CLEMSON — Josh Watson has ascended to the top of Clemson’s defensive tackle depth chart. But he isn’t getting comfortable there.
The sophomore defensive tackle is listed as a starting defensive tackle as Clemson wraps up on-campus preparations for New Year’s Eve’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU, but he knows the only way to keep that job is the same way he got it – with hard work.
“We have a good little thing with me, Grady (Jarrett) and DeShawn (Williams),” Watson said. “We push each other. We know we’ve got D.J. (Reader) and Carlos (Watkins) coming up behind us. There’s no day to take off, no spot secure. My spot could be taken tomorrow if I don’t come out and practice well.”
Watson began the season sharing time at both tackle spots with Jarrett and Williams – the trio called themselves “The Three Horsemen.” Over the final month of the regular season, Jarrett and Watson pushed ahead.
Jarrett started the final three games of the regular season at one spot, and Watson held down the other spot for the final four games. He had a season-high 59 snaps against South Carolina, making five tackles with a sack and tackle for loss. On the season, he has 51 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables says Watson has earned the role with constant, consistent play.
Competition, Watson said, makes a difference.
“That’s what’s making us a lot better and how we’ve gotten better as a D-tackle crew,” he said. “We definitely look out for the linebackers to be the same way in the spring, with the competitive depth they have. We’ve got to keep growing. DeShawn’s going to battle me for this starting spot. I wouldn’t expect him to do any less. You’ve got to bring it every day. That’s how it should be.”
Watson has made eight starts this season, helping fill the void left by the graduations of 2011 starters Brandon Thompson (now with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals) and Rennie Moore.
He’s learned plenty as he has gone along as well.
“It’s playing with my hands, realizing I don’t want to get in a wrestling match with these big offensive linemen,” he said. “The closer I get to them, that’s what they want. They want to be able to wrestle with me and tweak me around. Now I’m coming out and playing with my hands first and reading the blocks and getting off them. That’s been helping a lot.”
Venables said this week he expects LSU’s offense to be the most physical Clemson has played this season.
That’s a major challenge for Clemson’s defense, which seemingly couldn’t get off the field against South Carolina. The Gamecocks ran 40 second-half plays to Clemson’s 19 in a 27-17 regular season-ending win.
“Coach (Dabo) Swinney said he talked to (USC) coach (Steve) Spurrier, and coach Spurrier was amazed about how teams were snapping the ball so fast on us,” Watson said. “He wasn’t going to do that. He was going to take his time and snap the ball and make the conversion. And it seemed like they did that. Every time South Carolina needed a conversion, they got one.
“I think LSU is going to do the same. Hold the ball, get in the huddle, take their time, try and get three, four yards every play, keep our offense off the field because they know how dangerous they are. We’ve just got to get the offense the ball back, get them in a rhythm.”
And stop the run; LSU averages 179.9 yards per game on the ground.
“It’s just a lot of pounding,” Watson said. “They’re a physical team, big guys, their trick play might be a halfback toss. Everything else you know is coming. A lead zone to the left, that fullback’s coming, he’s a load too. We’ve got to hunker up and get them on the ground, stop the run.”