Friedlander: Re-ranking the ACC's most impactful defensive transfers for 2023
Wednesday, we re-ranked the most impactful offensive transfers in the ACC this season. Today, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.
For the most part, the players on our original list lived up to their preseason hype. Six of the 10 also made the new rankings based on their actual performance. But the name at the top is a new one.
So let’s dive in and see how they stack up:
10. Al Blades Jr., CB, Duke
After spending his 5th and final season at Miami battling back from complications of COVID, Blades has returned to full strength and regained his old form as a grad transfer at Duke. He’s been credited with 38 tackles and is among the ACC leaders with 8 pass breakups as a major contributor to one of the league’s best defenses.
9. Alijah Huzzie, CB, North Carolina
Huzzie’s 6 interceptions at East Tennessee State last season were tied for the most nationally among FCS players and earned him first-team FCS All-American honors. He’s been just as effective at the FBS level as part of a UNC secondary that was almost totally revamped during the offseason. He’s recorded 3 picks, 6 pass breakups and 41 tackles. Huzzie has also been a game-changer on special teams as a punt returner. He’s averaging 17.3 yards on his 6 returns, including a 52-yard touchdown in a win at Pittsburgh.
8. Jacob Roberts, LB, Wake Forest
A local product who always wanted to play for the Deacons, Roberts has made the most of his opportunity after spending 3 seasons a few miles down the road in Greensboro at NC A&T. He leads the team with 70 tackles and ranks 2nd in tackles for loss with 10 and sacks with 6 while also forcing a pair of fumbles. Roberts’ contribution has been especially important in the absence of 2-year captain Chase Jones, who has missed the entire season because of injury.
7. Robert Kennedy, Nickel, NC State
The graduate transfer from Old Dominion has been a perfect fit to fill the void at nickel left by the departure of 3-year starter Tyler Baker-Williams. He’s a versatile defender who has a pair of interceptions, including a 30-yard pick-6 against VMI, 3 PBUs, 28 tackles,, and a pair of forced fumbles for a defense that has continued to dominate despite the loss of several key contributors.
6. Fentrell Cypress, CB, Florida State
Cypress hasn’t been as dominant a force as he was at Virginia last season when he led the ACC with 14 PBUs and went the entire season without being beaten for a touchdown. He got beat twice for scores last week by Miami’s Jacolby George. Still, he remains one of the league’s best cover corners. He has 32 tackles and 7 PBUs. His speed, athleticism and determination are best illustrated by the play he made against Pittsburgh 2 weeks ago, when he ran down receiver Konata Mumpfield from behind, forced a fumble just before the goal line, then had the presence of mind to recover the loose ball for a touchback.
5. Braden Fiske, DT, Florida State
Fiske’s numbers aren’t exactly eye-catching. He has recorded 27 tackles, a sack and a couple of quarterback hurries. But the Western Michigan transfer’s value to a Seminoles defense that has allowed the 2nd-fewest points in the ACC can’t be qualified by statistics. He has provided experience and depth to a position group left shorthanded by the denial of Darrell Jackson Jr.’s transfer by the NCAA. He also has taken on double teams that have created plenty of space for linebackers Kalon DeLoach, Tatum Bethune and DJ Lundy to make the tackles.
4. Cam’Ron Kelly, Safety, Louisville
Kelly spent his first 4 seasons at North Carolina and originally transferred to Virginia. But after spending a semester in Charlottesville, participating in spring practice with the Cavaliers, he entered the portal again and landed at a 3rd ACC school. He’s made a major impact at the back end of a defense whose average of 17.1 points per game allowed is the best in the ACC. Kelly ranks 2nd on the Cardinals with 52 tackles, to go with 2 interceptions, a PBU and 2 forced fumbles.
3. Devin Neal, Safety, Louisville
Neal has teamed with Kelly to give the Cardinals one of the most productive safety combinations in the country. The Baylor transfer ranks 2nd in the ACC with 4 interceptions. He’s also 2nd on his team with 6 PBUs and 3rd – right behind Kelly – with 51 tackles to go along with 2 TFLs and a fumble recovery. He was the ACC’s Defensive Back of the Week after intercepting 2 passes and recording 8 tackles against Notre Dame, the best of Louisville’s 9 wins to date.
2. Francisco Mauigoa, LB, Miami
Pro Football Focus named Mauigoa the top linebacker in the transfer portal last winter when he decided to leave Washington State to join his younger brother – offensive tackle Francis Mauigoa – with the Hurricanes. Not only does he lead the ACC and rank 4th nationally with 15 TFLs, his run grade of 90.8 by Pro Football Focus leads all FBS linebackers. He also has 6.5 sacks, 54 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and an interception while instantly becoming a leader in Miami’s locker room.
1. Antwaun Powell-Ryland, DE, Virginia Tech
The Hokies were next-to-last in the ACC with 23 sacks last season. They’re now 2nd in the league with 31. Powell-Ryland is a big reason for that dramatic jump. The Florida transfer has 9 of the sacks, including 4 in a win against Wake Forest. He also has 12.5 TFLs, 5 quarterback hurries, a league-leading 3 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. A Virginia native who was heavily pursued by the Hokies’ previous staff, Powell-Ryland has returned to his home state and has been a major cog in helping Tech’s rebuilding effort under Brent Pry.