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2016 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defensive End Roundtable

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Oklahoma vs Clemson Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: As part of our season preview, we threw out several discussion questions to part of the writing staff. The idea was to generate a bit of discussion about several key questions for Clemson’s 2016 season. Below is the second of three in our season preview.

Brian: We all knew DE was going to be a light position for us in 2016. But with injuries, just how rough could this be for our defense?

QuackingTiger: We are one injury away from disaster right now. Clelin Ferrell needs to go out on the field and prove it, but in camp he looks like a guy who could possibly jet to the NFL after his Sophomore year. Opposite Ferrell, you have Wilkins starting and he will be fine early in the season where pass rushing isn't as important (against Auburn, GT, and even Louisville to a certain extent). Wilkins can be strong at the point of attack and play in space. The question with Wilkins is how many snaps can he play a game at DE and DT? When does he stop being as effective? We got worn down in the 4th quarter last year, so this is definitely something to monitor going forward. Yeargin will be fine, but will have some work to do before being considered elite.

After that we have a dropoff with Register and Robinson. If these guys can't play 10-15 snaps a game, then you have some tired DEs in the 4th quarter and as the season progresses. To me that is the real danger at the position. We should be fine with the starting talent and the three man rotation though.

Remember when STS was saying the Wilkins move to DE in the Spring was an incredibly smart move and one that could pay huge dividends? Conversely, other sites were saying the Wilkins to DE move was the most overblown narrative of the spring/fall? Wonder who got that one right (the real answer is the coaching staff)?

Coach Craft: I concur that one more injury here would be a serious issue. The plan will likely be to play three DE vs Auburn (Ferrell, Yeargin, Wilkins) and work the others the following two weeks in hopes of building depth before Bryant returns. One thing I’ve thought about is the use of some 3-4 looks as a plan B. We did a little of that using Beasley as an OLB in ‘13 and ‘14. This would be contingent on Shaq Smith getting up to speed, probably. I'd prefer seeing that over having Register or Robinson pulling heavy snaps. I think things will be fine as it stands now. Last year's issues didn't start popping up until past the halfway point when the overall snap loads really started taking a toll on some positions. Of course, it affected the second and third levels a lot more than up front where Dodd and Lawson stayed strong throughout.

Metal Tiger: Is using Huggins on the outside at SDE out of the question? He has experience there, and in terms of athleticism I feel he offers more than Robinson. Also, what about Sterling Johnson? Both Huggins and Johnson seemed to be jumbo DEs coming out of high school that we have bulked up. In terms of using them as edge setters for 5-10 snaps a game, I think they could serve us well in terms of keeping the team fresh. Sure, we don't want to load up guys too much, but if we are looking for minimal snaps I think it could be achievable until Bryant is back.

Ryan Kantor: That's a good point. Albert Huggins was a big recruit and hasn't had an opportunity to make an impact yet. If I recall, he preferred DE coming out of high school. Of course, we've already moved Wilkins and Jabril Robinson to DE so maybe we shouldn't continue to move DT out of position.

We just need to survive Auburn and probably GT and get Austin Bryant back. As long as we have Wilkins and Ferrell at DE, we will be ok with a mostly three-man rotation (with Yeargin).

My concern is another injury hitting. If we don't get a quality pass rush, does that expose our weakness at CB opposite Tankersley?

QuackingTiger: Neither is an option at all. Not at all.

Huggins is going to be your 4th man in the DT rotation and get at least 200 snaps. Huggins already tried DE and quickly realized that he wasn't going to be able to play in space. You don't just rush the pass anymore, there is a lot that goes into playing DE at the college level--reading defenses, etc. You can't just turn that on overnight. Wilkins is the exception to the rule because he is a freak athlete. Johnson just isn't that athletic right now with his additional weight gain.

With teams like Auburn and GT, you need your DEs to play with discipline. You don't get that from a player who just got thrown into the position and is biting on misdirection and eye candy. That is a recipe for disaster. It is tough to play the zone read if you are undisciplined. Robinson will eventually move back inside. If he does see the field, he won't be asked to do all that much.

You can try to get more creative with your scheme and where you are bringing pressure. You can play more dime packages (sorry--dime of doom) and bring up a safety to rush the passer, but you aren't going to change your base defense. I can see more odd fronts being used, but not many positional changes. (Shaq Smith is still swimming at LB, so that isn't an option, unless you want to risk stunting his growth there further.)

Metal Tiger: Ah, well I guess in Robinson and Register we will trust for additional depth, which is scary....shades of the 2014 UGA game are flooding back in. I figured Johnson wouldn't be an option and was grasping at straws with Huggins since that was formerly his position of choice.

With Xavier Kelly's injury I know he has been pushed to the bubble or maybe the wrong side of it; at any rate, what is Kelly's biggest issue with getting off the bubble? Technique or grasping the scheme? Maybe both? We all know he's physically ready (injury notwithstanding), but in my mind his athleticism and size has to make up for some of the gap that exists between him and Robinson and Register, which to me means he avoids the redshirt once he's healthy. I also think it would be an added benefit to get him some experience this year with how thin we are continuing to look at DE.

Brian: I'm calling it "DIME OF DOOOOOOM" from now on.

And I think one thing that hurts is we've been spoiled for 2 years. We've had 4 guys at each position that would start for 95% of teams in college football, if not 100%. That's really hard to do, especially along the DL. While we want to shoot for 2014 and 2015 in terms of talent and production each year, that isn't quite realistic. If we can hit that level every other year, we'll be in really good shape defense-wise.

Really, the biggest piece may be what Kelly does. If he gets it, preferably before the GT game, then I think we'll be ok even if Bryant is slow coming back.

Ryan Kantor: It's also worth noting that DE is a position that should improve for us throughout the year as Bryant gets healthy and guys like Richard Yeargin and Xavier Kelly get more experience. With the Clemson at Florida State coming in late October, FSU will benefit by getting their QB some experience before playing us, however we'll also benefit by getting crucial experience for our DEs

Dbbm: I think at this point we are one serious injury away from needing another defensive tackle to show ability to play outside. Defensive ends are not really what defensive tackles are asked to do in this scheme and it shows in size disparity. Some of it was just how athletic Lawson was but even Kelly and Dodd would rush the passer without a hand on the ground routinely and drop into coverage a handful of times a game.

I don't think we can play more dime of doom unless there's reason to believe our safety depth is way ahead of schedule. The secondary doesn't seem deep enough to compensate for the line at this point in the season. It's a bind.