Top 10 ACC returners, non-QB edition: Defense/Special Teams

Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley decided against the NFL Draft in spite of a second-round grade, and will likely spend yet another year terrorrizing ACC quarterbacks. 

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Quarterbacks get most of both the credit and the blame, and it’s one of the reasons that non-quarterbacks rarely win the Heisman Trophy. So who are the best returning players in the ACC entering the 2013-14 season, not including those signal-callers who already get enough credit?

As it turns out, this was a lot easier list to find names for on the defensive side of the ball, and tough to leave off a number of special-teamers. There’s a lot of returning talent and experience on defense this year in the ACC, which is bad news for all the new starting quarterbacks this year, if nothing else.

(Note: These players were picked both based on what they’ve already done and what they’re likely to do this season. But they have to have something resembling a body of work.)

His numbers last season were staggering, which is a big reason why he received a second-round grade from the draft advisory board and ultimately decided to come back. A deeper look offers insight into that: after nine sacks in Clemson’s first six games (and 12 tackles for loss), he was held without a sack of a tackle for loss against Florida State and that began a five-game stretch where he had one sack and five tackles for loss. But he finished strong, notching three sacks and six tackles for loss in Clemson’s final two games against South Carolina and Ohio State, two top-tier opponents.

He’s a dynamic pass-rusher using speed alone, and if he can bulk up this offseason and improve a few things, he should be dominant. That’s the scary thing — he still has room to grow.

In 12 games, a ridiculous 9.5 of his 28 tackles were for loss, and he had 3.5 sacks as well. His stats weren’t ultra-gaudy, but he was at his best when the lights were brightest, and he’s seemingly always been that way.

In his first start in 2012 in the ACC title game, he had seven tackles. In 2013, he had a fumble return for a touchdown against Clemson and a career-high 3.0 tackles for loss in the BCS title game against Auburn. He was the No. 1 prospect in the country coming out of high school, and with the dominant force that was Timmy Jernigan gone, this is Edwards’ chance to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

Before Virginia Tech faced Alabama in last season’s opener, it was announced that two freshmen cornerbacks would have to start due to injury — one was Fuller. The hand-wringing commenced, but Fuller held his own just fine, and got better and better as the year went on, finishing as a second-team All-ACC selection with 58 tackles, six interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 17 passes defended.

He’s as good as it gets when it comes to cornerback play, as he showed with a three-interception performance against Coastal Division champs Duke.

Strong, fast, powerful, productive — not much Perryman hasn’t already accomplished as a senior. Last season, the linebacker had 108 tackles (69 solo) and landed on the All-ACC First Team. He had 13 tackles in Miami’s win over Florida, plus 12 in the comeback win at UNC and even had 11 (plus one tackle for loss) against Florida State.

He’s not going to pile up a lot of the other statistics — he had just five tackles for loss a year ago — but he just makes stops. And really, that’s as good a skill as any. He’s making the move to middle linebacker this year, though, and it remains to be seen how that will go — but seeing as he’s one of the league’s most dependable defensive players, it shouldn’t be an issue.

Florida State diehards will tell you that Ramsey, not Edwards, is the player to watch on this defense, one that could come away with Defensive Player of the Year honors. As a freshman last year, Ramsey started at cornerback at first before moving over to safety after an injury. He finished with 49 tackles (two for loss), a sack, an interception an two passes defended.

He’s going to be taking over the role in FSU’s defense known as the "Star", the same that Lamarcus Joyner played a year ago, and he finished with 69 tackles and a team-high 5.5 sacks. Ramsey seems well-suited to use his athleticism and strength to wreak the kind of havoc Joyner did a season ago, too. 

Cash, an Ohio State transfer, made an impact the instant he hit the field in Durham, as good of a run-stopper as you’ll see at the safety spot. He won first-team All-ACC honors and finished with 121 tackles (9.5 for loss), four interceptions and four pass breakups, not to mention two forced fumbles.

He’s a hard hitter, and now he’ll be a returning starter (and redshirt junior) in a secondary that’s gotten a year older and better (minus Ross Cockrell, of course). He’s fast, strong, athletic and has great instincts — what’s not to like?

Virginia Tech might have had the best interior line in the league last year, led by Derrick Hopkins (now departed) — but Maddy, the other starter at defensive tackle, was certainly no slouch. He won third-team All-ACC honors, finishing with 55 tackles (13.5 for loss), 6.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries.

The senior is likely to pick up right where he left off, even though he’s almost certainly going to be keyed on by opposing offenses. The same happened to Hopkins a year ago, and it didn’t seem to bother him. Maddy is good enough to make the leap to where Hopkins was a season ago and to become a dominant force on the interior of an excellent Hokie defense.

One might say that Williams’ teammate and fellow corner Ronald Darby, who was very rarely thrown at a season ago, is actually better for that very reason. But teams have to throw somewhere, and Williams made them pay when they targeted him.

He got better and better as the year went on, and he was at his best in the BCS title game, earning Defensive MVP honors with a career-high seven tackles — he even assisted on a tackle for loss and picked off a pass on consecutive fourth-quarter plays when FSU still trailed. He led the Seminoles with seven pass breakups and 10 passes defended a year ago, and the junior is just going to keep improving.

It’s too bad that Harris is stuck on a bad team, because his accomplishments are worthy of more attention. He was tied for the national lead a year ago in interceptions with eight, and he had 14 passes defended to go with 80 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He’s even good on special teams, blocking a punt against BYU that helped Virginia lock up its best win of the year early in the season.

The senior is likely to have yet another big season, and with 167 tackles in the last two seasons (to go with nine interceptions), it’s easy to see why he had to make this list — even if his team isn’t as good as some of the others.

He was the first freshman at UNC to earn First-Team All-ACC honors since 1977. That’s quite an accomplishment, but Switzer earned that with the way he was able to change games for the Tar Heels last season. He became just the second player in NCAA history to return a punt for a touchdown in back-to-back games a season ago and finished with five punt returns for touchdowns, not counting the ones that were called back.

He finished with a league-high 502 punt return yards and averaged 20.9 per return. He’s a field-position changer and a game-changer for the Tar Heels.

Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State; Adam Gotsis, DT, Georgia Tech; Lorenzo Maudlin, LB, Louisville; Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest; Kelby Brown, LB, Duke; Terrance Smith, LB, Florida State; Stephone Anthony, LB, Clemson; Norkeithus Otis, DE/LB, UNC; Quayshawn Nealy, LB, Georgia Tech; Ray Vinopal, S, Pittsburgh; Stacy Coley, KR/PR, Miami; Grady Jarrett, DT, Clemson; Durell Eskridge, S, Syracuse; Kyoshoen Jarrett, S, Virginia Tech; Eli Harold, DE, Virginia; Roberto Aguayo, K, Florida State; Niklas Sade, K, NC State; A.J. Hughes, P, Virginia Tech; Tommy Hibbard, P, UNC; Will Monday, P, Duke