Depth – it’s the difference between the elite and the rest in college football, and on the defensive line especially, says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
The Tigers return eight d-lineman who played triple-digit snaps last season – and lose only one (Malliciah Goodman, 622; 7 sacks/9.5 tackles for loss), with the top-five in tackles, four of the top-five in tackles for loss and the leader in sacks back on the unit.
“Every good team I’ve been on has been in that situation,” Swinney said. “Guys in the trenches you just can play. You don’t even have to think about it.
“Some guys get hot – maybe he started that game – maybe he didn’t, but he’s that dominant player that day.”
At this point, the depth chart really isn’t even a factor for Clemson.
“I don’t ever even look,” said Swinney. “Those guys upfront, used to I would notice, but I don’t ever even know who’s in there.”
Watkins 'so much improved,' big plays an emphasis
The leading returners from last season are spread out too. Senior defensive tackle Josh Watson is tops in tackles (54), junior DT Grady Jarrett in tackles for loss (8.5), junior end Corey Crawford in snaps (575) and junior DE Vic Beasley in sacks (8).
Behind that crew is a hungry group of underclassmen, which includes sophomores D.J. Reader, Carlos Watkins and early-enrollees Shaq Lawson and Ebenezer Ogundeko among more.
Swinney has seen Watkins, who didn’t see the field as much as anticipated last season (113 snaps/16 tackles), take that next step.
“(He’s) so much improved, oh my goodness,” said Swinney. “Dan (Brooks) has done such a great job with him. Pad leverage, he was just a pop-up, lookaround guy when he got here.
“He has really improved throughout the season, throughout the bowl practice and now. Looks like the player that we know he can be.”
And Reader, splitting time with the baseball this spring, is there too.
“D.J. Reader has been awesome,” Swinney said. “He is really a special player. Looks great, his weight is way down. He is in that 320 range. Just really excited about that whole group and the leadership in that defensive line.”
The progression as a whole is something converted defensive tackle and second-year starting offensive guard Tyler Shatley can appreciate looking across from him.
“They had a great year last year and they’re really coming along this year,” Shatley said. “They’re really pushing each other with a lot of depth. That’s what gives them that competitive edge. Anybody can step in and take their job so they have to work.”
Under Brent Venables, the Clemson defense improved by 54 spots nationally in sacks (to 22nd) and eight in total defense (to 63rd). Next up in improvement is cutting down on opponent big plays, says Swinney.
In 2012, they surrendered more 20-yard-plus carries (24) than their offense managed (21), and allowed 45 passes of 20-plus yards.
“We got to continue to pressure the quarterback like we did the latter part of the season,” Swinney said, as the Tigers grabbed 27 of their 34 sacks in the last seven games. “Pressure the quarterback (and) eliminate the big plays will be the No. 1 thing.
“…Just the consistency, play in-play out, quarter in-quarter out, week in-week out – that’s what it’s going to take to be one of those (top 10 defenses).”