CHARLOTTE — Typically it’s a time of rest and relaxation, something to be savored. For Deondre Francois, it was the least enjoyable day of the week.
“I didn’t like Sundays, man,” he said.
Those were painful mornings for Florida State’s quarterback, and he wasn’t alone. Quarterbacks across the ACC could be in a world of hurt this fall.
The league that boasts the defending national champion and Heisman Trophy winner can also claim the game’s most fearsome collection of defensive lines. Francois and the Heisman hoister, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, scrambled for their lives at times last year. Since they are far and away the best returning quarterbacks in the league, and stars such as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and Miami’s Brad Kaaya left for the NFL, this could be the ACC’s Year of Defensive Linemen.
If only we could settle on who’s the best.
“Boston College, No. 7 [Harold Landry], he caused a lot of trouble,” Francois said. “He’s a great athlete. That’s a hard question. There’s a lot of good defensive linemen. N.C. State, Louisville, Syracuse … Miami’s D-line was always real stout.”
North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, like BC’s Landry a future high-round NFL draft pick, thinks the Wolfpack have the best D-line in the league. Who, in his view, is No. 2?
“There’s so many great defensive lines. I couldn’t call out one,” Chubb said. “Definitely Clemson and Florida State, Boston College, Louisville, Syracuse … Virginia, Virginia Tech. I definitely feel like we’re the best.”
Clemson strongly disagrees. Their group, which calls itself the “Power Rangers,” features defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and end Clelin Ferrell form the core of arguably the nation’s best D-line. Wilkins, a senior, had an unheard-of 10 pass break-ups from the middle. As a true freshman, Lawrence (6-5, 346) looked like a future No. 1 overall draft pick. Ferrell was a star late in the Tigers’ national title run.
“Hopefully the good Lord will keep those guys healthy,” coach Dabo Swinney said, “because if they’re healthy for the course of a season, we’re going to be tough in the trenches.”
Like Clemson, Miami has a dominating duo in the middle — juniors Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh — but might be deeper at end, with senior Chad Thomas and sophomore Joe Jackson (team-high 8.5 sacks, 11.0 tackles for loss in his debut). Florida State loses rugged end Demarcus Walker, but replaces him with former five-star recruit Josh Sweat, and tackle Derrick Nnadi — who squats 725 pounds and benches 525 — is as mean as they come.
BC’s Landry led the nation in sacks (16.5) and was fifth in tackles for loss (22). N.C. State’s Chubb wasn’t far behind (tied for sixth in TFL, 21.5; 10 sacks). Wake Forest defensive end Duke Ejiofor had 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
Francois had to face all of them, but said the toughest group was Miami. On Oct. 9, following his team’s 20-19 win at Hard Rock Stadium, he recalls waking up feeling “like I got hit by a bus.”
Kaaya had a tooth — a molar, to be specific — rattled loose from his head in that game. Seems like he, Watson, Trubisky and Co. hit the road at the right time.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford said he’d like to “have every one of those quarterbacks back, which would be really selfish of us as a league.” But he was confident the league’s coaches are recruiting and developing at a high level.
“There’s going to be somebody who steps in and becomes the next Deshaun Watson,” Swofford said. “There aren’t many Deshaun Watsons, but you get my gist. There are more good ones coming.”
And even more good D-linemen on the way.
Noteworthy: In his Thursday morning address, Swofford said if Notre Dame — an ACC member in every sport but football — joined a conference between now and 2036, it would be the ACC. He added he doesn’t anticipate that happening. He also said ACC Network is “right on schedule” to launch in Aug. 2019. … It’s regrettable that Florida State and Georgia Tech, separated by 260 miles, play each other once every six years. Worse, North Carolina State and Wake Forest of the Atlantic hardly ever meet Duke and North Carolina of the Coastal. But Swofford “wouldn’t anticipate any change in the near future” of the ACC’s Atlantic-Coastal division setup. “So far we haven’t come up with [a system] that’s better than what we’re doing in the minds of the majority of our schools,” he said. … Longtime official Ron Cherry, of “giving him the business” fame, will take his business off the field. Cherry’s new role, Swofford said, is as a special advisor to the league’s officiating staff. Swofford was highly entertained by Cherry’s line, calling it “the greatest description of a penalty call I’ve ever heard.” Calling it like it is: Cherry was a regular target for some of his on-field decisions, and some will be happy to see him turn in his stripes.