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ACC football 2018 position preview: Linebackers

Syracuse hits reset... what about everyone else?

NCAA Football: Duke at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange’s linebacker situation has been turned over entirely, losing big names like Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett, Jonathan Thomas and Austin Valdez and replacing them with... a 4-2-5 scheme featuring a former JUCO TFL leader and safety. There’s developing depth and some potentially game-changing talent on the roster, but that’s all conjecture for now for the fleet of freshman and sophomores.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we 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 Linebackers Preview

Last year’s top performers

Virginia’s Micah Kiser was one of the top linebackers in the country, collecting 145 tackles in 2017. He was far from the only ACC linebacker to surpass the century mark, however. Bennett, Joe Giles-Harris (Duke), Jordan Mack (Virginia), Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech) and Ty Schwab (Boston College) also pulled off the feat.

Obviously those stops were generated in different ways, though. Giles-Harris was one of the conference’s best players overall in terms of tackles for loss, with 16 on the year. Louisville’s Jon Greenard and James Hearns also tallied big figures there, as did Tremaine Edmunds. Justin Strnad (Wake Forest) and Airius Moore (NC State) were also the only ACC linebackers with three or more interceptions, respectively.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2018?

A good number of the names above are gone, but there are still plenty of elite linebackers in this league to take their place. Giles-Harris is a potential All-American for Duke, and should put put up big numbers once again as a junior. At Clemson, Kendall Joseph should reap the benefits of the country’s top defensive line in front of him, freeing him up to make plays at will.

Miami’s replacing most of the front four, but brings back the entire linebacker corps, which should put more of a spotlight on Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney. Younger players like Oluwasuen Idowu (Pitt) and Jordan Mack (Virginia) put up quality numbers last year and should lead their respective defensive groups. UNC’s Cole Holcomb is one of just a handful of bright spots on the Heels’ defense.

Top three units: 1. Miami, 2. Clemson, 3. Duke

Miami has three of the league’s top 10 linebackers, in Quarterman, Pinckney and Zach McCloud. The group of juniors will be the driving force behind a new-look defense this year that could be relying more on open-field play than turnover chains.

Clemson, by default, is loaded with talent as one would expect. Joseph had 96 tackles last season, and is poised for more. He’s joined by Tre Lamar, most notably, who may not be a returning starter but got plenty of experience last year (50 tackles). And of course Duke is loaded with Giles-Harris at the forefront, though Ben Humphreys helps make for a solid 1-2 punch in their 4-2-5 scheme.

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

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

Virginia Tech lost two linebackers (Edmunds, Andrew Motuapuaka) to the NFL, while projected standout Mook Reynolds was also dismissed from the team this summer. Obviously Bud Foster is always prepared to adjust with this defense, but no one left is experienced or older than a sophomore.

Wake Forest’s linebackers aren’t big names, but those that remain like Strnad and Demetrius Kemp have some upside and should be busy with most of the Deacons’ top defenders no longer on campus. Syracuse, as you know, replaces its top four linebackers from last year and switched to a 4-2-5 to deal with it. Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner have some experience, but not so much that there’s complete confidence in what happens this year.

Top five linebackers:

  1. Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
  2. Kendall Joseph, Clemson
  3. Shaq Quarterman, Miami
  4. Michael Pinckney, Miami
  5. Oluwaseun Idowu, Pittsburgh

Where does Syracuse rank?

We’ve covered: Last. Other teams are replacing a significant number of linebackers (Wake, NCSU, Virginia Tech, most notably), but none relied as heavily on the position as Syracuse did. The 4-2-5 switch is a smart idea while we wait for the depth to develop, though it will also put more stress on the questionable secondary. Given the number of players added there in recent years, I’m willing — for now, at least — to bank on them being able to carry the linebackers through this transition year.