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Ranking the ACC units: Linebackers

7/22/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

This would be an entirely different list if the top two linebackers in the league -- Mark Herzlich and Nate Irving -- weren't sidelined right now. There are still a lot of standout linebackers in the conference, but this season just won't be the same without those two guys, not that Irving's return has been completely ruled out yet. Having spoken with NC State defensive coordinator Mike Archer Wednesday, though, it's simply a miracle that Irving is even alive. In looking at the rest of the conference, it's tough to find teams that are deep at this position. It's a question mark for a lot of teams, and there's a lot of inexperience.

Here's a shot at ranking the best linebacking corps in the ACC:

1. Miami -- Sean Spence was one of the hardest hitters in the conference as a true freshman and will only be better this year, but the key to this group will probably be the return of a healthy Colin McCarthy, who injured his shoulder in the first half of the season last year. Darryl Sharpton, Arthur Brown and Jordan Futch still have something to prove.

2. North Carolina -- Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter started every game last year, and there are high expectations for sophomore Zach Brown. Sturdivant led the nation with 87 solo tackles last year and ranked third in the ACC in total tackles per game. This is one of the deepest groups the Tar Heels have had recently, but they are lacking some experience.

3. Virginia Tech -- Cam Martin and Cody Grimm combined to play all but nine plays at the whip linebacker spot, but they've got to replace Purnell Sturdivant and Brett Warren. Barquell Rivers proved he's up to the task when he filled in in the Orange Bowl, and Jake Johnson will have an increased role, too. There's a lot of potential in this group.

4. Clemson -- The Tigers return two starters plus a third player with starting experience. Kavell Connor started all 13 games last year and was the team's top tackler with 125. Brandon Maye had an impressive season as a redshirt freshman, and finished with 87 tackles. Scotty Cooper was a part-time starter at strongside linebacker.

5. Georgia Tech -- Even with Kyle Jackson possibly out for the whole summer with an injured right foot, the Yellow Jackets till have plenty of depth with Sedric Griffin, Brad Jefferson, Anthony Barnes and Steven Sylvester. Barnes and Jefferson are both finally healthy after injury-plagued seasons and there should be good competition for starting jobs. This group can't afford anymore injuries though.

6. Florida State -- With the graduation of Derek Nicholson and Toddrick Verdell, the Noles lose their top two tacklers. Dekoda Watson will be back from elbow surgery this spring, but it's a young group counting on sophomores like Nigel Bradham and Nigel Carr. Junior Kendall Smith is the only other upperclassman on the two-deep roster.

7. Maryland -- Alex Wujciak could be a star at this position for the Terps, and he'll definitely need to be a leader there this fall. Maryland lost four linebackers who combined to play 144 games and 54 starts. Adrian Moten is one of the few experienced faces in the group, and he earned his first start last year in the Humanitarian Bowl.

8. Duke -- The Blue Devils have to replace the ACC's leading tackler in Michael Tauiliili, but they've still got Vincent Rey, who made 109 tackles last year. The problem is, Rey is the only experienced linebacker they've got. Competition remains among Damian Thornton, Abraham Kromah, and Adam Banks.

9. NC State -- It's not clear when Nate Irving will return, but for as long as he's out, the Wolfpack will be missing their best player on both sides of the ball. The Pack still have senior Ray Michel, who is a returning starter in the middle, and Dwayne Maddox started in place of Irving when he was out last year. But this is an entirely different group -- and defense -- without Irving.

10. Boston College -- The Eagles' linebacking corps took a huge hit when Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer, and they still don't know when Mike McLaughlin will be cleared to play from a torn Achilles. BC has a reputation for its defense, so odds are this group will be OK, but there are too many unknowns right now.

11. Wake Forest -- All three starters from last year are gone, and the Demon Deacons have big shoes to fill after the departure of Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry. It's going to have to be a group effort, but there's still some athleticism and depth to work with. Matt Woodlief and Hunter Haynes are the most experienced players retuning.

12. Virginia -- The Cavaliers graduated the veteran group of Jon Copper, Clint Sintim and Antonio Appleby, and because they were so good, their backups didn't see much playing time. This group is the feature in Al Groh's 3-4 defense, and it's going to have a whole new look. There were good reports about Steve Greer this spring, and Groh said Greer tried to mimic his game after Copper, which is reason for hope.