Ranking the ACC’s LB groups

We took a look at the back end of the ACC’s defenses a few weeks ago. Today, let’s look at the guys in the middle.

It’s worth stating right off the bat that, while we’re taking the easy road and simply referring to this as “linebacker performance,” it really is much more (and sometimes less) than that. After all, in today’s game, what exactly constitutes a linebacker? Is Isaiah Simmons a linebacker? He plays the run, he’s an edge rusher, he works as as safety or nickel — he kind of does it all (and will be rewarded handsomely for it next year). Is an edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme a linebacker? Is your nickel corner a linebacker at times? So, instead, we’re looking at what traditional linebackers are expected to do: Tackle, cover the tight ends and running backs, stuff the run, etc. Call it what you will.

With that in mind, we’re using six statistical categories here to get a rough look at how those units performed in 2018: Yards/Attempt when targeting tight ends and backs; yards-per-rush after first contact; missed tackles on run plays; tackles made within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage; passer rating on short throws; conversion rate on third-and-short. (All courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)

Put it all together, and here’s what we came up with (click to chart to open in Google Sheets):

Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 12.18.51 PM

The first two teams on the list should be no surprise. Clemson and Miami figured to have the best group of linebackers entering the season, and sure enough, they were essentially neck-and-neck throughout 2018.

The third team though? That’s a little more intriguing.

Linebacker has been something of a black hole at Florida State since Telvin Smith & Co. departed after the national championship. It’s not that there’s been a complete lack of talent. From Terrance Smith to Matthew Thomas to Dontavious Jackson, the Noles have had some quality players. It’s just that they’ve not had a lot of them at any one time, and those guys have never felt like real stars.

But look at last year’s numbers: FSU was the surest tackling defense in the ACC on run plays. Opponents struggled to find yardage underneath, with results approaching Miami’s level of success. Short throws didn’t turn into big plays. That’s all the marks of a really good unit, and essentially all that production — including Jackson and safeties/star LBs Jaiden Lars-Woodbey and Hamsah Nasirildeen — returns for 2019. As we noted in our look at the secondaries, Florida State’s defense is shaping up quite nicely for this season. If Emmett Rice blossoms and Jaleel McRae or Kalen DeLoach can make an instant impact, it has a shot at being one of the ACC’s best.

Some other tidbits worth noting:

– Just a brutal look for Virginia Tech. The Hokies struggles on covering backs and tight ends isn’t really a big deal. It’s sort of a tradeoff in how Bud Foster wants to play defense (Brent Venables’ D typically has the same issue). But those missed tackles. Yikes. In 2017, with the Edmunds brothers patrolling the defense, the Hokies allowed just 3.36 yards-per-rush. Last year, they allowed 3.22 per rush — AFTER CONTACT. There’s too much talent in this group for it to flounder again in 2019 though. While the job of renovating this defense is a big one, Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield are exactly the types of guys you build a defense around. If you’re betting on anything being the key to a turnaround for the Hokies this year, bet on the LB corps.

– We should say a bunch of nice things about Miami, but after this group has played together for so long what’s left to say? The Canes will have the best LB corps in the ACC and, arguably, the best in the nation.

Wake Forest is an interesting case. The Deacons have a good one in Justin Strnad, but D.J. Taylor is probably their best linebacker overall, and he’s now lost for the season with an injury. There were some encouraging signs for the unit as the season progressed, but anyone who watched Travis Etienne run all over that D last year will be unsurprised that the Deacs ranked dead last in the ACC in missed tackle rate.

NC State was near the top of these standings last year, but the Wolfpack lost one of the league’s best linebackers in Germaine Pratt. Isaiah Moore got a lot of work as a redshirt freshman and will handle the middle this year, but he needs to continue to develop. Jarius Morehead at strong safety is one of the better back-end defenders against the run, too. But NC State is really going to need some additional talent to step up this year to fill out what could be a solid group.

Virginia lost Chris Peace, but what remains is a potentially dominant group. Jordan Mack is a prototype MLB for a Bronco Mendenhall defense (even the name sounds like a Mendenhall MLB, right? Like, doesn’t it seem like Bronco’s had at least 3 guys named Jordan Mack play for him before?) Then there’s Charles Snowden, a 6-7 former hoops player who is developing into a seriously scary edge rusher. Robert Snyder, Zane Zandier (another great name) and Matt Gahm all have experience and return, too. Virginia’s returning LBs combined for 258 tackles, 22.5 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 16 QB hurries and three picks last year. Just another reason I’m high on the Hoos for 2019.

– We might’ve expected a big drop-off at linebacker for Syracuse after losing two veterans from the 2017 team. Instead, the unit was… pretty good. The Orange had a tendency to let some big plays develop that should’ve been stopped for just a few yards, but the overall performance was solid. Of course, the two seniors that led that charge are gone now, too, and Syracuse will be relying on former JuCo transfer Lakiem Williams to hold down the fort. It’s not a stretch to think it’ll work out just fine again, but the key for Syracuse to take the next step is to cut down on some of those big plays that managed to humble the entire back end of the D last year.

– I’ve liked Jonathan Smith since he arrived at UNC, but he’s never quite put it all together (mostly due to injuries). He also sat out the spring due to academic issues, so there’s no telling what – if anything – the Heels will get from him. If he can get on the field and stay there though, he’s a nice fit for Jay Bateman’s D. There’s little established depth behind Smith and Dominique Ross though, so like most spots on UNC’s roster, the margin of error is incredibly thin.

– As much as the discussion has been about the massive turnover on Clemson‘s defensive line, I actually think linebacker is the far bigger concern. Yes, Simmons is a superstar and first-round NFL talent. But Clemson needs to replace veteran starters Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar, too, and frankly, the depth chart doesn’t have clear answers on who’ll step up — particularly after the surprising departure of Shaq Smith. Lamar, in particular, was one of the most efficient and consistent linebackers in the ACC last year, and while his work wasn’t the most high profile, he was critical to the Tigers’ success. Look at the stats in yards after contact, missed tackle rate, tackles within 5 yards of the line — those are off-the-charts good, and Lamar was a big reason why. Whether someone like Baylon Spector (a great Game of Thrones name) is ready to perform near that same level is a big “if” at the moment.

– I was a bit surprised by Pitt‘s numbers above. It felt like the Panthers were better, but the stats suggest otherwise. What’s more concerning is that Pitt also loses its two best LBs and will be relying on a lot of younger guys to step up. We like the Pitt D-line a lot, which should help the linebackers. But boy, this feels like a real red flag area.

BC is a lot like Virginia — losing its top guy but returning some real talent that, its reasonable to assume, will take a step forward in 2019. The unit was a mixed bag last year — some very good, some not-so-good. John Lamot, Isaiah McDuffie and Max Richardson make for a pretty solid unit though, and while BC will certainly miss Connor Strachan, there’s a lot to like about this group. They’d certainly be helped by a little more consistency up front, and there are big questions about how the Eagles fill out the back end, but BC has a long history of producing talented LBs, and I think this year could be one where they have some guys emerge as legitimate stars again.

– The less said about Louisville the better.

OK, here’s how I’ve got the LB groups ranked for 2019.

1. Miami
2. Virginia
3. Clemson
4. BC
5. Florida State
6. Virginia Tech
7. NC State
8. Wake Forest
9. Syracuse
10. Duke
11. Pitt
12. North Carolina
13. Georgia Tech
14. Louisville

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