NCF Nation: Gary Guyton

Potential playmakers in the ACC

February, 27, 2009
2/27/09
10:46
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

In addition to the newcomers to watch this spring, there will also be a few players who hinted at their potential last year, but could be on the verge of a breakout season in '09. Here are a few players who might emerge from the shadows this year in the ACC:

UNC safety Da'Norris Searcy -- He had 10 tackles against West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and is slated to be the starter in place of graduated All-American Trimane Goddard. Searcy spent some time at linebacker and on special teams last year. He finished the season with 25 tackles, including two sacks, three pass breakups and three passes defended.

NC State running back Toney Baker -- Remember him? Think back to '06. Baker had over 1,200 yards heading into his junior season and suffered a season-ending knee injury and missed the rest of the season. A second surgery kept him out for 2008. Baker was cleared to return last fall, is reportedly in amazing shape and "about to have a fit to get back on the field," according to sports information director Annabelle Myers. With Andre Brown gone, Baker's progress will be a huge key to the Pack's success.

Wake Forest running back Kevin Harris -- In just the third start of his career and his first since October 2006, Harris turned in one of the most memorable performances of the inaugural EagleBank Bowl. Harris rushed for a career-high 24 carries and 136 yards. It came as a complete surprise and sparked the start of much-needed improvement in the Deacs' running game. His senior season could be his best.

FSU running back Carlton "Ty" Jones -- He scored his first collegiate touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl and might even be better than fellow freshman Jermaine Thomas. Jones had four carries for a career-high 55 yards in the bowl game, and set a career-high for the longest rush for scrimmage with a 31-yard run. With the departure of Antone Smith, the Noles enter the spring looking for a dependable go-to back.

Georgia Tech's linebackers -- Both Brad Jefferson and Anthony Barnes played sparingly behind current NFL linebackers Philip Wheeler (Colts) and Gary Guyton (Patriots) as freshmen, and both started the opener last year. Jefferson and Barnes were both also injured in the season opener, missed a game or two, and were never really 100 percent last season. Both should be healthy this year, and could finally emerge from the shadows of their NFL predecessors.

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.

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