ACC: Vince Hall
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It wasn't until his junior and senior year in high school that Virginia Tech linebacker Jake Johnson started paying close attention to college football and became aware of the Hokies' nationally known tradition of dominant defenses.
Now, as a sophomore with the opportunity to start for Virginia Tech this fall, Johnson is working to uphold that standard and he's been in the film room watching the players he wants to emulate -- former Hokies like Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi.
"There have been so many great linebackers here," Johnson said. "All Americans, all-ACC. The reputation of our linebackers here is great, and I want to be the next great one. I don't want to be the year where we're just OK."
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster certainly hasn't settled for 'just OK' defenses in the past, and knows his players will have to do their part if the Hokies are going to contend for the national title. Virginia Tech has some reloading to do, though, in its linebacking corps after the departures of Brett Warren and Purnell Sturdivant -- the team's top two leading tacklers from 2008. Johnson and redshirt sophomore Barquell Rivers are the frontrunners to take over, but right now their potential far outweighs their experience.
"I think we look good, though," said Cody Grimm, who returns as the leading tackler with 71, and had 7.5 sacks, two interceptions and 14 tackles for losses last year. "Barquell, obviously he played in the bowl game and he's a real strong kid. He's a good player, sure tackler, and then Jake Johnson has been doing a really good job as well. He's still young. He picked up a bunch of stuff in the spring. Once he started knowing it, he got a lot better. Both of them are really fast and strong."
How fast? Grimm said Rivers and Johnson ran around a 4.62 in their last 40-yard dash times. Rivers, who had been in on just 28 defensive plays before earning his first career start in the Orange Bowl at the expense of the injured Warren, is now the leading candidate to take over at Mike linebacker. Rivers made a name for himself in the bowl game when he stopped Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line and ended the Bearcats last chance at a comeback.
"Barquell, he knows everything right now," Johnson said. "He's like a coach out there."
That's exactly what Johnson said he wants to be by the time the Alabama game rolls around. Johnson said he is studying not only his position, but also what the defensive linemen and other linebackers are doing. He's gotten a lot of help from the two veteran linebackers, Grimm and Cam Martin, both fifth-year seniors who combined to play all but nine plays at the position. Their rotating schedule should stay the same, as long as Martin heals properly from knee surgery he had after the Orange Bowl.
"I just try to lead by example," Grimm said. "Take care of my job, and if something were to happen, like if Barquell has a bad play try to get him up, but he's a pretty calm player. He was calm in the bowl game. He knows what he's doing. He'll get all the first team reps. Coach Foster will definitely have him and Jake ready to go."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
In the five years since expansion, the ACC has never failed to have at least six teams ranked among the top 27 in the nation in total defense. The only teams that haven't snuck into that group are North Carolina and Duke.
Check out this chart:
There are obviously several statistics to measure good defenses -- Wake's ability to force turnovers has been unparalleled in recent years, scoring defense is a big one, etc. -- but if you want to know who in the ACC has been consistently the best when it comes to total defense, it's hard to argue with numbers. Not only does Virginia Tech appear more than any other team (five times), but the Hokies also led the nation twice, in 2005 and 2006.
What makes it more remarkable is that they're always losing players to graduation or the NFL and yet Bud Foster manages to reload every year. Heading into 2008 it was Vince Hall, Xavier Adibi, and Brandon Flowers. Didn't matter. This year, Macho Harris is obviously the big name that will be missing from the roster. Won't matter.
Seven starters returning on defense are more than enough for Foster's lunch pail crew to keep the tradition alive, and they won't be the only ones. Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Miami all have at least eight starters each returning on defense.
It's up to one more team to keep the streak alive. Considering former Boston College defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani is now the head coach and in charge of team that boasts the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year in Mark Herzlich, the Eagles are my pick for the ACC's sixth team to finish 2009 ranked among the top 27 in the nation in total defense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Virginia Tech lost six starters on defense, yet defensive backs Kam Chancellor and Macho Harris agreed this group will actually be faster than last year's, which was fourth in the nation in total defense.
"The coaches even said that," Harris said. "This group can float. They can run. We've got a bunch of guys who are young, hungry, they'll do anything to get on that field. We've got a bunch of guys who are working each other out, getting each other better. I just can't wait."
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said his biggest concern is "right up the pipe" with the defensive tackles and linebackers. Defensive end Orion Martin is the only returning lineman who started every game last season.
Virginia Tech has two senior starters at linebacker, including Brett Warren, who played when Vince Hall got hurt, and Cam Martin, who started 13 of 14 games after moving from free safety.
"That's a young group, but it's a talented group," Foster said. "I like what I see from those guys but at the same time the learning curve is going to be pretty significant."
The one thing everyone seems to agree isn't a problem is speed.
"I think we could be faster," Chancellor said. "I was looking at the secondary, linebackers, defensive line -- I think we can be faster than we were last year, the whole defense. We gotta do what we gotta do to be a powerhouse school."
