|Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was also named a CBSSports.com Preseason All-American (US Presswire)|
With the season quickly approaching CBSSports.com's Eye On College Football Blog unveils its All-Conference Teams. Today we take a look at the ACC.
EJ Manuel, Florida State - Injuries and close losses put a damper on EJ Manuel's first full season as the Seminoles' starting quarterback, but I think 2012 will be the season he - and Florida State - put the pieces together for an ACC crown. With a healthier and much-improved offensive line, Manuel should have the time to spread the ball around to an abundance of talented receivers. Manuel's decision making has improved significantly since the beginning of his career. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes in 2011 and finished the season with 121 consecutive passes without an interception - a streak that spanned the final five games of the year.
Also considered: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could easily have Manuel's position, and I honestly rank them 1a and 1b among the ACC quarterbacks. Boyd will likely put up more impressive due to the Tigers offense, but I think Manuel's play will be more integral to his team's success. Virginia Tech junior Logan Thomas and NC State senior Mike Glennon round out an impressive group of elite ACC quarterbacks.
Andre Ellington, Clemson - Even though 2011 was another season dealing with nagging injuries, Ellington ran for 1,178 yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns. Ellington's teammates say he is entering his senior season the healthiest he has ever been, and if he can stay that way he should be able to top last season's numbers once again.
Gio Bernard , North Carolina - The All-ACC workhorse exploded on the scene as a redshirt freshman, becoming the first Tar Heel to run for 1,000 yards since Jonathan Linton in 1997. Even in the Larry Fedora's new spread system, Bernard will have the opportunity to repeat his production. In fact he could be just as dangerous as a receiving threat making plays in space.
Also considered: Virginia senior Perry Jones leads a trio of returning running backs - along with <player idref=s and Clifton Richardson - that combined for 1,990 yards rushing in 2011. Georgia Tech A-back Orwin Smith is always a big-play threat (9.56 career yards per carry) and will be running behind a talented and veteran offensive line. Florida State sophomore Devonta Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing last season despite only seven starts and could be a dark horse all-conference candidate.
Sammy Watkins, Clemson - After pulling in 83 catches for 1,225 yards and 12 touchdowns, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year and CBSSports.com Preseason All-American carries big-time expectations heading into his second season with the Tigers. Luckily, the defending ACC Champions have enough talent throughout the depth chart that defenses cannot afford to isolate the speedy Watkins. However, if defenses do zone in on No. 2, look for offensive coordinator Chad Morris to find more creative ways to get the ball in Watkins' hands.
Rashad Greene, Florida State - A midseason ankle injury interrupted a promising start for Greene after pulling in touchdown passes in each of his first five games. Just a hunch here, but if he can stay healthy - Greene also missed the Seminoles' spring game due to a "slight concussion" - the sophomore wide receiver could end up being one of the most dominant receivers in the conference. Improved offensive line play should give the Florida State receivers more time downfield, and Greene is arguably the Seminoles' most dangerous home run threat.
Conner Vernon, Duke - Vernon has the opportunity to end his already-successful collegiate career with a pair of impressive records. All he has to do is maintain the production from the last two seasons. Vernon is 34 catches away from the ACC's career pass receptions record, and 842 yards away from breaking Peter Warrick's record as the league's all-time receiving leader. Vernon was All-ACC First Team in 2011 after racking up 956 receiving yards, and recorded 973 the year before.
Also considered: Clemson junior DeAndre "Nuke" Hopkins benefits from Watkins' presence on the field, and produced comparable numbers - Hopkins had 71 receptions for 961 yards - in their first season together. North Carolina senior Erik Highsmith and Virginia Tech senior Marcus Davis are stepping into much bigger roles after the graduation of leading receivers on both teams.
Matt Furstenburg, Maryland - Furstenburg is the ideal tight end for dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown. The 6-foot-4, 245 pound redshirt senior is as reliable as a check-down target as they come, and he can find the open space if Brown decides to extend a broken play with his feet. New offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is expected to use multiple looks in the pro-style attack, and Furstenburg should get plenty of opportunities to help the Terps' in their turnaround from 2011.
