CLEMSON — After losing just two junior players to the NFL draft in the past three years, Clemson will lose two this season alone.
Defensive end Phillip Merling confirmed what many had expected Thursday when he announced that he would enter the NFL draft and forego his final season of eligibility in a statement released through Clemson’s sports information office.
Merling was a force on Clemson’s defensive line this season; he had 78 tackles, seven sacks and 17 tackles for loss, helping the Tigers to top-10 national rankings in total and scoring defense.
He was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week three times, more than any other ACC player. It marked the first time since 2001 that a Clemson player earned three ACC weekly honors.
Merling was projected by the NFL draft advisory committee as a second-round pick, but hopes to elevate himself to a first-round pick with a strong performance at the league’s scouting combine.
“We wish Phillip the best in his pursuit of a National Football League career,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said in a statement. “He has the ability to be successful in his professional career. I advised him to remain for his senior year, but he felt this was the best decision for his future. I will help him any way I can as he prepares for the draft.”
Merling joins tailback James Davis in the draft pool; Davis announced he would enter the draft Wednesday. This marks the fourth time two Clemson juniors have declared for the draft in the same year. The other times were 1990, 1998 and 2003.
From 2004-2006, only two juniors declared: Justin Miller, a second-round pick of the New York Jets and C.J. Gaddis, a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. Gaddis was cut by the Eagles in the preseason but spent the end of the season on the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad.
Merling’s departure leaves a hole on the Tigers’ defensive line. A likely candidate to fill it is freshman defensive end DaQuan Bowers, rated as the No.1 overall player in America by ESPN.com. The Bamberg native enrolled in Clemson classes Wednesday and will go through spring practice with the Tigers.
So will five other freshmen early enrollees — Myrtle Beach kicker Spencer Benton, Spartanburg linebacker Stanley Hunter, Jacksonville, Fla., quarterback Kyle Parker, Hollywood, Fla., linebacker Tarik Rollins and Blythewood wide receiver Marquan Jones.
Bowers will be challenged by rising junior Kevin Alexander and possibly rising sophomore Kourtnei Brown.
Clemson wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney has emerged as a potential candidate to become South Alabama’s first head coach, according to several media reports in Alabama. The Jaguars will field their first-ever team in 2009, with the goal of moving to Division I and playing a Sun Belt Conference schedule by 2013. They will sign their first players in February 2009.
Swinney could be one of a dozen coaches interviewed by USA athletic director Joe Gottfried. Candidates who have already interviewed include former Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower, former Tulane coach Chris Scelfo, Auburn running backs coach Eddie Gran and Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
Other possible candidates include Mississippi State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey and South Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney.