Sizing up the ACC: Deep, talented Clemson linebacker corps can make some noise

Spencer Shuey tackles Tech runner Orwin Smith in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter

Photo by Mark Crammer

Spencer Shuey tackles Tech runner Orwin Smith in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter

After a sordid start to 2012, Clemson’s defense needed a shot in the arm – and that came in the form of Spencer Shuey. His signature play for the opportunity came versus Georgia Tech midseason, in the middle of a back-and-forth game.

With the Yellow Jackets pinned back to their goalline, Tech quarterback Tevin Washington made a second-down pitch to the elusive A-back Orwin Smith in the endzone. He didn’t have a chance – Shuey surging through the line to swallow him up for the safety, making it a two possession game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter in Death Valley. The Tigers didn’t let them score again on to the 47-31 victory.

The next week, Shuey made his first start, and the rest was history.

Where he lands in ’13 is still unclear, working both at middle and weakside linebacker, but the production on the field is undeniable.

From Georgia Tech on (eight games), Shuey averaged a tackle every 5.5 snaps on the field. By comparison, Clemson’s leading tackler Tig Willard (95) was almost a full two snaps behind (7.2).

Returning Snaps per Tackle Leaders (Clemson LBs)

1) WLB Spencer Shuey – 5.4

2) MLB Stephone Anthony – 6

3) SLB Quandon Christian – 11.2

Clemson's Kellen Jones and Clemson's Tony Steward during the first day of spring practice in Clemson.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Kellen Jones and Clemson's Tony Steward during the first day of spring practice in Clemson.

That is your 3-deep as well according to the post-spring depth chart, with the competition on from Oklahoma transfer Kellen Jones (MLB/WLB), former five-star Tony Steward (WLB), B.J. Goodson (MLB) and more.

Receiving high-praise from practice and scout team work, Jones could very well be this year’s Shuey, rising from his place currently in third at WLB to one of Clemson’s leading playmakers. Feeling healthy, Steward, after making 12 of his 26 tackles on special teams last season, will be another Tiger to watch.

On to the rest of the ACC…

Returning ACC Leaders (linebacker)

Tackles Per Game

1) Kevin Pierre-Louis (Boston College) – 9.4

2) Jack Tyler (Virginia Tech) – 9.2

3) Steele Divitto (Boston College) – 7.7

4) Spencer Shuey (Clemson) – 7.1

5) Mike Olson (Wake Forest) – 7.1

Tackles For Loss

1) Dyshawn Davis (Syracuse) – 13

2) Jack Tyler (Virginia Tech) – 10.5

3) Telvin Smith (Florida State) – 8.5

Projecting the LBs

(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 – MLB Telvin Smith, WLB Christian Jones

Outlook: As a sophomore, Jones led one of the nation’s top defenses last season with 95 tackles and seven for loss and three pass breakups. MLB Telvin Smith, in a quasi-reserve role, made the most of his playing time with 64 tackles and 8.5 for loss. They are all over the field and the Seminoles are stocked around them with plenty of talent.

2) Georgia Tech – WLB Quayshawn Nealy, MLB Jabari Hunt-Days, Brandon Watts

Outlook: The Yellow Jackets are the only team in the ACC to return their entire starting unit back – and that’s with their top player moving to defensive end (Jeremiah Attaochu). Georgia Tech is transitioning to a 4-3, but still have their fair share of playmakers. As a freshman last season, Jabari Hunt-Days led the unit in tackles (84), while rising senior Brandon Watts racked up 6.5 tackles for loss.

3) Virginia Tech – ILB Jack Tyler

Outlook: Tyler came out of nowhere to rank among the ACC leaders in tackles (119) and TFL (10.5) on a unit that’s had a terrible run of injury luck. One injured Hokie scheduled to be back is ILB Tariq Edwards, who sat out last season after offseason surgery on leg stress fracture. In 2011, Edwards compiled 11.5 tackles for loss and 71 tackles overall. Healthy, they should be a pretty high-impact unit.

