ACC: Derek Nicholson

Scouting Florida State

August, 7, 2009
8/07/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Today is the day the bulk of the teams in the ACC begin practice, so to make sure I hit everybody, I'll do a quick take on each team, as well as three issues they'll face this summer. We'll start with Florida State.

The Noles are on the brink of being good -- very good. In fact, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has already had a hard time containing his excitement about the possibilities for 2010. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. FSU needs to take it to another level quickly. The Noles have the talent to win the Atlantic Division, and the ongoing appeal against the NCAA won't change that.

Quarterback Christian Ponder should be better in his second full season as starter, but needs to make better decisions. The running game should thrive behind what could become one of the best offensive lines in the country, and eventually, the passing game will develop some consistency. The good news there is that many of the off-field legal distractions the receivers have faced have come to a close. Most of the questions are on defense, and we'll get to those, but players like Markus White and Dekoda Watson should help overcome some of the losses.

Here are three pressing issues facing FSU this summer:

1. How will FSU overcome the loss of six starters on defense? First, meet the Robinsons. Free safety Jamie Robinson and cornerback Patrick Robinson will be the leaders in the secondary. The rest of the defense will have to rebuild around defensive tackles Budd Thacker and Kendrick Stewart, and Watson. Watson will be key, as the defense graduated its top two tacklers in Derek Nicholson and Toddrick Verdell. White will have the unenviable task of taking over for Everette Brown at defensive end.

2. How will the Noles replace Lou Groza Award winner Graham Gano? It's possible FSU's specialists suffered the biggest loss of any of the position groups when Gano graduated. Entering this season, no one on the roster has ever attempted a college field goal. James Esco handled all of the kicking duties this spring, but he'll get some competition this summer from the nation's No. 1 kicking prospect, true freshman Dustin Hopkins. Shawn Powell, who started the first seven games of the season as the team's punter, will take over full-time duties for Gano, and that should be a seamless transition.

3. Will this be Bobby Bowden's last year? No. No, he didn't call me up and tell me his plans. It's just a guess. FSU has the chance to be good this year and great next year. For as long as he's hung in there, why would he cut himself short a year when he could stick around for possibly even bigger and better things? Bowden is a competitor. He cares about winning (otherwise he wouldn't be able to tell you exactly how many wins he got at Samford and South Georgia Junior College). He's made it this far, so if the team is winning -- and winning big -- I think it would make it even harder for him to say goodbye.

Ranking the ACC units: Linebackers

July, 22, 2009
7/22/09
5:03
PM ET

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.

Florida State spring wrap-up

May, 7, 2009
5/07/09
9:40
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Florida State Seminoles
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 5-3, Atlantic Division co-champions

Returning starters

Offense: 8, defense: 5, punter/kicker 0

Top returners

OG Rodney Hudson, C Ryan McMahon, QB Christian Ponder, DT Budd Thacker, LB Dekoda Watson, TB Jermaine Thomas, WR Bert Reed

Key losses

DE Everette Brown, LB Derek Nicholson, RV Myron Rolle, CB Tony Carter, P/PK Graham Gano, WR Greg Carr, RB Antone Smith, WR Preston Parker

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Antone Smith (792 yards)
Passing: Christian Ponder* (2006 yards)
Receiving: Greg Carr (542 yards)
Tackles: Derek Nicholson (81)
Sacks: Everette Brown (13.5)
Interceptions: Tony Carter (2)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule

Sept. 7 Miami
Sept. 12 Jacksonville State
Sept. 19 at BYU
Sept. 26 South Florida
Oct. 3 at Boston College
Oct. 10 Georgia Tech
Oct. 17 BYE
Oct. 22 at North Carolina
Oct. 31 NC State
Nov. 7 at Clemson
Nov. 14 at Wake Forest
Nov. 21 Maryland
Nov. 28 at Florida

1. Riding solo at quarterback. Ponder finished the spring entrenched as the No. 1 quarterback and leader of the offense, and since his backup, E.J. Manuel missed the whole spring with an injury, it's hard to imagine that's going to change. Manuel has yet to throw a pass in a college game.

2. Run with it. The Noles need to replace their leading rusher, who accounted for almost 55 percent of all the running plays last year that weren't by quarterbacks, and Jermaine Thomas and Ty Jones showed this spring that they can be threats. Both made several long runs this spring.

3. Strength up front. The youngest line in the FBS last year should be one of the best in the ACC this fall. All five starters return. The only question is at right tackle, where three players are competing for one spot: Antwane Greenlee, Zebrie Sanders and Garrett Faircloth.

