The ACC's linebacking corps lost quite a bit to the NFL Draft this past spring - seven from the position were selected in the event, including five in the first four rounds - making it probably the league's biggest question mark as a position group heading into 2012.
Compounding the confusion in the middle of the defense is the fact that two of the league's best - Virginia Tech's Bruce Taylor and Maryland's Kenny Tate - are coming off of injuries that ended their seasons prematurely last fall, while another player who would've ranked among the conference's best, second-team All-ACC honoree Julian Burnett from Georgia Tech, had his career ended due to a neck injury suffered in the Sun Bowl last season.
Both Virginia programs have outstanding 1-2 punches in the middle, with the Hokies boasting Taylor and Tariq Edwards, a redshirt junior who emerged as a playmaker in his first year as the starter in 2011, while the Cavaliers have Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds. Maryland doesn't have a bad combination, either, in Tate, a former first-team All-ACC selection at safety, and inside linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, who leads all returning ACC players with 260 career tackles. Darin Drakeford also returns for the Terps after he totaled 68 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, four forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and one interception in 2011.
Boston College was probably hit the hardest by a single draft deflection, when first-rounder Luke Kuechly left school early to turn pro, but the Eagles return a solid starting combination with Kevin Pierre-Louis and Steele Divitto.
Meanwhile, Florida State may not have a star in their linebacking crew, but they are very solid with two returning starters in Christian Jones and Vince Williams. The Seminoles also have a third linebacker with experience in Telvin Smith, and the trio will be surrounded by one of the best defensive units in the nation.
Ranking the ACC's linebackers
1. Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech Despite missing six games in 2011 because of a foot injury, the 6-foot-2, 253-pounder was still named All-ACC honorable mention in 2011. He tallied 53 tackles, seven tackles for loss, five sacks and 16 quarterback hurries while starting all eight games he played in. Taylor burst onto the scene in 2010, when he started every game and led the Hokies' always stout defense with 91 tackles and 15.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He also tallied six sacks and broke up four passes, to go along with 12 quarterback hurries, in his first campaign as a starter. He missed this spring with the foot injury, but should return to form. In 2011, Taylor was leading the defensive unit in tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries when he went down with the injury. Taylor should step right back in to his role as a leader of the defense and should contend for All-ACC honors and above in his final campaign. Phil Steele listed him as a fourth-team preseason All-American in his College Football Preview and ranked him as the No. 5 inside linebacker in the country. Steele named him a first-team preseason All-ACC selection, while Lindy's College Football Preview put him on the all-conference second-team.
2. Tariq Edwards, Virginia Tech The redshirt junior may be flying under the radar a little bit, but he picked up the slack in Taylor's absence last year and is one of the ACC's most productive returners at the position in 2012. The 6-2, 232-pounder finished last year with 14 starts, 71 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, six quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery, despite being in his first year as the starter. The inside linebacker may have been at his best in the Sugar Bowl loss to Michigan; he totaled eight tackles, including two for loss, and a sack against the Wolverines. Edwards is also dealing with an injury - a stress fracture in his left shin forced him to miss the spring - but he is expected to be at full strength by the summer. If Taylor and Edwards are able to get back to full health, the Hokies will boast the ACC's best linebacking corps once again. Edwards was listed as a preseason second-team All-ACC selection by Lindy's, while Steele placed him on the league's fourth-team.
3. Kenny Tate, Maryland If Tate is able to get fully healthy, he's in line for a special season and probably will hear his name called pretty early on in the NFL Draft. The former safety is blessed with great size, he checks in at 6-4, 220 pounds, and he should have plenty of help around him on the Terrapins' defense. The defender earned consensus All-ACC first-team honors at safety in 2010, when he totaled 100 tackles (7.7 per game), 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three interceptions. He was on pace to total even more tackles last year, when he averaged 8.8 stops per contest, but a knee injury ended his campaign after four starts. In those early games, Tate totaled 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions as a hybrid safety/linebacker. The senior will play Sam linebacker in 2012 and brings career totals of 197 tackles (fifth-highest among the ACC's returning players), 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five forced fumbles, seven interceptions (T-4th in ACC), one fumble recovery and seven pass breakups into the season. Tate is ranked as the No. 10 outside linebacker in the country by Lindy's while Steele listed him as the No. 45 player at his position. Lindy's named him a first-team All-ACC selection in the preseason, while Steele placed him on the league's third-team.
4. Steve Greer, Virginia The 6-2, 225 pound redshirt senior had an excellent debut in 2009 and earned All-ACC honorable mention after he totaled 92 tackles, which ranked fifth nationally among all rookies, 6.5 tackles for loss, one sack and three pass breakups. However, he slipped into a reserve role the following year due to injuries, and his numbers dipped to 59 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Greer announced himself back in a big way last year, as the middle linebacker earned second-team All-ACC laurels and finished with 103 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery and four pass deflections. He missed the Cavs' bowl game with an injury, but was named the Richmond Touchdown Club's Linebacker of the Year, and he should be in line for another big campaign in 2012. He has totaled 254 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles, seven pass breakups and three quarterback hurries in his career, which includes 25 starts. Greer was named first-team All-ACC honoree in the preseason by Steele and Lindy's. He was named the No. 15 inside linebacker in the country by Steele.
