CLEMSON — This could be the season of the quarterback in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Eleven teams have their starting quarterbacks back for 2012, which should help improve the league’s offensive production and national perception.
The top 20 players in the ACC include plenty of quarterbacks and two players who could be the best in the nation at their positions — Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and N.C. State cornerback David Amerson.
While the ACC’s reputation has taken a hit for its lack of BCS title contenders, the league will feature plenty of NFL-caliber talent in 2012. Here’s how this reporter ranks the top 20 players:
1. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins is the top playmaker in the ACC, a player ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said would have been a top 10 overall selection if he was eligible for last year’s NFL Draft. Watkins set numerous ACC freshman records in 2011 and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris wants to get him the ball more this season.
2. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
Thomas, at 6-6, 260 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds this spring. Last season, his first as a starter for the Hokies, he threw for more than 3,000 yards, rushed for 470 yards, completed 60 percent of his passes and had a total of 30 touchdowns.
3. David Amerson, CB, N.C. State
There are few assets more valuable than a lock-down cornerback. The 6-2, 190-pound junior has a rare combination of size and speed. He led the nation with 13 interceptions last season.
4. E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
Manuel has the size of a defensive end at 6-4, 245 pounds. He has the tools to be a superstar. While Manuel accounted for a somewhat underwhelming 22 touchdowns in his first season as starter, he finished second in the ACC in completion percentage (65.3) and did not throw an interception over his last five games.
5. Mike Glennon, QB, N.C. State
Glennon quietly produced 31 touchdown passes, second in school history to Philip Rivers. Glennon, who stands 6-6, is an accurate passer and finished last season with 11 touchdowns against two interceptions in the final three games.
6. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Boyd faded in the second half last fall when Clemson lost its offensive balance. But when the team was healthy, Boyd was a Heisman candidate, leading Clemson to an 8-0 start and No. 5 BCS ranking.
7. Bryn Renner, QB, North Carolina
Renner averaged an ACC-best 8.8 yards per pass attempt and 68 percent completion rate last season in his first year starting.
8. Brandon Jenkins, DE/LB, Florida State
Jenkins is the best bet in the ACC to produce double-digit sacks. He ranks sixth on the school’s all-time tackles for loss list (21.5).
9. James Hurst, OT, North Carolina
With two years of starting experience, the 6-6, 310-pound Hurst could be on the cusp of a true breakout season.
10. Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
This 6-4, 320-pounder combines with Hurst to give North Carolina the best left-side offensive line in the ACC.
11. Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
The 6-2, 215-pound Rhodes has size and speed. He has potential to be a first-round NFL pick.
12. Joe Vellano, DT, Maryland
Vellano recorded 94 tackles as a junior in 2011, earning second-team All-America honors.
13. Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
Bernard has explosiveness (three 50-yard runs in 2011), durability (played in all 13 games) and versatility (45 catches).
14. Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech
Attaochu had six sacks last season and could be a threat for double-digit numbers in 2012.
15. James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
Gayle recorded seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss last season despite missing time with injuries.
16. Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
When healthy, he’s a dynamic player but he’s missed significant time in each of the last two seasons.
17. Lamarcus Joyner, S, Florida State
Undersized, but tough and quick, the 5-8, 205-pound Joyner and has been clocked as fast as 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
18. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
Lost in the shadow of Watkins, Hopkins was the most impressive receiver in Clemson’s spring camp. He had 986 yards receiving last season.
19. Omoregie Uzzi, G, Georgia Tech
Uzzi, a first-team All-ACC performer, is a tough run blocker and a key cog in coach Paul Johnson’s option scheme.
20. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Werner was fifth in the ACC with seven sacks in 2011.