ACC: Matthew Thomas

Every team has issues to address this offseason, and this week, we're taking a look at the most glaring holes for each ACC team and figuring out where they might find answers between now and the season opener.

Florida State Seminoles

Position to improve: Linebacker

Why it was a problem: It's not often that a defense can lose a playmaker such as Telvin Smith (and DE/OLB Christian Jones to an extent) and move on without missing a beat. With the talent Jimbo Fisher has recruited, some thought the Seminoles might have minimal drop-off. But the unit had its ups and downs for a variety of reasons. There were injuries and suspensions, and there also a lot of inexperience and not as much athleticism. The linebackers struggled at times against the run and the pass, and there was not a great pass-rusher among the group.

How it can be fixed: A healthy Terrance Smith Jr. will obviously help, and so will a full season from redshirt sophomore Matthew Thomas. Smith battled a sprained knee throughout the second half of the season, and Thomas was suspended for the first six games. The Seminoles need one of their younger linebackers to step up, though, especially with the losses of E.J. Levenberry and Reggie Northrup (ACL surgery). Jacob Pugh played sparingly as a freshman, and Delvin Purifoy never played a down after a season-ending injury. The good news is Pugh, Purifoy and defensive end/linebacker Lorenzo Featherston were all blue-chip recruits in the 2014 class and will have a full year under their belts.

Early 2015 outlook: There are definite reasons for optimism, as Smith and Thomas will be joined by one of the younger players. The 2014 class was filled with talent, and there will be an opportunity for the second-year linebackers to step up. The Seminoles also went the junior college route in the 2015 class with linebacker Lorenzo Phillips. He was the third-ranked outside linebacker among junior college players, and the idea is for him to make an immediate impact. But while the outlook is hardly bleak, one of the younger players has to step up and help the defense return to the top of the national rankings.
Florida State expected departures in the front and back end of its defense, but the Seminoles received news earlier this week the depth at linebacker will also take a hit.

Sophomore E.J. Levenberry has left Tallahassee, Florida, and intends to transfer from Florida State, his father, Eric, told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

Coupled with the midseason dismissal of Ukeme Eligwe, the Seminoles are down to seven scholarship linebackers, a unit that had its bouts with consistency all season. Reggie Northrup, who battled Levenberry for a starting spot through fall camp, and Terrance Smith are returning for their senior seasons, but there is not much experience beyond those two.

The Seminoles do have a number of talented younger players at linebacker, and the group will need to step up as a whole to fill out the starting lineup and provide production throughout the linebacker rotation. Redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas is a former five-star player, although he has battled injuries and off-field issues through his first two seasons. From the 2014 class, third-ranked inside linebacker Kain Daub and top-six outside linebackers Jacob Pugh and Delvin Purifoy should have roles in 2015. Ro'Derrick Hoskins has not seen the field much his first two seasons, but he was highly regarded coming out of high school, too.

Daub could be the beneficiary and slide into a second-string role for the Seminoles at middle linebacker. The Jacksonville, Florida, native was an early enrollee, and the 6-foot-4, 243-pound Daub could earn the role of primary backup to Northrup, who also hails from Jacksonville.

Florida State was not as athletic at linebacker this past season, especially with a sprained knee limiting Smith the second half of the season. The expectation was the unit would struggle to match the 2013 production considering mainstays Telvin Smith and Christian Jones were lost to the NFL. Florida State’s young core of linebackers could provide some of that same athleticism this coming season.

The loss of Levenberry still could sting Florida State, especially as the sophomores and freshmen continue gaining experience. As a freshman, Levenberry racked up 39 tackles, but he played sparingly as a sophomore. Few matched Levenberry’s work ethic, and the second-year player had reshaped his body to withstand the expected pounding at middle linebacker. He gained 20 pounds between the end of spring practice and start of fall camp last year. Eric, Levenberry’s father, said his son felt there was a better chance he would see the field elsewhere.

“He loved Florida State, loved Jimbo Fisher, loved Tallahassee, loved the fans,” Eric said. “… We just didn’t see a future for him under the current defensive regime.”

When former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left for Georgia, Fisher promoted Charles Kelly to coordinator and hired Bill Miller to replace Kelly as the linebackers coach.

“Sometimes a system might not be for a kid,” Eric said. “He’s going to be an asset. He’s not going to test positive for drugs or make a program look bad. We hope a college coach can recognize that and recognize his talent.”
In what world would any team want to play the Oregon Ducks? The same Ducks who finished the season 12-1 and destroyed the only team that dared beat them, Arizona, in a Pac-12 title game rematch on Friday.

For No. 3 Florida State, that is your reward for a second straight undefeated season and third consecutive ACC title. Hop on a cross-country flight to the No. 2 Ducks’ backyard for the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual in a New Year’s Day College Football Playoff semifinal.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFfreshman running back Dalvin Cook has become a key cog for the Seminoles.
And yet, maybe it is the better of the two possible scenarios for Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles. The reality is they were never going to be ranked No. 1 and the selection committee was asked to pick FSU’s poison: Alabama or Oregon.

“Wherever you’re ranked right now, I don’t know if it matters,” Fisher said. “Every team in this playoff is a great team.”

He’s right, of course. It sounds crazy -- and maybe it is considering Oregon is outscoring opponents by almost 24 points per game -- but football is a game of matchups, and the Seminoles are better off against the Ducks, an early 8.5-point favorite.

Oregon’s offense is “off the charts,” Fisher said, but the Seminoles have the luxury of three-week period to prepare for the Ducks’ dynamic spread. Although no offense is soaring quite like the Ducks’, Florida State’s last three games have been against Boston College, Florida and Georgia Tech. All or some of those teams are predicated on the run, have mobile quarterbacks, use a lot of misdirection and run some variance of the option.

