ACC: most-important-2012

Our series concludes today with the Demon Deacons, who, like many in the ACC this season, have to shore up their offensive line.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Wake Forest: C Garrick Williams

2011 stats: Williams played in all 13 games last season, starting in 11.

What he means to the Demon Deacons: Williams performed well during his first season as a starter, but he also had the benefit of playing alongside four fourth- or fifth-year players. Now, there is no safety net. Williams is the lone returning starter to a unit that is rebuilding, one that will be charged with protecting enough skill position players for the Deacs to think they can repeat their surprising 2011 season. Coach Jim Grobe has said coming out of spring that he's comfortable with three spots on the line: Williams in the middle, Colin Summers at right tackle and Antonio Ford at left guard. Williams is the leader of the group, and his presence cannot be overstated.
Our series continues today with the Hokies, who return just one full-time starter from a strong offensive line in 2011.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Virginia Tech: C Andrew Miller

2011 stats: Miller started all 14 games as a junior last season, playing more than 900 snaps, including every single one in nine games.

What he means to the Hokies: The Hokies' line last season paved the way for David Wilson to notch the most single-season rushing yards in school history. It returns just one full-time starter from that line. As The Virginian-Pilot's Andy Bitter notes, Miller accounts for all 14 starts that Virginia Tech returns up front this season, whereas last year that number was 164. The offense is expected to undergo growing pains -- as is any that is forced to replace that much of its foundation -- but it does return a potential NFL quarterback in Logan Thomas, along with what is expected to be one of the top defenses in the country. If the Hokies want to continue their reign near the top of the conference, they will need key people to step up on offense, which starts with the line. Having a returning man in the middle who also happens to be a senior is an invaluable commodity, as Miller can hold the line together and help bring along the new starters.
Our series continues today with the Cavaliers, who are looking for answers in their defensive backfield after an 8-5 season in 2011.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Virginia: CB Demetrious Nicholson

2011 stats: Nicholson notched two picks, two tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, a forced fumble and 60 total tackles as a true freshman.

What he means to the Cavaliers: This is a secondary re-tooling, and coach Mike London said entering the spring that he would keep a close eye on both the defensive backs and wide receivers, looking to see which side would come out on the winning end of downfield throws. Nicholson, who played nearly every snap in his first year in 2011, ended up being named the most distinguished freshman this spring, but that hardly justifies his importance. With Chase Minnifield gone, Nicholson will probably be responsible for covering the opposition's No. 1 receiver this season, and he will have to be the leader of a group facing some questions given its lack of experience. Sophomores Brandon Phelps and Drequan Hoskey could start opposite him after seeing action mostly on special teams last season. Another option is converted running back Brendan Morgan. Regardless, the onus is on a true sophomore to lead this group in 2012, and after a strong debut season, he looks capable of filling the role.
Our series continues today with the Wolfpack, who return a record-breaking cornerback.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

NC State: CB David Amerson

2011 stats: Amerson started 13 games, notching 59 tackles, five pass breakups and 13 interceptions, which he returned for a total of 205 yards and two touchdowns.

What he means to the Wolfpack: This one, like several others, is too easy. Except in other cases, that easy pick for most important player is the quarterback, and since we decided to challenge ourselves in this series by picking someone other than the quarterback, we finally get to make the easy choice. Moving from boundary to field corner after playing as a true freshman and recording no picks in 2010, Amerson's All-America sophomore campaign ended with him claiming the nation's interception crown, as his 13 were the most in the FBS since 1968 and matched the second-most in a single season in FBS history. The 13 picks were six more than any other player, and they marked an ACC single-season record. They also snapped a 73-year-old school record of nine picks, set by Art Rooney in 1937 and 1938. Amerson should be a first-round draft pick in 2013 with a strong junior campaign, and even though NC State returns all four of its starters in the secondary in 2012, there is no substitute for a playmaker at one of the cornerback spots, as we've seen offenses again and again look to keep things away from one side of the field when facing players of Amerson's caliber.
Our series continues today with the Tar Heels, who will look to pick up the pace in Year 1 under coach Larry Fedora.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

North Carolina: WR Erik Highsmith

2011 stats: Highsmith was second on the team last season with 51 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns. UNC led the ACC in pass efficiency.

