ACC: 2012 biggest shoes

We've looked at the biggest shoes to fill on each team. Now, we look at the best of the best and examine who must fill the shoes of the biggest star of the ACC in the 2011 season.

OUT: Luke Kuechly. The Boston College linebacker is all but assured of hearing his name called early on in the first round of next month's NFL draft, and with good reason. The linebacker set ACC records in both single-season tackles (191) and career tackles (532), despite leaving school early for the NFL. He will need a trophy case for just this past fall alone after earning the Lombardi Award (nation's top lineman/linebacker), the Nagurski Trophy (nation's top defensive player), the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker) and being named the Lott IMPACT defensive player of the year. He led the nation in tackles in each of the past two seasons, and he added three interceptions in 2011 (to go with seven for his career.) It is unlikely that anyone in the ACC will be able to replace his star power in 2012, but a few will try.

IN: Sammy Watkins. Remember, this is who is filling the shoes of the conference's biggest star, not his position. Clemson's wide receiver looks primed to take the next step after a freshman season that saw him lead the ACC in all-purpose yards per game while finishing second in receiving yards per game, second in kickoff return average, third in catches per game and tied for third in touchdowns per game. He was fourth nationally in all-purpose yards per game (176). He averaged 93.77 receiving yards per game, 16th in the nation. Watkins had 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, in addition to 231 rushing yards on 32 carries. A similar season this fall will put the young receiver in the national spotlight even more.
The final team of our series, the Demon Deacons are forced to replace a versatile home-run threat who left school early for the NFL.

OUT: Chris Givens. Givens led Wake Forest in 2011 with 83 receptions for a school-record 1,330 yards and nine touchdowns. His 102.3 receiving yards per game led the ACC, and his 6.4 catches per game were second in the conference. Givens averaged 110.8 all-purpose yards per game. The first-team all-conference receiver had seven 100-yard receiving games, one shy of the school record. He leaves school with 163 career catches for 2,473 yards, with 21 receiving touchdowns, along with 45 carries for 238 yards and two scores.

IN: Michael Campanaro. While not as fast as Givens, Campanaro may be more of a complete receiver. Coach Jim Grobe has said Campanaro is a better possession receiver than Givens, and the bigger question may be who slides into Campanaro's No. 2 role after a 2011 season that saw him catch 73 passes for 833 yards and two touchdowns. Matt James and Brandon Terry are both 6-foot-5 and speedy, and the latter has run track at Wake Forest as well. Terence Davis had 20 catches last season for 269 yards and five touchdowns. Lovell Jackson had success as a kick returner but is sitting out spring practice as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
Our series continues today with the Hokies, who have a major hole to fill following the early departure of one star to the NFL and an injury behind him.

OUT: David Wilson. Wilson declared for the NFL Draft following a 2011 campaign that earned him both ACC player of the year and offensive player of the year honors. A starter in all 14 games, Wilson played more than 700 snaps on offense and another 51 on special teams, rushing for a school-record 1,709 yards and nine touchdowns on 290 carries, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and 122.1 rushing yards per game. He added 21 catches for 126 yards and a score, and he led the Hokies with 22 kick returns for 415 yards, netting 2,253 all-purpose yards. His seven straight 100-plus yard rushing games were the most under coach Frank Beamer, and his 10 total tied Ryan Williams' ACC record from 2009. He finished his Virginia Tech career with 2,662 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He is one of the top running back prospects in this year's draft.

IN: J.C. Coleman and Michael Holmes. Coleman is an early enrollee and Holmes is a redshirt freshman, and the duo will be options 1 and 2 this spring as Tony Gregory recovers from surgery on his knee. Coleman, an ESPNU three-star prospect and the No. 9 player out of the state of Virginia, rushed for 1,488 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior at Oscar Frommel Smith High School despite missing three games with an ankle injury. Holmes was Virginia's No. 41 player and an ESPNU two-star prospect a year earlier after rushing for 2,877 yards on 372 carries at Harrisonburg High School.

