The last two seasons have seen Clemson‘s defense uncharacteristically give up big plays and not force turnovers. For the last 30 years, it was the defense that would be something Clemson fans could always count on to make crucial third-down stops and timely sacks or interceptions, but recently the Tigers have had to outscore people to win football games which makes a lot of people uncomfortable.
The reason for the recent lack of success of the Clemson defense stems from a lack of leadership and intensity from the level that matters the most: the defensive line. The two projected starters at the defensive end this season are a pair of juniors in Corey Crawford and Vic Beasley. Crawford is as physically gifted as any recent Clemson defensive end I have seen in recent memory as he stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 270 pounds. He has great strength and speed, but the light has yet to come on for him during his first two seasons at Clemson.
He did not play much as a true freshman, but started 13 games last season and only registered 47 tackles and a single sack. He wears jersey No. 93, which is an honor if you look at the recent players who have worn that number and played defensive end. The late Gaines Adams and former No. 1 recruit Da’Quan Bowers both wore that same number and both were All-Americans during their tenure at Clemson.
Beasley is smaller in frame standing 6-foot-3 and weighing around 225 pounds, but still found a way to record eight sacks a season ago thanks to his speed and his improved technique. If Beasley can continue to put on muscle and enhance his fundamentals, then I see no reason why he can’t have double-digit sacks this season. However, it is not all about sacks and having good statistical numbers. Clemson always has had defensive ends who have motors that were always running.
Just looking at the last 10 years in which the Tigers have had great leaders at the defensive end position like Phillip Merling, Adams, Ricky Sapp, Da’Quan Bowers and Andre Branch. The thing that all of the players had in common is that they played 110 percent, 100 percent of the time. These guys were animals on the field as they were always urging the crowd to get louder, dishing out high fives, celebrating when other teammates made a big play and let their own emotion show all the time, especially when they made a big sack or tackle for loss. The intensity level was always increasing when players of this type were on the field for the Tigers, and it became contagious throughout all levels of the defense.
Sapp was a guy who did not have great numbers, but I have never seen a player more intense and enthusiastic when on the field. His leadership was more important than the number of sacks he had, because when other players on the defense saw that emotion, it made them want to raise the level of their game.
Last season, Clemson did not have that leadership up front and it showed in the big games against Florida State and South Carolina. This season, Clemson returns most of their defensive line and much improvement is expected for this group, and Tiger fans will find out in the first game if they are up to the challenge.
The defensive tackles look strong with Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson as they continued to get better with each snap last season, but more will be needed in 2013. A lot of people put a big emphasis on tackles for loss and sacks for a D-lineman, but this Tiger defense needs that vocal leader up front so the energy level is raised for all players.
Playing in Death Valley against the Georgia Bulldogs is a great opportunity to see how much these defensive linemen have improved their intensity and emotion; after all, football is an emotionally-driven game. I am looking to Crawford to have major improvements as it is time for him to step up and represent that jersey number the way other players have in the past.
Travis Patterson, Writer for ACC at Rantsports.com. Follow on Twitter @tpat20.