CLEMSON, S.C. – Three years ago, Dabo Swinney asked for patience.
Despite the presence of future NFL talents like defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and defensive end Andre Branch, Clemson’s defensive line was a liability.
The Tigers’ front seven struggled with depth issues, tired late in games and didn’t pressure quarterbacks well, contributing to defensive struggles that eventually led to defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s departure following a 70-33 Orange Bowl embarrassment against West Virginia.
Several times that fall, Swinney responded to questions about the line’s struggles by discussing its youth, pleading for patience—and asking those criticizing its younger players to wait until those players matured before hurling invective.
Last fall, Swinney’s words proved prophetic. Clemson’s defensive line emerged as one of the best in the ACC and college football, fueling the Tigers’ 11-2 record, Top 10 final ranking and Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, the program’s first BCS bowl win.
Clemson led the nation in tackles for loss with 123, a program record. They were second in the nation in three-and-outs per game, averaging 6.1. And they piled up 38 sacks, 13th nationally.
The scary part for Clemson’s foes? That line will be even better next fall.
Clemson returns its entire two-deep defensive line and adds help from multiple talented redshirts, which will make an already talented line even deeper.
Will the line be even better in 2014? You bet.
The biggest reason why?
As a junior, Beasley (who came to Clemson as a tight end) emerged as a true pass-rushing force. Beasley was named a first-team All-American by six different services. He had 13 sacks (third-best in Clemson history) and 23 tackles for loss. He ranked third nationally in sacks and third in tackles-for-loss yardage (with 133).
Beasley strongly considered leaving early for the NFL and was projected as a second-round pick but ultimately decided to return to Clemson for his final season of eligibility. At 6’2”, 235 pounds, Beasley is slight for an every-down defensive end and profiles as either an end or hybrid end/linebacker in the NFL.
Returning for another season will allow Beasley to get bigger: He could stand to gain 10-15 pounds and improve his performance against the run.
His presence also makes the Tigers’ line better. Beasley’s backup is rising sophomore Shaq Lawson, who was a freshman All-American last season according to College Football News. Lawson had 35 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and four sacks last season in 337 snaps. Beasley’s return will allow coaches to deploy Lawson as a situational pass-rusher, much as they did successfully with Beasley in 2012 behind end Malliciah Goodman (now with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons).
Beyond that, the entire line returns: rising senior ends Corey Crawford (who also briefly considered an NFL jump) and Tavaris Barnes, rising senior defensive tackles Grady Jarrett (an honorable mention All-ACC pick and a highly underrated run-stopper), Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams, and rising junior D.J. Reader.
Jarrett, Watson and Williams were the players Swinney defended three years ago, and they have developed into a tough, highly talented trio capable of frustrating opposing offensive linemen, pressuring quarterbacks and limiting tailbacks.
Reader is a capable backup who made three starts last season with 43 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks in 2013.
And the returnees’ presence doesn’t even take into account the talent that watched from the sidelines last season.
Sophomore Carlos Watkins, rated by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 7 defensive tackle when he signed with Clemson in 2012, played only three games before being involved in a serious automobile accident that killed one of his friends. He was granted a redshirt and will be a sophomore again this fall.
In addition, defensive tackle Scott Pagano and defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko were redshirted. Both were rated as 4-star signees by 247Sports and will be itching to contribute following a year in the weight room.
“I love the young talent we have,” Swinney said. “We’ve got us some really good redshirt guys who were signed last year and have been off the radar. They’re going to be stepping up. Guys like Ebo and Pagano.”
With another year to learn defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ system and learn from position coaches Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby, it’s easy to see why the Tigers’ line will be ferocious in 2014.
In fact, it’d be a surprise, given the added depth and experience, if Clemson didn’t surpass its already impressive sack and tackles-for-loss numbers across the board this fall.
Opposing quarterbacks, you have been warned.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace