ACC Football Standout Senior 2012: North Carolina

Taking Over for Dwight Jones, UNC’s Erik Highsmith Has A Lot to Prove as a Number-One Receiver

While we won’t be naive (and/or like Rick Reilly/Peter King/insert-your-own-cliched-columnist) and claim there’s some sort of pristine or pure honor in playing out your four years that other players just don’t get to experience, we’d still like to point out the senior players that are likely to stand out in 2012. These players have put in the time during their college careers, and now serve as the cornerstones of their respective teams’ potential success this season.

We’ll be going team-by-team in the ACC to identify the “standout senior” that’s key to his team, and why. Have a different thought on the matter? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.

As the number-two target for North Carolina last season, receiver Erik Highsmith set career-highs across the board, and even saw some carries from the backfield for the first time. With Dwight Jones off to the NFL, however, he’ll be called upon as Bryn Renner‘s big-play option — an imperative counterbalance to the rushing attack led by Giovani Bernard. If either of Highsmith’s cohorts look to repeat 2011’s impressive performances, it’ll likely start with the receiver’s ability to step up into that leading role.

While he only caught 51 passes last year, Highsmith showed himself a highly capable target, averaging 14.2 yards-per-catch. His longest catch of 75 yards showed off his speed and homerun potential. Plus, as mentioned above, he got touches in the backfield as well, with seven carries for 37 yards. On the negative side, we’ve never seen him produce as the primary option, so who knows how he’ll fair without Jones to draw double-teams from defenses. That said, given his secondary role last year, no opposing teams have necessarily written the book on his game either. In the run-game, he’ll maintain a similar advantage to last year, with Bernard expected to have yet another dominant season.

With a favorable schedule from top-to-bottom, it’s unlikely the Heels (with their talent on both sides of the ball) win less than seven games. But a lot of that falls to Highsmith. As a very young squad out to prove something amidst offseason turmoil, the 2012 campaign could really go either way. Allow the postseason ban to cause a chip on your shoulder and play like you’ve got nothing to lose, it could be a special (albeit, for naught) season. Should it turn to reckless play and bravado (unlikely given the ship head coach Larry Fedora appears to be running), things can fall apart quickly, too. Watch for Highsmith to set the tone for this offense early, garnering steady buzz amongst conference wideouts all season.

Previously: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami (FL), NC State

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