By Dave Lackford
1. Dexter Lawrence –Early Enrollee, Clemson, DT, NC, 6’4” 325-pound
Lawrence was a 1st Team USA Today All-American, consensus 5 star, and the composite #2 overall player in the country. Name a Power Five school and the young man had an offer from the head coach himself. His size, strength, agility, and technique make him the top ACC recruit coming into the 2016 season.
All signs indicate that Lawrence will start day one for the Tigers. He’s a humongous force in the middle of the defensive line and he’s much more than just a space eater. Dexter is explosive and fast, has the ability to shed blocks to disrupt any run between the tackles, and agile enough to bail out of the phone booth and take angles on QBs that tuck and run or running backs that take the ball around the edge.
In the first spring scrimmage for Clemson, Lawrence registered 3 tackles, a sack, and an interception. Quite a first impression for the ultra talented 5 star from North Carolina. Look for an impact season this year from the true freshman defensive tackle.
Levonta Taylor was a 1st Team USA Today All-American, the consensus #1 CB in the country, and the composite #7 overall player last year. He wowed the nation at Nike’s "The Opening" last summer by running a 4.34 second 40-yard dash and jumping an astonishing 42.2 inches in the vertical. All of those HS combine numbers are fun, but what he does in shorts is nothing compared to what he does while suited up under the lights. A tireless student of the game and relentless gym rat, Taylor is a natural leader that other players gravitate towards. Rumor has it that he helped FSU land four star TE Nasier Upshur from Philadelphia as well as four star linebacker Dontavious Jackson from Houston Texas. On National Signing Day, FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher joked that once Taylor's days as a player were finished, he would have an immediate job as a recruiting coordinator for the Seminoles.
Like most FSU defensive back recruits, Taylor can play any position in the secondary. In other news, he also figures to make a serious run at FSU’s punt returner position. This is a major plus for FSU, a team that desperately needs a shot in the arm from that position. Because of his versatility in the secondary and punt return prowess, ‘Nole fans like to compare Taylor to former standout CB/PR Greg Reid. That’s a fair comparison, but to me Taylor is more like a bigger, faster, more athletic version of Tyrann Mathieu. Yeah I said it, a bigger, faster, more athletic, and equally tenacious version of the Honey Badger. So even though Florida State is stacked with talent in the secondary entering 2016, a player with Taylor’s work ethic, talent, and knowledge of the game will be too much to keep off the field. Look for Taylor to end up commandeering the Seminoles’ “Star” position (a hybrid nickel corner/strong safety position) by mid-season at the latest or week one against Ole Miss at the earliest.
Bracey, a consensus 4 star WR, is thought by some to be the most talented recruit Duke has ever signed. A very physically impressive specimen with 4.5 speed, Bracey spent most of his time at QB during his Junior and a Senior years at Benedictine College Preparatory, directing them to back-to-back VISAA state titles in 2014 and 2015. But when you have a kid with Bracey's talent committed to your football program, you just get him on campus and figure out how to deploy him in practice. Even with his position somewhat in question (most have him pegged as a WR) an offensive weapon of Bracey’s caliber will see copious playing time and will likely be the focal point of head coach David Cutcliffe’s offense no matter where he plays. He rushed for 1,112 on 144 carries last year while adding over 1,100 passing yards with 18 touchdowns opposed to two interceptions. As a sophomore wide receiver in 2013, Bracey caught 51 catches for 900 yards and seven touchdowns earning MaxPreps Sophomore All-American honors.
Senior QB Thomas Sirk injured his achilles tendon in February and back up RS Junior QB Parker Boehme will take over this season. Early reports indicate that Bracey asked the staff to play wide receiver this season but it is not out of the realm of possibility for Bracey to see some time at QB, particularly out of the Wildcat formation. Considering Bracey’s versatility and Cutlciffe’s reputation as a mad scientist, one has to anticipate Bracey being used in creative ways to maximize his elite talent. Wherever he plays, I expect Bracey to put together an ACC All-Freshman season.
Rahshaun “Shaq” Smith was a composite 4 star linebacker (Rivals: 5 star #6 player in the nation), a 2nd team USA Today All American, and the #3 composite LB in the nation.
Smith is a versatile OLB that can rush the passer, drop back in coverage, or track down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. Shaq fits the mold of the hybrid OLB/WDE that Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables loves. This is huge for the Tigers considering the NFL exodus of players from the 2016 defense. DE’s Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson are gone, as are linebackers Travis Blanks and BJ Goodson.
