ACC: Vic Beasley

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April, 9, 2014
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What a year for UConn hoops.
A week ago, Jameis Winston skipped a day of spring practice and headed to Clemson with Florida State’s baseball team, leaving the Seminoles football squad with Sean Maguire running the first-team offense in what was part practice session, part disaster drill.

As our Florida State beat writer Jared Shanker wrote afterward, as adept as Maguire might be, the Seminoles simply don’t have a solid Plan B if Winston went down. How could they? Heisman Trophy winners don't grow on trees, and Winston is, without question, the most irreplaceable player in the ACC -- and perhaps in all of college football.

While the Heisman winner sets the bar, however, Florida State is hardly the only program that would be declaring a state of emergency if its star went down with an injury. With that in mind, these are the next five most indispensable players in the ACC.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsDuke's Jamison Crowder had seven 100-yard receiving games last season.
Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke

Duke shocked the college football world last season by winning the ACC Coastal Division and nearly knocking off Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl behind one of the conference’s most explosive offenses, and no one was more integral to that success than Crowder.

The rising senior was targeted a whopping 174 times last year, meaning he was on the receiving end of nearly 40 percent of all of the Blue Devils’ passing plays. His 108 catches were more than triple the number hauled in by any other returning receiver on Duke’s roster, and combined with his role as Duke’s top punt returner Crowder finished with 1,832 all-purpose yards for the season -- fourth most in the ACC.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

Johnson was Miami’s best playmaker as a sophomore in 2013, and after he went down with an ankle injury against eventual national champion Florida State on Nov. 2 (having racked up 97 rushing yards in the first three quarters), the Hurricanes’ offense simply wasn’t the same. In the first seven games of the year with a healthy Johnson, Miami was 7-0 and averaged 5.6 yards per carry as a team. In the five full games without Johnson to end the year, the Hurricanes limped to a 2-3 finish, averaging just 3.5 yards per rush, culminating with an ugly 28 carries for 14 yards in the bowl game against Louisville. Johnson is out for spring practice as he continues to rehab his ankle, but he’ll likely shoulder an even bigger burden offensively this fall with a new QB taking over the offense and last year's backup, Dallas Crawford, moving to safety.

Lorenzo Mauldin, OLB, Louisville

If nothing else, Louisville’s new defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, will know just how tough things can be without Mauldin by the time the spring is done. Mauldin, one of just two returning starters in the Cardinals’ front seven, is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, but he remains an integral part of Grantham’s new 3-4 scheme. Mauldin started all 13 games for Louisville last season, finishing with 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, but he’ll move from defensive end to outside linebacker this year. If all goes well, he could develop into one of the league’s top pass rushers. If the injury lingers or Mauldin can’t play catch-up in Grantham’s system during fall camp, however, Louisville’s revamped defensive front could be in for a long season.

Shaq Mason, OG, Georgia Tech

For Georgia Tech, the most crucial cog is probably Paul Johnson’s triple option system, and that certainly won’t change this year. But the rest of the offense? There’s going to be a major overhaul in 2014. Gone are three of Tech’s starting linemen, its two leading rushers and its starting quarterback (the latter trio accounting for 60 percent of the Yellow Jackets’ rushing attempts in 2013). Still, the Tech running game has found success year after year because Johnson has continued to have linemen get the job done, and Mason is one of the best he has had on the Flats. A first-team All-ACC performer last year, Mason has 26 starts under his belt -- seven more than the rest of the Jackets’ linemen combined — and was the conference’s lineman of the week in each of Tech’s biggest wins in 2013 (Duke and UNC).

Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson

In the past two years, Clemson has lost just two ACC games -- both to Florida State, and both keeping the Tigers from playing for a conference title. In those two games, Beasley -- the team’s leader in sacks each season -- combined for just two tackles and no sacks. As Clemson looks ahead to a 2014 season without its signature offensive stars in Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and its two starting cornerbacks, the focus is squarely on a defensive line that returns four starters, including Beasley, an All-American. If the Tigers are going to compete with FSU for the Atlantic Division crown, it likely means Beasley not only has to be healthy but also productive, including far more effective against the Seminoles’ veteran offensive line.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Clemson

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Louisville

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Syracuse

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
Florida State has had one of the best defensive fronts in the nation in the last two seasons, but the Seminoles will have a major challenger to that claim when 2014 rolls around.

