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ACC football 2020 position preview: Defensive backs

Andre Cisco’s one of many excellent DBs in the conference for 2020.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange defense struggled mightily at times last season, and you could point to quite a few reasons for why that happened. Allowing over 260 passing yards through the air was just one of them, yet improving upon that is going to have to be a focus this season for an experienced group in the secondary.

For the time being, games are happening for Syracuse this fall, so we’re finishing up our series previewing each position group in the conference, and looking at how the Orange stack up. This Wednesday, we took at a look at SU’s promising defensive backs. Now, we’re checking out how the rest of the league’s respective situations there.

ACC Football 2020 Secondary Preview

(note: we’re adding Notre Dame into these for the rest of the series in 2020, but won’t be redoing the previous ones because it’s a larger effort to have to fix rankings, top players, etc.)

Last year’s top performers

The ACC was well-stocked with aggressive defenders who could get in front of passes last year — something that didn’t necessarily help a league that was also trying to break in quite a few new quarterbacks. In just 11 games, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley broke up 16, and Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. had 15 passes defended in 12 contests. Despite only playing nine games apiece, Syracuse’s Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu each averaged 1.11 defended passes per game. Cisco also led the league once again in interceptions (with five this time).

Along with Farley, the All-ACC first-team was rounded out last year by cornerback A.J. Terrell (Clemson), and safeties Paris Ford (Pitt) and Tanner Muse (Clemson). Terrell, who went in the first round to the Falcons in the 2020 NFL Draft, was such an effective lockdown defender that he didn’t put up much in the way of counting stats. Muse was drafted as a linebacker by the Raiders. Ford returns to Pitt, however, after a season where he broke up 11 passes, picked off three, and racked up 97 tackles while recording 2.5 of those for loss.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Eastern Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2020?

Several of last year’s top defensive backs departed, but there’s still plenty on campus. Farley was set to be the top corner in the conference before COVID hit, and he’s since announced he’ll sit out to prepare for next year’s draft. Samuel is back, however, and will team with safety Hamsah Nasirildeen to quickly help the ‘Noles reset this defense a bit while the offense continues to come along.

Though he wasn’t in the league last year, Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton returns and should be one of the best safeties in the conference, if not the country. An impressive four different Pitt DBs defended at least 10 passes last year, and two of them are back: Ford and Damarri Mathis. Miami’s Al Blades and Clemson’s Derion Kendrick don’t play traditional corner roles, but are poised to wreak havoc this season as guys who can both cover and disrupt plays behind the line. And of course, you know Cisco, who can continue to improve in coverage while regularly making big plays that flip the field.

Top three units: 1. Pitt, 2. Duke, 3. Florida State

After years of under-performing defenses, Pat Narduzzi’s recently started to figure some things out there (weird it took so long, since it was his specialty when he got to Pitt). As alluded to, the top four DBs last year defended a total of 51 passes, and only two teams in the country (San Diego State and LSU) had more passes defended as a team than Pitt’s 78. Even losing a couple players to graduation leaves this group stocked with high-level experience.

Interestingly for a David Cutcliffe team, the defense should be the strength for Duke this fall. The Blue Devils return four of five starters in the back, including the game-changing Michael Carter and Marquis Waters. Florida State’s anchored by the aforementioned dynamic duo of Samuel and Nasirildeen, but Akeem Dent is no slouch either, and Jaiden Lars-Woodbey has great upside at safety as well.

Bottom three units: 13. Virginia, 14. Wake Forest, 15. Boston College

Virginia brings back a lot of experience in the defensive backfield, but that’s something most teams in the conference can say. Opposing teams completed nearly 57% of their passes against the Hoos, so progress will be asked of returning players like Nick Grant and De’Vonte Cross.

At Wake Forest, the slate is largely wiped clean, which could be a good thing after a disastrous 2019 campaign for the passing defense, which allowed nearly 253 yards per game through the air while opposing teams completed over 62% of passes. Most of the key players from that group are gone, and Nasir Greer figures to lead things from the free safety spot. BC was one of the worst teams in the country against the pass, while allowing over 285 yards per game. One saving grace could be that their best DB, Brandon Sebastian is back and should improve in year three.

Top five cornerbacks in the ACC:

  1. Asante Samuel, Florida State
  2. Damarri Mathis, Pitt
  3. Al Blades, Miami
  4. Derion Kendrick, Clemson
  5. Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech

Top five safeties in the ACC:

  1. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame
  2. Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State
  3. Paris Ford, Pitt
  4. Andre Cisco, Syracuse
  5. Michael Carter, Duke
NCAA Football: Syracuse at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Where does Syracuse rank?

Not too far above that bottom group, at current. Though Syracuse had a rough time against the pass last year, the Orange still managed to make big plays happen via the secondary, and that alone is worth something. We already know what we’re getting from Cisco and Melinfonwu, but Trill Williams and whoever plays the rover role (Eric Coley?) should be the deciding factor on whether this group improves in 2020. The new scheme is going to lend a hand, yes. TBD on whether or not SU’s playmakers are able to strike the right balance of risk/reward attacking the ball and sound coverage, however.