ACC’s potential sleeping giants
By Matthew Osborne
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Top sleeper prospects for every team in the ACC.
While the vast majority of recruiting coverage focuses solely on the upper-echelon of the nation’s recruits, every year there are hundreds of prospects who go on to have productive collegiate careers despite not being highly-ranked coming out of high school.
Some players become sleeper prospects because they play at schools that are not known for their football prestige. Others go unnoticed because they live in remote areas that receive little recruiting attention from college evaluators. In addition, you also have prospects who develop late physically, tremendous athletes who simply need the time to refine their technique and players who simply work their way to the top through hard work and dedication.
Whatever the reason for their lack of recruiting exposure, finding these prospects that are flying under the proverbial recruiting radar of most college programs is imperative for the success of any program. One sleeper prospect can often be the difference between a good season and a special season.
To honor these prospects that fly under the radar, I have put together a list of the top sleeper prospect for every team in the ACC for the class of 2012. Although you could argue that some of these players were anything but neglected during the recruiting process, all of these players were ranked towards the bottom of their respective recruiting class by the majority of scouting services. These are the players that I believe could end up being the steal of their respective class when all is said and done.
Boston College - WR Joel Zoungrana (Learning Centre) Lennoxville, QC
It is easy to see why Joel Zoungrana has flown under the radar of almost every FBS coach in America. After all, Zoungrana does play his high school ball in Canada. While it can sometimes be difficult to get an exact read on his skill set due to the stylistic differences in Canadian football, it is not difficult to see that Zoungrana is a great athlete with excellent speed. Zoungrana is renowned for his ability to make big plays in the passing game, which is something that the Eagles have been missing in recent memory. Once he gets adjusted to the increased level of competition, look for Zoungrana to use his speed and athleticism to find a way onto the field in Chestnut Hill.
Clemson - QB Chad Kelly (St. Joseph Collegiate Institute) Buffalo, NY
While Kelly can’t truly be considered a sleeper prospect, many people focus their attention on the talented safeties, wide receivers and offensive lineman that the Tigers have locked up for 2012. In the end however, Kelly might end up making the biggest impact of them all. He is a true dual-threat quarterback who currently plays in an offensive system that is somewhat similar to Chad Morris’ new offense at Clemson. Kelly will benefit most from the fact that he likely will not be asked to contribute for at least a couple of years, as the Tigers are very happy with the thought of Tajh Boyd behind center for an additional two seasons. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt Kelly’s cause that he is the nephew of one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time in Jim Kelly.
Duke - QB Thomas Sirk (Baker County Senior HS) Glen Saint Mary, FL
There is no doubt that Sirk is a very high-risk, high-reward prospect. Standing six-foot-five and running a 4.55 forty-yard dash, many schools were recruiting Sirk as a wide receiver or safety. Quarterback guru David Cutcliffe like Sirk as a quarterback however, and that was enough to earn a commitment from the athletic signal-caller. Sirk is still learning how to play the position, but his natural athleticism has allowed him to progress at a rate much faster than a normal player trying to transition to quarterback. He has a naturally strong arm thanks to his days as a baseball player, but he can still use his legs to hurt the defense. In the end, it will all come down to how well he grasps the game mentally. If he masters the thinking part of the game, he has a chance to be special.
Florida State - OT Alphonse Taylor (Davidson HS) Mobile, AL
It is difficult to choose an under the radar prospect for the Seminoles because Jimbo Fisher and his staff are doing such an excellent job in recruiting. Alphonse Taylor is a player who is ranked a little lower than most of the other current Seminole commits, but he has a chance to get a lot better between now and the time that he arrives on Florida State’s campus. Taylor actually moves fairly well for a guy of his size (6-6, 340), but there is no question that his feet will get much quicker once he drops an additional 20-30 pounds. He has already said that losing weight is his main priority for his senior year, and that decreased weight should do wonders for him. He is exceptionally strong and plays a very physical style of football. There is actually a chance that he could end up at defensive tackle in Tallahassee, but he likely will start his career learning from famed offensive line coach Rick Trickett.
Georgia Tech - OLB Junior Gnonkonde (Lanier County HS) Lakeland, GA
Most Georgia Tech fans have become intrigued with the story of their 2012 commit Francis Kallon, who moved to the United States from England and multiple scholarship offers before ever playing a down of football. Gnonkonde’s story shares many similarities. A native of Africa, Gnonkonde came to the United States to play in a basketball tournament a couple of years ago, but decided not to go back with the rest of his team. Since staying in the US, Gnonkonde has picked up the game of football, and has really fine-tuned his talents. He is an outstanding athlete who has the potential to wreak havoc as a pass rusher at the collegiate level. Gnonkonde is still learning the fundamentals of his position, but he is an extremely hard worker who has a very high ceiling. It will also help that he will be learning alongside Nigerian-born Jeremiah Attaochu when he arrives at Georgia Tech.
