Faced with yet another question about his young defensive line's struggles, Swinney, Clemson's head coach, asked reporters in a rambling answer if they remembered how much NFL draftees like Jarvis Jenkins had struggled early on, and how much they'd improved over the course of their careers.
The gist of Swinney's answer? Check back with me in two years, and we'll see how much they've progressed.
Now, the time has come for that line to prove Swinney right.
Those green freshmen from two years ago? They're juniors, and ready to show that they can take Clemson's defense to an elite level, one that can push the Tigers to national elite status.
"That's what we plan to do," said junior defensive tackle Josh Watson. "Make a big improvement from last year. I believe we can do it now. We've got experience, we've been in tough games, lost tough games, close games, been in big games and won close games. I believe that experience is going to help us tremendously."
There's no nice way to say it: 2011's defensive line numbers were ugly. The Tigers yielded 176.1 rushing yards per game, most by a Clemson defense since 1985 and 83rd nationally. Opponents converted 41 percent of third downs, worst since 2002. The 24 team sacks were the second-fewest since 1994 (Clemson had just 14 in 2008).
That line featured a trio of future NFL draftees in Andre Branch, Malliciah Goodman and Brandon Thompson, but also received significant contributions from the likes of Corey Crawford (252 snaps), Grady Jarrett (61 snaps) and DeShawn Williams (117 snaps). Watson played in five games and had 21 snaps. In addition, sophomore Tyler Shatley logged 317 snaps at defensive tackle before moving across the line to offensive guard last fall.
Last fall, that youth movement moved into full gear. Watson had a breakout year with 54 tackles in 461 snaps, while Williams had 370 snaps, Jarrett 512 and Crawford 575. Of course, sophomore Vic Beasley was extraordinarily productive with eight sacks in 288 snaps behind Goodman, and freshman D.J. Reader added 40 tackles in 236 snaps. Fellow freshman Carlos Watkins added depth with 16 tackles in 113 snaps.
The numbers improved, too: Clemson yielded 155 yards rushing to foes (up to 57th nationally) while making 34 sacks and allowing a 34 percent third-down conversion rate.
With a young, unproven secondary behind them, further improvement this fall is imperative.
"We've got to win the line of scrimmage," Watson said. "It starts up front. Coach (Brent Venables) was saying in our introduction meeting, before he said anything, it starts up front. We take pride in that. We haven't arrived. We want to get way better than we were last year."
They have the depth to do so. Crawford, Jarrett, Williams and Watson will be entering their third season of significant action, with Beasley joining them in Goodman's end spot this fall. Reader and Watkins are also more-than-capable backups.
"There's no drop-off," Watson said. "We had a good core of five guys last year that played in a game. If I get tired in a game, I don't feel bad tapping my helmet. I know the next guy coming in is going to get the job done as well. Just that confidence helps us out a lot. That's great for a defense, the more big bodies you can rotate, the more you can wear out the linemen. Carlos has made amazing strides, he's outrunning all of us in our conditioning. He's out front. And DeShawn has some of the best hands and feet on the entire line. I'm excited."
Watson says he has no problem sharing or ceding the limelight to the rest of the defense, as well.
"We're just being coachable. Listening to what (defensive tackles) coach (Dan) Brooks says and applying those coaching methods that he's giving us out on the field and responding," he said. "Not doing our own thing. We don' t have any desire to do our own thing. We might not get all the glory or names called the whole time, but if our linebackers are making the plays, I'm perfectly happy with that. I'm a dog. I like to fight in the trenches, I don't really care about the glory."
As long as the stats – and the wins – come, Watson and his defensive line mates are just fine with that.
They want to show Swinney his patience shown two years ago didn't go for naught.
"We're hoping to change (the reputation), to let people know that we're here, too, and every game's not going to be a shootout," he said. "It doesn't have to be a shootout to win. We've got pride, too. We've got goals. We want to be the No.1 defense in the league, things like that. We're striving every day to get better."
Young defensive line under spotlight
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