ACC Breakout Players: Defense

Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford will look to make a name for himself this year opposite higher-profile teammate Vic Beasley.

Every year, a player who’s been good — but not great — or perhaps one the public has barely heard of comes out of nowhere and has a great season. There are plenty of candidates in the ACC on both sides of the ball, but even on some very good defenses, there are some players that could emerge and have huge seasons. Here’s a look at 10 candidates:

Duke: Breon Borders, CB

He may not have been a starter last season as a freshman, but Borders saw plenty of playing time. He’ll slide into a starting role this year, and he should be more than ready. He played in all 14 games last season and finished with 26 tackles, eight pass breakups and four interceptions (a Duke freshman record). He even logged two interceptions of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the ACC title game. The Duke coaching staff was high on him even entering last season, and with a year to learn and grow, he’s sure to show some development this year.

Georgia Tech: D.J. White, CB

White started nine games last season after working was way up the depth chart as the season went on and Georgia Tech searched for answers on defense. He finished last season with 50 tackles, two forced fumbles, an interception and five pass breakups. And his best came last, as he finished with 12 tackles (10 solo) in the Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss to end the season. He’s getting better and better, and without two veterans in the backfield — Louis Young and Jemea Thomas — he could really emerge.

Miami: Tyriq McCord, DE/LB

The word "freak" is overused, but at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, McCord — a hybrid linebacker/defensive end — is just that. The junior has not played much in his two years in Coral Gables, mostly seeing time only on certain third-down and pass-rush packages. But of his 28 career tackles, over a quarter of them — 7.5 — have been sacks. He also has two interceptions, two pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. If he can stay on the field and make that impact last throughout a game, he’s going to put up some monster numbers.

North Carolina: Brian Walker, CB

A likely starter at corner, the rising sophomore got plenty of experience last season and had some of his best games down the stretch, finishing with five tackles in a win at Pitt and an interception in the win at N.C. State. He’s part of a trio of young cornerbacks that really need to take a step forward this season, and in the playing time Walker got a year ago, he showed ability to defend both the run and pass pretty effectively.

Pittsburgh: Anthony Gonzalez, LB

If you didn’t know of anyone on Pitt’s defense last season not named Aaron Donald, it would be understandable. But Gonzalez’s name should be one ACC fans hear often this season, as the redshirt senior linebacker started all 13 games last year and finished with 79 tackles (third on the team), including 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception and five pass breakups. His best performances came in some of Pitt’s closest games — like his pick-six late in a win at Duke and a pass breakup that sealed a win against Notre Dame.

Virginia: Max Valles, LB

It was looking like the freshman was going to redshirt last year — he even played the role of standout BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy on scout team entering Week 2 — but he was thrust into action and ended up starting four of the 10 games he played in as a freshman. He finished with 23 tackles, four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, adding a forced fumble and four passes defended. Virginia’s defense is going to be pretty good, and there’s talent there. Valles is part of that and could have a big season.

Virginia Tech: Dadi Nicolas, DE

The junior defensive end started just one game last season, but he was on the field more than enough to make an impact. He finished the year with 32 tackles (seven of which were for loss), .0 sacks, one interception, four passes defended and a whopping 13 quarterback hurries. The Hokies’ defensive line is still excellent, and as a starter this year, Nicolas will have every opportunity to put up big numbers.

Boston College: Mehdi Abdesmad, DT

It seemed like 2013 would be his breakout season, the way it was going — in the first four games, he had 17 tackles, 2.0 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. But then he got hurt in the Florida State game and missed the rest of the season.

Now, though, the senior — who head coach Steve Addazio has had high praise for in the spring, calling him "arguably (the team’s) best defensive lineman last year" — has a chance to have that breakout year. He missed the spring rehabbing the injury, but is expected to be ready to go in the fall.

Clemson: Corey Crawford, DE

When you’re starting opposite Vic Beasley, it’s easy to see why you might fly under the radar a bit. But the Honorable Mention All-ACC selection has been pretty darned good in his own right, finishing last season with 52 tackles (10.5 for loss and three sacks), an interception and a team-high 16 quarterback pressures.

The senior figures to benefit from the extra attention paid to Beasley this year, though he was one of four players suspended for the opener against Georgia for an unspecified violation of team rules. If he gets his act together, he’ll be a big part of one of the best defensive lines in the nation.

Florida State: Eddie Goldman, DT

No one can replace Tim Jernigan for the national champion Seminoles. But Goldman, a rising junior and former five-star recruit, figures to be ready to make a name for himself now. Last year, he started 13 of 14 games and finished with 19 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks. At 6-foot-4, 314 pounds, Goldman’s weight has been an issue at times, but talent is talent. If he can keep that under control and not get into any trouble (he was suspended for a game last year due to a violation of team rules), it’s all right there for him.

Louisville: Sheldon Rankins, DE/DT

A converted defensive tackle, Rankins excited first-year head coach Bobby Petrino and his staff in the spring. The junior is 6-foot-2 and weighs in the 300-pound range, but he’s clearly athletic and strong enough to play at defensive end or else he wouldn’t be there. Louisville has options at that spot. His size makes him intriguing, and he finished last season with 15 tackles (four for loss, three sacks), two pass breakups, two passes defended and four quarterback hurries. If he’s as good as the staff seemed to think he was in the spring, he could have a monster year.

N.C. State: Hakim Jones, S

The redshirt junior burst onto the scene last year a virtual unknown, and ended the year as the team’s fifth-leading tackler (61). There wasn’t much known about N.C. State’s secondary entering last season, but he — plus some other younger players — were pleasant surprises. He finished with two interceptions, a forced fumble and a team-high 10 passes defended (and a team-high eight pass breakups).

Syracuse: Ron Thompson, DE

The converted tight end was still learning the position last year, but he still finished with 20 tackles (4.5 for loss and two sacks). The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder had an impressive spring game, finishing with six tackles, and he has the type of athleticism and strength that could translate very well to that position. Former Syracuse defensive tackle Jay Bromley seems to think so, anyway. Position switches are always intriguing, and certainly in this case it’s especially so. 

Wake Forest: Zachary Allen, DE/LB

A converted linebacker, Allen — a senior — was ineligible all of last year due to academic issues, but he’s back this year and ready to help. And Wake will need him, desperately. Dave Clawson’s first year will not only feature a bad offense, but also a defense having to replace a number of starters.

Allen had 42 tackles in 2012 as a sophomore, and someone is going to have to step up along the line for the Deacs. And it shouldn’t even be an awkward transition for Allen to move from linebacker to end, as Wake is switching to a 4-2-5 and will rely on speed from its ends. Allen has plenty of that.