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ACC football 2021 position preview: Defensive line

We’ve now moved on to the Clemson portion of the proceedings.

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After a month of looking at the offensive side of the ball, we’ve now moved on to the defense as part of our weekly position previews counting down to the start of the Syracuse Orange football season. You already read plenty about SU’s defensive line earlier this week. So what about the rest of the ACC’s D-linemen?

Last week, we compared the Orange’s offensive line to the rest of the ACC’s and things didn’t look pretty. Now, we’re comparing Syracuse’s defensive line to the rest of the conference.

ACC Football 2021 Defensive Line Preview

Last year’s top performers

The ACC had a very experienced class of defensive linemen on the field last year, and many of those players put up big numbers. On the season, six D-linemen collected at least 12 tackles for loss, led by Virginia Tech’s Amaré Barno with 16. Miami’s Jaelen Phillips had 15.5, while fellow Hurricane Quincy Roche had 14.5 — as did Pittsburgh’s Rashad Weaver (you should be familiar with Weaver, since three of those came against the Orange).

Pro Football Focus grades can tell us the top graded defensive players in the conference last season, narrowing things down to interior and edge defenders alone, and not just relying on simple counting metrics like sacks and tackles for loss (though those do have real importance, clearly). Those numbers show that among ACC linemen with at least 385 snaps on defense last year, NC State’s Alim McNeil was the lone player that graded above a 90 (he had a 90.7). Weaver and Phillips both followed him, then Clemson’s Myles Murphy and Roche from Miami. Perhaps unsurprisingly, four of those five heard their names called before the end of the fourth round in April’s NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Clemson Greenville News-USA TODAY NETWORK

Who will excel in 2021?

The name that wasn’t called, however, is Murphy and he’s back with Clemson to contend for all-conference and All-American honors as one of many major playmakers within this Tigers defense. Last year’s conference TFL leader, Barno, is back as well, as is Xavier Thomas — who was a third-team All-ACC player in 2019, then was hampered in limited time last year due to COVID complications.

North Carolina’s Tomon Fox and brother Miles Fox at Wake Forest should both stand out as well this year, after each tallying 10 tackles for loss last year. Calijah Kancey could secretly be one of the conference’s top run stuffers at Pitt, and Marcus Valdez also returns at Boston College on the edge. Nesta Jade Silvera is one of the league’s top all-around defenders on the line, without a lot of weak spots in his game at all.

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. North Carolina, 3. Pittsburgh

Mentioned Clemson above, and you’ll probably see a lot about the Tigers in the coming weeks as we talk defense. While the offense will remain good, it’s the defense this year that’s a proven commodity, and Brent Venables obviously knows how to get the most out of them at this point. Murphy, Bresee, Thomas and tackle Tyler Davis are all contenders for all-conference honors and their reserves could very well be too, in all honesty.

In Tomon Fox and Raymond Vohasek, UNC has two of the top 16 returning linemen by PFF defensive grade, and both possess significant pass-rushing ability. Another Fox brother, Tomari, also seems poised to break out this year as the Heels seem likely to improve up front. Pitt replaces key pieces after Weaver and Patrick Jones II headed off to the NFL, but has the players to do so. Kancey received a mention above, but Devin Danielson should team with him for a formidable run-stopping group in the middle of the Panthers’ defense.

Bottom three units: 12. Florida State, 13. Louisville, 14. Duke

Louisville’s push up front last year was fueled in large part by linebacker play, and Jared Goldwire was the only linemen to collect more than three tackles for loss on the year. The only other Cardinal D-linemen with more than two is Yaya Diaby, and he’s the only one returning.

Florida State’s been mining the transfer market to fix some roster issues, and that’s included an exciting addition in Jermaine Johnson, who comes over from Georgia. He started just four of 21 games with the Bulldogs, but collected eight TFLs (7.5 sacks) and 24 QB pressures in that time. Duke actually has some pieces inside with Derrick Tangelo and Ben Frye, but replaces most of the pressure on the edge and doesn’t have a ton of experience to plug in there.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Top five defensive tackles in the ACC:

  1. Bryan Bresee, Clemson
  2. Raymond Vohasek, North Carolina
  3. Nesta Jade Silvera, Miami
  4. Calijah Kancey, Pittsburgh
  5. Tyler Davis, Clemson

Top five defensive ends in the ACC:

  1. Myles Murphy, Clemson
  2. Amare’ Barno, Virginia Tech
  3. Xavier Thomas, Clemson
  4. Tomon Fox, North Carolina
  5. Daniel Joseph, NC State

Where does Syracuse rank?

Honestly, it may be closer to the middle (7 to 10 range), even if going into this, I didn’t see the path to it. As discussed in the Orange-specific preview, Syracuse still made stops behind the line last year (was a top-40 team in TFLs). And with another year for players to adjust to a new system, a lot could come together for this veteran group. Another big sign of upside for SU? Five of the top 25 returning edge or interior defenders (per PFF overall defensive grades) are members of this Orange team. It’s not the end-all, be-all. But that would seem to indicate this group’s potentially a lot better than what last year’s play and the raw counting stats showed us.