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ACC football 2019 position preview: Linebackers

For once, perhaps Clemson isn’t the top group?

NCAA Football: Savannah State at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange hit a hard reset at linebacker for the second straight season, and while there’s a promising bit of talent remaining on the roster, they have very little experience. So until that group takes the field, it’s mostly questions and not a lot of answers as SU tries to replace two players (Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner) that each collected 100 tackles or more.

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 ran down the list of elite defensive lines and whether or not Clemson remained at the top of those rankings. This go-around:

ACC Football 2019 Linebackers Preview

Last year’s top performers

Syracuse’s Ryan Guthrie actually led the conference in tackles last season with 107, followed by Justin Strnad (Wake Forest), Cole Holcomb (North Carolina) and Rayshard Ashby (Virginia Tech). And though those were big numbers, they weren’t the absolute “best” linebackers in the league — at least according to the All-ACC team following the season.

Last year’s first team was led by Germain Pratt, who had 104 tackles and 10.5 TFLs for NC State, and he was joined by Miami’s Shaquille Quarterman (82 tackles/14 TFLs) and Duke’s Joe Giles-Harris (81 tackles/seven TFLs). Holcomb and Guthrie made the second team, as did Clemson’s Tre Lamar (80 tackles/5.5 TFLs). Guthrie and Quarterman had the most TFLs among the linebackers in the conference, and were two of the five linebackers in the ACC with 10 or more TFLs.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2019?

A bunch of last year’s standouts are gone, but there are still plenty of big names remaining. Most notably, Quarterman’s back along with fellow Hurricanes linebacker Michael Pinckney who tallied 11 TFLs last season. Isaiah Simmons will get more opportunities this year and should be one of the keys to Clemson’s defense not dropping off too much despite all of their departures. Strnad’s back for Wake Forest, but has far less talent around him than the names above and will have a much bigger lift for the Deacons’ defense.

At Virginia, Charles Snowden is potentially the best of an experienced group, though that title’s up for debate. And for Virginia Tech, Rayshard Ashby leads a long list of returning defenders for the Hokies after last year’s major turnover on the defense led to new starters pretty much across the board. BC’s Max Richardson may push for 100 tackles this season after a strong 76 (with nine TFLs) last year. Obviously the Eagles haven’t struggled to churn out solid linebacker talent of late.

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

Quarterman and Pinckney team with similarly talented Zach McCloud to make for what’s far and away the top linebacker group in the conference. The Hurricanes’ defensive unit is among the best in the ACC and the main reason for that is this collection of linebackers.

Though Clemson’s lone returning starter is Simmons, last year’s endless string of blowout wins allowed most of the reserves to get extensive playing time. Virginia, as mentioned, has a lot of experience returning. That group’s led by Snowden, along with Jordan Mack and Zane Zandier. The three of them combined for 190 tackles in 2018.

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

Between graduations and the coaching and scheme changes in the offseason, Georgia Tech’s experienced a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball. That leaves just one truly experienced linebacker in David Curry, who was seventh on the team in tackles last year. Syracuse brings back one experienced linebacker too, in Andrew Armstrong. And despite him ranking sixth in tackles on the team last year, he didn’t start a ton and wasn’t necessarily as involved in the scheme as the two departed seniors.

At Duke, the Blue Devils say goodbye to a very strong linebacker group. In their place is a lot of uncertainty, though junior Brandon Hill (42 tackles last year) saw the field enough to hopefully — for them — help deal with the losses.

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

Top five linebackers in ACC:

  1. Shaquille Quarterman, Miami
  2. Michael Pinckney, Miami
  3. Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
  4. Charles Snowden, Virginia
  5. Justin Strnad, Wake Forest

Where does Syracuse rank?

As noted above, Syracuse is 13th and brings back very little in the way of experience. Though Armstrong saw the field quite a bit last year, that production also ebbed and flowed and the players around him are almost entirely underclassmen who’ve yet to really contribute for the Orange. That’s terrifying, certainly, though it also presents some opportunity. Even an average performance could go a long way given how strong the defensive line and secondary are, however.