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ACC football 2019 position preview: Defensive backs

Syracuse is not the only team with talent returning in the secondary.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Georgia Tech Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange went into 2018 with a lot of questions about the secondary, but they left it with very few. Obviously Andre Cisco getting All-American honors takes the headlines, but the rest of the group had plenty to be proud of as well... despite the basic counting stats stating otherwise. Syracuse was all about big plays, and they made them happen enough to cover up most of the flaws (most of the time, anyway).

Along with our Syracuse position group previews each week, we’ve also taken 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 out, we looked the league’s linebackers. This week:

ACC Football 2019 Defensive Backs Preview

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

Last year’s top performers

The nation’s co-leaders in terms of interceptions both resided in the ACC last year, as Boston College’s Hamp Cheevers and Syracuse’s Andre Cisco collected seven apiece. Virginia’s Juan Thornhill also had six, to go with his 13 passes defended (seventh in the conference). But it was Virginia’s Bryce Hall that truly owned the headlines as one of the nation’s top safeties, with 24 passes defended (just two picks).

Cisco was actually second in the league in passes defended, with 18, followed by Wake Forest’s Essang Bassey (16) and then BC’s Hamp Cheever and Taj-Amir Torres each had 14. Thornhill and Wake Forest’s Cameron Glenn each had 98 tackles — most among ACC defensive backs. Jaquon Johnson (Miami), Hamsah Nasirildeen (Florida State) and Damar Hamlin (Pittsburgh) were the only other DBs in the conference to collect at least 90 tackles. Also notable: Virginia Tech safety Reggie Floyd had 9.5 tackles for loss (most of any ACC DB).

Who will excel in 2019?

Quite a few of the top players from last year departed, but not all of them. Most importantly, both Hall and Cisco return, and while Clemson reloads, the Tigers also have plenty of experience left in the secondary. A.J. Terrell, K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse are all among some of the better defensive backs in the conference. Miami’s Trajan Bandy and Wake’s Bassey are both back as well, making for quite an impressive group of corners still around for 2019.

Though Cisco forced the most turnovers, Hamlin also stood out for Pitt and is key to that secondary perhaps finally performing to the level one would expect out of a Pat Narduzzi team. Thornhill’s departure for Virginia leaves a major hole, but Blount looks ready to fill it after collecting 65 tackles and five TFLs last year (though this year probably winds up a bit more coverage-focused).

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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

As mentioned, Clemson’s able to reload pretty well, and Terrell particularly has quite a bit of upside at the cornerback spot after a sophomore campaign where he had three picks, two TFLs and broke up three passes. As long as Virginia has Hall in the secondary, it’s bound to be a strength of that defense, but inserting Blount and another experienced safety in Brenton Nelson should stop them from falling off all that significantly.

Miami returns Bandy, and he’ll be joined by USC’s Bubba Bolden and a wealth of blue-chip talent that’s fairly inexperienced so far. However, given the continuity that Manny Diaz should bring to the defense as head coach, it’s still worth betting on this group being pretty good despite losing talent from last year.

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

Boston College’s secondary was a strength for much of last season, but Cheevers departed for the NFL, and Will Harris and Lukas Denis are also gone. That would be a little more tenable if the Eagles weren’t replacing so much at linebacker and on the defensive line, so the inexperience mixed with extra stress on the pass defense could have some poor results.

The entire defense quit on Louisville last year, though the yards-per-game numbers don’t necessarily indicate as much in the passing game. The touchdown total (25), opposing completion percentage (64.5) and yards-per-attempt (8.5) do, however. Khane Pass and Russ Yeast, particularly, will be tasked with improving this group. Georgia Tech has a lot of youth and questions, but there’s potential for them to play their way out of the bottom here.

Top five cornerbacks in ACC:

  1. Bryce Hall, Virginia
  2. A.J. Terrell, Clemson
  3. Trajan Bandy, Miami
  4. Essang Bassey, Wake Forest
  5. Christopher Fredrick, Syracuse

Top five safeties in ACC:

  1. Andre Cisco, Syracuse
  2. Damar Hamlin, Pittsburgh
  3. Joey Blount, Virginia
  4. K’Von Wallace, Clemson
  5. Jarius Morehead, NC State
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Syracuse v Notre Dame Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Where does Syracuse rank?

Syracuse is fifth on my board, right behind Florida State. While we’re all really high on Cisco and Frizzle (Fredrick), we’re still extrapolating out on Ifeatu Melifonwu (perhaps rightfully, but we’ll see) and Evan Foster remains a strong talent at safety — just perhaps a notch below the top tier guys in the league. That’s fine, but this group will also need to keep improving after making strides in 2018. Given the big-play emphasis last year, there were also plenty of big gains that the Orange got beat on and as David Hale notes, they struggled when the D-line didn’t bring pressure. They’re fully capable of finishing top-five this year, though. And if they pull it off, that probably means really good things for the Orange.