Ranking the ACC’s defensive lines

“I wish I could tell you Clemson’s defensive line fought the good fight, and 2019 will be different. I wish I could tell you that. But the ACC is no fairy tale world.” – Morgan Freeman, if he covered the ACC

Sure, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Dexter Lawrence are gone. But…

Xavier Thomas is back, and he might end up better than any of them.

Nyles Pinckney is back, and he’s been biding his time, licking his chops.

And Tyler Davis and KJ Henry and Justin Mascoli and Justin Foster and Jordan Williams and Logan Rudolph… all blue-chip recruits, all in a Clemson uniform on the defensive line again in 2019.

The names change. The results… well, here’s Clemson’s sacks and tackles for loss rankings under Brent Venables:

2012 – 20th
2013 – 12th
2014 – 7th
2015 – 2nd
2016 – 3rd
2017 – 2nd
2018 – 1st

2012 – 28th
2013 – 1st
2014 – 1st
2015 – 1st
2016 – 1st
2017 – 6th
2018 – 1st

And so let’s start here: Clemson will be very, very good again. Can anyone else touch them on the D-line?

Here’s a look at last year’s numbers (Click the chart to open in Google docs, stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info)…

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 11.49.11 PM

If I’d not looked at a single stat and simply guessed who the top four defensive fronts were last year and in which order I’d rank them, well… it’d look exactly like this.

Much like with our look at linebackers, there’s little real difference between Miami and Clemson in terms of production here, which certainly won’t make Miami fans feel any better about how much that elite defense was wasted. No surprise either that Syracuse comes in third after exceptional seasons by Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. Florida State’s D-line is really good, too, but was overshadowed, like Miami, by an offense that offered no help. Truth be told, I might’ve guessed the next two, too, though I would’ve certainly had Pitt ahead of NC State by a noticeable margin.

The point of all this, however is that there were six good D-lines in the ACC last year and eight that really didn’t play all that well. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s pretty much how things look again in 2019.

Let’s start with Clemson. It’s tough to project too much with all four starters moving on, but when you consider the history under Brent Venables and the fact that the line didn’t miss a beat following Dexter Lawrence’s suspension in the playoff last year, there seems to be no reason to think there’ll be a significant drop-off. The one concern, as I wrote earlier in the offseason, is the run defense. Clemson allowed barely more than 1 yard before first contact on average, and while there’s plenty of pass-rushing talent lined up and ready to go, I think there’s a real concern that stuffing the run — particularly with turnover at LB, too — will be a bigger chore.

Miami actually had more runs stopped for a loss or no gain last year than Clemson, which is pretty darned impressive. But the Canes also lost a couple pretty good linemen to the NFL with Gerald Willis and Joe Jackson moving on, but Jonathan Garvin remains one of the league’s best pass rushers, transfer Trevon Hill could be a boon off the edge, and there are some recent blue chippers — Nesta Silvera, Jahfari Harvey — waiting their turn. It should again be a very good group, but depth may be a concern if injuries arise.

Syracuse returns its two edge rushers for 2019. Fun fact: Robinson got pressure last season on 16.4% of his pass rushes. That was better than Brian Burns, Clelin Ferrell, Joe Jackson or anyone else in the ACC. Chris Slayton is gone, but McKinley Williams, Josh Black and KJ Ruff all have experience in the middle of the line. The yards-before-contact number is a bit higher than you’d like to see, and the consistent knock you hear from scouts is that this is a better pass rushing line than a run-stuffing one. But it’s not like the group can’t improve either, and there’s a lot here to work with.

In totality, it’s hard to say how good Pitt’s line will be, but Amir Watts is strong at tackle, and Rashad Weaver may be the most under appreciated pass rusher in the country. Here’s a quick “Guess Who” for you…

Player A: 16% pressure rate, 5 sacks, 15 tackles at or behind LoS, 3 missed tackles
Player B: 16.4% pressure rate, 5.5 sacks, 15 tackles at or behind LoS, 4 missed tackles

Player B is Mr. Weaver, from Oct. 1 through the end of the season. Player A is Florida State’s Brian Burns, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. So, no, Weaver is no slouch.

