ACC: Corey Crawford

Clemson's seniors going out on top

December, 27, 2014
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There was a meeting this summer, after they’d gotten a good idea of just how much talent there was to work with, where the veterans of Clemson’s defense made a plan.

As freshmen, few played big roles on a defense that was something of a laughingstock. As sophomores, they stepped into bigger roles, and Clemson took a big step forward. As juniors, the group was dominant at times, leading the country in tackles for loss. But this season, their senior season, this was to be the crescendo.

“We decided our work would be legendary,” linebacker Stephone Anthony said.

[+] EnlargeClemson
Icon SportswireStephone Anthony (42), Vic Beasley (3), Corey Crawford (93) and Grady Jarrett (50) have helped Clemson's defense become No. 1 in the nation.
The plan was simple: No defense in the country would work harder, and all that work would result in a season no one would be able to forget.

Now, as Clemson’s seniors prepare for their final game -- a date with Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Monday -- the plan has come to fruition. The Tigers lead the country in total defense and tackles for loss. The seniors have led the way, with Anthony, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Corey Crawford, Robert Smith and others turning in terrific performances in their final season in Clemson uniforms. The swan song in the Orange Bowl is an an opportunity to showcase NFL talent for the scouts, but also a chance to secure that legacy the group began building four years ago.

No matter what, these seniors leave as Clemson’s all-time winningest class, but for a group that’s come so far over four years, it’s about more than just wins.

“As the years go on, people will remember us as hard-working, head-down, blue-collar workers,” Crawford said. “Hopefully that’s our legacy, that we were just a hard-working group.”

As legends go, the best of them begin with a mythical origin story. For Clemson’s senior defenders, though, it was the opposite.

The building blocks for the 2014 defense began in Miami in the finale of the 2011 season. Clemson had won the ACC on the backs of a dynamic offense, but the D was a disaster. The cracks that had expanded all season finally burst open in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia, as the Mountaineers hung 70 on a Tigers defense that was immediately mocked.

None of this year’s senior group started that game, but they all saw action and all felt the sting when it was over.

“That game was embarrassing for us,” Crawford said. “From that day on, I think from a defensive standpoint, we took it upon ourselves that we had to be more of a factor. We needed to be more reliable.”

A seed was planted. The group that played a supporting role in that Orange Bowl debacle stepped into starting jobs a year later. Brent Venables was brought in to coach the defense, and his blue-collar, aggressive approach resonated with the young and hungry defenders. The Tigers' D was still shrugged aside by most pundits, but the players on the team saw something special beginning to grow.

Clemson had finished 2011 as the 71st-ranked defense in the nation. A year later, with Beasley, Crawford and Jarrett changing the tenor of the pass rush, the unit improved to 64th nationally. The chips were all falling into place by 2013, and the Tigers ended the season 24th in the nation in total D and recorded 16 more TFLs than any other Power 5 team.

But this season -- their last together as a group -- was when the unit put the finishing touches on a masterpiece.

Clemson enters the Oklahoma game as the nation’s top-ranked D. The Tigers have averaged 10.2 TFL per game -- 1.5 more than any other team in the country. Only Penn State has allowed fewer yards per rush. Only Stanford, LSU and UCF have allowed fewer yards per pass. While the offense has struggled at times to score, the defense led Clemson to wins over Louisville, Boston College and Syracuse.

At 9-3, this wasn’t the season Jarrett had hoped his team would have, but his defense lived up to expectations again and again.

“We wanted to leave a legacy, and I felt like we did,” Jarrett said. “The last guys on a Clemson defense that was No. 1 in the country were guys like James Trapp and Chester McClockton. To be in the realm of guys like that, it’s an honor.”

But as the group gets set for its final game, it’s also been an honor to work alongside one another.

There have been a lot of mixed emotions the last few weeks, Beasley said. It’s time to move on, he knows, but it’s tough to say goodbye to this experience. What’s made it easier is that they’re going out together.

Four years ago, they were a part of one of Clemson’s most embarrassing moments. On Monday, they’ll go out as one of the most revered groups of players in the school’s storied history.

“That’s what makes you the best,” Crawford said. “You’re going out with the best ball players in the country, and that’s why it comes back to me taking this as a blessing to play with these guys. It’s been a great ride, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.”

ACC's All-Overlooked team

December, 2, 2014
Dec 2
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The ACC announced its all-conference teams yesterday, but there were certainly a number of good players who didn't get recognized. So with that in mind, we put together our all-overlooked team focusing exclusively on ACC standouts who didn't earn first-, second- or third-team honors from the league.

