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ACC football 2018 position preview: Defensive backs

We know you have questions about Syracuse... what about the other 13 teams?

NCAA Football: Virginia at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t need to be told the Syracuse Orange secondary has been in rough shape lately, and despite having plenty of returning talent, the big questions remain for a group that struggled to defend the pass once again. A transition to a 4-2-5 scheme means another DB (mostly nickel corner Antwan Cordy) out there in the base scheme, which provides some cause for optimism. We’ll have to wait and see what happens on the field, though.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ve also been taking a look at the rest of the ACC’s respective situations. Which teams are in the best shape? And the worst? And how does Syracuse stack up comparatively? Today:

ACC Football 2018 Defensive Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

Virginia’s Quin Blanding was one of the best defensive backs in the country, and also collected a stunning 137 tackles last year. Lukas Denis (Boston College) was the conference’s interceptions leader with seven, but he was trailed closely by Duke’s Mark Gilbert, who also defended more passes than any other ACC player with 20. For his part, Denis also managed 17 of those, too.

Five different ACC players defended at least 15 passes, and as mentioned, Gilbert led the way. Wake Forest’s Essang Bassey had 19, Denis had 17, Virginia’s Juan Thornhill collected 16 and Greg Stroman (Virginia Tech) wound up with 15. Derwin James (Florida State) may not have had massive numbers, but a lot of that was because teams were actively avoiding throwing anywhere near him.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2018?

Two of the names mentioned above are back and should perform just as well: Gilbert and Denis. Miami’s Jaquan Johnson and Michael Jackson each had four interceptions last year, and Johnson also managed 96 tackles (third-most of any DB in the conference). Florida State lost James, so Levonta Taylor is likely to see more action coming his way as a result (and should succeed with that increased exposure).

Thornhill defended quite a few passes last year, and he returns as well with more being thrown at him now that Blanding’s gone. Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen is the team’s best player in the secondary, but the Tigers have plenty more talent along with him, even it doesn’t necessarily have the starting experience just yet.

Top three units: 1. Miami, 2. Clemson, 3. Boston College

One would assume that turnover chains is being polished as we speak (and ESPN will tell you all about it, I’m sure). But there is good reason to believe we’ll see plenty of it once again for Miami. Johnson and Jackson return, as does Sheldrick Redwine. The ‘Canes will be tough to throw against — critical for a team that replaces most of their defensive line.

Mullen gets the headlines for Clemson, but Tanner Muse also comes back. Even with some changes in personnel, the Tigers will be fine, as they have been for years now on defense. BC has Denis, as well as Will Harris (83 stops last year, with two fumble returns and a score). The veteran safeties will make up for any growing pains breaking in newer corners.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Bottom three units; 12. Louisville, 13. Pitt, 14. Syracuse

Pat Narduzzi showed up at Pitt in part due to his prowess on the defensive side of the ball — especially in the secondary. Yet, the Panthers have struggled to succeed there and will need a lot out of inexperienced players to make any progress this year (they’re replacing three of four starters). At Louisville, the loss of excellent cover man Jaire Alexander is going to pose some problems (as it did when he was hurt last year), so they’ll need Russ Yeast to step up, along with a host of transfers filling the other spots.

You know about Syracuse already. Cordy’s healthy, which is a big plus, and Christopher Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw both have experience under their respective belts. Those three will likely have to carry a green group of safeties.

Top five defensive backs:

  1. Jaquan Johnson, Miami
  2. Mark Gilbert, Duke
  3. Lukas Denis, Boston College
  4. Michael Jackson, Miami
  5. Levonta Taylor, Florida State
NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Syracuse rank?

As noted above, the Orange are last. Corner play improved through the first half of last year, then fell apart once Jordan Martin went down. We think Cordy will help at nickel, but he’s also missed nearly all of the last two seasons. Safety is a huge concern, as it was last year, and there are no guarantees SU figures things out until later in the year. Evan Foster has much to prove at strong safety, while true frosh Andre Cisco will likely hold down the free safety spot. Even if Cisco is the real deal (and I’d bet on it), one would think that still comes with some growing pains, too.

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