The ACC boasted a plethora of talented pass catchers last year. Six receivers and a tight end were selected in this past year's NFL Draft, led by Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill, who was taken in the second round by the New York Jets with the 43rd overall pick. Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen and NC State wide out T.J. Graham were both selected in the third round, while several other productive college stars ran out of college eligibility.
In terms of receptions per game, the ACC lost its top two pass catchers, but returns five of the top ten. Meanwhile, in terms of receiving yards per game, the league lost its leader and six of the top ten from 2011. Clemson's Sammy Watkins in the leading returner in both categories after an outstanding debut campaign, in which he average 6.3 receptions and 93.8 yards per game.
The ACC's pass catchers go far deeper than that, though, and more than 11 pass catchers who tallied at least 500 yards receiving in 2011 are back this fall. Here's how we rank the ACC's pass catchers heading into the 2012 campaign.
Ranking the ACC's wide receivers
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson The easiest decision out of all of our position rankings was to put the true sophomore atop our list of ACC receivers. He set the league on fire in his first year and finished with ACC rookie records in receptions (82), receiving yards (1,219) and receiving touchdowns (12). He earned first-team All-America honors from the Associated Press - only the fourth true rookie to ever do so - and also rushed for 231 yards on 32 carries while he averaged 25.0 yards on 33 kickoff returns, with a 89-yard touchdown return against Maryland. Watkins will be one of the top pass catchers in the country this year after leading all rookies in every major receiving category last year. The scary part is Watkins was slowed at the end of last year by a shoulder injury and the freshman fatigue to be expected of a player going through his first college season. As long as an offseason arrest doesn't hamper Watkins, he should be even better this fall with a more experienced quarterback and the offense as a whole settling under coordinator Chad Morris in its second year in the up-tempo, no-huddle attack.
2. Conner Vernon, Duke Clemson's other receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, made this a tough one, but there's no denying Vernon's production. The 6-foot-2, 195 pound senior needs just 35 pass receptions and 842 yards through the air to become the ACC's all-time leader in both categories. That shouldn't be a problem for the two-time All-ACC honoree, who has averaged 66 catches and 891.7 yards in his first three years on campus. After leading the ACC in pass receptions (73) and ranking third in receiving yards (973) in 2010, Vernon ranked fifth (70, 956) in both categories last year. Vernon will probably receive even more opportunities this season after the graduation of former running mate Donovan Varner, although that probably also means that he will receive more double teams and attention from opponents. However, if quarterback Sean Renfree is pro material, like coach David Cutcliffe insists, it shouldn't matter and Vernon should have another great campaign.
3. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson The Tigers clearly have the best receiving tandem in the conference, and maybe the best in the nation with Watkins and the 6-1, 195 pound junior. Hopkins had a great campaign last fall and ranked in the ACC's top five for receptions (72) and receiving yards (978) while becoming just the second player in ACC history to record at least 50 receptions as a freshman and sophomore. Hopkins should keep the Clemson offense clicking on all cylinders and will benefit from the extra attention that opponents give to Watkins. Don't underestimate third receiver Jaron Brown, either - the trio combined for have combined for 51 career starts and hauled in a combined 185 passes for 2,603 yards and 21 touchdowns last year.
4. Erik Highsmith, North Carolina The 6-3, 190 pounder has 30 career starts under his belt and should thrive in the new spread offense that coach Larry Fedora is bringing to Chapel Hill. The senior has 113 career catches for 1,499 yards and 10 touchdowns; last year he totaled 51 catches for 726 yards and five scores in 12 starts. In order for Highsmith to really thrive in his final campaign, though, quarterback Bryn Renner is going to have to quickly assimilate to the new offensive attack, and another pass catcher will have to emerge - senior Jheranie Boyd is one candidate, and he has 40 career catches for 816 yards, but 12 have gone for scores.
5. Rashad Greene, Florida State Don't be fooled by Greene's final numbers in 2011 - 38 receptions for 596 yards and seven touchdowns, all of which paced the Seminoles. The fact of the matter is that he was a true freshman who played in just nine games; if you average the numbers and project them to the team's 13 games, Greene's final tally could've looked something like 55 catches for 861 yards and 10 scores. Greene and the FSU offense as a whole should be even better this year, with eight returning starters, and the 6-foot, 175 pounder will likely be leading the way for what is possibly the ACC's deepest group of wide outs. Greene average 15.7 yards per catch and 14.7 yards on three runs in 2011.
6. Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest We might be underrating the undersized Demon Deacon, but the departure of star receiver Chris Givens will probably have a huge impact on Campanaro and his production. The 5-10, 190 pounder had a breakout year in 2011 as a first-time starter opposite of Givens, and finished with 73 receptions for 833 yards and two scores. His catch total ranked fourth-best in school history while he ranked fourth in the ACC with an average of 6.1 receptions per game, while his 69.4 receiving yards per game ranked seventh. Campanaro has sure hands, but his numbers could take a dip unless a threat opposite of him emerges.
7. Marcus Davis, Virginia Tech The 6-4, 228 pound redshirt senior started his career at quarterback, but has now played in 40 games at wide receiver and is poised for a big year during his final season. He had 19 catches for 239 yards and two scores in 2010, but emerged last year, when he hauled in 30 passes for 510 yards and five scores. His 17.0 yards per catch average was the second-best in the league among all pass catchers who tallied at least 500 yards receiving. Davis started eight times last season, and has just ten in his career, but he'll need to emerge as quarterback Logan Thomas' go-to guy in order for the Hokies' offense to take flight in 2012. Davis and Thomas are two of the squad's three returning starters on offense.
8. Willie Haulstead, Florida State This spot was really a toss-up between Haulstead and his teammate, Rodney Smith, a 6-6 senior who had 561 yards and four touchdowns through the air last year. However, we went with the 6-3, 233 pound redshirt junior, who missed all of last year with concussions, but had a solid campaign in 2010 with 38 receptions for 587 yards and six touchdowns. The Seminoles are completely loaded out wide in 2012, so they may prevent each other from racking up the statistics, but quarterback E.J. Manuel should take advantage. Last year, Smith, Kenny Shaw and Christian Green combined for 96 receptions, 1,429 yards and eight touchdowns, while they add Haulstead and 6-6 redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin this fall.
Just missed: NC State's Tobais Palmer, Maryland's Kevin Dorsey, Florida State's Rodney Smith, Boston College's Colin Larmond and Virginia's Tim Smith.
Ranking the ACC's tight ends
1. Matt Furstenburg, Maryland The 6-4, 245 pound senior enters his third campaign as a starter in 2012. Last year, he ranked fourth on the team in receptions (31) and receiving yards (348), while he hauled in two touchdowns. He is the leading receiver among returning ACC tight ends, and ranked last last year in the league for catches per game (2.6) and yards per game (29). In 38 career games, Furstenburg has tallied 44 receptions for 563 yards and three scores.
2. Chris Pantale, Boston College Pantale is another experienced senior at the tight end position, and he has totaled 77 receptions for 797 yards and five scores during his college career. The 6-6, 251 pounder ranked third on the team last year with 21 catches, 236 receiving yards and an 11.2 yards per catch average. He also tied for the team lead with three receiving touchdowns and he has 38 career starts under his belt. In 2010, he ranked second on the team with 31 receptions for 338 yards and a score.
3. Brandon Ford, Clemson Everyone saw the success that a tight end can have in the Clemson offense last year when first-team All-American Dwayne Allen tallied 50 receptions for 598 yards and eight touchdowns. Ford, a 6-4, 235-pound redshirt junior, is not as experienced as Allen was last year, but he has similar size and could be more athletic; he's listed on the roster as a wide receiver/tight end. Ford won the 12th Man Award on offense in 2010 after he finished with 10 receptions for 78 yards and two scores. He improved his numbers last year to 14 receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns while backing up Allen and playing in every contest. Although he's unproven, he could move up this list in a hurry.
4. Colter Phillips, Virginia The 6-6, 245 pound senior battled injuries last year, and finished with just three receptions for 15 yards in 10 starts, although he played just six snaps in one of those contests. He also missed spring practice this year, but should at least regain his 2010 form, when he tallied 18 catches for 155 yards and three scores, if he can put up a healthy campaign.