New mix of talent at top of ACC: Clemson standouts Ellington, Freeman among the top 10 offensive players in conference

Clemson RB Andre Ellington is No. 6 on the list.

Last season might be remembered as the year of the quarterback in the Atlantic Coast Conference with stars like Christian Ponder (Florida State), Russell Wilson (N.C. State), Tyrod Taylor (Virginia Tech), T.J. Yates (North Carolina) and Joshua Nesbitt (Georgia Tech) supplying the conference with significant scoring power.

Those stars are gone.

Ponder was selected 12th overall by Minnesota in the NFL draft. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin. Nesbitt graduated along with Yates and Taylor, last season's ACC player of the year. It's a considerable loss of firepower as the conference seeks new faces to lead programs.

After tabbing Ponder as the top offensive talent in the ACC last summer, The Post and Courier again ranks the conference's 20 top offensive players entering the 2011 season.

1. Danny O'Brien, QB, Soph., Maryland

At this time a year ago, O'Brien was in a battle with Jamarr Robinson for the starting quarterback position. O'Brien went on to win ACC rookie of the year honors. With so much quarterback talent having departed the conference, O'Brien returns as perhaps the top pure passer in the league, completing 57 percent of his passes along with 22 TDs against eight interceptions in 10 starts last season.

2. Logan Thomas, QB, So., Virginia Tech

Last season, an unproven but athletic 6-6, 240-pound quarterback stepped into the starting lineup and took Auburn to a national title. Virginia Tech is hoping for a similar on-field story with the 6-6, 245-pound Thomas, who draws comparisons to Cam Newton. Thomas has run a 4.6 second 40-yard dash and had an outstanding spring as a passer, completing 50 of 91 passes for 743 yards and six touchdowns.

3. Andrew Datko, OT, Sr., Florida State

The 6-6, 311-pound tackle allowed just one sack all of last season and should make life easier for the Seminoles new starting quarterback E.J. Manuel. Datko has ideal agility and wingspan for an NFL tackle and is a projected as a potential first-round pick. He is the conference's top pass protector.

4. E.J. Manuel, QB, Jr., Florida State

If Florida State is to return to top-10 status, Manuel will need to reach his potential as a passer. Manuel has the size (6-5, 234) and physical tools to be the best quarterback in the conference. He completed 70 percent of his passes last season but will need to improve his decision making (6 TDs, 10 INTs in career).

5. Brandon Washington, G, Jr., Miami

This 6-4, 320-pound force produced 56 pancake blocks last season en route to first- team all-conference honors. Washington graded out at 95 percent or better on three occasions last season.

6. Andre Ellington, RB, Jr., Clemson

If not for a toe injury, Ellington was on his way to a 1,000-yard season last fall. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney calls Ellington a better "pure runner" than C.J. Spiller. Ellington averaged more than six yards per carry in two seasons. If he can stay healthy, he could be the best back in the conference.

7. Dalton Freeman, C, Jr., Clemson

Clemson has not had a lineman drafted in the top three rounds of the NFL draft since 1979 (Joe Bostic). Freeman figures to change that in the next year or two, as he is regarded as one of the top centers in the country. He is the cornerstone of the Tigers' offensive line and has started 22 straight games.

8. Dwight Jones, WR, Sr., North Carolina

Jones is a matchup nightmare at 6-4, 225 pounds for just about any defensive back in the conference. He had a pair of monster games last season (198 yards vs. Virginia, 233 yards vs. Florida State) and ended up leading the Tar Heels in receiving with 62 catches, 946 yards and 4 TDs.

9. Lamar Miller, RB, So., Miami

Any 5-11, 212-pound freshman who rushes for six yards per carry and finishes second on a BCS team in rushing is going to grab your attention. Miller has a superb blend of size and foot quickness and should be a threat to breach 1,000 yards.

10. Montel Harris, RB, Sr., Boston College

Harris earned first-team All-ACC honors last season in leading the conference with 1,243 rushing yards (4.6 average). While not explosive, Harris has proven to be durable and productive in rushing for more than 3,000 yards in his career.

11. Sean Renfree, QB, Jr., Duke

Sophomore quarterbacks who surpass 3,000 yards passing and complete 61 percent of their passes are rare. Renfree figures to put up big numbers again as Duke will play from behind often.

12. George Bryan, TE, Sr., N.C. State

The 6-5, 265-pound Bryan is one of the better tight ends in the country, but caught just 35 passes for 369 yards last year with Russell Wilson as his quarterback. Without Wilson, Bryan might improve on those numbers acting as a security blanket for new quarterback Mike Glennon.

13. Blake DeChristopher, OT, Sr., Virginia Tech

A second team All- ACC blocker a year ago, DeChristopher is a powerful run blocker and should make life easier for running back David Wilson, who replaces Williams and Darren Evans in the backfield.

14. Seantrel Henderson, OT, So., Miami

This mountain of a man (6-8, 345) entered the starting lineup as a true freshman and has the skills to be the ACC's most dominant offensive lineman sooner rather than later. Henderson could be Miami's best lineman since Bryant McKinnie. He was a first-team freshman All-American last season.

15. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, So., Clemson

No one in the conference has Hopkins' ability to time his jump and the catch the ball at its highest point. Hopkins got his first start in the fourth game of the season. He had two 100-yard games and could become Clemson's first 1,000-yard receiver since Aaron Kelly in 2007.

16. Chris Thompson, RB, Jr., Florida State

Though undersized at 5-8, 190, Thompson can fly as evidenced by his 6.3 yards per carry average last season. Thompson is also an excellent receiver and is part of a backfield timeshare but could again lead a potent FSU offense in rushing yards.

17. Travis Benjamin, WR, Sr., Miami

Benjamin must stop dropping passes, because he is the team's fastest player (4.27 second 40-yard dash) and one of the most electric in the ACC. Even with inconsistent hands and an inconsistent quarterback in Jacory Harris, Benjamin had 740 receiving yards.

18. David Wilson, RB, Jr., Virginia Tech

He was a first-team All-ACC kick returner from a year ago (2 touchdowns, 26.5 yards per return) showcasing his speed and elusiveness. Wilson replaces big names in the Hokies backfield but has the skills to be a 1,000-yard threat there while also impacting the return game.

19. Jarrett Boykin, WR, Jr., Virginia Tech

The 6-2, 210-pound Boykin returns after leading the Hokies in receiving last year with 847 yards (16 yards per catch). Boykin provides Thomas with a deep threat and a big target in the intermediate passing game.

20. Conner Vernon, WR, Jr., Duke

All Vernon has done is record 128 catches in his first two years as a Blue Devil, including 73 receptions for 973 yards last season.