*- Part One - QBs
*- Part Two - RBs
*- Part Three - WRs
*- Part Four - OL
*- Part Five - DL
1. Virginia – The Cavaliers have most likely the premier LB group in the country. MLBs Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham are blue-chip talents, than anchor the inside of the Cavs 3-4 alignment . OLB Daryl Blackstock was the conference rookie of the year in 2002, but tailed off a bit in 2003. Still, he's an outstanding blitzer and there is no reason to suspect he won't revert to 2002 form. The other starter will most likely be senior Rich Bedesam.
2. Florida State – Despite losing 1st team all-ACC performer Michael Boulware and the other 2 starters, the Seminoles have nothing to worry about here. Super sophs Ernie Sims and A.J. Nicholson will carry on the long lineage of talented FSU linebackers. When the dust settles on the 2004 season, one or both could be all-conference. The other position will be filled by Marcello Church, Buster Davis, Sam McGrew, Ray Piquon. All of these players will see considerable playing time.
3. NC State – The Pack returns their entire depth chart at LB. 2nd team all-ACC selection Pat Thomas will man the weakside, joined by Fred Aughtry-Lindsay on the strongside and Oliver Hoyte in the middle. Backups Stephen Tulloch and Patrick Lowery have both seen many game reps and provide proven depth.
4. Maryland – With "Leo" LB Shawne Merriman and MLB D'Qwell Jackson, The Terps have a solid core returning. Both players should contend for all-conference honors. The strongside backer position will be manned by one of 3 players: walk-on David Holloway, walk-on Jeris Smith, or true freshman Eric Lenz. The WLB position will be a battle between Junior William Kershaw, and highy touted redshirt freshman Wesley Jefferson.
5. Clemson –The Tigers return 1st team all-ACC player Leroy Hill, however, they must replace John Leake who is one of Clemson's top 5 all-time tacklers. Replacing Leake will be sophomore Anthony Walters. Other vying for playing time will be Roosevelt Nelson, David Dunham, and Nick Watkins. Like many other ACC teams, they must fill some big shoes with unproven players.
6. Miami – The Canes must replace first round NFL draft picks Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, along with 3 other seniors on the depth chart. There will surely be talent stepping in, but they will be woefully short of game experience. Juniors OLB Roger McIntosh and MLB Leon Williams are the most experienced returnees. They will be joined in the starting lineup by sophomore OLB Tavares Goodman. One thing that is known for sure is that whoever lines up for the Hurricanes will be athletic, even of they are inexperienced.
7. Virginia Tech – The Hokies return 2 starters at LB from the 2003 defense, MLB Mikal Baaqee, and WLB Brandon Manning. They must, however, replace their physical presence in the middle, Vegas Robinson. The leading candidates for the other backer spot are redshirt junior Blake Warren and redshirt freshman Xavier Adibi. Talented freshmen Vince Hall and Brett Warren (younger brother of Brett) could push their way on to the depth chart.
8. Duke – The Devils lose #2 all-time tackler Ryan Fower in the middle. While Duke will miss his leadership and strength against the run, the unit as a whole should be better in 2004. WLB Brendan Dewan might be Duke's best defensive player. He is a solid in coverage and a good open-field tackler despite his diminutive 215-pound stature. Senior Guiseppe Aguano will move to from the strong-side to the middle. He has 2 years of starting experience, and should be able to handle the switch easily. Strongside LB Malcolm Ruff has great size (255 lbs), and is equally as good against the run and the pass. The strength of the Blue Devil corps, however, is the depth. There is virtually no dropoff between the starters and the reserves. WLB DeAndre White and SLB Alex Williams saw extensive playing time last season. MLB Codey Lowe is the X-factor. After sitting out last season, he could provide the same inside toughness that Fowler brought to the MLB spot.
9. Wake – The Deacons return their starting OLB's in 5th year seniors Brad White and Caron Bracey. Both are solid ACC veterans who will lead the defense. Pierre Easley will fill the "Mike" linebacker spot and will be backed up by Naoplean Sykes. As a whole, the Wake linebackers are tough, but a bit undersized and not as athletic as most of their ACC bretheren.
10. Georgia Tech – The Jackets have the daunting task of replacing 4-year starter Daryl Smith as well as last year's leading tackler Keyaron Fox. As of right now, the starters are sophomores Nick Moore and KaMichael Hall, as well as redshirt junior Gerris Wilkinson. They have big shoes to fill, and time will tell if they can step up and replace the departed seniors.
11. UNC – The whole UNC front seven needs an overhaul from 2003, where they finished a distant 9th in run defense and total defense. The linebackers were generally poor tacklers and had to fight through more traffic than other teams. 2-year starting MLB Doug Justice finds himself in a reserve role heading into 2004, supplanted by sophomore Fred Sparkman. Flanking the middle are "Sam" linebacker Tommy Richardson and "Will" linebacker Larry Edwards. With Justice in a reserve role, the Heels do have depth.
Best pro prospect: Ahmad Brooks (Virginia) – Brooks is a 250-pund monster that also has great agility for his size. Some experts thought that he would have been a first round draft pick had he been able to turn pro. Too bad that he had only been in college for 2 years. Expect him to be a mid-first round pick in the 2005 draft.
Breakout Player: D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland) – Breaking out might be a strong term for someone that made second team all conference in his first full year of starting. Jackson, however, has a chance to be as good or better than the player he replaced (E.J. Henderson). He has great instincts with great speed to match.
Most Valuable: Leroy Hill (Clemson) – When talking about the ACC's best linebackers, Hill's name is usually not the first one that comes to mind. It should be at the tip of everyone's tongue, considering he was first team all-ACC and the conference's leading returning tackler from 2003, including 25 tackles for loss.
On the cusp: Ernie Sims and A.J. Nicholson (FSU) – Despite the Noles losing 2003 first teamer Michael Boulware, they could end up being better at LB in 2004 because of sophomores Sims and Nicholson. Both players are game-changers and as sophomores should dominate on defense for the next few seasons.
Best pass rusher: Darryl Blackstock – UVA
Biggest hitter: Ernie Sims – FSU
Best tackler: Leroy Hill – Clemson
Underrated: Brendan Dewan – Duke
Pat Thomas – NC State