On Tuesday, we took a look at the Syracuse linebacker corps. 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.
Syracuse obviously has a strong group returning, but they're not the only ones either. While it may not all be at an ESS-EEE-SEE level, there's plenty of speed at linebacker around the conference, along with experience too. And with a lot of turnover on the offensive side of the ball in the ACC, this could be a golden opportunity for a lot of these players to put up some career numbers -- at least in theory.
Below, each linebacker 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: Linebackers
1. Clemson Tigers: Stephone Anthony and Travis Blanks could be two of the better returning linebackers in the ACC, so the fact that they're playing for the same team should inspire at least a little bit of fear. And it's not as if that's all Clemson has either. Senior Tony Steward brings experience stepping into a starting role on the outside, and Ben Boulware (no relation to Michael or Peter) should continue to progress from his spot as a reserve. We talked about how scary the front four were last week, and part of that is because of how good this group is as well. The Tigers' pass-rush will be just fine in 2014.
2. Florida State Seminoles: Like several other positions for FSU, this is another case of their ridiculous depth and talent taking precedence over experience. Junior Terrance Smith is the lone returning starter in the group, but that could leave him poised for a breakout year carrying the load for the 'Noles. Replacing Christian Jones and Telvin Smith will be no easy task, but again: if anyone's up for it, it's this team. Matthew Thomas could be a star in the making in the middle, while Reggie Northrup did plenty in reserve last season -- especially against Syracuse, when he racked up 11 tackles. Playing behind such a strong D-line will also help this group get into opposing backfields more, too.
3. Miami Hurricanes: There are questions around Miami, but talent helps alleviate a good portion of them. Denzel Perryman's move back to the middle seems like a very positive development for this team, allowing the versatile linebacker to command the defense and keep plays in front of him all at once. While he may not start (he did last year), outside linebacker Thurston Armbrister could be a candidate as this defense's breakout player -- along with the obvious nomination for one of the conference's best names, too. The 'Canes have done plenty to grab talent from outside of Florida, but as far as linebackers go, recruiting their home state is still largely their bread-and-butter.
4. Syracuse Orange: Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch provide a fantastic 1-2 punch at the outside spots, and once again, the Orange's linebackers will be the heart of this defense. Their speed on the outside will continue to give blockers fits, while Syracuse's constant blitzing helps keep them heavily involved in the pass-rush. The only real question is how Marqez Hodge (and I'd bet Luke Arciniega) are able to replace Marquis Spruill in the middle. Given that Davis is fully healthy again, and the Orange have plenty of depth and youth at linebacker, there should be little dropoff at this position.
5. Duke Blue Devils: On a defense that replaces a ton (just six starters return), the one place Duke has plenty of experience is the linebacker spot. Now in the 4-2-5, that's technically just two players, but both are extremely important elements of this entire defensive unit. David Helton and Kelby Brown are both big, fast seniors and function as the core of the entire D. Their abilities to make tackles will go a long way toward making up for D-line losses, but beyond them, depth could be an issue. The Blue Devils' experience in recent years has brought a slight price -- anyone behind Helton and Brown has little-to-no time on the field.
6. Virginia Cavaliers: Similar to Duke, Virginia's experience at the linebacker spot is a huge asset and will be a large part of whether or not the Hoos can get themselves past two wins again this year. Henry Coley and Daquan Romero are both seniors who can hold things down from the middle of the defense, and they'll be keys to how much sophomore Max Valles can improve from his own spot on the outside. Virginia needs Valles to produce this season because beyond him, there's not a whole lot of depth at linebacker. The top of the depth chart is sound, of course. Just tough to see answers beyond those players right now.
7. Pittsburgh Panthers: With the defensive line taking a slight step back, Pittsburgh's linebackers have a perfect chance to assert themselves as a critical unit this season. Not only can Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez play in space and get in the way of passing lanes, but they know how to get into the backfield as well. As mentioned, there's an expectation that production will decline from the line, which opens up an opportunity for these players to get involved in various pass-rushing schemes. The middle linebacker spot is a question, but if they get what they need from the outside spots, it should help sophomore Matt Galambos find his sea legs without much issue there.
8. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: Yes, I said that no individual player can really bolster an entire unit in these rankings, but Quayshawn Nealy could prove to be an exception. He's one of the most seasoned linebackers in the entire conference and he knows how to play in several different types of schemes as a result of coordinator turnover while at Tech. As a jack-of-all-trades last season, he had two fumble recoveries (one for a TD), two picks and 3.5 tackles for a loss, and exhibited a knack for breaking up passes. After him, other players could step up. It's just unclear who they may be right now.
9. Louisville Cardinals: This linebacker group may really test Louisville's defense this year, or they could help keep things afloat for a group that loses seven starters from last year -- it could honestly go either way. But for now, the Cards' linebackers look like a group that lacks experience and depth in equal measures, and will rely almost entire on James Burgess to produce. When talking to Mark Ennis on our Louisville Preview Podcast, the theory was the switch to a 3-4 will be a positive, though I think that's (again) largely dependent on this group's abilities. I may be wrong come the end of the year, but these guys have a good amount to prove.
10. Boston College Eagles: It's usually foolish to doubt BC's linebackers. After all, they've been lights-out for the last half-decade at the very least (and I'm happy to give them even more credit than that), and many of those seasons started with similar questions to this one's: How do we replace player X, and will we see a dropoff from player Y? The answers are usually "you replace him with another great linebacker" and "no, he'll probably be even better." But how many times can they keep doing that? All eyes will be on Steve Daniels this year, who should improve on last year's 88 tackles (plus 6.5 TFLs). Beyond him, Sean Duggan looks like the guy poised to step up and out-perform previous results.
11. North Carolina Tar Heels: Dan and I keyed in on this group during this week's North Carolina Preview Podcast, but will obviously re-hash here. We're not counting Norkeithus Otis as a linebacker, and that means Travis Hughes leads the position while also trying to get past his own inconsistency. Malik Simmons returns as a starter as well, but even more so than Hughes, he's struggled to find his place in the overall scheme. If he can up his own production, it could be a huge benefit to the unit's effectiveness -- though there are really no guarantees there.
12. Virginia Tech Hokies: Tech better hope its defensive line turns in another top-flight performance in 2014, because if not, things could get pretty ugly in the front-seven. No starters return among the team's linebackers, and the group is very heavy on underclassmen. That's a good thing for the future, but not for right now, when Chase Williams is the only senior you'll find on the depth chart. So in a transition year, expect a ton of new and different faces to be shuffled in while the Hokies search for some solutions. Obviously the defense will perform well overall. But this could certainly be an Achilles heel if the linebacker spot isn't sorted out early.
13. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Senior Brandon Chubb returns, so right off the bat, they're at least starting with something -- he was Wake's leading tackler last season. And beyond him, junior Hunter Williams does have enough experience to help out. But how will these players adjust to the switch to a 4-3 after so much time running a 3-4 (previously the best move for the Deacs' personnel). The shift will take some time (they're pretty thin on the line right now, so that'll need to change to make this work), so some growing pains are expected. In the meantime, at least there are players who've seen the field before.
14. NC State Wolfpack: Another 4-2-5 scheme, except this one has very little experience at linebacker -- which is an immediate cause for concern. Senior Brandon Pittman performed admirably last season, but also had some help from experienced cohorts. And the fact that he may not even start probably adds some extra intrigue/worry about just what NC State is getting here. M.J. Salahuddin and Rodman Noel have asserted themselves well through camp, but without a lot of significant game time, they're both mysteries for the moment. Linebacker has not been a strong point in recent years, and this season is looking as if it'll fall in line with that trend.