<
>

Take 2: VaTech or Clemson for ACC's top D?

9m

Just like our debate over the ACC’s best offenses, there are plenty of candidates to post the best unit on the defensive side. Virginia, Louisville and Boston College were all good last year and could take strides in 2015, too. Florida State has too much talent to struggle two years in a row. But for now, ACC bloggers Jared Shanker and David Hale have narrowed the debate down to two: Virginia Tech and Clemson.

David says the Hokies will be the ACC’s toughest D: Remember how good Clemson’s front seven was last year? Remember how the Tigers finished as the No. 1-ranked D in the nation? Well, guess which team actually led the country in sack rate in 2015. It wasn’t Clemson. It was Virginia Tech.

Of course, what happened in 2014 shouldn’t necessarily mean much for 2015 -- especially since Clemson is losing nearly every starter off that vaunted front seven. But Virginia Tech is in a little different situation. The Hokies actually return nearly every key member of their defensive front, plus they’ll get back a healthy Luther Maddy. In fact, of the 18 returning ACC players who racked up at least eight tackles for loss last season, six of them are on the Hokies’ roster (and that’s not counting Maddy).

In other words, there’s probably not a better defensive front in the country than the one in Blacksburg.

Admittedly, the secondary was a bit more of a concern, and Virginia Tech gave up way too many big plays last season. But that was a function of a number of issues. Brandon Facyson missed most of the year with an injury. The starting safeties -- both gone in 2015 -- were inconsistent. And Bud Foster, as usual, put a lot of pressure on his DBs to hold up in coverage as he brought pressure again and again.

But let’s remember, Kendall Fuller is still an All-American. Facyson should be healthy in 2015. Chuck Clark could work at corner, safety or nickel, giving Foster a ton of versatility in the defensive backfield.

And even if the number of big plays surrendered isn’t cut dramatically, it might not matter much. Virginia Tech still stuffed 42 percent of its opponent’s plays for a loss or no gain last year (fifth most in the country) and utterly confounded the eventual national champs. This isn’t a team that needs to sweat a few game-breakers, because this defense is just as capable of creating its own big plays, too.

Jared is arguing for the Tigers as the ACC’s best unit: We know from watching last year’s Florida State defense that when an elite group loses its elite players, there is bound to be regression. Clemson is facing a similar exodus on the defensive side of the ball, losing nearly all of its top players from the country’s top-ranked unit.

What the Tigers do have that Florida State did not, however, is a level of consistency at defensive coordinator. Brent Venables has made significant increases each year since taking over the Tigers’ defense, and that continuity should breed success -- even not on the same level -- despite a reloading along the front seven.

Few programs nationally are recruiting as well as the Tigers, so there is talent for Venables to work with. For starters, the secondary has potential All-American Mackensie Alexander and physically imposing Jayron Kearse -- and David already made my case for the talented secondary -- to help a defensive line as it jells and develops a pass rush. And speaking of the defensive line, it still has Shaq Lawson and D.J. Reader, and Ebenezer Ogundeko, a redshirt sophomore who was raw coming out of high school, is expected to finally blossom. Linebacker Ben Boulware should be a candidate for a spot on the All-ACC team by season’s end.

Clemson’s defense will also have more help than Virginia Tech’s this season. For starters, the Hokies’ offense is at best a question mark and at worst a hurdle that will continually set the defense up for failure. Michael Brewer needs to be able to rid himself of the big turnover that pins the Hokies deep within their own zone to begin defensive drives. Tackles for loss and short gains are a great stat to lead in, but ultimately the best defenses are going to be judged on points and wins. Clemson could have the conference’s best player leading its offense in Deshaun Watson.

The Tigers’ schedule sets up for a better defensive finish, too. There aren’t many offenses the inexperienced Tigers will face in 2015 that will instill much fear in Venables. Through the first half of the season as the Tigers gain their defensive footing, they play Louisville and Notre Dame, which each have issues at quarterback. Boston College is overhauling its offense, and Wofford and Appalachian State pose no threat. Georgia Tech could have the ACC’s best offense, but the Tigers did well against them a season ago and get the Jackets at home. Five of the first six games are at home for Clemson.

Meanwhile Virginia Tech opens against Ohio State’s bruising rushing attack, and it has Georgia Tech and the Marquise Williams-led UNC offense (which you, David, predict will be the conference’s best) in November.

It’s splitting hairs trying to pick the best defense, which is why it might come down to which unit will have the better support system in place.