College football: High-powered ACC has stars on defense, too
When Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware decided that Syracuse's Dontae Strickland had gone far enough, his WWE-style takedown raised some eyebrows and lit up social media.
Boulware just shrugged when questioned about the bone-jarring tackle during Saturday's game, which the Tigers won 54-0.
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It's one of many stout defensive plays that go largely unnoticed nationally in the high-powered Atlantic Coast Conference.
It's understandable. The ACC has more than its fair share of topflight offensive players — Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook top that list. But the fiery Boulware is one of many NFL-caliber standouts on the other side of the ball in the league.
"Each ACC team has at least three great players on their defense," said former Clemson star Shaq Lawson, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 2016 NFL draft. "They always have like a first-round pick. Last year, we had two first-round ACC defensive players (Lawson and Louisville's Sheldon Rankins). It was just crazy."
Boulware, along with defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and defensive lineman Christian Wilkins have combined for 171 tackles, 22.5 tackles for a loss, and 9.5 sacks. That relentless sort of play has helped Clemson coach Dabo Swinney put a stamp on his own brand of football.
"We've had some great players like Shaq, like Boulware, that are just blue-collar guys that buy in, provide great leadership, and, you know, are sold out to be the best they can be," Swinney said. "I think that's critical when you have guys of that type of caliber, that type of talent, that lead and provide the type of leadership that you need for the rest of your team because that's how you establish your culture."
Coach Steve Addazio has struggled to win games in the conference since taking over at Boston College three years ago. The Eagles were winless last year and are 1-5 this season. After spending five years as an assistant at Florida, Addazio appreciates more than most what he's seeing on a weekly basis.
"I think that the level of play is the highest it's ever been. That's without a doubt," Addazio said. "And what you're seeing is some elite players playing at a high, high level."
A look at some of the defensive stalwarts of the ACC:
DeMarcus Walker, Florida State: The 6-4, 280-pound defensive end leads the nation with 10.5 sacks to match his total from last year and has three forced fumbles. He's the first Seminole since Peter Boulware (1995-96) to record double-digit sack seasons in consecutive years and the third to have two double-digit sack seasons (Reinard Wilson did it in 1994 and '96).
"People thought last year was a fluke and it just happened like a lottery thing. It was hard work," said Walker, projected to be drafted next year on the second or third round. "They didn't see the vision or goal I had, so I had to do it again for the message to get through. I'm hungry, I still have more to prove."
Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh: The 5-11, 250-pound sixth-year senior LB has nine sacks, three forced fumbles, and 14 solo TFLs for a national-best 91 yards lost. He's projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forest: The 6-4, 270-pound junior DL has eight sacks and at least a half sack in every game this season. Against Duke in Week 2, he registered seven tackles, including four TFLs and three sacks, and forced two fumbles. His health is a big reason for his improved play. He missed the first five games of 2015 with a concussion suffered during preseason camp.
Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State: The 6-2, 198-pound sophomore leads the nation with seven interceptions, just ahead of Louisville's Jaire Alexander and Jessie Bates of Wake Forest, who have five.
Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson: The 6-1, 200-pound cornerback has 40 tackles, five TFLs and eight pass breakups this season. The senior could become the first Tigers cornerback in the past decade to be picked before the third round of the NFL draft.
Marquez White, Florida State: The 6-foot, 184-pound senior made a name for himself last year after being targeted on only 7 percent of the throws by opposing quarterbacks. He's projected as second- or third-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech: The 6-1, 191-pound CB has 31 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, eight pass breakups, and two forced fumbles this season. He's projected to be picked on the third or fourth rounds of the 2017 NFL draft.
Carlos Watkins, Clemson: The 6-3, 305-pound redshirt senior DT controls the middle of the field and is a plug on the run. His stand-your-ground play allows a quicker tackle like freshman Dexter Lawrence to get into the backfield. Watkins is projected to be picked on the second or third rounds of the 2017 NFL draft.
Harold Landry, Boston College: The 6-3, 250-pound junior defensive lineman has nine sacks and has forced five fumbles to tie for tops in the nation with James Hearns of Louisville and Jimmie Gilbert of Colorado.
Micah Kiser (LB) and Quin Blanding (CB), Virginia: Kiser ranks third in the nation in tackles with 102 and Blanding is 12th with 90. Barring injury, the juniors are on pace to finish 1-2 in tackles in the ACC for the second straight year.
This article was written by John Kekis from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.