Rebuild or reload? Tigers facing same questions at defensive end as in 2015


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(From left to right) Register, Ferrell and Yeargin will be counted on this season
(From left to right) Register, Ferrell and Yeargin will be counted on this season

For those who want Clemson to fail in 2016, it’s easy to point to the loss of defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and say that Brent Venables’ defense will be hard-pressed to replicate the numbers put up in 2014 and 2015.

It’s the same question Clemson faced a year ago, and the defensive ends turned out just fine.

Entering the 2015 season, the Tigers were facing life without Corey Crawford and Vic Beasley and many wondered just where the production would come from. Dodd and Lawson, who combined for 14 tackles for loss in 2014, combined for 49 in 2015 and parlayed that success into NFL contracts.

The Tigers face similar questions this year. At the end of spring football, the defensive ends atop the depth chart were redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell and sophomores Austin Bryant, Chris Register, and Richard Yeargin. They combined for three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. The concern about production from the end spot prompted head coach Dabo Swinney and Venables to move defensive tackle Christian Wilkins to end in the spring.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Clemson has a tradition of excellence at the defensive end spot, and it all starts with leadership. Gaines Adams passed the torch to Da'Quan Bowers, and Bowers made sure Malliciah Goodman was ready to fill his shoes. Goodman and Andre Branch in turn mentored Vic Beasley and Crawford, and those two returned the favor with Lawson and Dodd. Lawson and Dodd have mentored Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins and the rest of the youngsters.

Add Wilkins and freshman Xavier Kelly to the mix, and Swinney thinks the Tigers have the talent to continue to see production from the ends

“They are all bundled in there and they are competing. We are a long way from saying, 'they are the guy.' Whoever ends up starting there is going to be a lot of competition from guys that deserve to play,” Swinney told TigerNet in the spring. “I am very pleased as far as the ability that I've seen and the want-to from Austin (Bryant) - he's played a lot and he's confident. Clelin (Ferrell) is going to be a good player. (Richard) Yeargin is really blossoming and showing up. I think (Chris) Register is improving a ton. I am pleased with that group. I am anxious to get Xavier (Kelly) in there this summer and see how he mixes in.

“The other thing I think we have found out that I didn't know is that (Christian) Wilkins can play end. I am really excited about what I've seen out of him. That gives us a wild card because we've got depth inside. We're very talented but inexperienced on the edges right now. LaSamuel (Davis) has a ways to go physically. He wants to be a good player but he has to develop physically. Xavier will be ready physically but I don't know where he will be mentally as a freshman. But coming out of the spring knowing that Wilkins can not only play end but can play well and can do everything we need him to do is the most comforting piece of knowledge I've been able to get this spring. He can bounce around and can be a good player inside and obviously add to the depth outside.”

Venables also liked what he saw out of the ends in the spring, including a bulked-up Yeargin.

“He (Yeargin) is about 260 pounds right now, and that's not small by anybody's standard. Richard is a high-motor guy who has a quick twitch to him,” Venables said. “He's really starting to learn the position. When we first offered him he was a high safety, and then we offered him as a linebacker, and he played linebacker for a year. And then his senior year he played mostly defensive tackle - he was a 4-technique. He didn't even play defensive end. Although he had his hand in the dirt more often than not, he had to start over and really build his body and mind and his skillset. I feel good about Richard and how good he's come. There's a good group of guys there with Austin (Bryant) and Clelin (Ferrell) and Chris Register. We will bring some young guys along.”

Bryant might be the next star in the making. He worked his way up the depth chart and played a significant role in Clemson’s win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Bryant stands to earn a starting spot, but he isn’t taking anything for granted heading into the spring. He knows he has to start over with the coaches in the fall.

“It helped a lot last year, but this year is a new year, so you can't really harp on it too much, just got to keep working every day this year because this year is all that is going to count. Last year's home runs aren't going to win today's games,” Bryant saiid. “Of course, you take the experience away from it, playing on a big stage, but it's a new year, so you have to start over.

“My goal is to help the team as much as I can. I can't say I'll be Shaq like he was last year, can't say I'll be (Kevin) Dodd; I'm going to be Austin Bryant and that's all I can do is give everything I have and hopefully that will help the defense.”

Yeargin was at 260 pounds at the end of spring

Bryant said he gained invaluable experience while watching Dodd and Lawson.

“Oh yeah, it was real critical,” he said. “They helped win some games for us last year, so the ends we got this year, including myself, we can do the same,” he said. “Coming from high school and watching those guys as they got older and better and better every year. To be able to play with some potential first round picks - it was a big help. I know a lot because of them. It was a great experience.”

The loss of Lawson and Dodd is also a loss in leadership, but Bryant hopes he can step in there, as well.

“I think so. I'm one of the ones that played a significant amount of snaps, so I think I can be that leader,” Bryant said. “It's just a matter of me earning that respect of the guys around me, and that's just going to take coming out here on the practice field and practicing as hard as I can each and every day. Giving effort in the classroom, in the meeting rooms and everything. If they see that, they are going to want to follow someone like that.

“I think we all have to take on a little bit of the leadership role if we want to get to where we want to be at the end of this year. It's not just one specific guy that needs to do that. Every guy on the defense needs to take on ownership and do their part and hopefully be where we want to be.”

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