Yesterday, we took a look at Syracuse's entire defensive line. Sure, it's nice to see how our depth chart shakes out. But it's even more useful to see how it looks in comparison to our main competition: the rest of the ACC.
Yes, the Orange bring back plenty of defensive line experience from 2013, but they've also lost that unit's best player, Jay Bromley. Elsewhere in the conference, many of the other top D-linemen do return and figure to make a major impact for their respective teams. It's a deep, talented group -- one that could capitalize on the influx of inexperienced passers in the ACC this fall.
Below, each defensive line unit is ranked, from No. 1 through 14. Having stars certainly helps here, though overall, we're trying to grade the strength of entire units. We'll be discussing as many players as possible, but to avoid this article being 4,000 words long, don't be shocked if some names aren't included. Do you see things differently? Weigh in down in the comments.
ACC Football 2014 Position Rankings: Defensive Line
1. Clemson Tigers: The fact that Vic Beasley decided to come back for his senior season changed this from a potential rebuilding year for the Tigers to another season near the top of the league -- except this year, on the strength of its defense. Clemson's improvement at the line of scrimmage has been a key element of its defensive improvement and a lot of that credit could fall to Beasley. Last year, he emerged as one of the country's most disruptive pass-rushers and along with fellow end Corey Crawford, the two seniors will make life hell for opposing passers. They're among the best defensive end tandems in the nation right now, which should scare the rest of the Atlantic.
2. Florida State Seminoles: If any defensive front is going to challenge Clemson's, it's obviously Florida State's. Despite a constant state of replacement, the line finds itself well-stocked with experienced contributors just the same -- all of whom are ready to jump right in and make an impact. The biggest name on that list is probably Mario Edwards, whose terrifying athleticism will be on full display in 2014. But it doesn't stop there. Between him, and fellow juniors Nile Lawrence-Stample and Eddie Goldman who both play on the interior, it's going to be incredibly difficult to run on the 'Noles at all this season.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies: Same as FSU, Tech's defense never really has to reset themselves completely, no matter how much attrition they may experience. Tackle Luther Maddy looks like the man to watch, though Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas could be the keys to the pass-rush on the ends. This is a very athletic group overall, built on speed and agility over brute strength. Against a lot of the ACC, that's more than enough, and it should create some very interesting matchups with opposing offensive lines that may not have the footwork to combat the Hokies.
4. Louisville Cardinals: When we spoke with Mark Ennis during the Louisville preview podcast, he said that the switch to a 3-4 scheme this year could be a major benefit for the Cardinals. And given what they've lost, he's probably right. Replacing Marcus Smith is no easy task, but if DeAngelo Brown returns to full strength at nose tackle, it'll at least take some pressure off the ends and outside linebacker spots. This group's starting three are solid, but beyond that, there's also some concern. Freshmen litter the rest of the depth chart, and one injury could be cause for panic.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels: On the opposite end of the spectrum to Louisville, North Carolina features a ton of depth -- which could prove to be the unit's biggest strength in 2014. Norkeithus Otis came on strong pass-rushing from the BAN spot last season, and despite more attention being paid to him now, he should still improve upon his 7.5 sacks. Elsewhere, Ethan Farmer will be the team's run-stuffer at defensive tackle, so long as he gets some help on the interior. As mentioned, though, it's the depth that helps most here. With a slew of juniors sitting on the depth chart, they should be able to rotate guys enough to always have fresher legs on the field.
6. Virginia Cavaliers: On paper, it looks like Eli Harold is the only real notable returnee on the line. But that forgets the impact Chris Brathwaite provided the last time he took the field back in 2012 (when he racked up 10 tackles for loss from the tackle spot). Obviously everything about this season is make-or-break for UVa, however this defensive front could at least remove some of that pressure from other places. Unlike other positions on this team, there's a deep bench of highly talented (albeit green) players here -- and if they can work some snaps in for the large crop of once highly-touted recruits on this depth chart, it could be a unit that improves greatly over the course of the year.