With Fisher expecting defensive tackle Eddie Goldman to be able to play, the Seminoles have the size, length and athleticism along the defensive line to pose problems for Oregon’s spread. Goldman is among the country’s best defensive tackles, and few defensive ends can control the edge like 300-pound junior Mario Edwards, who can do a standing backflip. He will have to funnel plays inside because Oregon averages 6.9 yards per rush outside the tackles. Oregon is statistically better rushing between the tackles than Alabama, too, but dreadlocked wrecking ball Derrick Henry could ravage an already thin FSU defensive front.

The running game is peaking for the Seminoles, too. True freshman running back Dalvin Cook has emerged as one of the Seminoles’ elite players, totaling 392 yards over his last two games and winning MVP of the ACC championship.

The Ducks are above average against the run in 2014, ranking 57th in yards per rush (4.12), but, Alabama ranks third nationally with an average of 2.81 yards allowed. The Ducks have also been a little bit more vulnerable in the beginning of games before they put games out of reach. Oregon allows 4.26 yards per carry in the first half but have a sub-4.0 average in the second. The Ducks have not been great on first down either, allowing nearly 5 yards per rush on first downs.

“Dalvin’s just getting better and better as each week goes by,” Seminoles senior center Cameron Erving told reporters after the game. “He’s a dynamic player. He can break tackles. He’s fast. He’s elusive. There are not enough positive things you can say about Dalvin.”

And really, who wants to match wits with Nick Saban in a championship-like setting? Saban is 5-1 in SEC title games and 4-0 in national title games when he has had weeks to prepare. That’s not knocking Mark Helfrich, who has only three losses in two seasons as head coach, but Saban has earned the $7 million check with his performances in championship games. Alabama has won all three of its national championships under Saban by at least 16 points.

All that said, there are certainly areas the Ducks can exploit the Seminoles. Florida State’s linebackers are not nearly as athletic or fast as a year ago and missed tackles have plagued the unit. Starters Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith are not 100 percent either.

Offensively, Florida State ranks 116th out of 128 FBS teams with 27 turnovers while the Ducks have turned it over only twice. The Ducks are averaging 9.2 points off turnovers per game this season, ranked eighth in the country and have allowed only 13 total points all season off their own mistakes.

It’s an unenviable “Would You Rather” scenario for Florida State with only Alabama and Oregon as the options, but the Seminoles might matchup better -- even if just slightly -- against the Ducks.

By the numbers: FSU's weak links

November, 6, 2014
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It’s no secret that Florida State hasn’t dominated opponents this season as it did a year ago. What might be missing a bit from the conversation is exactly what has been missing from the Seminoles’ winning formula in 2014.

It’s true that quarterback Jameis Winston hasn’t been quite as sharp this season, but it’s worth noting that he has been asked to throw a good bit more than he did a season ago. During the regular season in 2013, Winston’s high in pass attempts was 34 (vs. Clemson). This season, he has had one game against an FBS foe in which he’s thrown less than 34 times (31 vs. Notre Dame). Last season, 51 percent of FSU’s plays against FBS teams were pass plays. This season, that rate has jumped to 58 percent.

So why the increased reliance on Winston’s arm? It has a lot to do with the lack of production from the backfield, and that actually starts up front.

If you have watched Florida State’s recent games, it’s no secret that center Ryan Hoefeld is a bit overmatched, but the Seminoles’ inability to run between the tackles has been a season-long problem, and it’s the biggest difference between last season’s offense and this season’s.

Last season, FSU ran between the tackles on 66 percent of its runs, and its 6.2 yards-per-carry average and 26 TDs led the ACC. This season, the Seminoles’ performance outside the tackles has actually improved, but its production up the middle has been cut in half.

Now flip the script to the defensive side of the ball. Again, FSU hasn’t been nearly as impressive as it was in 2013, and the once mighty secondary has proven vulnerable at times.

Last season, FSU allowed 52 percent completions, picked off one of every 16 attempts and allowed a national-best 5.1 yards per attempt to opposing quarterbacks. This season, those numbers are down across the board: 58 percent completions, one interception for every 34 attempts, and a 7.1 yards-per-attempt average.

Again, it’s hard to pin all that blame on the secondary when the play up front has been spotty.

With Timmy Jernigan and Telvin Smith gone from the middle of the defense, opponents have thrived between the tackles, and the pass rush has dropped off precipitously (FSU averaged a sack every 12.2 attempts last season, every 22.8 this year).

Last season, opponents averaged just 3.2 yards-per-carry between the tackles and scored just twice -- both tops in the ACC. This season, FSU has again improved on outside runs -- its 4.2 yards-per-carry allowed leads the conference -- but opponents are rushing for 1.1 more yards-per-run up the middle than they did a season ago and have already doubled their touchdown total.

Injuries have been critical in both areas for Florida State. Center Austin Barron and defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample are done for the season. Tackle Derrick Mitchell and linebackers Terrance Smith, Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe have all battled injuries, too. FSU is plugging in second- and third-stringers to fill key roles, and the results have been obvious. [Edit: Barron's original diagnosis suggested a season-ending injury. Jimbo Fisher said this week the center could return this year. Meanwhile, reports surfaced Thursday suggesting Eligwe's career at Florida State was over though Fisher has yet to confirm that.]

Indeed a lot has changed for the Seminoles from 2013. Freshmen are playing bigger roles, the competition is better, and as national champs, they are getting every opponent's best shot. But the biggest differences from 2013 to 2014 have been health and strength up the middle - two issues invariably tied together.

