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Countdown to kickoff: ACC linebackers

While there's disagreement over who has the best linebacking corps in the ACC, there's little doubt about who the best three individual backers are going into the 2005 season.
Virginia's Ahmad Brooks, Maryland's D'Qwell Jackson and Florida State's Ernie Sims are consensus preseason first-team All-ACC picks by Lindy's, Athlon, Sporting News, Street & Smith's and Phil Steele's College Football Preview. All three received All-America mentions as well by those respective publications. Jackson led the ACC in tackles a year ago, wracking up 123. Brooks has been mentioned as a top five NFL Draft choice in 2006 should he decide to forgo his senior year with the Cavaliers.
It's no surprise then that Florida State, Virginia and Maryland find themselves perched among the top of our list of linebacking units in league. Top to bottom, this may be the strongest overall position group in the conference. Combine the superstars found here with those we profiled yesterday in our roundup of ACC defensive linemen, and the old adage about defense winning championships suddenly has plenty of backing.
As we countdown to kickoff, here is how we rank all 12 ACC linebacking corps. As with the other position groups, we did our own research, then gauged how Lindy's, Athlon and Sporting News rated each school's unit.
1. Florida State Seminoles
The 'Noles led the ACC and finished third in the nation in run defense in 2004. Seven of eight linebackers from that rotation return. Sims, a junior, is the headliner. He led the team in sacks last season with 4.5. Fellow outside backer A.J. Nicholson was the leading tackler, however. He outdueled Sims 88-86 and recorded 11.5 tackles for loss. Throw in middle linebacker Buster Davis, and that's 234 tackles and 28.5 tackles for loss returning. Scary.
All three players are a bit undersized by traditional linebacking standards. But they can each play sideline to sideline, making them tough against the run or the pass. Last season, this trio forced 21 hurries, created eight turnovers and blocked one kick. Depth isn't a concern should one or more get hurt. Guys like Sam McGrew, Lawrence Timmons, Jae Thaxton and Marcello Church can step in and provide quality production.
2. Virginia Cavaliers
While coach Al Groh lost his best pass rusher Darryl Blackstock to the NFL, he does return the team's leading tackler. That would be Brooks, who made 90 stops a year ago and is freakish good from his inside linebacking post. Brooks was one of three finalists for last year's Butkus Award and could win it outright this season. He's a preseason All-America pick by Athlon, Phil Steele, Street and Smith and Lindy's. Brooks and Kai Parham make for a mean combination in the middle, combining for 170 tackles in 2004. Parham has earned some preseason All-ACC mentions as well.
The big question for the 'Hoos comes on the outside. With Blackstock and Dennis Haley (64 tackles, three sacks) both gone, some youngsters will have to step up. Look for sophomores Jermaine Dais and Vince Redd and redshirt freshman Clint Sintim to battle for starting honors. Redshirt freshman Jon Copper also has good speed and should contribute.
3. Boston College Eagles
The Eagles return all three of its leading tacklers from a year ago — linebackers Ricky Brown (81), Brian Toal (77) and Ray Henderson (75). Toal, a sophomore, earned Big East rookie of the year honors and could make a name for himself quickly in the ACC. Athlon called Henderson a ball hawk after he picked off six passes last season and tallied 52 return yards. Both Toal and Henderson receive preseason All-ACC mentions.
Jolonn Dunbar, a converted running back, could play his way into the rotation using his good speed and athleticism, and even push for a starting job. Tyronne Pruitt and Robert Francois give the Eagles decent depth. It's the first time in eight years that coach Tom O'Brien returns all three of his LB starters from the previous year.
4. Maryland Terrapins
Ralph Friedgen is known more for his offensive prowess, but the Terps coach has produced some solid linebackers as well. In 2003, EJ Henderson won the Butkus and Bednarik awards. D'Qwell Jackson, a senior inside backer, is next in line to compete for those honors and could go down as one of the school's best ever before all is said and done. Jackson's tackle numbers actually went down a bit from 2003 to '04 — 136 to 123 — as if that's something to complain about. His blazing speed makes him a threat anywhere on the field.
The Terps have good speed on the outside as well in David Holloway and William Kershaw. Both started a year ago, giving Maryland plenty of experience behind what stands to be an inexperienced defensive line (which we ranked last in the ACC). Redshirt frosh Erin Henderson, EJ's little brother, will contribute as a reserve this season.