Look for Smith, who has been impressive so far this Spring, to make a serious run at the strong side linebacker position vacated by Travis Blanks, but to also be camouflaged all over formations in order to get the drop on offensive coordinators. Early reports out of Death valley have been that Smith is unblockable in spring practices and he's getting significant run with the first team defense. All indications are that Smith is leading for the strong side linebacker spot and he doesn't appear to be letting up anytime soon.
New Hokies coach Justin Fuentes, has been recruiting the consensus 4 star, and #1 JUCO dual threat QB since 2013. Evans was a Senior in high school, and Fuentes was at the helm at Memphis. Well, Fuentes got a second bite at the apple when he recruited Evans this past off-season as the Tigers’ head coach, and later as the Hokies’ lead man, when Evans was playing Juco ball for Trinity Valley C.C. in Athens, Texas. He put up major numbers over 8 games at Trinity Valley, completing 62% of his throws for 3,164 yards, 38 touchdowns and three picks, while rushing for 414 yards.
The dual threat signal caller signed with the Hokies on December 12th, and hopes to be the second straight transfer QB to start for the Hokies, following the lead of his predecessor, Michael Brewer. He is considered the front runner for the Hokies’ QB spot this season due to him being Fuentes’s “guy” and, the competition he’s up against. Brenden Motley, the returning starter from last season, looked inept as a passer last season and many think his inability to step up in the absence of Michael Brewer led to the dismissal of former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who now holds the same position for Boston College. Speaking of Loeffler, he was the main recruiter for incoming freshman QB early enrollee Joshua Jackson, but the buzz around Blacksburg is that Jackson has an uphill battle and may end up taking a redshirt. That leaves Dwayne Lawson, who only threw 36 passes last season, as the other competitor for Evans. From what I've heard and read, the battle for the Hokies is between Lawson and Evans, and Evans holds the edge going into the summer.
Considering what VT has coming back on offense in the form of dynamic TE Bucky Hodges, ALL-ACC WR Isaiah Ford, and rising sophomore standout tailback Travon McMillian, Jerod Evans may actually be the most pivotal incoming ACC player on this list. If he wins the starting nod for the season opener against Liberty on September 3rd, one has to believe that he is the most significant addition to any ACC team in 2016 as far as plugging the most important position of need, specifically and in general, with a major upgrade in talent.
Brown was named the North Carolina 2015 Defensive Player of the Year by the Charlotte Observer after leading Mallard Creek to third straight North Carolina Class 4A State Championship in 2015. He finished his senior season with 130 tackles, 14 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, an interception and 12 quarterback hurries. He was also one of the most dominant players in the 2016 Army All-American game, recording three tackles, one for a loss, a forced fumble, and a pass break up.
Brown fits what FSU defensive coordinator likes to do with his linebackers, which is everything. He is a versatile athlete who can play with his hand in the dirt as an edge rusher or cover ends and backs as a stand up outside linebacker. Luckily for him and FSU, the ultra talented freshman from Mallard Creek steps into a major position of need as the ‘Noles lose two starting linebackers. As an early enrollee, the reviews on Josh have been very positive. It's been said that he has been the most impressive of the freshman competing in Spring Ball, and has appeared to surpass returning Senior Ro’Derrick Hoskins for first team reps. Look for the do-it-all linebacker to rack up major playing time in 2016 and possibly start from day one.
7. Damar Hamlin - Pitt, CB, PA, 6'1" 179-pounds
The crown jewel of the Pitt recruiting class, Hamlin is a big time physical corner that should vie for immediate playing time in the Panther’s secondary. At 6’1” 179-pounds, Hamlin has prototypical size for a corner but can also play the safety position. Hamlin possess all the attributes you want from a DB. He has elite hips, able to swing them effortlessly as his assignment cuts inside and out, and also has the closing speed necessary to make plays on the ball if his receiver gains a step on him. His physicality poses a problem in press coverage and he can also shed blocks, take precise angles of pursuit, and makes solid contact with ball carriers when he comes up in run support.
Hamlin is one of the top incoming corners in the nation and will be hard to keep him off the field this season. He notched 83 tackles with two picks as a senior and 45 tackles, a sack, and 4 interceptions as a Junior, when teams actually dared to test him. Last season he helped lead his team, Central Catholic to the PA Class AAAA championship.
Pitt loses last year's starting corner, Lafayette Pitts, to graduation and no other player on the staff seems to have a strangle hold on his vacated spot. Hamlin certainly has the talent to take that position and hold on to it until he declares for the NFL draft. If he can stay focused during the off season, and can come in and pick up the system this Summer, look for him to team with last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year free safety Jordan Whitehead, to give the Panthers one of the most exciting young secondaries in the ACC. My money is on this being the case.
