The ACC is going to have some stacked secondaries in 2012. Leading the way is NC State's quartet of returning starters - senior safeties Earl Wolff and Brandan Bishop, along with junior All-American cornerback David Amerson and redshirt senior counterpart C.J. Wilson, a two and a half year starter entering his final campaign. The quartet has combined for 124 collegiate starts and helped the Wolfpack pace the country with 27 interceptions last fall, 25 of which were made by the secondary.
Florida State also has an impressive group of defensive backs with three returning starters who have combined for 60 starts in their careers. Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid are both talented cover men, while safety Lamarcus Joyner earned second-team All-ACC honors last fall. That trio will be helped by a defensive line that might rank as the nation's best and a solid linebacking corps.
Clemson returns four defensive backs who recorded at least seven starts in 2011, led by safety Rashard Hall, while Virginia Tech and Miami also have impressive duos to lead the back lines of their defenses. The Hokies boast cornerback Kyle Fuller, who notched 14.5 tackles for loss last year en route to second-team All-ACC laurels, and Antone Exum, who paced the squad with 89 tackles last year but moves from rover to cornerback this fall. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes will start safeties Ray Ray Armstrong, who started just one game last year but was second-team All-ACC in 2010, and Vaughn Telemaque, a veteran of 36 starts.
Ranking The ACC's Cornerbacks
1. David Amerson, NC State Last year, Amerson set ACC and school records when he hauled in 13 interceptions as a true sophomore. It was the second-best single-season interception total in FBS history and he was rewarded with first-team All-America honors from ESPN and Walter Camp, while he won the Jack Tatum Award (nation's top defensive back) and was one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award. In addition to five pass breakups, he also ranked fifth on the team with 59 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. The 6-foot-3, 194-pounder already has pro scouts drooling over his potential to play on Sundays, and he is a near lock for the first round of next spring's NFL Draft, should he decide to leave school early. Amerson, who returned two of his picks for touchdowns, is ranked as the No. 8 player on ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr.'s big board (ranking of the top draft-eligible prospects) and he also lists the Greensboro, N.C., native as the nation's top junior cornerback. He was named the top cornerback in college football heading into 2012 by Phil Steele and the second-best by Lindy's.
2. Xavier Rhodes, Florida State The 6-1, 209 pound junior burst onto the scene in 2010, when he ranked 16th nationally in passes defended per game (1.14) and was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year after he totaled four interceptions and 12 pass breakups, in addition to 58 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. He was also named a freshman All-America after his debut campaign. Last year, his numbers dipped to 43 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception while starting 10 games. However, he'll be playing in one of the nation's most talented defenses this fall and should return to his freshman year form. It is a little concerning that he didn't start every game after such an outstanding freshman campaign, but he is still among the most highly regarded cornerbacks in the land - Kiper lists him as the No. 20 player on his big board and the No. 2 junior corner in the country, while Steele named him the No. 8 cornerback and he checked in as the No. 12 cornerback in the Lindy's rankings.
3. Merrill Noel, Wake Forest Merrill "Bud" Noel tied for the national lead in passes defended last year, with 21 as a redshirt freshman, including a pair of interceptions. That performance earned him ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and the Pahokee, Fla., native was also named as a consensus Freshman All-American. He notched 66 tackles, which ranked third on the team, and forced a fumble while he started every game in the campaign. Sports Illustrated named him an All-America honorable mention. The 5-10, 180-pounder was named as the nation's No. 10 cornerback heading into the 2012 season by Lindy's, while Steele viewed him as the No. 69 player at his position. Noel and free safety Kenny Okoro will lead the way for seven returning starters on the Demon Deacon defense. He also returned 13 kicks for 233 yards (17.9 average) last season.
4. Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech In 2011, Fuller was one of the ACC's most versatile defenders - he started at both cornerback and whip linebacker for the Hokies, while he racked up 65 tackles, including 14.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery and one forced fumble; he also recovered a blocked punt for a score. He ranked fourth on the Hokies in tackles, while he paced the league's defensive backs in tackles behind the line of scrimmage and sacks. The 6-foot, 187-pounder was rewarded with second-team All-ACC honors last fall, and he has played in every game over the past two years with 20 starts. The true junior will be a part of another outstanding Virginia Tech defense, and should form an excellent cornerback duo with former safety Antone Exum. Fuller is ranked as the No. 18 cornerback in the land by Steele.
