CLEMSON – A few times during the offseason, Dabo Swinney made an observation that raised some eyebrows and maybe even elicited a few chuckles.
He is nothing if not an optimist, so most people probably chalked it up to Dabo being Dabo when he said he thought the defensive front seven could end up being the strength of the team in 2013.
Everyone who knows anything about Clemson football the last two-plus years knows it’s all been built on high-flying offense. Chad Morris’ cutting-edge approach fused with elite talent has been the biggest factor in 23 victories over 29 games, dating to the start of 2011. The defense was so bad in 2011 that Swinney fired Kevin Steele a few days after the 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia.
And even though last year’s defense was improved under Brent Venables, they still allowed the same yards per play – 5.65 a snap, ranking 112th nationally. They still were steamrolled by Florida State in late September. They still allowed 48 points to N.C. State in late November, followed by a series of back-breaking third-and-long conversions in yet another loss to South Carolina.
But starting with a completely unexpected showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, there’s been anticipation that the Tigers’ defensive front is trending firmly upward. The unit pretty much dominated that night, pressuring the quarterback and playing an integral role in forcing eight three-and-outs in the 25-24 victory.
The only personnel loss from that defensive line was Malliciah Goodman, so it stood to reason that Clemson would be improved after growing up last season. But the available evidence after two games indicates Swinney might not have been all that far off in his preseason assessment. Because this bunch of linemen and linebackers looks like it could be really, really good.
The line followed its superior bowl showing with a disruptive effort in the opening victory over Georgia, and the guys at the second level showed noticeable improvement from last year.
When a defense allows 222 rushing yards as Clemson did against the Bulldogs, it’s natural to assume the defensive line got pushed around. But that really wasn’t the case in the 38-35 win. A lot of those rushing yards by Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall came as a result of missed tackles within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage by a secondary that’s still not as physical or tough as Venables wants it to be.
If you looked closely at the wars in the trenches that night, you noticed Clemson’s linemen frequently overwhelming a Georgia offensive line that was supposed to impose its will in the game. Last December, the Bulldogs opened holes and protected their quarterback against Alabama’s feared defense. Everyone returned up front, so it was logical to conclude Clemson was going to have a tough time getting consistent disruption against such a seasoned, proven line.
The Tigers debunked that theory with powerful efforts from starters Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley. But it was more than just the front-line guys, and that’s what has Swinney and everyone else in orange so excited.
It was also backup DeShawn Williams serving as a frequent menace inside, drawing multiple holding penalties and affecting the deep snapper on a field goal snap that went high during a crucial third-quarter sequence with the Bulldogs inside Clemson’s 5-yard line (they got nothing). It was reserve end Tavaris Barnes showing up off the edge. It was reserve end Shaq Lawson showing a couple of glimpses in his first collegiate action.
Linebackers Stepping Up
And behind them, it was a group of linebackers seeming to come of age after lots of hiccups last year. Over the first month of 2012, tentativeness from linebackers was a major culprit in getting gashed by Ball State (252 yards), Florida State (287 yards) and others.
No more of that in the first two games of 2013.
Spencer Shuey, Stephone Anthony and their backups are shooting gaps with speed and confidence, providing point-of-attack hits that haven’t been seen from linebackers at Clemson in some time. And the hybrid backer, Quandon Christian, looks like a considerably better run-stopper than he did previously, after adding significant muscle during the offseason.
Venables has some serious issues in the secondary, as evidenced by some of the big plays by both Georgia and South Carolina State. But it always helps when you’re controlling things up front, and the hope this season is that the front seven will make life tougher for opposing offenses, while the defensive backs grow up.
Swinney calls his front four “the front 12” in reference to the impressive depth that’s been cultivated. Scan the depth chart, and you see there’s not a senior among them. The most heated competition during spring and August took place on the interior, where Jarrett and sophomore Carlos Watkins started in the opener.
The Watkins start came as a surprise to many, and the fact that line coach Dan Brooks didn’t make the call on that until two nights before the game is a testament to just how much things are going back and forth. Williams was written off by some heading into his junior year because he doesn’t have ideal size, but he showed against Georgia he’s very much in the conversation. Sophomore D.J. Reader packs some serious punch at 325 pounds, and fourth-year junior Josh Watson is hungry for playing time, after emerging last season.
On the edges, Crawford looks like a different player as a junior, after facing criticism for underachieving his first two seasons. He’s always looked the part at 6-5 and 270 pounds, but an offseason of renewed focus and dedication has produced results. On the other end, Beasley possesses the tools to be an elite speed rusher. His backup, Lawson, would be starting at a lot of other places.
The front seven showed very little let-up seven days after the landmark victory over Georgia, and that might’ve been the biggest positive in the 52-13 shellacking of the FCS Bulldogs. While the offense went through some sputters and lethargy you might expect seven days after such an exhilarating victory, the defensive linemen and linebackers seemed to be quite ready.
And later in the day, as they watched South Carolina go down in Athens against Georgia, Clemson folks were undoubtedly heartened by seeing the Bulldogs’ offensive line push around a defensive front that’s supposed to be among the best in college football.
It might not be long before Clemson’s defensive front is in that conversation. Swinney’s prone to some exaggeration every now and then, but this was a take that could end up being dead on the money.
No one is laughing now, that’s for sure.