1. Virginia: The Cavaliers have three linebackers that will have the opportunity to earn first team All-ACC honors. Playing in a system that is made for linebackers, Blackstock, Parham and Brooks benefit from a scheme where defensive linemen take on blocks and allow linebackers to make plays. The only question is which one of these talented Cavalier linebackers is the best.
Ahmad Brooks is a 6-foot-4, 250 pound run-stuffing sophomore who has already made his fair share of preseason All-American teams. He is the star of this group but followed closely by Darryl Blackstock (6-4, 230) who had a freshmen record 10 sacks in 2002 and Kai Parham (6-3, 235) who had 90 tackles last year.
2. Florida State: The Seminoles lost starters Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope after the 2003 season, but they will be better in 2004. Ernie Sims has proven in summer workouts and in spring practice that he is the best athlete on the team. This year, he'll demonstrate why he was the number one player in the nation in 2002's recruiting class.
Junior A.J. Nicholson was nearly as highly touted as Sims in high school and showed his potential in 2003 collecting 55 tackles as a backup! He will join Reggie McGrew who saw plenty of action last year to make up a hard-nosed athletic group in Tallahassee.
3. Clemson: The best linebacker in the ACC is undoubtedly LeRoy Hill. Hill not only makes tackles, he makes plays. The rising senior had an impressive 147 tackles in 2003, but even more impressive is the fact that 20% of those tackles happened behind the line of scrimmage. He also added a couple of key interceptions just in case some doubted his ability. His lack of size is offset by a quick reaction to a developing play and speed to get there. This season, his ability will allow him to match his production in 2003 and gain some serious All-American recognition.
Joining Hill at linebacker will be three year starter Eric Sampson and Sophomore Anthony Waters. Although he possesses great talent, Sampson has not had the production that the coaches would have expected from the 6-3, 205 pounder. A full session of spring practice and being with the team over the summer should help him to make a larger impact.
Anthony Waters is a great looking specimen and could be an outstanding linebacker for the Tigers in 2004. The knock on Waters is the time it takes him to read and react to the play, but the light seemed to come on for Waters over the course of last week of the spring. This could be a result of the pressure he was receiving from Nick Watkins, an athletic freshmen who could split snaps with Waters and will be a playmaker himself in the near future.
4. N.C. State: The Pack defense ranked 6th in the old eight-team ACC, but one area that wasn't lacking was the linebacker position. All three starters return in 2004 including Pat Thomas who ranks 4th among returning tacklers in 2004 and his counter-part Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay who is a speedster who has a knack for the big play. Aughtry-Lindsay turned in two touchdowns in 2004, including a fumble return for 48 yards and an interception return that cover 56 yards.
5. Maryland: Maryland lost two starter from 2003's team, but return a good base with D'Qwell Jackson who was 2nd team All-ACC and is 3rd among returning tacklers this year.
Beside Jackson will be the top recruit from 2003's class Wesley Jefferson who was the scout team's top performer last year during his red shirt season. Jefferson is so talented that many thought he would step right in when Butkus Award winner EJ Henderson left in 2002. Instead, he received an extra year to develop and will be a well known commodity after 2004.
6. Miami: The Hurricanes lost two starters to the first round of the 2004 NFL draft and a total of 4 of their top 7 linebackers. Even so the outlook at the position isn't so dim for a team that can just place the next great into a vacated position.
This year coach Coker will be able to stick Gaffney High School graduate Rocky McIntosh back into the starting lineup, a position he manned throughout the 2002 season. McIntosh has had impressive showings in workouts including a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash. Larry Williams, although never a starter, should be solid in the middle after seeing time the last 3 years backing up Jonathan Vilma.
The wildcard here is 6-foot-3, 235-pound freshman Willie Williams. Williams' talents should not be overlooked. He will be on the field early and could be in a starting position by year's end. The kid is just that good.
7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies had a solid group in 2003 with plenty of experience. That won't necessarily be the case as far as experience goes in 2004, but the Hokies will have a talented group.
Mikal Baaque will return for his third year as a starter provided the experience. Look for redshirt freshmen Xavier Adibi (6'3, 230) to make a big impact this year.
8. Duke: Ted Roof will be expecting big things from his defense in 2004. One position that he will look for production is linebacker where he returns 2 or 3 starters. The Devils will be replacing their all time leader in tackles but will be doing so with Giuseppe Aguanno who had over 60 tackles last year from his outside linebacker spot. The other two spots will be manned by Brendan Dewan, a starter last year, and Malcolm Ruff both of whom are Juniors and have plenty of experience.
9. Wake Forest: Looking for a reason the Demon Deacons should be overmatched when they come to Death Valley September 4th? Look no further than the linebacker position. The Deacons are paper thin at linebacker losing five players who contributed in 2003. And you wanted to know why Jim Grobe changed his defensive scheme.
Still they return Coron Bracy and former Georgia transfer Brad White, both seniors and both are returning starters. Pierce Easley is very fast (4.5 in the forty) in the middle even though he goes right at 245 pounds!
10. North Carolina: The Tarheel coaches couldn't catch a break last year with their linebackers. Injuries and lack of depth forced them to play freshmen across the board, a move that had a lot to do with the defense giving up over 500 yards a game!
This year the Tar Heels do have some experience and the competition was fierce in the spring for the three starting spots. Larry Edwards (6-3, 230) a sophomore was able to hold on to his spot, but Tommy Richardson came up from safety to take another spot and middle linebacker spot won't be settled until closer to game time.
11. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets had one the best linebacking corps in the nation last year, but that won't help them much this year as all three starters have left, leaving a group that combined for a total of 56 tackles in 2003.
The most intriguing of the group is Gerris Wilkerson (6-3, 230) who made a name for himself last year as an undersized defensive end. This year he is back in his natural position at middle linebacker and will try to help this group through its early growing pains in 2004.
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