NCF Nation: Grady Jarrett

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
9:00
AM ET
Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com All-ACC team:

Offense

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: Whenever FSU was in trouble, Greene was there to save the day. He made big catch after big catch, took big hit after big hit, and ended the season with 93 catches for 1,306 yards, helping him break both FSU's records for receptions and receiving yards.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: The senior caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns, the latter two numbers among the top 10 in the ACC. Oh, did we mention he missed the first seven games?

TE Clive Walford, Miami: Was there a more complete tight end in the country? The numbers say there might not be: 44 catches (third nationally), 676 yards (third), 7 TDs (third nationally). Walford did this all with a true freshman QB, too.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: Erving repeated as the ACC's blocking trophy winner, moving from left tackle to center in Game No. 10 this season and staying there, further showing his value to a unit that had dealt with interior injuries but came on strong late to help running back Dalvin Cook bloom into one of the country's finest freshmen.

OT T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh: Clemmings ought to get at least a piece of James Conner's player of the year trophy. The converted defensive end was among the nation's most improved players, starting every game for the second season in a row while using his athleticism to ace a position switch he had resisted earlier in his career.

C Andy Gallik, Boston College: BC lost a Heisman finalist at running back and actually improved its rushing totals this season. A dual-threat QB explains part of that, but so, too, does a powerful offensive line, led by Gallik in the middle, who helped pave the way for the league's No. 2 rushing attack.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: The only ACC team that rushed for more than BC? The only one that kept its QB unscathed more than Duke? The Yellow Jackets are the answer to both, with Mason captaining an oft-overlooked unit that was absolutely integral to the program's resurgence this season while running its famed triple-option attack.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The future pro turned in his best season yet, helping a Blue Devils offensive line that anchored a balanced offensive attack and kept QB Anthony Boone upright all season long, as Duke surrendered just 13 sacks, tied for 11th-best nationally.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The reigning Heisman winner was not as sharp as last season, but he once again put up big numbers (3,559 yards, 24 TDs) while leading FSU to another perfect mark. Winston is 26-0 for his career as a starter. You simply cannot beat that.

RB James Conner, Pitt: The ACC player of the year rewrote the Pitt record books -- no easy feat for a place that boasts names like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy. Conner rushed for 1,675 yards and 24 TDs, responding to each defense's best shot game after game.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Like Conner, Johnson set himself above his peers at a program that has produced plenty of great running backs. Coming off an injury-shortened 2013 season, the junior ran for 1,520 yards and 13 TDs, becoming Miami's all-time leading rusher and its career leader in all-purpose yards.

Defense

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: The ACC's defensive player of the year has seen his decision to return for his senior season pay off, as Beasley led the ACC in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5) while making Clemson's defense the top-ranked unit nationally.

DT Eddie Goldman, Florida State: Who can forget Goldman forcing a Clemson fumble late to keep FSU's perfect season alive? The junior was in the right place at the right time often, a versatile threat who moved back inside this season after playing end. He dominated the line of scrimmage, and one just needs to look at how FSU fared without Goldman -- giving up 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech as he went down early -- to see his value.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: Ends might get all the stats and glory, but Jarrett's impact on offenses might have been as big as Beasley's, as he helped form arguably the top defensive line in the country. Jarrett had 6.5 TFLs and 11 QB hurries, freeing up those around him and making running the ball next to impossible down the stretch for opponents.

LB David Helton, Duke: The senior led the ACC in tackles (125) and ranked 11th nationally. Helton helped Duke overcome the preseason loss of linebacker Kelby Brown and led a unit that continued its ascension under coordinator Jim Knowles, finishing fifth in the ACC in scoring average (20.6 ppg), and 20th nationally.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: A step-up in competition for Mauldin and the Cardinals meant even better results, as the hybrid notched a career-best 45 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss (13), while notching 6.5 sacks. Louisville's defense was one of the most surprising units in the country this season in its first year under coordinator Todd Grantham, ranking No. 6 nationally.

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: The leading tackler (73) on the nation's top defense, Anthony impacted games in a number of ways for the Tigers, making 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while forcing two fumbles and picking off one pass.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: The senior led the Hurricanes in virtually ever major category: Tackles (102), TFLs (8.5) and forced fumbles (3) among them. He validated his decision to return after last season, recording yet another 100-tackle season and making his case as perhaps the top linebacker in the ACC.

S Gerod Holliman, Louisville: Fourteen interceptions. Fourteen! What more needs to be said? Holliman broke the ACC record and tied the NCAA mark. He had four multi-pick games, including a three-pick performance at BC. And he did this all after transitioning from corner to safety under Grantham's tutelage.

S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: The sophomore made big play after big play, giving FSU's D an edge at the star position. He clinched the Miami game with a late pick and had two on the season to go with two forced fumbles, 11 break-ups, 13 passes defended and 9.5 TFLs. He blocked a kick, too.

CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: The last in line of the storied Fuller family to come through Blacksburg, the sophomore showed plenty of the same NFL promise that has guided his older brothers. One of only a handful of Hokies to start every game, Fuller finished second in the ACC in passes defended (15), recorded 4.5 TFLs and recovered one fumble.

CB Garry Peters, Clemson: As overlooked as one can be on a defense loaded with stars, Peters quietly executed his job to a T, picking off one pass, breaking up 11 and defending 12. He forced a fumble and managed eight TFLs as well on a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally.

Special teams

K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State: Just another year at the office for Aguayo: 25-of-27 on field-goal attempts, perfect on extra points and a number of crucial kicks, which wasn't always required last year when he first stepped into the national spotlight. Aguayo is a whopping 46-of-49 for his career on field-goal attempts.

P Will Monday, Duke: Monday averaged 43.4 yards per punt, with 12 of his boots going for 50 or more yards. Eight of his punts were touchbacks, 19 were fair caught and 17 were inside the 20-yard line.

KR DeVon Edwards, Duke: Edwards averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, including a 99-yard touchdown in a high-scoring affair at Pitt, which the Blue Devils ended up winning in OT.

AP Tyler Boyd, Pitt: Boyd was a jack-of-all trades for Pitt, catching 69 passes for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns. He was also the ACC's top punt returner, averaging 10.8 yards per return, which ranked 15th nationally.
The ACC announced its 2014 all-conference selections Monday, with a handful of noteworthy winners and snubs.

Florida State once again led the way with 17 players named, including 10 named first-team All-ACC. Duke had nine players named, Virginia had eight, and Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech had seven.

The most noteworthy first-team selection was FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, who has led the Seminoles to a second straight undefeated season, but also leads the league in interceptions. The battle for the top spot at quarterback was particularly close, with UNC's Marquise Williams (second team), Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas (third team), Miami's Brad Kaaya, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and NC State's Jacoby Brissett all having strong seasons, too.