QB: Brad Kaaya (Miami)
RB: Shadrach Thornton (NC State)
RB: Wayne Gallman (Clemson)
WR: Jarrod West (Syracuse)
WR: Bo Hines (NC State)
WR: (tie) Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford (VT)
TE: Cam Serigne (Wake)
OL: Ian Silberman (BC)
OL: Eric Smith (UVA)
OL: Brian Chamberlain (GT)
OL: Kalon Davis (Clemson)
C: Quinton Schooley (NC State)

Kaaya led the ACC in touchdowns, yards-per-attempt and passer rating. He had his flaws, but that's a great season to go unnoticed. Thornton was actually the league's third-leading rusher among tailbacks. West somehow finished ninth in catches and 10th in receiving in the ACC despite an atrocious situation at QB for Syracuse. Hines was a go-to receiver from Day 1 as a true freshman at NC State and was among the nation's most reliable pass-catchers. The two freshmen at Virginia Tech, Cam Phillips and Isaiah Ford, will make plenty of All-ACC lists before their careers are done. Serigne's emergence was one of the very few bright spots on offense for Wake Forest. Silberman, a Florida transfer, set the stage for fellow former Gator Tyler Murphy to set the ACC record for rushing yards by a QB. Schooley was perhaps NC State's top lineman on a group that got significantly better as the year went along and helped the Wolfpack to finish second in the ACC in yards-per-rush. Smith gets a nod, but Virginia's line was largely a group effort, and until injuries began piling up in November, few lines had protected its QB better.

DE: KeShun Freeman (GT)
DE: Corey Crawford (Clemson)
DT: David Dean (UVA)
LB: Josh Keyes (BC)
LB: Marquel Lee (Wake)
LB: Dyshawn Davis (Syracuse)
LB: P.J. Davis (GT)
S: James Sample (Louisville)
S: Robert Smith (Clemson)
CB: Mackensie Alexander (Clemson)
CB: Kevin Johnson (Wake)

All you need to know about Crawford's impact is that when he was out against Georgia, the Tigers allowed 328 rushing yards and five touchdowns. In the next 11 games with him, they allowed 844 yards and five touchdowns. Freeman stepped up for Georgia Tech as a freshman to provide some much-needed pass rush. Keyes was one of the most versatile linebackers in the league, helping BC's defense rank fourth nationally against the run. Lee finished in the top 10 in the ACC in both tackles and tackles for loss on an under-appreciated Wake defense. Davis, like the rest of the Syracuse D, was largely ignored but finished the year with six TFL, seven QB hurries and three forced fumbles. Smith was the veteran voice in a young Clemson secondary, and his influence helped Alexander blossom into one of the league's best corners. While the defensive front got so much of the credit, Clemson's secondary also finished fourth nationally in pass defense.

K: Ammon Lakip (Clemson)
P: Riley Dixon (Syracuse)
Ret: Myles Willis (BC)

Lakip missed three of his first four kicks against FBS teams, and Clemson lost both games. But he showed ample resilience in connecting on 15 of his next 16. Willis led the ACC in kick return yardage and was responsible for one of the league's five return TDs. And Dixon, of course, was a Heisman candidate after a game-saving Week 1 TD pass, and we're just not ready to give up that dream.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney joked this week that he still wakes up seeing images of Georgia’s Todd Gurley sprinting down the sideline on a 75-yard touchdown run early in last year’s matchup between the Tigers and Bulldogs. It’s a tough image to forget.

Yes, Swinney’s team escaped with a 38-35 win, but Gurley and the Georgia ground game looked dominant. Gurley carried just 12 times but racked up 154 yards and two scores. Overall, the Bulldogs ran for 222 yards in the game and scored five times on the ground. That vaunted Clemson defensive front had few answers.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesRunning back Todd Gurley and Georgia's ground game torched Clemson last season.
Now, as the Tigers get set for their return trip to Athens, Georgia, that image of Gurley bursting through the line of scrimmage and outrunning an overwhelmed secondary to the end zone remains front and center.

"It’s like tackling a tree trunk," said Clemson safety Robert Smith.

Finding a way to corral that tree trunk will be Clemson’s top defensive priority Saturday, and it will need to be a team effort.

The strength of Clemson’s defense is its front seven, particularly along the line, and that showed, even during Gurley’s stellar performance a year ago.

Here is a breakdown of Georgia’s rushing performance in last year’s game:

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When the Tigers stacked the box and Georgia kept runs between the tackles, a few big plays developed but the Bulldogs’ overall success rate was way down. When Gurley and his cohorts bounced runs outside -- as he did on that 75-yard touchdown sprint -- things got ugly.

The interior of Clemson’s defense remains strong with Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and Stephone Anthony up the middle, but personnel changes in the secondary and a one-game suspension for defensive end Corey Crawford raise questions about the Tigers’ ability to seal the edges.

That has put an emphasis on fundamentals, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.

"We didn’t tackle great [last year], gave up too many explosive plays," Venables said. "I know our guys can hold up physically, but your secondary is going to have to tackle well in run support."

Of course, that is easier said than done against a runner like Gurley, whose combination of speed and power makes him tough to catch, let alone bring down.

"Just his combination of size, strength and speed," Jarrett said, "it’s second to none."

Venables likely has a few tricks up his sleeve for this year’s matchup. When Vic Beasley was pressed this week on how much he might work as a stand-up rusher or outside linebacker, he simply grinned.

The line has gotten stronger, too. Clemson’s front seven will feature six senior starters. It’s a unit that led the nation in tackles for loss a year ago.

