CLEMSON — – In mid-September, Dabo Swinney bristled when asked about the lack of production from Clemson’s defensive line.
“They’re all sophomores and freshmen,” the Tigers’ head coach said. “Do they have talent? Yes. Are they dominant? No. Can they be? Yes. That’s why you play the game. Ask me that question again two years from now, when all those boys are full-grown men.”
Only two months have passed, but Swinney’s comments look prescient. Experience has done wonders for a young-but-improving defensive line.
Over the last four games, Clemson has piled up 13 sacks after garnering just seven in its first six games.
The Tigers are allowing 169 yards rushing per game for the season, 75th nationally; a month ago, the average was 202 yards per game, 102nd nationally.
In that same time span, Clemson’s scoring defense has gone from 71st to 33rd nationally, and its total defense from 96th to 57th.
Plenty of credit goes to a defensive line which is finding its legs.
“It’s a steady progression,” said sophomore defensive tackle Josh Watson. “At the beginning of the year, I stated that it won’t look as good at the beginning of the year as at the end, and it’s starting to come full circle.”
The line doesn’t have one standout, dominant player; sophomore defensive end Vic Beasley leads the team in sacks with five, and his five tackles for loss are third on the line, but he’s played only 208 snaps, about half as many as starting bandit end Corey Crawford (413 snaps, five TFL).
Nine linemen have already played at least 100 snaps, with seven garnering over 200. A year ago, only eight linemen reached 100-plus snaps through 14 games, and front-line starters like defensive tackles Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore wore down late in the season.
“We just never really get tired because we’ve got a fresh body coming in behind us,” Watson said. “After the game, I’m tired, but I can still go a couple more quarters if need be. It shows (defensive tackles) coach (Dan) Brooks’ coaching is paying off for all the older guys, and the younger guys as well.”
Saturday, Crawford scored Clemson’s first fumble return touchdown in over a year, scooping up Shawn Petty’s fumble for a 16-yard touchdown. He says the line lacked confidence while learning defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ new scheme, which has changed. Crawford said the Tigers were “making the defense harder than it needed to be.”
“I feel like when we were in the spring, we were moving so slow, we weren’t sure whether we should be in this gap or those kind of things. Now that we’ve been in it a while and we know why we do certain things we have to do for a defense, it’s boosting our confidence and making us work faster and harder.”
Swinney has noticed the improvement. He said Tuesday that the line was “fundamentally so much better than they were.”
“Light years ahead,” he said. “They’ve still got a long ways to go, but from an improvement standpoint, they’re so much better fundamentally and technically up front. They’ve developed real quality depth. Guys understand the system and they play faster and more confident with much more energy.”
Players credit Brooks and defensive ends coach Marion Hobby for the improvements.
Venables says hand-eye coordination is a huge key.
“Just getting their eyes where they belong, playing with a better pad level, playing with their hands,” he said. “Because their eyes are where they belong, their hands go where they’re supposed to be. Footwork, staying square, trusting the call, the guy next to them, just trusting the call and the guys in their rush lanes. That’s the biggest thing.”
Improved play from defensive end Malliciah Goodman, the line’s lone senior and upperclassman, has helped, too.
A month ago, Goodman had 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and no sacks in six games. Over his last four games, Goodman has 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and three sacks.
“Once you get a sack, they just keep coming,” he said. “Once you get in that groove, it’s hard to slow down. We’ve got to just keep feeding those positive thoughts and feed off everyone else.”
Right now, the Tigers’ line is enjoying a feeding frenzy.
“It’s like we’re maturing before your eyes and the coaches’ eyes,” Watson said. “It’s seeing we can do it and become more dominant. That’s what we’re trying to be. More dominant as a front four to help out the team any way we can.”