Division rival Clemson has the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in school history, thanks to returning all of its starters -- including sack master Vic Beasley. So that leads us to this question: Which team will have the best defensive front in the ACC this upcoming season? Andrea Adelson and David Hale let the debate begin.

SportsNation

Which team will have the best defensive line in the ACC in 2014?

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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,741)

Andrea says Clemson

The moment Beasley decided to return to Clemson was the moment the Tigers became the favorite to field the best defensive line in the ACC next season.

Now, this is not to slight Florida State, which has dominated up front over the last two seasons. But the Seminoles have key players to replace again. Clemson, on the other hand, returns every starter on the defensive line, plus its top four backups. All told, eight linemen return who played at least 292 snaps a year ago.

Those top eight combined for 65 tackles for loss -- more than half the single-season school-record 122 tackles for loss Clemson had in 2013. They also combined for 26 of the team’s 38 sacks.

Beasley, of course, leads the returning group after making 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a season ago, one of the top performances of any defensive end in the country. Had he decided to leave for the NFL, Clemson would have still had plenty of talent returning.

But with him, the Tigers could potentially have the deepest, most talented group of defensive linemen at the school since the 1981 national championship team featured future NFL players Jeff Bryant, William Perry, Andy Headen and Dan Benish in the starting lineup.

Clemson could potentially go 10 deep along the defensive line, especially when you consider the return of Carlos Watkins, expected to be healthy after missing most of last season following a car accident. That means the Tigers have the ability to rotate frequently and keep players fresh, perhaps more than they did last season.

Fresh players mean fresh legs, and fresh legs mean getting into the backfield at a much better clip. Last season, Beasley, starting tackle Grady Jarrett (11), starting end Corey Crawford (10.5) and backup end Shaq Lawson each finished with 10 or more tackles for loss. Now think about some of the best defensive fronts in college football. Florida State has zero defensive linemen returning with double-digit tackles for loss. Alabama? Zero. LSU? Zero. Stanford? Zero. Virginia Tech? One. Michigan State? One. Ohio State? Two.

Clemson leads them all.

Such an experienced group, with the ability to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback, should only get better with another year under Brent Venables, who is entering his third season as defensive coordinator. As Beasley told colleague Heather Dinich after he announced his decision to return, “I feel like we can be the best in the country.”

And, yes, that means the defense could emerge as the strength of this team.

David says Florida State

The track record for Florida State’s defensive front speaks for itself. During the past three seasons, only Alabama has had more success defending the run than Florida State, which has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2011 season. Those Seminoles teams sent eight players from the front seven to the NFL -- and that number figures to increase by at least four this year -- yet the unit has seen little decline in production. With new personnel, a new scheme and new coaches last season, FSU’s first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until the national championship game.

Of course, that’s all in the past, and 2014 comes with some significant questions for Florida State.

Throughout the three-year run of success for the FSU front seven, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan have been anchors. All are gone now, and that means some significant vacancies on the defensive front, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field leadership. It means there will be questions surrounding the unit for the next few months, but it doesn’t mean the Seminoles don’t have answers.

Of the projected two-deep in the front seven, FSU projects to feature as many as 12 former ESPN 300 recruits. The talent is exceptional.

Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both top-10 recruits in 2012, and both have two years of experience under their belts. Edwards, in particular, took big steps forward throughout 2013, turning in perhaps his best game against Auburn’s up-tempo ground attack in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

The linebacker group lacks significant experience, but Terrance Smith is a physical clone of Telvin Smith, and he performed admirably after stepping into a starting role last season. Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe are both former elite recruits who project nicely in the hybrid role Jones handled so successfully in 2013.

Kain Daub, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi lead a stellar 2014 recruiting class that could make an instant impact.

That’s not to say Florida State is prepared to move forward without Jernigan’s presence up front or Telvin Smith’s leadership in the middle of the field without missing a beat. There will be hiccups as the new group gets its feet wet and Edwards and Goldman learn to be leaders. But similar concerns existed a year ago when Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine bolted for the NFL, and after some early missteps, Florida State again proved to be one of the fiercest defensive fronts in the country.