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Since I'm on my way to Blacksburg, Va., for the Hokies first practice of the season, why not start with them:
1. Who is going to emerge as the go-to wide receiver?
Virginia Tech's speed took a hit when Brandon Dillard went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles' heel. Split end Zach Luckett is the most experienced player returning, but he dropped a few passes this spring and needs to earn the trust of the staff. Ike Whitaker, a former quarterback, moved to the top of the depth chart at split end late in the spring, and Danny Coale had his moments, but none of the receivers showed the consistency they need. There are also six freshmen who could factor into the competition.
2. How will Virginia Tech compensate for the loss of seven starters on defense?
This defense reloads under Bud Foster. Orion Martin is the only returning player on the defensive line who started last season, but he had 6.5 sacks and will be the leader of that group. At linebacker, where Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi have to be replaced, there's Brett Warren, who played a big role last year when Hall was hurt. And the secondary is in the capable hands of Victor "Macho" Harris and Kam Chancellor. It's not the starters the coaches are worried about, it's the depth. The Hokies will have to stay healthy.
3. How will the decision to redshirt Tyrod Taylor (or not) affect the chemistry of the team behind closed doors?
Sean Glennon wants to start, and Tyrod Taylor wants to play. You can't fault either of them for wanting the job. Summer camp will determine how the situation unfolds, but if Taylor's skills weren't considered valuable, he wouldn't have played such an important role in helping the Hokies to the ACC title last year. He adds a running dimension to the game and should have a better grasp of the entire playbook because of the significant snaps he got last year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
1. Virginia: Senior captain Clint Sintim started all 37 games in his career and was third on the team with 77 tackles last season. His nine sacks last year were the most of any linebacker in the nation. Inside linebacker Jon Copper is UVA's active leader in tackles with 200, and Antonio Appleby is third on that list with 155.
2. Wake Forest: All three returning starters are back, including strongside linebacker Aaron Curry, a two-time defensive player of the week who had three interception returns for touchdowns and led the nation in interception return yards with 256. He also led the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss. Middle linebacker Stanley Arnoux also returns, along with weakside linebacker Chantz McClinic, who had 42 tackles.
|Ned Dishman/Getty Images|
|Senior linebacker Brian Toal, who has 180 career tackles despite missing last season, is healthy again for Boston College.|
3. Boston College: The Eagles lost two key starters, but senior Brian Toal's shoulder is healed and he has 180 career tackles despite missing last season with a medical redshirt. His primary competition at weakside linebacker will come from senior Robert Francois, who finished last season with 39 total tackles. Junior Mark Herzlich, who started all 14 games last year and finished second in total tackles with 97 should anchor this unit. Junior Mike McLaughlin started three games at middle linebacker last season when Jo-Lonn Dunbar was injured and is the heir apparent there.
4. Maryland: This could be one of the Terps' deeper positions, even with the loss of Erin Henderson to the NFL. Seniors Dave Philistin and Moise Fokou each started all 13 games last season, and Adrian Moten, who played all three positions as a freshman, tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5) and had 50 tackles even though he didn't start a game. Philistin ranked fourth in the ACC with 9.5 tackles per game.
5. Florida State: These guys have talent, it's just a matter of when it will all come together. Geno Hayes is gone, and so is Marcus Ball, who was expected to fill in for Hayes but was booted off the team. Still, the Seminoles' leading tackler is back. Underrated middle linebacker Derek Nicholson made 99 stops last year and was the only linebacker to start all 13 games. Strongside linebacker Dekoda Watson started every game but the bowl game because of the academic scandal and will miss the first three, leaving the job to sophomore Kendall Smith. The 'Noles are also excited about freshman Nigel Bradham.
6. Miami: The Hurricanes lost their leading tackler in Tavares Gooden, a third-round NFL draft pick by the Ravens, but are still better off than the way they ended last season -- with three healthy linebackers. Senior Glenn Cook is back after missing last season with a foot injury, and the freshmen -- Arthur Brown and Sean Spence -- didn't waste any time impressing the staff while Coin McCarthy was out this spring. Darryl Sharpton and Spencer Adkins are possible starters in the middle.
7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies will obviously miss Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, but middle linebacker Brett Warren played well last year when Hall got hurt and earned the confidence of defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Purnell Sturdivant is No. 1 heading into the fall, but should be challenged by veteran Jonas Houseright and redshirt freshman Hunter Ovens. Redshirt junior Cam Martin started 13 of 14 games last season at weakside after being moved from free safety and finished fifth on the team with 78 tackles and was third in sacks with 4.5.
8. Duke: Senior Michael Tauiliili is the top active player in the league in terms of career tackles, and finished last season with 108. He also had four sacks and three interceptions. Vincent Rey led the Blue Devils with 111 tackles. The third slot will be between Marcus Jones and Adam Banks. There's not a lot of depth here, but there's talent.
9. Clemson: This is the least experienced unit on the Tigers' defense. Josh Miller is the only senior in the group and is competing for the starting middle linebacker job. Tommy Bowden was impressed with freshman Stanley Hunter this spring, but Brandon Maye had the top spring among the newcomers and is listed as first team in the middle entering the fall. Junior Kavell Connor is the top option at weakside linebacker and had a career high 15 tackles in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. He had 46 stops for the year, tops among linebackers on the spring depth chart. Sophomore Scotty Cooper also started the Chick-fil-A Bowl at strongside linebacker. He had 33 stops for the season in 183 plays on defense.
