Plenty of defense will be found in ACC

Clemson defensive end Andre Branch had five sacks last season.

Even with the departure of stalwarts like Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers and North Charleston native Robert Quinn, who was ineligible to play last season at North Carolina, this could be a defensive-minded year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

North Carolina and Florida State are expected to have two of the top defensive lines in the country, and Virginia Tech and Miami are loaded with talent, too.

Here is The Post and Courier's preaseason list of the top 20 defensive players in the ACC for 2011.

1. Quinton Coples, DE, Sr., North Carolina

Last year, it was fellow Tar Heel Robert Quinn occupying this spot, and despite not playing a snap, he was still drafted in the top half of the first round. Butch Davis can recruit. The UNC coach's latest star is Coples, a 6-6, 285-pound end who registered 10 sacks last season.

2. Brandon Jenkins, DE, Jr., Florida State

Jenkins is a slightly better pass pusher than Coples, second in the ACC with 13 1/2 sacks last season. The 6-3, 255-pounder is

out of the Peter Boulware mold and while not as effective against the run opponents are in trouble when they face obvious passing situations.

3. Luke Kuechly, LB, Jr., Boston College

How do you follow up a freshman All-American campaign while playing in the shadow of Mark Herzlich? You go out and lead the country in tackles (183) and that's exactly what Kuechly did last season for the Eagles.

4. Donte Paige-Moss, DE, Jr., North Carolina

UNC and Florida State have two of the top 10 defensive lines in the country, and the rangy, explosive Paige-Moss gives the Tar Heels a bookend pass-rushing threat across from Coples.

5. Marcus Forston, DT, Jr., Miami

This nimble 6-3, 310-pounder racked up nine tackles for loss and three sacks in a part-time role last season. New coach Al Golden did a good job developing defensive tackles at Temple (See: Muhammad Wilkerson) so look for a breakout campaign from Fortson.

6. Chase Minnifield, CB, Sr., Virginia

Virginia has produced a several of NFL corners in recent years. Minnifield is likely next. Minnifield was a first-team All-ACC selection last year and has NFL bloodlines -- his father Frank Minnifield was a Pro Bowl corner for the Cleveland Browns.

7. Jayron Hosley, CB, Jr., Virginia Tech

Hosley led the nation with nine interceptions and broke up eight other throws last season to emerge as one of the country's best defensive backs. He has excellent speed (4.42 second 40-yard dash).

8. Tydreke Powell, DT, Sr., North Carolina

Despite what they lost, Powell and company should give North Carolina another dominant defense. All four UNC starting defensive linemen are listed in the top 20. Powell is beginning to show up in the first round of 2012 NFL mock drafts.

9. Sean Spence, LB, Sr., Miami

This undersized (5-11, 224) but play-making linebacker returned to full strength last fall, recording 111 tackles and 14 1/2 tackles for loss. Spence is a sideline to sideline missile and gives the Coastal Division another impressive defensive talent.

10. Ray Ray Armstrong, SS, Jr., Miami

Armstrong was one of the top recruits in the country two years ago and made strides last season toward reaching that lofty billing, recording 79 tackles and three interceptions. There is potential for much more as Armstrong is a hard hitter and a ball-hawking safety.

11. Xavier Rhodes, CB, So., Florida State

Rhodes was rated by some as an average, three-star prospect out of high school, but as a freshman, he played like a five-star talent, intercepting four passes while breaking up 12 others. He earned ACC defensive rookie of the year honors.

12. Andre Branch, DE, Sr., Clemson

There are large voids to fill along the Clemson defensive front as Da'Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins depart. The Tigers are counting on Branch to be their ace pass rusher, and he could double last season's sack total (5).

13. Bruce Taylor, LB, Jr., Virginia Tech

After the Hokies' defense struggled early in the year, one star did emerge. Taylor, a Myrtle Beach native, recorded 91 tackles and six sacks and 12 quarterback hits. Taylor has excellent size (6-2, 252) and plays with a throwback demeanor.

14. Nigel Bradham, LB, Sr., Florida State

It might be the year of the linebacker in the ACC. This 6-2, 240-pounder led the Seminoles with 98 tackles and was second on the team with five sacks.

15. J.R. Sweezy, DT, Sr., N.C. State

Sweezy is an intimidating presence at 6-5, 293 pounds. But he's also productive, registering 13 tackles for loss and six sacks last season.

16. Joe Vellano, DT, Jr., Maryland

The son of former all-ACC defensive tackle, Paul Vellano, he led Maryland with five sacks and 10 tackles for loss last season.

17. Kenny Tate, LB, Sr., Maryland

All-around talent who recorded 100 tackles and seven passes defended last season. His 6-4, 220-pound frame gives Maryland essentially an eight-man front.

18. Brandon Thompson, DT, Sr., Clemson

It's a critical year for Thompson. He has the talent to be one of the top defensive tackles in the country, but recorded just one sack last season. With Jenkins graduated, Clemson needs Thompson to be motivated and consistent.

19. Greg Reid, CB, Sr., Florida State

Reid is undersized (5-8, 175) but explosive and is also utilized in the return game. He is coming off a somewhat disappointing year but he gives FSU another quality corner.

20. Jacobbi McDaniel, DT, Jr., Florida State

One of the more promising defensive linemen in the league, McDaniel played through an elbow injury to register 31 tackles (5 1/2 for loss) last fall. There is plenty of upside here.