It hasn’t happened yet, but Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is waiting for someone in the media to ask the dreaded defensive “drop-off” question.
“Y'all will ask me that at some point,” Swinney said. “That’s coming later.”
For the last two seasons, how the Tigers would replace so many key starters has been the narrative in spring practices and fall camps.
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Well, they answered the bell – both years.
After the 2014 unit ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, virtually everyone expected a drop-off. The 2015 group wasn’t perfect, but it still finished in the top 10 as the team finished runner-up in the College Football Playoff.
Last season, after a bevy of talented defenders left early for the pros, it came up again. And again, Clemson finished eighth on defense on its way to a national championship.
“It was definitely a motivating factor last year, especially with losing (three starters) in the secondary,” defensive back Ryan Carter said. “It’s something that we kept hearing and kept hearing, but if we just take care of what we can take care of and control what we can control, then we won’t have to worry about it.”
This year, Carter said, the motivating factor is to work so hard that those questions can’t even be asked again.
“I think we’ve earned some credibility there,” Swinney said. “I think the first thing everybody does every year when we evaluate a roster or a team is, OK, who left? Who’s gone? That’s kind of where it starts, and when you lose some of the players that we’ve lost… it’s just kind of human nature, and you’ve got guys that haven’t played much.”
Swinney says it doesn’t help that the media isn’t there every day to see players handle themselves in practice and meetings. The coaches know what kind of player they’re recruiting before he signs, so Swinney understands why the question exists.
“It’s easier for us (coaches) to have a little more confidence in maybe a guy y'all haven’t seen as much,” Swinney said.
I think y'all have gotten used to the fact that we’re going to have somebody ready to play again there. We'll see. Hopefully that will be the case.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, addressing the media about the likely-looming questions about holes to fill in the Tigers’ defense.
The 2017 defense certainly has holes and issues, something defensive coordinator Brent Venables says every team does when starting over.
Gone as starters are cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, safety Jadar Johnson, linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins.
Cornerback Trayvon Mullen and linebackers Jamie Skalski, Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith are just a few of the Tigers Swinney has identified as players who saw little to no action last year but will be expected to take much bigger roles this fall.
Swinney said it helped to have those extra postseason practices in December and January to start preparing the youngsters, and he already sees a back-seven he thinks will be as productive as any Clemson’s had.
“I think we’re going to be good on defense. I thought that before we ever took the first snap in spring ball because I think we’ve recruited well,” Swinney said. “I think we’ve got good people on the field.”
What outsiders can easily see is a defense with linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant. That’s an extremely talented group to build the rest of the defense around.
Clemson is getting off to a good start in spring practice, and Venables feels as though he knows this roster better than in seasons past.
“I like our guys. I like where we’re at as a defense. I like where we’re at chemistry-wise, our understanding of what we’ve got to do to play good defense,” Venables said. “I feel like we really know our roster really well, know our players really well.”
Venables likes that this is a coachable group that understands the standard, but he’s quick to point out that it’s “never good enough.” He says spring practices are still about getting players lined up, teaching them how to lead and getting them to improve fundamentally.
And there’s a long way to go.
“I think we’re going to have really good competition and a lot of guys that are functionally able to go play and be reliable players for us,” Swinney said. “When you’ve got that, that’s a real positive for you, especially when you’re hoping to play a lot of ball games – more than just 12.”