ACC: Shaq Lawson

ACC's best backups: No. 1

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
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.
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Up next: Defensive line.

Best of the best: Clemson

The Tigers are stacked on the defensive line, returning all four starters plus their top four backups from a season ago. Easy to see why Clemson gets the nod over the Seminoles -- sheer experience alone. Clemson has the best returning lineman in the league -- and one of the best in the nation -- in Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss a year ago. His backup, Shaq Lawson, had 10 tackles for loss. That is more than anybody Florida State returns. So not only does Clemson have a group that is active behind the line, it has good depth, too, which should keep everybody fresh and make for one of the best line rotations in the country. If this group can live up to expectations, the Tigers have a chance to be one of the best groups in the entire country.

Next up: Florida State

If there is one constant in the ACC, it is a rock solid, dominant defensive line at Florida State. Five defensive linemen have been drafted over the past two years and another, Mario Edwards Jr., is rated as a top 5 defensive end among all underclassmen. There is no doubt the Seminoles are talented once again, but they do need to rebuild some depth across the entire line and may even rely on more linebackers to help out with the pass rush in 2014. Freshmen also will factor into the mix, as the Seminoles signed seven defensive linemen to help make up for some of the losses. Players such as Edwards, Eddie Goldman and Chris Casher are set to be the standouts on this group, but the Noles will need some unproven players to step up to keep the championship-level quality of the defensive line going.

Possible sleeper: Virginia

The Hoos have to replace two starters, but there is growing expectation for the line to be improved over a year ago. Eli Harold returns at defensive end after racking up 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss a year ago, and has received early consideration as a potential All-ACC candidate. Mike Moore, slated to start at the other end position, was one of the defense's most improved players during the spring. Then, of course, there is incoming true freshman Andrew Brown, one of the top-rated players in the class of 2014 with an opportunity to make an immediate impact at tackle. Brown enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Though he battled through a bit of an injury, he is still in the mix to win a starting job.

Problem for a contender: North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have to rebuild along the front again, after losing starters Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson. Martin leaves behind the gaping hole, after racking up 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, along with 14 hurries a year ago. Even with Martin getting into the backfield, North Carolina ranked last in rushing defense, so there is no doubt this group has to make major improvements up front. Among the ends, only Junior Gnonkonde returns as a consistent contributor, with Jessie Rogers and redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon in the mix. There is more depth at tackle than at end, though, so North Carolina will no doubt be growing up its ends in a hurry to make up for Martin's departure.

Previous previews:

Second-year stars: Clemson

May, 2, 2014
May 2
The 2013 signing class has already made its mark on the ACC, from Tyler Boyd and Stacy Coley shining on offense to Jalen Ramsey and Kendall Fuller starring on defense to Ryan Switzer racking up All-America honors on special teams. But for most players, the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference — the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen, but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

Next up: Clemson

Class recap: The Tigers inked the country’s 13th-best class in 2013 and the second-best in the ACC, according to ESPN’s rankings, with 15 four- and five-star players. Several standouts, including Shaq Lawson, Jayron Kearse, Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett, earned regular playing time as true freshmen last year.

Second-year star: CB Mackensie Alexander

Recruiting stock: Alexander was the No. 2 cornerback and the No. 4 overall prospect in the country coming out of high school and was Clemson’s top signee in 2013.

2013 in review: The expectations were high for Alexander entering the year, but his debut was delayed early on when he suffered a groin injury in fall camp. By the time he was ready to return to action, a redshirt was waiting.

2014 potential: Much has been made of Clemson’s ferocious defensive line, but the secondary should be improved in 2014, too. Still, there are questions at corner with Bashaud Breeland off to the NFL and Garry Peters suspended for the opener against Georgia. That meant an opportunity for a healthy Alexander to showcase his skills this spring, and coordinator Brent Venables came away impressed. Alexander figures to have the inside track on starting the opener, and he could easily secure the job for good with an impressive fall camp. And with a pass rush that projects as one of the best in the country, the rewards for Clemson’s secondary could be rich.

Also watch for: There’s ample depth in Clemson’s backfield at the moment, and coaches haven’t given much indication of who’ll get the lion’s share of the carries, but redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman has earned raves. Swinney said he nearly lifted Gallman’s redshirt last year in a pinch, but he’s eager to see what the 6-1, 200-pounder can do in 2014.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.