And, of course, the Seminoles have another weapon in this debate, too. No position group succeeds in a vacuum, and FSU’s front seven gets a major boost from a secondary that projects to again be the best in the nation. If the Seminoles’ defensive backs continue to make teams one-dimensional and continue to provide time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, the odds of FSU’s front seven making a smooth transition into 2014 get even better.
Some are can't-miss prospects, such as Jameis Winston. The Florida State quarterback was ESPN's No. 1 QB in the Class of 2012, won the Heisman Trophy in his first season as the Seminoles' starter and added a national championship to cap his redshirt freshman year.

Others are not so easy to find.

Andre Williams, who finished three spots behind Winston in the 2013 Heisman Trophy voting, was a two-star prospect in the Class of 2010. All the Boston College running back did this past fall was tally the fifth-highest rushing total in FBS history (2,177 yards).

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Andre Williams
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesAndre Williams and Jameis Winston came from opposite ends of the recruiting spectrum.
With national signing day coming Wednesday, we figured this is a good time to revisit where our All-ACC players stood when they signed with their schools. The results, as usual, offer some surprises.

Just one ESPN.com All-ACC player from this past season entered college as a five-star prospect. Williams was one of two two-star prospects. There were 11 four-star prospects and eight three-star prospects. Two players, both of whom are from the high school Class of 2009, don't have star ratings, as ESPN didn't start using star ratings until 2010. Kickers and punters have no ratings, rankings or grades.

(All rankings and information are from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.)

Offense

  • QB Jameis Winston, Florida State via Hueytown (Ala.) High: Four stars, No. 14 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 84
  • RB: Andre Williams, Boston College via Allentown (Pa.) Parkland High: Two stars, No. 152 RB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 73
  • RB: Devonta Freeman, Florida State via Miami Central High: Four stars, No. 15 RB, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 80
  • WR: Sammy Watkins, Clemson via South Fort Myers (Fla.) High: Four stars, No. 39 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 82
  • WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State via Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Saint Thomas Aquinas High: Four stars, No. 125 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 80
  • WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke via Monroe (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 65 WR, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Eric Ebron, North Carolina via Greensboro (N.C.) Smith High: Four stars, No. 8 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 80
  • T: Cameron Erving, Florida State via Colquitt County (Ga.) High: Three stars, No. 83 DT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 76
  • T: Brandon Thomas, Clemson via Dorman (S.C.) High: No. 60 OG, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76*
  • G: Laken Tomlinson, Duke via Chicago Lane Tech High: Three stars, No. 65 OG, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 75
  • G: Tre’ Jackson, Florida State via Wayne County (Ga.) High: Three stars, No. 50 DT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
  • C: Bryan Stork, Florida State via Vero Beach (Fla.) High: No. 45 TE, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76*
Defense

  • DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson via Adairsville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 19 ATH, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 80
  • DE: Kareem Martin, North Carolina via Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 59 DE, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 80
  • DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt via Pittsburgh Penn Hills High: Four stars, No. 22 DT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • DT: Timmy Jernigan, Florida State via Lake City (Fla.) Columbia High: Four stars, No. 17 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 84
  • LB: Telvin Smith, Florida State via Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes High: Four stars, No. 107 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Kelby Brown, Duke via Charlotte (N.C.) Christian High: Three stars, No. 88 OLB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 75
  • LB: Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College via Stamford (Conn.) The King & Low Heywood Thomas School: Four stars, No. 20 OLB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • CB: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State via Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Saint Thomas Aquinas High: Five stars, No. 6 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 87
  • CB: Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech via Baltimore Mount St. Joseph High: Three stars, No. 43 CB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Terrence Brooks, Florida State via Dunnellon (Fla.) High: Three stars, No. 21 CB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 70
  • S: Anthony Harris, Virginia via Cheesterfield (Va.) Lloyd C. Bird High: Two stars, No. 203 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 72
Special Teams

