With Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and D.J. Reader off to the NFL, Clemson must once again find new stars to lead its defensive line
CLEMSON, S.C. — Dabo Swinney understood why someone who didn't follow Clemson's program closely might worry about the state of the Tigers' defensive line this time last year. "Everybody was like 'What are you going to do?'" Swinney said. From the outside, the situation looked dire. Starting defensive ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford were gone. So were starting tackles Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson. Swinney could only chuckle.
"We'll be a'ight*," Swinney told everyone.
*Yes, Swinney and Alabama coach Nick Saban both utilize the contraction "a'ight." Swinney tends to us it as an indication that things are going to be O.K. Saban prefers to use it as punctuation following a definitive declaration. College football is a rich tapestry.
As we learned last season, Clemson was better than a'ight on the defensive line. The Tigers lost every starter and managed to get even better. That's why Swinney is getting the same questions this year. How can Clemson replace ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and tackle D.J. Reader? Lawson and Dodd combined for 49 tackles for loss after all. Certainly the line will fall off a cliff after losing that much production. Won't it?
It'll probably be a'ight.
"It's just the brand we've built here," 315-pound rising sophomore tackle Christian Wilkins said after a recent spring practice. That brand is a veritable assembly line that can plug in new parts and chug along as efficiently as ever. It was built partially by prudent recruiting and development and partially by older players willing to be generous with advice and time for young players only barely cracking the two-deep.
The second part existed before the first part. Until about 2011, Clemson had the occasional excellent defensive lineman, but the Tigers couldn't recruit monsters across the front. Still, the best who were there taught the rising stars. On the edge, the late Gaines Adams mentored Da'Quan Bowers. Bowers mentored Malliciah Goodman. Goodman mentored Vic Beasley and Dodd. Beasley mentored Lawson and Dodd. Lawson and Dodd have mentored Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins, the sophomore and redshirt sophomore who will take their places. Defensive ends coach Marion Hobby knows what he teaches will be backed up by someone currently playing in the NFL, and that always helps convince younger players to listen and learn. "Just recruit guys that buy into the system," Goodman said, "and keep passing the information down."
The system has worked the same way on the inside. The tackles are coached by Dan Brooks, the assistant who recruited Emmitt Smith to Florida and coached one of the most ferocious tackle combos in recent college football memory when he had John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth at Tennessee. What Brooks teaches is endorsed by Jarrett, who helped outgoing Reader and rising senior Carlos Watkins. Reader and Watkins, meanwhile, have helped raise Wilkins. Watkins and Wilkins will try to bring along early enrollee Dexter Lawrence, a 6'4", 340-pounder who should crack the rotation this season. After Clemson's pro day earlier this month, Reader could only shake his head at the potential of Lawrence, who has the raw materials necessary to be the best version of a tackle to come off the line at Clemson D-Line Inc. "He's making the same mistakes that we made," Reader said, "but he's a player."
The other piece is identification and development. Dodd had barely played football when Clemson offered a scholarship. That scholarship was based only on potential and nothing he'd done on the field. Coaches saw a tall, thick athlete with bad grades and took a chance that Dodd would get through prep school, get to Clemson and learn the game. Dodd needed time, but he eventually grew into the 6'5", 275-pounder who exploded during last season's College Football Playoff. Beasley, meanwhile, came to Clemson as a running back. He then moved to linebacker and finally to defensive end, where then-veterans such as Goodman couldn't believe the quickness of his first step. Goodman then helped reinforce Hobby's request that Beasley stop thinking so much and just move. "Bro, just put your hand in the ground and go," Goodman remembered telling Beasley. Beasley went all the way to the No. 8 pick in the draft.
As Clemson practices this spring, Watkins—who filled in for Reader for a significant chunk of the 2015 season—and Wilkins can offer similar tips to Lawrence. This time last year, the Tigers didn't know if the 2015 line could live up to the standard set by the '14 group, but they felt pretty good about its chances. The mood is similarly optimistic this year. Forget a drop-off. The question is whether the Tigers' front will get even better again.
Meanwhile, the players inside will do their best to keep the assembly line humming. "And I teach the next guys," Wilkins said. "And hopefully they'll teach the guys after that and we'll just keep it going."
A random ranking
I got a request from reader Zachary Miller to rank the best sports broadcast theme songs. He suggested a top two. I humbly disagree.
1. Monday Night Football (Heavy Action)
2. CBS college football
3. NBA on NBC (John Tesh's Roundball Rock)*
*Skip to the 2:40 mark of this video to see the doppelgänger of a guy who is more commonly associated with the song at No. 2.
