ACC: 2013 top 25 player countdown

No. 1. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson

Previous ranking: No. 1

Making the case for Boyd: The fact that he is at the top of the list two years in a row shows that Boyd is indeed the face of the ACC and its best hope at a Heisman Trophy. There’s no question Boyd is a contender -- he was in the conversation last season. The question now is whether or not his team will be good enough to help him actually win it. Individually, Boyd has already proven to be good enough. In 2012, he was named the ACC’s Player of the Year and the league’s Offensive Player of the Year by both the coaches and the media.

Boyd’s leadership alone has been invaluable to the team, as the Tigers continue their hunt for another ACC title and run at the national championship. Boyd has established himself as one of the best in school history, as he ranks first at Clemson in passing touchdowns, first in passing efficiency and first in touchdowns he’s responsible for. Over his career, which includes a 21-6 record as the starter, Boyd has completed 62.5 percent of his passes and has thrown for 8,053 yards and 73 touchdowns against 28 interceptions. He put up remarkable numbers last season with an ACC-record 36 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He also had 514 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns and was responsible for an ACC-record 46 touchdowns. He has helped transform the perception of Clemson from pretender to contender, and he came back for his senior season to do it again.

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No. 2 Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Watkins: Just about everyone is expecting Watkins to be even better than he was as a freshman in 2011, when he made an impressive debut as one of the top all-purpose players in the country. Last year was a down year by his standards, as he did not reach 1,000 yards receiving, thanks to an early season suspension and then an injury that limited him from living up to the hype. Headed into this year, there are no distractions. Watkins has stayed out of trouble, and worked harder both in the weight room and on the practice field. He also has grown up, too, and is ready to become a dependable leader on an offense that will be missing its top receiving threat from a year ago. Watkins will be counted on to replace DeAndre Hopkins' reliability and production, and will once again be a key member of the Tigers return game. If he can put last season behind him, Watkins should be one of the top players not in the ACC but the nation this season.

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No. 3. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

Previous ranking: No. 11

Making the case for Johnson: He had what was arguably the greatest freshman season in school history. Still need more? Johnson, who was named the ACC’s overall and offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, was one of the ACC’s most electric kick returners, and he set the school single-season record with 892 kick return yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a freshman-record 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 2,060 all-purpose yards were the second-most in program history.

Johnson played in all 12 games last year and made five starts. He also had six games with 200-plus all-purpose yards and four 100-yard rushing games. He was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Week a league-best five-times. It’s possible Johnson could be even better this fall, as all five starters return on the offensive line, and the Canes have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Stephen Morris.

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No. 4 Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland

Previous ranking: No. 17

Making the case for Diggs: The ACC had two of the most dazzling true freshmen in the country last season, in Diggs and Miami running back Duke Johnson. After breakout seasons, much more is expected for both. In Diggs' case, he is going to have his quarterback back. The return of C.J. Brown following a season-long knee injury should give the Terps stability at a position that was hit so hard by so many injuries, where a linebacker was starting at the end of the season. And it should also give Diggs more of an opportunity to become a 1,000-yard receiver this year after he led his team in receptions (54), yards receiving (848) and touchdown receptions (6) in 2012. Diggs will continue to be relied upon not just as a receiver. Last year, he ranked second in the ACC and eigth nationally with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game. His 1,896 all-purpose yards ranks as the second-best single-season total in school history.

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No. 5. James Hurst, OT, North Carolina

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Hurst: Hurst is going to be the anchor of the line this fall, as he’s the senior leader and one of the nation’s top left tackles. He has started 36 career games since earning the starting job in the second week of his true freshman season. Last year, he helped pave the way for UNC to set school records in total offense, scoring and passing yards. UNC allowed just 11 total sacks last year, and led the ACC in sacks allowed per game (.92). He started 11 games last fall and graded out close to 90 percent.

He has been at his best against the most meaningful competition, as last year Hurst graded out at 90 percent with 12 knockdowns and played all 85 snaps in the win at Miami. One of the biggest questions facing UNC this fall is how the Tar Heels will replace OG Jonathan Cooper, as he was the lead blocker for Giovani Bernard last year. There is so much confidence within the program in the leadership and abilities of Hurst, that with three starters returning, it could be a smoother transition than expected.

