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Making the grade: Season Review (defense)

Clemson won the 2016 National Championship, but did it make a good grade in The Clemson Insider’s positional reviews for the season.

Here is a look at the defense.

Defensive line: Grade A+

Let’s be honest, this might be the best defensive line Clemson has ever had. The Tigers once again led the country in tackles for loss with 130. They were third in sacks with 49. The defensive line, led by Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Carlos Watkins and Clelin Ferrell, was responsible for the majority of both. Watkins led the way with a record 10.5 sacks for a defensive tackle, breaking Williams Perry’s 1984 mark. He also led the Tigers with 13.5 tackles for loss, while Wilkins had 13 and Ferrell had 12.5. Lawrence, the ACC defensive rookie of the year, led the line with 78 tackles overall, 9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He also had 21 quarterback pressures. What made Clemson so good on the defensive line was its depth. Scott Pagano, who started four games at defensive tackle this season, always played with an attitude and was very disruptive when he got his chances. Albert Huggins played in 14 games and showed he is going to be a very good defensive tackle as he continues to develop. Austin Bryant started to get back to the level he was playing at last year before suffering from a broken bone in his foot in training camp. Richard Yeargin and Chris Register also showed flashes at times at defensive end.

Linebackers: Grade A

Led by Ben Boulware, this unit was the heart and soul of the Clemson defense. No one personifies being a Clemson Tiger more than Ben Boulware. His energy and passion for the game and his love for his teammates, coaches and Clemson was expressed on every play. The All-American, who won the Jack Lambert Award as the nation’s best linebacker, led the Tigers with 127 tackles. He also had 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Kendall Joseph, who like Boulware is a local kid, was second on the team with 121 tackles. He had 12.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks and also added 16 quarterback pressures. Dorian O’Daniel was the master at stopping the triple option and the zone-read plays. He finished the year with 59 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Jalen Williams, who was a hybrid linebacker / nickel back, helped a lot in pass coverage and worked almost as a third safety at times. The Clemson linebackers had four of the Tigers’ 20 interceptions this past season.

Secondary: Grade A

Was there a unit on Clemson’s team that performed any better? In my opinion, secondary’s coach Mike Reed deserves the coach of the year award on the team after the way he coached up his players. Despite losing three guys a year early to the NFL in Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse, plus a transfer, an injury to Adrian Baker and another player being dismissed from the team, the secondary was better this year than last year. They eliminated the majority of the big plays they gave up a year ago. Safety Jadar Johnson emerged as a leader and as a First-Team All-ACC performer, while Van Smith proved to be one of the best tacklers on the team. Johnson led the Tigers with five interceptions, while Smith was third on the team with 114 tackles. Smith also had two interceptions. Senior corner and All-American Cordrea Tankersley had four interceptions, including two in the ACC Championship Game and led the team with 11 passes defended. The biggest surprise was the cornerback spot opposite Tankersley. Marcus Edmond, Ryan Carter, Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen all made plays at some point in the season. Edmond of course had two of the biggest plays of the season, causing Louisville’s James Quick to step out of bounds a yard short on a fourth-down play with 33 seconds to play at the Clemson three, and then intercepting an NC State pass in overtime to seal the victory in that game.

–Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

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