Also considered: Boston College senior Chris Pantale and Virginia senior Colter Phillips both have experience, but unanswered quarterback situations make their outlook tough to call. Clemson's Brandon Ford will fill in Dwayne Allen's role in the Tigers' offense, but time will tell if he can replicate Allen's production.
Andrew Miller, Virginia Tech - A lot of responsibility comes with being the only returning starter on Virginia Tech's offensive line. With four four-year starters graduated, Miller will lead down the unit protecting Logan Thomas and blocking for a pair of freshman running backs. If the Hokies are able to repeat at Coastal Division champs, Miller will be a crucial piece of their success.
Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech - Uzzi is the leader of the self-dubbed "Goon Squad," Georgia Tech's offensive line unit, with the most experience (24 starts) and accolades (First Team All-ACC) since his arrival on campus in 2008. The redshirt senior is a perfect fit for Paul Johnson's flex bone option offense, and should cap off his career with another strong showing in 2012.
Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina - The installation of a new offensive scheme, particularly the hurry-up spread under Larry Fedora, always requires a strong offensive line for a smooth transition. Fortunately for Fedora, he has Cooper and Hurst. Cooper is the most experienced offensive player, with 35 starts over the last three years, and also the most touted. The 6-foot-3, 305 pound left guard was recently named a CBSSports.com Second Team All-American as well as First Team All-ACC at the recent ACC Football Kickoff.
Oday Aboushi, Virginia - At 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, Aboushi is a dominating presence at left tackle. The Brooklyn native was not heavily recruited out of high school, but NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Brugler identified Aboushi a potential first or second round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. His combination of size and athleticism makes him - and his 6-6 335 pound teammate Moses - crucial pieces of the Virginia rushing attack.
James Hurst, North Carolina - Joining Cooper on the left side of North Carolina's offensive line is the 6-foot-7, 310 pound Hurst. A Second Team All-ACC selection in 2011 and also Preseason All-ACC pick at the ACC Football Kickoff, Hurst is a less finished product than Cooper with arguably more potential. The junior has started all but one game since hitting the field as a true freshman, and will spend plenty of snaps protecting Bryn Renner's blindside in Fedora's hurry-up offense.
Also considered: The conference is strong at center, and cases could easily be made for Clemson senior Dalton Freeman or Georgia Tech junior Jay Finch. Virginia tackle Morgan Moses will continue to be a force opposite Aboushi, and Georgia Tech guard Will Jackson trails only Uzzi with 21 starts on the offensive line.
Brandon Jenkins, Florida State - Florida State's defensive line is projected to be dominant in part because of their depth and impressive collection of talent. But while every player contributes in the rotation, the leader is senior Brandon Jenkins. Jenkins led the team in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (8) in 2011, the most among returning ACC players in the latter category.
James Gayle, Virginia Tech - Gayle was another breakout from the injury-filled 2011 defensive unit, using the early playing time to his advantage and quickly becoming the teams best pass rusher with 7.0 sacks on the season. The Hampton, Va. native is still a little raw, but the return of so many veterans on the Hokies' defense should only improve his skill set as the season progresses.
Joe Vellano, Maryland - The fifth-year senior was one of the few bright spots in Maryland's 2011 campaign, earning second team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Foundation. Vellano gets credit from Randy Edsall for being a meticulous self-evaluator, and his attention to development can be seen as his play has improved across his career.
Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest - Despite being undersized for his position, the self proclaimed "5-9 and three-quarters" nose guard is one of the most productive and dominant linemen in the league. Whitlock uses quick hands and body control to his advantage, and escaped blockers to make 14 tackles for loss in 2011 - second among returning ACC players.
Also considered: Strong cases have been made for junior Bjoern Werner, who added seven sacks of his own in his first season as a starter. Virginia Tech junior J.R. Collins broke out with 57 tackles - 9.5 tackles for loss - when injuries decimated the Hokies' front seven. Clemson defensive end Malliciah Goodman will look to carry the pass rushing responsibilities held down by All-American Andre Branch before him.
Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College - Speaking of filling in for All-Americans, Boston College linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis has a tall order replacing Luke Kuechly as the Eagles' leading tackler. Pierre-Louis finished 2011 with 74 tackles (second on the team behind Kuechly) despite missing three games due to injury. He has started every game he has played, and arguably could have been overshadowed by Kuechly's dominance in year's past. 2012 will be his chance to emerge from that shadow and become a household name in the ACC.
Kevin Reddick, North Carolina - Reddick was the Tar Heels second leading tackler in 2011 despite missing two games due to injury, and will be one of the anchors in the new 4-2-5 multiple defense under Larry Fedora this fall. With 31 career starts, Reddick is by far the most experienced player on the defense and will be counted on to lead the unit. Unlike previous North Carolina defenders that occasionally failed to match hype with production, the Hargrave Prep product seems ready to live up to his Butkus and Nagurski Watch List billing.
Christian Jones, Florida State - The 6-foot-4, 240 pound junior is making a big move from strongside linebacker - where he finished second on the team with 56 tackles in 13 games as a starter in 2011 - to weakside linebacker. Jones has been a contributor since he arrived on campus as a true freshman, but the move should show case his speed and versatility in coverage.
Also considered: Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor is an All-ACC caliber player, but was limited in spring practice and offseason workouts following foot surgery for a Lisfranc injury. Virginia linebacker Steve Greer made the Preseason All-ACC team selected by the media at the ACC Football Kickoff, and Georgia Tech linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu is my dark horse at this position.
David Amerson, NC State - Also a member of the CBSSports.com Preseason All-America Team, Amerson is a no-brainer addition to the 2012 All-ACC team. He led the nation and set an ACC record with 13 interceptions last season, and the ball-hawking junior has shown no plans of slowing down. With a pair of veteran safeties behind him, Amerson should continue to make big plays instinctively and find himself playing on Sundays in the near future.
Xavier Rhodes, Florida State - Rhodes is often overlooked because of the deep Florida State secondary, but after sharing the starting job with Mike Harris in 2011 the redshirt junior could present real problems for opposing quarterbacks. At 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, Rhodes is a physical coverage corner with the ability to make plays in the air against most wide receivers. The former ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year seems poised to make big strides in year three, and I expect he will be on this list at the end of the season as well.
Also considered: Wake Forest sophomore Merrill Noel led the conference in passes defended in 2011, and earned both FWAA and CBSSports.com Freshman All-American honors for his breakout performance. Florida State cornerback Greg Reid also is deserving of consideration, but his contributions as a special teams threat are arguably as significant, if not more, than in the secondary.
Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech - Cheating a little here because Fuller will play cornerback for the Hokies, but the All-ACC selection played a little bit of everything as a sophomore in 2011. Whether it's slot corner, nickel back, playing coverage on the outside or even filling in at whip linebacker; Fuller has excelled at every duty he has been given. In addition to a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss, Fuller added seven pass breakups, two interceptions, 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown. He may not be a safety, but Fuller is absolutely deserving of Preseason All-ACC honors.
Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State - Joyner was one of the most improved defensive players for the Seminoles in 2011, and quickly has become one of the most promising prospects for his toughness and aggressive style of play. Jimbo Fisher raved about Joyner's commitment at the ACC Football Kickoff in July, explaining that "when he closes his eyes at night" he still sees football. After leading the team in interceptions (4) and adding 54 tackles (second behind Christian Jones for returning players) a year ago, Joyner is no longer under the radar in the Seminoles' secondary.
Also considered: NC State seniors Earl Wolff and Brandon Bishop are solid compliments to Amerson in the Wolfpack secondary, and either player has the potential to step up and deliver an impressive performance. Clemson senior Rashard Hall is the Tigers' second leading returning tackler (86 stops in 2011), and trails only Dalton Freeman on the Tigers with 31 career starts.
Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
Dalton Botts, Miami
Greg Reid, Florida State
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