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, 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 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.
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.


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


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.

ACC's lunchtime links

October, 15, 2013
That makes you feel pretty dumb, doesn't it? This thing is literally 360 times more powerful than you. Look at you. You're worthless.

ACC's lunchtime links

September, 27, 2013
Been saying it since the summer: Virginia Tech is a contender.

Clemson tackles misperceptions

September, 24, 2013
Clemson has had to fight a two-fisted assault on its reputation early on this season, thanks to common misperceptions its critics have hung on to like a favorite pair of worn shoes.

They may seem comfy and familiar, but at this point they no longer fit. It may indeed be time to toss those old knocks -- and old shoes -- to the curb.

The first, of course, is that Clemson has a habit of falling to weaker competition. The other is that Clemson can only win with offense.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Shuey
AP Photo/Karl B DeBlakerLB Spencer Shuey is one of many reasons the Clemson defense is much improved this season.
We saw differently last week in Raleigh. Yes, No. 3 Clemson faltered against NC State last Thursday night. But the Tigers answered questions about their resiliency, growth and maturity. Plenty went wrong for a majority of the game. Where other Clemson teams may have lost, this one found a way to win, 26-14.

It is worth noting that just about every team on the road to a national championship plays an imperfect game. Alabama lost a game in both 2011 and 2012. Undefeated Auburn needed overtime to beat the Clemson in 2010, and nearly lost to Alabama at the end of the season. Alabama needed a blocked field goal against Tennessee in 2009 to keep its perfect season alive. You get the point.

Teams sometimes play ugly games. Sometimes it happens against overmatched opponents. Tennessee, for example, was 3-3 when it nearly upset Alabama. As it stands, Clemson has won 11 straight games to unranked opponents by double digits dating to 2011. Only Alabama has a longer streak, with 21 in a row. Its only losses in the last 16 games are to top 10 Florida State and South Carolina.

It is hard to argue with those facts when they are presented so plainly. I can say lesson learned, too.

But what stood out about that NC State game goes back to misperception No. 2. Clemson is not all about tons of points and offensive gimmicks. In fact, the Tigers are not yet producing at the same levels offensively as they have the last two years.

Where they have made strides this season is on defense. That group allowed Clemson to win the NC State game. Again, that is something that may not have been said about this team two years ago. Seeing a trend here?

Clemson has been extremely strong up front. Just look at a few stats to see just how strong:

  • The Tigers have 12 sacks in three games, the most over the first three games of the season since 1999 when Tommy Bowden’s team also had 12. They are tied for fourth in the nation, averaging four sacks per game.
  • Vic Beasley leads the ACC with five sacks, second in the nation. He had three against NC State, including a critical forced fumble that changed momentum for the Tigers. In all, Clemson had five sacks, 10 tackles for loss, an interception, and forced fumble against the Wolfpack.
  • The numbers against Georgia are similar. Clemson had four sacks, one interception and forced three fumbles, recovering one. Without that type of defensive effort, Clemson may have very well lost that game, too.

Depth has been a huge reason for the success. Clemson is solid at every position along the line, and has gotten major contributions from freshman Shaq Lawson, who had his first career sack and three tackles for loss last week. He is the first true freshman defensive lineman to record three tackles for loss in a game since Da'Quan Bowers in 2008.

Beasley says Clemson has more depth on the line than at any point in his Clemson career. He also knows how good the line can be throughout the course of the season.

“We’ve gotta make plays. We've gotta be the strength of the defense,” Beasley said. “That's what gets us motivated and wanting to make plays out there.”

The linebackers have also been stronger than a year ago, with Spencer Shuey playing outside and Stephone Anthony in the middle forming a pretty terrific duo. Both have been named ACC Linebacker of the Week this year. Anthony won his honor this week, after racking up 16 tackles against NC State. Shuey recovered the critical fumble Beasley forced in the game and was selected the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd said after the game that was "probably the best defensive performance that I’ve seen here in a while."

Boyd would know. Now, if Clemson continues to pair a strong defense with its already strong offense, perhaps all the misconceptions will crumble once and for all.