What he means to the Tar Heels: Fedora's offense is all about pace. The offensive linemen are the guys who will have to do the most adjusting, running back to the line after plays instead of huddling. This isn't exactly a cakewalk for skill position players, but they should have a slightly easier time. Quarterback Bryn Renner completed better than 68 percent of his passes and had a 2 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio in a strong first season as a starter in 2011. Having run a spread offense in high school, he will be tasked with getting his teammates up to speed this fall. The Tar Heels return a 1,000-yard rusher in Giovani Bernard, too. But Fedora's offense is all about balance, something all the more difficult to achieve with just five scholarship receivers returning. Here's where Highsmith can help, as the 6-foot-3, 190-pounder enters his senior year with 113 catches, 1,499 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns under his belt. He is the only returning wideout who caught more than 15 passes last season, and he had seven catches for 82 yards in the spring game. Having a proven senior pass-catcher like Highsmith is invaluable for an adjusting offense, and his playmaking ability should allow other receivers the opportunities to step up and help with transition in 2012. The offensive line may have to do the most adjusting, but no single player on the offense (outside of the signal-caller, of course) is more important than Highsmith.

Most Important Player: Miami

May, 1, 2012
Our series continues today with the Hurricanes, who are replacing a just-drafted running back and face a lack of depth on their offensive line.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Miami: RG Brandon Linder

2011 stats: Linder started all 12 games as a sophomore at right guard and earned ACC offensive lineman of the week honors after playing center, guard, tackle and tight end in the Hurricanes' 35-10 win over Wake Forest on Nov. 12.

What he means to the Hurricanes: Miami's offensive line trouble this spring has been well-documented, with coach Al Golden having to defend signs the program posted on campus looking for walk-on additions to the unit. Three starters from the end of last season are gone, including the entire left side. Linder looks like the only sure thing for the unit coming out of spring. Jon Feliciano is the only other returning starter, but he moved from right tackle to left guard, and he may not even start there, as he exits spring in a tight battle with Jermaine Johnson for the No. 1 spot. That leaves Linder as the lone holdover, and his presence on the line will provide a strong sense of stability for a unit that paved the way for Lamar Miller to rush for 1,272 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Miller was just drafted by the Dolphins in the fourth round. The Canes currently have 13 offensive linemen on the roster as they exit spring, and will have one more come fall once guard recruit Daniel Isidora arrives.

Most Important Player: Maryland

April, 30, 2012
Our series continues today with the Terrapins, who are looking to rebound from a rocky 2-10 season in Year 1 of the Randy Edsall era.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Maryland: LB Kenny Tate

2011 stats: One of four team captains last season, Tate's campaign was cut short after just four games because of season-ending knee surgery. He recorded 35 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble.

What he means to the Terrapins: Say what you want about the offense, which has just one quarterback with any experience and was outplayed in Maryland's spring game, but the Terps' recovery will start on the other side of the ball. Maryland finished 108th nationally in total defense last season, and it was 111th against the run. New coordinator Brian Stewart's 3-4 system should help fix that, and a healthy Tate could ease the transition. Tate sat out this spring but was granted a medical hardship waiver and will be back for a fifth season this fall. He played safety for three years before 2011, and his 2010 campaign (100 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three picks) earned him All-ACC honors as a junior. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder moved to linebacker last season and has 21 total starts at Maryland, notching 197 tackles, seven picks and five forced fumbles in 40 career games. Linebacker and captain Demetrius Hartsfield led the charge in the spring game for the defense -- which was also missing All-ACC end Joe Vellano (foot) -- and the health of the unit could play a big role in Maryland's climb out of the cellar of the ACC.
Our series continues today with the Yellow Jackets, who are replacing two players on their defensive line.

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Georgia Tech: DT T.J. Barnes

2011 stats: A reserve during his junior season in 2011, the 6-foot-7, 347-pound Barnes played in every game, notching 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

What he means to the Yellow Jackets: Georgia Tech's biggest player, Barnes has, by many accounts, begun to play to his potential this spring, losing some weight and bringing a more physical style to the field. That's huge for a defensive line in need of two new starters for coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. Shawn Green, Barnes' backup, has given him a push and could see plenty of playing time as well, but a strong Barnes in the middle of that front could go in alleviating concerns about the Yellow Jackets' pass-rush. With the team returning three starters in the secondary after finishing with the ACC's No. 2 pass defense a season ago, that could mean trouble for opposing quarterbacks.
Our series continues today with the Seminoles, who face the same storyline that they seem to face heading into every season: Are they back?

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Florida State: LT Cameron Erving

2011 stats: The 6-foot-5, 304-pound Erving played in every game last season as a redshirt freshman … and recorded 20 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack as a defensive tackle.

