Dan Brooks has seen a little of everything in his three decades of coaching, but he's not sure he's ever come across a situation exactly like the current state of Clemson's interior defensive line.
For the second straight season, Brooks loses no one, as Josh Watson, Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams return for their third seasons as starters. Add in junior D.J. Reader and sophomore Carlos Watkins, and Brooks has five players who have started games over the past two falls at the two tackle positions. The situation is similar at the defensive end spots, where rising seniors Corey Crawford, Vic Beasley and Tavaris Barnes return.
Brooks isn't complaining. But he says the situation presents some unusual challenges as he tries to prepare the Tigers for a smooth transition a year from now.
The task, he says, is two-fold - keep pushing the veteran players to improve and play with a hunger and hard edge, while investing playing time in the defensive line's next generation.
"I think the challenge is to help guys who've played as much as Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson and DeShawn and our three senior defensive ends to keep improving," Brooks said during a signing day interview on Clemson's official website. "It's been a process and a maturity thing, where guys start out as freshmen and then you just watch them grow and improve. The challenge with those guys is to take them and make sure they're still progressing and improving toward having an professional career, if that's what they want to do."
The maturation process for Watson, Jarrett and Williams began three years ago with a challenge from head coach Dabo Swinney.
"These guys started as babies in diapers, and we really got a challenge from the head coach when he told us that the defensive line was the weak link of the entire football team," Brooks recalled. "They didn't like that very good, and I didn't either. I wrote that up on our board, and they've grown from there."
Brooks is confident the Tigers' next wave of defensive tackles has the ability to carry on, but needs as much experience as possible to carry into the 2015 season.
"We've got Carlos and D.J. and Rod Byers that we need to keep bringing along, and a freshman in (Scott) Pagano who I think can really help this football team," Brooks said. "We need to get those guys up to speed, because next year, when we lose three guys inside at the same time, that's a big challenge - to get those guys ready for when their time comes."
Brooks says he'll do what he's always done: encourage competition and let the players determine how the playing time is allocated.
"It's not a seniority thing - we're going to play the best players, and they all know that," Brooks said. "I actually have five guys in my group who have started games. It's a challenge for all of them, but it's also that competition that makes us better.
"An old coach told me a long time ago when I was first getting started that the bench might be your best motivator. When they have to compete to get to play, that's when you become good.
"I'd like to be in a situation where I don't even care who's in the game, so that I can just rotate and play a lot of guys. Most of the time I'm going to play five defensive tackles in a game. So you stay fresh and have your best guys ready to play in the fourth quarter. There's a lot to having that kind of depth."