I’m down to the last three position groups for the Mount Rushmore series, and all three are extremely, extremely difficult position groups to choose from. It is really staggering to think about how many great players the Tigers have had on the defensive line of scrimmage over the years. Linebacker was hard, but I felt like four I chose were just a cut above even that and I didn’t really struggle with my selections. This, however, was a very different deal trying to get to just four.
This is my best stab at it, but I’m sure folks will give some great comments and suggestions or point out omissions!
- Vic Beasley (2010-2014). I had to start with, in my view, the greatest pass rusher in Clemson football history. Beasley was moved around from tight end to linebacker before finding his home as a terror off the edge at DE. He flashed in 2012 where 8 of his 18 total tackles were sacks. He became a consensus All-American and All-ACC player in 2013 and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 as part of that #1 ranked total defense. When you break records set my Michael Dean Perry and Gaines Adams, you belong on the mountain.
- Gaines Adams (2003-2006). Speaking of the late, great Gaines Adams, I believe he takes a spot on the mountain too. His path began with one of the most interesting recruiting stories I can recall. Adams hailed from a traditional Gamecock stronghold, Greenwood, South Carolina, and played 8 man football for none other than former Gamecock quarterback and one of the most hated men in Clemson fandom history, Steve Taneyhill. Despite this, Tommy Bowden was able to secure him and once Adams put on some weight and adjusted to the college level, he was an absolute force. I have been to two Clemson/Carolina games in Columbia in my life, and the second one was 2005 where Adams was the difference in the game defensively. I was also in Winston-Salem in 2006 when Adams was part of the monumental game changing botched field goal return that saved Tommy Bowden from another embarrasing defeat to Jim Grobe and the Demon Deacons. Like Beasley, Adams would win ACC Defensive Player of the Year and become a first round NFL draft pick.
- Da’Quan Bowers (2008-2010). Going from one #93 to another! Bowers was one of the most heralded recruits in Clemson history, and frankly was a major bargaining chip for Tommy Bowden’s extension after his flirtation with Arkansas following the 2007 season. Bowers was considered by most services as the top high school prospect, and his exploits at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School were legendary. I was told back then by one high school coach that Bowers simply shouldn’t be allowed to play high school football because of how dominant he was. He was thrown out of a game for what ultimately was reviewed as a legal hit just because it was so violent the officials assumed it was illegal. Bowers didn’t dominate immediately, but his final season in 2010 was about as dominant as you will see from any defensive end. Clemson fans mostly try to forget the frustrating 2010 campaign, which to date was easily the worst of the Dabo Swinney era, but Bowers matched the other two on this list with an All-American campaign and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honor. Oh, and he did that after fighting through an injury suffered against Coastal Carolina. Injuries ultimately pushed Bowers to a second round draft pick and his NFL career never took off, but his final season is something I’d love to see a guy like Xavier Thomas mimic in 2022.
One another thing, his huge fourth down stop against Georgia Tech in the 2009 ACC Championship Game SHOULD have been the key to victory. It was really about the only stop that defense had all night and was a display of how explosive Bowers really could be. Paul Johnson spent the vast majority of the night just optioning off of Bowers and not trying to block him.
- Clelin Ferrell (2015-2018). You can’t have a list like this and NOT include a Power Ranger who was a major piece of 4 ACC Titles and 2 National Championships. Another All-American (2X first team) and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Ferrell was an absolute monster after coming off his redshirt freshman year (due to injury more than not being ready). Ferrell also delivered the iconic “Death Valley Records” comment on stage following the 2019 title game blowout of Alabama. I was perhaps the most impressed by Ferrell on one of the few dark nights during his career: the 2017 Syracuse game. For whatever reason, the stellar 2017 defense had one of those nights where focus and attention to detail were hard to find. The exception was Ferrell who tried to single handedly carry the defense, notching 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. There was no time that “Cle-missile” wasn’t ready to play and play at a very high level. Ferrell also took home the Ted Hendricks Award before becoming a first round draft pick for the Raiders.
Ok so those four are hard to argue with, but think about the guys I had to leave off this list! So many guys who were not just All-ACC, but All-Americans as well. All four above were ACC Defensive Player of the Year winners to the point it became a pre-requisite as crazy as it sounds. I also recognize some recency bias and that all four of the guys above played in a much more pass heavy era where sack opportunities increased exponentially from the previous eras. Here are my Honorable Mentions who were absolute greats as well. I’ve included a few who were LB/DE hybrids or termed “Bandit” in some of the previous defensive schemes.
Andy Headen, Terrence Mack, Jesse Hatcher, Vance Hammond, Adrian Dingle, Bryant McNeal, Philip Merling, Ricky Sapp, Andre Branch (VT killer!), Malliciah Goodman (LSU killer!), Corey Crawford, Kevin Dodd (Alabama killer!), Shaq Lawson (Miami killer!), Austin Bryant (Auburn killer!)
Wow, what a list of greats! Almost every one of those guys made it to the NFL, many as high draft picks. I know a few current roster members are looking to become part of this conversation down the road as well, particularly Myles Murphy.