1. Florida State
Please excuse the painfully-overused cliché, but when it comes to Florida State’s defense in ‘13, they didn’t rebuild, they just reload.
The Seminoles lost six starters from last year’s defense that ranked sixth in the FBS, surrendering just 14.7 points per game. The natural learning curve needed for backups stepping into starting roles doesn’t apply for some of the highly-regarded reserves FSU will count on, such as tackle Timmy Jernigan, safety Karlos Willams and linebacker Telvin Smith.
They also lost defensive coordinator Mark Stoops when Kentucky offered its head coaching gig. Replacing him will be former Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt, who employs a blitz-heavy scheme perfectly suited to Florida States personnel.
Although Pitt will now face more potent offenses than it did in the Big East, the Panther defense will be fully-loaded and well-equipped for the switch to ACC.
Nine starters return from a unit that ranked 17th nationally last season. The Panther’s strength is stopping the ground game, especially between the tackles. That is where two run-stuffing seniors reside; former All-Big East defensive tackle Aaron Donald and nose tackle Tyrone Ezell.
Over the past two seasons, the dominant Donald has racked up 111 tackles, (34.5 of those tackles for loss), 16.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries. Extra attention towards him usually leaves Ezell with room to clean up whatever mess Donald leaves behind.
3. Virginia Tech
Like Pitt, Virginia Tech returns nine starters from a unit that ranked in the nation’s top 20 last year. What keeps the Hokies out of the second spot on this list is the status of star corner Antone Exum’s torn right ACL. Rumors out of Blacksburg are that he may be back in time for the season opener versus Alabama, but we’ll know more in the coming weeks.
Whether Exum is on the field week one or not, Virginia Tech should still have a solid defense under HC Frank Beamer and DC Bud Foster. A host of other key contributors will be relied in Exum’s absence, including linebacker Jack Tyler, ROV Kyshoen Jarrett and future NFL first-round pick defense end James Gayle.
4. North Carolina
North Carolina’s defense, while talented, struggled at times last season. The Tar Heels ranked 53rd nationally and surrendered 30 or more points six times. While stout against the run, they gave up far too many big plays.
UNC has the chance to make some strides on D this year under second-year DC Vic Koenning, despite losing several starters. All four members of the secondary will return, including the ACC’s best safety Tre Boston.
The back four has the potential to make a lot of plays, but will count on the front seven, which will be led by defense end Kareem Martin. If UNC can find a way to get in opposing backfields, quarterbacks will put balls up for grabs and give the secondary chances to create turnovers.
For the majority of last season, the Clemson defense was a middle-of-the-road unit. Giving up 24.9 isn’t ideal, but the Tigers were able to outscore teams with their high-flying offense. If the Clemson defense that held LSU to just 219 yards in last year’s Chick Fil-A Bowl shows up consistently this season, Clemson should be in the hunt for a BCS Championship.
Defensive end Vic Beasley will play a starring role on defense that returns six starters. Beasley registered eight sacks last season and should be even more productive as a junior. Last year’s freshman All-American Travis Blanks will step into a full-time starter role at safety. His aggressiveness and ball-hawking skills will give stability to a beleaguered secondary.
6. Georgia Tech
Between a new high-profile defensive coordinator, eight returning starters and one of the ACC’s best pass-rushers, there is a lot of like about the Georgia Tech defense in 2013.
Ted Roof is back for his second stint as the Yellow Jackets’ DC, replacing Al Groh. Roof’s resume also includes stints with Auburn’s 2011 BCS Championship team and Penn State last year, which finished 15th in the country.
Rush linebacker turned defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu has a chance to have an elite season in this defense. After tallying 10 sacks last year, the senior is within striking distance of Greg Gathers’ all-time school record. Attaochu’s instincts and speed off the edge should negate the learning curve of switching positions.
Miami’s defense gave up 30+ seven times and 40+ three times. If they want to contender for the ACC, let alone the Coastal division, they will have to improve on D.
Several pieces do return and will be relied on. Back are their top two tacklers from last season; linebacker Denzel Perryman and end Shayon Green. Perryman will have to not only make more plays for the defense to be successful, but he will have to mentor a group of backers that will have two underclassmen with limited experience; freshman Alex Figueroa and sophomore Raphael Kirby.
