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About a week ago, we identified some key offensive players from both divisions of the ACC to watch in the upcoming season. Today, we start the same process, except on the defensive side of the ball.
Virginia Tech - Ronny Vandyke, WHIP
This kid is my pick to be a breakout star this year for the Hokies. The Hokies have plenty of depth and experience at his position, but Vandyke's athleticism and playmaking ability surpass both Jeron Gouveia-Winslow's and Alonzo Tweedy's by far. He looks the part and plays the part and put forth an incredible effort this spring to announce himself onto the stage. Simply put, he looks like he has the chance to be that SEC kind of linebacker that you watch and say, "Wow, he still has two years to run around at this level."
Virginia - Steve Greer, MLB
Greer led the Virginia defense in tackles last year with 103, so he is a name you should know already. The 'Hoos return just four starters on defense and Greer is one of them, so he is expected to be one of the leaders of the unit. Look for Greer to be the calming, veteran presence in the middle of the UVA defense that comes up big for the Cavs throughout the season. The 'Hoos will be tested early by the likes of Penn State and TCU, so it will be crucial for Greer to get off to strong start in 2012 as the new starters around him get acclimated to the increased opportunities.
Georgia Tech - T.J. Barnes, NT
At the center of any 3-4 defense is a massive nose tackle that can control multiple blockers in the middle. Barnes has had the potential to be that guy for Al Groh's GT defense, but he hasn't been able to produce yet. However, he dropped between 25-40 pounds (depending on what report you read) over the offseason and still is a massive six foot seven, 340-pounds. If there's anyone that can control a line of scrimmage to allow four linebackers to roam freely and make plays, it is going to be Barnes for the Yellow Jackets in 2012. However, if he can't produce, things could get ugly defensive for GT as they suffered a tough loss to their front seven when it was announced that star linebacker Julian Burnett would miss the 2012 season with an undisclosed injury.
Miami - Brandon McGee, CB
McGee has played in all but a handful of games over the past three seasons and started every game for the 'Canes last season. This season, he returns to lead a secondary next to experienced stars like Ray-Ray Armstrong and Vaughn Telemaque. He had just 38 tackles (8th on the team) and one pick last season, but is expected to take another step forward and become a key player during his senior season.
North Carolina - Travis Hughes, LB
Hughes is someone most Virginia Tech fans will remember from his recruitment just two years ago, and now as a true sophomore, he is battling for a starting position. The Heels will run an interesting 4-2-5 defense this fall, meaning there are only two spots for linebackers to break into the lineup. Kevin Reddick returns at one spot and was the top tackler in 2011, but the other spot is a competition between Hughes and former walk-on Tommy Heffernan. Hughes has a sizeable advantage over Heffernan as far as athleticism and size is concerned, so look for him to get the nod in August.
Duke - Austin Gamble, LB
The Blue Devils, like their nearby counterparts, run a 4-2-5 defense, but this will be their second season in the system. At linebacker, the Blue Devils have a couple experienced options, namely the senior Austin Gamble. Gamble has played in all 36 games during his career, finally earning a full-time starting role in 2011. He finished fifth on the team in tackles with 43, second in tackles for loss with 5.5, and added a pair of sacks. For the Blue Devils to take the next step forward and qualify for a bowl, they will need their defense to step up and part of that will be on the shoulders on Gamble.
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