A roster of Clemson defensive linemen resembles the cast of “The Expendables,” a roll call of action stars on a mission.
Much of the impetus for Clemson’s optimism is fulfilling the preseason notion that this could be one of the top defenses in the nation, and any measure of success Clemson achieves begins and ends with the line.
“We hear everybody saying this is the best defensive line in the country,” senior tackle DeShawn Williams said.
“We want to be a top-10, top-5 defense,” he said. “We want to win another ACC championship, and take back what is ours.
“But we’re staying humble because we know there are other teams out there working as hard as we are.”
Few are as accomplished.
From a defense that ranked top 25 in total defense and scoring defense in 2013, Clemson returns extraordinary depth of experience along the line, six tackles and six ends. Among them, nine total 91 games as starters.
Ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford and tackle Grady Jarrett are the lynchpins, but in Brent Venables’ world, it’s about churn, keeping fresh legs on the field.
“We have a solid two-deep of talent and experience,” said Venables, beginning his third season, “a bunch of long, athletic guys that are disruptive, like to play.”
Venables loves this group because “they hate losing more than they like winning.”
That requires juggling 10 egos competing for prime time while challenging them to maintain an edge, which can be an art for a coach, one which defensive line coaches Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby seem to have mastered.
“Coach Brooks doesn’t want to run his defensive line into the ground. So you have four snaps to bust it, then some else comes in and plays. Everybody gets about 30 snaps a game, which seems to even out well,” said Williams, who shed more than 10 pounds when Brooks told him he was eating too well and needed to be under 300.
That they “buy in,” are willing to take a blow knowing they’ll eventually be back on the field, endears them to the coaches.
“Guys have got to have the right mindset. Playing down in trenches is very tough, very physically demanding,” Venables said, “Guys have to the right attitude to play at a high level.”
While there might be an inclination to be creative in deploying these guys, Venables said simplicity might be prudent, especially with a huge talent such as Stephone Anthony at middle linebacker and an improved secondary.
“Probably, at times, there are some things you can do,” he said. “Sometimes, coaches can over-complicate things. Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies and we can’t get out of our own ways. The last thing you want to do is over--complicate things.
“Sometimes, the beauty is in the simplicity.”
Admittedly, it could open possibilities in coverage.
Senior safety Robert Smith should be the lynchpin on the backside with emerging talent at the other three positions, including sophomore corner Cordrea Tankersley, another converted high school quarterback with an affinity for the “thud” side of the ball.
“Robert Smith has taken his game to a whole new level,” said Tankersley. “He may not be the most talented, but he’s going to be one of the hardest workers.”
One of the few Venables might prefer on the field for virtually every critical snap is Anthony. The team’s leader in tackles last season, he considered – then rejected – the option of turning pro early. From Venables’ point of views, there’s nothing Anthony takes for granted in his final star turn.
“He’s out there with his hair on fire every day,” Venables said. “You can coach him super hard, which helps you build the rest of your team when some of your best players are the guys you can coach hardest.
“He wants to be great,” he said, “he’s willing to pay the price.
“It doesn’t get any better than him.”