Biggest shoes to fill: Virginia

March, 16, 2012
Our series continues today with the Cavaliers, who are looking to replace an NFL-bound cornerback.

OUT: Chase Minnifield. Bypassing the NFL Draft to return for his senior season, the Jim Thorpe Award finalist notched three picks, 1.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 50 tackles, eight pass break-ups and a blocked kick for Virginia in 2011. He also received the Pop Warner National College Football Award, which recognizes a Pop Warner alumnus for the difference he made on the field, in the classroom and in the community. The son of former Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl defensive back Frank Minnifield, Chase Minnfield had 13 career interceptions for Virginia and is projected by most to be an early-to-mid-round pick during next month's draft.

IN: Demetrious Nicholson. As a true freshman last season, Nicholson played nearly every single down. He had two interceptions, two tackles for loss, eight pass break-ups, a forced fumble and 60 total tackles. Having started every all 13 games in 2011, Nicholson is now the elder statesman of a re-tooled secondary. The Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia in 2010 and an ESPNU 150 prospect coming out of Bayside (Va.) High School, Nicholson has a chance to be the Hoos’ No. 1 corner this season -- meaning he will probably get the top wide receiver.

Biggest shoes to fill: NC State

March, 15, 2012
Today we visit the Wolfpack, who are looking to fill a void at receiver and in the return game.

OUT: T.J. Graham. Graham exits NC State following a senior season that saw him finish second in the ACC in punt return average, third in all-purpose yards and fourth in kick returns. He caught 46 passes for 757 yards and seven touchdowns, up from 25, 316 and four as a junior. In a 31-24 Belk Bowl win over Louisville, Graham caught seven passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns and added 63 yards on three kick returns. He had two catches for 27 yards and returned a kickoff 27 yards in the Senior Bowl.

IN:Tobais Palmer and Bryan Underwood (receivers). Palmer and Rashard Smith (return men). Palmer had 37 catches for 496 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Underwood added 16 catches for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Palmer also returned three kicks for 48 yards and was fourth on the team in scoring and third in all-purpose yards. Smith caught just one pass for six yards but was the only Wolfpack player other than Graham to return kicks last season, brining back two for 13 yards. But his prep credentials (two punt return touchdowns, one kickoff as a senior) at Dublin (Ga.) High School suggest he is capable of stepping into Graham's role on special teams.
Our series continues today with the Tar Heels, who, coincidentally, kick off spring practice this afternoon. While UNC is not without its challenges in light of this week's NCAA penalties, its biggest challenge on the field will be replacing a dominant pass-rusher.

OUT: Quinton Coples. One of the top defensive end prospects and a potential top-10 pick in this year's NFL draft, Coples led North Carolina in both tackles for loss and sacks last season, notching 15.5 and 7.5, respectively, despite facing plenty of double-teams. His 55 tackles were fourth-most on the Tar Heels. Coples will leave quite a void after a college career that featured 144 total tackles, 22 sacks, five forced fumbles, 22 quarterback hurries and four pass break-ups.

IN: Kareem Martin. Starting all 13 games in 2011, Martin was tied for third on the Tar Heels last season with seven tackles for loss. He added four sacks, five quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery and 40 total tackles. For his career, the junior-to-be has 56 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, seven hurries and seven pass breakups. One of the most decorated prospects in the state of North Carolina coming out of Roanoke Rapids High School, Martin started the first three games of his college career in 2010. He'll look to take the next step in 2012.

Biggest shoes to fill: Miami

March, 13, 2012
Our series continues today with Miami, which is tasked with replacing the conference's second-leading rusher.

OUT: Lamar Miller. The running back had two years of eligibility remaining with the Hurricanes but will look to capitalize on a 1,272-yard, nine-touchdown campaign from 2011. Miller became the first Miami player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season since Willis McGahee in 2002. He rushed for more than 100 yards in seven games and returned a kickoff for a touchdown one year earlier. His draft stock soared after he ran a 4.40 40 at the combine -- the fastest among running backs -- validating his decision to leave school early. He could be a late first-round draft pick.

