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ACC football 2020 position preview: Linebackers

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-North Carolina vs Temple Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s yet another reset for the Syracuse Orange at linebacker, and this time around, they just don’t have the experience to bank on. SU will plug in a pretty young group, without too many starts to their name. That’s not necessarily a recipe for early success when it comes to stopping the run — which the team has struggled with in recent years.

With games seemingly happening this fall (or at least that’s the current plan), we’re continuing with our series previewing each position group in the conference and how Syracuse stacks up. On Wednesday, we discussed the Orange’s third straight rebuilding job at linebacker. And now we look at the rest of the league’s respective situations:

ACC Football 2020 Linebackers 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

Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons wrapped up an impressive career last year with 102 tackles, 16 TFLs (eight sacks) and three picks, plus a forced fumble. He was obviously first-team All-ACC and he wound up going top-10 in the NFL Draft to the Cardinals. Shaq Quarterman was similarly impressive at Miami as well, with 107 tackles, 15.5 TFLs (one sack) and a forced fumble as well. He was picked by the Jaguars in the fourth round, and was one of five linebackers from this year’s ACC teams to get selected (along with Simmons, Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara, Clemson’s Tanner Muse and Wake Forest’s Justin Strnad).

Last season, eight different ACC linebackers collected 100 tackles, led by Virginia Tech’s Rayshard Ashby with 120. North Carolina’s Chaz Surratt and Syracuse’s Lakiem Williams were the only other players to hit 110 or more. Ashby was also third in the conference (at any position) in TFLs, with 17, followed closely by Simmons (16), Quarterman (15.5) and Surratt (15). BC’s Max Richardson had 14.5 and Virginia’s Noah Taylor had 13.5 on the year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 13 Kansas at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Who will excel in 2020?

As least based on the list of draft picks above, there have to be some departures. Still, there’s a lot of talent left in the league at linebacker, too. Richardson, Ashby and Surratt all return for their respective squads, and Virginia brings back both Zane Zandier and Charles Snowden, who combined for 180 tackles last year. Plus Taylor, who was a force on the blitz last year.

Though Clemson loses Simmons, they bring back James Skalski and the promising Mike Jones. Pitt’s returning players didn’t put up big numbers last year, but Phil Campbell and Chase Pine should particularly benefit from how good the Panthers’ defensive line is. Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had 80 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss last year. Drew White is also back for the Irish after collecting 80 stop of his own (with eight TFLs).

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

Ashby gets the headlines, but Tech’s linebacker depth chart is deep and experienced. Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale are both back, and there’s plenty of talent behind them too, with a bit of a logjam given the 4-2-5 alignment. The Hoos bring back three of four starters, as noted earlier. And new starter Nick Jackson looked pretty good as a freshman last year with 28 tackles.

It rarely matters that Clemson loses first round talent at any position. That’s once again the case here, as Skalski leads this group from the middle linebacker spot, followed by blue-chip younger players coming up. Mike Jones inhabits one of those spots and Baylon Spector the other. Given the number of blowouts the Tigers were involved in last year, both players got plenty of burn and will be able to jump in just fine.

Bottom three units: 13. Miami, 14. Duke, 15. Syracuse

The ‘Canes lost a bunch at linebacker, and Zach McCloud and Sam Brooks are the team’s best bets this year. We’re not counting Gilbert Frierson, the team’s striker, at linebacker because he’s a defensive back in the ‘Canes 4-2-5 (and also is just a defensive back, in general). Otherwise, Miami may be ranked a little bit higher here.

Duke has experience to back-fill their own departures, as Shaka Heyward and Brandon Hill got plenty of time on the field last year and combined for 120 tackles and 11 TFLs. Syracuse, as you’re aware, is rebuilding the linebacker position for the third straight season — but at least seems to be doing so with youth in mind this time around, so the future should look a lot more stable.

Rhode Island v Virginia Tech Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

Top five linebackers in the ACC:

  1. Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
  2. Rayshard Ashby, Virginia Tech
  3. Max Richardson, Boston College
  4. Zane Zandier, Virginia
  5. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

Where does Syracuse rank?

Sorry but for now, SU’s last. While other teams in the conference graduate out starters, Syracuse is the only one that will install a new scheme AND has no real experience to plug in. Granted, last year’s linebackers struggled quite a bit, so there’s a chance the wholesale changes actually create some positives. But based on what we know right now, the Orange are in the worst situation of any team. That doesn’t mean potential can’t turn into something more, however.