2003 Position Analysis: Defensive Line

by - Correspondent -

Some of the more fascinating athletes in today's game are the defensive linemen. While the offensive linemen are generally the biggest, and the skill guys the fastest, a defensive lineman must have a combination of size, strength, and quickness that is extremely rare. Many college coaches will agree that this may be the hardest position, which they have to recruit. They will fight tooth and nail for these guys because they know that just a couple really solid ones can go a long, long way towards building a great defense. After all, they are the guys that have the most influence on what a defensive coordinator can and cannot do. Their ability to apply constant pressure on the passer while consistently stuffing the run makes it easier on the secondary and linebacker corps. This keeps a defensive coordinator from feeling like he has to constantly gamble in order to stop an opposing offense.

Depending on the type of defense and the call, there are a number of different alignments in which the linemen may position themselves. You will often hear coaches refer to these as "techniques." The basic techniques taught by most coaches are: 0-head up on the center, 1-inside shoulder of guard (sometimes the outside shoulder of the center), 2-head up on guard, 3-outside shoulder of guard, 4-inside shoulder of tackle, 5-outside shoulder of tackle, 7-inside shoulder of tight end, 9-outside of tight end (Note: with an unbalanced line, some may refer to a 6 technique as being head up on the tight end and an 8 technique being on the outside shoulder of the 4th offensive lineman). Again, depending on the defense, these guys may be read-and-react players, or they could utilize an attacking style. A read-and-react defense generally involves the linemen engaging their counterparts as they attempt to free up the linebackers to make tackles. Of course, an attacking defense has the lineman firing off on the snap of the ball in hopes of gaining as much penetration as possible. Each lineman has a gap responsibility they must maintain as they work they way through the line.

The stance is where everything begins for a defensive lineman. It gives them a base for a quick, explosive start that they must have if they are going to succeed. A modified sprinter's stance is the best way to describe it. The feet should be shoulder width or slightly wider with the forward foot flat and the back foot in an approximate heel-to-toe relationship. The head should be behind the down hand, the off hand cocked in an explosive position, and the back should be flat. A defensive lineman does not want to coil his body. Instead, he should explode on the snap of the ball by using the leverage provided by the stance as the ankles, knees, and hips act as springs. As they come out of the stance, their hand placement becomes the next critical aspect. This works to their advantage because they are allowed to grab and hold an offensive lineman's jersey. By using their hands to strike a blow, they can gain control of the offensive lineman. They must always remember to grab cloth and keep their thumbs up.

As for rushing the passer, there are a few fairly obvious rules a lineman must follow (these rules apply to anyone going after the quarterback). First, he must always keep his eyes on the ball. As simple as this sounds, it's hard to battle a blocker while focusing on the quarterback. Next, he must never give up. All too often a sack comes on the second or third effort. Finally, he must continue to rush without leaving his feet. They are taught to get their hands up at the last possible second while they continue to push up the field. You will often see a guy jump to bat down a pass as he bites on a pump fake. The end result in many of those situations is the opening of a running or passing lane. How the lineman decides to get to the passer is basically left up to him. He has an assignment and is given some freedom in working towards the end result. There are large number of moves and rushing techniques one can practice and use. What these guys have to do is find a few moves they are very comfortable with and perfect their technique, as these become their primary moves. Before each snap, they must decide which move to use and what their counter move will be. The advantage they have in passing situations is they know what they are going to do before each play. Thus, the offensive lineman is placed in a position where he normally has to react instead of act. This is why a good defensive lineman will constantly change his moves throughout the game in hopes of keeping the offensive lineman guessing.


The starter on one side will be Khaleed Vaughn (6'4", 270 - Gr.). The two-time First-Team Academic All-ACC performer is the most experienced performer on the Clemson defense. He has developed into a very solid player that will be expected to be a team leader. He has the size to defend the run and is quick enough to come off the corner as a pass rusher. He has a solid all-around game that should improve with another year in the weight room working on his strength and speed. The area of his game that needs the most improvement is his ability to get to the quarterback. His four sacks to 650 snaps last year is an awful ratio. He has been an iron man type performer the last two seasons as he has racked up over 650 snaps in each. Look for much of the same this year as he states his claim for post-season honors.

Working behind Vaughn is Vontrell Jamison(6'7", 280 - R/Jr.), Gaines Adams (6'5", 250 - R/Fr.), and Brandon Cannon (6'4", 255 - R/Fr.). Jamison began last season at defensive end but made the switch to offensive line to provide depth after Derrick Brantley and Nick Black went down with injuries. He has the size that Clemson fans have not seen at that position in a long time. After being voted the most improved defensive end this past spring, he should see a good amount of playing time this fall if he can continue to develop. Adams may be considered a sleeper after playing 8-man football in high school and spending a year at prep school. The coaches and his teammate have raved about his ability. The problem for Adams is that he is still operating on pure talent while he is learning to play the position. At the very least, he should see time as a pass rushing specialist. The quicker he adapts to the position, the more he will play. Cannon was rated as one of the top 10 defensive ends in the country by one service coming out of high school. He, too, has a great pass rushing presence on the outside to go along with good size. Like the other young players, he is getting a feel for the position and will contribute once he has shown the coaches an ability to play consistently.

The starter opposite of Vaughn will be J.J. Howard (6'3", 245, - Gr.). Howard could be the best athlete on the team and is certainly one of the more physically imposing players. His combination of size, speed, and strength is what sets him apart from a lot of defensive ends. He is the only player in Clemson history to bench press 450 lbs., have a vertical jump of 44 inches, and run a sub 4.5 40. He has proven that he is durable by never missing a contest in 37 games. To this point he has yet to play up to his true potential, but the staff is expecting big things from him this year as a player and leader. He has to put that ability to good use and find a way to put pressure on the quarterback. His advantage is that he is fast enough to be a speed rusher and strong enough to bull his way to the quarterback. He will have a key role as he replaces the team's top sack artist from last season - Bryant McNeal.

