SUNSET, S.C. (AP) Clemson defensive ends coach Marion Hobby joked he’ll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night pining for the Tigers former All-American lineman Shaq Lawson, shouting, ”Shaq, get in there.”
It’s like that across the board for Clemson, which lost seven starters from a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference title and played for a national championship.
”We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. ”Got to start over again.”
Clemson has faced this turnover before, just last summer the Tigers needed to replace eight starters – and all four defensive linemen – from a 2014 unit that led the nation in fewest yards allowed.
The result was a physical, relentless defense powered by Lawson, who was selected No. 19 overall by Buffalo in last spring’s NFL draft. Six of Lawson’s defensive teammates were also drafted, four of them like Lawson giving up their final year in college to go pro.
Venables said watching guys develop into pros is what college football is about. Sure, he’d love having Lawson and end Kevin Dodd (drafted No. 34 by Tennessee) back as starters, but understands you have to be prepared for stellar players to move on.
Clemson’s secondary was the hardest hit; lockdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander and starting safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green all left early.
”That’s the reason why you pay me, to coach,” secondary coach Mike Reed said. ”Whoever is out there, I’m going to coach them up. The reason they’re here, they’re top student athletes in the country so it’s a process of where one man leaves and the other man has to step up.”
Hobby said Clemson’s planning for such departures begins two and three years earlier with recruiting, identifying players who can learn quickly and want to be ready to jump in when called.
That happened last season in Clemson’s national semifinal victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Lawson got hurt early on and the Tigers brought in freshman Austin Bryant.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound sophomore played 63 snaps and made eight tackles in the 37-17 victory.
Bryant, sophomore Christian Wilkins and freshman Clelin Ferrell all came out of spring as defensive line starters. Junior Marcus Edmond takes over for Alexander while senior Jadar Johnson and sophomore Van Smith head into fall camp next month as starters in the defensive backfield.
Clemson also lost two starting linebackers, including team-leading tackler B.J. Goodson.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney understands all the questions about his defense.
”They’re valid questions,” Swinney said Tuesday. ”I just think the answers are right here.”
That wasn’t always the case, Swinney has said.
Clemson won the 2011 ACC championship, yet were embarrassed by West Virginia in a 70-33 Orange Bowl debacle that still stings the coaches who were there. The result led Swinney to lure Venables to Clemson after more than a decade of success leading Oklahoma’s defense.
Venables has gradually pieced together a defense that’s been among college football’s best.
There were questions whether the Tigers defensive line last year could match that of 2014 when end Vic Beasley was the ACC defensive player of the year and tackle Grady Jarrett stuffed the middle. But Lawson and the unknown Dodd were 1-2 in the country in tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Heck, Venables remembers how frightened he was before the 2014 season when he worried if all the team’s veterans returning – the Tigers started eight upperclassmen that year – would show the same fire after succeeding in the past.
”I wondered if they’d take things for granted and not work quite as hard,” he said. ”Every year is different.”