The ACC should have some elite defensive lines this season, so picking the top unit was no easy task. Virginia Tech, Louisville and Georgia Tech return the majority of their starters. Despite being completely retooled, Clemson has a chance to be strong up front again. So does Virginia, a team that made big strides on defense a year ago and finally has a healthy Andrew Brown inside.
In the end, Matt Fortuna and Andrea Adelson settled on two teams with the potential to field the best group in the trenches.
Matt says Virginia Tech: Sometimes these things stand on their own in arguments. And with apologies to Louisville, Georgia Tech and several other strong defensive lines in the ACC this season, that is the case with Virginia Tech -- kind of like debating Ohio State's quarterback depth against anyone else's in the nation.
First there are two preseason All-ACC players from the Hokies, which is more than anyone else in the league. At end, Dadi Nicolas is a reigning all-league pick who is coming off a season in which he had 18.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, a ridiculous 35 quarterback hurries and, just for good measure, one fumble recovery and two blocked kicks.
Beside him, there is Luther Maddy, who missed nine games last season because of a meniscus tear but, when healthy, looks lethal, having totaled 13.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries during a 2013 season that saw him earn third-team All-ACC recognition.
There is also Corey Marshall inside, and all he did last season was total 9.5 tackles for loss (2.5 sacks) and an interception en route to second-team All-ACC honors. Also on the outside there is Ken Ekanem, who tied Nicolas in sacks (nine) and finished with 14.5 tackles for loss en route to third-team All-ACC honors.
Need we keep going? Nigel Williams inside finished with 9.5 tackles for loss (4.5 sacks) last season as an honorable mention All-ACC performer. Woody Baron showed flashes inside in limited action. On and on it goes for the Hokies, who showed all that they were capable of defensively early on last season in winning at Ohio State, a victory that included contributions from Maddy. Virginia Tech finished first nationally in sack percentage (11.1 percent), fourth in total sacks (48), and sixth in opponents' adjusted QBR (23.9).
Moreover, these are all upperclassmen who have answered the bell before, who have an experienced unit playing behind them and who will only get better with another year of tutelage under position coach Charley Wiles and coordinator Bud Foster.
That should make for a frightening situation for offensive lines throughout the ACC this fall. And maybe even for Ohio State again.
Andrea says Louisville: Virginia Tech is going to be scary good on the defensive line. I'm not going to argue that point. But Louisville should not be overlooked, not with the talent and depth it has returning. Perhaps that is the key separator, at least going into the season. On paper, the Cards have more depth up front and the ability to use pass-rushing outside linebackers (ahem Devonte Fields) to help get pressure on the quarterback.
Sheldon Rankins is biggest name in the group, having flourished in his first year under Todd Grantham. Rankins led the team with eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, and made the preseason All-ACC team. Grantham told me in the spring he believes Rankins can have an All-American type season, given the way he progressed last year.
Joining Rankins up front are DeAngelo Brown and Pio Vatuvei. Both have starting experience, and both are big and strong complements to Rankins. Indeed, Louisville’s starting trio on the line averages just a hair above 300 pounds, but all three can move well for their size. Vatuvei, who missed a few games with an injury last season, had a standout spring and hopes are high for him as well.
In addition to the starters, Louisville returns reserves Johnny Richardson and Kyle Shortridge -- both played last season. And the Cards added junior college transfer Drew Bailey, who was in for spring and turned heads. Coach Bobby Petrino also said during ACC Kickoff that promising true freshman G.G. Robinson is expected to play right away as a reserve tackle.
Louisville should be able to go two-deep on its line without any issues. It also should be noted Louisville ranked No. 2 in the ACC in run defense (103.4 ypg) and total defense (309.5 ypg) a year ago -- and returns the strength of its defense.
Bottom line: the Cards have the experience, talent and depth to be the best unit in the ACC.