4) Clemson – MLB/WLB Spencer Shuey

Outlook: Brent Venables is pretty confident in his front-seven and the depth at linebacker now only helps. This spot, especially at WLB and MLB, could be a lot like defensive tackle last year with a lot of rotation. Last year, just four ‘backers topped 400 snaps (Shuey – 502; Anthony – 459; Christian – 447; Willard – 683).

5) Boston College – SLB Steele Divitto, WLB Kevin Pierre-Louis

Outlook: Boston College has a semi-long tradition of tackling machines, starting with Luke Kuechly then Nick Clancy (145 in ’12) and they have a couple more than can get a stop coming back. Senior WLB Kevin Pierre-Louis is the ACC’s active leader in tackles (252), while SLB Steele Divitto joins him among the ACC’s top-five returners in tackles per game (7.7).

6) Syracuse – WLB Dyshawn Davis

Outlook: Returning starters Dyshawn Davis (WLB) and Marquis Spruill (MLB) combined for 20 tackles for loss last season, which no other team in the ACC can claim. Davis is the ACC’s leading returner in TFL (13), while Spruill posted a respectable seven stops behind the line of scrimmage. Projected SLB Cameron Lynch had a single start last season, but is the team's leading returner in sacks (4).

7) Maryland – ILB Cole Farrand

Outlook: A far less than good offense overshadowed a Terps defense that improved by 96 spots in total 'D' last season – shifting to a 3-4 scheme. Maryland brings back starting experience in three of four spots, including ILB Cole Farrand – who led the Terrapins with 78 tackles and six for loss in 2012.

8) Pittsburgh – WLB Todd Thomas

Outlook: The Panthers return a pair of starters (MLB Shane Gordon and WLB Todd Thomas) to complete a front-seven in the upper half of the ACC. They did, however, lose projected starting SLB Eric Williams to dismissal in the offseason. Williams accounted for 52 tackles last season.

9) Miami – WLB Denzel Perryman

Outlook: Denzel Perryman emerged as a playmaker, with 64 tackles and six TFL, on a Miami defense that struggled mightily last season (116th nationally). He will have to lead a unit with a pair of underclassmen expected to man the other spots.

10) Wake Forest – WLB Mike Olson, OLB Justin Jackson

Outlook: The Deacs have a couple standouts, in Mike Olson (7.1 tackles per game in 2012) and Justin Jackson (’12 leading tackler – 82), but are replacing a pair of starters in the 3-4 scheme.

11) Virginia – WLB Daquan Romero

Outlook: The Cavaliers lose not one but two 90-plus tackle and seven-plus TFL players and have just 12 career starts between its projected starters. Kwontie Moore, ranked as high as a four-star prospect and the third-ranked LB of the 2012 class, is expected to man the middle, while Daqaun Romero (44 tackles/3.5 TFL in ’12) takes WLB.

12) N.C. State – SLB D.J. Green

Outlook: Just as one expected contributor returned – another transferred for the Wolfpack this offseason. Coming off a season-long suspension, junior D.J. Green (51 career tackles) is projected to man strongside linebacker, but in an odd move, 2012 LB-leading tackler Ricky Dowdy (81) transferred to NAIA-level Cumberland. Projected WLB starter Brandon Pittman had 34 stops with three TFL, while sophomore MLB M.J. Salahuddin had just three.

13) Duke – WLB C.J. France

Outlook: In the 4-2-5 scheme, Duke’s primary playmakers have been in the secondary, but the Blue Devils do bring back a pair of starters and have some experience behind them. C.J. France and MLB Kyler Brown each had three pass breakups last season and France was sixth on the team with four passes defended.

14) UNC – WLB Tommy Heffernan

Outlook: The Tar Heels, like Duke, are another 4-2-5 scheme replacing a starter. UNC’s top returning linebacker is actually moving from safety – Tommy Heffernan, who was third on the team in sacks (3) and TFL (5.5) with 73 tackles last season.

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