Spring breakdown: DL

The story line for Shaq Lawson is really the story line for the entire defensive line this spring.

The headliner
The story line for Shaq Lawson is really the story line for the entire defensive line this spring. He is a talented player and has made many key plays in his career, but that was done in a backup role with a star in front of him. Now it’s his time to step into a leadership role and grow into the star that comes with being a talented pass rusher on the outside.

Lawson will be a junior this fall after playing well the past two seasons – recording 79 tackles, 21 for loss, with 7.5 sacks and 14 quarterback pressures. He has played 632 snaps in 26 games. Expect those numbers to go up this fall, and the work for that increase kicks into high gear this spring.

There isn’t a Vic Beasley or Corey Crawford to turn to now. Lawson has to take the next step, and he has the talent to do just that. He can be special the rest of his Clemson career, but the leadership aspect will need to be on full display this spring.

On the other side
Kevin Dodd will be a junior, as well, after getting a medical redshirt in 2013 and playing sparingly last season.

In 2014, he had eight tackles, including 2.5 for loss, with three quarterback pressures in 92 snaps in 12 games. Dodd has played in 24 games and has 21 tackles in his career (219 snaps), but he also will have to take move forward in his career in a big way if he’s going to grab a starting role.

He will get the first real opportunity of his career to do that this spring.

Strong in the middle
Losing Grady Jarrett to a likely NFL career hurts the Clemson defensive front. It really hurts. Beasley got most of the attention, and he earned it, but Jarrett was the glue of the defensive front the past few seasons. And he was a real leader. DeShawn Williams’ importance shouldn’t be dismissed either.

But the defensive tackle position should be in good hands with D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins, who both have made plenty of big plays in their careers. They won’t get as much attention as Lawson, but they’re going to be just as important to this defensive front because they will need to stabilize the inside to allow the outside guys to do their thing.

Reader has 110 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, with 4.5 sacks and 21 quarterback pressures in 828 snaps in 38 games. He is going to be a senior, and the defense needs him to step into a key leadership position for this group.

Watkins is going to be a junior, and he has 40 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, with eight quarterback pressures in 336 snaps in 23 games. This spring offers him the opportunity to slide right into the starting rotation and get a stranglehold on that position, and he has the talent to do so.

In fact, Reader (6-foot-2, 325) and Watkins (6-3, 295) have all the size and talent needed to be a special duo. They just have to show that in an expanded role this spring.

Their turn to offer help
Ebenezer Ogundeko and Scott Pagano are both going to be sophomores, and the defensive front needs them to add talented depth to the starters, much the way Lawson, Reader and Watkins did last year.

Ogundeko will be on the outside, while Pagano will be on the inside. Again, they have what it takes to be productive players and help this unit stay at a high level of performance. They just have to accept that challenge and accelerate that process this spring.

The new crop
There is plenty of talent coming in this year’s defensive line class, but Albert Huggins and Sterling Johnson got a jump on the others by enrolling early.

Huggins will have a lot of the spotlight focused on him as the top player in South Carolina in this class and a first-team Parade All-American. Don’t overlook Johnson, who is 6-5, 275.

Both are going to be raw and on a steep learning curve, especially with the expectations surrounding the defensive line the past few years. But there are opportunities there for them to jump right into the rotation and get some much-needed experience this spring.

Richard Yeargin (defensive end) and Jabril Robinson (defensive tackle) both redshirted in the fall. It will be interesting to see if they are ready to contribute starting this spring.

Depth guys: Dane Rogers and Martin Aiken haven’t gotten much playing time in their careers, but this spring could offer a chance to at least get some reps.

Key stat: The players who look like the starters entering spring practice – Lawson, Dodd, Reader and Watkins – have combined for six starts in their careers.

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