And with Barron and Lawrence-Stample sidelined, those problems aren’t going to be fixed in any dramatic fashion. What is encouraging for FSU is that it has found ways to win anyway. What’ is perhaps troubling, however, is that there will be many bigger challenges ahead -- from Virginia’s defensive line this week to Duke Johnson and Tyler Murphy down the road -- that figure to test those weak links again and again.

ACC morning links: A loss for Clemson

October, 20, 2014
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The last thing Clemson needed was more bad news on offense, but that's exactly what was in store Sunday.

The Tigers' leading rusher, freshman Adam Choice, is done for the season with a knee injury, as the Charleston Post & Courier writes.

Choice suffered a torn ACL in Saturday's 17-13 win against Boston College, adding more grim news to a running game that has struggled to find any footing this season. Through seven games, Choice was Clemson's leading rusher with 218 yards and also averaged a team-best 4.4 yards per carry.

Choice actually would have redshirted this season, but he was thrust into the tailback mix when Zac Brooks went down with a season-ending injury in fall camp. Choice's injury leaves the trio of Wayne Gallman, C.J. Davidson and D.J. Howard to pick up the slack in the Tigers' backfield.

In fairness, the bulk of Choice's production this year came against South Carolina State. Against FBS foes, he's carried 38 times for 144 yards -- an average of 3.8 per carry -- good for 38th among ACC tailbacks.

Still, his replacements don't offer much alternative. Howard, Davidson and Gallman have averaged a woeful 3.6 yards-per-carry against FBS foes and just seven of their 113 rushes (6 percent) went for 10 yards or more. Add the fact the Tigers will be without dual-threat QB Deshaun Watson for at least another few weeks, and the offensive struggles of the past two games don't seem like they'll diminish any time soon.

A few more links:

Jameis Winston is a near lock to enter the NFL draft, according to CBS Sports. Well, yeah. Of course. The whole “will he or won't he” discussion has been silly for a while, and when I spoke with Winston's father, Antonor, in August, he said the talk about returning was entirely dependent on Jameis' draft status. And that was before all the new off-field chaos.

Matthew Thomas, who had been suspended for the first half of the season, added some much-needed athleticism to Florida State's defense, writes the Orlando Sentinel.

Georgia Tech's defense was a complete disaster against North Carolina, writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Virginia Tech is shaking up its offensive line after another ugly offensive performance against Pitt, writes the Roanoke Times.

More from the Roanoke Times: Matt Johns should've run more often against Duke, according to Virginia coach Mike London.

Marquise Williams has been tremendous over the past two games, including leading a comeback win for North Carolina on Saturday, writes the Charlotte Observer.

After A.J. Long led Syracuse to a much-needed win over Wake Forest, is Terrel Hunt still the starting QB when he's healthy? It's an interesting question, writes Syracuse.com.

Duke Johnson has been a crucial mentor in the development of fellow Miami tailback Joseph Yearby, writes the Sun-Sentinel.

FSU's Chris Casher ruled eligible

September, 5, 2014
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State announced a significant addition and subtraction to its defense Friday.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Matthew Thomas has been suspended indefinitely for a "violation of team rules," but teammate Chris Casher, a redshirt sophomore defensive end/linebacker, has been ruled academically eligible, Florida State announced in a statement.

The news was first reported by the website Warchant.com.

To continue reading this story, click here.

Beyond top 25: ACC's breakout candidates

August, 4, 2014
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Last week, ESPN.com ranked its top 100 players in college football, and here on the ACC blog, we counted down the top 25 in the conference. Of course, these lists are fun for the preseason, but once the games get going, what we all believed was true in August has a way of looking pretty silly by December. In fact, of our 2013 preseason top 25, just 12 also made our end-of-season top 25.

In other words, there were no doubt a few ACC players whose names were left on the cutting room floor in our countdown, but who may well be among the league’s elite this season. Here’s an admittedly imprecise look at a few to keep an eye on.

JUST MISSED

If we’d been making a top 30 or 40 list instead of 25, these guys definitely would’ve made the cut. As it stands, they'll likely see their names on our end-of-year list.

WR Stacy Coley (Miami): Don’t be surprised if the Canes’ sophomore receiver ranks in the top five of our end-of-season list. No returning ACC player averaged more yards per touch last year (min. 50 touches) than Coley (21.8). He’ll need some help from an unproven quarterback, but Coley has the talent to be an All-American if things break right for him this season.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville): Already a star with 9.5 sacks and 12 TFL last season, Mauldin is poised to explode as he moves from defensive end to outside linebacker in Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 system. At Grantham’s previous stop at Georgia, he helped Justin Houston and Jarvis Jones parlay similar moves into super stardom.

DE Eli Harold (UVA): Virginia’s defensive line may not get much national publicity, but it’s jam-packed with talent, headed up by Harold, who racked up 8.5 sacks and 15 TFL last season. Both of those totals rank second among returning ACC players behind Clemson All-American Vic Beasley.

GETTING HEALTHY

Injuries set them back, but these players are poised for big comebacks in 2014.

S Isaiah Johnson (GT): A burgeoning star on Georgia Tech’s defense, a knee injury cost Johnson all of 2013. He’s “past 100 percent” now though and expects to make a huge impact after a long wait to get back onto the field.

S Tyler Hunter (FSU): Last summer, Hunter was the unquestioned leader of FSU’s revamped defense, but a scary neck injury ended his season in Week 3. What might’ve been a career-ending injury turned out to be just a setback, and now Hunter will be the veteran voice in an immensely talented secondary that has led the nation in passing defense the past two years.

