For the first time since 2014, when Clemson led the nation in total defense as well as 10 other defensive categories, the Tigers return the bulk of their starting lineup on defense in 2017.
In all, Clemson returns seven starters from a unit that ranked eighth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense in 2016. Additionally, the Tigers led the nation in tackles for loss for a fourth straight year and were third in total sacks.
The best stat of them all … they ranked second in the country in three-and-outs with 87.
Knowing that, as well as knowing players like All-American Christian Wilkins, ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Dexter Lawrence, Fiesta Bowl MVP Clelin Ferrell and second leading tackler Kendall Joseph are back, the defense is expected to carry the Tigers this year, especially early in the season.
“I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good on defense,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said recently. “We’ve got the most competition that we’ve had at all three levels, and really good depth at all three levels. So it’s a good situation, and we like the people we’ve got.”
The Clemson offense has to replace four players—WR Mike Williams, QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman and TE Jordan Leggett—who were drafted into the NFL. They also have to replace wide receiver Artavis Scott and center Jay Guillermo from an offense that was one of the best in college football the last three years.
That is a lot of experience to replace, which could put a lot of pressure on a defense that will need to be sharp early in the season until the offense gets things going.
“I don’t care about the pressure,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I’m not concerned with that because we will create the pressure. We create pressure for them every year.”
Venables’ goal is to continue to get his players better every year and develop them by putting in the work and keeping them humble.
“We have plenty of issues,” the Clemson coach said. “That’s what I know. So when I hear this many are coming back and this and that, I ask you this ‘is Cordrea (Tankersley) coming back?’ Is Ben Boulware coming back? There are some serious voids on this defense.
“You are talking about Ben Boulware. He was a three-time bowl MVP, a national championship defensive MVP. He was our heart and soul. There was not a more consistent player over the last couple of years than Cordrea Tankersley. He was lock down!”
Venables also pointed out the incredible year Jadar Johnson had at safety and how he came out of nowhere to be, not only, one of the best players on the 2016 defense but to be one of its better leaders, too.
Then of course there is defensive tackle Carlos Watkins – a fourth-round pick of the Houston Texans in the NFL Draft.
“The only thing he did was become the single-season defensive tackle sack leader at this school,” Venables said. “Who is going to do that?
“You don’t just go and say, ‘Wow! Those guys are better.’ Well, if that was the case, why didn’t Christian do it before? Why didn’t Dexter outplay Carlos last year if Dexter is supposed to be so much better? I’m not trying to put pressure on Dexter, but that isn’t how it works.
“Carlos was a full grown man, a fifth-year senior, very experienced, just like Ben was, just like Cordrea, they were seniors … Jadar, another senior. I don’t really talk about things like that. I don’t really look at things like that.”
However, even Venables can’t look past the fact he finally has a more veteran-led defense returning than the previous two years. All seven guys coming back were on the field when the Tigers shut out Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl and embarrassed South Carolina 56-7 on national television to close out the regular season.
All seven were starters on a defense that became the first Clemson defense since 1990 to post three shutouts in one season. And all seven will be expected to help carry the Tigers in 2017.
–Above Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports