Behind Clemson's precocious defensive line is a pair of veteran linebackers that are leaving their mark on opponents this year and led Head Coach Dabo Swinney to coin one of college football's top new nicknames: "The Bruise Brothers."
Though he missed three games while recovering from a groin injury this year, middle linebacker James Skalski is in his fifth year in the Clemson program. He took a mid-career redshirt in 2018, playing four games including the ACC Championship Game, Cotton Bowl and National Championship Game in what he and others have called "the sweetest gig on the team" that year before becoming a full-time starter in 2019.
The physical presence of No. 47 has led Swinney to refer to him as "a war daddy" and calling his participation in practices and scrimmages "just unfair." But Skalski has had a new running mate at the second level of the defense this year, as redshirt junior Baylon Spector has produced superlative performances so far in 2020 including an ACC Linebacker of the Week selection for his play against Virginia on Oct. 3.
The first-year starter announced his presence in a reserve role in last year's College Football Playoff when he had two sacks against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
"[Spector] and Skalski, it's a reflection of how they practice. I'm telling you, every single rep at practice is a game rep to those two guys. They put a ton of work in every week to get themselves ready to play," Swinney said. "I know how hard they've worked. It's the unseen grind. That's a ton of work that they've put in. "I call them The Bruise Brothers. Those two right there, it's something to watch and it's fun to see."
The duo's success is not merely a function of their physicality and hard work. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables praised the cerebral nature of their play as well.
"They've developed some really good chemistry together. They're always having side chat conversations when I'm trying to talk with the whole defense and I'm having to correct at practice, and I look over and they're coaching each other. Sometimes that bothers me, I'll be honest, [smiling] but I absolutely love it because it's always about the details of what we're talking about," Venables said. "They're like two coaches, really, out on the field."