On Tuesday, we took a look at the Syracuse secondary. 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.
As we covered the other day, things were bad last year, and could potentially improve this year. That's a good thing for us. On the negative side, however, things were good for a bunch of other ACC squads last year, and may just end up getting better for them as well. A rising tide may lift all boats, but the biggest boats are still biggest. Like I said: we're making progress. But this is going to take some time for the Orange to catch up to some of these other, stronger secondaries across the board.
Below, each group of defensive backs 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 Backs
1. Virginia Tech Hokies: The Hokies bring back four starters form last year (out of four), so if you needed any other reasoning behind this ranking, I'm unsure what to tell you. As always, expect a ball-hawking group that possesses the proper mix of speed and size to scare receivers in the open field. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson form what's arguably the best cornerback tandem in football, with 11 picks last season (and likely more to come this year too). That's not to ignore the senior-laden safety position of course. But with Fuller and Facyson being just sophomores, who knows where their (and this secondary's) ceiling may actually end up.
2. Florida State Seminoles: Florida State also brings back a glut of experienced starters among their defensive backs, and the blowouts from last season also give them a stable of guys further down the depth chart who've also seen the field too. Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams will anchor the Seminoles' passing defense from the corner spots, while Jalen Ramsey returns to fill in for the departed Lamarcus Joyner. Expect big things from those three, which should take some pressure off of Tyler Hunter, manning the other safety spot. The speed at this position is really what sets these guys apart, and will be on of FSU's key advantages each and every week.
3. Clemson Tigers: The Tigers may lack a ton of experience here, but given the quality of recruits they've brought in at both corner and safety, it's doubtful they'll have any issues getting production out of this group. Martin Jenkins (CB) and Robert Smith (S) are the elder statesman, but the biggest playmakers may end up being the young kids, who litter both the top and bottom of the depth chart throughout the secondary. One of those, Mackensie Alexander, is a former blue-chipper (fourth-best recruit in the country in 2013) and he'll challenge Jayron Kearse for the interceptions lead on this squad.
4. Virginia Cavaliers: Told you guys that Virginia's good at something! If anything keeps the Hoos in games this season, it's the secondary, which features four player who are either returning starters or have previously received a ton of playing time. There's also All- candidate , who could be one of the best (if not the best) strong safety in the country. While the rest of the team has faltered a bit despite high recruiting marks, Virginia has managed to put together quite the group of defensive backs. if they win more then three games this year, it'll be because of these guys.
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: This is where you'll find Georgia Tech to be a lot to handle in 2014. On top of returning starters D.J. White and Desmond Smith at the corners, Jamal Golden and Isaiah Johnson also return from injuries that derailed their respective 2013 campaigns. The Wreck have a veteran group out there, and one that's not afraid to put some big hits on opponents. We've mentioned there are questions in other parts of this defense, but the secondary might be good enough and experienced enough to hold down the fort for everyone.
6. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Wake brings back an underrated group of guys who all possess a ton of experience at their positions. So while the line might have taken credit for a lot of the defense's effectiveness in recent years, you could also look to shutdown corners Merrill "Bud" Noel and Kevin Johnson as key reasons for the Deacs' success as well. Their 11 combined INTs may not seem like a lot, but it's only part of the equation for these two. They defend passes as a torrid clip, and are looking to end their college careers with a collective statement season.
7. Duke Blue Devils: Ross Cockrell departs at corner, which is a huge blow for this squad. But the returning players at safety could be enough to offset such a loss. DeVon Edwards, Deondre Singleton and Jeremy Cash all return at Duke's three safety spots, which should help alleviate some pressure on their young corners for the time being. That doesn't mean the Blue Devils are full of veteran talent either -- Cash is the only junior out of the five players in the secondary. However Duke regularly gets four years of quality playing time out of guys; the secondary being no exception.
8. Miami Hurricanes: It all starts with corner Tracy Howard, who should continue his improvement from last season and really take a step up as the key member of this secondary. He's not the only player they've got, though. Everyone else either started last year or played significant time, and this could be a surprisingly effective unit for a team that's seemed to get less-than-ideal production out of the secondary in recent seasons. They have speed and the safeties are hard hitters -- this could be a group to watch as the year progresses.
9. North Carolina Tar Heels: Can they replace Tre Boston at corner? That'll be the biggest question as UNC gets going in 2014, and they try to cope without the secondary's former standout corner. Like most position groups for the Heels, this is a young collection of guys that have now been brought in almost entirely by Fedora. They're his players, and that means we'll see plenty of speed and a distinct nose for the ball from each and every one of them. The cornerback position could be an issue early on, though Dominique Green and Tim Scott are experienced at safety and should be able to hold things down until the new starters catch up.
10. NC State Wolfpack: Five defensive backs in Doeren's scheme means the Pack could potentially find their way back to previous high points of secondary production. That time just may not be this season. But even if this is a "building block" year for a young group of players in the secondary, that doesn't mean they'll do a poor job with what they have. On the contrary, there's some potential for surprise across the position group. Justin Burris and Hakim Jones (both juniors), in particular, are both experienced, plus big name Troy Vincent Jr. (yes, son of THAT Troy Vincent) is available off the bench at corner. In 2015... these guys could be scary good.
11. Louisville Cardinals: With no Calvin Pryor anymore, Louisville completely starts over at safety with freshman (Charles Williams and Richard Benjamin), though at least there's some experience at corner. There are a ton of questions about how the Cardinals' defensive backs will be able to perform with the influx of youth and step up in competition, but over the course of the season they should be okay. Not great, mind you. But as the year wears on, the kids should be able to hold their own. They'll be tested in week one against Miami -- and whoever ends up throwing passes for the 'Canes.
12. Syracuse Orange: Star power doesn't elevate you to the top of this list, but it can help bump you up a spot in some cases. Durell Eskridge is one of the conference's best safeties and as aggressive a defender as you'll find on any field. The future NFL safety leads an Orange secondary that has a lot to address from last season, and even a small improvement by a group that at times looked completely outmatched defending the pass, could yield some stellar results. Julian Whigham is the other name to watch (as you all know), and now that he's healthy, he'll be back to his ball-hawking ways.
13. Pittsburgh Panthers: Pitt was once a spot higher on this list... that is, until it was announced that cornerback Titus Howard was suspended for the entirety of the 2014 season. Now, the Panthers have some very big problems to deal with as a result. Lafayette Pitts is highly capable at one of the cornerback spots, however he's the lone bright spot now in a depleted secondary. Expect Ray Vinopal to have to step up big time from his free safety position, and then hope for the best from the large group of sophomores hanging around the depth chart.
14. Boston College Eagles: All of last season's starters return, but that's not always for the best. Boston College finished last in the conference in pass defense in 2013, which might make this yet another long season in the secondary. On the other hand, this is the most experienced position group on the Eagles by a mile (only nine returning starters team-wide, but four are safeties/corners). It's unlikely they'll perform as poorly this year as last, but with the conference talent level rising at DB, that may not be apparent by looking at stat lines alone.