IN: Mike James, Eduardo Clements, Duke Johnson, Danny Dillard. James is far and away the most accomplished of the backs on the college level, rushing for 719 yards and 11 scores on 157 carries during the past three seasons. He also has 37 receptions for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Clements' two-year career features 23 carries, 114 yards and a touchdown. Johnson, perhaps the best player in the state of Florida, headlines Al Golden's first full recruiting class. He rushed for 2,087 yards and led Norland High to a Class 5A state title this past season and will be tough to keep off the field his first year. The shifty Dillard, a lifelong Miami fan, was the first recruit to commit to the Hurricanes after the Nevin Shapiro news broke.

Biggest shoes to fill: Maryland

March, 12, 2012
Our series continues today with Maryland, which opened spring practice Saturday with one scholarship quarterback. You can probably guess where we're going with this one ...

OUT: QB Danny O’Brien. The third-year sophomore will graduate this spring and have two years of eligibility remaining at a school to be determined. O'Brien completed better than 56 percent of his passes last season for 1,648 yards, tossing seven touchdowns and 10 picks. For his career, the North Carolina native has thrown for 4,086 yards, with 29 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. O'Brien's 22-touchdown campaign in 2010 earned him ACC rookie of the year honors as a redshirt freshman. His 2011 season -- and Terrapins career, at least on the playing field -- came to a close in a Nov. 12 loss to Notre Dame, when the signal caller broke a bone in his left arm.

IN: C.J. Brown. Colleague Heather Dinch has called Brown the ACC's most indispensable quarterback, and with good reason. Brown, a redshirt junior, has five starts under his belt and is the Terrapins' only scholarship quarterback this spring. Maryland has two quarterback recruits on the way for the fall, but until then, Brown has the car keys to the offense, with little insurance behind him. Brown completed just under 50 percent of his throws last season, totaling 842 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. But he proved most dangerous on the ground, rushing for 574 yards, a school record for a quarterback.
The series continues today with Georgia Tech. The Jackets don't throw it often, but when they do, they need to be more efficient. Can that improve without ...

OUT: WR Stephen Hill. He caught 28 passes for 820 yards in 2011, and decided to leave school early for the NFL draft. Hill, who caught five touchdown passes including one against Utah in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, led all FBS players in yards per reception (29.3, also the highest in school history) and had three 100-yard receiving games. He finished his three-year career with 1,248 receiving yards, which ranks 16th in Georgia Tech history. For his career, Hill averaged 25.47 yards per reception, which would have easily broken the school record, but he fell one reception short of qualifying for the record book (minimum 50 receptions).

IN: Sophomores Darren Waller and Jeff Greene. No really, we’re talking biggest shoes, here. Waller’s size 17 is the largest on the team. He was Hill’s backup last year, but both he and Greene played in 12 games last year as true freshmen, some on special teams. Greene was Tyler Melton’s backup. Both Waller and Greene are still looking for their first career receptions.
Our series continues today with Florida State, which returns nine starters on defense. The Noles won't be missing much on D when it comes to starting experience, but they will be losing the anchor of the defense ...

OUT: LB Nigel Bradham. He was a three-year starter at weakside linebacker and became the first Seminole since consensus All-American Marvin Jones (1990-92) to lead FSU in tackles three consecutive seasons. He finished 2011 with 86 total tackles for a four-year total of 306. He also had 21.5 career tackles for loss. He led the Seminoles with nine tackles in their 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl win over Notre Dame, including his second interception of the season, which led to FSU’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Bradham finished with 39 career starts, including his final 37 games.

IN: Telvin Smith and Christian Jones. They’re both versatile enough to line up in either position, but Jones was a first-year starter at strongside linebacker last year and Smith was a backup in the middle. Jones was third on the team with 56 tackles last year and had six TFLs, three sacks, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Over the last six games of the 2011 regular season, Smith emerged as a playmaker. He got his first start of the season against Wake Forest. Smith played in 12 games and 42 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, three sacks, an interception, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Regardless of where they line up, Smith and Jones will be two of the Noles’ three best linebackers in 2012.