DT Mehdi Abdesmad (BC): As a junior last season, the 6-foot-7 Abdesmad looked poised for a breakthrough, recording sacks against USC and Florida State before a knee injury ended his season. If he can return to form quickly, he's in position to replace the 8.5 sacks BC lost with the departure of Kasim Edebali from its D-line.

WR Charone Peake (Clemson): When they arrived on campus as freshmen, Peake and Sammy Watkins were both considered can't-miss prospects. Now Watkins is impressing in Buffalo Bills camp and Peake is still looking for his breakthrough season. Despite an injury-ravaged 2013, he's being counted on as the top option for Cole Stoudt in 2014.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATES

These players have already made some noise in the past but could make the jump to the league’s elite in 2014.

S Durrell Eskridge (Syracuse): Eskridge blossomed into a key contributor on Syracuse’s defense last year, recording 6.5 tackles per game (14th among returning ACC players) and four interceptions, but as the Orange look to replace key starters inside, Eskridge’s impact in 2014 only figures to expand.

QB Jacoby Brissett (NC State): Dave Doeren believes Brissett, a transfer from Florida who spent last season waiting in the wings, is a perfect fit for his offense, and the veteran has the confidence and trust of his teammates -- something NC State sorely missed at the position last year. Our preseason top 25 lists just one quarterback (Jameis Winston), so a few others have to state their case, too. Brissett should be chief among them, but fellow transfers Tyler Murphy (BC) and Michael Brewer (Virginia Tech) could certainly be in the mix, too.

OT Matt Rotheram (Pitt): Pitt's O-line was a disaster last year, but adding a more mobile quarterback in the backfield and a year of experience to the unit should help. Rotheram was the one bright spot through much of 2013, and he's now poised to get a hefty share of the credit should the revamped line take the next step in 2014.

UNPROVEN TALENT

They haven't seen the field (much) yet, but they’re in line for significant roles this season and could make the most of the opportunity.

LB Matthew Thomas (FSU): The Seminoles return plenty of talent from their national-championship run, but the linebacking crew is definitely an area with a few question marks. It’s a talented, but unproven group, but Thomas tasted action early last season before going down with an injury, and he showed he can make an instant impact -- perhaps in an edge-rusher role similar to what Christian Jones did for FSU's D last season.

RB Wayne Gallman (Clemson): It’s hard to project how the carries will be distributed in a crowded Clemson backfield, but two things are clear: The Tigers want to run the ball more in 2014, and Gallman has the potential to be a star. Coaches and teammates raved about his improvement in the spring, and Gallman will get every shot to win a job as a centerpiece of the new-look Clemson offense in fall camp.

OT Bentley Spain (UNC): Larry Fedora admits he doesn’t know quite what to make of Spain yet after the early enrollee missed a hefty chunk of the spring with an injury. Still, Spain is in line for the starting left tackle job at UNC, and with talent at quarterback and tailback behind him, it could be a quick start to his career.

DEEP SLEEPERS

The names aren’t familiar outside their own fan bases, but don’t be surprised if they’re making some noise by year’s end.

LB Marquel Lee (Wake): New Deacons coach Dave Clawson has his work cut out for him trying to find talent to fill out the depth chart, but he may have discovered an early gem in Lee. The sophomore was the star of Wake's spring game, and with so much turnover up front for the Deacons, Lee will get plenty of chances to make plays once the season begins.

CB DreQuan Hoskey (UVA): Here’s an interesting tidbit, courtesy of STATS LLC: No defender in the ACC was picked on more last season than Hoskey, who was targeted by opposing quarterbacks 81 times in 12 games. There were mixed results, of course, but it's worth noting that he wasn't burned for a TD on any of those plays. Next most targets without surrendering a touchdown among ACC defensive backs? Lamarcus Joyner with 37. He's part of a very crowded secondary, but Hoskey will get his chances to make an impact in 2014.

RB Shaquille Powell (Duke): He's overlooked because Duke returns its leading rusher from 2013 (Josh Snead) but teammates have raved about Powell's progress, and it's worth noting that while Snead is back, the Blue Devils still must replace 51 percent of last year’s rushing attempts after losing Brandon Connette, Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan.

ACC's best backups: No. 4

July, 15, 2014
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Last season, Florida State won a national championship, while its leader in takeaways (Nate Andrews), yards per carry (Karlos Williams) and yards per touch (Kermit Whitfield) combined to start just one game. In the current landscape of college football, talent at the top is crucial, but depth is often what separates the best teams. With that in mind, we’re counting down the ACC’s best backups -- players who weren’t starters last year and aren't currently penciled in atop the depth chart, but who could make a major impact in 2014.

No. 4: Matthew Thomas (LB, Florida State)

[+] EnlargeMatthew Thomas
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe Seminoles could tab Matthew Thomas to help replace Christian Jones.
Career numbers: Four tackles, including two for loss and one sack, in four games.

Projected 2014 role: Terrance Smith is the leader of Florida State's linebacking corps and the only real proven commodity, but Thomas figures to see the field a lot in what will be his redshirt freshman year. Thomas could play the hybrid role and see himself up at defensive end at times, which is what Christian Jones did well last season. After showing plenty of potential in limited action last season before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery (which could become a long-term blessing in disguise, given the medical redshirt), Thomas is a dynamic and versatile piece of a defense tasked with filling some big shoes across the front seven.

