While it didn't end the way we wanted, 2015 was a special season. Looking back at the preseason and early season, I don't know too many people outside of the program that actually believed we'd be sitting here in January with 14 wins and a gritty, 5 point loss against Alabama in the National Championship. This was truly a historic season for Clemson, and, as Coach Swinney says, "the best is yet to come." One of the reasons this season came as such a surprise to a lot of people is because of the question marks Clemson had coming in, especially on a defense that was #1 in the nation in 2014. There were slots all over the field that needed filling, but few may have had as big of slots as the Defensive Line.
A big reason behind Clemson's 2014 success was the play of the Clemson DL. The Tigers starting front 4 may have been one of the best in school history. At the ends, Clemson had seniors Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford. Those bookends were responsible for a combined 59 tackles in 2014. After the season, Beasley was drafted #8 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, while Crawford signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Redskins. Behind Crawford, senior Tavaris Barnes contributed 13 tackles. Barnes signed with the New Orleans Saints. In the middle, Clemson had Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson, and Deshawn Williams making up a solid rotation for the DT spots. Then junior DJ Reader was also a part of the rotation. Jarrett was drafted in the 5th round (137th overall) by the Falcons, while Williams and Watson signed undrafted free agent deals. Watson signed with the Broncos, while Williams signed with the Bengals.
With all of that talent leaving from 2014, there was concern for Clemson's DL. That concern continued to grow after the offseason dismissal of Ebenezer Ogundeko. Ebo, as he's known, had a huge spring and looked like he was in line to be Shaq Lawson's bookend before getting into legal trouble and getting the boot. The Tigers also took a shot when DJ Reader announced he would be taking an indefinite leave from the team for "personal reasons." Reader ended up missing the first 5 games of 2015.
Fortunately for Clemson, some young and inexperienced talent stepped in to provide the support Clemson needed. While Shaq Lawson was expected to be a stud at DE, Kevin Dodd may have been the best surprise of the season. Lawson and Dodd finished the season ranked #1 and #2 in the nation in tackles for loss, respectively. Lawson posted 25.5 TFL for a total of 122 yards, while Dodd had 23.5 for 99 yards. Lawson declared for the NFL draft before the playoffs began, while Dodd waited until after the National Championship, in which he had a phenomenal game on College Football's biggest stage. Behind these two juniors, two freshmen backed them up. Austin Bryant finished the year playing in 13 games and providing 23 tackles, with 2 being for a loss. His biggest performance came when he had to fill in for an injured Shaq Lawson in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, where he proved to be very effective. Richard Yeargin was the other solid backup for the Tigers. Yeargin played in 9 games, where he had 8 tackles and 1 tackle for loss.
At DT, Clemson found a good rotation throughout the season. For the first 5 games, sophomore Scott Pagano and junior Carlos Watkins got the starts at DT for the Tigers. Behind them, senior Roderick Byers and freshmen Christian Wilkins and Jabril Robinson rotated in to combine for 57 tackles and 6.5 TFL for 23 yards. For the Boston College game, senior DJ Reader returned to the team after his indefinite leave. Reader quickly worked his was into a starting role, and finished as a team captain for the College Football Playoffs.
So, after finding players to step in for all the big losses from 2014, Clemson once again finds itself having to replace some key starters. . Both starting ends, Lawson and Dodd, will be heading to the NFL draft. As of now, it looks as if Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin will be the leading candidates to start in 2016. Behind them, look for Christ Register and Sterling Johnson to also be in the mix for playing time. At DT, Clemson will be losing only one starter, DJ Reader, and one backup, Roderick Byers. It looks as if right now, Carlos Watkins and Orange Bowl Hero Christian Wilkins will be the starters for 2016. Jabril Robinson and Scott Pagano will also be back and should be pushing for playing time, along with Albert Huggins. Adding in recruits, Clemson should have enough talent to choose from on the DL, even if experience is lacking. The 2016 DL has a few big shoes to fill, but after the 2015 squad was able to come in and be successful after the 2014 departures, I'm not ruling anything out for the future of the Tigers.