Fall questions

1. Secondary. There's going to be an infusion of freshmen this summer who could challenge for playing time. Greg Reid from Georgia, is a big-time player rated No. 15 on the ESPNU150. The staff is also expecting more from Terrance Parks, who was banged up this spring and didn't get a chance to compete much at rover/safety.

2. Receivers. It hasn't been determined how long Rod Owens will be suspended, or when Taiwan Easterling will be able to return from a ruptured Achilles. Louis Givens, a walk-on, is becoming a dependable option. It's up to Bert Reed, Jarmon Fortson and Richard Goodman to carry the unit.

3. Interior line play. The staff didn't leave the spring with any better idea of who will be the starters at tackle and nose guard. Budd Thacker missed all of spring. Moses McCray, a true freshman, played well, and Justin Mincey, and Kendrick Stewart, are in the mix. Nobody really distinguished themselves.

Miami's Shannon has toughest job in '09

March, 3, 2009
3/03/09
9:33
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Considering all of the players Virginia Tech lost to injuries, graduation, the NFL, or whatever reason heading into the 2008 season, many agreed that coach Frank Beamer had done one of the best coaching jobs of his career last season.

As we head into the 2009 season, which coaches face the biggest challenges and why? Some face more pressure because the expectations for their program are higher, others have to completely rebuild or adjust to staff changes. Some are tasked with all of the above.

Here's a look at which coaches have their work cut out for them, starting with the most difficult job in the ACC:

1. Miami coach Randy Shannon -- Shannon has three strikes against him before his team even steps on the field for the first time: His schedule is treacherous, he coaches at Miami, where the expectations are automatically higher and fans grow impatient with losing quickly, and he is entering his third season, when a real difference is expected to be made. He also has to get his players quickly acclimated to two new coordinators -- again. Shannon's team is still young, but aside from Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, nobody has more starters returning to work with. While that's a good thing for the '09 Canes, a lack of interest from NFL scouts proves Shannon had to turn around the recruiting.

2. Virginia coach Al Groh -- Change needed to be made, so he made it. Now it's time to see if the win-at-all-costs (a.k.a. fire your son) plan worked. It's not going to be easy. Groh has only five starters returning on offense and six on defense. He'll get Jameel Sewell back, but Sewell will have to shake off the rust and learn a new offense, not to mention find some capable receivers to throw it to. Groh lost all of his starting linebackers. After a five-win season and no bowl game, the pressure is on in Charlottesville.

3. North Carolina coach Butch Davis -- He set the bar much higher last year, turning a four-win season into an eight-win season and a bowl appearance. As Davis heads into his third season, a realistic expectation should be winning the Coastal Division title. That will be hard to do, though, without Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, not to mention leading tackler Mark Paschal and safety Trimane Goddard.

4. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney -- He'll be in his first full season as head coach at Clemson, where the fan base is anxiously awaiting its first ACC title in more than a decade. Swinney will have a new defensive coordinator, and one of the youngest offensive coordinators in the country in Billy Napier, who will turn 30 next month. He will also have a new quarterback, and needs to replace several talented playmakers in Aaron Kelly, safety Michael Hamlin, and tailback James Davis. The good news for Swinney is that he's not facing the same off-the-chart expectations his predecessor did last season heading into the Alabama game. (Beamer gets that privilege this year.)

5. Boston College coach Frank Spaziani -- The first-time head coach inherited a program that went to back-to-back ACC title games and has gotten used to proving people wrong. But the Eagles need to find an answer at quarterback, and will be under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, along with an almost entirely new staff. The good news is that their offensive line should be just as good, if not better, and they only lost four starters from one of the nation's best defenses. Two of them, though, were up front.

6. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe -- Ever since Grobe won the ACC title and transformed the program into a contender, Demon Deacons fans have quietly grown a little more spoiled each year. The Demon Deacons only have four defensive starters returning, the fewest in the ACC, and the players they lost were game-changers. In order for the Deacs to be in the hunt for the Atlantic Division this year, the offense is going to have to lead the way for a change. Grobe will also be looking for a backup quarterback this spring, and his options don't include anyone with game experience.

7. NC State coach Tom O'Brien -- Anyone actually paying attention should give O'Brien a pass for the past two injury-laden seasons. We're not talking about one player here, it's more like half his roster. The staff often joked they had a better team in their training room. Still, it will be O'Brien's third season and expectations will be higher, especially now that everyone has seen what quarterback Russell Wilson is capable of. Let's see what O'Brien can do with everyone healthy and better depth expected at the quarterback position.

8. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen -- He is the only coach that lost more starters (13) than he returns (11). The Terps were hit the hardest by graduation and lost five starters on offense, but there is still plenty of talent on the roster. Quarterback Chris Turner is a veteran, and all of the running backs return. The difference in College Park, though, is that Friedgen is facing more moderate expectations -- another winning season, another average bowl game -- par for the course.

9. Florida State coach(es) Bobby Bowden/Jimbo Fisher -- The firepower on offense is gone, and so is Lou Groza award winner Graham Gano and kickoff return man Michael Ray Garvin, who finished second nationally with a 30.1 average. Only five starters return on defense, and the Noles lost their leading tackler in linebacker Derek Nicholson. And this is Florida State, which, like Miami, has its own reputation to live up to. Plus, Bowden has his own goal of reaching 400 wins and another national championship before he calls it quits. No pressure. The difference here, though, is that FSU can recruit a higher-caliber athlete than some of the other schools, so the Noles can reload at many positions. And they will.

As for the rest of the league ... Johnson and Beamer have their rosters stocked, and Duke coach David Cutcliffe certainly gets more time than two years to recruit and build his program.

What to watch in the ACC this spring

February, 11, 2009
2/11/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

With Miami kicking off spring practice on Feb. 24, it's never too early to start thinking about spring football in the ACC. There are plenty of story lines heading into the 2009 season -- like backup quarterbacks and new coordinators.

Here are a few things to watch for each team in the ACC this spring:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

BOSTON COLLEGE
Spring practice starts:
March 17
Spring game: April 25

What to watch

  • Replacing 325-pound defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Ron Brace will be a large challenge -- literally. Damik Scafe could be a starter, but beyond him it's anybody's guess.
  • Quarterback Dominique Davis only has three games of experience over everyone else, so it's definitely not a given that it's his job to lose. Davis was thrown into the fire at the end of 2008, but former coach Jeff Jagodzinski and former offensive coordinator Steve Logan liked freshman Justin Tuggle, who redshirted this past season. Whether the new staff is as high on Tuggle remains to be seen.
  • Including former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who was promoted to head coach, the Eagles will have six coaches in new positions this spring. With two new coordinators, a new offensive line coach, tight ends coach and a linebackers coach, this spring will be a chance for a few introductions.

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FSU recruiting needs

January, 14, 2009
1/14/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

The FSU coaching staff is in a bit of a tricky situation, as it's still waiting to hear from the NCAA about possible scholarship reductions resulting from the academic cheating scandal, which could affect this year's recruiting class. The announcement could come by the end of the week. So far, Florida State has 18 commitments.

The Seminoles' recruiting philosophy has always been to sign the best players available, regardless of position. That said, FSU will take some hits on defense, especially with the loss of both starting defensive ends, linebackers Derek Nicholson and Toddrick Verdell, corner Tony Carter, and safety Myron Rolle. The staff put an emphasis on defensive linemen and defensive backs.

Offensively, the Noles are in good shape, as they had several young playmakers contribute this season who will be back, including their quarterback and all of their offensive linemen. FSU will have to replace leading rusher Antone Smith, starting receiver Greg Carr, and most likely Corey Surrency, who is petitioning the NCAA for another year of eligibility. The Noles are expected to add at least four wide receivers and two running backs.

Possibly the biggest shoes FSU will have to fill are those of Lou Groza Award winner Graham Gano. The Noles are hoping Dustin Hopkins, a kicker from Houston, will be able to help.

FSU's 'X' Factor -- aka No. 99

September, 17, 2008
9/17/08
10:58
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

 
 Joe Robbins/Getty Images
 FSU's Everette Brown already has 2 sacks this season.

When Wake Forest offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke draws up the Florida State defense with his X's and O's, he uses an X for everyone but defensive end Everette Brown. He always gets "No. 99."

"Don't forget who that is," Lobotzke said with a laugh. "The free safety is good, [Derek] Nicholson is good. They've got some good players, but that's one as the O-line coach that always is in the back of my head."

That's one place opponents don't want to be. (Rumor has it that the Air Force graduate's GPA hovered around a 4.0 when he was an offensive lineman there). How Lobotzke game plans for Florida State's pass rush will be a key part of Saturday's game. The Demon Deacons' offensive line did well in the season opener against Baylor, but when the talent level rose against Ole Miss, they gave up four sacks.