Here's the first-team All-ACC selections:

QB: Jameis Winston (FSU)
WR: Rashad Greene (FSU)
WR: Jamison Crowder (Duke)
WR: Tyler Boyd (Pitt)
RB: Duke Johnson (Miami)
RB: James Conner (Pitt)
C: Andy Gallik (Boston College)
G: Laken Tomlinson (Duke)
G: Tre Jackson (FSU)
T: T.J. Clemmings (Pitt)
T: Cameron Erving (FSU)

DE: Vic Beasley (Clemson)
DE: Mario Edwards Jr. (FSU)
DT: Eddie Goldman (FSU)
DT: Grady Jarrett (Clemson)
LB: Denzel Perryman (Miami)
LB: David Helton (Duke)
LB: Stephone Anthony (Clemson)
CB: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)
CB: P.J. Williams (FSU)
S: Jalen Ramsey (FSU)
S: Gerod Holliman (Louisville)

K: Roberto Aguayo (FSU)
P: Wil Baumann (NC State)
Ret: Jamison Crowder (Duke)

To see the full roster, click here.

Among the biggest snubs in the ACC:

Miami tight end Clive Walford is a Mackey Award finalist and has more yards, touchdowns and first downs and caught a higher percentage of his targets than fellow Mackey Finalist, Nick O'Leary. Still, O'Leary was named to the first team.

Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker was a third-team selection thanks to missing the first seven games of the season, but he ranks seventh in the league in yards in spite of just playing five games.

NC State's Shadrach Thornton is third among running backs in yards (811) but was not named to any of the All-ACC teams.

BC's Josh Keyes has 11 tackles for loss — good for 12th in the conference — but was not one of the 10 linebackers named to All-ACC teams.

Wake Forest's Marquel Lee ranks 10th in the league with 12 TFLs and ninth in tackles with 101 but did not even earn an honorable mention.

Georgia Tech's Shaq Mason has anchored one of the best offensive lines in the country, helping pave the way for the nation's No. 4 rushing offense, but he was not a first-team selection.
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."

Grady Jarrett overlooked no more

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
9:00
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Grady Jarrett's looks are deceiving. He’s a squat 6-foot-1 and, on most days, he’s pushing 300 pounds so that when pads and a helmet supplement his physique, he looks about as wide as he is tall, the type of interior lineman opposing rushers need a road map to find their way around.

But it’s an optical illusion. Strip away the pads and the jersey and there is a chiseled warrior underneath, an athlete in the strictest sense.

"I saw him the other day with his shirt off, and he’s ripped," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

[+] EnlargeGrady Jarrett
AP Photo/ Richard ShiroAccording to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the determination showed by Grady Jarrett, left, has made an impression on the entire team.
Indeed, Jarrett, the senior defensive tackle for the No. 16 Tigers, is meticulous about his body. He watches what he eats. He trains methodically. He monitors his sleep schedule. He is, as Swinney concluded, "completely committed."

Yet, it’s Jarrett’s body that has been the evidence critics have used against him again and again, starting with the team he is set to face in Clemson’s season opener Saturday, Georgia. Jarrett, who grew up in Conyers, Ga., wanted to play college football at Georgia, but the Bulldogs simply weren’t interested.

"You always know about Georgia growing up," Jarrett said. "You see the 'G' everywhere. But they didn’t really want me like that."

It was easy to dismiss Jarrett as too short, too slow, too ordinary, and when he was coming out of high school, there were plenty of schools that fell for that illusion.

ESPN ranked Jarrett as the No. 80 defensive tackle in the nation. He was the 22nd-ranked player in Clemson’s 2011 signing class, which included receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Stephone Anthony and four other defensive linemen. Mississippi State was the only other Power Five school to show much interest, never mind the 198 tackles, 63 for loss, and 27.5 sacks he accrued in his final two seasons at Rockdale County High School.

"The perception of me from a lot of people coming up through recruiting wasn’t really good at all," Jarrett said. "And it’s something I used to take personally."

But Clemson didn’t buy into the illusion. Swinney watched the film, saw how Jarrett used that undersized physique to create leverage against opposing linemen. He saw the pedigree, that Jarrett was the son of former NFL linebacker Jessie Tuggle, that he was a protege of Ray Lewis, a man Jarrett refers to as an uncle. He saw the drive of a player everyone else said was too small carrying a massive chip on his shoulder.

For Swinney, Jarrett was a hidden gem.

Of course, back then, Clemson needed all the help it could get on defense. In Jarrett’s freshman season he played just 61 snaps. The Tigers’ defense was a disaster, culminating with an embarrassing 70-33 thumping at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. But the Tigers’ D and Jarrett were both works in progress, and Swinney knew the finished product would be special.

As a sophomore, Jarrett worked his way into the starting lineup. He recorded 10 quarterback pressures, 8.5 TFLs and helped the Tigers’ defense move from 85th in the nation in TFLs to 30th. A year later, he was even better, making 83 tackles, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that led the nation in TFLs.

Jarrett wrestled in high school, and he used those skills against his opposition. He turned his undersized frame to an advantage, a short guy in a game where getting low is optimal.

"He’s probably one of the lower athletes I’ve gone against," said Clemson center Ryan Norton. "He’s very athletic, and his pad level is unbelievable."

Slowly but surely, the perceptions of Jarrett began to change, and those teams that dismissed him so easily were forced to take notice.

"People see what I can do now," Jarrett said. "I feel like it was up to me to change that perception. I believe I have, and now I’m trying to capitalize off it."

Even after two strong seasons, however, Jarrett toils largely in the shadows. In a conference loaded with top defensive tackles last season, Jarrett wasn’t considered on the same level as Aaron Donald or Timmy Jernigan. Even in his own locker room, Anthony and Vic Beasley get the bulk of the defensive hype.

But the people who know him, who know the program -- they understand.

"If I was going to start a program right now, I’d pick Grady Jarrett first and build everything else around that guy," Swinney said. "He’s that impactful. His worth ethic, his drive, his ability to hold other people accountable and lift others up, and that chip he has on his shoulder -- he’s special."

To hear his coach and teammates talk, Jarrett is the best player in the country no one seems to know about, and that is a label he’s happy to embrace.

Jarrett isn’t flashy. He doesn’t want to be. Instead, he is focused on every minor detail, determined to get it all right. On a team that boasts nearly two dozen seniors, on a defensive front that includes eight seniors in the two-deep, that work ethic has made Jarrett the unquestioned leader.

"When he says something, everybody’s attention is drawn to Grady," said Beasley, an All-American who led the ACC in sacks last season. "He’s a very vocal leader, and he just does it by example also. He’s good in the classroom and on the field. He keeps us going. He’s that main guy on the defense that gets us hyped and keeps us going."

It’s a role Jarrett has embraced this season. In truth, he’s not quite sure how it came about. He simply showed up, did his work, spoke out when he needed to and listened when the others talked. It came naturally, but it feels good to finally get the respect he's deserved.

"If your peers look to you for guidance, that’s the ultimate respect," Jarrett said. "Being able to go to Vic or Stephone and they take to it, that’s really humbling for me."