  • K: Nate Freese, Boston College via Strongsville (Ohio) High: Class of 2009
  • P: Pat O’Donnell, Miami via Palm Beach (Fla.) Central High: Class of 2009
  • SP: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina via Charleston (W.Va.) George Washington High: Four stars, No. 59 WR, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 80
No. 6 Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson

Previous ranking: NR

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson defensive end Vic Beasley had 13 sacks in 2013.
Making the case for Beasley: His numbers make the case for him. Beasley, whose decision to return to school for his senior season was a huge boost to the program, led the ACC in sacks with 13 and finished second in tackles for loss with 23. His sacks-per-game were third-best in the nation and his tackles for loss per game ranked second. He led the nation in tackles for loss per game against teams that finished the season with a winning record (19 in eight games). He was also 10th in the nation with four caused fumbles.

Beasley had a strong game against Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl with four tackles for loss and a sack, and was a big reason the Tigers defeated the Buckeyes, 40-35. It was the most tackles for loss in a bowl game for a Clemson player and tied for the third-most tackles for loss in any BCS Bowl game dating to 1999.

Beasley was also a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given to the top defensive end in college football, and was a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award and the Lombardi Award.

Beasley achieved all this in his first year as a starter. He played just 304 snaps over his first two seasons. Beasley has 21 career sacks and needs just eight in 2014 to break the school record of 28 held by Michael Dean Perry and Gaines Adams.

The countdown

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January, 20, 2014
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Taking time to recognize MLK Day ...

Q&A: Clemson DE Vic Beasley

January, 17, 2014
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The return of Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley to the program for his senior season instead of leaving early for the NFL was a huge boost to the Tigers. Beasley was projected to be an early second-round pick, but the importance of being the first person in his family to earn a college degree weighed heavily into his decision. Right now, Beasley is 25 credit hours away from graduating, and he’ll need only 10 more at the end of this semester. If he would have left now, Beasley would still have nine courses he’d have to finish. His decision gave him the time he’ll need, and an opportunity to increase his draft stock next year. I caught up with Beasley Friday afternoon to get his take on his decision and the defense. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

The biggest question is why did you make the decision you did?

Vic Beasley: I just wanted to maximize my opportunity as a player. I knew that I could get better and I also wanted to finish school.

What are you getting your degree in?

VB: Sociology.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIDE Vic Beasley bypassed the NFL draft this year to return to Clemson to get his degree and improve his draft stock.
What took you so long to make your decision? What was the most difficult part of it?

VB: I want to play in the NFL, it’s always been a dream. It’s kind of tough to turn down the opportunity to go in the first round. But I looked at the big picture, seeing I could get my degree and also have the possibility of improving my draft stock.

What was your projection? I thought it was second round, but you just said first round?

VB: It was second round, but I felt like I had the intangibles and ability to go in the first round.

What were people telling you? Who was in your ear?

VB: Coach [Dabo Swinney] wanted me to come back because he felt like that was best for me. I just had people telling me do what’s best for me. It’s just tough deciding which way to go.

What are your thoughts on how good the defensive line can be this year?

VB: I feel like we can be the best in the country, returning all of our starters.

Is it unusual having the defense be the strength of the team while the offense figures some questions out?

VB: It’s kind of different. A lot of people would probably never expect the Clemson defense to be the strength of the team. I feel like we’re the strength of the team now, and everybody is depending on us.

And you’re obviously one of the leaders on the whole roster. What’s that role like for you?

VB: I feel like I’m a leader, but I feel like our whole D-line is leaders. With us all being seniors next year, we’re all going to be in the media spotlight probably. We’ll have to live up to the hype and what the coaches will expect out of us.

What do you think as a team you guys are capable of, considering how much you do have to replace on offense?

VB: I feel like we can be as good as we want to be. The defense is going to be as good as anybody in the country. Offensively, we have some unanswered questions.
This is going to take a little getting used to.

In 2014, Clemson’s defense is going to be the strength of the team. It's not Sammy Watkins. Not Tajh Boyd. Not Martavis Bryant. All household names who have to be replaced next season in the Tigers’ starting lineup.

[+] EnlargeBrent Venables
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson DC Brent Venables will have the benefit of seven returning starters on defense.
Welcome back, Vic Beasley.

