Let’s begin this preview with a quick look back at the defensive lines Clemson’s had in its history:
Clemson’s had 38 defensive linemen get drafted including 9 picked in the first round. The most first rounders Clemson has had at once appears to be 2, Jeff Bryant/Jim Stuckey in 1980, Jeff Bryant/William Perry in 1981, and Vic Beasley/Shaq Lawson in 2015. And Clemson’s had a mix of 2 or more defensive linemen that would be picked in the first 2 rounds on too many occasions to list, so it’s safe to say that there’s a long tradition along the line at Clemson.
With that context, I’d like to say that the 2017 defensive line could be head and shoulders above any line that’s come before it in terms of NFL potential. They’ve been dubbed the ‘Power Rangers’ thanks to a famous photo and they can back that name up with awe-inspiring talent. I’ve already heaped quite a bit of praise onto this line, but this group deserves it all.
Let’s take a look at the starters:
Coming in at a hefty 300 pounds, standing 6’4” we have Christian Wilkins. Wilkins has had the eye of NFL scouts since high school, and for good reason. Partially thanks to his stature, Wilk led the nation in pass breakups for a defensive linemen in 2016 with 10 and at the same time was a constant source of energy for the team. He had to play out of position most of last year due to Austin Bryant’s injury, but now he moves back inside where his talents can be better utilized. He’ll be paired up with Dexter Lawrence often and together they can and will swallow interior offensive lines whole.
Wilkins has incredible athleticism and agility for a man of his build. He’s also got great speed and pairs it well with his unrelenting raw power, combine all of that with his elite size and you’ve got a player destined to go in the top 10 of the draft.
Plus, he can do this:
What’s not to like?
Next up, weighing in at a trim 260 and standing 6’5” it’s Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell made a name for himself in the postseason, having great performances versus Virginia Tech and Ohio State before an injury cut his national title playing time short. The Ferrell Cat finished last year with double digit TFLs, 6 sacks, and pressured the QB seemingly every drive. Ferrell has very long arms and teams that with blinding explosiveness off the line, a lot of the time an offensive tackle just can’t react quick enough to stop Ferrell before his long arms can grab the ball carrier.
Ferrell will also have the benefit of isolation. In all likelihood, offenses will have to use at least three linemen to contain the defensive tackles, leaving Ferrell a lone tackle or a tackle and tight end to deal with on his way to the quarterback. If an offense uses a guard and tackle to block Ferrell, that simply makes Wilkins and Lawrence’s job easier.
Here he is going one-on-one with a tackle versus Ohio State:
Clelin Ferrell looks like the dream DE for a lot of NFL teams, his size is elite, his speed is elite, and he gives it his all on every single play. Barring injury he’s a lock for round 1.
Now let’s move onto our next lineman, 11-time Pro Bowler Dexter Lawrence.
There’s a lot I could say about the Dex Star, from his 340lb, 6’5” frame to his unnatural speed, but seeing is believing with Lawrence, so sit back and enjoy the gifs:
He’s a surefire first rounder, I think he’s top 5 worthy. Oh, and he’s a true sophomore.
Standing 6’5” and weighing 265lbs, our final starter Austin Bryant. Bryant was the heir apparent to the Shaq Lawson role before a broken foot put a halt to the first half of his 2016 season.
Now, with a full offseason to prepare, Bryant is ready to take on his role. He flashed what he could do in his limited playing time and should match well with his pass rushing partner Clelin Ferrell. He’s smart, he uses his power effectively and seems to have great potential as a run defender. Despite being the same size as Ferrell, he seems to be less of a speed rusher to me. He gets high praise from the coaches and is the final piece in a great starting four. While I won’t anoint him one yet, he has the talent to become a first round pick, barring further injury of course.
Also, he changed numbers from 91 to 7, which I applaud because a defensive lineman with a low jersey number is always fun.
You’ll recognize him as the guy that stopped Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine on 4th down in 2015:
Clemson’s two-deep is stocked with talent, but depth is where this line gets into a little trouble. There are guys like DT Albert Huggins, DE Justin Foster, DT Niles Pinckney, and DE Xavier Kelly, but this isn’t a year like 2014 where we have a 1st and a 2nd round pick backing up a top 10 pick. I think this line could handle one big injury maybe two, but more than that would be a struggle. Expect the coaches to try and get a lot of playing time for the D-Line reserves against Kent State to get them prepared for Auburn a week later. There’s a good amount of exciting talent in the group, and more coming in next year, but there’s a shortage of experience.
This line has me so excited to watch Clemson this year, they’ll be tasked with being the foundation of the team, keeping the games close enough so the offense has time to develop after replacing so many big names. Brent Venables has been scheming all summer and has likely devised some nasty ways to deploy this line, it will be fun to watch. Expect gaudy sack numbers from Ferrell and maybe from Bryant, and look for Wilkins and Lawrence to clog the running lanes and stop any inside run from developing. The line loses Scott Pagano and Carlos Watkins, but I think they can be replaced, a replacement just needs playing time to emerge. If they reach their potential, I think this line has four 1st round picks on it, as crazy as that sounds. If they don’t live up to that level of hype, it’s still an elite defensive line that can win a match up with anyone in the country. Championships start in the trenches, and Clemson’s lines are ready.