Next to Maryland’s Stefon Diggs, Duke Johnson may be the most exciting player to watch in the ACC.
1.) Duke Johnson (Senior, Miami)
With the top two rushers in North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard and Clemson’s Andre Ellington having moved on to the NFL, there’s a new “Duke” in the ACC. Aside from Maryland’s Stefon Diggs, Johnson is the most electrifying player in the conference. The Miami native was a top 30 recruit coming out of Noland High School and is living up to the pedigree thus far. Johnson has lightning-quick speed and is incredibly dangerous in the open field. He also doesn’t shy away from contact and picks up a good amount of his yardage after he has absorbed a hit.
Johnson rushed for 947 yards (6.8 yards-per-carry) and had 10 rushing touchdowns while topping the century mark on four different occasions. His game is not limited to the offensive side of the ball. Johnson is the Hurricanes primary kickoff returner and ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns during his freshman campaign. Johnson took home ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 and watching Diggs and Johnson battle it out for top player in the ACC will be a treat.
2.) Jerome Smith (Junior, Syracuse)
After being a relatively unknown commodity in 2011, Jerome Smith showed the country how dangerous he is when carrying the rock. Smith carried the ball 227 times for 1,171 yards (5.2 yards-per-carry) and three touchdowns. He doesn’t factor much into the passing game as he only caught eight passes all of last season. However, the Delaware native is a guy who thrives on contact. He isn’t the fastest back in the world, but he has a knack for getting to the corner and makes the right cuts in the open field. It would be expected that the Orange will lean heavily on Smith with quarterback Ryan Nassib having moved on to the NFL and a new coaching staff in place at Syracuse.
3.) Devonta Freeman (Junior, Florida State)
It’ll start off as a timeshare in the Seminoles backfield but it certainly is anybody’s job to take. Chris Thompson, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. shared time last season and each registered at least 600 yards on the ground. Thompson is gone but Freeman and Wilder Jr. will be vying for the lion’s share of the carries. In my opinion, Freeman is the more-talented of the two backs. The four-star recruit has an excellent burst of speed off the line of scrimmage but also can absorb contact and keeps his legs constantly moving. The Miami Central product also is very dangerous in the open field as he possesses some nice moves that allow him to escape from would-be tacklers.
Freeman ran for 660 yards (5.9 yards-per-carry) and had 8 rushing touchdowns for the Seminoles. His numbers were very similar to those of his freshman campaign. He was able to increase his yards-per-carry numbers to over a full yard higher than in his previous season. Freeman topped the century mark in two games (Duke & Maryland). In both games, the Miami native scored a pair of touchdowns and averaged at least 8.7 yards-per-carry. Freeman has a huge abundance of talent and could take his game to the next level in 2013.
4.) James Wilder Jr. (Junior, Florida State)
As I stated earlier, the Seminole backfield should be loaded in 2013. Wilder Jr. does have the size that Devonta Freeman lacks and put up similar numbers a season ago. The Tampa native possesses significant speed and can catch the ball a little more than Freeman. Wilder grabbed 19 passes for 136 yards and hauled in a pair of touchdown catches. Just like his counterpart Freeman, Wilder does not go down without a fight. He fights for every extra yard and showed that when he ran for a 22-yard touchdown against the Terrapins this past season. Wilder also plays special teams for the Seminoles, proving how versatile he can be.
He only was able to run for over 100 yards in one game (against Murray State) in 2012. However, Wilder was a top-15 recruit in 2011 coming out of Plant High School in Tampa. He didn’t get very much playing time during his freshman season, but was able to get a good amount of touches last year. He rushed for 635 yards (5.8 yards-per-carry) on 111 attempts and punched in 11 touchdowns for Florida State. It was a huge step up from his freshman campaign in which he only carried the ball 35 times for 160 yards and only one rushing touchdown.
5.) Kevin Parks (Junior, Virginia)
It’s quite a dropoff in talent after Duke Johnson and Jerome Smith. However, Parks is certainly a guy that can carry the load and hopes to show that in 2013. Parks rushed for 734 yards on 160 rushing attempts and had five touchdowns. The North Carolina native only topped the century mark twice (one of those coming against Maryland) and averaged 4.6 yards-per-carry. This could be a big season for the junior back as he has topped 700 yards in each of his first two seasons in Charlottesville. Parks is a back that can run through contact, despite being somewhat small at 5’8. If Parks can get going early on, he could in for a monster year to keep the Cavaliers competitive.