Maryland - ATH Joe Riddle (Linganore HS) Frederick, MD
The Maryland coaches still aren’t sure which position Riddle is going to play when he arrives on campus, but you better believe that they are excited to be bringing in an athlete with Riddle’s athleticism. Riddle plays running back for his high school team, and he could easily end up in the backfield in College Park. He has exceptional speed and is deceptively shifty. Although he is not particularly strong at this time, that is something that will come with a couple of years in a college weight program. If Riddle does not end up on the offensive side of the ball as a running back or wide receiver, expect him to turn into a safety, where he would also have an opportunity to thrive. Don’t be surprised if Riddle sees early playing time as a returner on special teams, or as a change-of-pace back on offense.
Miami (FL) - TE Brandon Holifield (Godby HS) Tallahassee, FL
Much like Thomas Sirk with Duke, most experts see Holifield as a huge hit-or-miss prospect at the next level. Standing six-foot-five, he is easily one of the most athletic tight end prospects for this class. He grew up as a basketball player, and you can definitely see that background when he plays on the gridiron. The coaches saw him at one of Miami’s summer camp and offered him a scholarship because he was way ahead of most of the other tight ends athletically. The problem with Holifield is that his athleticism has yet to translate into great production on the football field. He also is still very undersized, and will have to add a good deal of size and strength before he is ready to be anything other than a pass-catching tight end in the ACC. If his potential ever turns into production, he is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses over the next few years.
North Carolina - FB Nathan Staub (Buford HS) Buford, GA
The fullback seems to be a lost position in college football, but North Carolina picked up a pretty good one in Nathan Staub. Like most fullback prospects, Staub is a very physical football player who absolutely loves contact. However, the thing separates Staub from other fullbacks is his versatility. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, and is even a threat to make defenders miss in the open field. Staub will be playing behind a senior when he arrives in Chapel Hill, so he will have an extra year to add another 10-15 pounds of muscle, which will help him tremendously throughout a rigorous ACC season. North Carolina has a rich history of producing quality fullbacks, and it would not be surprising to see Staub become the next great fullback on that list.
North Carolina State - CB Niles Clark (Lassiter HS) Marietta, GA
While the Wolfpack are likely set at cornerback for the next couple of seasons, it appears that they may have gotten in a steal in Niles Clark. Clark plays for a high school that runs a lot of zone coverage, which is exactly what he will encounter at NC State. Clark reads the cornerback well, and he uses his exceptional quickness and hip flexibility to change directions and make breaks on the ball. He also is good at high-pointing the football on deep passes and has solid hands. The thing that could eventually hurt Clark is the fact that he is only five-foot-ten. His athleticism should allow him to jump with some of the taller receivers, but right now he is not strong enough to compete with some of the more physical college receivers. The best news for Clark is that he will have at least one year to pick the brain of David Amerson, who currently leads the NCAA in interceptions.
Virginia - WR Max Valles (St. Joseph HS) Hammonton, NJ
The Cavaliers have long prided themselves on being a program that wins with toughness and physical play. Interestingly enough, that philosophy has often carried over to their passing game as well. Virginia has added another big, physical target in Max Valles (6-4, 210) out of New Jersey. Valles has played multiple positions for his high school team and has excelled wherever he has played. His large frame makes him an immediate threat in the passing game, but also allows him to outmuscle smaller receivers for short and intermediate throws. He has also shown that he is more than willing to throw a block when necessary. The Cavaliers have a plethora of receivers signed in this class, so there is even a chance that Valles could play outside linebacker in Charlottesville. If that is the case, Valles will still have a chance to succeed due to his outstanding toughness.
Virginia Tech - DT Alston Smith (Cox HS) Virginia Beach, VA
First things first, being the son of an NFL Hall of Famer has never hurt anyone’s chances of becoming a quality football player. Alston Smith is the son of former Virginia Tech standout Bruce Smith, and he has a strikingly similar frame coming out of high school, although he is not nearly as coveted as his father once was. At six-foot-four, 275-pounds, Smith is a formidable presence in the middle of the defensive line. While he is not the athlete that his father was, you can certainly tell that Alston has learned a lot from his old man. He plays with great intensity and has very good technique for a high school defensive lineman. The Hokies have a rich history of producing winning teams out of teams compromised of many recruits who flew under the radar. That is sure to be the case once again with this recruiting class, and look for Smith to be one of the recruits who exceeds expectations.
Wake Forest - OT Will Smith (Christchurch School) Christchurch, VA
Unlike some of the other schools on this list, Wake Forest has always placed an emphasis on redshirting their players and winning with fourth and fifth-year players in the regular rotation. What that means for the majority of Wake Forest recruits is that they can expect to redshirt their first year on campus, and then spend a couple of seasons in a backup role. That plan should work out perfectly for Will Smith. A newcomer to the game of football, Smith spent most of his childhood focusing on basketball before he became serious about football just a little over a year ago. Smith has a good frame and moves his feet very well for a big guy. There is definitely quite a bit of work to do on his technique, but that will come with time. He will be a project, but should end up as a very solid starter for Jim Grobe.