As Jarrett gets set to kick off his senior season against Georgia’s explosive ground game Saturday, he insists he is not out for revenge, not hoping to prove a point to another team that rejected him. He has all the love he needs now.

But there is that tinge of bitterness, that knowledge that this is his last chance to remind the school down the road from his boyhood home that it missed out on something special.

"There’s always a little extra incentive," he finally relented.

But there’s more ahead, plenty of other last chances to make his mark before his college career ends and a fresh round of evaluations by scouts and coaches and critics begins. There is so much more he wants to accomplish.

There is a sense of desperation to this season, Jarrett said, and that is something his coach doesn’t mind hearing.

Still, Swinney was never one of the critics, never fooled by the illusion. The chip on Jarrett’s shoulder drives him, so Swinney won’t knock it off. Still, he knows this isn’t the end for Jarrett. It’s the beginning.

"He’ll play for a while on the next level," Swinney said. “I know he’s not sexy looking. He’s not 6-3. But he’ll outplay all of them guys."

These SEC openers are getting pretty routine for Clemson. The past two years, the Tigers started the season with wins against Auburn and Georgia. On Saturday, they face the Bulldogs again, this time in Athens, Georgia. Who has the edge? SEC reporter Edward Aschoff and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson debate.

Andrea Adelson: In the buildup to this game, nobody is giving Clemson a shot to win. I find that amusing, considering Georgia's reputation to underachieve. I know that Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins are gone, but the Tigers bring back several key players on defense -- including All-American Vic Beasley. Nobody wants to hear that since offenses generate all the headlines. And, well, Georgia has Heisman hopeful running back Todd Gurley coming back. But the Bulldogs have their own issues headed into this game. So tell me, Edward, why is Georgia such a clear-cut favorite?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia running back Todd Gurley is healthy and primed for a big junior season.
Edward Aschoff: Clemson's defense got better last season, but Georgia's offense will be too much for the Tigers between the hedges. This is an offense that returns most of the pieces to an offense that notched 484.2 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play in 2013. Yes, record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, but fifth-year senior Hutson Mason knows the offense backward and forward. He might not have the resume Murray had, but he's run the offense in practice over and over and over for years. He has great chemistry with that stacked receiving corps, has a solid offensive line to protect him and is working with one of the deepest running games in the country.

Mason doesn't have to be perfect on Saturday, he just has to find his targets. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are dealing with injuries, but Chris Conley, who led the team with 45 receptions and 651 receiving yards last season, has the potential to be one of the SEC's best this fall. He's tough enough to make plays over the middle and is a deep-play threat. Michael Bennett is tough and catches everything thrown this way, and the Bulldogs won't hesitate to use Gurley and Keith Marshall more in the passing game.

Speaking of Marshall, he's cutting and sprinting like he did before last season's knee injury, so that doesn't bode well for Clemson's defense, either.

While the Bulldogs will be able to throw, run and score for days, I do have concerns about the defense, especially that secondary. But what should help make up for the shortcomings is the nation's best linebacker group. Watch out for Leonard Floyd. He should have a breakout year and could be the SEC's best pass-rusher.

The game is also in Athens, where Georgia has lost just two games since the start of the 2011 season.

AA: Georgia definitely has the edge on offense. Nobody is going to argue that. Clemson players have repeatedly praised Gurley, who had a monster game against the Tigers a year ago with 154 yards and two touchdowns. But the running game seems to be the only real certainty on the offense. If Mitchell and Scott-Wesley don't play, who becomes the home-run threat to stretch the field? That is one key aspect in this game that cannot be overlooked. Gurley and Marshall are fantastic. But if Clemson clogs the box and slows them down, does Mason have enough playmakers around him to keep the Tigers honest?

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson QB Cole Stoudt will look to throw often to his experienced receiving corps against Georgia.
Let's not forget, Clemson made a living in the opposing team's backfield a season ago, leading the nation in tackles for loss (122). The D had four sacks and five tackles for loss a year ago against the Bulldogs. Players who accounted for 96.5 of those TFLs return in 2014. When you are the underdog, going on the road to open the season, surely you want to be able to rely on a strong defense to help set the tone -- especially at the outset. Clemson has the ability to do that in this matchup given the return of guys such as Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony.

The secondary should be a concern for Georgia. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt is a senior with game experience (he owns the school record for single-game completion percentage) and years spent learning the Chad Morris offense. Freshman Deshaun Watson should throw a nice curve into the offensive mix as well, something not even new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can properly anticipate. Pruitt may have flustered the Clemson offense a year ago when he was at Florida State, but he has new personnel to coach and new personnel to plan for on the other side.

Now that we laid out our points, what is your prediction and why?

EA: I think this one will be tight until the end, with Georgia pulling away, 31-24. You might question Georgia's deep-play ability, but Conley will come up with the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth before Georgia's defense makes a last-minute stop. I'm going out on a limb to say Floyd will be a major part of that final defensive drive for the Bulldogs.

AA: I am going with the upset in this one. I think Clemson's defense will make a huge difference, forcing several turnovers. Stoudt, Watson and the Clemson receivers will make their names known against a patchwork secondary. Clemson wins, 28-27.

Preseason All-ACC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM ET
Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com preseason All-ACC team:

Offense

WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke. One of the most dynamic receivers in the ACC, Crowder has had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and gets the nod over Louisville receiver DeVante Parker in a close call. Given Crowder's past production in the offense, he should be in line to break school receiving records this season.

WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State. Perhaps one of the most underrated receivers in the country, Greene is a virtual lock to catch every pass that comes his way. He is the picture of consistency, and as the top returning target for Jameis Winston, should reach 1,000 yards again.

TE: Nick O'Leary, Florida State. One of the best tight ends in the country, O'Leary had 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He should improve on all those numbers this season.

T: Cameron Erving, Florida State. Erving thought about leaving school early last season for the NFL draft but decided to return, and he now anchors the best offensive line in the country.

T: Sean Hickey, Syracuse. Hickey is going into his third season as a starter and has developed into one of the best tackles in the league. He also may be the strongest player in the ACC, too.

C: Andy Gallik, Boston College. Gallik helped spearhead a Boston College run game last season that averaged 212.5 yards on the ground. As a three-year starter, Gallik has grown into the best center in the league.

G: Tre' Jackson, Florida State. One of the best guards in the country, Jackson also opted to return to school for his senior year. He and Erving are the best players on that line.

G: Laken Tomlinson, Duke. A first-team All-ACC player a year ago, Tomlinson will be relied upon even more to lead an offensive line that has to replace two of its best players. If he has another stellar season, Tomlinson could be one of the first guards taken in next year's draft.

QB: Jameis Winston, Florida State. The returning Heisman Trophy winner had a rough season off-the-field but there is no questioning his credentials on the field. After throwing for more than 4,000 yards a year ago, the expectation is he will be even better this year.