5. Greg Reid, Florida State The senior is one of the nation's best punt returners, but the 5-9, 175-pounder is also a fine cover man. Like Rhodes, Reid was in and out of the starting lineup last year - partly because of injuries, partly because of off-the-field infractions and partly because of the presence of Mike Harris - but finished with 32 tackles, including one for loss, two interceptions and five pass breakups in 11 games and nine starts. He also led the ACC and ranked 17th nationally with an average of 11.24 yards per punt return, including an 83-yarder he returned for a score against Miami, his third career touchdown scored on a punt return. As a sophomore, he finished 10th nationally in passes defended, with three interceptions and 14 pass deflections, while he also totaled 65 tackles, including three for loss, and three forced fumbles. In 2009, he notched two interceptions and six pass breakups while he led the nation with an average of 18.4 yards per punt return. For his career, Reid has recorded 25 pass deflections and seven interceptions, to go along with 120 tackles; he has also returned an interception for a score and has logged 1,553 yards on 63 kickoff returns (24.7 average). Reid was arrested on July 11 for multiple infractions, and it remains to be seen how that will affect his season. He had been suspended for one game in 2011 due to a violation of team rules. He is ranked as the No. 22 cornerback in the land by Steele.
- Rod Sweeting, Georgia Tech The 6-foot, 184 pound senior was a starter for the first time last year, and he was rewarded with honorable mention All-ACC laurels. He started all 13 games and tallied 56 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery; he also tied for 10th in the ACC with a trio of interceptions and tied for fifth in the league with 10 pass breakups. Sweeting is a veteran of 39 career games, which is tied for the team lead, and he is one of three returning starters in the Yellow Jackets' secondary. He is ranked as the No. 11 cornerback in the country by Steele.
Exum was an honorable mention All-ACC selection at safety last fall, but switched to cornerback during the spring. In 2011, he started all 14 games - 11 at free safety and three at rover - and paced the Hokies with 89 tackles, including five for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The 6-foot, 219 pound redshirt junior was ranked by Steele as the No. 24 cornerback in the land.
- Demetrious Nicholson, Virginia The 5-11, 165-pounder became the first true freshman at UVa to start in the season opener since 2005, and the first to do so at cornerback since 1986 en route to opening every contest last fall. Nicholson didn't disappoint, earning second-team Freshman All-America honors from Yahoo! Sports and CollegeFootballNews.com while lining up opposite of star Chase Minnifield, who earned several All-America honors but has since graduated. He tied with Minnifield for a team lead with eight pass breakups and the true freshman also tallied a pair of interceptions, to go along with 60 tackles, including two for loss, and a forced fumble. Nicholson will have to become the leader of the Cavs' secondary as the only returning starter and should continue the program's line of solid cornerbacks, which also included Ras-I Dowling and Chris Cook.
Ranking The ACC's Safeties
1. Earl Wolff, NC State Wolff is arguably the most productive returning safety in the ACC for 2012. He finished last fall with 113 tackles, including two for loss, and forced six turnovers (three interceptions, three forced fumbles), while he also recovered a loose ball and broke up three more passes. The 6-foot, 201 pound redshirt senior will lead the way for a loaded secondary in 2012 and has been called the, "heart of the defense," by coach Tom O'Brien despite the presence of All-American cornerback David Amerson. Wolff has appeared in 38 games during his career and has started 30 times while he has logged impressive totals of 255 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, seven pass breakups, four interceptions, seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He's been overlooked by most prognosticators heading into 2012, but should definitely challenge for All-ACC laurels in his final campaign. He is ranked as the No. 11 safety in the nation by Lindy's and the No. 22 strong safety in college football by Steele.
2. LaMarcus Joyner, Florida State Joyner was named All-ACC second-team in his first year as a starter last fall after he totaled 54 tackles, including two for loss, one sack, three pass breakups and four interceptions as a true sophomore. The most impressive part of it, though, is the fact that he lined up at cornerback as a rookie in 2010. Don't be fooled by the size of the 5-8, 204-pounder because he can make plays and efficiently bring down ball carriers. He'll be a part of a loaded FSU secondary that includes Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes - two experienced cornerbacks that should make his job easier. Joyner, already a veteran of 27 games, is also an excellent kickoff returner and averaged 30.5 yards on 13 returns last season, including a 77-yarder. The junior is ranked as the No. 9 safety in the country by Lindy's, while Steele listed him as the No. 7 strong safety in college football.
