Clemson will open up fall camp on Aug. 4 with several questions that need to be addressed if it is going to win its first ACC Championship since 2011.
To me there are five keys that will be vital to the Tigers’ success in 2015. In this series I will provide a general rundown of each, identify its strength and weaknesses and pick the one player who is ready to have a breakout season.
Today, we will look at the defensive end position, the No. 3 key to a successful season.
At 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, Shaq Lawson has the opportunity to be one of the nation’s best defensive ends. He has the strength to take on offensive linemen, fight off blocks to get to the running back, while also having the speed and quickness to get past offensive tackles while rushing the quarterback.
Last year, Lawson led all defensive ends on the roster with 44 tackles. He was second on the team with 11 tackles for loss and only Vic Beasley had more sacks. If it wasn’t for an All-American like Beasley starting in front of him, Lawson could have been an All-American himself.
There is definitely no drop off with Lawson replacing Beasley, but we know very little about what Kevin Dodd can do and if he can replace a three-year starter in Corey Crawford. Dodd has the potential to be a good defensive end. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, he looks the part and had a good enough spring to earn the starting spot opposite Lawson. But Dodd has very little experience, despite being a redshirt junior. He played in 12 of the Tigers’ 13 games last year, but he played no more than 26 snaps in any one. He finished the year with eight tackles and 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Behind Lawson and Dodd is a ton of potential but very little experience. Martin Aiken, like Dodd, is a junior who has recorded most if his experience as one of the Tigers’ best special teams players. Chris Register is a redshirt freshman who asked near the end of the spring to move from linebacker to defensive end. He is 6-foot-2 and weighs 245 pounds. The coaches think before his career is over he can be a solid rush end, but right now he has to learn the position and is only expected to be a third-down pass rushing specialist this year.
Richard Yeargin is a redshirt freshman the coaches raved about a lot in bowl practice and spring drills. He looked great last year in his power-hour sessions, but he still need to bulk up. He entered the summer at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. True freshman Albert Huggins (6-3, 280) from Orangeburg, who enrolled in school in January and participated in spring drills, will also cross train at defensive end to help provide more depth.
STRENGTHS: Clemson has the numbers and the potential talent to still be very good at defensive end. Lawson can be an All-ACC, All-American caliber player. Register and Yeargin are the future, and the coaches believe Dodd has what it takes to be a very productive defensive end.
WEAKNESSES: There is very little experience. Lawson, who has played for two seasons now, has started just one of the 26 games he has played in. Dodd has never started. In the three years he has been at Clemson he has played in 24 games and participated in just 219 plays. The four guys backing Lawson and Dodd up are three freshmen and a junior in Aiken, who has played in 24 games, but has taken just 82 snaps.
BREAKOUT CANDIDATE: This is a no brainer. Lawson has the opportunity to play on Sundays. He can play both the strong- and the weak-side positions at defensive end. He has been very hard to contain coming off the bench the last two seasons as Beasley’s backup. As the starter, Lawson can and will put up big numbers, especially if Dodd turns out to the kind of player the coaches think he will be on the opposite side.
NEXT: Defensive tackles