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ACC football 2021 position preview: Linebackers

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What should we expect from the conference’s linebackers this season?

NCAA Football: East Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The first ACC football game of the season is just 27 days away, so we’re winding toward the end of our weekly position previews looking at the conference’s top players and teams. On Thursday, we talked Syracuse Orange linebackers. So how does the rest of the league look there?

Also if you missed it last week, here’s the ACC defensive line preview. But onto the...

ACC Football 2021 Linebackers Preview

Last year’s top performers

During a shorter season for most teams, only a handful of ACC players topped 100 tackles: NC State’s Payton Wilson, Boston College’s Isaiah McDuffie and Virginia’s Nick Jackson. That said, Wilson was the lone first-team honoree in the conference. He was joined by North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt and Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah there, while McDuffie was a second-teamer along with Clemson’s James Skalski and Virginia’s Charles Snowden.

Pittsburgh’s SirVocea Dennis was a third-teamer but also one of the league’s most dynamic players in terms of getting behind the line of scrimmage. He was third in the ACC with 14.5 tackles for loss, and first among linebackers. Wilson also tallied 11.5 TFLs, while Owusu-Koramoah and NC State’s Isaiah Moore each tacked on 11. Despite all of those accomplishments from various players, Surratt (third round to the Vikings) and McDuffie (sixth round to the Packers) were the only ones drafted back in spring.

Who will excel in 2021?

Wilson was a preseason All-ACC pick last month, along with Skalski and Jackson. You could make a case for Moore’s inclusion as well given his 94 stops and ability to make tackles behind the line — and same goes for Dennis, given his prolific performance in that department as well last year. With Surratt off the pros, Jeremiah Gemmel should step up as the Heels’ top linebacker following his 78 tackles in 2020 (along with six TFLs).

Clemson’s entire defense is set to be pretty impressive, and the linebackers should be a big part of that between Skalski, Baylon Spector and potentially freshman Trenton Simpson. Cam Bright had 8.5 TFLs for Pitt last season while the Panthers’ linebackers benefited greatly from an impressive line in front of them. Syracuse’s Mikel Jones leading the league in interceptions while finishing in the top 20 in tackles should at least have him in the conversation among the top six to eight linebackers in the league.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Notre Dame at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Top three units: 1. Clemson, 2. NC State, 3. Pittsburgh

Skalski and Spector were noted above, and they’re joined by plenty of players that gained valuable experience last year given the number of one-sided matchups the Tigers found themselves in. Among those: Simpson and Jake Venables, who both topped 25 tackles last year.

Wilson and Moore should both compete for all-conference honors once again at NC State, and strongside linebacker Drake Thomas comes back as well with 58 stops of his own last year. We mentioned Bright and Dennis above, and they should play a crucial role in Pitt avoiding much drop-off while replacing both Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver up front.

Bottom three units: 12. Wake Forest, 13. Duke, 14. Boston College

Admittedly, this was a very good linebacker group in the ACC last year from top to bottom, and not a ton of those players departed. Meanwhile, many conference teams were able to retain at least some of their talent while developing more during a weird, COVID-affected season. So while Wake Forest has to replace lead tackler Ja’Cquez Williams, the Deacons also bring back Ryan Smenda.

Boston College, on the other hand, has to replace both Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richadson — two of the best defenders on the team last year, and two of the top five tacklers in the conference in 2020, but don’t have a ton of experience to plug in while doing so. Duke got questionable production out of the linebacker position last year beyond Shaka Heyward, so that’s a point of question this year.

Top five linebackers in the ACC:

  1. Payton Wilson, NC State
  2. James Skalski, Clemson
  3. Isaiah Moore, NC State
  4. SirVocea Dennis, Pitt
  5. Nick Jackson, Virginia

Where does Syracuse rank?

As mentioned, this is a strong group in the conference, even with numerous departures. Yet, the Orange’s returning players hold up pretty well when compared to other linebacker corps. around the rest of the ACC beyond the top three. Syracuse’s linebackers are firmly in the middle this year, and the still-young collection of players have some upside as well after their first full offseason in the 3-3-5 scheme. You could make a case for them as high as fifth, but anywhere from there to eighth is still nothing to be ashamed of in preseason.