Expectations from the media and fans alike entering the 2017 season are high for Clemson’s defense, which returns seven starters from last season’s unit that ranked among the top 10 nationally in yards per game allowed (311.5) and in points per game allowed (18.0) while amassing a national best 130 tackles for loss and a school-record 49 sacks.
Expectations from the defense for itself is no different, if not higher. Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell made it clear on Monday what the Tigers are looking to do on the defensive side of the ball this season.
“Come out and do what we said we want to do, and that was dominate,” Ferrell said.
The goal for Ferrell and Clemson’s defense isn’t just to dominate, however — they are aiming to be the most dominant defense in the country and finish the year as the nation’s No. 1 defense, an accomplishment the Tigers achieved in 2014.
“That’s been the goal of my class in general — guys like me, Christian (Wilkins) and Austin (Bryant), and other guys who came in with us — because the 2014 defense, they set the standard,” Ferrell said. “Coach V (Brent Venables) tells us that all the time, and we just want to make a name for ourselves and engrave our names in Clemson history and be a part of a defense who can say we did the same thing and set the standard.
“Every year on our defense, we’re top-five, top-10 in tackles for loss and sacks. But I feel like we still need to put everything together as a whole defense and claim that number one spot. So that would be a great feat if we could do that.”
Loaded with stars such as defensive linemen Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley, linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward and cornerback Mackensie Alexander, The Tigers’ 2014 defense led the nation in total defense (260.8 yards per game), pass efficiency defense (98.3 percent), first downs allowed (185), third-down conversion percentage defense (27.4 percent) and tackles for loss (131), as well as in six other categories.
While that group was ultra-talented, much like Clemson’s current defense, Ferrell said the biggest thing he has learned is that it was their work ethic that set them apart.
“They were close and they were player-led,” Ferrell said. “That’s the number one thing. You talk about the 2014 defense, for example, you talk about the Stephone Anthony’s, the Grady Jarrett’s, Vic Beasley’s, Corey Crawford’s, and even guys who weren’t even starters — you had Tavaris Barnes, Shaq Lawson, Ben Boulware at the time. You didn’t have to tell those guys to come in here and do extra, you didn’t have to tell those guys to go in there and watch extra film because that was just their mindset.
“They wanted to be the best, and just seeing that, seeing how they cared for each other — they wanted to see the whole team and not just themselves have success. So that was the biggest thing, just seeing how close they were and seeing how self-driven they were.”
For Clemson’s 2017 defense, it all starts up front with the defensive line that features Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. It’s expected to be among the best individual units in the country, and how much success it has will go hand-and-hand with how much success the defense has as a whole.
There’s a lot of hype around the defensive line, but Ferrell and company are blocking out the noise. Like the 2014 defense, Ferrell says their focus is on putting in the work to be great.
“Yes, we do have the talent to be very good, but just knowing that isn’t going to do anything,” Ferrell said. “You have to put the work in, you have to go through the grind of the season, put in the extra work and hours of watching tape, doing extra stuff in the weight room, stuff like that to actually have that edge and hopefully be the best that you can be.”