who picked off three passes last year, is an exceptional athlete who can go toe-to-toe with any receiver in the country.

17. DT Marcus Forston, Miami

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    Marcus ForstonKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Marcus Forston, this is your moment to shine; let’s see what you do with it.

    Forston, one of the most highly regarded recruits in the 2008 class, is sitting on the doorstep of greatness, ready to have a breakout season. But we have to see if he can finally put it all together.

    The 6’3’’, 305-pound defensive tackle finished the 2010 season with 12 tackles for loss and three sacks and possesses eye-popping ability. Now we just have to see if he can take things to that next level.

    We saw what Al Golden did with Muhammad Wilkerson at Temple last season. It wouldn't be surprising if he has similar results with Forston.

18. OG Morgan Moses, Virginia

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    There’s a reason that the Virginia offensive line got so much better once Morgan Moses was inserted into the lineup last season.

    Moses, a 6’6’’, 335-pound sophomore, played like a seasoned veteran in his first year in the trenches and he should only continue to get better this year.

    Look for Virginia to be one of the sneaky teams of college football in Mike London's second season as head coach.

19. S Ray-Ray Armstrong, Miami

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    Ray-Ray ArmstrongRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    There have been a good amount of quality first-round safeties who honed their skills down in Miami over the last few years.

    Sean Taylor, Ed Reed and Kenny Phillips are just a few of the big names that the program has produced recently.

    The next in line could be Ray-Ray Armstrong, a 6’4’’, 220-pound physical marvel who finished the 2010 season with 79 tackles and three interceptions.

    Armstrong, who possesses obvious NFL potential, could ascend to even greater heights as a junior this season.

20. QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State

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    E.J. ManuelMike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    This year’s Cam Newton?

    I’ll let that question soak in and say no more.

Honorable Mention: Offense

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    Miami WR Travis BenjaminMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    WR Travis Benjamin, Miami

    QB Danny O'Brien, Maryland

    WR Jarrett Boykin, Virginia Tech

    TE George Bryan, North Carolina State

    OT Blake DeChristopher, Virginia Tech

    WR Dwight Jones, North Carolina

    RB Josh Harris, Wake Forest

    OT Seantreal Henderson, Miami

    TE Dwayne Allen, Clemson

    WR Conner Vernon, Duke

    C Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

    OT Andrew Datko, Florida State

    WR Kris Burd, Virginia

    QB Mike Glennon, North Carolina State

Honorable Mention: Defense

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    Andre BranchKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    DE Andre Branch, Clemson

    LB Julian Burnett, Georgia Tech

    DE Kyle Wilber, Wake Forest

    LB Demtrius Hartsfield, Maryland

    S Rashard Hall, Clemson

    CB Donnie Fletcher, Boston College

    DT Jacobbi McDaniel, Florida State

    DE Donte Paige-Moss, North Carolina

    CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida State

    DE Cam Johnson, Virginia

    LB Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech

    S Eddie Whitley, Virginia Tech

    DT Tydreke Powell, North Carolina

    S Earl Wolff, North Carolina State

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