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No. 6 Stephen Morris, QB, Miami

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Morris: At this time last year, Stephen Morris had just won a competition to start at quarterback. It is pretty remarkable how far he has come in just one year starting under center. Morris set the school record for total offense last year (3,415 yards) and even then remained pretty under the radar from a national perspective. Not anymore. People have finally clued in to what Morris did last year and see tremendous room for even more growth as he enters his senior season. Though Morris threw for 3,345 yards last year, he only completed 58.2 percent of his passes. That is one key area where Morris can improve this season. One other big area is being able to keep defenses more off-balanced. With the emergence of Duke Johnson in the backfield, Miami is equally adept at running and passing, making play-action that much more valuable for the Hurricanes. The Morris-Johnson duo is one of the biggest reasons why Miami was the preseason choice to win the Coastal. If Morris continues on his upward trajectory and Miami can string together one victory after another, Morris could emerge as a darkhorse Heisman contender.

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No. 7 Bryn Renner, QB, North Carolina

Previous ranking: No. 20

Making the case for Renner: He’s one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country, but his value could be proven come draft day. Renner enters his senior season on the brink of setting nearly every career passing mark at UNC. The three-year starter has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of the past two seasons -- the only player in school history to hit that milestone twice in his career. He set the single-season school record for total offense last year with 3,394 yards. Renner has flourished in coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense, and should be even better this fall because it is the second season with the staff and he’s more familiar with the playbook and expectations.

Renner currently holds the school record for career 300-yard passing games with eight, but even more impressive has been his efficiency. Last year he started all 12 games, completed 65.4 percent of his passes, and threw for 3,356 yards, 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Renner enters the season with a career pass efficiency mark of 154.6, which ranks fifth among all FBS quarterbacks. If he keeps up that pace, he would break the current ACC career pass efficiency record of 151.2 set by Florida State’s Chris Weinke. Not bad company.

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No. 8 Jeremiah Attaochu, DE, Georgia Tech

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Attaochu: Expectations are high for Attaochu now that he has made the full-time move to defensive end in the new 4-3 defense the Jackets are going to run under Ted Roof. Last year as an outside linebacker/defensive end, Attaochu had 10 sacks (tied for seventh most on the school's single-season list) and was an honorable mention All-ACC pick. He goes into this season as an All-ACC preseason selection and made it on the preseason watch list for four individual defensive awards (Nagurski, Lombardi, Butkus and Bednarik). But it's not just outsiders who have high expectations. Attaochu expects much more out of himself at his new position, calling it a much better fit for him. Attaochu has worked on using his hands more, his leverage and his explosiveness this offseason in the hopes of being a much more complete end.

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No. 9. Lamarcus Joyner, DB, Florida State

Previous ranking: No. 15

Making the case for Joyner: As one of the top defensive backs in the country, Joyner will be showcasing his versatility this year at corner, where he played during the spring. He spent the past two seasons as the starting strong safety, where he has started 27 straight games, and he is also one of the top kick returners in school history. In a top-10 win over Clemson, Joyner returned five kickoffs for 185 yards, including one for 90 yards. He has played in every game since he arrived at Florida State as a freshman in 2010, and is now the leader of the defense. Joyner has great range because of his speed, which allows him to cover a lot of ground in the secondary. Joyner is on the watch lists this year for the Thorpe Award, Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy, Lott Impact Trophy and Paul Hornung Award.

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We made it to the Top 10.

No. 10 Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt

Previous ranking: No. 25 in Big East 2012 postseason player countdown.

Making the case for Donald: As the person in charge of the Big East postseason rankings a year ago, I admit I ranked Donald too low as I took a second gander at the list. His defense's inconsistent -- and at times mediocre -- play up front overshadowed the way Donald played. His production also dipped slightly -- going from 11 sacks in 2011 to 5.5 last year. But Donald also transitioned to a new position, playing inside more than outside.

