It was not all that long ago that the Clemson Tigers were most notable for their high-powered offense and a defense that could hardly keep opposing teams from the endzone. Don’t believe me? Just revisit the 2012 Orange Bowl and see for yourself. The Tigers surrendered ten touchdowns to a West Virginia team led by Geno Smith. Luckily, the Tigers have undergone a culture change in recent years. The defense, once a weakness, is now a perennial strength. Just take a look at their signature wins from the past three seasons. With the rain pouring down, Clemson stopped Notre Dame at the one yard line to seal the win in 2015. Each of the last three matchups with the Louisville Cardinal saw the Tigers defense hunkering down to maintain a lead in the final quarter, ensuring victory. Just last season, in one of the biggest challenges the eventual national champion Tigers faced all year, an interception in the endzone in overtime clinched the win over NC State. In addition to those signature wins over the past three years, the Tigers finished in the top ten for total defense in each of those seasons as well. All of these fond remembrances serve to heighten the impact of my next statement: The 2017 Tigers Defense will be the best in team history.
How did head coach Dabo Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables go about transforming the Tigers defense? It began with the players. Guys like Vic Beasley, Ben Boulware, Shaq Lawson, Jayron Kearse, Mackensie Alexander, Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, and Carlos Watkins all left an indelible impact on the program. While those men may not don the purple and orange on Saturdays any longer, their influence will still be felt. Their effort on and off the field has shown todays Tiger defenders what it takes to be a champion. They laid the groundwork and created the blueprint that todays team will look to emulate. The 2017 Tigers defense will look to carry that torch and bring the team to new heights.
The strength of todays Tigers defense begins in the trenches. The two names you’re likely to hear most often in the coming season are Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. There is not a more terrifically gifted tandem of defensive tackles anywhere in the nation. Wilkins, now in his junior season, is reminiscent of a young Gerald McCoy. A bowling ball with unmatched tenacity and the athleticism to play any position. He spent most of last year playing from the defensive end position, while also featuring on special teams and short yardage situations on offense. The thought of him returning to his more natural defensive tackle spot should have opposing teams shaking in their boots, given how well he performed out of position last year. Right next to him on the line is Lawrence, a sophomore behemoth who was recently named to the AP preseason All American team. The former five star recruit showcased a frightening combination of strength and speed that left opposing offensive lines in shambles on his way to earning ACC defensive rookie of the year honors. Like Wilkins, he also featured on offense from time to time in the teams custom short yardage JUMBO package, which saw both men lining up at fullback to devastating results. Look for both Wilkins and Lawrence to be the leaders and key contributors of this defense in 2017.
Bookending Lawrence and Wilkins on the defensive line are redshirt sophomore Clelin Ferrell and junior Austin Bryant. Ferrell led the team in quarterback pressures in 2016, a trend that should hopefully continue into the 2016 season. He came on especially strong during bowl season, making key contributions in both the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech and the eventual National Championship victory over Alabama, before being hampered by injury during the final game. The highlight of his season was being named Most Valuable Player of the Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State, one of Clemson’s most dominant defensive performances to date. Bryant missed the first six games of the 2016 season due to injury. When he finally returned, his path to a starting job was blocked. He became one of the teams most important reserve players down the stretch, including replacing Ferrell in the National Championship game after his injury. While both men may not have the star power that Wilkins and Lawrence possess, they make for a very formidable pass rush duo in their own right. As a unit, the Clemson defensive line is one of the best in the nation.
Perhaps the biggest loss the Tigers defense suffered in the offseason was the departure of Ben Boulware. Boulware had been the heart and soul of the Tigers defense for years and he will be sorely missed. That being said, the Clemson LB corps are equipped to step up in a big way in Boulware’s absence. Returning to the bunch are redshirt junior Kendall Joseph and redshirt senior Dorian O’Daniel, both key contributors to last years defense. Joseph was far and away the most improved player during last years campaign. He grew from a special teams body into the teams second leading tackler. An asset in equal parts against the run and pass, look for Joseph to develop into the leader of the 2017 linebacker unit. O’Daniel, not unlike Joseph, was a special teams ace in his first few seasons before becoming a starter in 2016. He is likely the best coverage linebacker the Tigers have to offer thanks to his superior speed and instincts. Expect him to feature heavily on passing downs and keep your fingers crossed for him to take a step forward in his run defense. The question mark of this unit is new starting middle linebacker Tre Lamar. As a true freshman in 2016, Lamar served primarily as a backup and special teams contributor. In the few non-special teams snaps that he did receive, Lamar acquitted himself very well, but nothing is assured with such a small sample size. However, if those limited snaps are representative of what Lamar brings to the table, Clemson fans should feel confident with him as a starter entering the season. This linebacker unit, combined with the defensive line in front of them, make for a very solid front seven.
Finally, we arrive at the Tigers secondary. If there’s a weakness on this defense, it lies in the secondary. Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, two starters from last seasons secondary, are gone. Returning to the unit are starters Van Smith and Ryan Carter, along with previously rotational players Mark Fields, Marcus Edmond, and Tanner Muse. Van Smith, a junior, was the teams third leading tackler in 2016 and is the steadiest hand in this unit. He offers the best combination of run support, coverage, and playmaking ability the secondary has to offer. Redshirt senior Ryan Carter makes up for his lack of size with tenacity and instinctual play at the cornerback position. He split time between the nickel spot and more traditional outside cornerback spot in 2016. Tiger fans can expect more of the same in 2017. While Smith and Carter offer solid contributions and continuity in the secondary, the same can not yet be said of the other new starters. Junior Mark Fields joined the team to much fanfare when he flipped from South Carolina to Clemson late in his recruiting cycle. He has yet to make a significant impact on the field or separate himself from the competition, but he will have every opportunity to do just that in 2017. Senior Marcus Edmond is in a similar position to Fields. While his arrival on campus was not as celebrated, he showcased exciting playmaking ability in his limited snaps in 2016. He was on the receiving end of the interception that sealed Clemson’s overtime win over NC State. Despite that, he also has yet to gain an advantage in the cornerback battle. Both Edmond and Fields will see significant playing time in 2017. Hopefully their increase in reps will lead to greater production as well. The final new starter in Clemson’s secondary is Tanner Muse. The redshirt sophomore was one of Clemson’s most exciting special teams contributors in 2016. He was often seen flying down the field ahead of the pack on kickoffs and punts, showcasing powerful tackling ability and an impeccable nose for the football. The hope is for these traits to translate into coverage ability, but there is a steep learning curve when making the jump from special teams to starting defense. Overall, the secondary provides more questions than it does answers, but there is enough raw talent in the group for fans to look forward to seeing them silence any doubters once they hit the field.
The Clemson Tigers defense is absolutely stacked heading into the 2017 season in a way that the program has never experienced before. If this team is to have any chance at repeating their previous runs to the National Championship, they will need to live up to the boundless potential they possess right now. Keep an eye out for a truly dominant showing against the lowly Kent State in the first game. That should be fun to watch, but the first real test will come in week two against Auburn, a team that returns many starters to a previously high scoring offense and figures to feature more balance than ever before. If the Clemson Tigers defense can live up to the hype and shut down a team like Auburn, the sky is the limit.