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Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Linemen

This was initially going to be the last post, "Defensive Preview for Realists," (of 4) previewing Clemson's Football Season from different perspectives. However, there was just too much information for one post, so I decided to add some things and then break it up by position group: Intro/Defensive Line, Linebackers, Defensive Backs, and then a Special Teams/Schematics/Prediction post.

Shaq Attack!
Shaq Attack!
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

If you've been visiting "Shakin' the Southland" for a while, you probably know I did the film reviews for the defense last year.  Good times, right?  Watching the 2014 defense was a pleasure and I learned that when you evaluate players as closely as I did last season, you get even more enjoyment when players correct deficiencies in their game and improve. So, to be able to revisit these guys after an offseason of hard work gets my blood pumping.

By the way, I love the whole early-enrollee trend. I got to see a lot of the new faces in action in the spring game. Of course, it was a small sample size but I definitely got a feel for the type of technique and athleticism they are bringing to the table as Freshmen. As you already know, some of these Freshmen are going to be counted on for meaningful snaps in 2015.

Before I begin; the usual disclaimers.  This is my opinion and I hope this will be very informational for you as a pre-camp primer. However, the goal here, as always, is for you to make up your own mind.  Some of this information will correlate with what happens in August, but not all of it.

I should also provide a heads-up to the Pumpers and Realists that read this.  My overall opinion here may have you removing the cover from the "Panic Button" but, I'm not panicking just yet.  You already know that we have a lot of question marks on defense.  Massive improvement by some of these high upside guys is a real possibility.  I understand that the Dumpers started slapping the "2015 Panic Button" about the 4th quarter of the Oklahoma game last year, and well, I can't exactly say they're wrong to do that either.

It's just important to remember that some players are going to come back in better physical condition and some are not.  Some players are going to have the light come on for them in fall camp and some are not.  That's college football, so this is just the most honest evaluation I can give of where the defense is heading in to fall camp.

This was initially going to be the last post, "Defensive Preview for Realists," (of 4) previewing Clemson's Football Season from different perspectives. However, there was just too much information for one post, so I decided to break it up by position group: Intro/Defensive Line, Linebackers, Defensive Backs, and then a Special Teams/Schematics/Prediction post.

If you didn't get a chance to read them, here are the three previous articles related to this one:

Season Preview from the "Pumper" point of view here.

Season Preview from the "Dumper" point of view here.

Offensive Preview from the "Realist" point of view, here.

Feel free to express your own opinion in the comment section.  As in the previous post, I'll be taking down our predictions in this post to revisit in the "Horowitz Award" Standings where some will be provided with a well prepared meal of "Crow a la Orange" and some will win an all expenses paid vacation on the "Gloat Boat."

For you convenience, I bolded and mostly separated the players by paragraph so that you could reference this later if you wanted.   Most reviews will encapsulate individual performance on film from last year and the spring game. I also added their height, weight, and class as well. An asterisk means that they have redshirted already.

Worried about the defense?

The line starts right here.

I think Appalachian State is going to test us.  There, I said it.  In fact, you can go ahead and prepare your verbal retaliation for the inevitable Gamecock harassment that could ensue from a strong offensive showing by App State.

The facts are the facts. We lost 66% of the overall tackles from last year and 67% of the tackles for loss.  With 22 players in your two deep, that's a huge amount of production we will miss.

We are not going to replace Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Stephone Anthony.  They are some of the best players in school history and they spoiled us last year.  I have not witnessed a trio like them since the 1990 trio of Chester McGlockton, Levon Kirkland, and Ed McDaniel.   In fact, the entire 2014 defense was the most overall talent we have had on one defensive team since that 1990 team.

There is one difference I see, though, between the 1990 defense and the 2014 defense and it relates to talent.  The 1990 defense had more pure talent and out-athleted everybody on their way to a Scoring Defense ranking of #2 and Total Defense ranking of #1.  Even the previous year, in 1989, we saw ruthless athletic dominance of Florida State and West Virginia's high powered offenses.

The 2014 team wasn't quite as loaded as the 1990 team. The 2014 defense was a team with better defined roles that complemented each other very well.  To quote Bill Belichick, each player "did their job."  When you have roles defined and your coach puts you in position to do what you do best, you get a team that's greater than the sum of its parts.  That's what we had last year.  Brent Venables and the coaching staff are deserving of all the credit that is coming to them right now.

So long-term, there is no need for concern.  The coaching staff has proven that they are able to recruit and develop coachable players into studs.  Whether they are molding limited talent like Spencer Shuey or All-American talent like Stephone Anthony, the staff has shown their ability to teach, develop, and motivate players to keep getting better.

In the short term though, we are going to feel those losses.  It is hard for me to believe that we are going to have the same level of defensive production this year.  The year will most likely begin as a rebuilding project.   No matter what your recruiting level happens to be, you can only reload so much.  No matter how good your DC and coaching staff happens to be, you can only develop guys so fast.

So here we are, bracing for impact, in "the year after THE YEAR" defensively.

