Heading into the 2015 regular season, Kevin Dodd of Clemson was a 23-year-old defensive end with no sacks in his college career, as he was previously featured as a reserve pass-rusher for the Tigers.
The redshirt junior has gone from zero to hero over the past couple months, parlaying on-field success into the hottest name in the draft community.
Before December, it was rare to see Dodd's name mentioned as a draft prospect. Looking at his Google Trends data, he's been about 10-to-16 times more popular on America's largest search engine in January than in any other month during this past college football season.
The first time Dodd's candidacy for the 2016 NFL draft surfaced was after Brad Senkiw of the Independent Mail reported that the lineman had applied for feedback from the draft advisory board, a body that gives first- and second-round grades, as well as a "go back" response. Still, Senkiw stated that Dodd was "leaning heavily toward playing [his] senior year."
That same day, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller claimed that the Tiger may declare alongside his teammate Shaq Lawson, the pass-rusher who lined up opposite Dodd on the right side of their ACC-winning line. The month that passed between then and ESPN's Mel Kiper projecting him as a first-round pick seems like an eternity:
Shaq Lawson led the nation in tackles for loss, but Dodd was right there with him, No. 2 in the nation, and a constant presence in the backfield. The Falcons added pass-rush help with Vic Beasley last year, but is Beasley an every-down player? At 275 pounds, Dodd has the frame to hold up against the run and should help a D-line that lacks depth.
How did it come to this?
In a three-game stretch to end the season, against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, Oklahoma in the first round of the playoffs and Alabama in the national championship game, he had five sacks.
Does this ring a bell?
Last season, Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones was the postseason breakout candidate in the college football world. After going 46 of 75 for 724 passing yards and five touchdowns with just three interceptions against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and Alabama and Oregon in the playoffs, many suggested that Jones could have declared for the NFL based on his postseason.
In 2015, after Jones returned to school, we learned his hot streak wasn't sustainable. He was benched for J.T. Barrett in the second half of the season and declared for the 2016 draft, stating that at 24 years old, he was too old for college.
Once thought of as a potential first-round candidate, his stumble has been steep. Miller's rankings have him as the 178th overall player in the class, relative to a sixth-round pick, while CBS Sports has him pegged as a fourth-rounder as the 104th player and seventh quarterback in the talent pool.
This is the big question: Is Dodd's recent stretch the real him, or were these last few games an outlier?
When you think of postseason breakout pass-rushers, the names who come to mind aren't pretty. There's Margus Hunt, who notched two sacks in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl for SMU. After being drafted 53rd overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013, he posted 1.5 sacks in three seasons in the NFL.
Malliciah Goodman, another former Clemson defensive end, sacked Zach Mettenberger three times in his matchup against LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. After three years in the NFL, he doesn't have one registered sack to his name.
Derrick Harvey, formerly of Florida, recorded two sacks against Michigan in the 2007 Capital One Bowl, after not tallying a sack in his previous seven games. He was drafted eighth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2008 and was cut after just three seasons. He played five games with the Denver Broncos in 2011, a four-tackle and zero-sack year, before a summer stint with the Bengals ended his professional career five seasons in with eight sacks as his career total.
When breaking down Dodd's tape over this three-game stretch, context is needed.
For the most part, unless you're Ohio State's Joey Bosa, if you're a dominant pass-rusher at the college level, you're playing against left tackles, meaning you're a right defensive end or outside linebacker. In Miller's latest rankings, Lawson is ranked as the second-best edge defender in the class, behind only Bosa, and the 14th player overall on his board.
By any standard, if you've seen Clemson this year, you come away thinking that Lawson is the more talented pass-rusher on the squad, which is why he plays right defensive end against left tackles, the premier position on the offensive line, tasked with protecting a quarterback's blindside.
Because Dodd plays along the line with Lawson, he's free to line up across lesser talents at right tackle. Dodd had 15 tackles for a loss over the course of the last five games of his 2015 season, yes, but with talents like Lawson and D.J. Reader on the defensive line with him, offensive lines could be stretched only so thin.
