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Evaluating the 2016 Recruiting Class: Clemson Defensive Line

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Defensive Line.

Lawson leaves some big shoes to fill.
Lawson leaves some big shoes to fill.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I'm continuing a longstanding tradition here at STS to evaluate recruiting classes not simply by star rankings but also digging into the actual roster and seeing if we met needs.

We turn our attention now to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Tackle

Let's get this out of the way. We landed the top defensive tackle in the country (if Gary is a DE) in Dexter Lawrence (6'4) who can play nose, 3-tech or even some situational DE that he played in high school (to give you a glimpse into his freakish athleticism at 335 pounds--to be clear this would only be done in limited packages or in case of emergency injuries but it was discussed during his recruitment). He is already on campus and does not have a 5* ego or any need for de-recruitment (do we even need to add that we secured his commitment over a divisional rival?). First day of drills and he is already making a splash. Yeah, we met the need and then some.

We also grabbed one of the top players in the state from Whale Branch, SC, Nyles Pinckney (6'3, 290). Nyles will redshirt and will be a solid developmental prospect. He is still raw with technique and will need time in the system, but he has the athleticism to stand out if he puts in the work. He is also on campus, which will only speed up his timeline.

Lawrence is going to play this year and will likely force his way into the two-deep, following Christian Wilkins timeline (if not more advanced because of Wilkins wrist injury at the end of summer). I don't see anyone running up the gut on us next year, certainly not anyone in the ACC not named Dalvin Cook. Lawrence will be a three year player and can legitimately be compared to Chester McGlockton.

We lose DJ Reader (224 snaps despite missing 6 games) and Rod Byers (144 snaps as the 5th man in the rotation). Byers shows just how many snaps there are to go around and I see Lawrence as part of the 2 deep rotation grabbing 300+ snaps and having a fifth tackle at 150-200 snaps (Robinson, Huggins, Cervenka, and Johnson will compete for these). In 2017, we will likely be very selective and could pass on taking any defensive tackles because of the tightness of the class (a recurring theme). It would be nice to take one to space out the classes because Wilkins and Lawrence will be three-year players. This is also a position where some attrition or position changes will likely happen/should happen.

Next year we will only lose Carlos Watkins (525 snaps). Behind him is Scott Pagano. I want to sing Pagano's praises for a second. Some people seem to completely overlook Scott, but he was a huge contributor last year. He logged 332 snaps total last season. He started averaging around 30 snaps a game and saw that reduced to around 20 when DJ Reader asserted himself at the end of the season but Pagano was extremely important to our victories early in the season. He could be a candidate to bolt to the NFL after this year, but I think he will important for the team next year and in his senior year.

Christian Wilkins is a starter or de facto starter, logging 420 snaps last season. His snap total increased towards the end of the season as well. Remember when I called him a War Daddy who would have an immediate impact--easiest prediction ever (where is Kraken??). Will be a three-year player.

So that is your two-deep: Watkins/Wilkins/Pagano/Lawrence. Then you have a real fight for the 5th and occasional 6th man who will enter. Albert Huggins is likely the next man up and this will be a big offseason for him. He only played 65 snaps, but should take the majority of Byers vacated snaps. Plenty of talent but needs to put it together--play with better leverage and technique.

Jabril Robinson also logged 67 snaps (the majority coming in the first two games) but he still needs to gain another ten good pounds to be effective. I was never crazy about his frame (he came in at around 260) and questioned how he would carry additional weight. He played around 280-285 this year. He is going into his redshirt Sophomore year so there is still a lot of time for him to develop.

Next you have Gage Cervenka and Sterling Johnson as redshirt Freshman. Both are in the 300-pound range and both have some tools you like--Gage with his wrestling background and Johnson with his length. But you can see the numbers are pretty stacked with 9 DTs on the roster. You could move one of these players to the offensive line and bring in another high caliber DT in the 2017 class. The decision to take a DT in 2017 should be predicated on the confidence the staff has with these three guys and thoughts about departures for playing time at other programs. Unfortunately, you are only going to get snaps for that top 6 (which is way more than other programs would give).

DEFENSIVE END

This is the only area where I am going to criticize the staff in the entire 2016 recruiting class. I thought we needed to bring in 2 Defensive ends this year. I think we need to bring in 2-3 in 2017 (even though the numbers are again ridiculously tight).