"Lobo" said he'll have to pick and choose his moments when to single block Brown, and when they do, Riley Skinner is going to have to release the ball quickly. If they want to do anything extended in the pocket, they'll need to help their tackle with a running back, tight end or guard who can block.

Lobotzke said he went into this game "trembling" last year because he was afraid he'd lose Skinner to injury. Brown has two sacks this season for a loss of 25 yards.

"We have to be smart about what we ask the tackle to do on his own and give him help when we need more time," Lobotzke said.

Wake Forest has had plenty of time to study the Seminoles, an intangible Lobotzke said was critical in preparing for this game. They had three practices last week to get ahead of schedule and then used this week to "polish."

"It's a monster for us," Lobotzke said. "They haven't had two off weeks, but they've had two very light duty weeks where they're probably working part time on us. We needed something after the Ole Miss game to give us a chance to compete in this game and I think that off week is what did it."

There's no question there is a different feeling going into this game than years past -- both teams are ranked -- but a win would add some separation between two teams seemingly capable of challenging once-favored Clemson for the Atlantic Division title.

"We've already had a strong start in recruiting, but hopefully that would kind of finish off our class for us, shoot us up in the rankings, give us a good start in ACC play," Lobotzke said. "... I think our kids like our chances compared to maybe seven years ago when [the staff] first got in this league, just this insurmountable mountain we'd never climb. Now they look at it and say, 'OK, they've got some guys back. OK, they're in the rankings. OK, they've got the No. 1 defense in the nation, but you know what? We feel pretty good about what we've done this season, too. We'll take our chances. Let's go down there and give them our best shot and see what happens.'"

ACC in the morning: 'Yo, Heather... wake up!'

September, 16, 2008
9/16/08
8:51
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

One day. I oversleep one day, and I see this from loyal reader VTballer: "yo Heather wake up! its about time for ACC in the morning."

So it is, my friend.

Here's a look at what's going on around the league:

- This one's for you, VTballer -- RB coach Billy Hite told Josh Oglesby he's playing three backs, but Oglesby says, "I've only seen two."

- It's Georgia Tech's turn to carry the ACC banner, as the Yellow Jackets will try to represent the league against SEC opponent Mississippi State. Oh, and don't question Paul Johnson on his fourth-down decisions, otherwise you're a moron.

- FSU DT Budd Thacker's back -- "wide-eyed, scratching and clawing."

- Miami second-year assistant coach Wesley McGriff is making the Hurricanes' secondary "Army tough."

- ECU coach Skip Holtz isn't taking NC State lightly. He remembers what happened last year. History is unlikely to repeat itself, though, especially with the latest injury to hit the lineup -- Alan-Michael Cash is out indefinitely. Huge loss. ECU is down a man, too.

- UNC is preparing for Tyrod Taylor and his happy feet. Coach Butch Davis says, "Don't bite the cheese."

- Speaking of cheese, the Terps are trying to avoid another trap against Eastern Michigan.

- People were asking for my pick on the Wake Forest-FSU game on Monday's chat. You should ask Christian Ponder, who says the Noles are "not going to lose." It's not like they're taking the Demon Deacons lightly, though. Derek Nicholson deemed it their "ACC championship game."

- Clemson offensive tackle Chris Hairston answers questions about his motor scooter accident.

Today is mailblog day, so check back later. I'm awake now.

ACC position rankings: linebackers

July, 18, 2008
7/18/08
6:09
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

1. Virginia: Senior captain Clint Sintim started all 37 games in his career and was third on the team with 77 tackles last season. His nine sacks last year were the most of any linebacker in the nation. Inside linebacker Jon Copper is UVA's active leader in tackles with 200, and Antonio Appleby is third on that list with 155.

2. Wake Forest: All three returning starters are back, including strongside linebacker Aaron Curry, a two-time defensive player of the week who had three interception returns for touchdowns and led the nation in interception return yards with 256. He also led the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss. Middle linebacker Stanley Arnoux also returns, along with weakside linebacker Chantz McClinic, who had 42 tackles.

 
 Ned Dishman/Getty Images
 Senior linebacker Brian Toal, who has 180 career tackles despite missing last season, is healthy again for Boston College.

