ACC: 2013 ACC final player countdown

2013 Top 25 player countdown: No. 1

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
No. 1: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

Previous ranking: Not ranked

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State signal-caller Jameis Winston had one of the best freshman seasons in college football history.
Making the case for Winston: It’s an easy case to make at this point. Winston was college football’s best player in 2013, earning All-ACC, All-America and Heisman honors along the way. His 2013 season is arguably the best by any freshman quarterback in college football history, posting an adjusted Total QBR of 88.5 (second nationally) while passing for 40 touchdowns (most by a QB from an AQ conference), completing 67 percent of his passes and averaging 10.6 yards per throw, tops in the nation.

Winston made it all look easy in 2013, rarely playing in the fourth quarter and assembling a long highlight reel of spectacular plays -- from his opening act against Pitt in which he accounted for five touchdowns to his dominance in the ACC title game win over Duke.

But, of course, Winston saved his most compelling moment for last, leading Florida State on an 80-yard drive in the final 1:19 of the VIZIO BCS National Championship, hitting Kelvin Benjamin in the end zone for a 2-yard, game-winning touchdown.

All season, Winston was FSU’s emotional leader both on and off the field, easily making him the ACC’s top player of 2013.

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No. 2 Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

Previous ranking: No. 10

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsAaron Donald's attention to detail helped him become one of college football's top defenders in 2013.
Making the case for Donald: He should have been a Heisman Trophy finalist -- it was about the only award Donald missed out on. Donald, who became one of the most decorated defenders in school history, was selected the winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award. He was literally unblockable for the majority of the season, regardless of scheme.

Donald was called a "one-man wrecking crew" by multiple opposing head coaches, and he earned unanimous first-team All-America status, the first Pitt defensive player to be a unanimous selection since legendary defensive end Hugh Green in 1980. He was also named the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches and media. He finished his career as the NCAA statistical champion in tackles for loss, averaging an FBS-best 2.2 per game. Donald is only the sixth Pitt player since 1976 to finish as the national leader in a stat category. He also ranked 13th nationally in sacks (0.85 avg.) and 13th in forced fumbles (tied, 0.31 avg.). Last season, Donald totaled 59 tackles, 28.5 TFLs, 11 sacks, 16 QB hurries, four forced fumbles and a blocked extra point in 13 games.

“It is tremendous as a coach when your best player is also your best worker,” said Pitt coach Paul Chryst. “Aaron truly enjoys the film study and preparation part of the game. He plays every day in practice like it’s a game day. Aaron has earned all of the accolades he has received and we are all incredibly proud of him.”

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No. 3: Andre Williams, RB, Boston College

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

[+] EnlargeAndre Williams
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisBoston College's Andre Williams has deceptive speed but is also a physical runner who wasn't afraid to punish anyone who got in his way.
Making the case: Steve Addazio promised his team would play a physical, smash-mouth style in his first year on the job with the Eagles. But it is safe to say not even he imagined how the season would play out for running back Andre Williams. Headed into 2013, Williams had never rushed for more than 600 yards in one season or carried the ball more than 130 times in a year, either. But all that changed as the Eagles rode him to the best turnaround season in the ACC.

Williams emerged as one of the best running backs in the nation, using a blend of physical running and deceptive speed to keep his opponents off balanced. Even when teams loaded the box, Boston College kept pounding the ball, believing Williams and the offensive line would wear down the opposition in time. That happened more often than not. Williams ended up as a unanimous first-team All-ACC selection, consensus All-American, Heisman Trophy finalist and Doak Walker Award winner after rushing for over 2,000 yards.

When the season began, nobody knew his name. By the time November rolled around, more folks across the nation started noticing what was going on in Chestnut Hill and his Heisman campaign picked up speed. In a three-game stretch between Nov. 9-Nov. 23, Williams had 897 yards rushing and six touchdowns. His final two games were not indicative of his fine season, as a shoulder injury slowed him down.

But in all, Williams set school records for rushing attempts (355) and rushing yards (2,177). That happens to be the fifth highest single-season rushing total in FBS history.

