Clemson will replace Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, and DJ Reader who were all selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. Fortunately, the stable is stocked with elite talent, especially at defensive tackle.
Defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks will have plenty of talent to work with to put together strong defensive tackle play. Defensive ends coach Marion Hobby on the other hand doesn't have nearly as much to work with, but still has a few intriguing defensive ends to develop into productive edge players. Both Hobby and Brooks have long, successful track records of getting the most out of their players and making them into high draft picks.
Strong Side Defensive End- Austin Bryant
Sophomore defensive end Austin Bryant is expected to be out the first few weeks of the regular season but should take over the strong side defensive end position once he returns. Bryant served as the top backup at defensive end during his freshman year and had 35 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks over 219 snaps. Bryant showed his capabilities after he replaced an injured Shaq Lawson in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma and had eight tackles to go along with a half sack as Lawson's replacement.
Editor's Note: This preview was written before the injury to Austin Bryant. Bryant is expected to be back this season, hopefully around the Louisville game. Until then it looks like Christian Wilkins will get the start. While Wilkins is a physical freak, the toll this could take on the DL as a whole is a concern.
Defensive Tackle- Carlos Watkins
Redshirt senior Carlos Watkins finally moved into the starting lineup last year and had a breakout campaign. Watkins had 69 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks while earning All-ACC honors. Watkins always had potential but his progress was stunted after suffering injuries in a car accident that forced him to miss the final 10 games of the 2013 season. Watkins will be relied upon to be a leader of this year's defense and will likely be a high pick in the 2017 NFL Draft if he continues his strong play.
Defensive Tackle- Christian Wilkins
As a true freshman, Christian Wilkins showed his monster potential as the top backup at defensive tackle. Wilkins contributed 84 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks and earned freshman All-American honors from many publications. Wilkins cross-trained at strong side defensive end this offseason and could see significant playing time there until Austin Bryant returns to the lineup. Wilkins has freakish athletic ability for a 300 pound defensive tackle and the surprising speed to play defensive end. The expectations for Wilkins are very high. He should be a great player for the Tigers defense for the next two years.
Weak Side Defensive End- Clelin Ferrell
After tearing his ACL during his senior year of high school, Ferrell redshirted his true freshman year. As a redshirt freshman, Ferrell is expected to be the starter on the weak side. The coaches are very high on his abilities and see a big future for Clelin. Ferrell has been regarded by many as a potential breakout candidate for the Tigers.
Chris Register-Defensive End
Register moved to defensive end from linebacker last year after redshirting his freshman year in 2014. Register obviously needed more time to learn the defensive end position. I expect Register to get more playing time this year as a part of the five man rotation at defensive end.
Richard Yeargin-Defensive End
-After redshirting his true freshman year in 2014, Yeargin contributed to the defensive end rotation last season with 15 tackles and 1 sack. Yeargin will be relied on more this season as a contributor at weak side defensive end - especially with the Austin Bryant injury. In fact, he could get some starts on the weak side while Bryant is out. If Yeargin progresses significantly from last year it will be huge for this defense in it's quest to get back to the National Championship.
Sterling Johnson- Defensive Tackle/End
Johnson redshirted his true freshman year last year. It's still unclear as to where Johnson will see more playing time but Johnson is currently looking up the depth chart at defensive tackle. At 305 pounds, Johnson might be a bit too big to play defensive end but could still see snaps there with Bryant out with an injury and freshman Xavier Kelly not quite ready to contribute right away.
Jabril Robinson-Defensive Tackle/End
Robinson contributed a bit at defensive tackle last year. After fighting an illness this offseason, Robinson is down to 259 pounds, which is too light to play defensive tackle. Robinson is expected to get a good number of snaps at defensive end especially while Bryant is out with injury.
Scott Pagano-Defensive Tackle
One of the most underrated players on defense, Scott Pagano improved immensely last year and was a big part of the defense's success. Pagano stood in as a starter on the defensive line during DJ Reader's absence. As a redshirt junior, Pagano will be a big part of the defensive tackle rotation and will still likely be a major force in stopping the run.
Albert Huggins-Defensive Tackle
As a true sophomore, Huggins will be a key member of the five man rotation at defensive tackle. Huggins struggled to find the field last year but will get more playing time this coming season. Huggins will have a chance to be a starter a few years down the road and his progression will be key for the defensive tackle rotation at Clemson.
Dexter Lawrence-Defensive Tackle
One of the highest rated recruits to ever commit to Clemson, Lawrence will likely see significant playing time at defensive tackle. At 342 pounds, Lawrence is HUGE for a freshman but has surprising athletic ability. Look for Lawrence to get a significant number of snaps at defensive tackle, especially if Wilkins gets playing time at defensive end. Lawrence has the chance to be a great one for the Tigers and could potentially start next to Wilkins as early as next season.
Nyles Pinckney-Defensive Tackle
Pinckney will likely redshirt this coming year due to the amount of depth at defensive tackle. Pinckney has the potential to be a pretty good one when his opportunity comes for more playing time.
LaSamuel Davis-Defensive End
Davis was originally slated to sign with the 2015 class but spent one year in prep school due to academic ineligibility. Davis remains a work in progress and most likely won't see significant playing time as he works to get bigger than his 210 pound frame.
Xavier Kelly-Defensive End
Coaches raved about Xavier Kelly at the beginning of camp but he has hit the 'freshman wall' recently according to head coach Dabo Swinney. Kelly probably won't see playing time right away but could very well see increased snaps later in the season due to the lack of depth at defensive end. Although he could benefit from a redshirt year, the need for depth at defensive end may make that impossible. At 265 pounds as a freshman, Kelly's future is likely on the strong side if he continues to put on more weight.