In the preseason, when someone spoke about Clemson’s defense, the conversation usually started and ended with the defensive front and deservedly so.
The Tigers front four consistent of four guys who are expected to be drafted, possibly in the first round, over the next two seasons. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, along with defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, have all earned at least one All-American honor since the regular season came to an end. Then there is defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who is finally 100-percent healthy, and is arguably the best interior defensive linemen in the country.
And though those four have contributed to half of Clemson’s national leading 44 sacks this year, the Clemson defense is more than just about its defensive front.
“Collectively, as the season has gone on, we’ve made a great identity,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I thought we have played a good part of the year with some strong discipline and that comes at all three levels.
“Everybody benefits when their teammates are doing things well.”
And Clemson (12-1) benefits the most.
The Tigers rank second in the nation in scoring defense (12.8 ppg), sixth in total defense (277.9 ypg), eighth in passing defense (165.1 ypg) and 13th in rushing defense (112.9 ypg). Overall, Clemson is ranked in the top 10 in 15 different defensive categories heading into its Sugar Bowl matchup with No. 4 Alabama.
“Some of the time it shows up in the stat sheets and some of it does not,” Venables said. “You always say it does start up front and those guys have been active and disruptive virtually all year, and it is the same group of guys that come in every day, year around and are ready to work. They like to practice and like to work so it is great for them to kind of get some recognition.”
But other guys are working too and they’re starting to get some recognition as well. Guys such as linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, who leads the team with 99 tackles. He also has two interceptions he returned for two touchdowns, the first linebacker in Clemson history to do such a thing.
O’Daniel has also been named an All-American. Then there is weakside backer Kendall Joseph who is second on the team, despite missing two games, with 80 tackles. Middle linebacker Tre Lamar has also had a good season, and is expected to be back for the Sugar Bowl after missing the last three games due to an injured nerve in his back and shoulder areas.
Then there are guys like Ryan Carter and Trayvon Mullen at corner, who have taken over and thrive off the pressure of covering wide receivers in man coverage. Van Smith has also been a rock at safety, while guys like Tanner Muse, K’Von Wallace and Isaiah Simmons continue to get better with each outing.
“That (the accolades) does not do a whole lot for us on the field, but their success and their notoriety is again, not only a reflection of not only them, but their teammates who are putting in a lot of hard work,” Venables said.