The other advantage for Clemson this time around is that the Tigers know what’s coming. That can be a double-edged sword, Smith said, but his defense remains confident.

"You can’t let what he did last year affect you this year, but you know what he can do," Smith said. "He’s a tremendous running back. We saw up close and personal. We don’t forget. But we also can’t let that hinder what we’re going to do this season."

ACC's best backups: No. 1

July, 18, 2014
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Last season, Florida State won a national championship, while its leader in takeaways (Nate Andrews), yards per carry (Karlos Williams) and yards per touch (Kermit Whitfield) combined to start just one game. In the current landscape of college football, talent at the top is crucial, but depth is often what separates the best teams. With that in mind, we’re counting down the ACC’s best backups -- players who weren’t starters last year and aren't currently penciled in atop the depth chart but who could make a major impact in 2014.

No. 1: Shaq Lawson (Clemson, So./DE)

Career numbers: Lawson didn’t get a start as a true freshman at Clemson last season, but he did make an impact. The defensive end worked behind one of the ACC’s best in Vic Beasley, but he maintained a steady stream of production when he was on the field, racking up four sacks, 10 tackles for loss, nine QB pressures and one pass breakup. The four sacks tied a Clemson record for a true freshman, and Lawson was named a second-team Freshman All-American as a result.

Projected role in 2014: Not much has changed for Clemson’s defensive line, which should be a scary thought for the rest of the ACC. Both starting ends return, which means Lawson remains, at least nominally, a backup. Still, Clemson figures to lean heavily on its pass rush this season, and coordinator Brent Venables will rotate often. Last year, nine different Tigers D-linemen got at least 100 snaps, and Lawson figures to see an increase from the 337 he received, even if it’s just to spell Beasley and Corey Crawford.

Why he’ll make an impact: While Lawson ranked fifth on Clemson’s roster in TFLs, there are only seven other returning players in the ACC who had more in 2013. At 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, Lawson is big and bruising but can play quick. And for linemen who’ve spent the game battling Beasley and Crawford, Lawson won’t provide any relief. For Clemson, the pass rush can be deployed the way many teams use tailbacks -- one to wear down the opposition, then fresh legs enter to hit the home run. It’s also worth noting that the bulk of Clemson’s defensive line is in its final season, so getting Lawson and other young guys playing time will be crucial to maintaining consistency on the line into 2015.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney put out his summer depth chart Tuesday without many huge surprises, but there are some interesting tidbits to note:
  • Let's start with some of the offensive positions with the biggest question marks. With Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant gone, Clemson now has Mike Williams and Charone Peake penciled in as starters, alongside veteran Adam Humphries. Early enrollee freshmen Demarre Kitt, Artavis Scott and Kyrin Priester are all listed on the two-deep.
  • At running back, D.J. Howard is listed as the starter, but expect Zac Brooks, C.J. Davidson and Wayne Gallman all to get extended playing time this season. The Tigers could feature much more of a running back-by-committee approach.
  • Right tackle is the only offensive position without a clear-cut starter listed. Joe Gore and Shaq Anthony are competing for that starting job.
  • As expected, Cole Stoudt is listed as the starting quarterback. Freshman Deshaun Watson is the backup.
  • On defense, it's no surprise to see two young players atop the cornerback spot. Redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander had a terrific spring. He is listed as a starter, along with Cordrea Tankersley. Seniors Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins are listed as the backups. Alexander is the only freshman starter on offense or defense.
  • The biggest holes to fill are at linebacker, where Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey are gone. Tony Steward is listed ahead of Ben Boulware for the weakside spot Shuey played, while T.J. Burrell, Travis Blanks, Korrin Wiggins and Dorian O'Daniel are listed at strongside/nickel back.
  • Tavaris Barnes is pushing Corey Crawford for a starting defensive end spot. They are listed with "or" next to their names. The tackle spot opposite Grady Jarrett also remains unsettled, with a three-way competition ongoing among Josh Watson, DeShawn Williams and D.J. Reader. No matter who enters the starting lineup, defensive line is the most experienced position on the entire team. All nine players on the two-deep are lettermen who have played at least 200 snaps in their careers, playing in a combined 266 games with 91 starts.

Video: ACC defensive line analysis

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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Andrea Adelson takes a look at the ACC at defensive line, a position with only a few recognizable returning starters.

This is where Clemson fans can sit back and take solace in their program’s recent recruiting -- particularly on defense.

Clemson has suspended four players, the biggest loss being starting defensive end Corey Crawford, for the season opener at Georgia, but the Tigers’ defensive line is so deep that it should be a seamless transition from Crawford to Shaq Lawson, who was every bit as productive last season in his role off the bench. Clemson returns every starter on its defensive line and has six returning lettermen at defensive end and six at defensive tackle.

It’s a group that should be the strength of the team this season -- starting against Georgia.

