There's no arguing that Florida State returns the best defensive line in the conference, and probably the nation. All four starters are back after the Seminoles ranked eighth in the nation in sacks (3.08 per game) and tenth in tackles for loss (7.58).
Defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner combined for 16 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last year, and could be even better this year, but the Noles' depth along the front line goes far beyond that. Six linemen who recorded at least two sacks last year return, and the team added the top two defensive tackles in the 2012 signing class - both players were ranked as top 10 recruits overall, regardless of position.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech will also be loaded once again - seven linemen who recorded at least one start last year return while they return four starters from a year ago. Meanwhile, NC State returns every defensive end of consequence from a year ago, but they must reload on the interior. They were nearly as productive as FSU's unit - the Pack tied the Noles with 3.08 sacks per game and ranked 24th nationally in tackles for loss (7.0) - but a lot of those numbers were boosted by a linebacking corps that is completely gone in 2012.
Ranking the ACC's defensive linemen
1. Brandon Jenkins, Florida State The 6-foot-3, 260 pound senior could've made the jump to the NFL after 2011, but he decided to return to college for his final campaign. The defensive end has 36.5 tackles for loss in his career and 21.5 sacks, while he has appeared in all but one of the Noles' games over the past three years, including two years as the starter. He burst onto the scene as a true sophomore in 2010, when he totaled 63 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and two forced fumbles en route to first-team All-ACC honors and second-team All-American laurels from Rivals.com. Last fall, he was the defensive MVP of one of the most feared units in college football, and tallied impressive numbers despite being most opponents' main focus. Jenkins earned a first-team All-ACC distinction once again, and finished second in the ACC with eight sacks, while he also totaled 12 tackles for loss, 41 tackles and five quarterback hurries. Jenkins is listed as a 2012 preseason first-team All-America by Phil Steele and the No. 5 end in college football. Lindy's ranks him as the No. 2 end in the land, while ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. has him as the No. 4 senior end in the land.
2. Joe Vellano, Maryland Vellano could very well be the best defensive lineman in the ACC, but he won't have near as much help around him as Jenkins, and he is moving to a new position as a redshirt senior while the Terps change to a 3-4 defense. The 6-2, 285-pounder earned consensus first-team All-ACC honors as a defensive tackle last year, and was named a second-team All-America by Walter Camp and the Associated Press, while putting up some jaw-dropping numbers for an interior lineman. He finished third on his squad with 94 tackles, which stands as the fifth-best total for any returning ACC player, and also tallied 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He led all FBS defensive linemen with an average of 7.8 stops per game last season, and his impact was never more evident than when he acted as a one-man wrecking crew against Georgia Tech in 2011 and totaled 20 stops against the option attack. Vellano, the son of former Maryland All-American Paul, has 25 career starts under his belt and should be able to utilize his non-stop motor at defensive end. He is listed as a fourth-team preseason All-America by Steele, who also views him as the No. 12 defensive tackle in the land. Lindy's called him the No. 5 defensive end in college football. Both magazines list him as a preseason All-ACC first-team honoree.
3. James Gayle, Virginia Tech The defensive end is one of nine Hokie defenders who return with at least 14 career starts, and he should serve as a leader on what is always one of the ACC's top units. Gayle is tied as the No. 2 returning sacker in the league after he totaled seven last season, and he stands No. 3 after he recorded 12.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in 2011. The 6-4, 257 pound redshirt junior was named second-team All-ACC last season and has totaled 19 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 32 quarterback hurries in 27 career contests. He'll be helped in 2012 by fellow returning starters J.R. Collins on the opposite end and Derrick Hopkins at tackle; redshirt senior Antoine Hopkins, a 17-game starter, also returns at tackle after he missed the final nine games of 2011 with a knee injury. Gayle is ranked as the No. 9 defensive end in the country by Lindy's while Steele listed him as the No. 13 end in the land. Lindy's named him a preseason All-ACC first-team selection, while Steele put him on the second-team.
4. Bjoern Werner, Virginia Tech The 6-4, 272 pound junior, who is originally from Berlin, Germany, had a great true freshman campaign in 2010, when he appeared in all 14 games and notched six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, to go along with a forced fumble. He benefitted greatly from all of the extra attention that Jenkins commanded from opponents last fall, and became even more of a disruptive force. He finished 2011 with 37 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, eight quarterback hurries, eight pass breakups, an interception, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Now that Werner has established himself as a play-making threat, teams will have to pick their poison and choose whether to send their attention to Jenkins' side or Werner's side. The duo's presence should each other while Florida State continues to rack up impressive defensive numbers. Steele ranks him as the No. 6 defensive end in the land, while that magazine, as well as Lindy's, listed him as a preseason All-ACC second-teamer.
5. Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest Don't be fooled by the nose guard's size - he's listed at 5-11, 260 pounds - or the fact that he plays on the Demon Deacons defense, he's one of the ACC's most productive defenders. Only one returning player in the league tallied more than Whitlock's 14 tackles for loss in 2011, and the former linebacker has thrived at defensive tackle since moving to the position as a redshirt freshman in 2010. He started all 12 games that season en route to second-team Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com and finished tied for seventh on the team with 44 tackles, in addition to 10.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Last year, he was even better. He started all 13 games and totaled 64 stops, including 14 behind the line of scrimmage, and 3.5 sacks. The lineman was rewarded with All-ACC second-team honors and his career average of 1.0 tackles for loss per game ties for the fifth-best among all FBS returning defenders. The stout nose guard was listed as Lindy's preseason All-ACC first-team selection, while the magazine listed him as the No. 8 defensive tackle in the land. Steele named him to the league's second-team and named him the No. 36 tackle in the country.
6. J.R. Collins, Virginia Tech The versatile redshirt junior started 13 games at end and one game at tackle last year, but should settle in on the edge opposite of Gayle. In 2011, he totaled 57 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, one interception and 29 quarterback hurries. He paced the team in quarterback hurries while leading the front line in tackles en route to honorable mention All-ACC laurels. The 6-2, 252-pounder impressed as a redshirt freshman in 2010, and should just continue to get better. He enters his final campaign with 16 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 34 quarterback hurries. He was named to the preseason All-ACC second-team by Lindy's, while Steele listed his as a third-team selection.
7. Art Norman, NC State The 6-1, 242-pounder tallied as astonishing 30 quarterback hurries as a redshirt freshman last fall, in addition to 27 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, seven sacks and a forced fumble. He's not an every-down player, but he is a speedy pass rusher, who knows how to get to the quarterback despite a small frame for an ACC defensive end. The Freshman All-America honorable mention is one of three Wolfpack defensive linemen who returns after starting at least eight games last year. He showed how effective he can be against No. 7 Clemson last year, when he racked up three sacks and forced a fumble despite playing just 29 snaps.
8. Sylvester Williams, North Carolina The JuCo transfer had a solid debut for the Tar Heels last season, and the 6-3, 320-pounder should be even better in his second year on campus. He started all 13 games last fall and tallied 54 tackles, including seven for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and five quarterback hurries. He played a crucial role in the UNC defense, which ranked 27th nationally with an average of 123.92 rushing yards per game, and he should continue to clog the middle this season. He was listed as a preseason All-ACC first-teamer by Steele, who also named him to the All-America fourth-team, and Lindy's selected him as an All-ACC third-team honoree. Steele also listed him as the No. 6 defensive tackle in college football.
- Derrick Hopkins, Virginia Tech In reality, either Derrick or brother Antoine could be in this spot. The siblings will make up the Hokies' starting defensive tackle combination in 2012, and both are good ones. Derrick, a true junior, checks in at 6-0, 305 pounds while Antoine, a redshirt senior, tips the scales at 6-1, 318, but the younger brother gets the honor after a great campaign in 2011. In his first year as the starter, Hopkins opened all 14 contests and totaled 51 tackles, including five for loss, three sacks, 12 quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery and one forced fumble. The Hopkins brothers will help make the Hokie defensive front one of the league's best in 2012. He was named a second-team preseason All-ACC selection by Lindy's, while Steele honored him on the third-team. Steele listed him as the No. 31 defensive tackle in the land.
- Cornellius Carradine, Florida State There were several Seminoles worthy of a spot under the wildcard category - Carradine, Everett Dawkins (25 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception) and Timmy Jernigan (30 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) - but the question is how much of a chance will they get to produce with Jenkins and Werner stuffing the statistics sheet? Carradine is the safe bet to produce the most, he found a way to rack up eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year; a similar year in probably in the cards for this senior, who checks in at 6-5, 264 pounds. Carradine was ranked in the preseason as the No. 44 defensive end in the nation by Steele.
- Anthony Chickillo, Miami The 6-4, 258-pounder came to the Hurricanes as a five-star prospect, and did not disappoint as a true freshman. He saw action in all 12 games, started the final nine contests of the year, and finished third in the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. He earned second-team Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com, Yahoo! Sports and Collegiate Football News after he tied for the team lead with 5.0 sacks. He also totaled 6.5 tackles for loss, 38 stops, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 2011. He was a preseason All-ACC third-team selection from Lindy's, while Steele named him to its fourth-team.
- Malliciah Goodman, Clemson There is no shortage of hype around the senior, who checks in at 6-4 and 280 pounds. He was named to Steele's 2012 preseason All-ACC first-team and the magazine listed him as the No. 12 defensive end in the land. However, Clemson lost a lot from last season's defensive line, and Goodman is the only returning starter up front from a year ago. The veteran of 15 career starts recorded 59 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and 14 quarterback pressures last season, which upped his career totals to 122 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles in 2011.