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ACC football 2018 position preview: Defensive line

I hear Clemson’s pretty good at this position once again...

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange’s defensive line has been banged up in recent seasons, and the injuries have led to a good collection of players with experience on the roster. However, we’ve yet to really get consistent production out of the group — save for Chris Slayton and Alton Robinson, the latter of whom led the team in sacks for 2017. There’s reason to believe the line will improve overall, though there’s also a lot of onus on them to counteract the departures of SU’s top four linebackers from 2018.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ll also take 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 Line Preview

Last year’s top performers

NC State’s Bradley Chubb was an absolute monster last year, collecting 25 tackles for loss en route to being drafted fifth overall by the Denver Broncos — but he wasn’t the only ACC defensive linemen to put up big numbers, either. Five different D-linemen (including Chubb) had at least 15 TFLs, and two of those players (Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant) play for Clemson. Duke Ejiofor (Wake Forest) and Zach Allen (Boston College) rounded out that group putting up big numbers behind the line of scrimmage.

While Chubb was the only ACC player to record 10 sacks last year, Ferrell had 9.5, while Bryant and Trent Harris (Miami) recorded 8.5 apiece. Allen was the lone defensive linemen in the conference to collect 100 tackles.

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2018?

Chubb may be gone, but Clemson’s entire starting defensive line is back, which should mean a lot of havoc created by Ferrell, Bryant, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, who are all future first round picks. The Tigers are obviously talented across the board this year, but that line is they key reason why they’re on the shortlist of national title contenders.

Allen should anchor BC’s front, though there will be more pressure on him in 2018 without the assistance of linebacker Harold Landry. Florida State’s Brian Burns and Virginia Tech’s Ricky Walker both put up solid TFL numbers last season and should boost those this fall. Even if he doesn’t put up the numbers, Syracuse’s Slayton is a stout run-stuffer and will be essential to any defensive improvement the team exhibits this year.

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. Florida State, 3. Miami

As mentioned, Clemson’s a terror with four NFL linemen who could’ve all been top picks in 2018 had they declared. Those players combined for 53.5 tackles for loss last season, and they may eclipse that number (somehow) this year anyway.

Florida State lost Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi, but Burns and Demarcus Christmas should pick up right where they left off as they angle for high selections next spring themselves. Miami brings Joe Jackson (11.5 TFLs) back most importantly, and he’ll be joined by senior Gerald Willis III and a young, but promising group around them. It won’t be as dynamic as last year’s line, but it might not necessarily need to be, either.

NCAA Football: Presbyterian at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Bottom three units: 12. Wake Forest, 13. Syracuse, 14. Georgia Tech

Zeek Rodney and Willie Yarbary showed ability last season and now that the spotlight shines brighter on them, we’ll see if they surpass these modest expectations. It’s unlikely to get all that easier without Ejiofor lined up with them this time around.

Syracuse, you know, hasn’t really put up much in terms of numbers with this group and they were shredded over the final four games of the season, allowing at least 5.59 yards per carry in each of those contests (and 9.79 per against Louisville). Georgia Tech had just one defensive linemen make a major impact last year in Antonio Simmons, but he’s now gone. It’ll be all seniors across the line for 2018, but those three players combined for just nine TFLs last year.

Top five defensive linemen:

  1. Clelin Ferrell, Clemson
  2. Christian Wilkins, Clemson
  3. Dexter Lawrence, Clemson
  4. Austin Bryant, Clemson
  5. Brian Burns, Florida State
NCAA Football: ACC Media Days Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Syracuse rank?

We mentioned the Orange above, ranked 13th, though there’s some upside there if Slayton and Robinson get some help. With health and a switch to a 4-2-5 alignment comes an opportunity to create a real pass rush for the first time in years at Syracuse. And even if run-stopping can just get back to what it looked like in the first half of 2017, it’ll be seen as an improvement for the Orange. For SU’s sake, let’s hope that happens because Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett are no longer sitting behind them to make stops.