RB: Duke Johnson, Miami. Johnson is one of the best backs in the country, averaging 6.6 yards every time he touches the ball. If he can stay healthy for the entire season, he's a virtual lock to gain 1,000 yards.

RB: Kevin Parks, Virginia. Parks is the only returning 1,000-yard back in the ACC and is hoping for more in 2014. Tough call here between Parks and Karlos Williams, the next two best backs in the league behind Johnson.

Defense

DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson. Beasley finished last season with 13 sacks (tops in ACC) and 23 TFL (4th in nation). He’s a preseason All-American and the biggest star on one of the country's top defensive fronts.

DE: Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State. The No. 1 overall recruit in the nation three years ago, Edwards is poised to come into his own in 2014. He was a critical piece of Florida State’s run-stuffing defense a year ago, finishing with 9.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks.

DT: Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech. No returning interior lineman in the ACC had more TFL last year than Maddy’s 13.5, and he was a key for the Hokies' dominant defense. This season, he'll be the centerpiece of a new-look D line.

DT: Grady Jarrett, Clemson. Dabo Swinney calls Jarrett one of the best defenders in the nation, even if he hasn’t gotten much national acclaim. He finished last season with 59 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, and should be the foundation for a dominant defensive line at Clemson this season.

LB: Denzel Perryman, Miami. Perryman is Miami’s most productive defender, finishing with 108 tackles last season (fifth in the ACC). He’s the lone ACC defender returning for 2014 to have recorded at least 60 tackles in each of the previous three seasons.

LB: Stephone Anthony, Clemson. His 15 TFL last season ranked eighth in the ACC, and no returning linebacker in the conference had more. He added 86 tackles and 4.5 sacks to boot.

CB: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech. One of the top freshman defenders in the nation last season, Fuller picked off six passes as part of Virginia Tech's exceptional secondary. His 17 passes defended tied for eighth nationally.

CB: P.J. Williams, Florida State. Williams racked up three interceptions and was dominant in coverage for Florida State, which finished with the best pass defense in the nation. He also won defensive MVP honors in the BCS national championship.

S: Anthony Harris, Virginia. Led the nation with eight interceptions last season for Virginia, including picking off at least one pass in five straight games in conference play in October and November.

S: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State. The first true freshman to start at cornerback for Florida State since Deion Sanders, Ramsey made the transition to safety midseason and didn’t miss a beat, finishing with 49 tackles and an INT.

S: Jeremy Cash, Duke. Cash finished last season second in the ACC in tackles (121), fifth in interceptions (4) and recorded 9.5 TFL, tops in the conference among defensive backs.

Specialists

K: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State. The Lou Groza Award winner in 2013, Aguayo broke the national record for points by a kicker in a season with 157 points. He is virtually automatic every time he steps onto the field, missing just one field goal attempt and zero extra points last season.

P: A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech. A second-team All-ACC selection a year ago, Hughes averaged 44.1 yards per punt. He placed 24 inside the 20, and had 22 punts of 50 yards or longer.

KR: Kermit Whitfield, Florida State. Whitfield led the nation last year in kickoffs, with an average of 36.4 yards per return. His speed makes him extremely difficult to stop, let alone slow down.

PR: Ryan Switzer, North Carolina. Teams have probably learned to kick away from Switzer at all times. Last season, he had five returns for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record.
Two years ago, the Clemson defense was mocked, and Vic Beasley was quiet. He had work to do, playing time to earn.

A year ago, the defense was ignored, and Beasley was quiet. He had a job to win, a reputation to build.

Now, the Tigers' defense is the centerpiece, the foundation for a new-look Clemson team built around a dominant pass rush led by a consensus All-American who's let his play do all the talking. And once again, Beasley is laying low.

"That's just who he is," said head coach Dabo Swinney, "and I don't think he changes his stripes."

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesVic Beasley led the ACC in sacks last season with 13 and ranked fourth in the nation in tackles for loss with 23.
There's been a fundamental shift in the perceptions surrounding Clemson this year, as the offense looks to reload after the departures of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and the defense is poised to dominate just two seasons after an epic Orange Bowl disaster that had defined the unit's image ever since.

But if perceptions have changed, Beasley's approach hasn't. He's quiet, contemplative, focused -- still out to prove something no matter how full the bandwagon has become.

"Last year, we had a big chip on our shoulder. The year before, we had a chip on our shoulder," Beasley said. "We're looking to do the same thing this year."

All Beasley did last season was lead the conference in sacks (13), finish fourth in the nation in tackles for loss (23) and help Clemson's defense become the country's most disruptive by a wide margin, recording a total of 123 tackles behind the line of scrimmage -- 12 more than any other school.

So, yes, the haters have largely disappeared, but Beasley is still out to prove something, to leave a legacy that can't be diminished by even the most ardent critic.

"I feel like there's no reason we shouldn't be the top defense in the country," Beasley said. "I feel like I could [be a Heisman contender], but my goal for this year is to win a national championship."

It's some bawdy talk from a guy who doesn't do much talking at all, but whether Beasley wants to embrace this bold new era or not, the truth is, the spotlight is on him now.

"He's tried to be more of a vocal leader," Swinney said. "Vic leads by example, but when he does say something, people are going to listen."

The luxury for Beasley -- both on and off the field -- is that he's not alone, Swinney said.

Sure, it's Beasley getting the bulk of the All-America hype after he chose to return for his senior season, but the Tigers' defense is loaded with seniors, and the likes of Stephone Anthony and Grady Jarrett don't mind doing the bulk of the talking.

In fact, that's the real difference this year, Swinney said. It's not so much that the highest-profile stars are on the opposite side of the ball, but rather that it doesn't always have to be the stars doing all the talking.

"We had a couple very strong personalities and flashy guys [last year]," Swinney said. "But this is more of a business-as-usual, blue-collar bunch of guys that respect each other."

They'll help supplement Beasley on the field, too, and that's good because the All-American defensive end figures to get plenty of respect -- and attention -- from opposing linemen this year.

And that means Beasley doesn't need to do much talking. He just needs to do what he's always done. He needs to show up, do his job, and leave his mark.

"He's a handful, that's for sure, but he opens other things up for the those other guys," Swinney said. "All he's got to do is go play and do his job."

Clemson Tigers season preview

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
10:30
AM ET
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Clemson Tigers:

Key returners: DE Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, LB Stephone Anthony

Key losses: QB Tajh Boyd, WR Sammy Watkins, RB Roderick McDowell

Most important 2014 games: Aug. 30 at Georgia, Sept. 20 at Florida State, Nov. 29 vs. South Carolina

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesAll-ACC defensive end Vic Beasley returns to the Clemson defense for his senior season.
Projected win percentage: 72.5 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 8½ wins

Instant impact newcomers: QB Deshaun Watson, CB Mackensie Alexander. Coach Dabo Swinney has repeatedly said Watson will play this season behind starter Cole Stoudt. Simply put, Watson’s athleticism makes him too valuable to leave on the bench, and the belief is he will get better as the season goes on. Alexander, a redshirt freshman, is listed among the starters on the depth chart and is expected to have a breakout season.

