The media narrative entering the 2019 season was that Clemson’s defense was due for major regression after losing seven starters from a year ago, including six in the front seven and all four starting defensive linemen — three of whom were first-round NFL Draft picks in Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
Through seven games, all the Tigers’ defense has done is prove people wrong. Heading into Saturday’s game against Boston College, second-ranked Clemson is No. 8 nationally in scoring defense (12.0 points per game allowed), No. 5 in total defense (256.0 yards per game allowed) and No. 3 in passing defense (144.1 yards per game allowed).
“I think that a lot of people have missed the boat on our defense. They’ve done a great job,” Swinney said during his press conference on Tuesday. “The story coming into the year was we’re not going to be very good, there’s no way you can replace all these guys. The story was about who was not here, and our defense has really done a great job. They really have.”
While Clemson (7-0, 5-0 ACC) has played at a higher level defensively than many predicted, Swinney will not say that the unit has exceeded his own expectations.
“I just expected us to play tough and play fast,” he said. “I think they’ve done a great job. I didn’t really have any numerical expectations, but they’ve probably exceeded everybody else’s expectations. I just felt like we’d be a good defense, and I felt like our back seven would be the best that we’ve had and a strength of our team, and I think that’s exactly what’s happened and allowed us to grow up those guys up front.”
Despite losing half a dozen key pieces in their front seven from the 2018 season, this year’s Clemson defense is tied for fifth nationally in sacks (28.0) and tied for eighth in the country in tackles for loss (58.0) thanks in part to performance of true freshman defensive tackle Tyler Davis and other defensive linemen like Nyles Pinckney, Jordan Williams, Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph, K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll.
Swinney pointed out that the Tigers have more sacks and more turnovers forced (15) than they did at this time last year.
“We’ve used our personnel very well week in and week out to give ourselves the best chance to be successful, and we’ve started to develop some good depth and some young guys have stepped up,” Swinney said. “A guy like Tyler Davis has come in here and really just been a huge blessing for us. We lose the guys that we lose, and somebody’s got to step up and he’s definitely been a guy… We knew Nyles and Jordan were back, and those guys at the end, they played a little bit last year. But K.J.’s coming on, Mascoll’s coming on, and now the addition of Tyler has been a huge benefit for us.”
Meanwhile, Clemson’s offense has been the subject of plenty of scrutiny after coming into the season with sky-high expectations. However, despite the narrative out there about Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers’ offense, Swinney has been pleased with the unit.
“Offensively, we’ve done a lot of good things,” he said. “But it seems like anytime we do anything bad, that’s all everybody wants to focus on. They just want to focus on the bad. We’ve done a lot of good. Trevor throws two interceptions, and that’s all you see on ESPN. You don’t see 20-of-29 and three touchdowns, and you don’t see the good stuff. So, that just kind of comes with the territory. We just keep on plugging.”
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