3. Brandan Bishop, NC State Like his teammate Wolff, Bishop has also managed to fly under the radar despite some impressive stats. Last year as a true junior in his third year of starting, the 6-2, 210-pounder tallied 99 tackles, including two for loss, a forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and five interceptions, which tied for 14th in the nation. He has earned All-ACC honorable mention in each of the past two seasons and has career totals of 204 tackles, including four for loss, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and nine interceptions. Bishop is a veteran of 37 games, including a team-best 33 starts, and will help lead one of the nation's best back lines in the country. With teams shying away from David Amerson this year, Bishop may have more opportunities than ever before to show off his ball-hawking skills. The Boca Raton, Fla., native is ranked as the No. 24 free safety in the land by Steele.
4. Rashard Hall, Clemson The 6-2, 200 pounder enters his final season in Death Valley as one of the Tigers' defensive leaders. Hall started 12 games last year, upping his career total to 31, and he has tallied at least 55 tackles and two interceptions during his first three years on campus, including an impressive six interception effort in 2009. Last fall, Hall notched 86 tackles, which ranked second on the squad, and 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, to go along with his two picks. His 203 career stops ranks fifth among all returning ACC defenders, and he will enjoy the luxury of two other Clemson starters from last fall returning for 2012. Hall is ranked as college football's No. 10 free safety by Steele entering the season.
5. Ray-Ray Armstrong, Miami Armstrong was limited last year due to the NCAA investigation of the Hurricanes, but was phenomenal in 2010 despite just four starts. The 6-4, 220-pounder earned second-team All-ACC honors that year after he racked up 79 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Last season, he appeared in just seven games with one start, but still notched 34 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and one interception. If the veteran of 30 games can regain his 2010 form, he'll form an excellent back line with Vaughn Telemaque and challenge for all-league laurels once again. He has never started for a full season, but has immense potential and excellent size. Kiper ranks Armstrong as the No. 5 senior safety in the land, while Steele views him as the nation's No. 2 strong safety.
Isaiah Johnson, Georgia Tech The junior earned several Freshman All-America honors in 2010 after he totaled 46 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and one interception in 13 games, including three starts. Johnson built positively off of his debut by starting all 13 contests last fall and totaling 78 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, two fumble recoveries, and three interceptions, to go along with a trio of pass breakups. Johnson should continue to trend in a positive direction with a pair of returning starters at cornerback returning to the Yellow Jackets' defense, including honorable mention All-ACC selection Rod Sweeting, and will combine with safety Jemea Thomas (50 tackles, 3 interceptions, 6 PBUs) to make a formidable back line. The 6-2, 205-pounder is the team's most experienced defensive back with 16 starts under his belt. Steele ranks him as the No. 7 free safety in the land.
- Eric Franklin, Maryland The senior really came on at the end of the 2010 season, when he tallied three interceptions over the Terps' final four games. Last year, he thrived in his first year as a fulltime starter and finished with 106 tackles, including 4.5 behind the line of scrimmage, a fumble recovery and four pass breakups. He ranked sixth among all ACC defenders with an average of 8.8 stops per contest and should be line for his best year yet during his final campaign. Franklin is a part of six Maryland seniors (Joe Vellano, A.J. Francis, Demetrius Hartsfield, Darin Drakeford and Kenny Tate are the others) who have combined for 120 starts in their college careers; the experience will come in handy as the team switches to an aggressive 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Brian Stewart. Steele listed Franklin as the No. 27 free safety in the country.
- Vaughn Telemaque, Miami Telemaque is a veteran of 40 games, including 36 starts, in his collegiate career, thanks to a true freshman season in which he played in three contests before an injury ended his debut campaign. He enjoyed his finest year in 2010, when he recorded 59 tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and three interceptions. He started every game last year for the second-straight campaign and notched 59 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and one interception. He should form a solid back line with Ray Ray Armstrong and provide the Hurricanes defense with stability. Steele ranked Telemaque as the No. 6 free safety in the land coming into the 2012 campaign.