Beasley’s decision on Wednesday to return for his senior season instead of leaving early for the NFL draft gives Clemson seven returning starters on defense, including all four starters up front on what should be one of the best defensive lines in the country. For years, Clemson’s offense has driven the program while the defense has been the much-maligned and often criticized group.

Expect that to change, starting this spring when a veteran defense takes the field well ahead of a rebuilding offense that will return just five starters. With Watkins and Bryant leaving early for the NFL draft, Clemson finally scored a victory when Beasley -- a projected second-round draft pick at defensive end -- decided to stay.

Clemson’s defense made significant strides this past season, its second under coordinator Brent Venables, and 2014 should be even better. It all starts up front with Beasley, who led the ACC in sacks with 13, finished second in tackles for loss with 23 and had four forced fumbles -- all in his first season as a full-time starter. He played just 304 snaps over his first two seasons but enters his final season with 21 career sacks and is just eight shy of breaking the school record of 28 held by Michael Dean Perry and Gaines Adams.

It’s not just Beasley, though, who will make Clemson’s defense so strong this fall. The defensive line is a deep and talented group that also includes senior Corey Crawford at the other end position and returning starter Grady Jarrett, a defensive tackle who will be a redshirt senior. Three other players -- Josh Watson, D.J. Reader and DeShawn Williams -- rotated at the other tackle spot and will all return. In addition, two players who redshirted last season because of injuries -- defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and defensive end Kevin Dodd -- will also return.

And don’t forget about Shaq Lawson, who had 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2013 as Beasley’s backup.

Meanwhile, Clemson's offense has to replace its starting quarterback, its leading receiver and its top running back.

The good news?

It doesn’t have to replace Beasley, too.

Clemson’s defense has finally overshadowed its offense. Get used to it.

Clemson DE Vic Beasley to return

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
8:20
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Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley will return for his senior season, the school announced on Wednesday, the final day for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft.

Beasley, projected to be a second-round pick by the NFL draft’s advisory board, was one of the last big names in the ACC to make his decision. He is rated No. 3 at his position and 36 overall by ESPN.com’s Scouts Inc.

In his first season as a starter, Beasley led the ACC in sacks with 13 and finished second in tackles for loss with 23. His sacks per game was third best in the nation and his tackles for loss per game ranked second. He led the nation in tackles for loss per game against teams that finished the season with a winning record (19 in eight games). He was also 10th in the nation with four forced fumbles.

To continue reading this story, click here.

ACC's lunchtime links

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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Tick-tock goes the draft clock ...

Season wrap: Clemson

January, 15, 2014
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This was predicted by many to be the year of the Tigers, as Clemson had the standout offensive trio of quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins and coordinator Chad Morris. Together, along with a much-improved defense, the Tigers looked like a national title contender, especially after a season-opening win over No. 5 Georgia and a 6-0 start. That all changed after a humbling 51-14 home loss to Florida State. Clemson’s only two losses were to top-10 teams, but considering how the Tigers lost -- convincingly to FSU and downright ugly to rival South Carolina -- they were fortunate to still qualify for a BCS bowl. Clemson earned some redemption, though, with a 40-35 win over Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl.

Offensive MVP: WR Sammy Watkins. He finished the year with 101 receptions for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. He broke Aaron Kelly’s school record for receptions in a season (88 in 2007) and the record for receiving yards (DeAndre Hopkins: 1,405 in 2012). He finished his career ranked second in ACC history in receptions and third in reception yardage. He is tied for second in 100-yard receiving games with 15. He finished his career with 5,129 all-purpose yards, second in Clemson history.

Defensive MVP: Vic Beasley. He was named the team’s defensive MVP and ranked in the top three in the nation in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (23). Beasley was named a consensus first-team All-American. He finished the season with 44 tackles and had six pass breakups.

Best moment: Winning the Orange Bowl. Considering Clemson’s lopsided loss to West Virginia the last time it was in the Orange Bowl, the win over Ohio State gave the program some much-needed redemption. Clemson became the only team in the nation to beat a top-10 team in its bowl game in each of the past two years.