High point from 2013: Beating Ohio State 40-35 in the Discover Orange Bowl. The season-opening win against Georgia was big too, but the victory over the Buckeyes was one of the best under Swinney. The game was intense, competitive and thrilling and featured one of the best single-game performances of the season from Watkins.

Low point from 2013: Losing to Florida State 51-14. Clemson was the preseason choice to win the ACC but saw its conference championship hopes vanish after an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. The Tigers were never even in the game, falling behind 27-7 at halftime. Boyd had three turnovers in one of the worst games of his career.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Watson emerges as one of the best freshmen in the nation, answering all questions about an offense supposedly in transition. His emergence, combined with a top-five defense, helps propel Clemson further than everybody predicts. Clemson ends up with a winning record against its toughest triumvirate (Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina) and snags a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: The offense has a tougher time than expected replacing Boyd, Watkins, McDowell and Martavis Bryant, failing to generate much production. The defense is not as good as advertised, thanks to inconsistency at linebacker and in the secondary. Losses to Georgia and Florida State mean a 1-2 start, and things only get worse with additional losses to Louisville and South Carolina. Clemson finishes with fewer than 10 wins for the first time since 2010.

They said it: “I personally believe, when it's all said and done, we're still going to be one of the best offenses in the country because I love the personnel we have. That's what makes college football fun. Everybody looks at what has left, and they make an assessment because they don't really know who these guys are that are coming in. Good players have to lead and new guys emerge, and we've got good personnel and good candidates to fill some of those voids.” -- coach Dabo Swinney

Top ACC players: Nos. 25-21

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
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As we get set to open fall camps around the ACC, we're counting down the conference's top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

25. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech Hokies

Position: Defensive tackle
Year: Senior

If Virginia Tech’s defense is to be among the best in the nation once again, Maddy will likely be the centerpiece of the front seven. He was exceptional last season, racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks -- most among returning interior linemen in the conference. He also racked up 55 tackles and 16 quarterback hurries for a Hokies squad that allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in the league. But Tech also lost three senior linemen at season's end.

24. Jeremy Cash, Duke Blue Devils

Position: Safety
Year: RS Junior

The perfect fit in Duke’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme, Cash racked up a whopping 121 tackles and four interceptions last season working as both a safety and linebacker. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he’s a bit undersized as a true linebacker, but he matches up well against bigger receivers and is still strong enough to help in the run game. He was an All-ACC selection last season and got a nod from the media on this year’s preseason balloting. The Blue Devils’ secondary ranked 11th in the ACC in pass defense last season, but it's a young group that can develop nicely with Cash as a centerpiece in 2014.

23. Ronald Darby, Florida State Seminoles

Position: Cornerback
Year: Junior

Darby has been a standout since he set foot on campus in Tallahassee, Florida, yet he’s always managed to fly a bit beneath the radar with stars like Lamarcus Joyner and Xavier Rhodes alongside him in FSU’s secondary. But if fans have overlooked him, quarterbacks haven’t. Darby was Florida State’s most-feared defensive back last season despite a nagging groin injury that hampered him all year. According to STATS, LLC, no returning ACC defensive back targeted at least 20 times last season allowed a lower completion percentage than Darby.

22. Grady Jarrett, Clemson Tigers

Position: Defensive tackle
Year: Senior

He’s 6-1 and nearly 300 pounds, but coach Dabo Swinney gushes that Jarrett is as physically sculpted a player as he’s come across. In fact, Swinney said if he was starting a team from scratch, he would build around Jarrett. That’s high praise considering the other stout defensive linemen on the Tigers roster. Still, Jarrett is unquestionably one of the conference’s top interior linemen, having racked up 83 tackles (including 11 for a loss) and 14 quarterback pressures last season.

21. Stephone Anthony, Clemson Tigers

Position: Linebacker
Year: Senior

One of the ACC’s top tacklers, Anthony adds another weapon to a ferocious Clemson defensive front. His 15 tackles for loss in 2013 were the most among returning ACC linebackers, and with a deep defensive line in front of him, those numbers could go up in 2014.
The preseason All-ACC team was released Wednesday, and naturally quarterback Jameis Winston led the way with the most votes. There were not too many surprises, beginning with Florida State players littered throughout the list of 26 names.

Here is the 2014 preseason All-ACC team, as voted on by the media at the ACC Kickoff:

 
 
 

Thoughts: While the ACC had the second-most NFL draft picks in May, there is significant talent returning to the conference for the 2014 season. Of the 26 players, 21 were named to one of the three All-ACC teams at the end of last season. That doesn’t include Parker, who will play his first season in the ACC this coming season. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the leading vote getter (although not a unanimous one), and Beasley, who received the second-most votes, are two of the three returning consensus All-Americans from the 2013 season.

Few conferences would be able to rival that offense with Winston throwing to 1,000-yard receivers Crowder and Greene and a 6-foot-3 target in Parker. O’Leary is one of the best tight ends in the country. There was a seemingly close battle at running back behind Duke Johnson, Williams got the nod over Virginia running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

Defensively, that is one talented line. Beasley received the second-most votes for the preseason player of the year, and Edwards was the No. 1 high school recruit in the 2012 class. Maddy and Jarrett are two of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Duke has the second-most players on the team, which speaks to the program David Cutcliffe is building in Durham. The Blue Devils were not picked to win the ACC Coastal despite winning it last season and returning quarterback Anthony Boone. There is a constituency out there that still doesn’t believe Duke is the real deal and is bound for a letdown, but the media believes there is talent throughout the roster; the Blue Devils have a player at receiver, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. Miami, which was picked to win the division, has two players on the list.

Even as Duke had four players, the Seminoles still had nine, only further signifying the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference, although the league is undoubtedly improving. That list does not include Ronald Darby or Jalen Ramsey, two players who will almost certainly be on an All-ACC team by the end of the season. It is no surprise Florida State was ranked as having the most talent on its 2014 roster two weeks ago in ESPN.com's future power rankings.
Do you need a sign college football is close but still just a little too far away? The first preseason award watch lists were released Monday, a list of more than 70 players that could be the best in the country by season’s end.

It doesn’t matter if you have started only three games in your career and haven’t played a down since November 2012 -- there is a spot for you on the list.

That said, it’s college football and as ridiculous as these often are, I admit I enjoy looking at them. The watch lists for the Maxwell Award, given to the college player of the year, and Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, were released Monday. As the season progresses, the list will be pared down before a winner is announced in December.

Here is a look at the ACC players to make the cut and some justification for each player being on the list.

Maxwell Award

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: As a freshman last fall, Boyd was as good of a receiver as there was in the ACC. As the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver heading into the 2014 season, Boyd could put up monster numbers and follow in the footsteps of Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargeJames Connor
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner set a Pitt record with 229 yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green.
QB Jacoby Brissett, NC State: This is not a knock on Brissett, but his inclusion is certainly puzzling considering he sat out all of 2013 after transferring from Florida, where he saw limited time as a starter and backup. However, the Wolfpack staff is high on Brissett leading the program’s turnaround, and Brissett was a blue-chip high school recruit.

