CLEMSON — Save a handful of 30-minute windows scattered throughout August, Clemson’s preseason practices are closed to the media.
Too bad. Talk to Dabo Swinney for a few minutes, and you get the impression defensive line drills will be must-see TV this month.
“In spring practice, it was a bloodletting out there every day (at defensive tackle),” Swinney said. “ Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams, Josh Watson, Tavaris Barnes, it was a bloodletting out there every day. They all want to be the guy, and who’s going to run out there first? We don’t know. That’s got to be determined.”
That’s life on a young defensive line. With senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman the only returnee from a line that lost Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson (draft picks) and Rennie Moore and Kourtnei Brown (free agents) to NFL camps, as well as Tyler Shatley to the offensive line, youth and inexperience will be buzzwords when Clemson opens 2012 fall practice Friday.
What they lack in experience, however, they make up for in enthusiasm.
“Competition comes from opportunity, and that’s creating a lot of enthusiasm on our team,” Swinney said. “That comes from youth, and that’s exciting to me.”
On Clemson’s latest depth chart, Jarrett and Barnes are listed as co-starters at nose guard, while Williams and Watson are listed together at defensive tackle.
Sophomore Corey Crawford, Branch’s understudy in 2011, leads fellow sophomore Vic Beasley at one defensive end spot, with Goodman ahead of redshirt freshman Rod Byers at the other.
“The future’s bright there,” Swinney said. “We’re probably going to have a little inconsistency at times, playing a lot of sophomores and freshmen up there. But I think they’re talented. As long as they’re improving and getting better each week, we’ve got a chance to do some good things.”
Swinney likes to say “iron sharpens iron,” and that was the case this spring and summer.
A year ago, he suggested, the veteran nature of both the offensive and defensive lines led players to settle into their roles.
Now, that certainty is gone, replaced by a carrot at the end of the string – the opportunity to establish yourself as a starter and/or receive significant playing time early and often.
“There was much more competition for jobs,” Swinney said. “That’s a good thing. It’s created a lot of enthusiasm and attention to detail; guys were on edge all spring long. We’ve tried to carry that right into the summer and hopefully into camp. Because of that competition, I really hope we can develop quality depth that it takes to win.”
That isn’t a knock on younger players, Swinney said. Just “the nature of the beast.”
“With these fifth-year seniors starting for three and a half years, and I’m a redshirt freshman, I’m probably not going to win that job,” he said. “. Spring, when that job’s wide open, you’ve got guys battling for it, you’re getting guys giving the best they’ve got. Sometimes that happens.
Guys got the opportunity.
“Grady Jarrett, Tavaris Barnes, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson were all freshmen last year. I love them, but they weren’t going to beat Brandon Thompson out. That’s a credit to Brandon Thompson, he’s the man. Corey Crawford wasn’t going to beat Branch out, he has too much pride for that to happen. Eventually that sets in with those guys, ‘Here’s my role, I’ve got to learn my role and be the best I can.’ Whereas now, Corey Crawford is the guy. He’s not backing up the guy, he is the guy. It’s how do you accept that.”
Depth behind Crawford and Goodman is a major concern, one that new defensive coordinator Brent Venables says he “doesn’t feel good about.” Incoming freshmen Martin Aiken and Shaq Lawson could be pushed into action, while Byers and freshman Kevin Dodd could shift to defensive tackle roles.
“We’re very thin, we don’t have a lot of depth at end,” Swinney said. “It’s a concerning thing, having guys who have played very little. Vic Beasley has played very little and he’s a guy we’re going to have to count on big-time. But he’s worked very hard and I think he’s excited about the opportunity.
“Corey Crawford played a good bit last year but it’s nothing like he’s going to have to play this year. Same thing behind Malliciah. Who is it, Shaq Lawson? Martin Aiken? We’re going to have to find someone that will step up for us.”
One possibility could involve Barnes moving outside to end. He played 73 snaps last fall, making four tackles. Swinney raved about his athleticism, saying he is “as fast as anyone we have” and “can absolutely move for a big man.”
When asked, Venables sounded lukewarm on the option.
“That’s a possibility. He’s (played end),” Venables said. “I don’t think he’s been a dominant player where he is, and you try and take a dominant player and move him to help depth and he’s going to be average? I don’t think he’s really solidified himself anywhere. I think he’s talented and he’s a viable option.”
Clemson certainly has plenty of those on its defensive line – which could make for a very interesting fall.