Why he matters: Thomas was ESPN's No. 6 overall player in the Class of 2013, and the No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation. The five-star prospect from Miami's Booker T. Washington was also the No. 4 player in the state of Florida. He was clocked at 4.59 in the 40-yard-dash as a prepster. He was the top player of FSU's 2013 haul, which was ranked ninth nationally. It is difficult to imagine Thomas not seeing significant action and making a big impact this fall, which should be the first of many productive campaigns for him in Tallahassee. He is up to 224 pounds, which is 14 pounds heavier from last season. It is no secret why, during the second half of spring practice this past April, coach Jimbo Fisher made mention of Thomas nearly every day.

ACC mailblog: DBs debate rages

July, 11, 2014
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Earlier this week, I asked you guys to weigh in on whether Florida State or Virginia Tech had the best group of defensive backs in the ACC. You responded in big-time numbers, voting for Florida State by a comfortable margin.

No surprise there. I figured I was in the minority when I gave the Hokies the slight edge. Now, here is a little of what you had to say:

Ethan in NY writes: For the ACC DBU, I have to say Virginia Tech gets the top spot, slightly over Florida State. While it's true that we lose Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum, we return Detrick Bonner, Kendall Fuller, Brandon Facyson, and Kyshoen Jarrett, the latter three should be among the best in their position in 2014. To me, it comes down to the fact that FSU is a much stronger team overall, and doesn't rely on it's secondary as much as VT. VT has been tested more and withstood more.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Facyson
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller return on what should be a very good Virginia Tech secondary.
Bill in Birmingham, Alabama, writes: You have VT defensive backs ahead of FSU. Glad you did it. You all consistently short-stick FSU's defense. Last year, it was having Duke with more choices on the All-ACC team. Look what happened to Duke and all its All-ACC defenders in the ACC title game. This year, FSU defense slighted again in the All-ACC rankings. FSU defense will use these slights to perform at or better than last year's level. Let Duke, VT, Clemson get all the media publicity and underperform again. We'll take the ACC and national titles again.

Erv Blythe in Blacksburg, Virginia, writes: Thank you for your analysis, Andrea. At least a part of VT's annual good production and worth a word in the debate is the DB coach: Torrian Gray. Since 2006, he is the key player in recruiting the best, and teaching good fundamentals and toughness that the pro teams have come to love in VT defensive backs.

Jason in Harrisonburg, Virginia, writes: I agree with your pick of Virginia Tech having the best secondary. I completely understand the argument for Florida State, and I may have a different opinion after the season. As it stands now, though, I feel that VT has four starters that are proven to be game-changers. I feel like if Facyson didn't miss a few games toward the end of the season and lose time to Kyle Fuller and Exum, he would have given Kendall Fuller competition for Defensive Rookie of the Year. In my opinion, Tech just has more proven talent at the starting positions, so I feel that they need to get the nod at this point in time. FSU's recruiting of freak athletes is enough for me to believe that they are completely capable of being the best, once the season rolls around, but until each of them are thrown into starting roles, it's yet to see how great they can actually be.

Parker Joost in Athens, Georgia, writes: Va. Tech's DBs are the best.

Charles in Bradenton, Florida, writes: FSU or VTech DBs? The depth of the FSU DBs, combined with a ferocious front six (or seven), should allow FSU to have the better unit. Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman, Chris Casher, Nile Lawrence-Stample, Matthew Thomas and Terrance Smith should prove to be the difference for FSU. Jalen Ramsey, Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams all have first-round potential, and Nick Waisome (backup DB) who is a senior, started for the team his sophomore year. If Tyler Hunter can return to form, he also logged significant minutes with Waisome two years ago. True freshman Trey Marshall, who was in for spring, has played well in camp.

Yapo in San Diego writes: As an alum (93), I am impartial to and have a good resource for knowledge about our team, including elite DBs at FSU. No contest, I thought. ... What [category] could VT possibly lead FSU in as the No. 1 underperforming team last year? Then I took a moment to investigate your blog and... what whaaaat? VT has a couple of All-ACC returnees... in-game actual performance vs. potential, but untested. Ah-ha! Makes sense to even pose this question. Nope. I looked at the deets and I am so, so sorry, Hokies. ... The proof will be in the pudding at season's end. (I am a chef, so when I say pudding, it is undeniable.) At the end of the season, I say FSU has more All-ACC DBs than VT.

Michael Winter in Atlantic Beach, Florida, writes: I'm just curious how Virginia Tech can return all four of its starters and lose a first-round draft pick? (Reporter's note: "All" should be deleted from the sentence). It can be debated who is best, but I think Phil Steele is an idiot. We are not going back 10 years. You only go back one year to try to guess who is going to be better. Ten years ago has nothing to do with what is going to happen this year. Phil Steele has proven he's not very bright, in my mind, when he chose (Marcus) Mariota as the best quarterback over (Jameis) Winston. Did he watch them play? Mariota was not good when he was on the stage against Stanford. Mariota says he gets nervous. Winston showed at Clemson that he is made for the big stage. ... Maybe you need educating, too, I don't know. ... Next time Phil Steele hands out B.S., like choosing Mariota over Winston, those two plays alone are enough to make him look silly.

Mitch in Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: It's still FSU. Aside from Ramsey and Nate Andrews, they also have Tyler Hunter, who missed last season with an injury. If Hunter doesn't get hurt last year, Andrews might not have seen the field. He is a physical freak who will be a menace in the same role as Joyner a year ago. Starting corners Darby and Williams are both top-10 DBs in the country, according to Mel Kiper, with a shot to both go in the first-second round.