WR Stacy Coley, Miami: Much like Boyd, Coley had a strong freshman season and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. One of the country’s elite recruits in 2013, Coley could make a national name for himself if he can build a connection with Miami’s quarterbacks, which have struggled with inconsistency and injury.

RB James Conner, Pitt: It’s almost unfair Conner was limited to just the Maxwell watch list Monday considering he is a two-way standout for the Panthers. Conner is already a huge fan favorite in the Steel City for his bruising and relentless running style, and he broke Tony Dorsett’s school bowl-game rushing record in December.

WR Jamison Crowder, Duke: Any time you catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,300 yards, you deserve to be on this list.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson’s inclusion here is a credit to how dominant he was before the injury against Florida State and how woeful Miami looked after. If he can stay healthy, Johnson has the potential to be an elite back nationally.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: As the Cardinals’ leading returning receiver and now in Bobby Petrino’s offense, Parker should light up stat sheets this coming season.

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Seminoles’ receivers, but none of it includes Greene, who led the Noles in receiving in 2013. With Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw in the NFL, Greene will be looked upon to bail out Jameis Winston this fall.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Speaking of Winston, the Maxwell is about the only thing he did not win last season. Another spectacular season and it will be hard to ignore him again.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State: Similar to Brissett, this is a bit of a projection pick, although Williams has done significantly more than Brissett. Williams was the third-string running back in 2013, but with his five-star talent base coupled with a senior-laden offensive line and Williams could set records in his final season in Tallahassee.

Reaction: While Brissett is obviously a surprise, overall it is hard to argue with much of the list. Williams' inclusion might be pushing it a little bit, although he certainly could be one of the best running backs in the country with his blend of size and speed. It's a positive sign for the ACC that several underclassmen are on the list, including special playmakers Boyd, Coley and Conner, who will all be true sophomores this fall. The biggest question is whether Winston will win the award if he performs the way most expect him to as a redshirt sophomore. AJ McCarron won the award last season over Winston, who was a semifinalist along with Johnny Manziel. Winston's off-the-field issues might have played a role, so it would be interesting to see if the Maxwell Award will continue to take those incidents into account.



Bednarik Award

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: A semifinalist for the award last season, Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields. If he can show a little more consistency, he might win the award in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley is among the favorites to repeat as a finalist for this season's Bednarik Award.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second straight season this fall.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant impact player for the Blue Devils a season ago following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national championship. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Bednarik.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best.

DE Eli Harold, Virginia: Last season he finished sixth in the ACC with 15 tackles for loss, an impressive number. He could see his numbers improve drastically with five-star Andrew Brown now at defensive tackle.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the year.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but is as talented as they come.

DE/LB Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina: Otis is another player poised to possibly gain national recognition and it begins with his inclusion on this list. He had a very strong junior season with 6.5 sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes’ defenses. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list.

Reaction: It was surprising Darby's name was not included on the list despite missing the spring. He could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL draft next year. The ACC is home to some of the country's best defensive backs with Williams, Fuller and Harris. Beasley is certainly one of the favorites coming into the season, but he was shut down by Florida State last season and will need to rebound against the Seminoles to make a push for the Bednarik as a senior. His sack numbers should be impressive once again, and if he can perform on the big stages, it might be the little extra that wins him the award this season. FSU's Edwards could be the best defensive lineman in the ACC and the country if he plays like he did against Auburn all season. What could hurt Edwards is he will not always be in a position to pile up sacks and tackles even when he is dominating opposing offensive linemen.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – With two star quarterbacks leading two high-powered offenses headed into the Discover Orange Bowl, some expect a shootout Friday night.

Wait.

Shhhh.

Don’t say that in front of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Shootouts are as unwanted as mosquitoes in summer, and Venables got a little feisty during a press conference when asked about the prospect of getting involved in a scoring free for all to close the season.

“I don't like that one bit,” Venables said. “It doesn't matter if it's Ohio State, if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn't matter. Your job on defense is to stop people.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson's offense gets most of the press, but its defense, led by DE Vic Beasley, hasn't been too shabby either.
“Everybody wants to say it's a shootout. You take offense to that. We know we have a great challenge on Friday night, but we're not playing it on defense like let's just get one more stop than them. That's not how we operate, no matter who we're playing.”

After linebacker Spencer Shuey got off the podium, he joked, “I felt like we were at practice for a second.”

You understand why defensive coaches get, well, defensive, at the suggestion. As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “I know we're a lot better than people give us credit for. It's in the numbers. People see Clemson as a high-powered offensive team and they just want to outscore everybody, but we've done our part. We're just trying to get better.”

There is little doubt Clemson has gotten better since the last time it played in Miami, the scene of a 70-33 debacle to close the 2011 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Clemson shelled out top dollar to hire Venables from Oklahoma, hoping his disciplined, aggressive style would bring respectability and then dominance.

The transformation is not complete, but steps have been made this season. Clemson ranks No. 22 in the nation in total defense, 55 spots higher than the 2011 season; No. 17 in scoring defense, 64 spots higher than 2011; and No. 8 in third-down conversion defense, 65 spots higher than 2011.

In addition, Clemson ranks No. 2 in the nation in three-and-outs and leads the nation with 112 tackles for loss. Clemson needs eight more to set the new single-season school record.

“From the player aspect, the maturity level has grown tremendously,” Shuey said. “Coach Venables has brought an unbelievable amount of trust to us and to be able to trust each other and prepare every day with what it takes. I feel like it's a different team.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley has been the standout, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, finding his spot on several All-America teams. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and is still pondering whether he will leave school early or turn pro.

His coaches believe he could use an extra year in school to grow bigger, stronger and more dominant than he is now. One of the most intriguing matchups in the game features Beasley against Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort, who said Beasley is “more unique” than any defensive end he has faced in the Big Ten.

“He can run around you, or if he chooses to, he can take it right to you or take an inside move. He's got a three-way go,” Mewhort said. “He's got a good motor. He's very good with his hands.

“If you're not prepared for him, he'll get the best of you. So that's what I'm working on right now, just on his inside move, right through me, and going around me. If I can prepare for those three moves, I should be all right.”

The Clemson defense has faced tough quarterbacks throughout the entire season, from Aaron Murray to Jameis Winston to Connor Shaw, with mixed results. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller presents a tough challenge because he is so dynamic. Jarrett said Miller is “probably the fastest quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

His unique abilities will put stress on the entire Clemson defense to limit big plays. Running back Carlos Hyde gives the Ohio State offense even more firepower, and probably finds himself on Clemson bulletin boards this morning after declaring he wanted to set the Orange Bowl rushing record during interviews Tuesday.

