Florida State Seminoles: David Helton

From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Up today: Linebackers

Best of the best: Clemson

It's easy to see why many believe the Tigers have the best front seven in the ACC. In addition to having the strongest defensive front, they also have the strongest group of linebackers returning to the team. Stephone Anthony had a breakout season a year ago, finishing with 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 802 snaps played. He should be a preseason All-ACC selection. Clemson did lose two starters in Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey, but it returns experienced players at the position. Tony Steward and Ben Boulware will anchor the weak side. Both were ranked among the top linebackers out of high school, and if Steward can stay healthy, he is in line for a big year. At the other spot, Clemson has the option of playing a linebacker or nickelback depending on the alignment. T.J. Burrell and Dorian O'Daniel will be in the mix on the strong side.

Next up: Duke

The Blue Devils return the best linebacker duo in the ACC in David Helton and Kelby Brown, who finished as the top two tacklers in the conference last season. The two combined for 247 tackles a year ago and are back to anchor a group looking to improve both against the run and the pass. Their backups return as well, so there are not many depth concerns here. These two are as dependable as they come. Now, having said that, we would be remiss if we failed to mention Florida State. The Seminoles are losing two key players in Christian Jones and Telvin Smith and will be relying more on a five defensive back alignment, so there are some questions at the position. But this team has the talent to again be the best in the ACC once it gains some experience. As it stands now, Terrance Smith is the only linebacker with consistent playing time. Guys like Matthew Thomas and Reggie Northrup could develop into studs before the season's up.

Sleeper: Syracuse

The Orange return two of the more underrated linebackers in the ACC in Dyshawn Davis and Cam Lynch, who will be relied upon to anchor a defense with some serious questions on the defensive line. Though middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is gone, Syracuse coaches were pleased with the role Marqez Hodge played as a true freshman behind Spruill a year ago, so he spent a year in training preparing to take over the starting job. Davis and Lynch will be there to help Hodge along. Keep an eye on Louisville here as well. The Cards return hard hitter James Burgess and have moved Lorenzo Mauldin to outside linebacker/rush end. That should pay dividends.

Problem for a contender: Pitt

The Panthers have not gotten consistent linebacker play for years, so this position remains a question mark. Anthony Gonzalez and Todd Thomas return, but the Panthers have little in the way of depth to help them out. Thomas has the potential to be excellent. He had 72 tackles a year ago, but coaches are now hoping for more. Bam Bradley could also have an impact here, but only six lettermen are back from a year ago. There are also questions elsewhere in the conference. Will anybody step up to help out Denzel Perryman at Miami? And will Virginia Tech be just as good at linebacker without Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards?

ACC's lunchtime links

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
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It’s that time of year when the preseason lists start appearing, and Athlon is out with its preseason All-America teams (four of them!), which include a healthy dose of the ACC.

The ACC has eight players on the first-team All-America squad, tied with the Pac-12 for most by any conference. In all, the ACC had 27 selections (26 players, as Duke’s Jamison Crowder was named as both a receiver and punt returner). Florida State, not surprisingly, led the way with a whopping 12 players named on the four lists, including Jameis Winston, Nick O'Leary, Tre Jackson, Cameron Erving, Jalen Ramsey and Roberto Aguayo as first-teamers.

Of course, these preseason lists are always a little subjective and a lot different from how the end-of-the-season results shake out. (Example: Just seven of last year’s Athlon preseason picks were also first-team selections at year’s end.)

With that in mind, here are a few ACC names that didn’t show up on any of Athlon’s four preseason All-America teams that could well be first-teamers by the time 2014 draws to a close.

CB Ronald Darby (FSU): The forgotten man in Florida State’s incredibly talented secondary, Darby nursed a nagging groin injury, but still was as good a shut-down cornerback as there was in the conference a year ago. He has flown under the radar nationally, but he has the talent to be a star if QBs decided to test him just a bit more often this season.

DT Grady Jarrett (Clemson): The 2014 season promises to be a pick-your-poison scenario for teams hoping to slow down Clemson’s immensely talented pass rush. Vic Beasley gets most of the hype (for good reason), but he is also going to get a lot of the attention from offensive linemen. That opens the door for Jarrett (10.5 tackles for loss last season), along with a host of others to make some noise, too.

LB Steven Daniels (Boston College): It is a bit surprising that Miami’s Denzel Perryman is the only ACC linebacker to make Athlon’s cut since there is clearly a lot of talent at the position, including Clemson’s Stephone Anthony, Duke’s Kelby Brown and David Helton and Syracuse’s Dyshawn Davis. But we all know the history of linebackers at Boston College, and Daniels could be next in line. He still has room to improve, but his 88 tackles last season are the seventh-most by a returning player in the ACC, and that number figures to grow in 2014.