Mike at Scott AFB, Illinois, writes: Concerning the best DBs in the ACC (and the nation), I'm just a little biased toward FSU, but I can see yours and Mr. Steele's point. VT does have more returning "starts" and does not have a change in defensive coordinators. So from a "preseason" assessment, you definitely have an argument. However, looking individually... Ramsey is going to be a beast... P.J. Williams is being considered one, if not the best in the nation. Darby is the silent killer [and] no QB will truly test him. Andrews will continue to improve on his surprise freshman season. Then there is Hunter, who was on track to dominate before his injury... That is the potential starting nickel package and all five have NFL draft potential. If they can communicate and work as a team, it is hard to argue them being the No. 1 DB unit in the nation! Go Noles!
From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Up today: Linebackers

Best of the best: Clemson

It's easy to see why many believe the Tigers have the best front seven in the ACC. In addition to having the strongest defensive front, they also have the strongest group of linebackers returning to the team. Stephone Anthony had a breakout season a year ago, finishing with 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 802 snaps played. He should be a preseason All-ACC selection. Clemson did lose two starters in Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey, but it returns experienced players at the position. Tony Steward and Ben Boulware will anchor the weak side. Both were ranked among the top linebackers out of high school, and if Steward can stay healthy, he is in line for a big year. At the other spot, Clemson has the option of playing a linebacker or nickelback depending on the alignment. T.J. Burrell and Dorian O'Daniel will be in the mix on the strong side.

Next up: Duke

The Blue Devils return the best linebacker duo in the ACC in David Helton and Kelby Brown, who finished as the top two tacklers in the conference last season. The two combined for 247 tackles a year ago and are back to anchor a group looking to improve both against the run and the pass. Their backups return as well, so there are not many depth concerns here. These two are as dependable as they come. Now, having said that, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Florida State. The Seminoles are losing two key players in Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and will be relying more on a five defensive back alignment, so there are some questions at the position. But this team has the talent to again be the best in the ACC once it gains some experience. As it stands now, Terrance Smith is the only linebacker with consistent playing time. Guys like Matthew Thomas and Reggie Northrup could develop into studs before the season's up.

Sleeper: Syracuse

The Orange return two of the more underrated linebackers in the ACC in Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch, who will be relied upon to anchor a defense with some serious questions on the defensive line. Though middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is gone, Syracuse coaches were pleased with the role Marqez Hodge played as a true freshman behind Spruill a year ago, so he spent a year in training preparing to take over the starting job. Davis and Lynch will be there to help Hodge along. Keep an eye on Louisville here as well. The Cards return hard hitter James Burgess and have moved Lorenzo Mauldin to outside linebacker/rush end. That should pay dividends.

Problem for a contender: Pitt

The Panthers have not gotten consistent linebacker play for years, so this position remains a question mark. Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas return, but the Panthers have little in the way of depth to help them out. Thomas has the potential to be excellent. He had 72 tackles a year ago, but coaches are now hoping for more. Bam Bradley could also have an impact here, but only six lettermen are back from a year ago. There are also questions elsewhere in the conference. Will anybody step up to help out Denzel Perryman at Miami? And will Virginia Tech be just as good at linebacker without Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards?
It is never too early to make predictions, and with the season less than three months away, we are seeking your input on who you think will win some of the ACC's top honors at season's end.

We continue today with defensive rookie of the year.

CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson. The No. 2 cornerback and No. 4 player overall in the Class of 2013, Alexander was forced to redshirt last season after suffering a groin injury in fall camp. The five-star prospect might have been good enough to start from Day 1, but he should get that chance this fall on a defense that might be as good as any in the league. A veteran line up front should only create more opportunities for Alexander to make a name for himself early.

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Who will be the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year?

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Discuss (Total votes: 3,164)

DT Andrew Brown, Virginia. The five-star Chesapeake native was the jewel of Mike London's strong 2014 recruiting class, Brown enrolled this spring and, despite missing most of spring practice because of turf toe, has already picked up preseason All-ACC fourth-team honors from Phil Steele. That goes to show just how high expectations are for the the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Brown, who was named Gatorade's national player of the year, becoming only the third non-quarterback/non-running back to win the 29-year-old award.

S Quin Blanding, Virginia. Blanding was another highly-touted recruit London was able to land in this past cycle, as the Virginia Beach native was a five-star prospect and ESPN's No. 10 overall player from the Class of 2014. Blanding did just about everything in high school, including punting at times. Unlike Brown, Blanding did not enroll early, but he'll have a chance to prove his value early in fall camp.

DT Keith Bryant, Florida State. Another redshirt freshman, Bryant came to Tallahassee as a four-star prospect out of Atlantic Community High in Delray Beach, Florida. ESPN's No. 14 defensive tackle was a member of the scout team last season, but the 6-foot-2, 308-pounder could contend for meaningful playing time this season on a roster that remains loaded with talent.

Others: Florida State linebacker Matthew Thomas technically could contend for this award, given the medical redshirt he received after undergoing shoulder surgery after four games last season. Four-star defensive end Chad Thomas is Miami's highest-rated defensive recruit, and four-star end Kentavius Street could provide an immediate boost to NC State after the Wolfpack's 3-9 campaign last season.
The 2013 signing class has already made its mark on the ACC, from Tyler Boyd and Stacy Coley shining on offense to Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller starring on defense to Ryan Switzer racking up All-America honors on special teams. But for most players, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference -- the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

See our previous projections HERE.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesFlorida State receiver Jesus Wilson (3) could start as a sophomore in 2014.
Next up: Florida State

Class recap: Jimbo Fisher’s lowest-rated class since taking over as head coach (No. 9) still had plenty of impact on the Seminoles’ national title. Ramsey, Nate Andrews and Kermit Whitfield all played significant roles and made some big plays as freshmen, while several others contributed regularly as reserves.

