Clemson needs to fill major holes on defensive line
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hears so many questions about the Tigers’ defensive losses that he has lost count.
He heard it again Tuesday — probably not for the last time.
This time it came from one of those impact players no longer on the roster.
Former Tiger Albert Huggins followed up a statement with the burning question for his college coach. “Last year, the defensive line was so deep, man. How much are you going to miss those guys?”
Quite a lot, Swinney said.
Clemson is without seven defensive starters from the lineup that walloped Alabama 44-16 last January to win its second college crown in three seasons. That includes All-Americans in defensive end Clelin Ferrell and tackle Christian Wilkins, who were among three Tiger lineman selected in the opening round of the NFL draft last April.
Huggins started in place of suspended tackle Dexter Lawrence — the third first-rounder — in that title game. Linebackers Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar are gone as is cornerback Trayvon Mullen, the defensive MVP of the championship game who was picked 40th overall by the Oakland Raiders.
“We’ve got good depth talent wise,” Swinney said. “But we don’t have experienced depth. Whereas last year, it was just the opposite because we were rolling NFL guys in there.”
Swinney is sure to face more questions about his defense when he, safety Tanner Muse and offensive lineman John Simpson appear at ACC media days on Wednesday in Charlotte, North Carolina. Little, Swinney said, will be answered until Clemson’s new lineup goes through summer workouts and a bunch of games in defense of their 15-0 title season.
“We just got a lot to teach them,” Swinney said.
It is a wholesale replacement job defensive coordinator Brent Venables has faced before.
After the 2014 season, the Tigers lost its four starting linemen including Vic Beasley and tackle Grady Jarrett, both now with the Atlanta Falcons. Following Clemson’s first national championship game after the 2015 season, eight of the Tigers defensive starters were not back the next September.
“I feel sorry for myself sometimes,” Venables joked.
Clemson’s initial summer depth chart has junior Justin Foster and sophomore Xavier Thomas starting at defensive ends with graduate Nyles Pickney and sophomore Jordan Williams filling the middle. Pickney and Williams missed spring drills due to injuries, which Swinney and Venables gave opportunity for others to rep at the position and build the depth are seeking.
“We’ve got a lot to prove, especially up front,” Venables said.
Swinney is more confident about the team’s back seven, anchored by linebackers James Skalski and Isaiah Simmons, safety Tanner Muse and cornerback A.J. Terrell. Swinney believes their skill on the back end will give Clemson a buffer for the players up front to gain some reps and experience and be ready as the season goes on.
Swinney believes Clemson’s linebackers and secondary could be the best of his 11-plus seasons. But the coach said It will take some time with two-thirds of the Tigers’ roster consisting of underclassmen.
“They’re still young,” Swinney said. “So we have to keep our hand on the wheel.”
Then again, the Tigers might just be able to score their way out of any defensive lapses. They enter the season with two players on most prospective Heisman Trophy lists — quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne.
Lawrence, just a freshman, showed poise and precision after taking over for Missouri-bound Kelly Bryant after four games to lead Clemson to college football’s first 15-0 mark of the Division I modern era. Etienne, the ACC player of the year last season, set Clemson marks with 1,628 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground.
Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said there’ll be no worries of picking up any defensive slack with his group. There were plenty of times when Clemson’s untested defenders got the better of its more experienced counterparts.
“We saw what they could do,” Elliott said. “We know what they can do and everyone will find out soon.”