What a difference a Year Makes (Part III)

If moving from the offense to the defensive line wasn't enough pressure, now Coach Ron West has all summer to think about how he will fill the holes left by the departures of three starters.

With only one player on the defensive line on with starting experience, it is hard to remember the last time the defensive line situation looked so bleak.

Or is it?

Today we will look at how this spring's defensive line compares to that of last year's line that eventually lead the Tigers to be crowned Peach Bowl Champions.

Defensive Tackle
Spring 2003- The defensive tackle position garnered much attention in 2003. Doubts about whether the Tigers could fill the void left by first team All ACC performer Nick Eason were heard from coaches and fans. Eason had 64 tackles and 7 sacks his senior year, the most by any Clemson tackle since Trevor Price's 7.5 in 1996. Eason was taken in the fourth round by the Denver Broncos.

Left behind, was starter Donnell Washington and a few other guys lacking anything substantial on their resumes. Washington, who was known for his size and potential, had disappointed in 2002, a year in which he recorded only 1 sack. Nevertheless, he excelled during spring practice and proved to the coaching staff that he could shut down the run in short yardage situations.

At the other tackle a battle ensued between Todd McClinton, DeJuan Polk, and Eric Coleman. The fan favorite to take over was McClinton, but he suffered a hamstring injury midway through the spring which limited his action. This was a break for DeJuan Polk as he held on to be named starter at the end of the spring. Clemson fans felt it was just a matter of time until the more athletic McClinton or Coleman unseated Polk for the top job in the fall, but it never happened

The interior of the defensive line will suffer after the unexpected loss of Donnell Washington, but several big bodies are in the mix to take his place.
Spring 2004- A big concern in headed into the start of the 2004 regular season is at defensive tackle, where two new faces will try and fill step in for Washington and Polk. This spring, the interior of the Tigers' defensive line had mixed reviews, as defensive coordinator John Lovett seemingly became frustrated with their inability to consistently stop the run.

"We just haven't been good at it all spring." said Lovett. "Until we get some tackles to step and play better, it is going to be like that. The line of scrimmage has to get redirected. The rest of it doesn't make any difference. If that doesn't get done we don't stop anybody down there."

Eric Coleman and Trey Tate have the starting jobs for now, but the competition will continue through the summer and into the fall.

In fact, backups Cory Groover and Chris McDuffie are more talented than the starters, but a lack of experience will keep them out of the starting lineup. Keep an eye on Groover. His lack of knowledge of the system hurt him this spring, but over the last week of practice he showed a knack for establishing the line of scrimmage and chasing down defenders.

"I've got a lot of work left to do, this is just spring," Groover told CUTigers.com after the Orange & White game. "I can improve in a lot of different areas. My technique mainly. I've got to learn to use my hands more."

The defensive tackles gave up over four yards a carry this spring, but don't think this group lacks talent. They have a chance at becoming a very solid unit before the 2004 season is complete.

Defensive Ends
Spring 2003- The defensive line not only lost Nick Eason in the fourth round to the Broncos, but it also lost the team leader in sacks to the Broncos in the same round. Bryant McNeil had a stellar senior campaign in 2002 which included 67 tackles, 9 sacks and even a touchdown.

J.J. Howard and Maurice Fountain battled it out for the rights to replace McNeil. On the other side the Tigers returned starter Khaleed Vaughn, but Vaughn's backup was Vontrell Jamison, a player who had spent the previous season at offensive tackle.

The spring was full of frustrations for this unit, as anytime the Tiger running attack had success, it usually involved a play that was run directly at the ends.

Spring 2004 - Maurice Fountain is the only returning starter for this unit in 2004, but you won't see Clemson fans sitting around crying about their defensive ends.

Charles Bennett is the most improved player on the roster and the best defensive end on the team. Bennett, who is now up over 250 pounds, is finally big enough to excel at his natural position. This spring he showed the ability to harass the passer and the discipline to stay home and defend the run.

Although Bennett might be the best defensive end on the team, he is not the most talented. That honor goes to playmaker Gaines Adams. Adams could be Clemson's best defensive linemen since Trevor Pryce once he learns to play within the system.

And oh yeah, did we mention that Fountain is the returning starter? He had a solid spring and will be backed up by Vontrell Jamison. Jamison, who lines up at 6'7 and 275 pounds, provided solid depth this spring and could be used on the inside as well this fall.

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