We're continuing our look at the best position groups in the ACC by debating the league's elite linebacking corps. David Hale and Jared Shanker have differing opinions on the conference's best group.
Hale says Wake Forest: Believe it or not, only two Power 5 teams return a pair of linebackers who compiled at least 100 tackles last year -- Missouri and Wake Forest.
It flew largely beneath the radar because the Demon Deacons' offense was so bad, but the defense was quite good, and linebackers Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee were a big reason why. The duo combined for 210 tackles, including 18.5 for a loss, and racked up seven sacks. Chubb has entered the season as a consensus All-ACC player, and Lee might be the league's most overlooked performer. Only Virginia's Max Valles and Henry Coley -- both now in the NFL -- had more TFLs among ACC linebackers last year than Lee's 12.
Wake's defense actually ranked 36th nationally in yards-per-play allowed, and with the exception of a late-season debacle against NC State, it allowed opponents just 4.0 yards per rush -- effectively the same success at national champ Ohio State.
And while most of Wake's stats aren't enough to wow anyone, it's also important to remember just how bad the Deacons' offense was. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Wake's EPA (expected points added) was a national-worst minus-196 points. In other words, the offense cost Wake about 16 points per game -- and yet the Deacons only lost four games by more than that amount thanks to a defense that played consistently well throughout.
At the center of that unit were Chubb, Lee and Hunter Williams -- if not the ACC's best group of linebackers, then certainly its most under-appreciated.
Shanker says Louisville: Agreed, David. Wake Forest's linebackers are not the ACC's best but the most under-appreciated group.
The distinction of the ACC's top group should belong to Louisville, which has its own stars at the position in James Burgess and Keith Kelsey. They might have racked up 100 tackles if they faced another 66 rushing plays, which would equal Wake Forest's defensive total (501).
The two combined for 158 tackles and had nine sacks to Chubb and Lee's seven. They added 17 tackles for a loss, too.
The senior Burgess, a preseason All-ACC selection, is already a star and one of the conference's best linebackers. Not only is he a factor as a pass-rusher and in the running game, but he led all ACC linebackers with three interceptions, one of which came against Jameis Winston.
Kelsey is a junior but could end up being the best player on the Cardinals' defense in 2015. Last season was his first year as a starter and he finished second on the team with 87 tackles and third with six sacks. Those six sacks were also good for third in the ACC among linebackers. In the preseason All-ACC voting, Kelsey finished fifth.
With Kelsey and Burgess commanding the interior linebacker positions in Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, it leaves the two outside linebacker posts. Entering the fold is Devonte Fields, a former Big 12 defensive player of the year and junior college transfer who was dismissed from TCU. In 2012, he had 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.
Assuming Fields lands a starting role, opposite him will be fellow junior college transfer Trevon Young or Keith Brown. Both could be poised to emerge as pass-rushing options with so much attention focused on Burgess, Fields and Kelsey. Brown, a senior, was a high school and freshman All-American but has not built upon that success. Young was a standout in junior college, registering 13.5 sacks in his lone season at Iowa Western Community College.
So the talent is there and it has the numbers to back them up. Louisville's group has the ability to dominate offenses in all facets, which separates the Cardinals from the rest of the ACC.