Sizing up the ACC: Tigers aiming for improvement in young, talented secondary

Immokalee's Mackensie Alexander gets the defensive play call from the sideline during the second quarter of their 5A-Region 3 game at Immokalee on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. The Indians defeated the Wildcats 35-13. Scott Butherus/Staff

Immokalee's Mackensie Alexander gets the defensive play call from the sideline during the second quarter of their 5A-Region 3 game at Immokalee on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. The Indians defeated the Wildcats 35-13. Scott Butherus/Staff

Experience, outside of a few select schools (including Clemson), isn’t really a problem among 2013 ACC secondaries.

Improvement needed? Definitely.

Half of the league finished 70th or worse nationally in pass defense last season, but in pass effiency ‘D,’ the ACC did have five in the top-40.

Nine of the now 14-team football league return at least 75 percent of their starting defensive backs, while UNC, Virginia and Virginia Tech return their whole group.

Florida State and Virginia Tech have been the clear top-two pass defenses of late and there’s no reason to think that won’t be the case again. A look at the last two years in yards and ranking…

Top-3 2012 Pass Defense (2011 national rank)/2012 Pass Efficiency Defense (2011 national rank)

1. Florida State – 161.9 YPG (19)/Florida State – 95.4 (25)

2. Virginia Tech – 199.1 (31)/Virginia Tech – 108.9 (14)

3. Maryland – 207.5 (75)/UNC – 120.8 (63)

The individual returning leaders…

Top-5 ACC Active Leaders – (Passes Defended/Interceptions)

1. Ross Cockrell (Duke) – 38 PD/9 INTs

2. Antone Exum (Virginia Tech) – 41 PD/6 INTs

3. Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech) – 22 PD/4 INTs

4. Jemea Thomas (Georgia Tech) – 20 PD/7 INTs

5. Tre Boston (UNC) – 17 PD/8 INTs

And the tops last year…

2012 Returning Leaders Passes Defended

1. CB Antone Exum (Virginia Tech) – 21 PD

2. CB Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest) – 18 PD

3. CB Ross Cockrell (Duke) – 18 PD

4. CB Demetrious Nicholson (Virginia) – 15 PD

5. CB Tim Scott (UNC) – 12 PD

Projecting the ACC Defensive Backs

(If you haven’t been around with us before, the rankings are based on production/field impact – not a straight measure of their abilities like a NFL draft board. We’re looking at not only the player’s ability, but the surrounding cast that can help him get the W's and numbers.)

1) Florida State – CBs Lamarcus Joyner, Nick Waisome, Ronald Darby

Outlook: FSU is absolutely stacked here and so much so that they can afford to try to move All-ACC safety Lamarcus Joyner back to cornerback. Other options at corner include ACC defensive rookie of the year Ronald Darby (8 passes defended) and junior Nick Waisome (8 passes defended in 2012). The Seminoles were No. 1 in pass defense and No. 14 in pass efficiency defense last season.

2) Virginia Tech – CBs Antone Exum, Kyle Fuller

Outlook: The Hokies were the only other top-25 pass defense in the ACC in 2012 and return all four starters – including the ACC’s No. 1 Antone Exum (CB) and No. 3 Kyle Fuller (CB) active leaders in passes defended, 41 and 22 respectively. Safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner combined for 143 tackles and 16 passes defended.

3) Pittsburgh – S Jason Hendricks, CB K’Waun Williams

Outlook: After posting the second-best Big East pass ‘D,’ Pittsburgh enters the ACC with its top defensive playmaker (FS Jason Hendricks) and a couple more starters off a unit that finished in the top-25 in pass defense and pass efficiency defense in 2012.

4) Virginia – CB Demetrious Nicholson, S Anthony Harris

Outlook: The ‘Hoos return their top corner (Demetrious Nicholson) and tackler (SS Anthony Harris) in the secondary. Nicholson was second in the ACC last season with 15 pass breakups, but the Cavaliers ranked last in the conference with just four interceptions.

5) Georgia Tech – CB Jemea Thomas, FS Isaiah Johnson

Outlook: Georgia Tech’s top two returning tacklers come in the secondary, in free safety Isaiah Johnson (87) and cornerback Jemea Thomas (86). In the top-five ACC active leaders, Thomas has 20 career passes defended.

6) UNC – S Tre Boston, CB Jabari Price

Outlook: The Tar Heels were the example of the difference between pass defense (81) and pass efficiency defense (38) in the national ranks last season. The goal in the PED is to take a formula of yards + touchdowns given up minus interceptions/completions-to-attempts. UNC, which returns all four starters, made plays while giving up yards – led by safety Tre Boston who had 10 passes defended.

7) Clemson – S Travis Blanks, CB Darius Robinson

Outlook: Did last year seem a bit atypical in the secondary? It indeed was, as Clemson finished out of the top-50 in pass defense (71) for the first time since 2001. They begin the road back to respectability with talented nickelback Travis Blanks moving to safety, senior Darius Robinson back from injury to man one corner and eight incoming freshman signees. Five-star Mackensie Alexander is the one to watch out of that group – full of swagger and a physical corner that can make an instant impact.

8) Boston College – S Sean Sylvia

Outlook: The Eagles bring back experience off a unit that struggled overall last season. Safety Sean Sylvia compiled 86 tackles last season. BC is waiting on highly-rated junior corner Al Louis-Jean to finally breakout after playing some his freshman season and coming off an injury last season.

9) Wake Forest – CB Kevin Johnson, S A.J. Marshall

Outlook: With some veterans back in 2012, the Deacs were about as disappointing a secondary as any in the ACC last year. They were 100th in pass defense and 88th pass efficiency ‘D.’ After a sophomore slump, corner Merrill Noel hopes to recapture some of the 2011 magic where he led the nation with 21 passes defended.

10) Miami – S Deon Bush

Outlook: Miami has assembled the talent here, but like Clemson, they are looking for a bounceback off a triple-digit pass defense mark in 2012 (102). CB Ladarius Gunter led the ‘Canes with seven passes defended.

11) Maryland – CB Dexter McDougle

Outlook: The Terps made as big a jump as any in the ACC here up 45 spots in pass ‘D’ (30) and 28 in pass efficiency defense (65). Maryland brings back both corners, including top-five active leader in PBUs Dexter McDougle (14), but are looking for answers at safety after moving veteran Matt Robinson to linebacker.

12) Syracuse – CB Keon Lyn

Outlook: Syracuse will get its first taste of the ACC with three starters back after ranking No 91 in pass efficiency defense last season. Senior CB Keon Lyn led the Orange with 10 passes defended.

13) N.C. State – CB Dontae Johnson

Outlook: N.C. State ranked second both in passes defended (69) and passes defended per game (5.31) in 2012, but they are going through a staff and roster overhaul this season. Corners Dontae Johnson and Juston Burris did combine for 17 passes defended, but after that, the Wolfpack will need some off-the-radar guys to step up.

14) Duke – CB Ross Cockrell

Outlook: CB Ross Cockrell is the ACC’s active leader in interceptions (9) and second-best in passes defended (38). As a unit, the Blue Devils have averaged a No. 94 pass defense mark and 112 in pass efficiency defense the last three seasons.

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