Worst moment: Losing at home to FSU. Some will argue that the loss to South Carolina was worse, but it was the loss to the Noles that derailed Clemson’s hopes of winning the ACC and the national title. With the loss, Clemson immediately took a backseat to the Noles in the Atlantic Division race (again). Not only that, but Jameis Winston completely outplayed Tajh Boyd on his home turf, and Clemson looked utterly disjointed in the loss. The Tigers came unraveled when they had it all in their hands.

ACC's lunch links

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
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Welcome to the 2014 season ...

ACC all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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Bowl season was kind to the ACC in a few games (Florida State and Clemson won BCS games), not-so-kind in a few others (Miami, Virginia Tech, we're looking at you) and at least one was a little of both (can we get Texas A&M and Duke every year?). But now that it's all over, we're honoring the best individual performances in the ACC with our all-bowl team.

OFFENSE

QB: Tajh Boyd, Clemson: The big stage hadn't been kind to Boyd through most of 2013, but on the first day of 2014, he was exceptional. Boyd accounted for 505 yards and six touchdowns in a Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, giving the ACC two BCS bowl game victors.

RB: James Conner, Pittsburgh: The freshman tailback carried 26 times against Bowling Green, blowing past Tony Dorsett for the Pitt bowl game record with 229 yards on the ground. For good measure, Conner chipped in on the defensive line for a few snaps, too.

RB: Devonta Freeman, Florida State: It wasn't the most spectacular performance of bowl season -- Freeman wasn't even the best running back on the field in the BCS title game -- but his hard running early kept FSU from falling too far behind, and his final tally -- 11 carries for 73 yards and a TD -- helped Freeman become the first FSU running back since Warrick Dunn to top 1,000 yards on the season.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesOhio State wasn't able to catch Sammy Watkins, as the Clemson WR set multiple Orange Bowl receiving records.
WR: Sammy Watkins, Clemson: Watkins made his last game in a Clemson uniform one to remember, catching an Orange Bowl record 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns despite battling an injury for half the game.

WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke: Ho-hum, another 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown for Crowder, who turned in one last stellar performance to cap an exceptional season for the Blue Devils.

WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State: The Seminoles' dramatic comeback against Auburn in the BCS championship game wouldn't have been possible without Greene's big day. He was the only FSU receiver with positive yardage in the first half of the game, and his 49-yard reception -- he dodged two tacklers and picked up most of that yardage after the catch -- was the key play on FSU's dramatic last-minute, game-winning drive.

TE: Braxton Deaver, Duke: The junior had six catches for 116 yards, including three grabs that went for 25 yards or more and five that went for first downs.

OL: Dorian Johnson, Pitt: The Panthers simply overwhelmed Bowling Green's defensive front in the Little Caesars Bowl, racking up 487 yards of offense, including 255 on the ground. (Ed. note: We mistakenly included Matt Rotherham here in an initial post. Johnson slid from tackle to guard for the game, replacing Rotherham, and the Pitt line didn't miss a beat. We apologize for the error.)

OL: Jon Heck, North Carolina: Cincinnati entered the Belk Bowl second in the AAC in sacks with 35, but the Bearcats couldn't get to UNC QB Marquise Williams, as the Tar Heels' offense racked up 39 points -- the second-most Cincinnati gave up all season.

OL: Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The Blue Devils racked up 661 yards of total offense and 29 first downs against Texas A&M, with the offensive line -- led by Tomlinson -- paving the way for a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher.

OL: Tre' Jackson, Florida State: Yes, the Seminoles' line allowed four sacks in the game, but Jackson and Co. also helped FSU run for more yards per carry (4.8) than the vaunted Auburn ground game and provided Jameis Winston with plenty of time to throw on a dramatic game-winning drive in the final minute.

C: Macky MacPherson, Syracuse: The Orange rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:14 left, to knock off Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. The physically dominant performance on the line was a fitting conclusion to MacPherson's Syracuse career.

DEFENSE

DE: Mario Edwards Jr., FSU: Edwards had one sack and three tackles for loss among his six total tackles for a Seminoles front that turned it up a notch in the second half, allowing the offense to catch up and ultimately escape with the win.

