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ACC football 2021 position preview: Offensive line

You probably know where Syracuse is ranked. But what about the other ACC squads?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 Louisville at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With media days this week, it should be clear to everyone that we’re getting very close to the start of the Syracuse Orange football season. And while it’s useful to dig into everything about the Orange in particular — and we do — it’s also valuable to know how SU stacks up against the rest of the ACC as well.

Last week, we looked at the conference’s wide receivers and tight ends, and the uncertainty for Syracuse there by comparison. This week, it’s everyone’s favorite position group, the offensive line!

ACC Football 2021 Offensive Line Preview

Last year’s top performers

Anyone keeping tabs on the top offensive linemen in the ACC during last offseason probably wasn’t surprised to see who appeared on the all-conference team at the close of the year. As expected, Notre Dame and Boston College had two of the league’s best offensive lines, and accounted for four of the five first-team spots on the All-ACC team. However, it was the lone exception that was a first-round pick in 2021 — Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw was selected 23rd overall by the Vikings.

Fellow tackle Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame) went in the second round to the Dolphins, and teammate Aaron Banks was picked by the 49ers shortly thereafter. Second-team tackle Jackson Carman, from Clemson, was also a second round selection (by the Bengals), and the Irish’s Robert Hainsey went to the Buccaneers in the third round. Second-team center Jimmy Morrissey (Pitt) was a seventh-round pick by the Raiders.

Boston College’s Alec Lindstrom was the only first-team ACC linemen not to hear his name called during the draft... but that’s because he opted to return to the Eagles for another season.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Who will excel in 2021?

Well, Lindstrom, for starters. The redshirt senior has been a key part of BC’s mostly strong offensive line in recent years (last year maybe not so much, but still — overall a successful run), and will be again at center this season while teaming with Zion Johnson at guard. But those are just the most likely first-team all-conference selections for the Eagles. Tackles Tyler Vrabel and Ben Petrula are also back and should contend for All-ACC honors, meaning there’s little excuse for a repetition of last year’s rushing issues (BC averaged just 3.1 yards per carry) or protection breakdowns (28 sacks allowed).

North Carolina’s Joshua Ezeudu and Marcus McKethan should be on All-ACC radars as well, and will be key to the Heels having a balanced offensive approach. Virginia Tech’s Brock Hoffman will contend with Lindstrom for top center honors in the league. NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu and Wake Forest’s Zach Tom will be among the ACC’s top tackles along with Vrabel, Petrula and Clemson’s Jordan McFadden.

Top three units: 1. North Carolina, 2. Miami, 3. Boston College

It’s probably easy to see at least some of my skepticism on BC above. While there are several individual players that are clearly both very good and NFL prospects in their own respective rights, lacking the protection to get a ground game going (especially with David Bailey in the backfield) and allowing that many sacks would seem to underline some issues. But given the experience they have and the track record of this group, they’ll get credit here.

UNC returns all five starters from last year’s team — one that yes, allowed 34 sacks, but also averaged 5.75 yards per carry (sixth-best in the country). Even marginal improvement in terms of pressure means that passing attack is even more lethal, along with a ground game that should remain excellent. Miami has all five starters back as well, and brings in transfer help, so there’s depth here as well.

Bottom three units: 12. Pittsburgh, 13. Duke, 14. Syracuse

If you’re looking for a reason to legitimize your inherent skepticism (as your contract states) of Pitt and/or Kenny Pickett, maybe this is the place to start. This year, they lose both Morrissey and Bryce Hargrove, and dipped into the transfer well to try and fix — along with some depth they were able to give reps to last season. The run game has some concerns that may not be assisted by this group. There’s admittedly a muddled middle in terms of the ACC’s O-lines, where you could pick any one of like five or six teams in 12th. I went with Pitt, but the distance between them and like the 8th-best line may not be too far.

Duke was okay run-blocking last year, and allowed just one fewer sack (37) than Syracuse did in 2020. They’re also replacing starters from that group, so TBD if they’re able to take steps forward or are bound for steps back with inexperience under center as well. Meanwhile, you already know a lot about the Orange’s situation. Last year was rough, but they add Florida transfer Chis Bleich and have more healthy bodies. We’ll get into the rest below.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Top five offensive tackles in the ACC:

  1. Ikem Ekwonu, NC State
  2. Jordan McFadden, Clemson
  3. Zach Tom, Wake Forest
  4. Jarrid Williams, Miami
  5. Tyler Vrabel, Boston College

Top five interior linemen in the ACC:

  1. Alec Lindstrom, Boston College
  2. Joshua Ezeudu, North Carolina
  3. Marcus McKethan, North Carolina
  4. Zion Johnson, Boston College
  5. Brock Hoffman, Virginia Tech

Where does Syracuse rank?

As mentioned above, the Orange are last for now, but there’s potentially more upside there than there is for Duke. We know most of the line was a turnstile in 2020, yet they also had around five or six healthy linemen for much of the season, played a full back at guard, and you could argue their best linemen (Bleich) wasn’t eligible all year. Having this group go through growing pains and a couple seasons together potentially yields something interesting here in year three — especially with a switch to San Diego State’s Mike Schmidt as position coach. But if these just aren’t the right guys to get it done in the trenches, then it could be another rough year for this offense, which was destitute last season and I’d truly be shocked if it could decline any further.