[+] EnlargeCorey Crawford
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesLosing Corey Crawford to suspension in the season opener hurts, but Clemson has built a lot of defensive line depth.
The bigger concern for the Tigers would be their offensive line, as David Beasley, a part-time starter at left guard with Kalon Davis, was also suspended for the season opener. There was no guarantee Beasley was going to be the starter against Georgia, as several redshirt freshmen will compete for the job this spring, along with Reid Webster, who has played guard, tackle and center during his career.

With all the questions facing Clemson this offseason -- including finding a new starting quarterback and replacing its leading rusher and top two receivers from 2013 -- coach Dabo Swinney said his biggest concern heading into the start of spring practices on Wednesday is offensive tackle, where Shaq Anthony, one of the four suspended players, had three starts last season and was a candidate to be a full-time starter this fall.

“That’s the biggest concern on offense,” Swinney said. “... That’s the area of need. That’s the biggest need in our recruiting class for next year is tackle. We’re going to go out and sign at least three legit, great tackles because that’s where we need to get better. We’ve got to find some answers at tackle.”

Instead, they just lost one for the opener.

Still, none of the suspensions will affect these four players during the spring -- only in the week of preparation leading up to the season opener, when they’ll most likely be relegated to the scout team. Swinney said none of the players were arrested but would not say if they were all involved in the same violation of team rules.

While the offense continues to search for answers, Clemson’s defense is in the unusual position of taking the lead. Crawford is one of the defense’s most talented players, but Lawson is a more than capable backup. Last year he had 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, nine quarterback pressures and one pass breakup in 337 snaps over 13 games. His four sacks tied William Perry (1981) and Ricky Sapp (2006) for the most by a Clemson true freshman.

Cornerback Garry Peters, who has started five games in his career and was derailed by an injury last season, had four tackles and a team-high two pass breakups in 49 snaps against Georgia last season. He was expected to compete for the starting job this spring, but this could open the door for Mackensie Alexander, one of the most highly touted players in the Tigers’ 2013 signing class. He was rated as the No. 4 overall player in the nation by ESPN.com, the highest rating by a Tigers signee since Da'Quan Bowers was No. 1 in the class of 2008. He was also ranked as the No. 2 defensive back in the nation and No. 2 player in Florida by ESPN.com but redshirted last season after a preseason injury.

“A few years ago, we were awful on defense. We didn’t have any players and hadn’t recruited anybody, had awful defensive linemen and all that stuff,” Swinney said. “Now those same guys are all seniors and we’re the greatest thing ever. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t get caught up in all that. It just comes in cycles. You have everybody back on one side and holes in the next. That’s football. It makes it fun trying to put it all together, but I am excited about our defense, that’s for sure.”

Clemson fans should be too -- in spite of the recent suspensions.
Clemson has suspended starters Corey Crawford and David Beasley along with cornerback Garry Peters and offensive lineman Shaq Anthony for the season opener against Georgia for a team rules violation, coach Dabo Swinney announced Tuesday.

“A huge part of our program is teaching accountability, responsibility and that there are consequences for your actions," Swinney said. "These are four good young men, but they broke a team rule and as a result, they will each miss a game. I am hopeful that they will learn and grow from this and have a great 2014 season on and off the field."

For more, click here.
Florida State has had one of the best defensive fronts in the nation in the last two seasons, but the Seminoles will have a major challenger to that claim when 2014 rolls around.

Division rival Clemson has the potential to have one of the best defensive lines in school history, thanks to returning all of its starters -- including sack master Vic Beasley. So that leads us to this question: Which team will have the best defensive front in the ACC this upcoming season? Andrea Adelson and David Hale let the debate begin.

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Which team will have the best defensive line in the ACC in 2014?

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    58%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,741)

Andrea says Clemson

The moment Beasley decided to return to Clemson was the moment the Tigers became the favorite to field the best defensive line in the ACC next season.

Now, this is not to slight Florida State, which has dominated up front over the last two seasons. But the Seminoles have key players to replace again. Clemson, on the other hand, returns every starter on the defensive line, plus its top four backups. All told, eight linemen return who played at least 292 snaps a year ago.

Those top eight combined for 65 tackles for loss -- more than half the single-season school-record 122 tackles for loss Clemson had in 2013. They also combined for 26 of the team’s 38 sacks.

Beasley, of course, leads the returning group after making 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a season ago, one of the top performances of any defensive end in the country. Had he decided to leave for the NFL, Clemson would have still had plenty of talent returning.

But with him, the Tigers could potentially have the deepest, most talented group of defensive linemen at the school since the 1981 national championship team featured future NFL players Jeff Bryant, William Perry, Andy Headen and Dan Benish in the starting lineup.

Clemson could potentially go 10 deep along the defensive line, especially when you consider the return of Carlos Watkins, expected to be healthy after missing most of last season following a car accident. That means the Tigers have the ability to rotate frequently and keep players fresh, perhaps more than they did last season.

Fresh players mean fresh legs, and fresh legs mean getting into the backfield at a much better clip. Last season, Beasley, starting tackle Grady Jarrett (11), starting end Corey Crawford (10.5) and backup end Shaq Lawson each finished with 10 or more tackles for loss. Now think about some of the best defensive fronts in college football. Florida State has zero defensive linemen returning with double-digit tackles for loss. Alabama? Zero. LSU? Zero. Stanford? Zero. Virginia Tech? One. Michigan State? One. Ohio State? Two.

