Back Seven Has Led the Tiger Defense

Zach Lentz

CLEMSON — The national media may have expected the Clemson Tigers offense to be an elite, nearly unstoppable force that they have morphed into the last six seven games. But few could have imagined that the defense could be just as good, if not better than, last year's squad. 

But that is exactly what has happened. 

Even after losing five defensive linemen, including all four starters, to the NFL the Tigers are playing better than they did last season.

The reason for the Tigers' dominant defense has been an improved back seven.

"Yes, we had some great players leave, but we have great players here," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "That was my big thing coming into the season, was I felt like this was the best back seven that I had had since I've been a head coach.

"We're young, but very talented up front. When you're very disciplined, detailed in the back seven, you cannot necessarily cover up some things up front, because we're not covering anything up, but we can take some pressure off of those guys. As opposed to when you're not experienced on the back seven, you can be really, really good up front, it puts a lot of pressure on those guys because if you got guys running wide-open, you just don't have a lot of room for error."

The Tigers enter this week's ACC Championship ranked first in scoring defense (allowing 10.1 points per game), 11th in rush defense (allowing 106.33 yards per game), first in pass defense (allowing 126.5 yards per game) and only .5 yards per game behind Ohio State for the top spot in total defense.

Compared to the 2018 team, the 2019 team is better in nine of 13 major defensive categories.

While many around the nation may think it surprising that the defense has continued their great play, Swinney expects it.

That's our expectation every single year," Swinney said. "That's kind of part of the deal, is everybody focused on who left. They forget to focus on who is still there.

"We certainly expected to be a good defense. That's just the standard that we have. We lose players every single year on offense and defense. We feel like we've recruited well and developed well. If you do that, you got a good chance to sustain some consistency."

Again, Swinney believes that the Tigers' success this season is a result of the great play of his linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks.

In fact, the Tigers' are clearly better than they were last season — ranking 24th, 14th, 26th and 10th in passing yards allowed, pass efficiency defense, yards per pass allowed and completion percentage. This season, the Tigers rank first in every one of those categories.

"I just think, yes, we lost some great players up front, but we had a great group in our back seven coming back," Swinney said. "Again, good, young talent in that D-line that's developed nicely, really has been able to just go play, have not had to have a lot of pressure put on them when it comes to just having to feel like they got to make a play, this and that, because you're not great on the back end."