RB Dominique Brown (Louisville): He had 825 yards and eight touchdowns last season in a more buttoned-down offensive system with a highly touted QB on the field. Now the Cardinals turn to a novice at quarterback and an offensive guru at head coach, which could promise big production out of the backfield for Brown. Or, perhaps we will all be talking about Michael Dyer here by season's end.

DE Eli Harold (Virginia): As bad as the Hoos have been, it makes sense that they are not getting much preseason love, but Mike London is quietly assembling a heck of a defensive line at UVA, and Harold might be the best of the bunch. His 15 tackles for loss last season trail only Beasley among returning ACC defenders.

That is my list. Who else do you think could make a push for All-America honors by season's end?

More links:
  • Charges could be dropped against one of the key figures in the UNC academic fraud scandal, according to the Charlotte Observer.
  • Miami picked up a commitment from a QB for 2016, writes the Sun-Sentinel.
  • Syracuse is shelling out big bucks to play Central Michigan in 2015, reports The Post-Standard. With new scheduling guidelines and the College Football Playoff in place, this is going to become the norm for signing games against mid-level opponents.
  • Former Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe is battling Parkinson’s Disease, but he is back in college football as a special assistant at LSU, writes The Courier-Journal.
  • Tomahawk Nation goes searching for Florida State’s flaws. Not to spoil the ending, but there aren’t many.
Last weekend’s NFL draft in which 42 ACC players were selected was a reminder of how much talent was departing the conference. But just as Sammy Watkins, Aaron Donald and Kyle Fuller say goodbye, the focus turns to the players who’ll step into the spotlight in 2014.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami tailback Duke Johnson rushed for 920 yards in 2013, despite missing five games due to injury.
PASSING YARDS
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)

Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.

RUSHING YARDS
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)

Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.

RECEIVING YARDS
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)

Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.

TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley has 21 sacks in his career.
Of note: Duke’s front four took a big hit with the loss of three senior starters, but the back seven should be one of the most experienced and productive in the conference. Of the 25 ACC players with at least 50 solo tackles last season, 12 return this season.

INTERCEPTIONS
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)

Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.

SACKS
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)

Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.

ACC helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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In a week of sluggish performances around the ACC, a handful of players stood out, carrying their teams to much-needed wins. Here are the five who made the biggest impact.

Miami running back Duke Johnson: Twice on Saturday the Hurricanes' undefeated season appeared doomed, and twice Johnson responded with a game-saving run. The sophomore finished with 168 yards on 30 carries -- eight more than his previous career high -- and scored twice in the fourth quarter to help Miami sneak past Wake Forest. The Hurricanes took their first lead of the game with 5:36 left on a 51-yard TD drive in which Johnson carried six times for 44 yards. Wake responded with a score of its own, but Johnson clinched the win by carrying seven times for 42 yards, including the 1-yard go-ahead TD.

Duke linebacker David Helton: On a day when the Blue Devils' offense struggled mightily, it was Helton and the defense that came up with one big play after another. Helton finished with a game-high 19 tackles -- he was one of three Duke defenders with double-digit tackles -- and deflected a Logan Thomas pass on Virginia Tech's final drive that was picked off by Kelby Brown. Brown's INT was one of four by the Blue Devils, and he finished the game with 14 tackles.

Florida State receiver Rashad Greene: Jameis Winston was sharp once again, throwing three TD passes in Florida State's win over NC State, but plenty of credit is due to his receiving corps, which was led, once again, by Greene. The junior finished with eight catches for 137 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown grab. It's Greene's fourth 100-yard game of the year. Seven of his eight catches went for Florida State first downs.

Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Roderick McDowell: The Tigers rebounded from last week's devastating loss to Florida State and this week's slow start against Maryland largely because of two of their best offensive weapons. Watkins caught a career-high 14 passes for 163 yards, while McDowell carried the ground game, rushing 30 times for 161 yards and two touchdowns.

Georgia Tech running backs: The Yellow Jackets had three runners top 100 yards in their win over Virginia, led by junior Zach Laskey, who rushed 16 times for 133 yards and two touchdowns. David Sims scored twice as well, and finished with 107 yards on 12 carries, while Robert Godhigh's 65-yard TD run highlighted a five-carry, 111-yard performance. The 394 rushing yards matched a season high for Georgia Tech, while Jemea Thomas (15 tackles) and the defense sealed the game.

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