The Top Defensive Backfields in the ACC

With more teams in the ACC "spreading it out" and throwing the ball, a premium has been put on a defensive backfield that can shut down the passing game. This year the defense that leads its team to a championship in the new look ACC will have to have a strong secondary. Which secondary is the strongest? Take a look inside to find the answers.

1. Clemson: The Clemson defensive backfield returns intact this season with one senior and three juniors roaming the field. Last year, the Tigers finished second in the league in pass defense, holding opponents to less than 190 yards a game.

The 2004 version will obviously be better with more experience, but the biggest differences could be in an improved Tye Hill, and a much improved pass rush with the emergence of Charles Bennett.

Justin Miller and Jamaal Fudge are garnering preseason All-ACC honors, yet it is Hill who has looked the role of shutdown corner thus far in fall camp. Look for this group to lead the defense and allow defensive coordinator John Lovett to stack the box and defend the run while this unit contines to be efficient in pass coverage, even in press man situations.

2. Florida State: How good are the Seminoles' corners this year? Let's just say that back up speedster Antonio Cromartie would start for anyone in this nation, except for hs own team. For now the 2002 USA Today high school defensive player of the year will have to settle for starting only in nickel packages and backing up starters Bryant McFadden and Leroy Smith.

The Seminole safeties are back in the form of B.J. Ward (6 passes broken up) and Jerome Carter. The backups are just as good and include Pat Watkins and Kyler Hall, who both have a lot of experience.

3. Miami: Although the Canes lose three of four starters from 2003, the talent that this unit brings back is not to be overlooked. After all, this is the team that lost Mike Rumph, Ed Reed and Phil Buchanon (all top NFL picks in 2001) and calmly replaced them with Sean Taylor, Antrel Rolle, Mo Sikes, and Kelly Jennings, a group that ranked in the top 5 in pass defense in 2002.

Now Taylor, Sikes, and last year's starter Alfonso Marshall are gone, but all is not lost. In fact, this time the Canes return what is considered by many the top corner in the country in Antrel Rolle to build around. Joining Rolle at corner is Kelly Jennings, who has 17 starts in his career, but is having a hard time putting distance between himself and converted safety Marcus Maxey. The safety position has solid starters, but is looking for a fourth safety right now, a problem a lot of other teams would love to have.

4. Georgia Tech: Although the linebackers are weak and the defensive line is thin, the defensive backfield is an unquestioned strength for this team headed into the 2004 season. The safety position is rock solid where it returns the defense's top returning tackler and interception leader in James Butler and starter Dawan Laundry who added 80 tackles himself. Butler was a first team All-ACC selection.

The cornerback position returns starter Reuben Houston and will count on Sophomore Kenny Scott to fill the shoes of former Jacket Jonathon Cox and his 66 tackles and 6 pass breakups.

5. N.C. State: The Pack secondary was nothing short of terrible in 2004 giving up almost 300 yards a game through the air. So why is this team sitting in the fifth spot in this list? One reason is the return of 2002 starter Marcus Hudson and the talented A.J. Davis, both of whom were suspended for the entire 2003 season.

Hudson will take over at free safety and will join a talented Andre Maddox who will start at strong safety.

Three experienced corners also return for Chuck Amato. Davis will start at one corner, with Lamont Reid at the other. Dovonte Edwards will allow the starters to take a breather and will provide coverage in nickel packages.

6. Wake Forest: The Deamon Deacons return three starters including an All-ACC performer Eric King who had 3 interceptions and an amazing 15 passes broken up in 2004.

Other starters are Warren Braxton at strong safety who had 66 tackles in 2003 and corner Marcus McGruder. Although Wake's defensive line is small and the linebacker depth is thin, it is the defensive backs that could cause the Tigers concern in the opener as Jim Grobe has really upgraded the talent at this position since his arrival.

7. Duke: Surprisingly, Duke was third in ACC pass defense in 2003, only giving up 217 yards in the air per game. This year Duke returns 6 of their top 8 defensive backs, but lose their best defensive back and last year's leading tackler with the graduation of second team All-ACC strong safety Terrell Smith.

8. Virginia: The secondary could be the Achilles heel of a defense that returns 6 of 7 starters up front. Head coach Al Groh has tried to upgrade the speed in his secondary since his arrival, and this year the Cavs could have found it in cornerback Phillip Brown. The problem is that Brown is only a freshmen and provides the Cavs only depth at the cornerback position.

Eventually Brown will join Tony Franklin in the starting lineup. Franklin was a starter last year but was anything but consistent.

At safety the Cavs return starter Jermaine Hardy, but will have to rely on a converted running back in Maurquis Weeks to play on the strong side. Weeks showed promise in the spring but his inexperience was obvious.

9. Virginia Tech: The Hokies lost a lot of talent and experience from the 2003 defense and the secondary was no exception. Deangelo Hall will start immediately for the Atlanta Falcons this season, and the Hokies next best db in 2003, Michael Crawford, is gone as well. In fact, the only returning starter is corner Jimmy Williams, who was a safety all of last year. Williams, who is 6'3 and 219 pounds is rather large for a corner but has been commended for his acute coverage skills.

While the rest of the positions in the secondary are manned by seniors, none of the starters have significant starting experience. Even so, much is expected out of Junior College transfer James Griffin who will start at the rover position and is considered one of the top defensive playmakers for the 2004 unit.

10. Maryland: No longer will Ralph Friedgen be able to rely on an experienced and physical secondary to help lead his Terps to another surprise 10 win season. If Friedgen is going to win in 2004, he will have to find a way to replace three talented dbs, including Madieu Williams who had 86 tackles last year.

The Terps do return preseason All-ACC corner Domonique Foxworth, who led the ACC in passes defended (22). Even so, the safeties are green as grass with little playing experience.

11. North Carolina: The bad news? UNC returns only one starter in the secondary. The good news? UNC returns only one starter in the secondary.

The Tarheel defense couldn't get much worse than the unit they placed on the field in 2003. In fact, 2003's weaknesses looked like opportunities to outsiders and this year the Tarheels look to talented JC transfer Lionell Green as a starter at one corner and ETSU transfer Gerald Sensabaugh to start at safety. Look for this group to improve in 2004, but it's going to take much improvement for this group to move up from the eleventh spot.

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