Just add Hyde's quote to the pile that has contributed to the motivation the Clemson defense has used all season. Perhaps a different s-word -- a shutdown performance -- will get them some of the respect they believe they deserve.
Don’t say that in front of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Shootouts are as unwanted as mosquitoes in summer, and Venables got a little feisty during a press conference when asked about the prospect of getting involved in a scoring free for all to close the season.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson's offense gets most of the press, but its defense, led by DE Vic Beasley, hasn't been too shabby either.
“I don't like that one bit,” Venables said. “It doesn't matter if it's Ohio State, if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn't matter. Your job on defense is to stop people.

“Everybody wants to say it's a shootout. You take offense to that. We know we have a great challenge on Friday night, but we're not playing it on defense like let's just get one more stop than them. That's not how we operate, no matter who we're playing.”

After linebacker Spencer Shuey got off the podium, he joked, “I felt like we were at practice for a second.”

You understand why defensive coaches get, well, defensive, at the suggestion. As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “I know we're a lot better than people give us credit for. It's in the numbers. People see Clemson as a high-powered offensive team and they just want to outscore everybody, but we've done our part. We're just trying to get better.”

There is little doubt Clemson has gotten better since the last time it played in Miami, the scene of a 70-33 debacle to close the 2011 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Clemson shelled out top dollar to hire Venables from Oklahoma, hoping his disciplined, aggressive style would bring respectability and then dominance.

The transformation is not complete, but steps have been made this season. Clemson ranks No. 22 in the nation in total defense, 55 spots higher than the 2011 season; No. 17 in scoring defense, 64 spots higher than 2011; and No. 8 in third-down conversion defense, 65 spots higher than 2011.

In addition, Clemson ranks No. 2 in the nation in three-and-outs and leads the nation with 112 tackles for loss. Clemson needs eight more to set the new single-season school record.

“From the player aspect, the maturity level has grown tremendously,” Shuey said. “Coach Venables has brought an unbelievable amount of trust to us and to be able to trust each other and prepare every day with what it takes. I feel like it's a different team.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley has been the standout, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, finding his spot on several All-America teams. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and is still pondering whether he will leave school early or turn pro.

His coaches believe he could use an extra year in school to grow bigger, stronger and more dominant than he is now. One of the most intriguing matchups in the game features Beasley against Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort, who said Beasley is “more unique” than any defensive end he has faced in the Big Ten.

“He can run around you, or if he chooses to, he can take it right to you or take an inside move. He's got a three-way go,” Mewhort said. “He's got a good motor. He's very good with his hands.

“If you're not prepared for him, he'll get the best of you. So that's what I'm working on right now, just on his inside move, right through me, and going around me. If I can prepare for those three moves, I should be all right.”

The Clemson defense has faced tough quarterbacks throughout the entire season, from Aaron Murray to Jameis Winston to Connor Shaw, with mixed results. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller presents a tough challenge because he is so dynamic. Jarrett said Miller is “probably the fastest quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

His unique abilities will put stress on the entire Clemson defense to limit big plays. Running back Carlos Hyde gives the Ohio State offense even more firepower, and probably finds himself on Clemson bulletin boards this morning after declaring he wanted to set the Orange Bowl rushing record during interviews Tuesday.

Just add Hyde's quote to the pile that has contributed to the motivation the Clemson defense has used all season. Perhaps a different s-word -- a shutdown performance -- will get them some of the respect they believe they deserve.

Clemson defense makes its own name

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
11:00
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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.

ACC spring game recaps

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
11:00
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Seven ACC teams held their spring games this past weekend as practice begins to slowly wind down until August.

Heather provided her Pitt recap earlier this morning. Here is a quick look at the headlines from the other spring games across the league:

CLEMSON

The Tigers suffered a big hit during their spring game last Saturday, when the team lost backup quarterback Chad Kelly to an apparent torn ACL. Kelly was in a heated competition with Cole Stoudt for the backup job, but it now appears he could be lost for the season. Coach Dabo Swinney said Kelly was hurt while making a cut at the end of a run. Starter Tajh Boyd was held out of the game so the Tigers could get a good look at Kelly and Stoudt. The backup last season, Stoudt set a Clemson spring game record with 304 yards passing and threw four touchdown passes, but his White team lost to the Orange team 34-26 in front of a spring-game record crowd of 30,000.

Sammy Watkins led all receivers with seven catches for 156 yards and two scores, while Grady Jarrett had three sacks. Vic Beasley had two sacks, giving him 10 sacks in four scrimmages.

Tight end Sam Cooper and tackle Kalon Davis also sustained knee injuries in the game, but they are not believed to be as serious.

DUKE

Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder were the stars of the spring game as the Blue Devils showed a glimpse of how good they can be on offense this season. Boone went 18-of-30 for 273 yards with two touchdown passes to Crowder, and two interceptions. Crowder finished with four catches for a team-high 71 yards as the Blue team beat the White 27-12.

Blue team end Britton Grier had two sacks and seven tackles, including three for loss. Lucas Fisher, Sam Marshall and Keilin Rayner each added sacks for the Blue team.

“I like where we’re headed,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’re building some depth. I think we can be a more energetic defense. The big thing is focusing on why we give up big plays, but trying to play defense, trying to force longer drives. It’s going to be interesting film to study. We got a lot out of this game.”

FLORIDA STATE

Coach Jimbo Fisher did not name a starting quarterback after the spring game, so the competition will go on into the offseason. But highly touted Jameis Winston sent jaws dropping with his standout performance, going 12-of-15 for 205 yards with two touchdown passes before leaving the game early to play in the Noles' baseball game against Duke.

"He came in there and he took advantage of opportunities," Fisher said. "That's what you got to do. You've got to go make plays and he's done a nice job of making plays. He took the opportunity to take the day with the stage he had and I thought he played pretty well for the most part."

Winston and Clint Trickett split time with the first team for most of the afternoon. Trickett was just 10-of-16 for 98 yards and an interception before switching to the second team, where he was 12-of-16 for 161 yards and a touchdown. Jacob Coker, also competing for the starting job, went 15-of-26 for 186 yards, a touchdown and two late interceptions.

MARYLAND

Running backs Brandon Ross and Albert Reid took center stage, as both ran for over 100 yards in a 13-13 tie between the White and Red teams on Friday night.

Ross had 123 yards on 10 carries, while Reid had 138 yards on 23 carries in the game. Wes Brown, who missed the spring with a shoulder/ankle injury, is expected to be healthy in the fall so the competition at this position is going to be an intriguing storyline during the offseason.

"I limited what the defense could do. It was still good to see them," coach Randy Edsall said. "That is what we have seen out of Brandon and Albert all spring along with how they run. The one thing we have to be able to do is run the ball efficiently. When we do that it opens up the passing game. With the skill guys we have at wide receiver it will make us more productive and a chance to get big plays. They ran the way they have been running all spring.”