Second-year star: WR Jesus Wilson (5-foot-9, 177 pounds)

Recruiting stock: A four-star recruit out of Miami, Wilson was ranked as the 62nd-best receiver nationally, with his size the primary knock on his game.

2013 in review: Wilson was one of three true freshmen receivers to play for Florida State last season, but his role was minimal. Aside from work on special teams, he caught just three passes all season -- one against Wake Forest and two in an 80-14 blowout of Idaho.

2014 potential: Wilson might not have shown much on Saturdays, but from the time he arrived on campus last summer, teammates raved about his work on the practice field. The transition to game days was complicated by the fact that FSU already had three talented receivers, all of whom topped 900 yards for the season. But Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin are gone, and of the receivers who remain on the roster, only Rashad Greene looks like a sure thing. Florida State does have a trio of highly regarded recruits arriving for the fall, but few positions require more time to adjust than receiver. Only two true freshmen (Boyd and Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell) tallied at least 54 receptions last season (the total both Shaw and Benjamin finished with). Wilson has now been with the program a full year, and his work this spring earned even more praise from coaches. He’s not guaranteed a starting job, but aside from Greene, he may already be the most refined of FSU’s receivers.

Also watch for: The Seminoles just keep reloading, and they have a ton of talented youngsters from the Class of 2013 worth keeping an eye on this season. Linebackers Matthew Thomas and E.J. Levenberry top the list, while Whitfield, defensive tackle Keith Bryant and tailback Ryan Green are among the others who figure to see an increase workload in 2014.

Florida State spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
4/29/14
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Florida State Seminoles:

1. Jalen Ramsey is a star in the making. Last season, Ramsey was overshadowed on his own defense with the likes of Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Telvin Smith demanding the headlines, but Ramsey was only a freshman. As a sophomore, several players point to Ramsey as being the defense’s leader, and he could be the best player on a defense that could have a half-dozen first-round picks in the next few seasons. He will move around to several positions in the secondary this fall.

2. Florida State’s secondary might be the best in the country. While FSU’s talent in the defensive backfield begins with Ramsey it certainly does not end there. P.J. Williams was dominant in the spring game against No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene and is an elite college corner. Opposite him are Ramsey and Ronald Darby, who missed the entire spring. All three could be first-round picks. Nate Andrew is a up-and-coming star and also just a sophomore, and Tyler Hunter returns after a neck injury in 2013.

3. Sean Maguire is a capable backup for the Noles. The disclaimer certainly is that it came against the No. 2 defense in the spring game, but Maguire showed the type of tools to be an efficient quarterback should he be called upon this fall. As the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback for the first time in his college career, Maguire said he made his biggest strides to date this spring.

Three questions for the fall:

1. Will the wide receivers step up? Coach Jimbo Fisher is not leaving spring practice with a great feeling about his receivers. He expressed his frustration in the unit on multiple occasions, and the receivers struggled in the spring game. Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are off to the NFL, and Greene will need some help from the younger receivers. Elite high school talents Ermon Lane, Travis Rudolph and Ja'Von Harrison will enroll in the summer.

2. Can the running backs stay on the field? It was a similar feeling last spring for Fisher as he did not have any healthy running backs for the Garnet and Gold game in 2013 either. Karlos Williams was held for precautionary reasons, but backups Dalvin Cook, Ryan Green and Mario Pender all suffered injuries. Cook and Green are out until fall camp with shoulder injuries, and Pender missed his first two seasons with injury and academic issues.

3. What will the linebacker rotation look like? It will be very interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly pairs his linebackers with a fairly inexperienced group. Terrance Smith is a given as a starter, but who will flank him? Matthew Thomas might be too good to keep off the field, which could leave one remaining spot for a very talented unit.

One way-too-early prediction:

The Noles were an offensive juggernaut in 2013, but the offense will sputter some against quality defenses. The issue at receiver is one that will not be settled in the near future, and it could cost Florida State a game.

FSU spring: What we learned

April, 14, 2014
4/14/14
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Florida State’s spring camp came to a close on Saturday with the annual Garnet and Gold game, and now the Seminoles are prepping for a second straight national title.

The game is secondary compared to the rest of spring practices, so with that in mind, here are some of the biggest answers the 15 spring sessions presented.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher escaped the spring with a healthy roster.
1. FSU will be at full strength this fall.
In early March, Noles coach Jimbo Fisher noted how healthy his team was and how rare it is to have a squad almost entirely intact for spring practice. As the practices mounted, though, so did the injuries. The silver lining is that none of the injuries are expected to linger into preseason camp. Running backs Dalvin Cook and Ryan Green had shoulder surgery but will be 100 percent by around July. Nick O’Leary missed the final half of spring practices with a second motorcycle accident, but he avoided any serious injuries. There were a few concussions in camp, but Terrance Smith, who suffered one of them, was back for the spring game. The lone setback that could impact fall camp is the foot injury Ukeme Eligwe sustained, which Fisher hinted could be the dreaded Lisfranc injury, which has a tendency to persist for quite some time. The thought is he should be fine for August, though.

2. The secondary is among the best in the country.
Quarterback Jameis Winston said after the spring game that “we got the best [defensive] backs in the country.” He should know, having thrown against the unit for much of the spring and the entire Garnet and Gold game. The secondary of P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey, Nick Waisome and Tyler Hunter shut down the No. 1 offense’s passing attack the entire first half, and the unit was without sophomore Nate Andrews. Fisher said throughout the spring that Ramsey is a star-in-the-making and should become a nationally recognized name replacing Lamarcus Joyner. Ramsey showcased his skills by moving around at cornerback, safety and nickel during the game. Fisher and Winston are raving about freshman Trey Marshall, too. Williams is a star in his own right, shutting down No. 1 receiver Rashad Greene.

