Remember when Clelin Ferrell was rough around the edges and had no experience? Remember when Dexter Lawrence was a little ole freshman. Remember when Austin Bryant barely played because of an injury?
This is what Clemson’s defensive line looked like in 2016 … the year the Tigers won the program its first national championship since 1981.
Of course Clemson had different strengths and different leaders that year. The offense returned all of its firepower and had the best quarterback the school, or the ACC for that matter, has seen in quite some time in two-time Heisman Trophy Finalist Deshaun Watson.
Guys named Watson, Ben Boulware, Carlos Watkins and Jay Guillermo led the Clemson football team that season and they were some of the best the program had seen. Even with high expectations, the Tigers met them all and walked away with a national championship.
This year, Wilkins is back for his senior year, while Bryant and Ferrell have become All-American defensive ends. Lawrence is still a teddy bear in some ways, but on the football field he is a possible top 10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
With 17 combined starters returning on offense and defense, Clemson is once again at the top of a short list of true College Football Playoff contenders. The question is how will this year’s leaders handle the high expectations that are being set on these Tigers.
“I think we have more leadership than what we had that year. This team is different,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We won the national championship, but we were very fortunate. We had a good front line of guys, especially defensively, but had a big drop off in experience in a lot of areas.
“Remember Dexter (Lawrence) was a freshman. Christian had to play end. Clelin was a first-year player. We had a little bit of all of that stuff in a lot of areas. Deshaun was clearly the guy, but we did not have similar depth. Nick was a good player, but there was a difference between Deshaun and Nick. So we were very fortunate. You have to have some luck on the way.”
On offense the Tigers return with a lot of talent and experience at the skill positions and the offensive line is probably as deep and experienced as it has been in years, especially with Mitch Hyatt returning to start for a fourth year at left tackle.
All-ACC center Justin Falcinelli returns for his senior year, while John Simpson will start at left guard, Sean Pollard at right guard and Tremayne Anchrum at right tackle.
“I see multiple guys in my mind that are starters, regardless of who runs out there first,” Swinney said. “They are starters in my mind, so that is exciting. So we will see.”
As the Tigers continue summer workouts, if they want to be like the 2016 team and have a chance to win it all, they have to a pay the price and that starts when no one else is looking.
“This is a team coming back that has won forty games in three years,” Swinney said. “They’ve won a national championship. They have won three conference championships. They know what it takes. There is no doubt in my mind this summer is when you make the biggest gains.”
Hot off the press. ‘Back with a Vengeance’ is now available for online orders. TCI takes an in-depth look at the upcoming season as the Tigers march towards another national championship. Order your copy today!