4. The Olympics on NBC
5. CBS college basketball (Also all NCAA tournament broadcasts)
6. NHL on ESPN (R.I.P)
7. The NFL on Fox
8. Wimbledon on NBC
9. College football on ABC (R.I.P)
10. The Masters
1. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the school has "adjusted" its transfer stance, meaning it won't be issuing blanket releases when players decide to leave the school. McGarity told the paper that this decision came after a meeting with first-year coach Kirby Smart. "Kirby brought me up to date on this when we were discussing our stance, and so that stance has been adjusted," McGarity told the paper.
At issue was the transfer of junior tailback A.J. Turman, who is neither Nick Chubb nor Sony Michel and therefore not in line to receive a ton of carries in 2016. Smart would later tell reporters that even though Turman had no interest in transferring to Florida or Miami—where former Georgia coach Mark Richt landed—his policy is not to release players to programs on Georgia's schedule or where the former coach is.
Smart is bringing Georgia's policy into line with the policies of most Power 5 programs, but that doesn't make it any less silly. Turman hasn't graduated, so he'd have to sit out a year no matter where he goes. He's already being penalized for transferring. All the block does is keep him from getting a scholarship at the blocked schools.
So why block him at all? If he's not good enough to crack the two-deep at your school, then you shouldn't be afraid of playing against him in 2017. Smart's staff just got to Georgia, so players leaving now would be of limited use to other programs from a scouting context. They don't know the schemes. And McGarity didn't think Richt was good enough to coach the Bulldogs anymore. Why are he and Smart worried about Richt getting players who couldn't start at Georgia?
This isn't limited to the Bulldogs, of course. Nearly everyone in the Power 5 does this. It doesn't change the fact that blocking transfers who already have to sit out a year makes coaches and athletic directors look like scared control freaks.
2. While it appears Turman may be headed out, the Bulldogs might wind up adding a player to their incoming class. Scout.com reported Sunday that Savannah, Ga., athlete Demetris Robertson has signed a financial aid agreement with Georgia. This means the Bulldogs' staff can have nearly unlimited communication with Robertson, whose recruitment made national headlines in January when Notre Dame sent its 18-wheeler to Robertson's neighborhood and his school. Robertson has also signed financial aid agreements with Cal and Georgia Tech, giving those staffs the same communication privileges under NCAA rules.
Last year, four-star linebacker Roquan Smith only signed a financial aid agreement before joining the Bulldogs. Smith originally committed to UCLA on National Signing Day, but after learning Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was headed to the Atlanta Falcons, Smith reopened his recruitment. He also decided he wouldn't sign the National Letter of Intent, which binds a player to the school.
Like Smith, Robertson does not need to sign the NLI. As a highly sought after recruit, there are plenty of schools that will be happy to give him a scholarship if he decides to show up on one of their campuses
3. One Akron football player shot another in the stomach this past weekend after mistaking him for a burglar. According to the Akron Beacon-Journal, receiver Andrew Pratt entered the apartment of offensive tackle Scott Boyett at 3 a.m. without notifying Boyett that he was coming. Boyett, who told police he was unsure of who was in his apartment, shot Pratt in the stomach.
Boyett then drove Pratt to the emergency room. Pratt is expected to make a full recovery, and both players told police that the incident was a mistake. No charges will be filed.
4. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh believes the outrage over the Wolverines' spring break practices in Florida was "fake." He expounded during an interview last week on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike show. The Harbaugh interview begins at the six-minute mark.
5. Want to watch a 405-pound man run a 40-yard dash faster than you or I could? Go to the 40-second mark of this video and watch Baylor tight end LaQuan McGowan as he dipped into the 5.4-second range at Pro Day last week. Will some team decide to draft McGowan for the heaviest of Heavy Jumbo packages? We'll see.
6. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp were thrilled last week to learn that the state of South Carolina will adjust its grading scale in high schools beginning in the 2016–17 school year. South Carolina had used a scale in which a 93–100 average was an A, an 85–92 was a B, 77–84 was a C, 69–76 was a D and anything below 69 was an F. Using the new scale, which matches the scales used in bordering Georgia and North Carolina, an A is 90–100, a B is 80–89, a C is 70–79 and a D is 60–69.
Why would this matter to the coaches? Because the NCAA's initial eligibility standards only recognize grade point average, and high-schoolers from their state had to meet a higher standard than high-schoolers from other states. This could potentially deepen the pool from which Swinney and Muschamp can recruit in their state.
