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2016 Clemson Football Review: Defensive Line

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NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Clemson
Dabo celebrates with Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins during the NC State game
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, the excitement surrounding the defensive line was rather muffled, and for good reason. The group that had terrorized offensive lines in 2014 was all but gone and the pair of defensive ends that help carry Clemson to the national title game in 2015 were gone, too. The back to back years of significant losses paired with a pre-season injury to projected starter Austin Bryant made it look like the perpetually elite Clemson defensive line was going to be a weak spot for once.

Let’s review each defensive lineman’s performance in 2016:

Starters

Carlos Watkins, DT, 50 Total Tackles, 12.5 TFL, 10.5 Sacks, 1 FR, Black Ranger

Watkins was probably the player people were least worried about along the defensive line. He had a breakout year in 2015 and that level of play was mirrored in 2016. Watkins was a dominant force in the backfield and not only led Clemson in sacks, but set the single-season Clemson sack record for a defensive tackle. Watkins got to play even more than expected with the injury to Austin Bryant and the subsequent reshuffling of the defensive line; he did not disappoint, and is headed to the NFL as a result.

Christian Wilkins, DT/DE, 48 Total Tackles, 13.0 TFL, 3.5 Sacks, 2 FR, White Ranger

The seemingly universally-loved large human, Christian Wilkins, will probably be remembered as the savior of this defensive line. Wilkins had had a wonderful 2015, which cemented his future at DT for Clemson, but then an injury to new starting DE Austin Bryant made the Clemson line critically thin at end. In a somewhat desperate move, the coaches moved the 6’4” 310lb-er to end, something we hinted at being possible in our preview of the DL. The move turned out to be brilliant, it allowed the DL to maintain its elite status, and gave Clemson the size along the line to best anyone that lined up across from them. Wilkins’ move to DE (even if it was only for 2016) was a star-making move, and the 2017 edition of Christian Wilkins (this time at DT, hopefully) is already generating mountains of hype.

Dexter Lawrence, DT, 62 Total Tackles, 8.5 TFL, 6.5 Sacks, 2 FR, 340lb, Pink Ranger

Fifth-year NFL veteran Dexter Lawrence was a imposing force along the line for the Tigers, a lot of credit for his play goes to a combo of weighing 340 pounds and some freakish athleticism. Despite being a true freshman, Lawrence played well beyond his years and was an incredibly valuable piece for the defensive line to have following Wilkins’ aforementioned move from DT to DE. If going 1-on-1, an offensive lineman stood little chance against the Dex-star, because if he did not go right by you, he engulfed you. There was no reason not to chip Lawrence with a center and a guard, but it didn’t really matter anyway, Dexter was going to cause havoc no matter what you did. Lawrence was named the Pro Football Focus Rookie of the Year in 2016, and for good reason. The Beef Package of Lawrence and Wilkins look like a DT duo that will ruin some offensive lines in 2017.

Clelin Ferrell, DE, 44 Total Tackles, 12.5 TFL, 6.0 Sacks, Green Ranger

The fourth of our Power Rangers, Clelin Ferrell, became the player Clemson needed him to be down the stretch. After the losses of Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, et. al., Clemson was starting to become desperate at DE while attempting to rebuild the depth at the position. Clemson needed Ferrell to be a good player, and that player emerged when they most needed it. Ferrell was everywhere in big games, he made some vital stops against Louisville and FSU, and played so well that he was the defensive MVP in Clemson’s most dominant defensive performance, a 31-0 win over Ohio State. Ferrell has the size you look for in a blitzing DE, and more than enough speed to be great in 2017.

Rotational

Scott Pagano, DT, 20 Total Tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 Sacks, Red Ranger

A stalwart for the Tigers, the ever-consistent Hawaiian Scott Pagano was his usual self along the line in 2016. Playing smart and physical, Pagano’s contribution cannot be over stated, he regularly provided high-quality relief for the starters on the line, allowing them to rest while maintaining their level of play. Pagano is a big reason that Clemson had the depth to be able to hold offenses like Ohio State and Alabama from being able to do anything, without the depth he provided the going would’ve been quite a lot tougher.

Austin Bryant, DE, 13 Total Tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 Sacks

Coming into the season, Bryant was expected to fill the role of Shaq Lawson, he had done well in Lawson’s place during the 2015 post-season, and had all the makings of the next Clemson DE force. A pre-season foot injury put a stop to all of that talk, and Bryant was forced to sit for about half of the year. Once he came back, he was kept as a depth piece, the coaches most likely wanting to avoid overloading him and causing bad play or another injury. Bryant was solid in his depth role, and looks to contend to be the DE that starts across from Clelin Ferrell in 2017.

Albert Huggins, DT, 18 Total Tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 Sacks, Yellow Ranger

Huggins is another depth player that performs well enough in limited action to allow the players above him on the depth chart a chance to rest. Huggins had probably a better year than expected, and got a bit more playing time than expected thanks once again to the injury to Austin Bryant. Huggins seems like he’ll be a future starter for Clemson, but that probably won’t be until 2018. Until then, Huggins will keep on keeping on and making good contributions for the Tigers.

Chris Register, DE, 10 Total Tackles, 1.5 TFL

Register is still getting his feet under him at the DE position after he moved there for linebacker. He redshirted in 2014 and essentially did the same in 2015. He saw significantly more playing time in 2016, but still has a good bit of work to do before receiving a bigger role at DE. You should expect to see more of him in 2017.

Richard Yeargin, DE, 13 Total Tackles, 4.0 TFL, 0.5 Sacks

Much like Register, Yeargin is trying to work is way into a more regular role for Clemson at DE. He played more than Register and put up some good stats, so there shouldn’t be a huge worry that he won’t contribute in the future. Expect more of Yeargin in 2017, too.

Jabril Robinson, DT, 3 Total Tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 Sacks, Blue Ranger

The last of our Power Rangers, Robinson played a small rotational role in the Tigers’ line. Robinson is surely talented, but he needs to put on a lot more weight before he can be a more regular player on the line. He saw about the same amount of playing time in 2015 and 2016, 2017 may see a larger role, but 2018 seems to be Robinson’s year for significant playing time.

Despite a myriad of losses since the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Clemson defensive line is still one of the premier units in all of college football. They deserve a huge amount of credit for Clemson’s championship run in 2016 and should keep the Tigers afloat as the offense is rebuilt for 2017.

Grade: A

(All stats collected from Sport-Reference.com)