3. The receivers need to step up.
Speaking of Greene and the receivers, that position is probably the biggest weakness heading into the season. Fisher was upset with the production and consistency his receivers showcased through much of the spring, and the starting unit did not get any separation from the Noles’ secondary. Jesus Wilson has the potential to be a playmaker from the slot, but can he replace Kenny Shaw’s production? Isaiah Jones is 6-foot-4, but his production did not match that of departed 6-foot-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Levonte Whitfield announced himself to the world in the national title game, but he is still needs some refinement as a receiver. The coaches can spend two hours a week breaking down film with players during the offseason, and Fisher said that will be a critical step in Florida State’s development at receiver.

4. The talent is there at linebacker.
The Noles lose beloved figure Telvin Smith and consistent producer Christian Jones, but the depth at linebacker is there so those losses might not be felt all that much. Matthew Thomas is a budding star, and the former five-star recruit will not be kept off the field this fall. Terrance Smith is the leader of the unit and could be a viable replacement for Telvin Smith. Before Eligwe’s injury, Fisher voiced his opinion that Eligwe was having as good of a spring as any player. Reggie Northrup and E.J. Levenberry should each see significant snaps in the rotation, and Ro’Derrick Hoskins could be a dangerous third-down specialist from the position.

5. Sean Maguire is a quality backup for Noles.
Earlier this spring, Winston missed a practice to travel to Clemson with the baseball team, putting the pressure squarely on No. 2 quarterback Maguire to perform at a competent level. Following the practice, the third of the spring, Fisher was lukewarm on Maguire’s performance. But Maguire looked the part of a quality No. 2 option for Florida State during the spring game. The Noles got him in rhythm with three straight passes to the flats to open the game, and then Maguire dropped in a 26-yard touchdown on a post route over the defender. Maguire, a redshirt sophomore, said he made the most progress this spring than he’s ever made at any point in his college career.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- No position on the Florida State roster has taken as many losses as the defensive line over the past two seasons.

Four linemen were drafted a year ago. Another, tackle Timmy Jernigan, is projected to become the second straight Florida State defensive lineman to be drafted in the first round. The last time Florida State had at least five defensive linemen selected in consecutive drafts was 1998-99.

At many programs, losing so many players would be a major cause for concern and, as you'd expect, the defensive line has drawn some of the biggest questions this spring and last. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, however, looks at the situation differently.

Rather than lament potential depth issues, Fisher looks at the pure talent he has available for this upcoming season -- and the versatility they provide. Though only three scholarship defensive ends were available during the spring, two of them were consensus top-10 players at their position out of high school -- Mario Edwards Jr. and Chris Casher.

[+] EnlargeEddie Goldman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State coaches are expecting junior Eddie Goldman to flourish as Timmy Jernigan's replacement at defensive tackle.
Both began learning every position along the line in order to take advantage of their athleticism. Edwards moved around some last season, but expects to do much more of that in 2014, not only to help with depth but to also give Florida State key matchup advantages.

“It’s kind of fun,” Edwards said. “The offense can’t pinpoint where I will be -- right or left side, inside or out. I feel I can go and play any one of the positions the coaches put me in at and be a factor.”

For Edwards, the process of not only becoming a master at his own position, but also learning several others, has meant more time studying the playbook and game tape. That has allowed the former No. 1 high school player in the country to feel even more comfortable with the defense.

The road has not necessarily been smooth for him. He was out of shape as a freshman, and last spring he had to learn an entirely new defensive scheme while following a strict diet and weight program. Edwards ended up starting, but he did not feel comfortable until midway through the season. That is when the results started to show.

Now that more of the pressure is on him to perform, Edwards says he is ready to dominate.

“I’d like to think this is a big year for me,” Edwards said. “I watched film of last year but not only was I looking at the good things I did, I looked at how many plays I left out there, just because I wasn’t aligned right, I wasn’t doing my job, I may have forgotten what I was supposed to do. I felt like I left tons of plays out there I could have made. This year, it’s reacting more than thinking.”

To help at end, Florida State might end up using linebackers Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe, whom Fisher called “dynamic rushers.” He did something similar with Christian Jones a year ago, and Jones thrived in that role.

Tackle Eddie Goldman, slated to replace Jernigan inside, was a five-star defensive tackle out of high school. Fisher said Goldman will end up being one of the team’s spring award winners because he has made such drastic improvement. Though not as powerful as Jernigan, Goldman is more athletic and a more natural pass rusher.

“Him and Mario -- it’s hard to handle them one-on-one,” Fisher said. “Eddie, his upside is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous how good he can be.”

Will he meet that potential this year?

“The way he’s playing right now? No doubt,” Fisher said.

Fisher also will play some of his true freshmen, the way he has done with guys such as Edwards, Jernigan and Casher. The Seminoles loaded up on the defensive line to make up for the heavy losses they have taken recently. Four of the seven players Florida State signed were rated four-star prospects out of high school. Two incoming ends -- Lorenzo Featherston and Rick Leonard -- are both 6-foot-7. They will not be tied exclusively to end, either.

“We like that hybrid guy, the versatility,” Fisher said. “You can go 3-4, 4-3, and create a matchup where they get locked on a back, where a back has to block them, that kind of stuff.”

Florida State took advantage of the versatility it had last season to great success. Despite more personnel losses, Fisher expects more of the same in 2014.

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