Harold Landry and Bradley Chubb could not avoid watching each other play last season as each racked up the sacks and tackles for loss and became elite defensive ends in the same division of the same conference.
But it was not until last March that the two actually met. Landry and Chubb ended up rooming together at the first Elite Student-Athlete Symposium, held at NCAA headquarters for 16 select rising seniors with high NFL draft projections.
“You definitely know the talent across the ACC,” said Landry, who led the nation with seven forced fumbles and 16.5 sacks last year at Boston College. “We’ve been producing so many talented defensive linemen.”
It’s hard to argue that any other conference has better defensive linemen and better defensive line depth than the ACC. Just recently, Phil Steele’s defensive line rankings had ACC teams filling four of the top five spots.
Among his way-too-early 2018 NFL draft player rankings by position, Mel Kiper Jr. lists seven ACC defensive ends or tackles, more than any other conference.
“It’s going to be competitive for any of those guys to be all-conference,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said. “If you’re an all-conference first-teamer in the D-line area, you’re a baller.”
While there is agreement among league coaches that defensive line is the best, most talented position across the league, there is no consensus on which team has the best overall unit. Several head coaches pointed to Clemson and its interior tandem of Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, not to mention its recent history of developing elite linemen on a regular basis.
“I’m well aware of the type of defensive lines that are out there in the ACC,” Wilkins said. “But you don’t try to focus on that personal stuff. We’re going to work to be better than everybody. Don’t talk about it, we just have to work and be about it.”
Several coaches chose NC State as the top unit. Chubb gets most of the headlines after racking up 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season. But one ACC coach said this about underrated tackles B.J. Hill and Justin Jones: “You can’t move them.”
Another head coach mentioned reserve end Darian Roseboro, who ranked second on the team in sacks a year ago with seven. “He’d be a starter anywhere else,” the coach said.
Let’s also not forget defensive end Kentavius Street, who just recently did a 700-pound squat during a workout.
Another coach mentioned Florida State, which returns Brian Burns, Josh Sweat Derrick Nnadi, and Louisville (returning Drew Bailey and hybrid James Hearns). Miami also brings back its entire starting defensive front, and tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh are poised for breakout years. Wake Forest's Duke Ejiofor also gets high marks.
Players would have to be living in a vacuum to ignore what the other competitors in their conference have done. While watching tape to scout opposing offensive linemen, they are able to study their fellow defensive ends and tackles to pick up ideas about what works against specific players.
"You watch to see the things they did and some of the things are unbelievable, like Harold Landry and Christian Wilkins, Duke Ejiofor from Wake, those guys do a lot of really good things," Chubb said. "So it’s like learning from them, too, to see what they did well against a certain tackle so you can try and implement them."
To illustrate, at least in part, the ACC had four teams in the final top 10 in team tackles for loss a year ago: Clemson (8.7 per game), Miami (8.3), Boston College (8.2) and Virginia Tech (8.1). In sacks, Florida State (3.92 per game), Boston College (3.62), Pittsburgh (3.31), Clemson (3.27) and Wake Forest (3.15) ranked in the top 11 in the nation. NC State was a top-10 rushing defense.
“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Doeren said about the ACC’s defensive line play. “We played four straight top-10 defenses last year in a row, in one month. People are like, ‘Why aren’t you scoring more points?’ They’re pretty good.”
With the way ACC defensive lines are set up this year, don’t be surprised if more coaches get that same question.