DT: Andre Monroe, Maryland: The Terrapins' finale as an ACC member ended on a sour note with a 31-20 loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Monroe tied for a game-high with 10 total tackles, three of which went for a loss, one of which was a sack. Monroe added a quarterback hurry as well.

DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt: With one more game to go in a historic season, Donald did not disappoint. The senior closed out his career with two tackles for loss, including one sack, to go with a pass break-up in the Panthers' 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over Bowling Green. Donald's sack came on second down of the Falcons' final drive, all but sealing the win.

DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley was part of a Tigers front that made life extremely difficult for Braxton Miller and the rest of the Ohio State backfield. Beasley recorded four tackles for loss and a sack among his five total tackles, and in the end Clemson's defense proved to be the difference in a shootout win.

LB: Norkeithus Otis, UNC: The Tar Heels capped their strong second half with a bang, routing Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to make them 6-1 over their last seven games. Otis tallied seven total tackles -- two for loss and one sack among them -- to go with two quarterback hurries.

LB: Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech: UCLA proved to be too much for the Hokies in a 42-12 win in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but Tyler played well, totaling seven tackles, including half of a sack, to go with one pass break-up and one quarterback hurry.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
AP Photo/Gregory BullP.J. Williams' interception was the big break Florida State needed to create in its come-from-behind victory over Auburn in the BCS title game.
LB: Cameron Lynch, Syracuse: The Orange finished a successful first season in the ACC by topping Minnesota 21-17 in the Texas Bowl. Lynch, a junior, tied for a team-high with eight stops, with most of his big plays coming behind the line of scrimmage. He had two tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble to help Syracuse go 7-4 after an 0-2 start in coach Scott Shafer's first year.

DB: P.J. Williams, FSU: The defensive MVP from the Vizio BCS National Championship came up huge when it mattered most, picking off Auburn's Nick Marshall early in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that cut the Tigers' lead to one. Williams finished with seven total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.

DB: Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech: Thomas ended his college career with a bang, totaling a game-high 15 tackles. Three of those stops were behind the line of scrimmage, including one sack.

DB: D.J. White, GT: The Yellow Jackets get two more years of White, a future that looked all the brighter in the 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. White finished with 13 total tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three pass break-ups.

DB: Bryce Jones, Boston College: The Eagles' turnaround campaign under Steve Addazio ended on a down note, falling to Arizona 42-19 in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but Jones was a bright spot, with the sophomore notching a team-high 12 tackles, including one for loss.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Chris Blewitt, Pitt: Blewitt went 3-for-4 for the Panthers in Detroit, connecting from 25, 28 and, most important, 39 yards with the game-winning kick with 1:17 left in Pitt's 30-27 win.

P: Tommy Hibbard, UNC: Hibbard was phenomenal for the Tar Heels, punting four times for an average of 44.2 yards per boot. He pinned Cincinnati inside its own 20 three different times, and he had a long of 59 yards in the win.

KR: Levonte Whitfield, FSU: At the time, Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown seemed as if it would go down as one of the greatest returns in BCS championship game history. The touchdown gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play -- but the lead would change twice more before it was over. Whitfield finished the game with 172 return yards.

PR: Ryan Switzer, UNC: The Tar Heels had a huge day on special teams in a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati, with Switzer -- an All-American -- leading the way, returning his fifth punt of the season for a touchdown.

ACC underclassmen watch

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
11:00
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The deadline to declare for the NFL draft is one week from today. Let us take a quick look at who has already announced their intentions, and who is still mulling over their decision.

Turning pro

Also, a source told ESPN's Joe Schad that Florida State running back James Wilder Jr. will enter for the draft. Of these players who have already declared, only Watkins and Ebron are listed on the latest Mel Kiper Big Board. Watkins and Ebron are near locks to go early in the draft. But the prospects are less certain for the others who have already declared.

Still waiting on

Jernigan, Benjamin and Beasley are all listed on the Kiper Big Board. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Tuesday at his post-championship news conference he expects only a few players to leave early for the draft.

Also of note, Virginia Tech safety Kyshoen Jarrett announced on Twitter that he will return to school for his senior season.

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