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2013 Top 25 player countdown: No. 4

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
No. 4: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

Previous ranking: No. 2

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsSammy Watkins ended his Clemson career in style, setting Orange Bowl records for catches (16) and receiving yards (227).
Making the case for Watkins: Watkins was arguably the best wide receiver in the nation this fall, finishing fifth nationally in receiving yards (1,464), 11th in receptions (101) and tied for 10th in touchdowns (12). Those numbers helped him to finish second in the ACC in receptions and touchdowns and first in receiving yards. He also ascended to first on the school single-season list of receptions and receiving yards. Watkins added 14 kickoff returns for 293 total yards, allowing him to finish third in the ACC in all-purpose yards per game with 136.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Watkins declared early for the NFL draft, where he is expected to be the first receiver taken. He certainly left a lasting impression during his collegiate finale, a 40-35 Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State in which he set school records for receptions (16) and receiving yards (227) while reaching the end zone twice. He earned the game's most outstanding player honor.

The Fort Myers, Fla., native was a unanimous first-team All-ACC selection by the league's coaches, and his 63 votes from members of the media were the most among first-team members on the media team. The AFCA also named Watkins a first-team All-American, and he was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. His 240 career receptions and 3,3931 receiving yards are good for second and third best in conference history. His 27 touchdown catches are tied for eighth best in an ACC career, and his 15 career 100-yard receiving games are tied for second best. Watkins also tallied 5,129 career all-purpose yards, second most in school history and ninth most in league history. Yes, he will be missed in Death Valley, where he made as big of an impact as anyone despite sticking around for just three seasons. Still, it would surprise no one if he does the same in what certainly is a promising NFL future.

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No. 5: Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State

Previous ranking: No. 9

Making the case for Joyner: The 2013 season was about adding the right finishing touch to Joyner’s immensely successful college career, and it was an overwhelming success.

Joyner returned for his senior season with an eye on improving his NFL draft stock by moving from safety to corner. The switch was a stroke of genius -- both for Joyner and the FSU defense. He was exceptional in coverage, helping FSU’s secondary to rank as the No. 1 pass defense in the nation. He was a game-changer on the corner blitz -- a staple of FSU’s revamped defensive scheme -- leading the team with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. And Joyner was a dynamic leader, providing a strong voice in the locker room and saving his best performances for Florida State’s biggest games. In a blowout victory over Clemson that helped define FSU’s season, Joyner recorded eight tackles and forced three turnovers, including a fumble on the Tigers’ opening drive that set the tone for the game.

The strong senior season earned Joyner a nod as a Thorpe Award finalist and a unanimous All-American.

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No. 6 Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson

Previous ranking: NR

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson defensive end Vic Beasley had 13 sacks in 2013.
Making the case for Beasley: His numbers make the case for him. Beasley, whose decision to return to school for his senior season was a huge boost to the program, led the ACC in sacks with 13 and finished second in tackles for loss with 23. His sacks-per-game were third-best in the nation and his tackles for loss per game ranked second. He led the nation in tackles for loss per game against teams that finished the season with a winning record (19 in eight games). He was also 10th in the nation with four caused fumbles.

Beasley had a strong game against Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl with four tackles for loss and a sack, and was a big reason the Tigers defeated the Buckeyes, 40-35. It was the most tackles for loss in a bowl game for a Clemson player and tied for the third-most tackles for loss in any BCS Bowl game dating to 1999.

Beasley was also a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given to the top defensive end in college football, and was a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award and the Lombardi Award.

Beasley achieved all this in his first year as a starter. He played just 304 snaps over his first two seasons. Beasley has 21 career sacks and needs just eight in 2014 to break the school record of 28 held by Michael Dean Perry and Gaines Adams.

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No. 7 Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State

Previous ranking: No. 15

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU DT Timmy Jernigan could stop the run or get after the quarterback. He was simply a dominating presence who will be a first-round NFL draft pick.
Making the case for Jernigan: Jernigan proved to be one of the best interior linemen in the country, helping the Florida State defensive front maintain its dominance up front. In 14 starts, Jernigan set career highs for tackles (63), tackles for loss (11.0) and sacks (4.5) and was an All-ACC coaches' first-team selection and All-American.

To truly understand his importance to the defense, turn on game tape of the BCS national championship game against Auburn. Jernigan had nine tackles in that contest, and was a big reason why Florida State was able to slow down the Auburn rushing attack in the second half. When he left the game because of cramps in the fourth quarter, the Tigers took advantage and found lanes that simply weren't there when Jernigan was in the game.

