CLEMSON — – Last week, the watch list for the Outland Trophy – given to the best interior lineman in college football – landed in my in-box. It was followed closely by the watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to college football’s top defensive player (Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers won last year).
It is not especially difficult to make these lists. 87 players were on the Nagurski list, while 65 made the Outland.
Still, only one Clemson player – center Dalton Freeman – made either list.
That says something about the defense, but I think, most of all, it says something about the Tigers’ defensive line.
After years of sending player after player to the NFL, I think the line has something to prove this year.
Bowers is gone, a surprisingly-low second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All-ACC defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins is gone, a second-round pick of the Washington Redskins. Defensive tackle and solid contributor Miguel Chavis is gone, too.
This year’s line has solid contributors, but it certainly lacks the depth that helped it stand out over the last few seasons.
Senior defensive tackle Brandon Thompson – who’ll represent Clemson at the ACC Kickoff – is a legit run-stuffer, but he must become a more complete player and pass-rusher and carry a bigger load this fall.
Fellow senior Rennie Moore steps into Jenkins’ role, and he’s a far different player. Jenkins was a bulky 315 pounds, while Moore weighed in at 270 pounds this spring. Moore is quicker and more agile than Jenkins, which should help him as a pass-rusher, but there are questions about whether he can be the force against the run that Jenkins was, commanding double-teams and constant attention inside.
At strongside defensive end, Malliciah Goodman needs a breakthrough season. The junior was highly regarded coming out of Florence, but really hasn’t had a true opportunity to work as a full-time player, thanks to the presence of Bowers, Ricky Sapp and Andre Branch, among others.
This spring, coaches said he needed to be more consistent and have a solid summer of work.
It’ll be near-impossible for one player to replicate Bowers’ production, especially the 15.5 sacks, but Goodman and Branch must both prove themselves worthy of every-down roles.
True freshman Corey Crawford could be the wild-card of the group; after a post-graduate year at Hargrave Military Academy, he impressed defensive coordinator Kevin Steele with his skills, effort and knowledge in spring.
I think he’ll be an immediate contributor. While fellow spring enrollee Joe Gore’s knee injury will likely consign him to a redshirt, senior Kourtnei Brown must contribute meaningful snaps behind Goodman. He was highly thought-of coming out of Charlotte, but has never lived up to the hype.
Sophomore Tyler Shatley and redshirt freshman Tavaris Barnes must also give Thompson and Moore relief; one hallmark of Clemson’s recent success has been the ability to roll players in and out, particularly on the rough-and-tumble interior.
This line has potential, if not the breakout star-in-waiting like Bowers.
I don’t think it has to be spectacular. It just can’t be a liability.