<
>

Who's the ACC's next Ben Boulware?

The ACC officially says goodbye to a host of big stars this week when the NFL draft begins, as Deshaun Watson, DeMarcus Walker, Mike Williams, Dalvin Cook and others will all hear their names called.

So who fills those big shoes in 2017? This week, we’ll be offering our best answers.

Today’s question: Who’s the next Ben Boulware?

There’s a legacy of late in the ACC that, each year, some defender seems to emerge as not just one of the most talented players in the league, but also one of the most intimidating, confident and personable. From Lamarcus Joyner to Jeremy Cash, the league has had its share of big-name, big-personality guys, and even with the departure of perhaps the biggest personality of them all, there are still plenty of candidates to fill the void.

The standard: Let’s start with this -- Boulware was one heck of a football player. He was a high-motor guy and a tackling machine and helped Clemson to back-to-back national championship games, including last year’s win. But if we were just looking for the next 100-tackle linebacker on a contender, it’d be easy enough to find an answer. No, what separates Boulware is personality. The guy was a rock star at Clemson. He was quick to joke around, happy to punish the opposition, wore a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder and, more than anything, he infused his defense with that same energy. So the next Ben Boulware can’t just be a guy who racks up tackles. He’s got to intimidate, charm and motivate, too.

The best bet: Miami’s Shaq Quarterman

Is Miami back? That’s the question the football world has been asking for more than a decade now, and for the first time in a while, it feels like the answer might be yes. Why? One big reason is the young kids at linebacker, led by the incredibly talented Quarterman. Last year, the Hurricanes started three freshmen at LB, with Quarterman the best of the bunch. They were brash, they were confident and they were really good. Quarterman has made clear the standard he’s hoping to match was set by the likes of Ray Lewis years ago, and he and his young teammates have happily embraced the old-school Miami persona of playing hard and talking loud. It’s a formula Boulware would no doubt appreciate.

Other top options: Perhaps the best replacement for Boulware’s presence on defense is on the team he leaves behind. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is simply a bigger version of Boulware, equally enthusiastic, energetic and impactful. He’s taken the lead as the Tigers’ defensive leader, and while he doesn’t play the same position, his impact could easily mirror Boulware’s. At Florida State, Derwin James offers another fine option. He’s perhaps not quite as brash as Boulware, but he certainly commands respect from teammates and opponents, and for a simple explanation of how impactful he is on the field, simply look at what happened to FSU’s defense after he went down with injury last year. At Duke, Ben Humphreys already looked the part of Boulware on the field, a tough, physical presence in the middle. His personality swings closer to Cash than Boulware, but the level of confidence he displays and effort he demands of those around him is top notch. Louisville’s Jaire Alexander is less a physical factor like Boulware, but he fully embraces the DB mentality of brash confidence and jocular personality. Add in a healthy dose of talent, and he belongs on the list, too.

The dark horse: Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds

By talent alone, Edmunds belongs in the conversation. It’s just that he’s not the most outgoing guy. He’s not even the most outgoing Edmunds on Virginia Tech’s defense. But as he’s grown more comfortable with his surroundings and with his play, he’s developed into one of the most athletic and physical defenders in the conference. He’ll never be as brash as Boulware, but he can carve out a nice niche as a vocal leader in his own right in 2017.