Conventional wisdom says Clemson’s defense will have a drop off this year.
The Tigers have to replace seven starters off a unit that led the nation in scoring defense and ranked fifth in the country in total defense.
Gone is All-American defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. Gone is All-American defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Gone is All-ACC linebackers Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar. Gone is All-ACC cornerback Trayvon Mullen.
Also, Clemson lost veteran reserve players like defensive tackle Albert Huggins, linebackers J.D. Davis, Judah Davis and Shaq Smith and cornerback Mark Fields.
“I kind of feel sorry for myself,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said jokingly when thinking about all the players he has to replace this season.
But don’t feel too sorry for Venables or Clemson just yet. Despite all of those losses, the Tigers still landed five defensive players on the preseason All-ACC team on Tuesday, three more than the second closest team—Syracuse and Miami each had two players on the all-star list.
Defensive end Xavier Thomas, defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, linebacker Isaiah Simmons, cornerback A.J. Terrell and safety Tanner Muse were voted on the media’s team.
“I don’t know. Every year, you don’t really take anything for granted. We really do have to starter over,” Venables said.
But if anybody knows how to start over, it is Venables. In 2015, after losing eight starters from a unit that led the country in total defense and ranked third in scoring defense in 2014, the Tigers finished 10th nationally in total defense.
The very next year, he had to replace seven starters and they still finished eighth in total defense and 10th in scoring defense. As the All-ACC team proved on Tuesday, despite all the losses, Clemson still has more talent than anyone else in the conference.
“We have some really good strong pieces that we feel really good about, and there is a lot of them that are unknowns as we all know,” Venables said. “We have a lot to prove and we have a long way to go to continue to build our defense. I thought our spring was solid, not spectacular. I think there was a lot of buying in, in regard to the investment and the toughness that it takes.
“I really believe that toughness and the ability to play a strong and consistent level, I think you earn that over time. We just have a long way to go right now to look anything like we did the last time we played.”
That might be true, but no one is feeling sorry for Venables, except himself.