Tre Lamar was a consensus 4 star and the #2 composite ILB in the nation, and Georgia 6A Defensive Player of the Year. He earned a 5th star for the final Rivals rankings of the season, finishing as the #3 ILB and the #16 player overall.
Lamar is built like a "first guy off the bus" type of football player. He looks like he could be in a Marine Corps recruiting video slaying dragons with a sword wearing dress blues. He's a prototypical downhill thumper type of linebacker, but his game is very well rounded. Tre is very fluid when pursuing the ball carrier from sideline to sideline, making it hard for blockers to get a hat on him. Once he locks on target, he comes full speed and drops ball carriers with the force of a meteor. The only knock on his game coming into his Senior season of high school was could he excel in pass coverage. He answered those questions during the week of practice leading up to the Under Armour All-American game, shining against some of the most talented athletes in the country.
When he isn’t busting heads on the field, Lamar is in the classroom solving physics problems, and plans to major in Civil Engineering at Clemson. With the brawn to compete against anyone at the P5 level and the brains to learn the defensive scheme, look for Lamar to instantly be inserted in the two-deep and to push Redshirt sophomore Kendall Joseph for the starting spot this season. Some may argue that Lamar should be ranked higher than #8 on this list, and they may be correct, but the coaching staff has been signing the praises of Kendall Joseph this spring, just like they were last year around this time. As much as the staff loves Joseph, the vibe is that Lamar will be too much to keep of the field and will see considerable tick in the MLB role vacated by NFL hopeful BJ Goodson.
Bruce is the top slot receiver in the 2016’ recruiting class. He is a major problem in man coverage due to his acceleration, and explosive hips and footwork. His short routes are run with precision and his toughness allows him to compete over the middle with bigger players. While he is smallish (5’8” 180-pounds) in stature, his play is anything but. He's a muscular 5’8” and he doesn’t shy away from contact.
A dazzling return man with blazing speed and elite change of direction ability, Bruce also showcases his completeness as a ball player by getting downfield and blocking for his teammates, as he has been known to pancake defensive backs that sleep on his aggressiveness. Bruce brings a confidence and toughness to Coral Gables reminiscent of the U’s glory days. Hurricane fans are extremely excited to see what type of impact the nephew of NFL Superstar WR Isaac Bruce brings to the U this season.
Johnson was the composite #1 center in the class of 2016. He is a ferocious mauler and gets into the second level of the defense better than any center FSU has recruited in a long time. The 6'3" 332-pound Booga Joe can't get to FSU fast enough. Center has been a sore spot for FSU since Bryan Stork departed for the NFL after the 'Noles 2013 National Championship season. Over the past two seasons, the position was only solidified for six games when former LT Cam Erving moved into the position during the 8th game of the 2014 season against Virginia. Since Erving was drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft, the fill-ins at center for FSU have not inspired awe. In fact, the line was cited as the major reason the Houston defense was able to shutdown Dalvin Cook, and injure starting QB Sean Maguire, in an embarrassing, turn-over plagued 38-24 Peach Bowl defeat.
On the recruiting trail, Jimbo Fisher and offensive line coach Rick Trickett didn't waste any time finding reinforcements, singing 6 offensive lineman, 5 of whom were consensus 4 stars, and one who is the son of Hall of Fame LT Tony Boselli. The reason Johnson makes this list in lieu of the other incoming 'Nole heavies is due to his size and mastery of the center position. Very rarely do freshman offensive lineman come on a Power Five campus and start, especially centers. The center position has the most responsibilities on the offensive line, mainly calling out the offensive blocking adjustments at the line and knowing the nuanced demands of the guy who snaps the ball. Another reason it's rare for freshman to start at center is because they need to add weight in order to compete against defensive tackles that have had a few years in P5 weight rooms. Well Johnson has played center for Lake Gibson since 2013 so he knows his duties well, and coming in at 332-pounds, his challenge is not putting on weight but actually dropping about 17 pounds to get down around 315.
It is no easy task ahead of Johnson, but if any center in this class can do it at the level of competition FSU faces, it's Baveon, he is afterall, the number one center in the incoming class. Here, take a look at him destroying people in the second level for Lake Gibson High School if you think I'm crazy, then make up your own mind.
I'm working on a "Best of the Rest" for the remaining ACC class. I plan to break it into the top 11-20, 21-30, 31-40 over the next few months before summer ball starts, then revisit the rankings once the two deep rosters are set for week one. Thanks for reading and make sure to follow me on twitter at @Res4Six.