Ranking the Defensive Lines

There are a lot of things that go into a successful football season. Things like coaching, lack of injuries, team chemistry, and a great quarterback are all contributing factors that combine to make championship teams, but if you have a great defense, you can manage a great season even without a lot of the other factors.

A great defense starts with its most important component, the defensive line. A great defensive line can shut down the run and make pass coverage a lot easier. Today we look at the position that will play a large part in determining this year's ACC champion.

1. Miami: The Hurricanes lose 7 starters on defense this year but will be able to build around a defensive front that returns 6 linemen with starting experience. The 2003 version was stingy against the run, giving up only 3.2 yards a carry, and should be able to match that level this year with the returning personnel up front.

The Hurricanes have been a factory for top round NFL defensive linemen, including this year's first rounder Vince Wilfork. The next future pro could be DE Thomas Carrol or 6'4, 300 lb DT Orien Harris, both of whom the Miami coaching staff is very high on.

2. Florida State: And just when you thought that losing three starters, including Darnell Dockett, would have the Seminoles struggling this year up front. Not at all! In fact, this group could match the 2003 unit in production, a group that led the ACC in rushing defense and sacks.

The reason? The Seminoles rotated 3 players at all four positions last year. One of those players that will step into a starting role this year is Travis Johnson, who was the most productive pass rushing defensive tackle in 2003. Eric Moore will man one end position and is the lone returning starter from this unit.

3. Virginia Tech: The Hokies turned out to be somewhat soft up front in 2003 and lacked the great pass rush they've had in year's past. That could all change with the return of pass rushing specialist Jim Davis to the starting lineup. Davis nursed a pectoral injury in 2003, but if he can return to 2002 form, a year in which he lead a unit that registered 42 sacks, this unit will be a strength once again in Blacksburg.

Both defensive tackles Kevin and Jonathan Lewis return. These guys are very talented, but lacked consistency in 2003, something that should be improved with another year's experience under their belt. The other end will be manned by talented Darryl Tapp.

4. N.C. State: No one can argue the talent that the Wolfpack has on its defensive front. It's the lack of consistency that kept the unit down last year. The Wolfpack returns two All-ACC candidates in 6'7, 265 lb stud Mario Williams and fellow sophomore defensive tackle John McCargo who led the team with 16 quarter back pressures this season. Williams was thrown into action last year but had a solid spring and should show fans why he was the #1 defensive end in the nation coming out of high school.

McCargo could be flanked by my pick for ACC 2004 instant impact defender DeMario Pressley who was the most impressive defensive tackle I scouted on film this past year. If not the position will go to Dwayne Herndon.

5. Georgia Tech: Although I think Georgia Tech could be headed for a disappointing year, one thing that they do have to build around is their defensive line. Everyone from last year's first team unit returns from a group that was thought to be too small to play at this level. All they did was hold opposing offenses to 113 yds rushing a game and 3.3 yards a carry, which was good enough for second best in the ACC. Although small, this group is extremely quick and was third in the ACC in sacks.

Defensive end Eric Henderson is on everyone's first team All-ACC team after leading the league in sacks last year. Gerris Wilkerson will move to linebacker from defensive end and Travis Parker will move from tackle to end. Mansfield Wrotto will be back at one tackle after a freshmen All-American type season and Sophomore Joe Anoai will man the other tackle after getting plenty of experience last year.

For now, a lack of size and depth keep the Jackets here in the 5th spot.

6. Virginia: The Cavs gave up 4.2 yards a carry last year. That's not too impressive for a group that comes in at the sixth spot in the poll. What the Cavs lack in production last year they make up for this year with experience. The defensive front returns all three starters and all three backups in 2004. That includes 2nd team All-ACC performer Chris Canty. In fact, the returning experience should allow Al Groh to be more aggressive in his attack up front allowing this group to put up much better numbers in 2004.

7. Clemson: The Tigers came into the spring with the task of replacing three starters on the defensive front. With Chris McDuffie now back in the mix, the Tigers have a rotation that includes Eric Coleman and Trey Tate in the 1st rotation, both of whom had plenty of snaps last season, and Cory Groover and McDuffie in the 2nd rotation, who were both inexperienced yet more talented than the Tate and Coleman. Although the future doesn't look as bright as it would have with Donnell Washington in the mix, this group should now have a regular rotation with little drop in production between the first and second teams.

Defensive line coach Ron West was serious when he said that Charles Bennett, Moe Fountain and Gaines Adams could play for anyone in the ACC. This is the most athletic group of ends the Tigers have had in a decade and they will be a better than what we saw in 2003.

Bennett is the best player no one has heard about and will likely put up numbers that will receive All-ACC consideration this season.

8. Maryland: Last season Maryland allowed more yards per carry (3.4) than any other year in the Freidgen era. Now the Terps must replace all-everything defensive tackle Randy Starks.

The good news is both ends return including 2nd team ACC performer Kevin Eli, who almost ended his career before stepping in late in 2003 for injured DE Scott Smith.

9. Duke: Without a doubt the strongest group for Duke in 2004. The Blue Devils return three senior starters including Phillip Alexander who is garnering preseason All-ACC recognition. The other tackle position will be manned by Casey Camero or Demetrius Warrick who is 6'7, 300 lbs.

10. Wake Forest: Wake returns three starters and a lot of guys with experience to a front that is not physical enough for Coach Jim Grobe. Who could blame him? The biggest starter is just over 280 pounds! For this reason Jim Grobe rotated a lot of bodies in 2003 and returns 10 players with significant snaps for the 2004 season.

11. North Carolina: The Tar Heel defense should be much improved in 2004. How could they not be? They were horrendous in 2003 giving up over 500 yards a game including 200+ on the ground!

This year they return senior Chase Page and Junior defensive end Tommy Davis to the defensive front. Isaish Thomas is only a sophomore but will be moved into a starting role.

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