Reader was a senior captain as a defensive tackle, but he missed the first month-and-a-half or so of the season due to his father's death. He returned to the field for the Miami Hurricanes matchup on Oct. 24. A month later, Dodd would go from averaging about a tackle for loss a game and a sack every other game to three tackles for a loss a game and a sack-and-a-half per game.
NFL Draft Scout consistently has the best precombine 40-yard dash projections, and it currently lists Reader as a five-second athlete at 325 pounds, a freak by density standards.
When Lawson was injured against Oklahoma in the first round of the playoffs, true freshman Austin Bryant took his place and looked the part. Another freshman, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, also had significant reps and looks like he's on track to be a future professional, too.
Last season, that same defensive line that destroyed college football lost Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Corey Crawford and DeShawn Williams, four linemen who moved up to the next level. Beasley was drafted eighth overall by the Atlanta Falcons and led his team in sacks, despite playing his rookie year with a torn labrum.
To put it plainly, Clemson has been loaded on the defensive line. When you're around talented players, double teams don't come often, which can inflate the importance of a lesser player's skills in the media's eyes.
Another factor that helped Dodd?
The right tackle he faced on the sport's largest stage against Alabama, Dominick Jackson, was its worst starter. The one cardinal rule an offensive lineman can't break is letting his assignment get to his inside passing lane. A pass protector's inside foot must be up at all times, and his butt must function as a camera filming the quarterback.
On the very first play of the game, right tackle Jackson, a first-year starter and junior college transfer, broke all of those rules. That set the tone for the Jackson-Dodd battle.
Jackson is currently listed as the 19th senior offensive tackle on NFL Draft Scout, 14 spots behind a Western Michigan prospect, 13 spots behind a North Dakota State prospect, 11 spots behind a Harvard prospect, seven spots behind a Richmond prospect and three spots behind an Eastern Washington prospect.
That 19th ranking doesn't include the 10 underclassmen who have stated their intention to declare for the 2016 draft class, per NFL.com's tracker. If Jackson makes an NFL roster next fall, everyone in the draft community would be fairly shocked.
Still, Dodd isn't someone to completely write off.
According to College Football Film Room, a site which develops statistics based off broadcast footage, Dodd led the Tigers in quarterback pressures this past season, earning 46—four more than Lawson. To claim that Dodd isn't good enough to play at the next level would be false, but so would be calling him a double-digit sack threat in the pros.
He's a smart player. Against power plays as the free man, he wrong-arms the pulling man or the blocker out of the backfield. When he's the read man on zone options, he closes the gap and waits for a decision to be made. He's pretty good, and that's OK—but pretty good doesn't make a first-round pick.
Against weaker pass protectors, he's able to enter the backfield because of his lateral agility, running through out-of-position offensive linemen like turnstiles with his rip move. There are times, though, when his body control is put to the test.
If you bowling ball yourself to the turf in college football, you may be able to sack Alabama quarterback Jake Coker. But you're not bringing down Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton or Andrew Luck like that. Plus, trench play is the biggest jump of talent at the next level. There is no Dominick Jackson on NFL Sundays. If Dodd's not strong enough to stay out of the dirt, he's going to quickly become a target.
Even then, lateral agility is a trait that is a better feature for interior defensive linemen like defensive tackles—think Rams DT Aaron Donald—more than defensive ends. And Dodd's first step isn't Donald's. In fact, NFL Draft Scout projects Dodd to run in the mid-4.8s at the combine, assuming he gets invited.
Overall, I understand the excitement over the hidden gem being surfaced late in the season. We're good for about one or two of them a year. But don't mistake Dodd for a player like Rams offensive tackle Greg Robinson.
Robinson was a late-in-the-season find by Kiper a couple of years ago, playing a pass-orientated position in a run-orientated scheme as a redshirt sophomore at Auburn. Dodd is a redshirt junior who played a year at a military academy before arriving at Clemson. He shows no real projectable talent that can't be coached, other than lateral agility, and very well could be a product of the Tigers' defense, in both scheme and talent.
In a month and change, the draft world will centralize in Indianapolis for the combine. Expect the hottest name in college football to cool off, settling in as a mid-to-late Day 2 selection—not a first-round pick.