All this week, we’re taking a fresh look, position by position, at how ACC team stack up — from the best of the conference to the units that might surprise to the positions that will prove to be an Achilles' heel for some teams’ 2017’s title hopes.
Next up: Defensive backs
Beyond the top three groups in the ACC, this is an extremely difficult position group to evaluate. Some units bring back virtually everybody from their two-deep (Georgia Tech, Syracuse). Others lose their best player (s) and suddenly there is uncertainty (Wake Forest, North Carolina, Miami, Duke, Boston College, Clemson). There are some potential All-Americans among all defensive backs in the ACC, but trying to rank these units is challenging, especially before jobs are settled in spring practice.
Best overall: Florida State. The Seminoles bring back All-ACC cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, who tied for the national lead with eight interceptions a year ago. But he’s not the big story. It’s preseason All-American Derwin James, who missed nearly the entire 2016 season with a knee injury and is eager to show the nation just how good he can be when the season kicks off. James plays multiple positions in the Florida State secondary and also brings leadership intangibles that were missing while he was on the bench. Veteran safety Nate Andrews returns as well after getting a medical redshirt for a fifth season, while Trey Marshall showed promise a year ago.
Runner-up: Louisville. Only one significant contributor on the two-deep is gone: safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. The other returning starters should be in line for solid seasons: Jaire Alexander, Trumaine Washington and Chucky Williams have proven their worth and with another year in the system should be even better. Shaq Wiggins also comes back for his senior season after going through an injury-plagued 2016. Add in ESPN300 safety C.J. Avery from the 2017 class, and it’s easy to see Louisville has a deep and talented group.
Potential sleeper: Georgia Tech. Every single player on the two-deep returns, and that’s a good sign for a Jackets team that went through some initial growing pains in the secondary last year as they had to rebuild the entire unit. Add in two-four star cornerbacks in the 2017 class – Tre Swilling (ESPN 300) and Jaytlin Askew, and the arrow should be pointed up for this group.
Achilles’ heel: Pittsburgh. Until the Panthers prove they have gotten their secondary turned around, this spot belongs to them. To be certain, there were injuries across the board that really hurt this group a year ago, but there also were too many big plays given up. There are talented players returning, including All-ACC safety Jordan Whitehead. But this is the year for highly touted Damar Hamlin to start living up to the potential so many saw in him on the recruiting trail after being forced into action a year ago. Avonte Maddox also returns as the most experienced player in the back end.
1. Florida State 2. Louisville 3. Virginia Tech 4. Clemson 5. North Carolina