Biggest shoes to fill: Duke

March, 7, 2012
Our series continues today with the Blue Devils, who have to replace one of the most underrated players in the ACC from 2011:

OUT: S Matt Daniels. He led Duke and ranked third in the ACC in tackles per game (10.5), finishing the year with 126 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions, 14 pass breakups and one caused fumble. He was the team leader in both interceptions and pass breakups. He was just one of three players in the ACC to average double figures in tackles. Some of his best games were against the best competition: Stanford (13), Florida State (14), Virginia Tech (13) and Miami (11). Daniels finished third in the league balloting for the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year. His 14 pass breakups were the second most in a single season in school history. His 126 tackles were the most for a Duke defensive back since Terrell Smith had 140 in 2003.

IN: Walt Canty and Brandon Braxton. Canty, a senior who started all 12 games at safety last year, was second on the team with 87 tackles and had 4.0 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, three caused fumbles, one quarterback pressure and one interception. He had a career-high 15 tackles against Virginia and finished the season with 7.2 tackles per game and tied for third in the ACC in caused fumbles per game with .25. Braxton moved from wide receiver to safety this spring. He caught 54 passes for 532 yards and one touchdown in two seasons on the offensive side of the ball. He also has 14 tackles in two seasons with Duke’s coverage units.

Biggest shoes to fill: Clemson

March, 6, 2012
No, it’s not “Clemson Day” on the ACC blog, it just happened to fall that way with the top 25 countdown and alphabetical order of the “biggest shoes to fill” series. The Tigers do start spring ball tomorrow, though, so here’s a closer look at who will be the most difficult player to replace and who’s next in line:

OUT: DE Andre Branch. He had 197 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks, 40 quarterback pressures and 11 pass breakups in 1,886 snaps over 48 games (27 starts) in his career. He made at least one tackle in 41 straight games and was a team co-captain. He finished 2011 first in the ACC in sacks per game and third in tackles for loss per game (1.2).

IN: Corey Crawford will actually play the position, but all eyes will be on Malliciah Goodman to see if he can bring similar pressure on quarterbacks. Crawford, a true freshman last year, was Branch’s backup at bandit end for most of the season. He had 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, three quarterback pressures and two pass breakups in 220 snaps over 13 games. Goodman has started 15 career games, 14 of which came last year. He had 59 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and 14 quarterback pressures in 767 snaps over 14 games. The 767 snaps set a school record for a defensive lineman.

More in this series:
The ACC has bid farewell to some outstanding players from 2011. Some of them graduated, others have decided to leave early for the NFL. Whatever their reasons, they left behind some size 15 shoes to fill. Here’s a look at who on each team in the ACC will be the most difficult to replace in 2012, and a snapshot of who is or could be next in line to replace him:

Boston College

OUT: Linebacker Luke Kuechly. He might be the most difficult player to replace in the ACC. Kuechly won the 2011 Lombardi Award, given annually to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker; the Nagurski Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive player; the Dick Butkus Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top linebacker; and the Lott IMPACT Defensive Player of the Year. He left early for the NFL after finishing his junior season leading the nation in tackles for the second straight year. In 2011, Kuechly set ACC records for tackles in a season (191) and career (532).

IN: It’s an open competition, but Sean Duggan played in nine games last year as a true freshman behind Kuechly and on the outside. Duggan had his first career interception at Miami, had three tackles against Virginia Tech and five against Clemson. Coach Frank Spaziani has also said that Steele Divitto is versatile enough to earn the starting job in the middle. Divitto, a junior, won the starting job at outside linebacker when Mark Herzlich left. Last year, Divitto was third on the team in tackles with 72, and finished with 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, and five pass breakups. Spaziani said redshirt freshman Nick Lifka will also be competing for Kuechly’s spot.