The Best Returning Linebackers in The ACC

The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has been known to be a breeding ground for outstanding linebacking talent. Consider the most recent NFL defections of North Carolina’s Payton Wilson and Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr. In the past, Luke Kuechely from Boston College made a name for himself with the Carolina Panthers, and of course, one can’t leave out North Carolina’s Lawrence Taylor. He was enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame after legendary play for the New York Giants. This year, the three best returning linebackers for the ACC in 2024, are truly returning. Perhaps that requires some explaining

The Big 12, Big 10, SEC, and ACC are now bloated with a stable of thoroughbred linebackers, thanks to the demise of the Pac-12 and other team defections. Perhaps it’s not fair to those incoming players from Stanford, California, or SMU, but to hone the pack, heavier consideration was given to those truly returning to the ACC, playing in the conference prior to 2024. There will be a shout-out to those incoming players further in the article.

3. Marlowe Wax – Syracuse

It’s a little too soon, but when it comes to watch lists, Marlowe Wax is expected to be seen on the Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi, and Senior Bowl lists. Since coming to the Orangemen’s campus, Wax has seen action in all 49 games and has the team-best with 38 straight starts. The Baltimore, MD native enters the 2024 season with 294 career tackles (185 solo), 36.5 for a loss, 16.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, an interception, and a blocked kick.

After leading his team in tackles with 110 last year, it was unclear whether Wax would return this year. He had already completed four years, but the Covid additional year of eligibility allows him to play. Fans were excited to see the experienced vet return, but for him it was a soul-searching effort, considering their lackluster 2-6 conference record. Shortly after the end of their 2023 season, he took to social media to explain the turmoil of his decision. “These past few weeks have been the most frustrating in my life,” Wax said. “This past year did not go as planned and now, after careful consideration, I think it’s best for me to run it back one more time and double down on myself. I love what we are building and I can’t wait to rock the Dome with my brothers again.”

2. Francisco Mauigoa – Miami

At 6’ 3” and 230 pounds, Francisco Mauigoa started all 13 games and led the Hurricanes in tackles last year with 82, 18 for a loss, also the team high. In addition, he had 7.5 sacks, one interception, and two forced fumbles. Before the 2023 season, he was playing for the Washington State Cougars where he began his collegiate career. One reason Mauigoa wanted the transfer was to play with his younger brother Francis, a five-star offensive tackle, recruited by the Canes in 2023.

For the Cougars in 2022, the older Mauigoa played in 12 games, 11 as a starter. He made some flashy moves that year, one of which was his first career interception against No. 15 Oregon, a 95-yard pick-six, the second-longest in the program’s history. He was fourth on the team with 60 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, 3.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles.

Mauigoa was named to the second All-ACC team last year and hopes for the first team this year as he enters his senior season at Miami.

1. Barrett Carter – Clemson

Many observers believe Barrett Carter could be considered the best linebacker in the country. He fulfills every situation in which a linebacker can find himself, whether it’s blitzing from the edge, pass coverage in the slot, or stuffing the run game in the box. His versatility hasn’t gone unnoticed by his head coach Dabo Swinney who said of his star linebacker, “one of the best pure football players I’ve had in 20 years.”

He surprised many by returning to the Tigers for his senior season, rather than jumping to the NFL draft. Pro Football Focus (PFF) considered him to be the top linebacker in the 2024 draft, especially effective on passing downs.

Carter is credited with 170 tackles, 21 for a loss, 9 sacks, 15 pass breakups, and three interceptions. Only three FBS players have posted 19+ tackles for a loss, 10+ passes defended, and multiple forced fumbles. He joins teammate Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. and North Carolina’s Cedric Gray in that distinction.

Carter’s on-field performance and his off-field work in the community resulted in an honor. He was named as a quarterfinalist for the Lott IMPACT trophy in 2023.

Newcomers to the Party

The ACC will experience immediate growing pains this season. They have taken in Pac-12 orphans California, and Stanford, along with Big 12 runaway SMU. Considering the two West Coast teams, some toyed with the idea of changing the name to the All-Coast Conference. Although it makes practical sense, tradition as the Atlantic Coast Conference won out in the end.

As linebackers go, several of the newcomers have made preseason lists and should be considered as we go into 2024.

Ahmad Walker from SMU is one of those making some watch lists. He had 65 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, and one sack for the Mustangs last year. He transferred from Liberty before 2023.

The Cal Bears have Teddye Buchanan, who transferred from UC Davis. He had 208 career tackles, 14.5 for a loss, and four sacks. He’s expected to make a difference in the ACC.

This will be Jahsiah Galvans first season with Stanford. He transfers in from Northern Iowa with 77 tackles, 5.5 for a loss, and an interception. The Cardinal won out just as Galvan was poised to transfer to Wisconsin.

Cal’s Liam Johnson and SMU’s Kobe Wilson are also linebackers worth mentioning and watching in the ACC’s 2024 season.

Photo Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports


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