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ACC Football: Freshmen To Watch In 2012

As the college football season steamrolls toward us, the projections and predictions will come rolling in. While fans can talk about the improvement of players from year-to-year, there’s often a great unknown on each school’s roster: Freshman. Specifically, highly touted freshman heading to campus off the heels of dominating inferior competition. Here are five talented first-year players that have the ability to make a name for themselves very early in the ACC football season.

Randy ‘Duke’ Johnson, RB, Miami: As hard as it may be to believe, Miami hasn’t had a player named the conference’s Rookie of the Year since joining the ACC in 2004. Johnson could buck that trend in 2012. With Lamar Miller and Tommy Streeter gone to the NFL, nearly 50% of the Hurricanes 2011 offense needs to be replaced this fall. Enter Johnson, one of the most heralded high school backs in Florida history. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound back amassed over 5,000 yards and 70 touchdowns in his high school career while playing in the highly competitive Florida 5A league. Miami offensive coordinator Jeff Fisch recently said that the coaching staff is “counting on Duke to make an impact.”

Mario Edwards, DL, Florida State: The Seminoles recruiting staff pulled off a coup in landing one of the most heralded defensive prospects in the country. Edwards, an athletic lineman capable of transitioning inside or outside on the defensive line, collected 29 sacks over his final two high school seasons. Count work ethic and excitement among his attributes — Edwards reportedly arrived in Tallahassee two weeks ahead of his class of ‘12 teammates in order to begin preparations for the fall. His size and game has been compared to longtime NFL star Shaun Ellis. If he’s anything close, the Noles defense will see a big boost from his spot in the rotation.

Stefon Diggs, ATH, Maryland: After UM locked up the dynamic Diggs, Terrapins coach Randy Edsall hinted that he would immediately be used at wide receiver and kick returner. His play-making ability is reminiscent of what Sammy Watkins brought to Clemson last season. The ability to contribute defensively gives the Maryland coaching staff an option on that side of the ball, too. Four interceptions as a senior presents Diggs to the team as not only a weapon, but one with a nose for the ball.

Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson: The Tigers’ defensive line got a huge boost when Watkins, the four-star recruit from Forest City, NC, chose Clemson over Florida. His bulk — 6-foot-4, 275-pounds — will add mass to the Clemson 4-3 alignment. His versatile high school career — fullback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line — suggests that Watkins is more of an athlete than just a big body in the middle. His ability to disrupt opposing backfields will be vital to the future of Clemson’s defensive line.

Eli Harold, OLB, Virginia: It’s not often that the #1 OLB prospect in the country is talked about as a star wide receiver, but that’s exactly the kind of athlete that Virginia is getting with Harold. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound linebacker has the athleticism, long wingspan, and burst to be a standout pass rusher in the ACC. If he concentrates on one position — almost a certainty in the UVA scheme — and puts on bulk to go with his natural frame, Harold will reek havoc on pass rushing downs for the Cavaliers. The Virginia Beach native opened eyes by turning down Southeastern Conference schools, including Louisiana State, Florida and Arkansas, in order to play for Mike London at Virginia.

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Joe Giglio is the ACC and Big East football writer for Rant Sports. 

You can follow him on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

Joe is also the host of Charm City Sports Talk on WNST.net in Baltimore and member of the Society of American Baseball Research.