Countdown to Camp: The Defensive Line

The Clemson Tigers return this year with the potential to have one of the top defensive lines in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Strength, quickness, and depth are just three of the advantages the Tigers will have up front this season. Who will be the leader this unit in 2002 and which newcomers can contribute right way?

The defensive line returns three of four starters from last season, and with a nice combination of youth and experience, this unit could end up near the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference before the end of the year.

Right Tackle Nick Eason also thinks that adding new defensive coordinator John Lovett to the mix will help out his defense immensely. "The whole mentality of having a new coach is kind of a motivation," Eason said this spring.

"You bring a new guy in and good things are supposed to happen. You can look at Maryland last year. Some of the same guys were there a couple years and look what happened to them when they had a new coach."

Eason, who many consider to be the vocal leader of this defense, was named Clemson's defensive MVP for 2000, which was quite an honor considering he was a member of a defense that featured 4 first-team All-ACC players. In all, he has 35 games under his belt, with starts in 23 of those contests. He also has 91 career tackles with nearly a quarter of those behind the line of scrimmage.

Eason is athletic and explosive, displaying a tremendous first step off the snap and a great burst of closing speed. He also makes plays laterally up and down the line of scrimmage but is still remains a bit undersized for a defensive tackle.

Even so, Eason brings more to the table in terms of experience and leadership. "We're going to be much better, I promise," said the returning graduate student.

Backing up Eason will be Todd McClinton, a player who is anything but undersized. The 6-foot, 6-inch 275-pound junior from Columbia is literally one of the most intimidating players on the field. He played in seven games last season, including one start against Duke in 2001

"Todd McClinton was a pleasant surprise this spring. I didn't know if he had the toughness to play defensive line," Tommy Bowden said. Todd looked solid in the spring game with a sack and a fumble recovery.

Starting at right end will be senior Bryant McNeal. McNeal is the leading returning quarterback sacker in the ACC for 2002. He is also one of eight active Tigers who have played in the last three bowl games.

McNeal was also a starter in all 12 games at defensive end last season, averaging 57 snaps per game, and his sack total was good enough for third in the ACC.

McNeal is a small defensive end with a relentless style of play. He is always chasing the action around the field, working hard to get involved in the play, and because of that aggressiveness, he'll have every opportunity to increase that impressive sack total from a year ago.

Junior end J.J. Howard will back up McNeal on the right side. Without question, Howard has the potential to get on the field and make some plays this season, after all, he does have legitimate 4.5 speed and a 44-inch vertical. The down side is that he is also one of the smallest defensive linemen currently listed on the roster at about 235 pounds.

Howard was voted the most improved defensive end of spring practice 2002 when he registered two sacks and three tackles in the Orange and White game. Last season, he averaged close to 18 snaps a game, and those numbers will likely double in 2002.

Starting at left end will be junior Khaleed Vaughn. Vaughn, who has now started 13 games in a row, finished the 2001 season with 64 tackles, including 9 tackles for loss- which tied for 2nd on the team.

Vaughn looked strong this spring, showing good quickness off the line and the ability to make the big play behind the line of scrimmage. The redshirt junior will have every opportunity to improve his production from a year ago, but he'll have sophomore Mo Fountain pushing him all season long for playing time.

Fountain is considered one of the top young defensive players in the Clemson program. He played in every game for an average of 20 snaps per game as a first-year freshman and has the ability to be a big play performer- demonstrating that statement with six tackles for loss last season.

Both Vaughn and Fountain give the Tigers ample talent and depth on the left side of the line, and we fully expect both players to make substantial contributions to John Lovett's defense this season.

Starting beside Vaughn at left tackle will be sophomore Donnell Washington. Washington had an impressive first season, leading all freshmen in tackles with 44. He was also named the winner of the 12th man award from the Clemson football staff as the top defensive reserve of 2001, and a second-team freshman All-American according to The Sporting News.

The Beaufort, SC native averaged 35 plays per contest and registered eight tackles for loss in seven different games last season.

Make no mistake, Washington's potential is unlimited. He has incredible strength with a bench press of over 470 pounds, good quickness, and the ability to shake off bigger offensive linemen with relative ease. He could become an All-ACC 1st team performer as early as this season if he continues to improve in August.

Backing up Washington will be sophomore Eric Coleman. Coleman is another player that has all the physical tools to become a dominating force for the Tigers. The converted tight end will command serious playing time from his second team spot this upcoming season.

Coleman has outstanding size at 6-feet, 5-inches tall and 280 pounds. He also has good quickness, and has shown good instincts on the football field in his brief career at Clemson. Interestingly enough, he did not play in the first four games last year as an offensive lineman, but once he made the switch to defensive tackle, he then played seven of the last eight contests.

His role in John Lovett's defense will increase significantly in 2002, and it wouldn't be surprising seeing him in twice as many plays as he averaged over the course of his last 7 games last season.

DeJaun Polk is another name you might not want to forget about headed into fall practice. Polk is a reserve defensive tackle that has reportedly been turning heads this summer. In fact, some people have him pegged ahead of Coleman and McClinton.

He enters the 2002 season as a reserve defensive lineman who has shown great improvement over the course of the career. Watch his progress closely during early August; if some of the early reports out of Clemson are true, he could nearly triple this average 18 snaps per game last season.

In terms of new players added to the mix, freshmen Gaines Adams and Vontrell Jamison could fight their way onto the field for playing time. Adams will bring a new dimension to the Clemson defense in 2002. He's an exciting player who recorded 58 tackles and 22 sacks in 10 games this past season with Fork Union Prep- he also had two interceptions. And interestingly enough, he was also athletic enough to play wide receiver.

Jamison is a mammoth junior college transfer that could be a wildcard this season. At 6-feet, 8-inches tall, he presents a wealth of problems for any offensive lineman he lines up against. How productive he can be on the field in his first season against top-notch competition remains to be seen, but early indications are that he is physically ready to provide some depth up front. With his size, don't discount Vontrell Jamison bumping someone out of the two-deep depth chart.

Brandon Cannon is another incoming freshman on the defensive line, but we anticipate him being a prime redshirt candidate. Top Stories