Up front, the oft-injured Green will be playing on his twice surgically-repaired right ACL. If he can stay healthy, he and last year’s sack leader Anthony Chickillo will create a formable pair of rush ends.
Syracuse was stout on defense last year. But that was last year, and that was the Big East. Several potentially prolific offense are featured in the ACC, and with several holes on the defense due to graduation, the transition may be a rough one for the Orange.
Head coach Scott Shafer will have to count on his stud linebackers Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruills to carry the defense. Both players have fast, instinctive and love to get in the backfield combining for 23 tackles for loss last year.
Outside of that, there are question marks. Syracuse may have the weakest defensive line in the conference with three of four starters gone. The secondary brings back three starters, but lost the defensive leader Shamarko Thomas to the NFL.
9. North Carolina State
Along with replacing their head coach, both coordinators and their starting quarterback this season, NC State has a lot of turnover to deal with on defense as well.
David Amerson, Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop bolted for the NFL, leaving their secondary bare with cornerback Dontae Johnson as their only returning starter. There are also concerns at linebacker, where the Wolfpack lost two of three starters and the returnees have only seven combined starts. Senior linebacker DJ Green, who played well before serving a year-long suspension, is back in the fold and should add something to the linebacker corps.
When your defense only forces five turnovers in an entire season, there is legitimate reason for change. New defensive coordinator John Tenuta’s blitz-happy scheme should create some more opportunities for turnovers, but that isn’t the end of the Cavalier’s concerns.
Among their four graduated starters are Virginia’s two top tacklers from last season, linebackers Steve Greer and LaRay Reynolds. While UVA does have some talent in their linebacker corps, they’re an inexperienced group. In fact, their defense in general is one of the youngest in the conference.
Only two seniors (end Jake Snyder and tackle Brent Urban) are anticipated starters. The rest are underclassmen. If Tenuta can have his unit buy into his system, then the Cav’s have a chance to slow down some of the ACC’s better offenses. If not, it’ll be a long fall in Charlottesville.
Maryland showed some flashes of progression in the first year of Brian Stewart’s 3-4 defense. However, that may’ve been short-lived with the uncertainty up front. Maryland must replace two All-ACC standouts in ends Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis. They also must find a way to replace would-be senior Justin Anderson, who was slated to state, but left the program in the spring.
The Terps will also have to regroup in the linebacker corps after losing three of four starters. Considering the fact that the graduates, Demetrius Hartsfield, Darin Drakeford and Kenny Tate, accounted for 23.5 of Maryland’s 28.0 sacks, a lot of production has to be made up.
Four players with starting experience return in the secondary, and will be the strong point of the defense, but it the front seven cannot hold their own, then this defense may be taking a step back in year two of Stewart’s campaign.
12. Boston College
Last year, Boston College had one of the worst defenses in all of college football. The Eagles ranked 111th against the run and ranked dead last (120th) in both sacks and tackles for loss.
Former UMass head coach Don Brown was brought in to turn around a unit that returns seven starters, but can different results be expected? Two senior linebackers, Steele Divitto and Kevin Pierre-Louis are both capable players and should again be the bright spot of the D.
13. Wake Forest
Of the eight returning starters on defense are five seniors and a junior. The four sophomores all got their fair share of playing time last year, making this a rather experienced bunch. That being said, returning the same bunch from last year may not be a great thing.
The Demon Deacons gave up over 31 points per game last year. I can attribute some of the defensive shortcomings to the putrid offense, who didn’t give the D much take to catch their breath during their frequent three-and-outs. Undersized nose tackle Nikita Whitlock may be the best player on the defense, creating havoc in the trenches.
I believe that one year of experience will improve the defense as a whole, but that remains to be seen.
Duke’s Swiss cheese-like defense will likely return for another term of futility.
The Blue Devils ranked in the 100’s nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense. And returning only five starters makes them inexperienced on top of being bad.
The lone bright spot going into 2013 is the presence of cornerback Ross Cockrell. The senior picked off five passes last year and (for now) is the only player on Duke’s defense with real NFL potential.