College Football 2011: 7 Rising Stars to Watch in the ACC

Greg Smith@@GSmith31Contributor IMay 24, 2011

College Football 2011: 7 Rising Stars to Watch in the ACC

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    After household names like Josh Nesbitt, Tyrod Taylor, and Christian Ponder completed their decorated collegiate careers last fall and moved on to the NFL, the ACC is primed for some fresh faces of stardom this fall. Ranging from new names in key positions at established powerhouses to rising stars in dark horse programs, the upcoming fall season proves to showcase a great group of talented players who are ready to lead their program to a championship.

1. EJ Manuel: Florida State

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    After two years as a successful backup quarterback to oft-injured and current Minnesota Viking Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel will finally be given the reins over the Florida State offense this fall. Fans in Tallahassee are eager for their first BCS appearance since the 2004 Orange Bowl, and Manuel looks to lead the Seminoles back to national stardom.

    Manuel has impressed with his accuracy, mobility, and composure in spot starts in high pressure situations against rivals (Florida in '09, Clemson in '10) and in bowl games (Gator Bowl in '09 and Chick-Fil-A Bowl in '10). The highly touted recruit out of Virginia Beach is the first Florida State quarterback to be handpicked and groomed by second year head coach Jimbo Fisher.

    Not only a talented individual himself, Manuel also has an elite class of receivers and backs to rack up the stats with. Bert Reed, Willie Haulstead, Rodney Smith, and Taiwan Easterling all return as starting receivers, giving Manuel a strong selection of veteran targets with speed and reliability. Chris Thompson, also featured in this article, will be the starting running back for the Seminoles, and will help to take pressure off the passing game with his speed and constant motor.

    Look for Manuel to lead a lethal and balanced offense at Florida State this fall. Not only will he lead the Seminoles to the ACC Championship, but also to their first BCS bowl win in over a decade.

    2010 Stats: 861 passing yards, 4 touchdowns, 70% completion rate, 153.3 QB rating

    First Test: Saturday, September 17 vs. Oklahoma

2. Danny O'Brien: Maryland

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    Danny O'Brien made quite a splash onto the ACC football scene last fall while leading the Terrapins back to conference relevance. After going 9-4 with a bowl win in his freshman season, O'Brien was named the ACC Rookie of the Year. He is poised to lead the Terps to another winning season, this time under new head coach Randy Edsall. Maryland fans hope that their young signal caller can avoid a sophomore slump and exceed the new expectations placed on his shoulders.

    With the departure of starting running back Da'Rel Scott and the growing hype of receiver Torrey Smith, Coach Edsall will most likely move towards a pass-heavy attack. This change should help O'Brien to rack up more yards and touchdowns in College Park. Watch for O'Brien to improve upon his wildly successful 2010 campaign and post huge numbers in his second year under center. The Terps will give the Seminoles a run for their money in the Atlantic Division this fall.

    2010 Stats: 2438 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, 57% completion rate, 134.5 QB rating

    First Test: Monday, September 5 vs. Miami

3. Logan Thomas: Virginia Tech

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    The player on this list that we have seen the least of thus far, Logan Thomas also has the greatest potential of any player on this list. Tyrod Taylor has left massive shoes to fill by becoming the winningest quarterback in school history, but Frank Beamer has put faith in a great athlete for the task.

    Drawing comparisons to Cam Newton for his size and arm strength, Thomas brings legitimate Heisman hopes to Blacksburg for the next few years. Standing at 6'6" and 245 lbs, Thomas is an absolute behemoth under center. He seems to be the perfect combination of the two players, with the arm strength and trucking ability of Newton along with the mobility and leadership of Taylor. Originally recruited as the nation's top tight end, Thomas was taken under the wing of coach Mike O'Cain and groomed to be the heir apparent to Tyrod Taylor.

    Beamer and O'Cain aren't the only ones high on the potential of Logan Thomas. Matt Hayes of Sporting News feels that Thomas represents "a player with the arm strength to make all the NFL throws. A player with the power and speed in the run game to give the Hokies a dangerous dual threat at a program with a history of star dual-threat quarterbacks".

    Hokie fans should expect Thomas to maintain Virginia Tech's dominance of the Coastal Division and conference as a whole for years to come.