3. Boston College: The Eagles lost two key starters, but senior Brian Toal's shoulder is healed and he has 180 career tackles despite missing last season with a medical redshirt. His primary competition at weakside linebacker will come from senior Robert Francois, who finished last season with 39 total tackles. Junior Mark Herzlich, who started all 14 games last year and finished second in total tackles with 97 should anchor this unit. Junior Mike McLaughlin started three games at middle linebacker last season when Jo-Lonn Dunbar was injured and is the heir apparent there.

4. Maryland: This could be one of the Terps' deeper positions, even with the loss of Erin Henderson to the NFL. Seniors Dave Philistin and Moise Fokou each started all 13 games last season, and Adrian Moten, who played all three positions as a freshman, tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5) and had 50 tackles even though he didn't start a game. Philistin ranked fourth in the ACC with 9.5 tackles per game.

5. Florida State: These guys have talent, it's just a matter of when it will all come together. Geno Hayes is gone, and so is Marcus Ball, who was expected to fill in for Hayes but was booted off the team. Still, the Seminoles' leading tackler is back. Underrated middle linebacker Derek Nicholson made 99 stops last year and was the only linebacker to start all 13 games. Strongside linebacker Dekoda Watson started every game but the bowl game because of the academic scandal and will miss the first three, leaving the job to sophomore Kendall Smith. The 'Noles are also excited about freshman Nigel Bradham.

6. Miami: The Hurricanes lost their leading tackler in Tavares Gooden, a third-round NFL draft pick by the Ravens, but are still better off than the way they ended last season -- with three healthy linebackers. Senior Glenn Cook is back after missing last season with a foot injury, and the freshmen -- Arthur Brown and Sean Spence -- didn't waste any time impressing the staff while Coin McCarthy was out this spring. Darryl Sharpton and Spencer Adkins are possible starters in the middle.

7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies will obviously miss Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, but middle linebacker Brett Warren played well last year when Hall got hurt and earned the confidence of defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Purnell Sturdivant is No. 1 heading into the fall, but should be challenged by veteran Jonas Houseright and redshirt freshman Hunter Ovens. Redshirt junior Cam Martin started 13 of 14 games last season at weakside after being moved from free safety and finished fifth on the team with 78 tackles and was third in sacks with 4.5.

8. Duke: Senior Michael Tauiliili is the top active player in the league in terms of career tackles, and finished last season with 108. He also had four sacks and three interceptions. Vincent Rey led the Blue Devils with 111 tackles. The third slot will be between Marcus Jones and Adam Banks. There's not a lot of depth here, but there's talent.

9. Clemson: This is the least experienced unit on the Tigers' defense. Josh Miller is the only senior in the group and is competing for the starting middle linebacker job. Tommy Bowden was impressed with freshman Stanley Hunter this spring, but Brandon Maye had the top spring among the newcomers and is listed as first team in the middle entering the fall. Junior Kavell Connor is the top option at weakside linebacker and had a career high 15 tackles in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. He had 46 stops for the year, tops among linebackers on the spring depth chart. Sophomore Scotty Cooper also started the Chick-fil-A Bowl at strongside linebacker. He had 33 stops for the season in 183 plays on defense.

10. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have to replace leading tackler Durell Mapp, but return sophomore Bruce Carter and sophomore Quan Sturdivant. Carter played in all 12 games and started seven. He made 18 of his 25 tackles in the final five games. Sturdivant's experience is similar, having played in all 12 games, but started just five. He finished the season with 47 tackles, but also added an interception and a blocked punt. Senior Mark Paschal played in all 12 games and started four at middle linebacker, and Chase Rice was still recovering this spring from a torn tendon in his left ankle. He was the starter in 2007, but got hurt in the season opener and missed the rest of the season.

11. NC State: There's not a lot of experience, as the top candidates have combined for five starts and only four guys have played in a collegiate game. Nate Irving is the lead candidate at weakside linebacker, having started four games. Ray Michel started one game in the middle, and strongside should be wide open. Robbie Leonard, a converted walk-on defensive back, is the starter heading into summer camp. He played in eight games as a strong safety and has seen most of his action on special teams the past two seasons. Thomas Barnes got valuable experience as a backup middle linebacker last season, playing the last 10 games and scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery in only his third career play from scrimmage.

12. Georgia Tech: Two of the three stars from last year -- Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton -- are now on NFL rosters. Junior Shane Bowen started nine games last season, but sophomore Anthony Barnes has the most potential and started three. Two young rookies, sophomore Brad Jefferson and redshirt freshman Kyle Jackson, are good enough that Bowen may lose his starting job.

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