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ACC football 2019 position preview: Defensive line

Yes, Clemson graduated a ton of talent. Yes, Clemson remains at the top just the same.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After last year’s breakout effort by the defensive line, there’s a lot of optimism that despite losing Chris Slayton to the NFL Draft, the Syracuse Orange can put up similar numbers in 2019. Granted, they set a program record for sacks last year and made for one of the most effective pass-rushes in the country. But given what’s coming back (everyone else but Slayton), it’s suddenly within reason to believe that this team has the talent, depth and speed to lean on its line.

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’re also 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? Last time, we previewed the league’s offensive lines. This go-around:

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

ACC Football 2019 Defensive Line Preview

Last year’s top performers

Of course, you have to start with Clemson. Once the Tigers’ veterans along the D-Line opted to return in 2018, it officially upped the expectations significantly for the team despite what were then question marks on offense. Clelin Ferrell led the ACC with 19.5 tackles for loss, while Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant each collected at least 14 TFLs. Clemson led the country with 54 sacks, and were second in the country in sacks per game, just behind Penn State.

Elsewhere in the ACC, performances from duos like Miami’s Gerald Willis and Jonathan Garvin (a combined 35 TFLs) and Syracuse’s Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman (20 sacks, 29 TFLs) made a major impact for their respective squads as well. Players like Florida State’s Brian Burns and Boston College’s Zach Allen also parlayed strong efforts into selections in the 2019 NFL Draft. In total, nine ACC defensive linemen were selected in the spring.

Who will excel in 2019?

Despite the impressive list of departed talent, the ACC still has quite a bit left in the league. That list is potentially headlined by Syracuse’s dynamic ends, Coleman and Robinson, who have an eye on surpassing last year’s impressive numbers. With a greater spotlight on him this season, Clemson’s Xavier Thomas should also put up the sort of strong counting stats we’ve come to expect from the Tigers’ top D-linemen. Garvin also returns for Miami to help anchor what should be a solid front-seven yet again for the ‘Canes.

Pitt’s Rashad Weaver made a nice jump last year as a sophomore, and if 2019 is another leap, he’s poised to be one of the conference’s top edge rushers. Florida State’s defense is a strong group overall, and a bunch of that ability comes from Marvin Wilson’s push up front. He’s one of the top tackles in the league despite what may appear to be lesser numbers last year. Nose tackle Eli Hanback is also a standout for Virginia’s front and he’ll be assisted by an experienced linebacker group behind him.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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

Syracuse’s ability to rush the passer is excellent, and both Coleman and Robinson will be playing on Sundays in 2020. But there are still some potential questions inside without Slayton and not a lot of depth at tackle. Clemson, on the other hand, has the benefit of experienced reserves given last year’s blowouts, and a fleet of blue-chip players to replace last year’s starters. Thomas and tackle Nyles Pinckney are the best of the bunch, but you could wind up seeing a lot more names on the postseason All-ACC squad for the Tigers, too.

Miami has Garvin, which is great without any additional context. But there’s enough experience at the other spots on the line to think they’ll be able to avoid taking too much of a step back (especially given the linebackers behind them taking some of the pressure off). The Hurricanes had the most tackles for loss per game in the country last year (10.46), which becomes just as much a product of system as the individual athletes in it.

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

Of these three, Georgia Tech is the only one truly starting from scratch. They were among the worst teams in the country in terms of generating TFLs in 2018, and now replace those players with a veteran but inexperienced group that doesn’t have a sack to its name right now.

Boston College has to replace a lot up front but also brings back Tanner Karafa (8.5 TFLs last year), and has performed admirably trying to plug new guys into the front seven before. The team may not take advantage of its ability to churn out NFL caliber defensive talent, but the system puts up quality numbers anyway. Wake Forest loses several starters as well, and will lean heavily on end Carlos Basham (4.5 sacks last year) to generate a push. There’s not a lot of experience inside, but Dave Clawson’s done plenty with less before.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Top five defensive tackles in ACC:

  1. Marvin Wilson, Florida State
  2. Eli Hanback, Virginia
  3. Nyles Pinckney, Clemson
  4. Alim McNeil, NC State
  5. Jason Strowbridge, North Carolina

Top five defensive ends in ACC:

  1. Alton Robinson, Syracuse
  2. Xavier Thomas, Clemson
  3. Jonathan Garvin, Miami
  4. Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh
  5. Kendall Coleman, Syracuse

Where does Syracuse rank?

As you can see above, the Orange are second — something that would be completely shocking as recently as 11 months ago. Syracuse has evolved from a team that was tepid on the pass-rush while getting absolutely gashed up front to an aggressive and attacking group that dictates the game within the trenches (and especially from the edge). If SU can do the same once again in 2019, they’ll be in good position to win nearly every game, assuming there isn’t too much of an offensive drop-off.