Clemson leads them all.

Such an experienced group, with the ability to get into the backfield and get after the quarterback, should only get better with another year under Brent Venables, who is entering his third season as defensive coordinator. As Beasley told colleague Heather Dinich after he announced his decision to return, “I feel like we can be the best in the country.”

And, yes, that means the defense could emerge as the strength of this team.

David says Florida State

The track record for Florida State’s defensive front speaks for itself. During the past three seasons, only Alabama has had more success defending the run than Florida State, which has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2011 season. Those Seminoles teams sent eight players from the front seven to the NFL -- and that number figures to increase by at least four this year -- yet the unit has seen little decline in production. With new personnel, a new scheme and new coaches last season, FSU’s first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown until the national championship game.

Of course, that’s all in the past, and 2014 comes with some significant questions for Florida State.

Throughout the three-year run of success for the FSU front seven, Christian Jones, Telvin Smith and Timmy Jernigan have been anchors. All are gone now, and that means some significant vacancies on the defensive front, both in terms of on-field talent and off-field leadership. It means there will be questions surrounding the unit for the next few months, but it doesn’t mean the Seminoles don’t have answers.

Of the projected two-deep in the front seven, FSU projects to feature as many as 12 former ESPN 300 recruits. The talent is exceptional.

Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman were both top-10 recruits in 2012, and both have two years of experience under their belts. Edwards, in particular, took big steps forward throughout 2013, turning in perhaps his best game against Auburn’s up-tempo ground attack in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

The linebacker group lacks significant experience, but Terrance Smith is a physical clone of Telvin Smith, and he performed admirably after stepping into a starting role last season. Matthew Thomas and Ukeme Eligwe are both former elite recruits who project nicely in the hybrid role Jones handled so successfully in 2013.

Kain Daub, Demarcus Christmas and Derrick Nnadi lead a stellar 2014 recruiting class that could make an instant impact.

That’s not to say Florida State is prepared to move forward without Jernigan’s presence up front or Telvin Smith’s leadership in the middle of the field without missing a beat. There will be hiccups as the new group gets its feet wet and Edwards and Goldman learn to be leaders. But similar concerns existed a year ago when Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine bolted for the NFL, and after some early missteps, Florida State again proved to be one of the fiercest defensive fronts in the country.

And, of course, the Seminoles have another weapon in this debate, too. No position group succeeds in a vacuum, and FSU’s front seven gets a major boost from a secondary that projects to again be the best in the nation. If the Seminoles’ defensive backs continue to make teams one-dimensional and continue to provide time for the pass rush to get to the quarterback, the odds of FSU’s front seven making a smooth transition into 2014 get even better.
This is going to take a little getting used to.

In 2014, Clemson’s defense is going to be the strength of the team. It's not Sammy Watkins. Not Tajh Boyd. Not Martavis Bryant. All household names who have to be replaced next season in the Tigers’ starting lineup.

[+] EnlargeBrent Venables
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson DC Brent Venables will have the benefit of seven returning starters on defense.
Welcome back, Vic Beasley.

Beasley’s decision on Wednesday to return for his senior season instead of leaving early for the NFL draft gives Clemson seven returning starters on defense, including all four starters up front on what should be one of the best defensive lines in the country. For years, Clemson’s offense has driven the program while the defense has been the much-maligned and often criticized group.

Expect that to change, starting this spring when a veteran defense takes the field well ahead of a rebuilding offense that will return just five starters. With Watkins and Bryant leaving early for the NFL draft, Clemson finally scored a victory when Beasley -- a projected second-round draft pick at defensive end -- decided to stay.

Clemson’s defense made significant strides this past season, its second under coordinator Brent Venables, and 2014 should be even better. It all starts up front with Beasley, who led the ACC in sacks with 13, finished second in tackles for loss with 23 and had four forced fumbles -- all in his first season as a full-time starter. He played just 304 snaps over his first two seasons but enters his final season with 21 career sacks and is just eight shy of breaking the school record of 28 held by Michael Dean Perry and Gaines Adams.

It’s not just Beasley, though, who will make Clemson’s defense so strong this fall. The defensive line is a deep and talented group that also includes senior Corey Crawford at the other end position and returning starter Grady Jarrett, a defensive tackle who will be a redshirt senior. Three other players -- Josh Watson, D.J. Reader and DeShawn Williams -- rotated at the other tackle spot and will all return. In addition, two players who redshirted last season because of injuries -- defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and defensive end Kevin Dodd -- will also return.

And don’t forget about Shaq Lawson, who had 10 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2013 as Beasley’s backup.

Meanwhile, Clemson's offense has to replace its starting quarterback, its leading receiver and its top running back.

The good news?

It doesn’t have to replace Beasley, too.

Clemson’s defense has finally overshadowed its offense. Get used to it.
Clemson received some good news Wednesday when linebacker Stephone Anthony and defensive end Corey Crawford announced they would return to school for their senior seasons.

