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ACC football 2021 position preview: Defensive backs

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Virginia Tech v Miami Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Just because I’m on vacation right now, it doesn’t stop us from keeping our ACC football position previews schedule. Earlier this week, we talked about the Syracuse Orange’s secondary and how the young group has a ton of experience despite some key departures.

But how do the rest of the league’s defensive backs look? We take a look at the ACC’s best (and worst) secondaries below. Also, in case you missed it, here’s the ACC linebackers preview from last week.

ACC Football 2021 Defensive Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

Asante Samuel was a standout last year (despite Florida State’s struggles), defending nine passes, collecting a TFL and forcing a fumble while earning first-team All-ACC honors. He was joined on the first-team by Clemson’s Derion Kendrick, Virginia Tech’s Divine Deablo and Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton. None of those players are in the conference anymore, for various reasons. Samuel was a second-round pick (Chargers), while Deablo went to the Raiders in the third round. Meanwhile, Kendrick transferred to Georgia — where he’ll line up vs. the Tigers in week one — and Hamilton’s an All-American candidate for the Irish, who went back to being an independent.

SU’s Garrett Williams actually led the ACC in passes defended with 12, though he was only an honorable mention for all-conference last year. Andrew Booth (Clemson) and Kei’Trel Clark (Louisville) were both second-teamers at corner, and Clark was actually tied for second in that defended passes category. Among DBs in the league, Deablo and Wake Forest’s Nick Anderson were the interceptions leaders with four apiece. Miami’s Bubba Bolden led the conference with four forced fumbles.

Who will excel in 2021?

At least some of the same players that excelled in 2020. While it was mentioned that the whole first-team secondary is gone, four of the five players to make the second team are back. Clark and Booth are first-team All-ACC contenders, as is North Carolina’s Tony Grimes, who received those honors along with Booth in preseason. Bolden and Clemson’s Nolan Turner were the other preseason picks there at safety.

Garrett Williams could be a homer pick in some regards, but not allowing a touchdown for the first 10 games of his career is a feat. And some goes for receiving some freshman All-American honors and picking off Trevor Lawrence (for a TD no less). Jermaine Waller and Chamarri Conner are experienced vets that should anchor a great Virginia tech secondary (more on the Hokies below). Nick Anderson is also one of several key contributors for Wake’s solid group of defensive backs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Clemson at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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

Bolden and Te’Cory Couch were Miami’s two best pass-rushers from the secondary last year per PFF grades, and both managed to be adept at disruptive plays. The ‘Canes add Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson at corner as well, after he broke up 10 passes over the last two years and got into opposing backfields with aplomb.

Clemson is definitely hurt without Kendrick, but still has Booth and Turner who are all-conference talents. Stevenson is ultimately the reason why you put Miami slightly ahead here. Virginia Tech is in a great spot with Waller and Conner, though corner Dorian Strong actually grades out the best in coverage per PFF. The Hokies are deep beyond those three as well, and have a ton of players to put on the field in this 4-2-5 scheme.

Bottom three units: 12. Boston College, 13. Virginia, 14. Florida State

FSU had a bit of a mass exodus in the secondary after last year between the draft and transfers, and now has to start over with a lot of youth and transfers of their own. The ‘Noles are probably too talented to be ranked last by the end of the year, but right now, they have the most uncertainty among their defensive backs of any team in the league.

The Hoos were one of the worst pass defenses in the country last year, allowing over 304 yards per game (123rd overall). Senior safety Joey Blount is disruptive and better than last year’s team results would indicate, but it’s going to take the experience on this team taking a major league forward. BC would normally be better than this spot with Brandon Sebastian back and FSU transfer Jaiden Lars-Woodbey joining at safety. Yet, the league has so much experience and talent in the secondary, who do you put here instead?

Top five cornerbacks in the ACC:

  1. Andrew Booth, Clemson
  2. Kei’Trel Clark, Louisville
  3. Tony Grimes, North Carolina
  4. Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech
  5. Garrett Williams, Syracuse

Top five safeties in the ACC:

  1. Bubba Bolden, Miami
  2. Nolan Turner, Clemson
  3. Chamarri Conner, Virginia Tech
  4. Nick Andersen, Wake Forest
  5. Trey Morrison, North Carolina

Where does Syracuse rank?

In response to the “who do you put here instead?” question above, some might say Syracuse due to three DBs from last year’s September starters now in NFL training camps. But this is a very deep and experienced group despite being very young. And even if last year’s experience doesn’t put them into the top half of the league’s rankings right away, they’re good enough to make strides and benefit from what should be a solid front six. For now, put them somewhere in the eight to 11 range, with some upside.