Still, he was one of the best players in the Big East and should be one of the best defensive players in the ACC as he goes into his senior season. Donald told me during ACC media days he feels completely comfortable playing inside now and is looking forward to an even better season. If preseason watch lists are any indication, so are outside observers. Donald landed on five of those lists after ranking No. 12 in the nation a year ago in tackles for loss (1.54 per game). Hard to believe he was barely recruited out of high school -- Pitt was the only school from a major conference to offer a scholarship. Pitt is going to need a huge season out of Donald up front if the Panthers are going to truly be contenders in the Coastal Division.

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No. 11. Christian Jones, LB, Florida State

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Jones: At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Jones has above average speed and quickness, and he’s one of the best athletes on Florida State’s roster. He is the Noles’ leading returning tackler and started all 14 games at weakside linebacker last year. This offseason, he moved to middle linebacker under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. He’s a candidate for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s top linebacker, and he is also on the watch lists for the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy. Jones finished last season with 95 tackles, which ranked seventh in the ACC. He accounted for FSU’s only defensive touchdown of the season in a road win at South Florida. Jones continues to improve, as he had more tackles last fall (95) than he had in 27 career games in 2009-2010 (74). This should be the highlight season for the senior.

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No. 12 James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech

Previous ranking: Not ranked.

Making the case for Gayle: Last year, Gayle made the All-ACC second team after a solid season, but his production dipped slightly from 2011. Gayle ended up with five sacks and 11 tackles for loss, but Virginia Tech believes he is prepared to take the next step as a game-changing defensive end in 2013. Gayle had a terrific spring -- he won defensive MVP honors -- and he slimmed down, earning Super Iron Hokie honors as well. The hope is a more streamlined Gayle means a quicker Gayle off the line getting to the quarterback. Gayle has said he wants to get double-digits sacks this season, something he has not done yet in his Virginia Tech career. Given his renewed focus and sleeker physique, he has put himself in position to get there.

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No. 13. Michael Campanaro, WR, Wake Forest

Previous ranking: No. 24

Making the case for Campanaro: He has become the face of the program, and if he can stay healthy this fall, he should become more of a household name throughout the rest of the country. Campanaro has been Mr. Dependable for the Deacs, and he enters this fall with a streak of 21 straight games with at least one reception. He ranks fifth in school history with 162 career catches and needs 55 more to break the school record of 216.

Campanaro started nine games last year and missed two because of a hand injury. Still, he finished the season with 79 catches (which led the ACC during the regular season) for 763 yards and six touchdowns. He led the team in scoring with 42 points on seven touchdowns and also led the Deacs with 871 all-purpose yards. He led the ACC with 7.9 receptions per game, which is the second-highest single-season average in conference history. He was named to the watch lists for the Biletnikoff and Paul Hornung Awards.

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No. 14 Alex Amidon, WR, Boston College

Previous ranking: No. 21

Making the case for Amidon: Talk about a breakout year in 2012. Amidon went into last season with 36 career receptions for 558 yards and three total touchdowns. He more than doubled those marks in one single season, setting school records for receptions with 78 and receiving yards with 1,210 for seven touchdowns and a spot on the All-ACC first team. Amidon was essentially the only reliable target for Chase Rettig. Teams knew that, and yet they still could not slow Amidon, who finished second in the ACC in total receiving yards and ranked 11th in the nation in receiving yards per game (100.8). He goes into the season on the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award and once again as the go-to player for Rettig. But Amidon has developed into much more of a leader, and that could make him even more valuable to the Eagles this season.

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No. 15. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
FSU
Previous ranking: Not ranked

Making the case for Jernigan: He’s oozing potential, but even after only two starts last fall, he’s played enough that it’s clear Jernigan is one of the nation’s top returning tackles. Jernigan is expected to step into a starting role this fall, and he’s got the experience of 26 career games as a foundation. He’s quick into opponents’ backfields, as he had the most tackles amongst all FSU interior linemen in each of his first two seasons.

This year, Jernigan is a candidate for the Outland Trophy, which is given to the nation's top interior lineman, as well as the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's top lineman. He enters 2013 with 76 career tackles and 14 tackles for loss. If he picks up where he left off, Jernigan should have a breakout season. He finished 2012 strong, with 22 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in his final four games. He was also an impact player in the ACC title game win over Georgia Tech, when he had the team’s only sack.

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