If last season was the year of the quarterback in the ACC, this season should be the year of the defense.
That much has been made clear with spring practice now in the books. Just take a look around the conference, and the possible championship contenders. Most of the best returning players across the board belong on defense, from Christian Wilkins to Derwin James to Harold Landry, Shaq Quarterman and Bradley Chubb.
Start with Clemson, where defensive coordinator Brent Venables has fielded questions about whether this could be his best defense. Never mind that his Tigers already have finished No. 1 in the nation in total D (2014). The conventional wisdom holds that this unit could be even feistier.
While the Tigers have not named a starting quarterback, the defense returns seven starters -- including everyone on the defensive line. Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are earning preseason All-America buzz, and the way they anchor that front could help the Tigers navigate a difficult September schedule.
Atlantic Division rival Florida State made vast improvements defensively in the second half of last season and though Demarcus Walker is gone off the edge, James returns to his starting spot in the secondary -- a formidable presence difficult to contain thanks to his versatility.
He is not the only one who returns. So do Josh Sweat, Brian Burns, Derrick Nnadi, Matthew Thomas and Tarvarus McFadden (just to name a few), giving the Florida State defense plenty in the way of returning standouts.
Even in Miami, expectations are high for a defense that finished in the top 20 a year ago. Much like Clemson, Miami has yet to announce a starting quarterback and returns its entire starting defensive front. But to take it one step further, Miami returns the two-deep on its entire front seven.
For that reason alone, it’s easy to see why Miami may have to rely on its defense -- especially early in the season as a new starting quarterback gets adjusted. But defensive coordinator Manny Diaz has already shied away from labeling his group as a potential top-10 unit.
“I don’t worry about top 10 because last year we were ninth in yards per play and there was no parade for finishing top 10,” Diaz said. “I want to win games. We want to win championships and what that means is we have to find a way to do what it takes to play winning defense week in and week out. There’s more to it than yards. I’d like to continue to give up not many points. I’d like to create more turnovers.”
Meanwhile at Virginia Tech, the Hokies bring back a strong secondary and linebacker group and if players like Tim Settle, Ricky Walker and Vinny Mihota take the next step on the defensive line, watch out.
But let’s expand the scope beyond the top ACC teams in the way too early preseason Top 25. NC State also returns its starting front, plus starting linebackers Jerod Fernandez and Airius Moore, allowing some to consider whether the Wolfpack could have what it takes to finally pull a few upsets in the Atlantic.
Defensive end Chubb opted to return to school for his senior season and could have a monster year, along with tackle B.J. Hill.
“Our front six guys are as deep as we've been,” coach Dave Doeren said. “We've finished fifth in rushing defense a year ago and challenged our players not to drop off there. Obviously want to improve in other categories around that.”
Wake Forest returns one of the best pass-rushers in the country in Duke Ejiofor and traditionally is strong on defense. Boston College has been tough as well, and with sack star Landry and middle linebacker Connor Strachan back, it is hard to dismiss the Eagles, too.
And that leads to the next point: the ACC has been strong defensively over several years, so it hardly comes as a surprise that defense will be strong again. Last season, the ACC had seven defenses finish in the top 25 in the nation in total defense.
The difference is that the best quarterback play in the country overshadowed many of those units in 2016. With most of those quarterbacks gone, it’s easier to put the focus back on the defenses -- especially since many will be relied upon to carry their teams while offenses get adjusted.
And that is what has the potential to separate the ACC from other conferences once the new season begins.