Merling, Jackson Keys Up Front

During spring football practice, two players that stood out the most were each members of the defensive line in Rashaad Jackson and Phillip Merling. And that's good news for Clemson, which lost its most dominant pass rusher last season.

Jackson, a redshirt junior defensive tackle, had the best all-around spring camp for any defensive player, according to Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden. But Merling, a junior defensive end, also had a solid spring and he very well could be the key to Clemson once again being one of the best in the nation on defense.

When senior linebacker Anthony Waters went down last year with a season-ending knee injury, the Tigers lost their best defensive leader. He truly was the heart and soul of that unit. During spring practice, Merling emerged as one of the new leaders on defense, which was sorely needed.

"Phillip has a chance to be our best leader," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning told in a recent interview. "He really is maturing into a strong leader. He has the emotion and the fire of an Anthony Waters."

But even with his emergence as a leader, Merling, who recorded 46 tackles, including 10 for loss and three sacks a year ago, has to work on being more consistent on every down.

"He has room to grow," Koenning said. "He has still shown the ability to disappear. He needs to be a guy that comes to play at the highest level. He has the ability to be a dominating player and we keep hoping that it shows up and I think that it will."

While Merling looms at the end position, Jackson and redshirt junior Dorrel Scott control the interior. Behind them, depth is a concern for Koenning, who said the Tigers may have to play at least one freshman inside.

"Etta Etta-Tawo developed a heart condition and that hurt our depth," Koenning said. "Antwon Murchison is going to have to step up and fill that void, somewhat. Quite frankly, we're probably going to have to have a freshman step up and play a lot inside. That's why we signed a bunch of guys last year. Now we just have to sort things out and see who fits in the roles the best."

However, depth certainly isn't an immediate problem behind Merling, as sophomore Jamie Cumbie looks to be one of the biggest surprises of the off-season.

Cumbie has bulked up and looks every bit the player that thought he would be when they signed him out of high school. Koenning couldn't be more excited with Cumbie's potential.

"He's a guy that I expect and know will jump to the forefront and start being a guy that everybody's got to pay attention to," Koenning said.

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