    First Test: Saturday, October 1st vs. Clemson

4. Dwight Jones: North Carolina

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    The most reliable and electric receiver in Carolina Blue, Dwight Jones looks to have a monster senior season this fall. The senior hopes to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark this season after barely missing it last year, and has hot quarterback prospect Bryn Renner to help accomplish that feat. Watch for the Tarheels to head back to a bowl this season, and for Jones to lead the offensive charge in Chapel Hill.

    In 2010, Jones lived up to the hype. In 2011, Jones will surpass the hype. Reproducing the chemistry that was evident between TJ Yates and Jones last fall will be difficult, but not unmanageable. Jones and redshirt-freshman quarterback Bryn Renner have the next three months to get on the same wavelength and master their timing. Head coach Butch Davis may try to run a balanced attack to ease Renner into the role, but even with less focus on passing, Jones should hit around 1,200 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.

    2010 Stats: 62 Receptions, 946 Receiving Yards, 4 Touchdowns

    First Test: Saturday, October 15th vs. Miami

5. Sean Renfree: Duke

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    Relatively unknown to the average football fan, Sean Renfree is a hidden gem in the football wasteland known as Durham, NC. A glimmer of hope for faithful Duke fans, Renfree leads the wide-open Duke offense that coach David Cutcliffe has installed in hopes of reviving the perennially woeful program.

    In his first year after taking the reins from previous starter Thaddeus Lewis, Renfree impressed with 3131 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. He threw too many interceptions (17) but this was due to both the team playing from behind in most games and to his lack of game experience. Renfree has said that he believes the Duke offense can thrive once he becomes adjusted to the playbook and offensive scheme. After a year of starting experience, Renfree will impress this fall.

    Not only a student of the game, Renfree is also a proficient student at Duke, working on a double major at the esteemed institution. Cutcliff has his full faith in the quarterback, noting "if the NCAA were to define or draw up what they want a student-athlete to be, Sean Renfree would be their definition". The growing quarterback noted that "there has been a lot of work off the field, maybe more than on the field to learn how to be a successful and consistent quarterback". Watch for Renfree to improve upon his sophomore campaign and lead Duke to a bowl game in the upcoming season.

    2010 Stats: 3131 Passing Yards, 14 Touchdowns, 61.4% Completion Rate, 120.7 QB Rating

    First Test: Saturday, September 10th vs Stanford

6. Chris Thompson: Florida State

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    As a sophomore, Chris Thompson was a key piece of the Seminoles drive to the Atlantic Division championship. Thompson, now a junior, should improve on his past numbers as he takes over the starting role in the backfield.

    Appearing to improve as the 2010 season progressed, Thompson posted huge numbers in clutch situations. In the win against rival Miami, the speedy back ran for 158 yards, including a 90 yard scamper to put the cap on a blowout win. He also ran for 147 yards and a touchdown in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl victory over South Carolina. Thompson's numbers include three rushes of 70+ yards, which both skew his averages and showcase his electric talent.

    Through dedication to off-season training, Thompson added size and earned the starting job at tailback for the Seminoles. Thompson will be a premier back in the ACC this year, utilizing speed, agility, and determination between the tackles.

    2010 Stats: 846 Rushing Yards, 6 Touchdowns, 6.4 Yards per Carry

    First Test: Saturday, September 17th vs Oklahoma

7. Marcus Davis: Virginia Tech

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    After showing signs of greatness last fall in games against UNC and Duke, WR Marcus Davis has officially made his mark in Blacksburg this spring. Davis impressed many with his size, speed, and vertical jump in the spring practices. The 6'4" receiver clocked in at 4.35 in the 40 yard dash and posted a 44-inch vertical jump, the latter being a school record. His physical tools and dedication to improve has earned rave reviews around the campus, including that of coach Frank Beamer.

    Davis has shaken up the race in what was thought to be an established receiver corps for the Hokies. Jarret Boykin is a lock to start at split end, but Davis will challenge senior Danny Coale for the starting job at flanker. The fact that Davis is challenging Coale, a successful and reliable starter last season, proves how great of an athlete and physical specimen he is.

    New blood at the quarterback position may help Davis' case for the job. In spring practices, Davis appeared to have built a strong rapport with rookie QB Logan Thomas, becoming his favorite target of the spring scrimmages. Watch for Davis to make a splash onto the ACC scene in his last two seasons with the Hokies.

    2010 Stats: 19 Receptions, 239 Receiving Yards, 2 Touchdowns

    First Test: Saturday, October 1 vs. Clemson