CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson's defense looked ready to take a big step backward after losing eight starters from its No. 1 unit. Coordinator Brent Venables knew, though, his few returnees like linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson, would have a huge say in keeping the defense playing at a national championship level.
Goodson leads the team with 146 tackles with Boulware right behind at 132. They've combined for nine sacks and four interceptions - and becoming the hard hitting soul of the nation's No. 1 team. The Tigers (14-0) face No. 2 Alabama for the national championship on Monday night in Arizona.
Safe to say, Clemson would not have come this far without the consistent play of its linebackers.
''It has helped a lot,'' Venables said.
The Tigers led the country in defense last year, allowing 260 yards a game. They were powered by a fiercesome front four led by defensive end and first-round NFL draft pick Vic Beasley. Clemson also lost linebacker Stephone Anthony, a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints.
''We knew had a good first group,'' Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. ''We knew we'd have to get some of the young guys to grow up.''
That task fell to Boulware and Goodson.
''We obviously lost a lot of guys on the front and the back end,'' Boulware said. But ''I knew the leadership and the maturity of the guys we have now. So I think it was more outside of Clemson who thought there was going to be a drop off. We knew from the get-go that we'd be fine.''
Goodson is a 6-foot-1, 250-pound fifth-year senior who showed his big play potential last year with three recovered fumbles as a part-time starter. He remained around the ball at his middle linebacker spot, collecting two more fumbles this year to go with his two interceptions.
Before defensive tackle Carlos Watkins stopped Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer on a two-point conversion to preserve Clemson's 24-22 win last October, Goodson had an interception and pounced on a fumble to halt two fourth-quarter drives by the Fighting Irish.
''I call him Mr. Everything because he does everything,'' Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said.
If Goodson is poised and in position, Boulware is a frenetic player who's volume always goes up to 11. He's had seven pass breakups, the most of Clemson's linebackers. He's also usually around the ball, blitzing past opposing lineman to get near the quarterback.
Boulware had 11 tackles and a sack in Clemson's 37-17 win over No. 4 Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl to advance to the title game.
''We just got to showcase our talents,'' Goodson said. ''That's what we're witnessing right now.''
Clemson's defense has steadily molded itself into a formidable group. The Tigers ended the season ranked seventh nationally in the Football Bowl Subdivision and have provided the perfect complement to an offense that has struck for 500 or more yards in 10 straight games.
Have there been lapses? Certainly.
Clemson saw an 18-point lead shrink to 37-32 in a win over rival South Carolina to close the regular season, then a week later in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game had a 19-point lead over North Carolina dwindle to 45-37 in the final period.
Boulware said Venables, in his fourth season guiding Clemson's defense, worked hard to correct the errors over the nearly four week break between the ACC championship and the Orange Bowl. The results were obvious, Boulware said.
Clemson held Oklahoma to a season-low 67 yards rushing after the Sooners had run for 232 or more yards in each of their previous seven games.
''We'll be ready to compete,'' Goodson said. ''It'll be fun.''