7. Arizona isn't playing a traditional spring game this year, but the Wildcats did hold an open practice earlier this month. Fans even got a chance to test themselves against the players. If the guy at the 1:06 mark has any eligibility remaining, sign him up.
8. The quarterbacks coach at Stanford will henceforth be known as the Kevin M. Hogan Quarterbacks Coach thanks to an endowment from Stanford alums Kim and Eddie Poplawski. Hogan started for the Cardinal for four years and led them to three Pac-12 titles. "In our minds, Kevin has set the gold standard on many different levels for student-athletes," the Poplawskis said in a statement. "He leads by example with conviction and grace. He competes with intense passion, but always with respect and tremendous humility. He thoughtfully and thoroughly prepares himself for the challenges he faces on and off the field, while remaining keenly focused and concerned about the successes of others not just his own." Stanford's current quarterbacks coach is former Cardinal signal-caller Tavita Pritchard.
9. The California Supreme Court has rejected an NCAA appeal, and the defamation lawsuit filed by former USC coach Todd McNair in 2011 will continue in a Los Angeles Court. Prepare for a few more document dumps that will make the NCAA's actions in the Reggie Bush case look fairly ham-fisted. Or prepare for the NCAA to settle.
10. We're not done with 400-pounders running 40-yard dashes. This would have run last week, but we switched to Buckets, Brackets and Brisket in honor of the NCAA tournament. Earlier this month, 6'7", 410-pound BYU signee Motekiai Langi ran his 40 in full missionary attire. Langi, who is from Tonga, signed with the Cougars in 2015. He is currently serving his mission in Arizona.
What's eating Andy?
Because of poor performance—and probably because of fans renting planes to pull banners calling for his firing—UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford gave back a one-year contract extension he had previously received.
This move could cost Alford $2.6 million in buyout money if he's fired after next season. (If it's like this past season, he will be.) So who will be the first football coach to give up guaranteed money as penance for a season in which he didn't exactly earn his salary?
[Is awakened by the aroma of the bacon in the next section.]
What's Andy eating?
Sometimes, it's best to explain things to me as if I'm a 6-year-old. As I stared at the menu at Oklahoma City's Kitchen No. 324 on Saturday morning, the entry for "Bacon and Monterey Jack Strata" didn't exactly jump off the page. The price ($7.99) didn't suggest anything out of the ordinary. The additional info (thyme béchamel, crispy potatoes) didn't offer any extra clues. I'm not a brunch person—why combine two perfectly good meals?—so I had no idea what "strata" meant beyond the geological definition. Fortunately, my server saved me from what would have been a tragic ordering omission.
"It's essentially bacon cake," she said.
A more accurate definition might be bacon bread pudding. As I learned Saturday, strata is what the brunchies call a layered casserole. Replace the bread with eggs, and it would be a quiche. But for neanderthals such as myself, Bacon Cake would be a perfectly acceptable menu descriptor. And $20 would be a perfectly acceptable price because the hunk I received made for the best breakfast I've eaten all year.
Back when I was writing my Heaven is a Buffet blog, I handed down two commandments. The first of these was this: There is nothing on earth that can't be improved by adding a few slabs of bacon. This includes cake. The salty-sweet combination snapped me out of the zombie state I'd been in since filing a column about Paul Jesperson's halfcourt buzzer-beater seven hours earlier. That wonderful server offered another piece of advice.
"You should try just the bacon," she said. Yes, America. Angels do exist.
For an additional $4.50, she brought a plate covered by thick slabs of McCabe's small-batch bacon. Imagine an only-slightly-thinner version of the bacon steaks served as an appetizer at your favorite $200-a-visit velvet-walled steakhouse. Then add a kiss of sweetness on the front end. Bacon cake may capture the imagination, but perfect bacon still owns the tastebuds.Andy Staples
Because I can't help myself, I also ordered a biscuit with chorizo gravy. I have a complicated relationship with chorizo. I love it every time we're reunited. This is especially true when said chorizo is served atop a warm, flaky biscuit nestled in a pool of gravy loaded with chunks of even more chorizo. I savored every bite even though I knew how angrily it would sit in my stomach for the rest of the day. This ensuing pain wasn't Kitchen No. 324's fault. It wasn't the chorizo's fault. It was my fault for not being made of strong enough stuff to withstand the strength of the Iberian peninsula's version of hot guts. As I labored in the gym to sweat out the bacon, the bacon cake and the chorizo biscuit and gravy, I cursed my inferior construction.
Eventually, my stomach settled. The curses stopped, and only the happy memories remained. That's when I offered up thanks for the angels who guide us toward the finest parts of the pig.