Rumph says best players will play this season, but has talent to choose from

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Ricky Sapp has taken his talents to the next level, but plenty of talent remains
Ricky Sapp has taken his talents to the next level, but plenty of talent remains

CLEMSON – The way Chris Rumph sees it, he likes his house so much he can’t afford to play favorites.

Clemson’s defensive ends coach met with the media this week to talk about spring practice, and Rumph said past history, recruiting rankings and fan favoritism are all out the window – the best person is going to play.

“Competition. That will be the word in our room,” Rumph said. “Nobody will be guaranteed anything. The best man will play. We're going to keep them on their heels. We don't have any starters right now. We're going to throw guys out there and see what sticks, who makes it, who survives."

Da’Quan Bowers will probably be the starter at one side, and will be backed up by Malliciah Goodman. Ricky Sapp’s graduation has opened the door for either Andre Branch or Kourtnei Brown to grab a starting role on the other side of the line, but Rumph said the best two will play, regardless.

“The best two will play hands down,” he said. “We'll get the best two guys. I just bought a house. I like it and my wife likes it. So we're going to get the best two guys out there, unless you've got some room for me in your house."

Rumph said that with the advent of a new scheme that came with the arrival of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, last year was about getting the players comfortable in the system. This year, he said, will be about getting better.

"We've got to get better fundamentally. Last year was just growing. Last year we tried to learn a new defense, a new system. We had new coaches. But I thought our guys did a great job of learning the defense. Now, we've got to get better, fundamentally. You know just technique.”

The last time Brown played was against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl when he tallied three tackles and a tackle for loss against the Huskers. With the wealth of talent on hand last season, Clemson coaches decided to redshirt Brown, who had already played two seasons, in an effort to get him stronger and more physical, and Rumph said Brown took full advantage of the redshirt.

"Just looking at him, you can tell he’s taken full advantage of his redshirt year,” Rumph said. “He's put on some pounds. He's about 255, close to 260. Probably as heavy as he’s ever been in his life. Believe or not, though, he's just as fast as or faster than he was. Also, one of the things that he worked on was his toughness.

“He came from a private school, a small school and it was mainly a basketball situation. Coach Scott and Coach Pearman did good job in preparing him. This off-season he was put in situations where he had to be tough. He was forced to be tough and I think he realizes it paid off.”

Rumph also praised Brown’s athleticism, and said he will be a better player because he understands his position better.

"If you look at him on paper, he's probably the most athletic guy in that room,” Rumph said. “He's 6-4, 6-5, can run like the wind, can jump and do it all. Coming in here he was a little green, just understanding the game of football. He understands his position more, why he has to do certain things, why we ask him to do certain things.”

Rumph was told it was surprising that he would say Brown was the most athletic in the group, considering the prowess of Bowers, and he said even Bowers would admit to Brown’s athleticism.

"Da'Quan is an athletic guy, but Kourtnei Brown is the most athletic guy in that room,” he said. “If you ask those guys in there, they'll tell you that also. He’s pretty athletic. But, that hasn't translated into anything yet. There are a lot of guys in the stands on Saturday afternoon who are athletic, too. He'll have to turn that athleticism into some playmaking ability."

Branch, a rising junior, burst onto the scene last season in his reserve role. He played 316 snaps and totaled 42 tackles, which included two sacks, and in the latter stages of the season seemed to be all over the field.

“If you look back at those games, he was one of the guys who made a big play or a big tackle in every game from start to finish,” Rumph said of Branch. “He's a big motor guy, a big effort guy. Sometimes he's probably not as fluid-looking as Ricky or Da'Quan, but when you look at productivity, he's right up there with them. I am looking for big things from him. He's a natural leader.

“He still has to mature. This winter has been really good for him. I've seen a difference in him. Since we got back with him, I can see that he's trying to lead and trying to get those guys to follow him. I'm really pleased with where he is right now."

The emergence of Goodman was also bright spot for the Tigers as the freshman recorded 30 tackles and two sacks while playing 306 snaps. Rumph said Goodman obviously became more comfortable as the season went on, and he is excited about the possibilities Goodman offers.

“The stare he had at the beginning of the year, I noticed it less as the season went along,” he said. “It was a good season for him, for him to get thrown into the fire. Coming from West Florence, probably being the biggest, strongest guy on his team and then to come in here and thrown in with those guys, being forced to do things that helped him, that was big. The light has not totally come on yet. He's still sort of trying to feel his way through some things. Once he does that, though, watch out."

Bowers is entering his third year in the program, and could be poised to make the jump into elite status provided he remains healthy. He was ninth on the team in tackles last season, despite missing almost three full games with a knee injury. Bowers had a career-high 11 tackles against Tech in the ACC Championship Game, and Rumph said once Bowers learns to trust his knee, the sky will be the limit.

“He's got to get healthy. His knee needs to get stronger,” he said. “He needs to lose some weight. He's down to about 280 now. I think 275 is his ideal weight, and he does not need to get any bigger than that. I think at 275 he can still maintain his power and be a step quicker than he was last year when he played at 285, or 290 where he was last year, a little pokey.

“I don't think he's having any problems with his knee now. I just don't think he's 100 percent trusting it yet to let it go. [Trainer] Danny Poole and those guys do a great job. They'll get him back. He was having pretty good season and you hate to see a guy get hurt. He was understanding the defense and what he was doing. He has the ability to take over a game. We want that guy to be a person to where an offensive coordinator says on Sunday, 'How do we block No. 93?'"

Rumph said that having Steele back for a second season will also mean a lot to his group, and he’s glad the uproar died down after the rumors started flying about Steele leaving to take a job at Tennessee.

“When all that stuff was happening, my phone was blowing up, guys were saying it was going to be their third spring with a new defense,” he said. “They were really concerned about it. I was concerned about it. Our guys have bought into the system, his tempo, his attitude, philosophy, the brand we're trying sell, the guys had really bought into it.

“So having him back, now we can really get into the meat of it and not as much teach the defense but teach the fundamentals and technique that go along with it. Not saying we weren’t teaching it last year, but now the players know the system. They know what's expected. We know the players and the players know the system and they know what is expected of them. Coach Steele told them when we had our first meeting that we're going to be taking it to another level."

Losing Sapp’s playmaking ability will hurt on the field, but Sapp was also a leader off the field, and Rumph said he thinks Branch might be the guy to take over that leadership role.

"I think if there’s a leader, it's probably Andre Branch,” Rumph said. “He has a following. He might be the Jimmy Swaggart of my room. He's got a following, now. Kids really gravitate towards him. He's a great kid. He's a great person. He's funny. He’s serious. He also works hard. When we're running, he's one of the first guys. You never hear his name called out for loafing or not giving great effort. He's got a 3.0. He's never in trouble. He's just a model guy. Andre and probably Da’Quan - probably those two are my leaders in that room."

Arriving in the fall are Corey Crawford and Tavaris, two highly-regarded defensive end recruits, and Rumph was asked if he thinks it will be tough for the freshman to contribute.

"I don't even know. They might be starting. You never know. I don't promise anybody anything. Playing time - players are responsible for that. I tell guys all the time - this is the way I feed my family. Don't ever worry about me playing favorites, because I like to eat. My wife likes to eat. I'm going to play the best."

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