MIAMI

Stephen Morris threw for a game-high 256 yards and four first-half touchdowns to lead the Orange team to a 35-20 win over the White team. Meanwhile, ACC freshman of the year Duke Johnson led all rushers with 120 yards on 10 carries as the Hurricanes showed how explosive they can be on offense this season.

“We’re pretty dominant,” receiver Rashawn Scott told local reporters. “Everyone is communicating and … no one is frustrated. If we mess up, we all talk instead of yelling at each other.”

At halftime, the Canes handed out four Spring awards to Nantambu-Akil Fentress (305 walk-on award), Olsen Pierre (defensive most improved player), Danny Isidora (offensive most improved player) and Herb Waters (special teams most improved player).

NORTH CAROLINA

Bryn Renner went 16-of-27 for 216 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Blue team to a 34-10 win over the White. The running back who took center stage in the game was not A.J. Blue or Romar Morris but true freshman Khris Francis, who ran 20 times for 101 yards to lead the White team. Blue had eight carries for 30 yards, and Morris had 15 carries for 80 yards to lead the Blue team as the Tar Heels work to replace Giovani Bernard. Blue added a 33-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass.

"I thought all three of our running backs played well," coach Larry Fedora said. "But Khris, for his first time out there in a game-type atmosphere, he did a good job. He hit some holes and exploded in them. One time I thought he got stood up. I said something to him and the next time he's got his shoulders down and he's running north-south. That's what he's got to do, so he did some nice things."

Defensively, end Kareem Martin had seven tackles, including four sacks. Travis Hughes added a team-high 14 tackles, including two sacks.

ACC's 2012 All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:24
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The ACC went 4-2 this bowl season, its first winning record since 2005. There were plenty of top performers to highlight, but these are the players who were most deserving of the ACC’s 2012 All-Bowl team:

Offense first team

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Tajh Boyd had a record-setting game in Clemson's victory against LSU.
QB -- Tajh Boyd, Clemson: He had 368 yards of total offense against LSU on 79 total offensive plays. He set a Clemson record for plays in a game by a quarterback.

RB -- Lonnie Pryor, Florida State: He had a career-long 60 yard touchdown in the first half of the Orange Bowl, which was the second-longest touchdown run in FSU bowl history. In his final game as a Seminole, he also had a 37-yard run in the fourth quarter for his second touchdown in the game.

RB -- David Sims, Georgia Tech: He rushed for a game-high and career-best 99 yards on 17 carries, and caught a touchdown pass in the 21-7 win against USC.

WR -- DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson: He finished the game with 13 receptions for 191 yards and finished the season with 82 receptions for 1405 yards. Hopkins tied his own Clemson record for receptions in a game with 13. He also had 13 in the opener against Auburn.

WR -- Conner Vernon, Duke: He caught 10 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. He helped Duke to 34 points against a Bearcats defense that entered the game ranked 12th nationally, allowing just 17.2 points per game.

TE -- Brandon Ford, Clemson: His nine receptions against LSU tied the overall Clemson single-game record for receptions by a tight end. He finished with 69 receiving yards, including one reception for 20 yards.

T -- Cameron Erving, Florida State: It was the sixth game this season with over 500 yards of total offense for the Seminoles. All three touchdown runs came between center and left tackle, and quarterback EJ Manuel had all day to throw.

T -- Perry Simmons, Duke: He led an offensive line performance that yielded zero sacks and allowed quarterback Sean Renfree to establish Belk Bowl records for pass completions (37), pass attempts (49) and passing yardage (358). Simmons also aided a running game that gained 200 net yards on 39 attempts as running back Josh Snead picked up a career-high 107 yards on just 17 attempts.

G -- Josue Matias, Florida State: The Noles racked up 243 rushing yards, 23 first downs and 534 yards of total offense. He was part of an offensive line that didn’t allow Manuel to be sacked once by Northern Illinois. Two of Pryor’s runs came between Erving and Matias.

G -- Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech: He helped pave the way for 294 rushing yards in the win against USC, and 369 total yards. He made his 39th career start, the second-most on the team.

C -- Dalton Freeman, Clemson: The Tigers had 100 plays and 32 first downs, and his blocking was a major factor.

Defense first team

DE -- Malliciah Goodman, Clemson: He set a bowl record with three sacks as Clemson held LSU to 219 yards of total offense.

DE -- Bjoern Werner, Florida State: In his last game with the Noles, the dominating end knocked down his eighth pass of the season, which is the second-most in the FBS by a defensive lineman. He finished with two tackles.

DT -- Derrick Hopkins, Virginia Tech: He had four tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and a sack. The sack was on Rutgers' first play of overtime, forcing them into long yardage which led to a long (and missed) field goal.

DT -- Grady Jarrett, Clemson: He had four tackles, including two tackles for loss, and one was a sack. He was a big reason Clemson held LSU to just 99 yards rushing.

LB -- Christian Jones, Florida State: Jones tied for the team lead with 10 tackles in the 31-10 Discover Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois.

LB -- Vince Williams, Florida State: He tied Jones for the team lead with 10 tackles, and finished with one tackle for loss and a sack.

LB -- Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech: He led the Hokies with 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and had a pass breakup. Virginia Tech’s defense held Rutgers to 196 yards and three offensive points, none in the last three quarters.

CB -- Rod Sweeting, Georgia Tech: Even though his statistics were modest -- three tackles, two pass breakups and an interception returned for 21 yards -- Sweeting was voted the game’s MVP. He fared well in a tough assignment, matching up with Biletnikoff Trophy winner Marqise Lee.

CB -- Antone Exum, Virginia Tech: The Russell Athletic Bowl’s MVP led a stifling pass defense that allowed just 129 yards. He made the play of the game with an interception of Gary Nova to set up the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech’s defense allowed just 196 yards total, and just 17 completions from Nova on 40 attempts.

S -- Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State: He finished third on the team with six tackles, including one tackle for loss. The Northern Illinois receivers were no match for the FSU secondary and were rendered ineffective.

S -- Rashard Hall, Clemson: He led the team with nine tackles, including eight solo, in the win against LSU.

Specialists

PK -- Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson: He kicked the 37-yard game-winning field goal as time expired to give Clemson and the ACC a monumental 25-24 win against LSU. It was the fourth walk-off field goal in Clemson history, and Catanzaro has two of the four.

P -- A.J. Hughes, Virginia Tech: He tied the record under coach Frank Beamer for punts in a game with 11. He finished with an average of 42.2 with four punts inside the 20-yard line, and a long of 57.

SP -- Tobais Palmer, NC State: He returned a second-quarter kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in the loss to Vandy, and became the first Pack player since Greg Golden in 2001 to return a kickoff for a score in a bowl game. He finished with 173 kickoff return yards, setting a new NC State season record with 1,130 KOR yards. Palmer and T.J. Graham (1,028 in 2008) are the only two Wolfpack players to go over 1,000 yards in kickoff returns in a single season. Palmer also went over 100 yards receiving for the third time in 2012, as he finished with eight catches for 111 yards.

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