5. Demetrius Hartsfield, Maryland The veteran of 29 collegiate starts is poised for his biggest year yet in his final campaign in College Park, which is no small feat considering he has tallied at least 64 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in each of his three seasons as a starter. The 6-2, 240-pounder finished second in the ACC and fifth nationally last year with an average of 12 tackle per game, despite injuries that limited him to just nine appearances. He notched 108 stops, including seven behind the line of scrimmage, a sack and one fumble recovery en route to All-ACC honorable mention laurels. The ACC's active career leader in tackles (260) will lead a loaded group of playmakers in the middle of the Terrapins' defense, provided they are all able to stay healthy. The redshirt senior also ranks fourth in the league for career tackles for loss, with 20. In 2010, he tallied 88 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and one interception while starting all 13 games. In his first year of eligibility, the Raleigh native tallied 64 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery while appearing in 10 contests with seven starts. He is ranked as the nation's No. 19 inside linebacker by Steele, who also placed him on the preseason All-ACC second-team.
6. Kevin Reddick, North Carolina Reddick is not really among the ACC's most productive returning linebackers, but several prognosticators are jumping on the senior's bandwagon heading into his final campaign. The middle linebacker tallied 71 tackles, including six for loss, one sack, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery last fall, his third year as a starter on the Tar Heels' defense. In 2010, he tallied 74 stops, including six behind the line of scrimmage, one sack and hauled in two interceptions. The 6-3, 240-pounder also had 5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2009, but the veteran of 31 starts is the only returning starter for UNC at the position. Mel Kiper, Jr. of ESPN ranks him as the No. 2 senior inside linebacker in college football, while Phil Steele listed him as a first-team preseason All-American. Steele viewed Reddick as the No. 2 inside linebacker in the land, while Lindy's ranked him No. 6 at his position in the country. Both magazines listed him as a preseason All-ACC first-teamer.
7. Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech The 6-3, 235-pounder is a true junior in 2012, but he has had a promising first two years to build on, and should continue to thrive as a rusher in coordinator Al Groh's 3-4 defense. As a true freshman, he tallied 23 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks in 12 games played. Last year, he increased his totals to 59 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and one interception while appearing in 11 contests. His tackles for loss total led the team, ranked sixth in the ACC and 66th nationally, while his sack numbers paced the team, ranked fifth in the league and 54th nationally. He was rewarded with honorable mention All-ACC laurels following the year. The outside linebacker from Washington, D.C., now has 23 career starts under his belt and will have to lead the Yellow Jackets' linebacking corps following the loss of Julian Burnett. Steele named him a preseason All-ACC second-teamer, while Lindy's listed him on the conference's third-team this spring. Steele also ranked Attaochu as the No. 18 outside linebacker in the country.
8. Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College The 6-1, 221 pound junior has big shoes to fill after the departure of Kuechly, but it also means that he'll have even more opportunity to improve on last year's numbers without the All-American tackling machine bringing ball carriers down. Pierre-Louis finished last season as the Eagles' second-leading tackler despite missing three games with an injury, and tallied 74 stops, six tackles for loss, four pass breakups, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery, which he returned 96 yards to the house. His average of 8.2 tackles per game ranked eighth in the ACC. As a freshman in 2010, the weakside linebacker earned first-team Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America after he finished as the second-best rookie tackler in the land, and ninth overall in the ACC. He averaged 7.2 stops per contest, and finished with 93 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss and three pass breakups in 13 starts. Steele ranked the Boston College defender as the No. 14 outside linebacker in the land and named him to the All-ACC first-team in the preseason. Meanwhile, Lindy's placed him on the All-ACC second-team.
9. LaRoy Reynolds, Virginia The explosive weakside linebacker was the Cavs' second-leading tackler in 2011 when he made 88 hits, including a team-best 50 solo tackles; he also had eight tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. The 6-2, 230 pound senior could be even better in 2012, his third year as a starter, because he has shown vast improvements every campaign and the Virginia linebacking corps will be solid this fall. In 2010, Reynolds started 11 games at linebacker, his first year at the position, and finished with 66 tackles, seven tackles for loss, a sack and one forced fumble. He has started in 24 games over the past two seasons and Steele ranked him as the No. 42 outside linebacker in college football this spring. Both Steele and Lindy's named him an All-ACC third-team selection this preseason.
- Christian Jones, FSU The junior earned Freshman All-America honors when he played in 2010 as a true rookie, and he totaled 18 tackles, three sacks, three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Last year, he upped those numbers to 56 stops, six tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The 6-4, 237-pounder is in line to start for the Seminoles this year, while classmate Telvin Smith, who totaled 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and one interception last year, is another good one. Jones is ranked by Kiper as the No. 4 junior outside linebacker in college football, while Steele views him as the No. 19 overall outside linebacker in the land. Steele named him a preseason All-ACC second-team selection and Lindy's listed him on the third-team.
- Corico Hawkins, Clemson The 5-11, 230-pounder had his best year in 2010, when he finished with 71 tackles, including 10 for loss, and three sacks in 13 starts. Last year, he still had respectable numbers in 11 starts and 14 appearances - 80 tackles and five tackles for loss - but slipped a little bit. The senior enters his final campaign with 39 appearances, 25 starts, 170 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, five sacks and a fumble recovery. Steele named him a preseason All-ACC third-team selection this spring.
The 6-3, 206 pound sophomore played in 11 games as a true freshman safety last year, but will be making the move to linebacker this fall. It's the same move that teammate D.J. Green made last year, and Green finished with seven starts, 33 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack and an interception before an injury ended his campaign. Noel will have plenty of opportunities to make plays in a reloaded linebacking corps in 2012.
- Stephone Anthony, Clemson As a rookie, Anthony started three games and totaled 32 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. He notched two tackles for loss in the ACC Championship game, and the 6-3, 235-pounder should play a prominent role in the Tigers' defense this season, although nothing will be given to him - Clemson returns all three of last year's starting linebackers. Steele viewed him as an All-ACC second-team selection in the preseason.