AP Photo
June 02, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Clemson led the country in defense last year, largely because of an experienced front line with a four-man group that started a combined 114 games the past four seasons.

Now, they have all moved on, leaving the Tigers coaches to send in the next wave of players looking to maintain the team's status as the top-ranked defense in the nation.

Defensive ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford, and defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams combined to play in 200 games during their Clemson careers and were the starting point as the Tigers yielded just 260 yards a game last season.

It is a daunting challenge that upcoming starting defensive end thinks his group is ready to meet.

''I feel like we'll be pretty good,'' said Dodd, a backup last year listed as a starter on Clemson's summer depth chart. ''We lost some great players, but we had some pretty great players behind those great players. I feel like we're going to fill in and do well.''

Joining Dodd at defensive end is another junior, Shaq Lawson. The interior of the line features senior D.J. Reader and junior Carlos Watkins. All but Dodd played in excess of 130 snaps last season, critical experience heading into the fall.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agrees there shouldn't be a drop off along the line, even without first-round NFL draft pick Beasley who set the school's record with 33 sacks.

''So first group is very, very solid,'' he said. ''But the biggest difference for us is we just don't have the experienced depth. We have talented depth, but it's very inexperienced and that's going to be the key to our defense.''

Clemson may have taken care of its most important defensive issue when it locked up coordinator Brent Venables with a four-year contract for $1.35 million a season that ties him to the Tigers through 2018. It was Venables who turned a struggling unit into a powerhouse with determined players up front.

Beasley was a one-time running back/tight end who blossomed into Clemson's best pass rusher. Jarrett, considered undersized at six-foot tall, became a relentless tackler who routinely pushed bigger offensive linemen back into the pocket.

Reader, who was a power hitting first baseman on Clemson's baseball team his freshman year, had 27 tackles including seven behind the line of scrimmage last season. Lawson made 44 stops in 2014, including 11 tackles for loss.

Venables said while players like Reader and Lawson have achieved in backup roles, the new starters must prove they can do it for longer stretches and at every critical moment this upcoming season.

''It's something we'll have to wait and see,'' he said.

Clemson's depth took a hit last month when rising sophomore defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko was dismissed from the team after his arrest for financial transaction fraud.

Swinney said the team has concentrated on building depth along the line in its past few recruiting classes. That includes defensive end Albert Huggins, one of the ESPN's top 300 players a year ago who enrolled early at Clemson and is pushing for immediate playing time.

If the front line holds up, Clemson has an experienced secondary behind led by returning starters Mackensie Alexander at cornerback and Jayron Kearse at safety.

'''We've got to get a little lucky and hope that we can kind of keep those front-line guys healthy,'' Swinney said. ''But how quickly we can develop the young talent that we have and get them game ready to where they can help us out.''

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