Who can replace Austin Bryant at defensive end?


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Bryant played a big role in the win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl
Bryant played a big role in the win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl

Going into fall camp and the early part of 2016, there were four players that Clemson couldn’t afford to lose on the defensive side of the ball due to youth and experience.

Cordrea Tankersley, Ben Boulware, Austin Bryant, and Jadar Johnson.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney announced Tuesday evening after the final practice before classes begin that Bryant – the Tigers only defensive end with significant experience – will miss the rest of fall camp and beginning of the season, including the opener at Auburn, due to a broken bone in his foot. The hope is that Bryant will be back for the game at Georgia Tech in late September.

What does his injury mean for Brent Venables’ defense and the defensive line?

First, Bryant was the only end on the roster to play significant snaps last season in a meaningful game. The Pavo (GA) native appeared in 13 games and played 219 snaps, including 63 snaps in the Capital One Orange Bowl after Shaq Lawson went down with a knee injury. In the game against Oklahoma, he contributed eight tackles, including half a sack.

Clemson has talent at defensive end with Chris Register, Richard Yeargin, Sterling Johnson, Clelin Ferrell, Xavier Kelly and Jabril Robinson.

However, the only two players who have contributed at defensive end are Yeargin, who has 147 career snaps and Register, who missed most of 2015 due to injury and has logged just 14 snaps at defensive end after moving from linebacker.

Will the coaches let Christian “Slash” Wilkins play defensive end at Auburn to provide some experience at the position?

One early guess is that Yeargin will get the nod against Auburn. From everything we've heard, he's had a great camp and one source told us recently that "Yeargin just needs an opportunity."

This could be that opportunity. His hit on Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon in the Orange Bowl is still a YouTube favorite, and he this is the beginning of his third year in the program.

With every scholarship defensive end over 6-2 and 255 pounds (except freshman Lasamuel Davis), the physical part of playing defensive end shouldn’t be a problem; however, the mental aspect of the position is a different story.

Swinney said after Saturday’s scrimmage that learning to play defensive end in Clemson’s scheme is extremely difficult.

"There's a lot going on. The game has changed. You've got a lot of misdirection happening and speed motions. Am I squeezing? Am I up the field? There's just a lot going on,” Swinney said. “It's not just putting your hand in the dirt and containing and getting after the quarterback. It's a lot more, especially in our scheme. We've got a lot of movement. We're very seldom in one place. There's a lot of stunts and twists, and our ends are involved in coverage some too. So there's just a lot going on."

Brent Venables says “next man up” doesn’t apply in the real world, and players have to earn their snaps.

“We lost some experience, yes, but I think it comes down to the physical and mental toughness that we’ve got to find out if guys are going to have it or not. We may not know when the first game comes. It might be midseason. We’ve got a lot to work through and to discover and to develop. How are we going to generate a pass rush? I’m not one to believe you just, ‘OK the next man up,’ and you’re going to get the same kind of production. I don’t buy into that jargon. Guys gotta go earn it. You’ve got to develop them. You’ve got to stress them, and sometimes it’s not as good as it was. Sometimes it exceeds your expectations. But generating a pass rush, particularly at defensive end, I think that there’s a lot that we don’t know there yet.”

Facing a Gus Malzahn Auburn offense in week one will be no easy task, as it’s very similar to what Georgia Tech runs, except with more movement, window dressing, formations, and better athletes.

Who will rise to the challenge and fill the void? We’re about to find out.

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