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Spring Position Primer: Defensive Line

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This year’s defensive line has a chance to be Venables’ best yet.

CFP National Championship
Christian Wilkins celebrates after the National Championship
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The defensive line has been the pride of the Clemson Defense for the last few years, and for good reason. From Vic Beasley to Shaq Lawson, Grady Jarrett to Christian Wilkins, there hasn’t been a time since Brent Venables arrived in Clemson that the defensive line lacked star power. This upcoming season is no exception to that rule, far from it actually.

Let’s begin this primer with a look at the (presumptive) starters at defensive end.

Spring game stats (per TigerNet) are in italics.

Clelin Ferrell - 3 Tackles, 1 TFL

Clelin Ferrell
Clelin Ferrell embraces his new Defensive MVP award
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

After a lot of worries about Clelin Ferrell’s readiness going into last season, Clelin burst into the national spotlight thanks to his stellar play during Clemson’s postseason run to the championship. The Ferrell Cat terrorized Ohio State to the tune of 3 TFLs and a sack. And he was doing much the same to mighty Alabama before going down to an ankle injury just after halftime. Clelin is back for another campaign at end and with the aforementioned ankle injury ending up as nothing to worry about, he brings his speed off the edge with him. Combine that great speed with his monstrous length (Clemson officially lists him as 6’5”) and his newfound experience, and I have absolutely no worries about Clelin Ferrell barring injury. If he stays anywhere near the level he played at during the playoff, Clemson has its next 1st round DE.

Austin Bryant - 2 Tackles

Austin Bryant (91)
Austin Bryant (91) celebrates a play with Ben Boulware
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Bryant was the presumptive starter coming into last season before a broken foot put a halt to a large part of Bryant’s season. Bryant did make it back into the rotation around halfway through the year, but he only had more snaps than the starters in one game. With Christian Wilkins’ move back into the interior DL, Austin Bryant is once again the presumptive starter at DE, and he brings much of the same size that Ferrell brings, but trades some speed for extra power. The combo of Ferrell and Bryant should give opposing offenses something to fear week in and week out provided that they both remain healthy.

Now let’s take a look at a few of the rotational players at DE.

Chris Register - 2 Tackles

Chris Register (45)
Chris Register (45) celebrates with Austin Bryant and Jaquarius Brice following the Fiesta Bowl
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While still relatively new to the defensive end position after his move from linebacker upon his arrival to Clemson, Register is looking to expand his role in the DE rotation and provide quality depth behind Ferrell and Bryant in 2017. Register’s snap totals were not much different than Richard Yeargin’s, but his playing time dropped off sharply once Austin Bryant returned to the rotation. Now that Wilkins has moved back inside, look for Register to compete for more playing time in the 2-deep.

Richard Yeargin - 2 Tackles

Richard Yeargin (49)
Richard Yeargin (49) tackles JT Barrett
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There seems to be a trend among Clemson’s DEs, and that trend is length. Yeargin is no exception to this trend, as he’s listed as 6’5” by Clemson. Much like Register, Yeargin saw a lot of playing time before the return of Austin Bryant, and much like Register, Yeargin moved from linebacker to DE when he got to Clemson. Looks for Yeargin to be another frontrunner to be a contributor in the 2-deep.

Xavier Kelly - 1 Tackles, 1 QBH

Lasamuel Davis - 3 Tackles, 0.5 Sacks, 0.5 TFL, 1 QBH

Here we have a pair of redshirts from the 2016 season that are looking to fill the holes in the DE rotation. Kelly, a highly touted recruit out of Kansas, fits the mold of Clelin Ferrell. Like Ferrell, Kelly is long and has tons of athleticism to spare, making him something to worry about for any OL. Davis, on the other hand, will probably need another year to gain weight before he can start contending for heavy snaps in the DE rotation. As a recruit, Davis was listed as 194lb by 247Sports, and after a year at Clemson, is listed as 210lb, combine that with his 6’4” frame and you’ve got one skinny DE. Davis definitely lifted his profile with a good spring, but he still needs to gain about 20lb before I would feel comfortable giving him significant playing time.

Now we move on to my favorite position, defensive tackle. First, let’s look at the starters.

Christian Wilkins - 5 Tackles, 1 BLK, 1 QBH

Christian Wilkins (42, Left)
Christian Wilkins (42, Left) celebrates with Clelin Ferrell (99) during the Louisville game
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Big Daddy Wilkins is the face of the Clemson program right now and for good reason. He was a dominant force along the line last year despite having to start at DE following Austin Bryant’s injury. Wilkins is now back on the inside and ready to torment interior OLs with his mix of speed, versatility, and his 6’4” 310lb frame. Wilkins is already being projected as a top 10 pick in next year’s draft, and I’d be a little surprised if that doesn’t happen. Wilkins can do it all, and will once again be a force for Clemson next fall.

Dexter Lawrence - 3 Tackles, 1 TFL

Dexter Lawrence
Dexter Lawrence celebrates following the National Championship Game
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

My love of 7-time NFL All-Pro Dexter Lawrence has been well documented, and he now looks to fill the hole left by the graduation of Carlos Watkins. To fill that hole, he brings along his massive 6’5” 340lb frame, his unlikely agility, and now a year of experience. The Dex Star played the most snaps in 2016 of any returning DT, and he’ll need that knowledge to become a leader following the departures of Watkins and Scott Pagano. Lawrence, while not as versatile as Wilkins, is the best pure DT that Clemson has in its lineup and he will be a dominating force once again provided someone doesn’t find actual kryptonite to weaken him.

And now let’s head over to take a look a few of the rotational DTs.

Albert Huggins - N/A

Albert Huggins (67)
Albert Huggins (67) grabs JT Barrett during the Fiesta Bowl
The Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

Huggins spent all of the last year as a 2nd stringer and got about as much playing time as Scott Pagano did in a similar role. Pagano is now off to show the west coast what a DT looks like, and Huggins looks to be the guy to fill the hole left by the big Hawaiian’s departure. Huggins brings even more beef to the DT rotation with his 6’3” 305lb body and is at least decent pass rusher. Look for Hug to really show us what he can do with an increased workload this fall.

Sterling Johnson - 2 Tackles

Nyles Pinckney - 4 Tackles, 1 Sack, 1 TFL

Pinckney redshirted last season, and while Johnson redshirted in 2015 he essentially did the same in 2016 playing only 46 snaps in the biggest blowouts (SC State, Syracuse, & SCar). Johnson seems like a natural pick to garner extra playing time this season as he gets more experienced in the system. Johnson’s 6’4” 305lb build yet again adds more beef to the tackle rotation, and he should see time in non-blowouts come fall. Most of the talk around Pinckney comes from his excellent spring game and spring as a whole. He doesn’t have the size, particularly height, that many of the other DTs have, standing at 6’1” 295lb, but that is still pretty good size regardless. He may take on the role that Stirling Johnson had last season, but I see him getting a little more playing time than that.

The Clemson defensive line should be one of, if not the, best lines in the country. There is a plethora of size, speed, & experience, paired with there being very few departures from last season. Barring injury, this could be the best D-Line Venables has fielded.