I'll begin with the Defensive Line and and what I have seen on film both in last season's film reviews and in the spring game.

Defensive Tackles

It was noticeable when Grady Jarrett was out of the game last year.  He was a disrupter and his absence dropped us down a notch all by himself. He was extremely valuable and as good of a DL we have had at Clemson that didn't have the last name Perry.

DeShawn "DeFinger" Williams and Josh Watson were no slouches either. It would be nice to have either one of them back this year but alas, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins are the only true veterans returning on the interior DL.

To be strong enough up front to weather our schedule, we are going to need depth at DT and we're going to have to avoid a massive drop-off when substituting.  Freshman help is on the way, there is just no ETA.  Coach Dan Brooks will get his hands on four potential studs that are joining the Tigers for 2015.  How quickly they develop might determine how well we bounce back from the personnel losses from last year's team.

D.J. Reader (6'2, 325, SR) and Carlos Watkins (6'3, 295, JR*) are solid and formidable ACC Defensive Tackles.  Reader is a wide-body with an exceptional motor but sometimes he stands up and runs laterally instead of attacking the line of scrimmage.  He can really run for a big man though. No wonder he wants to show it off.

Watkins, on the other hand, is all physical all the time.  He has no problem stoning guards and centers repeatedly but, he will have to learn to get off blocks better to get to the All ACC level.  He'll drag offensive lineman into the backfield, he just doesn't separate yet like an elite level DT.  He is especially good at the goalline and in short yardage where he can make a pile and is less dependent on getting that separation.

I was a little disappointed with how Tyrone Crowder (who I am calling "The Measuring Stick" and "The Man-Beast" this year) manhandled Reader in the spring game at times and pushed him off the ball.  Again, I don't know for sure if that speaks well for Crowder or speaks poorly for Reader.  When Reader keeps his pads low, he's always been tough to handle so, my assumption is that Crowder is a bad bad man.

Behind them, though, there's not a whole lot to write home about yet.  These guys will need to develop quickly in order to provide the depth we need to navigate 12 games.

Scott Pagano (6'3, 295, SO*) looks like he should be the Intercontinental Champion on WWE RAW, but he stands up to move laterally and he gets pushed around in zone blocking schemes where his higher center of gravity is used against him and his upper-body strength is nullified.  I have real concerns with him.  I think he still has a lot of work to do.  He's pretty good against man blocking though and he was able to get under Maverick Morris' pads and push him around at times in the spring game.  Right now, though, he gets my vote as most likely to be passed up by an underclassman.

Roderick Byers (6'3, 290, SR*) was moved to TE last year because we needed the depth there.  Now he's back at DT and if he didn't have his man-strength before, he's got it now.  He has a pretty awesome bull rush and he showed in the spring game that he can even move a huge guy like Crowder into the backfield.  Of course, Crowder is a man-beast so he got Byers sometimes too but that was a fun battle to watch.  Welcome to the party, Roderick.

Dane Rogers (6'3, 260, SO*) is listed as a DE but he played DT in the spring game.  He looked like he had issues lining up to me and Crowder just flat manhandled him a good bit. I'm not sure he has a role here yet and he falls into the category of "organizational depth" right now.  He should show up with 20 more pounds at the weigh-in if the coaches have told him he is going to stay at DT.

Albert Huggins (6'3, 280, FR) is going to be a player.  He can draw a double team and make a pile. He's a little light, and I'll be interested to see his results at the weigh-in, but they definitely hit on him in recruiting.   On one play in the spring game he did something that reminded me of William Perry.  He took on Gore, Crowder, and Norton (the entire right side of the OL by himself) at the same time and they couldn't move him.  He just needs to work on hand technique, redirecting, and getting off blocks. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention that Huggins could move to SDE where he might have less competition and earn more reps.

Jabril Robinson (6'3, 255, FR*) is pretty natural at getting of blocks. However, at 255 pounds, I can't see him playing anytime but in a Nickel/Dime package right now.  That's a good role to have for a "quick tackle" though.  He's got good strength from his hips too.  I would give him the reps in Nickel against Wofford and App State and see what we got. We might have to take depth wherever we can get it.

Everybody has been talking about Huggins and the impending arrival of 5-star Christian Wilkins (6'5, 305, FR), but let me give you another name to watch...

Sterling Johnson (6'5, 275, FR) might be a 3-star true freshman but he played like a 4-star in the spring game.  He is a big guy and really looks the part. He can move and has all the athletic ability to be effective.  He had a gorgeous split of a double team where he got in the backfield and made a diving athletic play on Israel who had tucked it and run.  I like him.  They hit on him. He will play here but probably not this year unless he beats out Wilkins (who will probably get a lot more opportunities)  in fall camp.