7. Miami Hurricanes: Anthony Chickillo is one of the better returning pass-rushers in the conference, which is a huge boost for Miami. Beyond him, however, there's a ton of promise and not a whole lot of previous results to bank on. Miami's 29 sacks last season were nothing to write home about -- but when you consider where they were (just 13 in 2012), it was a huge step forward. And that's where the rest of the line comes in. To continue that growth as a line and a team, they'll need to find ways to get after the passer. Being a team that doesn't stop the run all that well, it's essential that opponents at least fear them in one aspect of the game.
8. Syracuse Orange: There are plenty of great names on the depth chart for Syracuse -- Robert Welsh, Micah Robinson and Eric Crume all come to mind. Now what about the ones we don't know as well yet? That, more than anything else could be the key to what this defensive line can do in 2014. Obviously replacing Bromley is priority no. 1, and so far, Marcus Coleman looks poised to try and do that. The Orange found ways to be incredibly disruptive at the line of scrimmage last season with various blitz packages. They'll need to do even more of that this year without an experienced, elite player on the inside anymore.
9. NC State Wolfpack: Dan and I just mentioned these guys the other day on the podcast, but it's worth repeating: the line holds the key for just how effective this Wolfpack defensive unit can be. No, there are no game-changers, per se. But Mike Rose and T.Y. McGill, in particular, have shown an ability to at least generate pressure behind the line of scrimmage and with another year under their belts, they could continue to grow into greater roles. There's some extra pressure on them in this 4-2-5 scheme too, however, that'll be necessary to give new members of the secondary some time to grow into starting spots early in the year.
10. Pittsburgh Panthers: Just like Syracuse must try and figure out how to replace a top defensive tackle, so must Pitt. Aaron Donald was a force of nature for the Panthers during his career (especially once the team shifted to a 4-3), and you can't just plug in another guy to replicate that overnight. Still, Pittsburgh can and will try to find a combination of players who could fit the bill. Shakir Soto and Darryl Render seem best-suited for the role in terms of the current starting lineup, though obviously their previous production was assisted by Donald getting doubled. This group is far from doomed, but it will take some adjusting to make this work.
11. Boston College Eagles: BC's line pretty much resets this season, which is cause for both promise and concern -- but that's what happens when you field a senior-heavy class one season, you have to then replace all of those guys next fall. So who's this year's breakout stud a la Kasim Edebali in 2013? Tackles Mehdi Abdesmad or Connor Wujciak could both conceivably fit the bill as the team's most senior and experienced players on the line's two-deep. On the ends, they're relying on sophomores, though ones with tons of potential in Malachi Moore and Kevin Kavalec.
12. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: An underrated defensive line departure in the conference? Jeremiah Attaochu, who was truly the heart and soul of this D and now must be replaced by at least one (if not more) players. It seems that Tech might have options, though, which is surprising for those who've been following the school's woeful recruiting as of late.
Jabari Hunt-Days and (Ed. Note: Ends up Hunt-Days is ineligible, which certainly impacts their overall ranking here -- hence a drop in this update) Adam Gotsis could be poised for big jumps as juniors, which also means one side of the line could be stacked with the team's top playmakers. Maybe this groups surprises -- they'll definitely need to if the defense is going to carry the Wreck this year (likely necessary).
13. Duke Blue Devils: The Blue Devils have a ton of replacing to do on the defensive line, which automatically makes this a major area of concern. At the same time, though, take a look at last year's production (or lack thereof): 23 sacks (T-73rd in the FBS) and 69 TFLs (T-86th). There's a ton of room for improvement, and the players stepping into starting positions are actually pretty senior (even if fairly inexperienced). But can they actually find the ability to generate more pressure? Jamal Bruce should be a standout, but is injured far too often. Dezmond Johnson and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo are both seniors on the end, but need time to adjust to bigger workloads. So I guess we'll see...
14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: I'm SO sorry, Wake. This is just so bad. And I'm actually a fan of the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5 scheme in terms of the line's long-term prospects. It just looks like the cupboard is incredibly bare right now (experience-wise) and that could allow teams to manhandle the Deacons at the line of scrimmage early on (or probably all season). Wake Forest lacks both size and depth up front, so they'll be betting entirely on some senior starters like Johnny Garcia and Zachary Allen using age-related savvy over anything else. Good luck, Deacs.