What he means to the Seminoles: So how is a player who is stepping into a new position the most important on a squad with the talent to contend for a conference crown? Simple: To compete, FSU needs to protect EJ Manuel, and it needs a consistent ground game. The Seminoles were the nation's No. 104 rushing offense last season. Manuel, for one, carried the ball just 10 fewer times than leading running back Devonta Freeman, who was banged up this spring. FSU should be deeper in the backfield, with Chris Thompson, James Wilder and Mario Pender seeing more action this spring. And with FSU's returning talent among its receivers, Manuel will need the opportunity to make more plays with his arm. Which brings us to Erving, who is replacing left tackle Zebrie Sanders, a likely draft pick this weekend. Sanders was the only non-freshman starter on the line at the end of last season, and growing pains still have to be expected among the young unit in 2012. Erving is the newest of the bunch, and he is playing the most important position. And a smooth transition there could go a long way in helping FSU protect Manuel, improve its ground game and compete for an ACC crown this coming season.

Most Important Player: Duke

April, 25, 2012
Our series continues today with the Blue Devils -- another team with experience at the quarterback position, and a team that will likely use up to three in games this coming season. That's OK, we like the challenge of finding someone else. (In this case, we don't have to look too far.)

For a complete recap of the series, click here.

Duke: WR Conner Vernon

2011 stats: Vernon caught 70 passes for 965 yards and five touchdowns, making him the only player in ACC history with multiple 70-catch seasons (he caught 73 passes for 973 yards in 2010). The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Miami native has recorded 900-plus receiving yards in consecutive seasons after a 746-yard freshman campaign in 2009.

What he means to the Blue Devils: Coach David Cutcliffe has said that good won't be good enough against this year's challenging schedule, adding that Duke will need playmakers if it wants to be above-average. His team has one in Vernon. An ankle injury sidelined the receiver this spring, but he should be full-go come the fall, and that's good news for the Blue Devils, who are looking to break through and reach a bowl game for the first time since the 1994 season, the longest current drought among FBS schools. Vernon enters his senior year 34 catches shy of the ACC career record for catches, which is held by Clemson's Aaron Kelly (232 from 2005-08). His 2,675 career receiving yards are 842 shy of matching FSU's Peter Warrick's ACC record (3,517, 1996-99). With a quarterback with two years of starting experience under his belt in Sean Renfree, Vernon should have plenty of opportunities to make big plays.

Most Important Player: Clemson

April, 24, 2012
Our series continues today with the Tigers, who return a conference record-setting quarterback. Of course, he is not eligible for this distinction, so we turn our attention elsewhere.

For a look at Boston College from Monday, click here.

Clemson: center Dalton Freeman

2011 stats: It's tough to measure an offensive lineman by numbers, but Freeman's credentials make that a little easier in this case. He has 143 career knockdowns and 2,402 snaps under his belt, having started 36 of 40 games the past three seasons. He is on pace to beat the school record for starts by an offensive lineman (48).

What he means to the Tigers: We know, we know. Sammy Watkins is the superstar of this team. Heck, we even said a short while ago that he will be the superstar of this conference. We stand by that, as Watkins' star power and big-play capability may be unmatched in the ACC. But we're not talking about the best or flashiest player. We're talking about the most important. Take Freeman off this team and who knows what happens. He was first-team All-ACC last season, finishing as a finalist for the Rimington Award, which is given to the nation's top center. He is one of only two returning starters on the offensive line, this coming off a season in which the Tigers set school records for points, touchdowns, total offense and passing offense. Watkins and the rest of Clemson's skill players don't get the chance to produce the way they did last year if Freeman and the rest of the line don't provide a solid foundation up front. That will be more challenging this season with three new starters, but Freeman will provide a calming presence, which, as we saw last year, increases the chances for more big plays from Clemson's offense.
Stealing a page from the playbook of my illustrious colleagues over at the Pac-12 blog, we're kicking off a series of our own here. Each weekday, we'll take a look at the most important player on each team, starting in alphabetical order.

Today brings us to the Boston College Eagles. And, to add to the challenge, we, also, will not be including quarterbacks on this list. (Sorry, Chase Rettig. We don't think any less of you.)

Away we go ...

Boston College: Linebacker Steele Divitto

2011 stats: Divitto was third on the team with 72 tackles, and he also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and five pass breakups.

What he means to the Eagles: Despite a 4-8 campaign last season, BC made significant strides down the stretch, winning two of its final three games. That started with the defense, which held each of its last three opponents to fewer than 20 points. (Its one loss, at three-touchdown favorite Notre Dame, was by a 16-14 margin.) The departure of record-setter Luke Kuechly for the NFL draft obviously presents a significant hole in production to account for, but the Eagles are looking to build off last year's strong finish by having multiple linebackers up their production. At the head of that position is Divitto, who came from an intense environment at national power Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.) three years ago and carried that mentality through spring ball and in offseason drills. With the Eagles' season over while other schools went on bowl trips, the junior-to-be took a trip of his own last year: to Athletes' Performance in Phoenix, where he trained for two weeks with NFL draft prospects. That's the kind of mentality BC needs to carry a unit that finished last season 43rd in the nation in scoring defense.