Imagine really and truly thinking you’re going to move the ball on Clemson this year. Couldn’t be me.
Besides graduating linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, the Tigers bring back their entire starting front seven from last season. That means defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, all of them potential first-round picks, are back for more.
Wilkins’ surprise announcement that he would return fully stacked the deck in Clemson’s favor. And if that’s not enough, their backups include two of the top three defensive linemen in the 2018 recruiting class.
2017 and 2018 were supposed to be rebuilds, with Clemson replacing Deshaun Watson and then replacing its whole DL.
Instead, the Tigers made the Playoff again and are favored to make it four years in a row, thanks largely to this line.
They are scheduled to bring back 100 percent of their passing yards (plus two five-star underclassman quarterbacks), 100 percent of their running back rushing yards, 56 percent of receiving yards, 100 percent of defensive line tackles, 76 percent of linebacker tackles, and 73 percent of defensive back tackles.
But it’s easy to think of the four “Power Rangers” as a collective, rather than four unique talents.
Each anchor of Brent Venables’ defense brings a slightly different skillset to the table, before they morph together to form a college football Megazord.
Clelin Ferrell is the length.
He led Clemson in sacks last season (9.5), second in the ACC. He also led the conference in tackles for loss (18). At 6’5 with long arms, he’s the prototypical edge rusher.
That length often isn’t shown clearly by television cameras. When facing a defender with this wingspan, a blocker has to get hands on him first, or it’s a wrap. He’s got the strength to press you out and make a play (he’s the right side defensive end here).
Ferrell doesn’t make the tackle there, but by stoning the offensive lineman, he forces Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough to bounce the run outside for a loss.
Same goes for this play (again he’s right side DE), when he just punches a tight end in the throat and forces another TFL.
And as a pass rusher, watch Ferrell set the tackle up with a subtle outside feint only to duck back inside and get a free run at a sack (Ferrell’s not the circled player, but is again lined up against Alabama’s left tackle).
And that long body can unfurl quickly out of a stance, which is not easy for a lot of big guys to do. Against Auburn, he’s out of his stance before anyone else has even moved. Game over for the left tackle.
He’s also strong in pass coverage, regularly dropping back and taking up a ton of space in front of receivers.
Dexter Lawrence is the brawn.
Can you guess which one he is here?
A lot of defensive line play, especially on the interior, ends up being unquantifiable. Some of the plays I’ve shown here can be catalogued in a box score, but others cannot. Lawrence might only have had 13 solo tackles last season, but there’s not a stat for eating up double teams and creating one-on-one matchups for his teammates.
At 340 pounds, he’s the biggest player on the roster, but he’s the same height as Ferrell. His strength earned him the nickname “Hulk.” He’s got quick feet, though, with one scouting report describing him as a “light-footed dancing bear.”
His strength translates to the field. Here’s Lawrence, between the center and left guard, just shoving No. 73 into Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham’s lap.
Here’s Lawrence against Louisville’s left guard, again using his favorite move, to bottle up Lamar Jackson:
And as a true freshman in 2016, Lawrence was already capable of throwing around offensive linemen, like Florida State’s center.
Christian Wilkins is the motor.
The guy does not stop, whether the game’s on or not.
As for his motor during plays, look back at that GIF in the last section when Lawrence sacks Stidham. That’s Wilkins crawling on the ground and getting the sack.
He’s just always on the field. In 2017, he led Clemson DTs in snaps, racking up more than 70 plays against both NC State and Syracuse, a ton for an interior defender.
But Wilkins doesn’t even quit when the defense is off the field. This is him as a personnel protecter on punt team:
And he gets all the way down the field to get a piece of the return man and finish off the tackle.
The big man can tote the rock ...
... and Wilkins doesn’t have to be anywhere near the defensive line to make plays, as he demonstrated while playing safety in the spring game.
But he is so much more than just some gadget player. He was second on the team last season in run stuffs (13), a stat that takes into account all rushes stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Here he is (lined up between the right guard and right tackle) fighting off a double team to clog up the hole.
Here he is hustling to chase a play down from the backside.
And here he is getting an effort sack on Florida State’s James Blackman.
Austin Bryant is freaky athleticism.
Bryant battled a foot injury during Clemson’s national championship campaign in 2016, but he came back with a vengeance. This dude is a monster athlete, right behind Ferrell in 2017 sacks with 8.5.
On one fourth down play, when Bryant wasn’t on the field, the Tigers called a timeout. Bryant came on the field and then split out wide to the bottom of the screen. He was playing cornerback, folks.
And this wasn’t Wilkins messing around in a spring game; this was a key fourth down to snuff out an opponent’s faint hope of a comeback. He then busted up the screen play by himself.
Also in that game — with some help from Ferrell, who accosts Virginia Tech’s QB — Bryant comes a bit upfield and then reads the field to make a one-handed pick.
On this play, Bryant peels off to grab a running back in the flat and nearly makes another pick. Despite going for the ball, Bryant recovers to make the tackle.
Combine all that, and you give the country’s best defensive coordinator an embarrassment of riches and endless options.
There’s a good chance all four of these guys have their names called during the first round of the NFL Draft. That collection on one defensive line is astounding. I’m sure many opposing offensive lines are thrilled to only have to deal with this bunch one more time.