We currently have 6 DEs on the roster and only 2 have played any meaningful snaps. Only TWO. This isn't all the coaching staffs fault. No one thought in the preseason or even midseason that Kevin Dodd would turn pro. He was supposed to be the anchor on one side with Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell on the other. Brent Venables is really big on Ferrell. I will be surprised if he isn't the starter coming out of fall camp but even if Dodd had stayed this position is paper thin. Without him, it is scary thin.

You will remember that even seasoned vets like Lawson got worn down with the grind of the season. Lawson played 661 snaps and Dodd played 717! Those 1378 snaps are going to go to Sophomore Austin Bryant, who logged his own 209 snaps, RS Sophomore Richard Yeargin (only 144 snaps), and RS Freshman Ferrell. This means that 2016 commit Xavier Kelly will absolutely play at WDE this year and probably play a lot. That is your four man rotation.

Behind those two you have RS Sophomore Chris Register who logged 4 snaps last year and 2016 commit LaSamuel Davis who is long but probably 225 pounds (he was a 2015 commit who qualified in 2016). Davis needs time to gain weight and should redshirt. Register needs to gain the confidence of the coaching staff. The position change slowed his progress, but no one has been wild about his work ethic to this point either. He should not be counted on this year, but needs to show something soon because of the numbers at the position.

Dane Rogers left the program this past month so his 68 snaps will also need to be replaced by this group. Rogers was always a tweener, not quick enough to play in space at DE but wasn't dedicated to being a 3-tech (couldn't put on the weight, play with leverage). He could never get off the ball fast enough and struggled to find a position (he was one of the "warm bodies," along with Martin Aiken, Venables talked about last year).

Clemson coaches said to all the DE recruits this year that we were taking one in 2016 and it was first come, first serve. Xavier Kelly jumped at the offer first and he will be a good player for us. I like that he has gained some needed weight and sits around 260ish. He is still very raw and will need time to really be a force. His ability to play this fall will be very important to our run for a second playoff appearance.

Austin Bryant really impressed me in his 209 snaps. He played very well against Oklahoma and showed the ability to defend the run and a surprising burst to get to the QB. He did play 63 snaps in the Oklahoma game, which skews his snap total, but he needs to be ready to play 600+ snaps this season. Clelin is everything Venables wants in a DE with his size and length. He will need to take 600+ snaps as well. Richard Yeargin III is only a RS Sophomore but we need him to take his game to another level as well. He will play on the weakside and is in the 255-260 range. I'm not sure he can add that much more additional weight. He seemed poised in the offseason to grab more playing time, but it didn't materialize. There were 5 games where he didn't even log a snap and in the absence of Lawson it was Bryant who got the 63 snaps against Oklahoma and Yeargin only got 17 (although one was where he blowed up Joe Mixon).

Clemson defensive coaches really value length but bigger guys with length who can stop the run and set the edge first, but also have enough speed and quickness to play in space and get to the QB. Our defense is all about stopping the run first and not just stopping the run, but shutting it down with the front 6/7. We want some big safeties in run support and bigger corners who can hold up. In the ACC, this is a perfect recipe because not many QB's other than UNC and Jamies Winston can just sit back and programmatically torch your D (Clemson also has good corner play and a decent secondary to generally hold up). But we need good DE play to take pressure off of the secondary.

We did not meet our needs in 2016 and need to bring in at least two quality defensive ends in 2017.

I will just briefly state that Clemson led for Antonneous Clayton throughout much of the recruiting process. He told me he still wanted to come to Clemson before he decided on Florida (who made him a high priority) and stuck to that commitment despite a late charge from Auburn. I am biased because I am really high on Clayton's potential. I think he would have played early at Clemson and would have been a force. Did we really need to promise only one slot? I understand the recruiting strategy, but Clayton really liked Clemson and we told him we didn't have room after Kelly committed. Florida came in strong and a top 30 prospect isn't going to just wait around hoping you have room. Of course, if we had landed Gary like the coaches thought we would on the night before signing day this wouldn't be an issue (and I recognize that taking Clayton would have blunted our pitch to Gary--I just really think we needed 2 DEs in the class).

The good news is that Marion Hobby is a miracle worker. He took Kevin Dodd (who no one thought anything of his first couple of year, including BV) and turned him into a potential first round pick. We got by last year after Ebo got booted from the team. We can get by again, but can't have any injuries.

In 2017, names to follow are Zach Carter (who I have been high on for awhile), Robert Beal (who recently decommitted from Notre Dame and someone Hobby is very high on), Jordan Williams who recently visited, and Malik Herring (who I consider a Dawg until I see some evidence to the contrary). Pendleton, SC's Brad Johnson is another to keep an eye on. More on these guys in the coming weeks.