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Will Clemson's Defense Reload or Rebuild in 2016?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2014 season there was a lot of debate about Clemson's defense. The best unit in the country would lose a lot of experience along the defensive line as well as the team's two starting LBs and two DBs. All spring and into the summer we talked about what the right expectations would be for a unit that seemed destined to rebuild.

Well it turns out we were all wrong. Predictions ranged from a top 15 defense at best to a struggle to field a top 50 unit at worst. I think I even said a top 25 defense was too optimistic at one point. Rather than rebuild in 2015, Clemson actually reloaded. Despite next to no depth, the 2015 Clemson defense was one of the best in school history. The 2014 defense was just better.

But for 2016 the question is can Clemson reload once again? Is there enough talent on the roster? Or will Clemson finally have to rebuild the defense? Below is a comparison of the number of snaps lost at each defensive position for 2014 and 2015. Rather than using starts lost, we prefer to use snaps lost to see just how much experience Clemson is really losing.

Position 2014 Total Snaps 2014 Snaps Lost 2014 % Loss 2015 Total Snaps 2015 Snaps Lost 2015 % Loss
DE 1721 1291 75% 1819 1458 80%
DT 1670 1229 74% 1783 374 21%
LB 2033 1345 66% 1951 806 41%
CB 1714 754 44% 2534 1142 45%
S 1768 669 38% 1900 1543 81%

At first glance, it doesn't seem like Clemson is in bad shape compared to after the 2014 season. The losses at DE are similar and something that happens when you lose both starters, and at DT Clemson is returning most of its snaps outside of DJ Reader. Linebacker is even better than before, after all Clemson is only losing 1 starter and CB is similar because only one CB is leaving. Safety is pretty ugly though, in 2014 Clemson just loss Robert Smith while this year Clemson is losing Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green. The Tigers are also losing Travis Blanks, considered a safety, making the secondary seem young and inexperienced.

This chart seems to confirm our general suspicions. Our DTs should be stout and prevent teams from running up with the middle with much success. We have some talent at DE, but the pass rush will likely regress. At LB Clemson should be ok, especially when only using 2 true LBs on most downs. The secondary will be interesting though. Clemson loses shutdown CB Mackensie Alexander and both safeties; the backups are untested to boot.

But will Clemson be able to rebuild or reload with all of this? The truth is there is no definitive answer. After 2014 there was some optimism because of how much talent was in that 2014 defense beyond the starters. The new starters had plenty of experience to go along with the talent. On the DL Clemson had a 2-deep that could start at most schools in the country. In 2015 we had a starting 4 that could start anywhere, but the backups were unproven, especially at DE. The difference between last year's reload and this year's is the new starters are light on experience.

DB is the real concern though. No one who has followed Clemson's recruiting can be enthused about the Clemson DB's. Should they be serviceable, yes. But it is hard to get justifiably excited about the effectiveness of the Clemson DB's. And if Clemson can't generate a pass rush, things could get ugly.

Every team eventually hits a point where they have to reload. Even Alabama has had seasons where they regroup. LSU has taken several years to reload after having a defense perform at such a high level. For Clemson, that could be this year. Unless the secondary is able to take a giant step forward, rebuilding seems to be a better description than reloading. Of course with Brent Venables in charge of the defense anything is possible, and he has surpassed general expectations each year at Clemson. But the talent level in the secondary may not be high enough for him to work his magic.