There is still no word, however, on whether defensive end Vic Beasley will make the jump to the NFL.

Anthony led the Tigers with 131 total tackles, the most tackles by a Clemson player since Leroy Hill had 145 in 2003. Anthony also ranked second on the team in tackles for loss with 13.5 and added four sacks and an interception.

Crawford finished the season with 52 tackles, including 10.5 for loss. He also led the team in quarterback pressures with 16 and added three sacks and four passes deflected.

Clemson previously announced receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant and cornerback Bashaud Breeland would leave school early to turn pro.

Clemson remains in BCS contention

November, 14, 2013
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While Florida State has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, division rival Clemson has gone about its business without much fanfare or attention. You could even say the preseason favorites in the ACC have all of a sudden become an under-the-radar team.

But the spotlight will be shining on Clemson starting Thursday night against Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2), as the Tigers (8-1, 6-1) try to remain in contention for an at-large BCS bid. Their final two FBS games of the season are high on the difficulty scale. The Jackets have historically given the Tigers all sorts of problems. Then the regular-season finale against bitter rival South Carolina could potentially give Clemson its third top-10 matchup this season.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson coach Dabo Swinney said his team must stay focused in order to win out and play in a BCS bowl game.
There is little doubt Clemson is in good position to get a BCS berth, sitting at No. 8 in the latest BCS standings. If Florida State ends up playing for a national championship and Clemson finishes with at least 10 wins, the Tigers would be a prohibitive favorite to get an at-large spot in the Orange Bowl. Several projections have Oregon as their opponent, which would create one of the more intriguing BCS matchups of the season.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney would disapprove of all the look-ahead talk, but everybody inside the program knows what is at stake with a strong finish to the season. Keep in mind the Tigers have been ranked in the top 10 for 12 straight polls, the longest streak in Clemson history. It is currently the fourth-longest streak in the FBS, behind Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State.

"There’s a lot of opportunity for this team," Swinney said in a recent phone interview. "There has never been a team in the history of this school to start in the top 10 and stay in the top 10 all year. There’s so much for them to focus on and things that they control. When it’s all said and done, you look up and we’ll see where the cards fall. We’ve got a chance to have one of the best seasons in the history of this school if we can stay focused and continue to win."

Clemson deserves credit for staying focused after an embarrassing 51-14 home loss to Florida State, a loss that essentially flipped the scripts for the Tigers and the Noles. Florida State went on to clinch a spot in the ACC championship game. Clemson was left to pick up the pieces, knowing full well its ACC and national championship hopes were all but over with five regular-season games left to play.

But Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford said he and his teammates refused to let that one loss define their season. As a point of reference, he mentions the 2011 season and Clemson's game against these very Jackets. The Tigers went into that game unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country. They proceeded to lose 31-17, then dropped three of their final five games, including a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl.

When it's all said and done, you look up and we'll see where the cards fall. We've got a chance to have one of the best seasons in the history of this school if we can stay focused and continue to win.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on the Tigers finishing the season.
"We don’t want to go back down that route," Crawford said. "We want to stay focused, get ready for Georgia Tech, and not think about anything else. I feel what happened with us in 2011, we were the big dogs, we were unstoppable and whatnot, but now we realize everybody that plays us wants to get a piece of Clemson and wants to take Clemson down, especially in the ACC since we became one of the big, prominent teams. We’re going to get everyone’s best and we’re going to have to come out and give our best and just play ball."

Clemson might ultimately be judged on its performances against Florida State and South Carolina when the 2013 season comes to a close. But there really is plenty at stake. Not only is there BCS talk, but the Tigers also have a chance to post three straight 10-win seasons for the first time since a four-year streak from 1987-90.

"There’s only going to be one team that wins the national championship, but ultimately, you want to be the best you can be every year," Swinney said. "That’s the mentality we have on and off the field. We can’t be 12-0, but hey, what are we going to end up? Can we be 11-1? Can we be 10-2? Is it 9-3? What’s our best? I don’t know. But every opportunity we have to play, we have to put our best foot forward. There’s been a lot of consistency with these guys, and the only reason we’ve been able to have that type of consistency is because of that mentality that these guys have. I'm proud of the guys for how they've responded."

Clemson defense makes its own name

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
11:00
AM ET

CLEMSON, S.C. -- There is a new celebrity walking around the Clemson campus. His name is not Tajh or Sammy, though.

His name is Vic.

Racking up sack after sack on a much improved defense has made defensive end Vic Beasley one of the most recognizable players around town, earning hellos and handshakes at a clip that has surprised Beasley.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIDE Vic Beasley bypassed the NFL draft this year to return to Clemson to get his degree and improve his draft stock.
Indeed, the biggest development in this Clemson season to date has been the way the defense has ripped headlines away from the high-powered offense and made its own name. Simply put, the Tigers D cannot be called the weak link any longer.