It came as no surprise that Jernigan declared early for the NFL draft and is projected to be a first-round pick in May. ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper describes Jernigan as an "active run-stuffer, a player who disrupts the run game with penetration due to unusual quickness for his size, and with leverage and violent hands that make him hard to move."

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2013 Top 25 player countdown: No. 8

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
No. 8: Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson

Previous ranking: No. 1

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsTajh Boyd's 2013 numbers were just part of a record-setting career at Clemson.
Making the case for Boyd: First, the records, of which there were many: Boyd finished his career with an ACC-record 107 touchdown passes. He was responsible for an ACC-record 133 scores. He set the Clemson record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception (187) from 2012 to 2013. He set Tigers’ single-game records for passing yards (455) and passing efficiency (261.9) in an Oct. 5 win at Syracuse, a game in which he did not play the fourth quarter.

For the season, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,851 yards with 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He added 400 rushing yards and 10 more scores on the ground. His 44 total touchdowns were tied with Jameis Winston for the most in the ACC, and his 327 total yards of offense per game led the league. The Hampton, Va., native was one of five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, one of 10 semifinalists for the Manning Award and one of 16 semifinalists for both the Maxwell Award and the Davey O'Brien Award. He was a second-team All-ACC selection by both the media and the coaches.

And yes, it is worth noting that Boyd finished seven spots below his preseason ranking, a product of Winston and Florida State dominating the Tigers in Death Valley earlier this season and of Boyd's shortcomings against in-state rival South Carolina. Still, he went out with a bang in the Discover Orange Bowl, and though he was unable to repeat as ACC player of the year in 2013, he did replicate his 2012 campaign statistically, while improving his career mark as a starter to 32-8. He will certainly be missed at Clemson after rewriting the record books and providing invaluable leadership to the Tigers.

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No. 9: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina

Previous ranking: No. 24

Making the case for Ebron: A first-team All-ACC selection and Mackey Award finalist, Ebron was one of the nation’s best tight ends and most consistent receiving threats in the conference. A matchup nightmare for every defense North Carolina faced, Ebron established himself as the Tar Heels’ go-to receiver for two different quarterbacks.

For the year, Ebron led the Tar Heels in catches (62) and receiving yards (973). Of his 62 catches, 42 went for first downs and 23 went for at least 15 yards. Ebron has seven receptions on third-and-7 or more or fourth down, and all seven resulted in a conversion. Only Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro finished the season with more receiving yards among tight ends than Ebron.

This year was an exceptional capper to Ebron’s UNC career, but his numbers over three seasons stand out, too. Ebron leaves the Tar Heels as the ACC’s all-time leader among tight ends in receiving yards, holds the UNC record for longest reception in Kenan Stadium history and holds the school record for single-game receiving yards by a tight end (199 vs. Miami this season).

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No. 10 Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke

Previous ranking: No. 21

Making the case for Crowder: In what was a record-setting season, Crowder established himself as one of the top receivers in the ACC -- and one of its top punt returners. He set school single-season records for pass receptions (108) and receiving yardage (1,360). He also became the first player in ACC history to top the 100-reception mark in a single season, and he finished the year with 11 total touchdowns (eight receiving, two punt returns and one rushing TD). He was second in the ACC in receptions per game (7.7), trailing only Clemson's Sammy Watkins (7.8).

Crowder finished 2013 with 1,832 all-purpose yards -- the second-highest single-season total in Duke history -- and earned second team All-America honors from the FWAA and first team All-ACC honors. He was second in the ACC in punt-return average (16) and yards (401) behind UNC's Ryan Switzer. Crowder also received the Clarkston Hines Award as Duke’s most outstanding receiver.

Crowder capped the season with a career-high 12 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown that covered 59 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. He set the ACC’s single-season receptions record in the win. Crowder led the ACC with 108 receptions on the year, finished second behind Watkins with 1,360 receiving yards and third with eight receiving touchdowns.

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No. 11 Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State

Previous ranking: No. 18

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Rashad Greene came up big in Florida State's biggest games this season.
Making the case: On an offense brimming with talent, Greene stood out as the second-best player behind Heisman winner Jameis Winston for one huge reason: Greene is as clutch as they come. You don't need more proof than the 49-yard catch and run he had in the BCS national title game against Auburn -- a play that set up the game-winning touchdown. Greene had his two best performances in 2013 in the two biggest games of the season -- eight catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson; and nine catches for 147 yards against Auburn.

