A little over 40 days from the start of the 2013 college football season! And it is indeed that time of year — when college football blogs like this one and so many others start churning out season preview materials. We’ll be holding off until August for the team-by-team season previews, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at each position on the field and evaluating ACC squads’ respective strengths and weaknesses.
This week, we’re on to the defensive lines (check out previous rankings of ACC quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers/tight ends, offensive line). For several teams that have been churning out elite defenders for years, this is simply another group of stud performers. For others, this is a sign of some serous rebuilding. The ACC has plenty of stars on the defensive line this season, but there’s also plenty of question marks too. We’ll get to both. though as you’d expect, the questions increase as we head further down the list.
Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual end or tackle is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of defensive linemen is (though it certainly does help). Also note: Louisville (as has been the case since November) is included here, despite playing in the American this season. Additionally, since these are completely subjective rankings, the difference between one number to the following one is almost entirely negligible. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.
ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Defensive Line
1. Virginia Tech Hokies: Looking for experience? The Hokies have plenty, as they bring back all four starters from last season and are chock full of juniors and seniors on the depth chart. As a whole, Tech’s defense recorded 35 sacks last season (16th in the FBS), most of which is attributable to this group. With another year of playing together under their belt, the unit — led by senior defensive end James Gayle — could be in for a monster season as the motor that drives Virginia Tech’s success.
2. Clemson Tigers: You might be surprised to see Clemson here, but that only means you haven’t been paying attention. The young Tigers that watched the 2012 Orange Bowl debacle are all grown up and have become a pretty frightening foursome (34 sacks last year; 20th in the FBS). Yes, they did lose Malliciah Goodman and his seven sacks, but considering who’s replacing him at defensive end (Vic Beasley), there’s very little to worry about in terms of a drop-off in production. Expect Brent Venables’ men to be even more aggressive getting after the passer this season.
3. Florida State Seminoles: FSU replaces every starter from last year’s potent pass-rush, but all is not lost in Tallahassee. Last year’s deep group received plenty of reps as the line was ravaged by injury, so this still ends up being a pretty veteran defensive line. Tackles Timmy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister will anchor them from the tackle positions, but they’ll also rely on Mario Edwards to take a leap as a sophomore and become the threat he was projected to be as a recruit.
4. Pittsburgh Panthers: Pitt’s success in recent years has been predicated on a strong defense, and that all starts with the line. Stud defensive tackle Aaron Donald is about as frightening a defender as you’ll find in the ACC, with 24.5 tackles-for-loss over the past two seasons (16.5 of those were sacks). It’s his persistent mindset that sets the tone for the other three starters, and they should reap the benefits of the double coverage he’ll draw nearly every game. In particular, keep an eye out for defensive end Bryan Murphy, who plays alongside Donald and should find himself in some very advantageous matchups throughout the year.
5. NC State Wolfpack: NC State has some questions around the current personnel, though none of them have anything to do with the defensive line. Darryl Cato-Bishop and T.Y. McGill have been around the block a few times and should once again spend the fall terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. If those two weren’t enough, there’s also a nice crop of youngsters that will challenge for playing time, too. In particular, Mike Rose may even steal Cato-Bishop’s starting end job before the year’s out.
6. Miami Hurricanes: The Hurricanes return plenty up front, but the question begs if that’s a good thing or not. Miami had the 120th ranked defense in the country last season and only tallied 13 sacks all year. So if there’s going to be improvement, it’ll start with these gentlemen. Ends Anthony Chickillo and Shayon Green have both showed some signs of becoming impact players. Now is as good a time as any for them to start delivering if Miami hopes to contend for an ACC championship this season.