Not when you consider what has happened through the first six games of the season:
  • Beasley leads the nation in sacks with nine and was the only Clemson player on the ESPN.com midseason All-American team. That’s right. The lone Clemson rep came from its defense.
  • The defense has held five consecutive opponents to 14 points or fewer, the first time that has happened since 1989.
  • Clemson ranks No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, higher than its scoring offense (No. 17). The last time Clemson finished a season in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense was 2007.
  • The Tigers rank in the top 25 in 13 statistical defensive categories.

“We came in with a big chip on our shoulder,” Beasley said. “A lot of people were doubting us and said we weren’t going to be the strength of this team, but I feel like we’ve become the strength of the team. No knock on our offense. I want our offense to be great too, but I feel like we’re making a statement to be the best in the country.”

In January 2012, coach Dabo Swinney fired Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator after a miserable 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. A performance like that would never happen again, not under his watch. Clemson had no problem playing top dollar for its assistants, and Swinney wasted no time targeting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

In 13 seasons with the Sooners, Venables had his group ranked in the top 20 in total defense eight times. When he looked at what he would have to work with at Clemson, he knew he could mold this group into an elite unit. Almost presciently, Venables said in the spring, “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t feel this was a place you could win every game and recruit the best players in the country.”

He talked at length about what makes a good defense, saying the best teams he has ever been associated with were player driven, bonded with a unique chemistry, a special focus and a willingness to work.

This Clemson group has all those qualities. Last week, Venables discussed the brotherhood that has developed among his players, how hard they are working and how his players just love to play. Period.

“There’s a freshness about that. It’s not like it’s pulling teeth to go to practice,” Venables said. “Guys practice well; they’re around the office a lot on their own. They’re a prideful group. We don’t spend a lot of time perpetuating anything that’s negative. Whether you start over every week, or every day or every year, to me I’m not big at living in the past, good or bad. We’ve got a group of guys that are easy to inspire, that they like to play and they respect each other. They’re high effort kind of guys.”

Seeking a new identity as a strength on the team has been a source of motivation and inspiration. Every player on this Clemson defense knows what was said after the Orange Bowl, a game that lingers still today. Like their coach, they never want to go through that again.

They rededicated themselves in the offseason, intent on becoming a more physical team that would never be outworked. So far, Clemson has demonstrated that physicality. Its front seven has done a terrific job, thanks to improved depth and the play of Beasley and fellow end Corey Crawford.

Venables said nobody has improved more than Crawford and linebacker Stephone Anthony, now starting in the middle. He described them both as playing on a different planet. The secondary has also made strides from a year ago, thanks to contributions from several freshmen and a group of veterans that has been able to stay healthy.

What’s more, these players are now in Year 2 under Venables, so improvement was expected. You can see that when comparing the defensive stats over the first six weeks of last season to the first six weeks of this season. Clemson is giving up an average of 11 fewer points and 110 fewer yards per game.

“Last year at this time, we were very inconsistent from an execution standpoint and just doing all the little things that we needed to do,” Swinney said. “But that's been the biggest improvement. Guys are where they are supposed to be and have a good feel playing with high energy, and we are just much more experienced on that side of the ball than we've been in a while.”

It has not all been perfect for Clemson. The Tigers gave up more than 200 yards rushing to Georgia and more than 300 yards rushing to Syracuse. They have given up too many big plays -- 26 for 20 or more yards (15 pass, 11 run). They are still thin on depth at linebacker and in the secondary.

But they are better. The goal is to keep on this upward trend. This is only a start.

“We feel like we’ve earned some respect over the course of these last couple of weeks,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We know we’re not perfect and we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re playing pretty good, but we can be a lot better. We’re working to be the best we can be.”

Then more recognition is sure to follow.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson defensive end Corey Crawford said he and his teammates on the defensive line wanted to send a message in last weekend’s 38-35 win over Georgia:

“We’re not a soft front,” he said. “I know last year we probably had a couple of games that made it look like that, but this year we’re taking it upon ourselves to let people know we’re not soft. We’re a physical front.”

And they looked like it in the season opener.

The Tigers sacked Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray four times, intercepted him once, forced three fumbles and recovered one, disrupted the passing game, and made plenty of athletic plays. After what was something of a slow start for both defenses -- with a halftime start of 21-21 the game quickly lived up to the billing of a shootout -- Clemson got a much-needed statement performance from its defensive line.

[+] EnlargeBrent Venables
Doug Buffington/Icon SMIClemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said he was pleased with his front line against a tough Georgia offense.
“Our guys up front won the game for us,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “At the end of the day, they were disruptive enough. They had a couple of long runs, it was really the second level -- those guys did a fabulous job of making the running backs stop and start all night. Even when Murray was not sacked, they were disruptive enough at some key times when he threw some errant balls. I just think those guys came out and played at a really high level. They took to the challenge well and responded, and to me that was the difference in the game.”

Clemson’s defense has been its biggest question mark since the Tigers were blown out 70-33 by West Virginia in the 2011 Orange Bowl. (Yes, it’s been that long.) As Clemson has improved, though, skeptics have continued to wonder if the program has an elite defense to match its record-setting offense. One of the biggest factors that has separated Florida State and Clemson, as the two tangle for the lead in the Atlantic Division, has been the superiority of Florida State’s defense, particularly up front.

