Even with the loss of rising senior Phillip Merling, the Tigers appear to be set on the defensive line with three starters and most of last year's backups returning. And then there's this freshman you may have heard of ... Da'Quan Bowers.

WHO'S BACK? Just about everybody returns from last year's defensive line, except would-be senior Phillip Merling, who declared for the NFL Draft and could be selected as high as the first round. Junior Kevin Alexander steps into his place as the starter on the strongside. In the interior, senior nose guard Dorrell Scott returns, as well as senior tackle Rashaad Jackson. At bandit end, junior Ricky Sapp is back for his second full-year as a starter. Most of last year's key reserves return as well, including second teamers Jamie Cumbie (DT), Antwon Murchison (NG) Miguel Chavis (NG), Rennie Moore (NG/DE) and Kourtnei Brown (BE).

WHO'S NEW? True freshman Da'Quan Bowers, the nation's No. 2 recruit according to Scout.com has already enrolled in school and will participate in spring practice. While he'll start on the fourth team at defensive end, don't expect him to stay there long. Also, keep an eye on Andre Branch, who is currently bracketed with Rennie Moore as the second team defensive end. Redshirt freshman Byron Clear will also attempt to make some noise on the depth chart.

BATTLE TO WATCH: Kevin Alexander vs. Da'Quan Bowers. Rising junior Kevin Alexander made nice progress serving as Phillip Merling's back up last season, and he should provide ample competition for one of the top players signed in the history of Clemson football in Da'Quan Bowers. The question remains, who will emerge this spring as the starter? Bowers offers unmatched athleticism for his size, but is only a freshman. He has no game day experience and has only been on campus for six weeks. Meanwhile Alexander is a versatile defensive player who clearly has his best days ahead of him. Does pure talent get the edge over experience?

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said of the anticipated battle, "Traditionally, what coaches have always done is you let the upperclassmen have the first shot. But I'll say this, nobody works harder than Kevin and he's probably the strongest pound-for-pound guy that we have in the weight room. I think it will be a really good competition. And then when you throw Andre Branch in there, who we got to redshirt this year and who we think is going to be a good player, I think we're going to be really strong at that position."

Tackle Rashaad Jackson returns for his senior season after recording seven tackles for loss and one sack last season.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: With so many experienced players on this unit, first and foremost you'd like to see everyone remain healthy this spring. Second, with an influx of young talent behind the current starters, the staff would like to see steady improvement across the board. That means players like Miguel Chavis, Jarvis Jenkins, Kournei Brown and Da'Quan Bowers need to show exactly what they are capable of while also improving their fundamentals and technique. Also keep an eye on tackle Jamie Cumbie- does he stay inside or move back out?

BOLD PREDICTIONS: Bowers moves up to the first team and is bracketed with Alexander as the first team strongside end by the Orange & White game. Jamie Cumbie stays inside and Miguel Chavis emerges as a quality backup at nose guard behind Dorrell Scott.

TEAM IMPACT: While most fans are enamored with the performance of skill position players, football games are usually won at the line of scrimmage in the trenches. A powerful defensive line means everything, just ask the New England Patriots, who started the 2007 season 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII thanks to a dominating performance by their defensive front.

Clemson's front four should be a strength of the defense next season, especially with three starters and nearly every key backup returning. Also, don't forget about Da'Quan Bowers, who arguably arrives as the most talented prospect in the history of Clemson football.

Simply put, the Tigers have a nice balance of size and athleticism returning at multiple positions. Ricky Sapp is athletic an end as you'll find and his production should continue to increase, while Scott is the run stuffer and Jackson has a motor that never stops.

Last year the Tigers ranked 23rd in the country in rush defense, 13th in pass defense and 10th in scoring defense. With just about every key member of last year's line returning, don't expect those numbers to change much in 2008.

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