Kraken Depth Chart:

Carlos Watkins, D.J. Reader

Roderick Byers, Albert Huggins

Sterling Johnson, Scott Pagano

Jabril Robinson (NT), Dane Rogers

Incoming: 5-star Christian Wilkins, 3-star Gage Cervenka
Veteran Talent Grade (Watkins, Reader, Byers, Pagano): B-
New Talent Grade (Huggins, Johnson, Robinson, Wilkins, Cervenka): A
Player who could surprise: Sterling Johnson

Defensive Ends

Our Defensive Ends have always exhibited sound technique under Marion Hobby.  They really do a good job of stepping down and squeezing while maintaining outside leverage.   Yes, Beasley gambled a few times last year (the most egregious being the OT TD run vs. FSU), but outside of that, I grew accustomed to seeing solid fundamental DE play from the 2 deep last year.  The good news is that, for the most part, that will still be true this year.

However, a dynamic athlete at WDE and a National-level edge setter at SDE are going to be missing from this bunch heading into 2015.  I would guess that we aren't going to see anything resembling Beasley's lethal speed rush/spin move combination or Crawford's edge setting ability until at least next year.  So, I'd like to take the opportunity to bow my head and pour a little out for these guys as they move on to the bigger and better things.

Losing Ebenezer Ogundegko (6'3, 250, SO*) post-spring also hurt.  Ebo had a nice first step, long arms, and I think he was probably on his way to major playing time.  In the spring game, he beat Gore sometimes and got knocked around other times.  Ebo was a solid edge setter though and I think that is what we will miss most.  The light had seemed to come on in the spring in that regard.

Now what?

Well, we have to build depth somehow and we have to find another DE that can rush the passer.  The incoming Freshmen will get their chance to show that but, it's unlikely that they will contribute at a high level.  It's looking like "Mission Impossible" right now but, rapid advances in ability do happen. Then again, so do devastating injuries.

Shaq Lawson (6'3, 275, JR) is the one known commodity we have at DE.  He was 2nd on the team in "tackles for loss" last year with 11.5 and is undoubtedly the best all-around DE on the roster heading into camp.  He's got the goods but I think he might be even better at WDE if he dropped 10 pounds.  He looked a little heavy last year.  His production is already good but I'd personally like to see Lawson increase his foot speed as much as possible to become the devastating pass rusher I think he can be. Nevertheless, he still has NFL size and athletic ability at 275. Ideally, he gets even better this year, emerges from Beastly's shadow, and becomes the dominating force that we need him to be.

Kevin Dodd (6'5, 275, JR*) is serviceable. He has a little shake off the corner and attacks plays away from him well, but I haven't seen him hold up as well against the run to his side.  If you're the LB on his side and your DE can't keep outside leverage, it makes you have to honor two gaps.  That's where facing a good RB will give us trouble. Someone like Dalvin Cook or Shadrach Thornton will eat that up.  Corey Crawford could keep that outside leverage while taking the TE or OT and stuffing him or stringing the play out.  Dodd is not even close to that level as of the spring.

Richard Yeargin (6'4, 225, FR*) was no Vic Beasley in the spring game but, I'm hoping he will be one day. We really need that.  He displayed a quick first step, good agility turning the corner, and he took Battle deep into the pocket a couple times in the game.  He now needs to develop better hand work including shooting the rip technique as he turns the corner and before the LT can get his hands on him.  If the LT gets his hands on the outside breast plate of the shoulder pads (which a lot of coaches call the "steering wheel") you're speed is nullified.  And speaking of nullified, Yeargin had some issues in the run game.  He just lacked the man-strength at the point of attack in the spring.  Matters were compounded because he was playing a 9 technique in 4-3 Over to try to get around the Tackle. It's possible that this is by design and that Yeargin will be a situational player in passing situations.  I would consider playing Lawson and Yeargin together sometimes in Nickel.

Chris Register (6'2, 245, FR*) is on the small side (he doesn't look or play like 245) but his speed and discipline help him play the zone read effectively.  He's got nice lateral movement.  His issue, like Yeargin, is that he lacks the size and strength at the point of attack.  C.J. Fuller's long run in the spring game happened because Register lost outside leverage while engaged with the TE. That can't happen.

Martin Aiken (6'2, 225, JR*) is also small and apparently wasn't supposed to play in the spring game (but did play) so, I going to give him full credit for playing with pain and withhold judgment at this time.

Jaquarius Brice (6'2, 215, SO*) is, yet another, very small DE.  I didn't see much aggression out of him and that may be because he doesn't know what he's doing well enough to "go get it."  He stood there and watched Israel carry out a ZR fake and set up to throw on his side and never made a move towards the QB even though he was three yards away from Israel and he had an uncontested path.  Rumble, young man, rumble!

Kraken Depth Chart:

Shaw Lawson, Kevin Dodd

Richard Yeargin (NE), Chris Register

Martin Aiken, Jaquarius Brice

Collins Mauldin

Incoming:  4 star Austin Bryant, 4 star Clelin Ferrell, 3 star LeSamuel Davis
Veteran Talent Grade (Lawson and Dodd):  B-
New Talent Grade (Yeargin, Register, Aiken, Brice) : C+
Player who could surprise: Richard Yeargin

Linebackers are next.