With the Noles having new starters on their defensive line and Clemson’s performance on Saturday, might the gap be closing this year? The Tigers’ performance last weekend was hardly flawless -- Georgia racked up 545 yards of total offense, averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored five rushing touchdowns. Coach Dabo Swinney said there were still some communication issues and a few mental errors on the backside -- but it was a second-straight win against an SEC opponent in which the defense was a highlight.

“I thought our front played outstanding the whole game,” Swinney said. “I was really, really pleased with how our defensive line played. I thought outside of just a few critical mistakes, our backers played very well. We had a couple mistakes. On the big long touchdown we just overran it, and that was really -- even most of the big plays, none of them were really on our defensive line. I just thought they did an outstanding job, very consistent for four quarters, backers were solid.

“We had a few big plays and some things that we've got to fix, but it's a good start. Not anywhere near what we want to be, but a very good start for our defense.”

Vic Beasley led the team with two sacks, and Georgia was just 4-of-14 on third-down conversions.

“I felt like Georgia just came into the game thinking our D-line wasn’t a physical D-line, like we weren’t a line they played against all the time,” said Crawford, who had the lone interception of the game. “As the game went on, we just kept pounding and pounding them and they kept getting tired and we weren’t. We made a statement we’re not a soft D-line.”

Boyd plays 'Superman' against UGA

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
3:35
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- About two hours before kickoff on Saturday evening, hordes of Clemson fans lined Centennial Boulevard, shoulder-to-shoulder in the blazing heat, to watch the players and coaches make their celebratory “Tiger Walk” from the busses into Memorial Stadium.

“I can’t wait to see him,” whispered Tyler Englehart, an awestruck freshman, to nobody in particular.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd stood tall against Georgia, accounting for all five of Clemson's touchdowns.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, wearing a dark suit and a purple bowtie, was one of the last players to stroll down the line, and the crowd seemed to grow louder with every step he took. Boyd called the atmosphere “surreal,” but it paled in comparison to the show he put on in the historic 38-35 win over No. 5 Georgia. Boyd was on, even when his receivers were off. He ran with the strength of a fullback and took hit after hit. He was responsible for all five of his team’s touchdowns -- three passing and two rushing.

“Tajh is our Superman,” running back Roderick McDowell said.

“Tajh is the best football player on this team, in this conference, in the nation,” added defensive end Corey Crawford.

Perhaps the most awestruck fans of Boyd are the ones who practice with him every day.

Clemson’s win over Georgia legitimized the Tigers as a national title contender, and further boosted Boyd’s résumé as a Heisman hopeful. He finished with 312 yards of total offense, a school record for a season opener, and now has 22 wins as a starter -- tied for fourth most in school history. For just the third time in his career, Boyd finished with multiple rushing touchdowns. He also helped deliver one of the biggest wins in school history on the biggest stage.

“His leadership and how he brought us together at the end of the game, we thrived off him,” wide receiver Sammy Watkins said. “With him getting first downs, and him getting the ball out of his hands on the edge, and us blocking, he made us good tonight.”

That’s exactly why Boyd came back, instead of leaving early for the NFL.

He came back to run down The Hill before what was the largest, most raucous home crowd he had ever seen.

He came back to experience the “surreal” moment of walking through a horde of fans in the team’s pregame “Tiger Walk.”

He came back to compete for a national title.

“He’s a baller,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “There’s no question about what Tajh Boyd means to this program, to this university and to college football. To go against the opponents he’s gone against the last two games and two control the games in a manner in which he did, it says a lot about him.”

Neither team’s defense played particularly well early in the game, and Clemson was outgained in total yardage, but Boyd made more clutch plays and was able to stay on his feet while Georgia’s Aaron Murray was sacked four times. This game was billed as featuring two of the best quarterbacks in the country. It did, but Murray had a fumble and an interception, both in the second quarter. His critics will likely continue to point to his 3-11 record against teams that have finished in the Associated Press Top 25.

Meanwhile, Boyd has now led Clemson to back-to-back wins against SEC teams.

“He played like a veteran quarterback is supposed to play,” Morris said. “We had a couple of drops tonight, and they very well could have led to some more scores. He never rattled, he never shoot, and his ability to run the football tonight made us successful.”

Boyd’s 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave Clemson the early 7-0 lead, and his 77-yard pass later in the quarter to Watkins put the Tigers up 14-7. Boyd always seemed to find an answer in what was a thrilling, electric, back-and-forth game that lived up to every bit of the hype. In the third quarter, he found Zac Brooks for a 31-yard touchdown pass, and threw the game winner to Stanton Seckinger in the fourth quarter.

“I think it turned a lot of heads in the college football world,” Boyd said of the win. “It was a very monumental win for the university and program and conference in general. All that good stuff is great, but we have to keep working to keep and keep our eyes on the prize. This is only the opener. We have 11 games left. We have to continue to keep working.”

Clemson fans had to wait to see Boyd in the Tiger Walk, but he didn’t waste any time making his statement against Georgia.

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