Here are a few more examples of just how clutch Greene was throughout the course of the season: Greene had 18 third-down catches; all of them went for first downs. Fifty of his receptions went for a first down, tied for third in the ACC. In the red zone, Greene was Winston's favorite target (eight catches on 14 throws).

Not only did Greene earn first-team All-ACC honors, he notched his first 1,000 yard receiving season and had 76 catches -- the second-highest single-season total in school history. He has led the team in receiving all three years he has been at Florida State. You can see why the Seminoles jumped for joy when Greene announced he would return for his senior season.

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No. 12: Nikita Whitlock, NG, Wake Forest

Previous ranking: No. 23

Making the case for Whitlock: Whitlock was often a one-man wrecking crew inside for Wake Forest, filling up the stat sheet across the board despite a frame (5-foot-11, 250 pounds) that could be considered less than imposing for ACC offensive linemen. All the Wylie, Texas, native did was notch 19 tackles for loss, good for the fourth most in the league. His 6.8 tackles per game (82 total) were tied for 18th most in the ACC, and his nine total sacks were tied for eighth most.

Whitlock made his presence felt in other areas, too, breaking up three passes, tallying seven quarterback hurries, forcing two fumbles and blocking two kicks. He was named first-team All-ACC by the media, and second-team by the coaches, who also had him fourth in the conference's defensive player of the year voting. If not for the other-worldly performance of Pitt's Aaron Donald, another undersized interior defensive lineman, we'd have probably been hearing much more about Whitlock nationally this season.

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No. 13: Telvin Smith, LB, Florida State

Previous ranking: Not ranked

Making the case for Smith: Seven starters and three assistant coaches from Florida State’s 2012 defense left after the Seminoles wrapped up an ACC title and an Orange Bowl victory last year, but the rapid transition did little to disrupt the unit’s success. Smith was a major reason why.

After two years splitting reps at middle linebacker, the job was all Smith’s in 2013, and he didn’t disappoint. Florida State was the nation’s top-ranked scoring defense and third in total defense, and Smith was the unit’s unquestioned leader -- on and off the field.

For the season, Smith led FSU in tackles (90) and was second in tackles for loss (9.5). He finished with a career-high three interceptions and defended seven passes (third best on the team) while playing a crucial role in stopping the run up the middle. He scored two touchdowns on defense, had multiple tackles for loss against Pitt, Boston College and Duke, and he recorded double-digit tackles three times, including a game-high 15 (11 solo) in the BCS national championship win over Auburn. The success earned him second-team All-ACC honors.

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No. 14 Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina

Previous ranking: No. 19

Making the case for Martin: He was able to get off blocks to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, often in spite of facing double teams. He got after quarterbacks and made game-changing plays, such as the sack in the end zone for a safety in the Belk Bowl victory over Cincinnati. Martin was a first-team All-ACC selection after finishing the regular season with 78 tackles, 20.0 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

One of his best games came in the victory over Pitt, when Martin finished with eight tackles (six solo), 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Against Miami, Martin had four tackles for loss and a sack, two quarterback hurries and eight total tackles. He was a disruptive interior pass rusher and participated in the 2014 Reese's Senior Bowl, finishing with four tackles (1.5 for loss) for the North team. He is ranked No. 7 at his position by ESPN’s Scouts Inc.

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No. 15 Kelby Brown, LB, Duke

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Brown: One of the biggest reasons the Duke defense showed major improvement in 2013 was the return of Brown to the middle of the defense. Brown returned after missing 2012 with a knee injury and emerged as one of the best linebackers in the league. He ranked second in the ACC in tackles per game (8.8) and added 11 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and a team-high eight quarterback hurries.

Four times this season he reached double digits in tackles, including two games in which he had 17 tackles in each game. His most impressive stretch came in three games against Virginia Tech, NC State and Miami, all important victories that helped the Blue Devils clinch the Coastal Division. Brown had double-digit tackles in each game for a combined 41 tackles and was recognized as ACC Linebacker of the Week after each of those contests.

Overall, the Duke defense allowed almost 10 fewer points per game from 2012 to 2013 (36 to 26.6), and the Blue Devils gave up an average of 60 fewer yards per game. Brown was a big reason why.

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