The first word that comes to mind when you think of Clemson football probably isn’t “holes,” unless you’re considering the huge gaps the Tigers offensive linemen pave for running back Travis Etienne.
But no team could suffer the losses Clemson did on the defensive line without expecting some dropoff in performance.
In April, the Tigers became first program to have three defensive linemen selected in the first round of the same NFL Draft. Clelin Ferrell (fourth overall), Christian Wilkins (13th) and Dexter Lawrence (17th) have all begun their professional journeys along with former Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant, who went in the fourth round to the Buffalo Bills.
That quartet of All-Americans played an enormous role in Clemson leading the nation with 13.1 points allowed per game last season. How can one team replace all that?
“That’s the biggest thing on our team,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said at the recent ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s a major work in progress, a lot of construction going on in that D-line. But the good news is we’ve got a lot of guys with some hard hats on. We’ve got a bunch of guys showing up to work every day. I think we’ve recruited well, so now we’ve got to go coach them up and develop well.”
The next men up have plenty of beef. Clemson’s post-spring depth chart listed the starting tackles as junior Nyles Pinckney and sophomore Jordan Williams, who each weigh in at 305 pounds.
On the outside, junior Justin Foster (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) and sophomore Xavier Thomas (6-2, 260) will be expected to bring the pass rush.
Combined, those four players have a grand total of zero college starts. Their predecessors departed with 154 combined starts and two national titles on their resumes.
“Christian was a freshman at one time,” Swinney said. “Dexter was a freshman at one time. Clelin was a freshman at one time. That’s just the way it is. I love the talent that we have. We can’t replace the experience; that takes time.
“It’s fun. There’s a hunger and enthusiasm and an energy, and there’s competition.”
The most encouraging news for Clemson as that the entire defensive secondary returns. Swinney said it could be the best back seven he’s ever had, which theoretically will buy some time for the guys up front.
“If you have one bad player on the field, it can end up in a touchdown,” said safety Tanner Muse, the most experienced defensive returnee. “It really doesn’t matter about what group’s the best, as long as that defense is tip-top shape, all the bolts are tightened, then we’ll be just fine.”
Regardless of the new faces, opposing quarterbacks likely won’t be able to relax. Holes tend to close quickly at Clemson.
“Justin Foster’s a junior now, and he’s played some really good football for us,” Swinney said. “Nyles and Jordan have played. They don’t have a ton of experience, but they know what it looks like. They know the standard.
“That first group that runs out there, if they stay healthy, they’ll be a salty bunch.”