As for Florida State, the loss of Burns and Demarcus Christmas hurts. Both were impact performers. Joshua Kaindoh didn’t break out as I would’ve expected in his sophomore campaign, but he still has the potential to be an All-American caliber of player. His pressure rate in 200 pass rush attempts last year was a solid 11 percent, which puts him in the same group with Zach Allen and Jonathan Garvin. He just needs to finish more of those plays. Meanwhile, Marvin Wilson could easily blossom into the best interior lineman in the ACC — and maybe the country. This can be a special group if it all comes together. (We’ve been saying that a lot about FSU’s defense.)

NC State lost a ton of star power to the NFL after the 2017 season, but still turned in a decent year. James Smith-Williams is solid, though his pressure rate was just 27th among ACC defenders with at least 100 pass rush attempts, Latrell Murchison is a nice piece in the middle, and C.J. Clark and Alim McNeill offer some potential among younger guys. Look at NC State’s pressure rate without bringing the extra pass rusher (11th in ACC) and its QB contact rate (also 11th), however, and it’s clear there’s got to be some real improvement if the Wolfpack want to get back to the genuine impact line they had two years ago.

We’ve talked a lot about the insane lack of fundamentals on Virginia Tech’s defense a year ago, and it shows up again here: The Hokies allowed 2.72 yards before contact on run plays, second-worst in the league. Brutal. That the line didn’t get a ton of pressure and didn’t do a great job of getting off the field in winnable situations only served to underscore the weaknesses elsewhere on D. But while I’d expect some real improvement in the back end for VT, the line is the big question mark for me. Houshun Gaines is still recovering from an ACL injury. Ricky Walker’s gone. There are just a ton of question marks and not much depth.

UNC’s place on the list is troubling, given that their best rusher, Malik Carney, is gone now. Tomon Fox arrived with a ton of talent but has yet to truly blossom into a star. Maybe that happens this year. Jason Strowbridge has a lot of experience under his belt, and the new defensive coordinator should improve things. This could be a decent group, but the stats from last year offer a reminder of how far it has to go.

A lot has been made of the job Geoff Collins has in moving away from the option offense, but honestly, there may be bigger concerns on D for the Yellow Jackets. The stats are brutal from last year, and Georgia Tech lost its best lineman for 2019. Moreover, depth was less of an issue with the offense running the option. It meant fewer plays for the D. What happens now when Tech has a 3-and-out and only takes 75 seconds off the clock? And look at that stop rate on thrid-and-long. That’s not just bad. That’s historically bad. I don’t know how that even happens. I think Collins will eventually make Georgia Tech relevant, but boy they could be in for a long, long year.

Which brings us to Louisville. As we’ve said so often, simply turning the page from Bobby Petrino and Uncle Rico – er, we mean Brian Van Gorder — should help. But hoo-boy. Louisville stopped just 10 percent of run plays for a loss or no gain last year. That’s 50% worse than the next worst ACC team. Meanwhile 87% of third-and-short runs were converted for a first down. That’s 16 percentage points worse than the next worst team. Setting up traffic cones for the offense to run around might’ve been more effective last year.

One quick note on Duke: The numbers weren’t great, which is surprising from a Ben Albert-coached unit. But the back end of the D was terrific. So, if Duke can improve just a bit on the D-line — and they have some real players with Victor Dimukeje and Drew Jordan — the D could be pretty darned good in 2019.

OK, on with our last rankings of the summer…

1. Syracuse (consider this a favor to Dabo)
2. Clemson
3. Miami
4. Florida State
5. Pitt
6. NC State
7. Virginia
8. Wake Forest
9. Duke
10. North Carolina
11. Virginia Tech
12. Boston College
13. Louisville
14. Georgia Tech

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