CLEMSON — Over the past few years, Clemson has developed a reputation as a defensive end factory.
The late Gaines Adams and Da’Quan Bowers both overcame slow starts to their careers and wound up as first-team All-Americans; Bowers won the Nagurski Award as college football’s best defensive player, and Adams was the ACC’s defensive player of the year. Both were drafted by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Andre Branch bolstered that tradition last year, enjoying a breakout season with 77 tackles and 10.5 sacks en route to first-team All-ACC honors and a second-round selection by the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Now, it’s Malliciah Goodman’s turn. As the only returning starter and only upperclassman on a line full of freshmen and sophomores, the onus is on the senior to turn potential into production while leading a young group.
“He’s the guy we’ve challenged to take his game to another level,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “When you look at us the last two years, when Da’Quan was coming back that junior year, we challenged him, ‘Hey you’ve got to take it to another level.’
“He did. Led the country in sacks. Last year we challenged Branch. ‘Hey, it’s your time, you’ve got to take it to another level, he did. Same thing with Malliciah, he’s got to take it to another level. He’s been a good player, a productive player just like Branch was, but he hasn’t been a great player yet. Neither had Branch, neither had Da’Quan, quite frankly.”
This is Goodman’s charge: go from good to great. A year ago, he played 767 snaps, a record for a Clemson defensive lineman. He made 59 tackles, but just four tackles for loss and two sacks.
Over 1,439 career snaps, he has 12 tackles for loss and five sacks.
By comparison, Branch had 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in 755 snaps last fall; Bowers had 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in 683 snaps in 2010.
“Obviously, he’s talented,” Swinney said. “But what we need him to be is dominant.”
Goodman has the tools: his hands measure 11.5 inches from fingertip to fingertip, which would make them among the biggest in the NFL right now. At 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, he has the size.
Now, it’s a matter of putting it all together.
He knows as well as anyone: this is his time.
“I spent the whole summer thinking about the season, how it’s going to be, talking about what I expect from myself coming out, what I expect from defensive end,” Goodman said. “It’s being that playmaker coming out, being a leader. No matter what happens. If adversity hits, build from it and keep going.”
With three sophomores expected to start beside him on the line, leadership is crucial.
Goodman has been through ACC battles before. He knows what to expect. And he must lead.
“I just have to step up and play my role. Be the every-down player that I can be,” he said. “Be a big brother to the younger guys and bring them along. They’ve learned from Brandon Thompson, Rennie Moore and Andre Branch things that they did good, and learning how to do things right. I believe they have some great knowledge, and I can also help relay some of the knowledge I learned from Da’Quan and Branch, impact everyone and bring everyone along.”
How does Goodman take his game to the next level? Become a better pass rusher, obviously.
He acknowledges that “I’ve made an impact in the past, but I can make a bigger impact if I work on the little things.”
It’s a matter of making the second move on a pass rush. That, Goodman said, is the difference between a sack and a handful of air.
“Sometimes it’s the second effort that counts,” he said. “Coming off the edge on the first effort, if you come off the edge and beat the tackle, that’s a sack right there. But that quarterback can step up and make you miss. It’s how you react from that.
“You might get double-teamed, might get past and someone else comes out of the way, or he rolls out and you have to run across the field to get him. You have to be relentless.”