6.) David Sims (Senior, Georgia Tech)
Despite finishing fourth on the team in rushing yards a season ago, David Sims proved that he still has the chops to be an ACC running back. The South Carolina native rushed for nearly 700 yards with two tailbacks and a quarterback also carrying the ball for the Yellow Jackets. Quarterback Tevin Washington and halfback Orwin Smith have graduated and only leading rusher Zach Laskey stands in front of Sims. He did take a step back as he had less rushing yards and touchdowns than in 2011. However, Sims will be one of the primary ball-carriers for Georgia Tech this year and could finally live up to his billing.
7.) Shadrach Thornton (Sophomore, North Carolina State)
Thornton may have only played one season in the ACC, but he is still one of the conference’s top rushers. For the first three games of the Wolfpack’s season, Thornton didn’t have a single carry. On September 22 against The Citadel, the Georgia native erupted for 145 yards on 21 carries and a pair of touchdowns. It ended up being his most productive game of the season and he ended up being the leading rusher on the team. Thornton possesses solid size at 6-1, 200 lbs. and he is able to navigate his way through holes very easily. The Liberty County product is also very dangerous out of the backfield. Thornton racked up 274 yards on 30 receptions and a touchdown with the Wolfpack in 2012. Thornton has the talent to take the reigns of the starting job once again and possibly be a 1,000 rusher for the Wolfpack in 2013.
8.) Josh Harris (Senior, Wake Forest)
Harris is an extremely talented back and is a home-run threat on any play from scrimmage. In each of his first three seasons in the ACC, the Texas native had touchdown runs of at least 50 yards and showed off his quickness. Harris has the ability to bounce it outside at a moment’s notice, but also excels at running between the tackles. The Demon Deacons tailback burst onto the scene in 2010 as a two-star recruit out of Duncanville High School in Texas. Harris didn’t receive a ton of interest and his only other offer was from Louisiana Tech. However, Harris rushed for 720 yards (5.8 yards-per-carry) on 125 carries to go along with seven rushing touchdowns. He had a down year in his sophomore season, but was able to display shades of his freshman campaign this past season. Harris rushed the ball for 608 yards (4.4 yards-per-carry) on 137 carries and had five rushing touchdowns. The senior Demon Deacon has a chance to make his mark on the ACC in 2013. The potential is definitely there and Harris is certainly one back that needs to be taken note of in the ACC.
9.) Roderick McDowell (Senior, Clemson)
After sitting behind Andre Ellington for three years, Clemson running back Roderick McDowell is finally getting his chance to be “the guy” for the Tigers. Despite Ellington rushing for 1,081 yards, McDowell was still able to contribute in 2012 as he rushed for 450 yards (5.4 yards-per-carry) on 83 attempts with touchdowns. The South Carolina native does have the pedigree to carry the load for the Tigers. McDowell was a four-star recruit coming out of Sumter High School and was one of the top 150 players in the entire country in 2009. He is a smaller back at only 5’9, 190 lbs., but is very quick for his size. McDowell’s game-high in rushing yards last season was only 83 against Duke on November 3. Obviously he didn’t get a ton of chances playing behind Ellington. This season will be a chance for him to step away from Ellington’s shadow and make a name for himself. He showed flashes during his junior season and this could be a big chance to show the world what he can do.
10.) A.J. Blue (Senior, North Carolina)
Just like our #9 running back, Blue sat behind a talented halfback for multiple seasons. Giovani Bernard starred at North Carolina for two seasons and racked up 2,481 yards and 25 touchdowns. Now Blue will get his moment in the sun after setting career highs in nearly all offensive categories. After only carrying the ball 33 times during his sophomore season, the North Gaston native had 82 rushing attempts for 433 yards (5.3 yards-per-carry) and nine touchdowns. Despite not being the primary ball-carrier for the Tar Heels, Blue had three different games (Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech) in which he scored a pair of touchdowns. He was a dual-threat quarterback in high school and clearly has the athleticism to succeed as a running back. Blue should take a huge step forward as he will be expected to carry the load in 2013.