10. North Carolina: The Tar Heels have to replace leading tackler Durell Mapp, but return sophomore Bruce Carter and sophomore Quan Sturdivant. Carter played in all 12 games and started seven. He made 18 of his 25 tackles in the final five games. Sturdivant's experience is similar, having played in all 12 games, but started just five. He finished the season with 47 tackles, but also added an interception and a blocked punt. Senior Mark Paschal played in all 12 games and started four at middle linebacker, and Chase Rice was still recovering this spring from a torn tendon in his left ankle. He was the starter in 2007, but got hurt in the season opener and missed the rest of the season.
11. NC State: There's not a lot of experience, as the top candidates have combined for five starts and only four guys have played in a collegiate game. Nate Irving is the lead candidate at weakside linebacker, having started four games. Ray Michel started one game in the middle, and strongside should be wide open. Robbie Leonard, a converted walk-on defensive back, is the starter heading into summer camp. He played in eight games as a strong safety and has seen most of his action on special teams the past two seasons. Thomas Barnes got valuable experience as a backup middle linebacker last season, playing the last 10 games and scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery in only his third career play from scrimmage.
12. Georgia Tech: Two of the three stars from last year -- Philip Wheeler and Gary Guyton -- are now on NFL rosters. Junior Shane Bowen started nine games last season, but sophomore Anthony Barnes has the most potential and started three. Two young rookies, sophomore Brad Jefferson and redshirt freshman Kyle Jackson, are good enough that Bowen may lose his starting job.
|Scott A. Miller/US Presswire|
|Frank Beamer's Hokies are favored in the division.|
If the ACC champion comes out of this division, I'll do up-downs till I puke. Well, OK, maybe just until Frank Beamer tells me I can stop. Anyway...
Agree or disagree, (c'mon, Miami fans, tell me how you really feel), here it is:
1. Virginia Tech -- Consider the Hokies here because of Beamer and his staff -- and the fact that the rest of the division isn't exactly scary. These guys lost the winningest class in senior history. They lost leading rusher Branden Ore. They recently found out they lost injured receiver Brandon Dillard, the one guy who showed potential this spring to help replace the departure of the top four. And gone are star linebackers Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. What the Hokies do have are the same two quarterbacks who won the ACC championship last season, and cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris, one of the best in the league.
2. North Carolina -- The Tar Heels still lack overall depth and seem like they're a year or two away from being a legitimate contender for the ACC title, but they're in their second season under Butch Davis and are more experienced. UNC has talented receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, and running back Greg Little is now in the right position and should help balance the offense. There's depth at defensive tackle and eight starters return on defense. Still, quarterback T.J. Yates and his teammates have something to prove.
3. Miami -- Yes, there are outstanding true freshmen ready to make an impact, and Bill Young was an excellent hire as defensive coordinator, but the Hurricanes don't have a quarterback who has thrown a pass in a college game. The expectations are high for Robert Marve, who had the most productive spring game, but only four starters return on offense. This team should absolutely be better than its 2-6 ACC record last season. A 6-6 overall record sounds about right for these guys, and the bare minimum Randy Shannon needs to stay off the hot seat.
4. Georgia Tech -- Overall, this program got an upgrade -- not only with Paul Johnson, but also in defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, who will have a less predictable scheme. It's just going to take some time to adjust to the new offense, and to find a quarterback who can execute it. Former quarterback Taylor Bennett transferred, and there were a few other defections, but among the biggest losses were on special teams, where placekicker Travis Bell and Durant Brooks have to be replaced. And the schedule is unforgiving, with back-to-back road trips to Boston College and Virginia Tech in the first two weeks of September.
5. Virginia -- These guys got lucky last season with Chris Long, Branden Albert and Jameel Seweel. What are they gonna do without them? The Cavaliers have talented and experienced wide receivers and running backs, but they'll only go so far with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The entire defensive line has to be replaced, but three of four starting linebackers -- all seniors -- return. Al Groh only has one scholarship kicker on his roster, and Chris Hinkebein had an inconsistent spring. Oh, and they start the season with USC.
6. Duke -- Well, here we are again. Still at the bottom, but things are looking up. David Cutcliffe is the right man for the job, the administration is behind him and he's got an experienced quarterback. (And hey, Northwestern is on the schedule again). There is talent on this roster -- wide receiver Eron Riley and running back Re'quan Boyette are both seniors. On defense, keep an eye on Vince Oghobaase and Michael Tauiliili. Cutcliffe's biggest challenge will be getting these guys to believe they can win.
12:00 PM ET Georgia Tech Virginia Tech 12:00 PM ET Iowa Pittsburgh 12:30 PM ET Maryland Syracuse 12:30 PM ET Tulane Duke 1:00 PM ET Maine Boston College 3:30 PM ET Louisville Florida International 3:30 PM ET Virginia 21 BYU 3:30 PM ET Army Wake Forest 3:30 PM ET North Carolina East Carolina 6:00 PM ET Presbyterian North Carolina State 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska 8:00 PM ET 22 Clemson 1 Florida State