5. Miami Hurricanes
This position group, often the pride a defense, underachieved for the 'Canes in 2004, mainly because three '03 starters had departed. Middle backer Leon Williams especially struggled at times (not recording a single tackle against NC State for example). Rocky McIntosh, who plays on the strong side, finished with 111 hits, including 13 for loss. He's received some All-ACC mentions coming into this season but is overcoming a couple of serious injuries, including a herniated disc near the end of last year.
The biggest producer in '05 could be one of Miami's most controversial players: redshirt freshman Willie Williams, who was arrested a dozen times before enrolling at the school. He had a monster spring, however, and could push Leon Williams out of a starter's job.
6. Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies are young but solid at this position. Redshirt sophomores Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi anchor the group. Hall was pressed into a greater role last year when Adibi suffered a biceps tear in the season opener. He ended up finishing as the team's No. 2 tackler. Hall is considered more of a state-at-home guy while Adibi has freedom and skills to roam. Senior James Anderson will get the start on the outside, with Aaron Rouse providing competition for playing time. This isn't a position of great depth for Virginia Tech but the first rotation should be among the better ones in the league provided everyone stays healthy.
7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Question marks on the defensive line could make the linebackers' jobs that much tougher this season. Senior Gerris Wilkinson, a converted lineman, will hold down the fort in the middle. He's considered an All-ACC and even a potential All-America choice after wracking up 119 stops last season. KaMichael Hall and Philip Wheeler are both quick and hard-hitting, and should get the most reps at outside backer. Hall had 4.5 sacks a year ago.
8. NC State Wolfpack
This could very well the most underrated linebacking corps in the ACC. On paper, the Pack lost a lot: senior leader Pat Thomas (83 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and fellow senior Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (75 tackles). Hence the low rankings from national publications who are taking stock of those types of numbers. But State's leading tackler, senior Oliver Hoyte (93 stops) returns. He cross-trained at weakside linebacker this spring but should move back to the middle in the fall. Meanwhile, Pat Lowery got great experience in the middle after coming on strong toward the end of last season.
Stephen Tulloch missed spring drills but is expected back in time for preseason camp. He had six starts last year and amassed 75 tackles. Sophomore LeRue Rumph has been impressive since moving over from safety. Though not deep overall, the Wolfpack LB corps should be formidable enough — with plenty of help from one of the best D-lines in the country.
9. North Carolina Tar Heels
It depends on who you ask: The Heels either have the potential to be much-improved at this position in 2005 or they'll still be lacking enough true playmakers to be any kind of force in the ACC. Senior Doug Justice will start in the middle with fellow senior Jeff Longhany getting the nod on the strong side. Both are known for their toughness, though they don't have great speed. Weakside backer Tommy Richardson is considered the most athletic of the bunch. He had 67 tackles a year ago. If junior Larry Edwards returns to 2003 form (89 tackles) as opposed to 2004 (38 tackles), he'll provide some extra depth and needed punch.
10. Clemson Tigers
The Tigers must replace the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year from 2004, LeRoy Hill. That won't be an easy task. Anthony Waters seems the likely candidate, getting pushed by highly regarded freshman Antonio Clay. Depth will be a concern, and Clemson moved some defensive backs over this spring to fill out the depth chart. Weakside backer David Dunham is considered one of the hardest hitters and possesses great instincts overall.
11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Jon Abbate might be the best young linebacker in the league. He amassed 101 tackles as a freshman in 2004. He'll anchor the unit in the middle, though he won't have veterans around him anymore as was the case with then-seniors Brad White and Caron Bracy a year ago. The Deacs do have more young talent waiting in the wings. Look for redshirt freshmen Aaron Curry, Eric Berry, Stanley Arnoux and Antonio Wilson to challenge for playing time.
12. Duke Blue Devils
Ted Roof has plenty of question marks surrounding this position group. Last year's leading tackler Giuseppe Aguanno is gone, and another veteran (Malcolm Ruff) moves over to the offensive side of the ball. The biggest name likely will be senior Brendan Dewan, who had 84 tackles from the strong side last season. He's a three-year starter and a great team leader.