Clemson Flashback: Why Tigers' 1990 defense is still the standard

Clemson Flashback: Why Tigers' 1990 defense is still the standard


Clemson Flashback: Why Tigers' 1990 defense is still the standard


In this day and age of football, fans want to see big explosive offensive plays and touchdowns. Whether it is Travis Etienne breaking off a 90-yard touchdown run against Georgia Tech or Trevor Lawrence throwing a 65-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins against South Carolina.

Fans want to see the big explosive plays.

However, there was a time at Clemson when those explosive game-changing plays did not come on offense. Instead it came on the defensive side of the football and in 1990, the Clemson defense had many.

“I think at that time, people were more excited to see the defense come on the field back then,” former Clemson All-American Levon Kirkland said to The Clemson Insider recently. “We were going to score enough points [on offense]. But I just remember by mid-season, when we came on the field, the fans got really excited.

“I thought we played the right way. I thought we played together. There was no guy on the team that selfish. We were not a selfish team and that could have easily been the case because everybody could play.”

Nine players from Clemson’s 1990 defense went on to become starters in the NFL.

“I think that defense was … you know how people say coming off the bus? You would see us on the field, and you would be like, ‘Holy Cow! We are going to have some trouble.’ I just thought we had one of those [defenses],” Kirkland said. “We were like men, but we started all young. We all grew up and by my junior year we were just so solid.”

Clemson’s defense in 1990 led the nation, as it allowed just 219.2 yards per game. They also ranked second nationally in scoring defense (9.1 pts/game) and rushing defense. The Tigers allowed just two opponents to rush for more than 100 yards in a game and the 71.0 rushing yards allowed was an ACC record.

They also ranked sixth nationally in passing defense at 148.5 yards per game. It marked the first time in school history Clemson ranked in the top 10 nationally in all three major categories.

“The cool thing was, we did not want people to get across the fifty. Forget scoring,” Kirkland said. “We knew that people were not going to score on us. So, our challenge was, and the way we took ownership … let’s not let them get passed the fifty.

“There were a couple of times we did not let teams pass the fifty.”

The Tigers allowed just two touchdowns in six home games in 1990 and just 11 touchdowns all season. They recorded three shutouts, including a 30-0 shutout against Illinois in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Clemson also held four other teams to six points or less.

“I will compare that defense that year against any defense,” Kirkland said.

Three other players—defensive tackle Rob Bodine, corner Dexter Davis and defensive tackle Vance Hammond—joined Kirkland on the All-ACC First Team, while linebackers Doug Brewster, John Johnson and Ed McDaniel made the second team.

“One of our best players was the nose guard who was only 6-1, 240 pounds… Rob Bodine,” Kirkland recalled. “He became an All-American [in 1991] and a Hall of Famer here, but we had to really fight Rob from getting all the tackles because at that time he was so quick off the ball. I think, he was like second in tackles one year.

“It was so hard to make tackles on that team. It was difficult. It really was. Being an outside linebacker, we rotated so much. Between the four of us, John Johnson, Wayne Simmons, Ashely Shepard, and myself, we played … John and I were the starters and then the other guys played the other two and we rotated like that. If somebody was kind of on a hot streak, we kind of let that guy play.”

Kirkland was a great example of how deep Clemson was on defense. He was named as a second-team All-American by the Associated Press and the American Football Coaches Association despite the fact he had just 58 tackles. He also had 10 tackles for loss and broke up eight passes.

“We barely got snaps. If you looked at our stats, it did not look that great, but all of us had like five or six sacks,” he said. “We had a lot of production and we made a whole lot of plays. It was a great defense. I am not sure people really appreciate that defense the way they should.”

Clemson’s defense was so good in 1990, they allowed just six plays of 20 yards or more at Death Valley and one offensive touchdown. Speaking of touchdowns, they also scored five touchdowns. Strong safety Arlington Nunn had three touchdowns, while Davis had two.

Just three opponents tallied more than 300 yards of total offense in a game and no one had more than 358 yards and that came against Virginia in Week 2.

“It was really cool to be on that squad. It really was.”

photo courtesy Clemson Athletic Communications

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