Behind Howard is Mo Fountain (6'4, 250 - Jr.). Fountain racked up over 200 snaps per season the past two years and is the first defensive lineman to record two interceptions in a season since 1985. He is another athletic type that will see a lot of time on the field. He could push Howard for the starting position, but it looks like he will be the third man in the rotation. You could see him on the field with either Howard or Vaughn, and he would likely be the man to replace either of them if in the case of an injury.


Clemson's top returning DT is Donnell Washington (6'6", 320 - R/Jr.). This mountain of a man is tied for first on the team with a combined 1,835 lbs. in the four lifts the strength staff uses (bench, clean, hang clean, and squat), and his 32-inch vertical jump is very good for any athlete, much less a defensive tackle weighing 320 lbs. He moves very well and has good speed for a man his size. Although he has fared reasonably well against the run, the same is not true against the pass. He notched just one sack in 597 snaps last season. He must move that total to at least 6 as he continues to improve on his run stopping ability if Clemson is going to thrive on defense. His size alone takes away some passing lanes, but that is not getting the job done. He has to put that size to good use. This needs to be a breakout year for Washington for two reasons. First, Clemson needs a presence up front. It is the only way this defense will make it. Secondly, it will go a long way towards improving his stock with NFL scouts. His size is something they covet, but he must prove to them he is an all-around player. A great junior season could mean he will be a top draft prospect heading into his senior year.

Behind Washington are Eric Coleman (6'5", 305 - Jr.) and Trey Tate (6'4, 270 - R/So.). Coleman came to Clemson as an offensive lineman from Fork Union Military Academy, but made the move to defensive line midway through his freshman year where he has been a solid performer ever since. His snaps more than doubled to 265 last season and that stat should rise again this year, as he will be the third defensive tackle in the rotation. He is a very solid performed who will provide much needed depth at the position. Tate, on the other hand, is very inexperienced. He is still growing into the position and will spend this year mainly learning and working on his technique. He should see some playing time, but it will most likely be when games are out of reach. He is starting to fill out and should be a good player during his final two seasons.

Starting alongside Washington will be DeJuan Polk (6'2, 285 - Gr.). Polk has worked extremely hard during the off-season and earned the respect of teammates and coaches as he was named the most improved defensive lineman in the spring. Polk racked up over 300 snaps last season, as he was the third man in the rotation behind Washington and Nick Eason. His relatively short height and massive lower body give him a good base that provides the necessary leverage to go against bigger offensive linemen. He is utilized for his ability to stuff the run. Do not look for him to put up big sack numbers. He is an outstanding student and leader that the coaches are counting on in this his final season.

Todd McClinton (6'6, 305 - Sr.) and Donnell Clark (6'2, 266 - R/Fr.) are the two players listed behind Polk on the depth chart. McClinton is being held out of practice as doctors try to determine the cause of seizures that he has been experiencing throughout the summer. It is not known when McClinton will be able to return to the practice field. After being one of the most highly recruited players in Clemson's class just a few years ago, he has had a fairly quiet career. That may be due to his inexperience after playing for less than two years in high school, and learning a new position since moving over from tight end after his freshman year. He is the only player on the team to earn a letter on defense and offense. He has the ability to be a very good player and could earn another year of eligibility if he graduates by next August. As it stands, the prognosis for McClinton's return is not very good unless they find the cause of the seizures. That being said, Clark will have to hit the ground running. He is the most inexperienced of all the defensive linemen simply because he has never played a down and he is playing a new position. The converted middle linebacker is extremely strong to be a R/Fr. and only 266 lbs. His 430 lb. bench and 590 lb. squat should improve drastically by the time he is a senior. This year will be a learning experience as he continues to grow mentally and physically. His playing time will be very limited unless he completely surprises everyone during preseason practice.


This is a group that has as much promise and athletic ability as Clemson has seen in quite some time. That is good news for fans as they have spent the past two seasons watching the defensive line not perform up to par. They have a large task looming ahead of them in that not only must they increase last year's sack total of 31, but also they must do it while replacing Nick Eason and Bryant McNeal. The two accumulated more than half the team's sacks last year as they tallied seven and nine. The good is that the returning players have just as much if not more athletic ability than those that departed. Vaughn, Howard, and Fountain will be a good 3-man rotation at defensive end. Lovett likes to use Fountain and Howard in a lot of the zone blitz packages because he feels comfortable having them drop into pass coverage, and both are athletic enough to handle those duties. Howard is the type of guy that could be a linebacker on the next level just because of his size and speed. Jamison and Adams could surprise a lot of folks and earn their way into the rotation by mid-season. Washington, Polk, and Coleman will provide a fairly experienced 3-man rotation at defensive tackle. Look for Washington and Coleman to be in there together on passing situations, as they should be the better pass rushers of the three. Polk should definitely be in there in running situations and will get time on third and long if he shows he can get to the passer. Tate is coming along and will see significant time this year, especially if McClinton is unable to return. All in all, the defense will go as the defensive line goes. There is pressure on this group to step up their game so the inexperienced secondary will not have to shoulder such a huge burden. They have to do a much better job against the run while finding a way to put more pressure on the quarterback. Opposing offenses averaged nearly 4 yards per carry last year. Lovett would like to see that number closer to 2.5 or 3. The Georgia game will be a good test for the group. If they do well, the defense should settle in and have a good game. That would be a huge confidence boost for the entire defense and could lead to a successful season.

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