Clemson fans and coaches received an extra round of Christmas gifts this past week. Six defensive starters who had the opportunity to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft all decided to return to school. Clemson’s defensive returners have set some high expectations for the 2018 season. It also tells us something about the incredible health of the program.
Clemson’s Defensive Returners Speak Volumes
These decisions were highlighted by the three defensive lineman, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, and Clelin Ferrell all choosing to stay for their senior year. All three could have been first round picks in the draft. This is scary news for the rest of the ACC, and frankly, the rest of the country. The Clemson Tigers have had one of the best defenses nationally for the last few seasons but 2018’s defense could be historic. It is almost unprecedented to have this many high profile NFL prospects return to school.
Building on Defensive Dominance
The Tigers have reigned over the ACC for the last few seasons. That run does not look to be ending anytime soon. Clemson was already the youngest team, in terms of seniors, in the 2017 College Football Playoff. Now they know their best juniors will be sticking around for another year. With all four members of the defensive line returning, and massive tackle Dexter Lawrence being a rising junior, this team will be tough to handle in 2018. For a program that has gone 25-2 in ACC play over the last three seasons, it almost feels odd to say things are getting better. If you combine the returning youth on this team, the veterans deciding not to leave, and the highly rated recruits coming in, it’s clear that Clemson is still on an upward trajectory.
It also helps that some of their main competition in the ACC happen to be in a state of flux. Florida State will be breaking in a new coach. N.C. State loses a lot of talent from their front seven on defense, although the Wolfpack offense should be quite good. Louisville loses the best player in school history in Lamar Jackson. Clemson also avoids Virginia Tech and Miami from the Coastal Division. The Tigers will look to grab a fourth consecutive ACC crown in 2018, and the way things are setting up, no one will bet against them.
While the defensive lineman will garner the most headlines, they are not the only players who decided to return to Clemson. Linebacker Kendall Joseph and defensive back Mark Fields will also stay in school for their senior seasons. Joseph has averaged over 100 tackles per season the last two years. For his career he has four sacks, 16.5 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. His job will be much easier due to the returning lineman. The attention they will demand will make him free to roam the field and make plays. His return was a huge boost since one of the few seniors they lost was linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. Of all the returning players, Fields was the least surprising. He has not garnered the national acclaim as his teammates and will benefit from another season in orange.
Big Time Back-Ups
Even before the string of announcements by the returning defensive players, Clemson had little to be concerned with. They have recruited exceptionally well the last few years, and this class will be no different. Despite being a small class in numbers, the quality over quantity rule will apply. Now the big time freshman they are bringing in will only be asked to contribute as back-ups and rotation players. They will not have to worry about being thrust into big roles as soon as they reach campus.
Defensive ends K.J. Henry and Xavier Thomas were two of the top ten recruits in the country this year. They could have likely walked into starting positions at 90% of the schools that recruited them. Now they will be the fresh players sent in to attack when the veteran starters need a breather. In 2017 the Clemson defensive line was dominant with its first line, but not particularly deep. Depth will not be an issue in 2018.
Ears Pinned Back
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is known for his aggressive style. With his line’s ability to control things in the trenches, he can be even more creative with when and who to send on blitzes. Being able to control the line of scrimmage with just four lineman makes life easier on both the linebackers and secondary. Clemson has plenty of talent in those areas, too, so making their jobs easier almost seems unfair. The Tigers will look to suffocate opposing offenses much like they have in recent seasons. The combination of returning and incoming talent in abundance will make life very difficult on opposing ACC offenses. While Clemson’s offense should be improved in 2018, this team will be carried by its potentially historic defense.
Orange Is The New Crimson?
Clemson fans hope that this string of players opting to stay in the Upstate is the beginning of something special. One player risking a multi-million dollar contract is about that player. But a whole group of players opting out of tens of millions of dollars has to be about more; it has to be about the climate and culture of the locker room and the program. With this much talent choosing to return, Clemson fans are expecting to dethrone Alabama as the nation’s top program.
With all of these pieces in place–paced by the imposing defense–it’ll be awfully hard to pick against this team next season.
Embed from Getty Images