7. Louisville Cardinals: Louisville has loads of depth and experience on the defensive line, but they’ll need a lot more production out of them this fall. While interior linemen Brandon Dunn and Jamaine Brooks made a huge impact in stopping opposing rushers (the Cards ranked 49th in the country), no one could really get after the quarterback. Seeing just 22 sacks from an athletic unit like this not going to win you many games against pass-happy teams — I’d reference last year’s Syracuse loss to see what I mean.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels: There’s potential up front; that’s for certain. And UNC also has a surefire star in defensive end Kareem Martin. Beyond him, however, the Heels’ sort-of four-man front will very much be a work in progress. With a decent amount of depth — though not a whole lot of starting experience — don’t be surprised to see Larry Fedora shift his personnel outside of Martin to see what’s the best fit. Running an unconventional 4-2-5, these players still don’t have a ton of experience with the scheme, and it might show as the season wears on.
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Wake’s defensive line is another unit buoyed by one star; in their case, Nikita Whitlock. The senior nose guard’s struggled to stay on the field over the last few years, and without a whole lot of elite size and depth, the Deacons have found themselves pretty vulnerable on defense. If he’s healthy, this is a very strong front, though centered on just one player. That’s not to take away from fellow seniors Kris Redding and Zach Thompson, but they’re definitely greater as a whole than they are as individual parts.
10. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: What does Georgia Tech have to offer on the defensive line beyond Jeremiah Attaochu? Uncertainty, mostly. Attaochu’s the main attraction of a Georgia Tech defense on the rebound after he posted a big 10 sacks last season and made a name for himself as one of the conference’s elite pass rushers. Now in Ted Roof’s 4-3 (instead of last season’s 3-4), he’s got a great opportunity to pass up that figure. But he’ll need to avoid double-teams, which takes the efforts of his teammates. Fellow senior end Emmanuel Dieke should help somewhat, but unless he starts getting into the backfield, Attaochu may be alone in the sack department.
11. Virginia Cavaliers: One side of this line — Jake Snyder and Brent Urban — provides a strong veteran presence that should put some fear in opposing offenses. The other is a mix of youth and potential, which could end up being a huge boost, or a major liability. The key here, despite Snyder’s strengths at one end spot, could actually end up being the progression of sophomore Eli Harold, however. If he’s let loose, Harold could be the type of speed rusher this team’s lacked, and will need to stay in games to make up for a lackluster offense.
12. Syracuse Orange: SU’s resurgence under former coach Doug Marrone was equal parts a strong passing attack and an elite defensive line. But now that the defensive line he built is virtually gone, can Syracuse continue to claim that area as a strength? Defensive tackle Jay Bromley is arguably the defense’s best talent, and the fact that he’s still around certainly helps matters. Other than Bromley though, we could see a drastically downgraded pass rush from last year’s 27 sacks. John Raymon, Robert Welsh and others all have promise — but even the most optimistic Orange fan wouldn’t necessarily assume that talent comes to a head this fall.
13. Maryland Terrapins: Maryland’s defensive line, like the rest of the team, can mostly be graded on potential over actual results. Part of that’s the injuries this group’s endured, so there’s concern about how well those players come back after so much time off. Keith Bowers, in particular, hasn’t seen the field since November of 2011, and even when he was playing it was all about what he could potentially be in the future. Even Darius Kilgo, who’s celebrated as an up-and-comer, is only coming off a 39-tackle season. Happy to reward the Terps for developing elite talent, but let’s wait till they’re actually “elite.”
14. Duke Blue Devils: Can Duke rush the passer? Actually, yes. They racked up 25 sacks last season and if everyone stays healthy this season, there’s a good shot they’re looking at even more. But health, as is the case for several teams, remains an issue. And even if Kenny Anunike stays on the field, he’s got to find a way to recapture the intensity he exhibited in the early parts of last year. Either that, or this unit can stop the run for the first time (allowed 5.01 yards per carry and 26 scores on the ground in 2012). Progress in either department could mean the difference between making the postseason or not.
15. Boston College Eagles: Senior end Kasim Edebali is the only sure thing on this line, and even he would be no more than a decent contributor on most other ACC teams. Boston College sacked the quarterback six times last year. That’s last in the country. So really anything they do this year pretty much has to be better. Will it be all up to Edebali? He has some help from Mehdi Abdesmad, but that’ll only go so far. Regardless of who it is, they just need to find a way to get after the quarterback.