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Developing depth key for Clemson defense

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The biggest questions on Clemson’s roster this spring revolved around the players who left, but as head coach Dabo Swinney analyzes the new starters stepping in on defense, he’s not exactly in panic mode.

"I think to the naked eye, our first group, people aren’t going to notice a lot of difference in Clemson’s defense," Swinney said.

That might sound like blasphemy given the production of Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and the rest of the graduating seniors who helped Clemson finish as the nation’s top-ranked defense in 2014, but Swinney said this spring showed just how much depth there had been on last year’s roster. Shaq Lawson is a burgeoning star at defensive end, D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins will be a force up the middle, and the secondary has a chance to be among the best in the nation, he said.

Where the questions begin, Swinney said, is the names on the depth chart beyond the starters -- and that’s a big difference from the endless string of talent the Tigers had at their disposal in 2014.

"We’re very young in our depth," Swinney said. "Very talented, but very young. Last year, we just rolled guys and wore people down. We were so deep with experience, and that’s the biggest difference."

The spring did offers some optimism, however.

Perhaps the thinnest spot on the roster is at defensive end. Lawson returns having racked up 21.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons, and Kevin Dodd has plenty of experience on the opposite side. But the star of the spring might have been Ebenezer Ogundeko, a one-time ESPN 150 recruit who has seen just 16 snaps of game action in the past two seasons.

"The biggest thing is that he’s playing so much faster than he did, and a lot of that just comes from increased opportunity," Swinney said. "He’s just so excited to finally get his chance."

Still, Swinney admits he doesn’t have another option he’s comfortable with at the position now, which could put some pressure on three incoming freshmen to make quick strides this summer.

But what’s lacking up front from years past might be offset by some serious strides in the secondary. Swinney called his three primary safeties -- Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green and Jadar Johnson -- perhaps the best in the country.

Kearse, in particular, appears poised for a breakout campaign. He has worked all over the secondary this spring, and his versatility matched with a 6-foot-4 frame makes him a unique weapon.

"When he and [6-foot-3] T.J. Green are back there together, that’s a scary thing for wideouts and quarterbacks," Swinney said. "That’s two rangy guys that you better know where they are at all times."

Some questions remain at cornerback opposite Mackensie Alexander, but Swinney said sophomore Cordrea Tankersley made impressive strides this spring after a noticeably rocky freshman campaign.

"I thought he separated a little bit [this spring]," Swinney said, noting that it’s still an open competition for the starting role. "He’s a really good player, and he can flat out fly. He’s probably our fastest guy in the secondary. And his confidence is probably at an all-time high right now."

Last season, Alexander, Green, Kearse and Tankersley were all rookies in the secondary, and that’s perhaps the biggest reason for optimism this time around, Swinney said. If there’s a need to build depth up front, the secondary offers a wealth of riches.

And, of course, there is still time to find a few more answers in positions of need this summer.

"It’s up to them this summer to transform and come back better in August," Swinney said. "And I think once we get through [fall] camp we’ll have some redshirt freshmen and sophomores that will be ready to be good depth guys for us."