This is where Clemson fans can sit back and take solace in their program’s recent recruiting -- particularly on defense.
Clemson has suspended four players, the biggest loss being starting defensive end Corey Crawford, for the season opener at Georgia, but the Tigers’ defensive line is so deep that it should be a seamless transition from Crawford to Shaq Lawson, who was every bit as productive last season in his role off the bench. Clemson returns every starter on its defensive line and has six returning lettermen at defensive end and six at defensive tackle.
It’s a group that should be the strength of the team this season -- starting against Georgia.
The bigger concern for the Tigers would be their offensive line, as David Beasley, a part-time starter at left guard with Kalon Davis, was also suspended for the season opener. There was no guarantee Beasley was going to be the starter against Georgia, as several redshirt freshmen will compete for the job this spring, along with Reid Webster, who has played guard, tackle and center during his career.
With all the questions facing Clemson this offseason -- including finding a new starting quarterback and replacing its leading rusher and top two receivers from 2013 -- coach Dabo Swinney said his biggest concern heading into the start of spring practices on Wednesday is offensive tackle, where Shaq Anthony, one of the four suspended players, had three starts last season and was a candidate to be a full-time starter this fall.
“That’s the biggest concern on offense,” Swinney said. “... That’s the area of need. That’s the biggest need in our recruiting class for next year is tackle. We’re going to go out and sign at least three legit, great tackles because that’s where we need to get better. We’ve got to find some answers at tackle.”
Instead, they just lost one for the opener.
Still, none of the suspensions will affect these four players during the spring -- only in the week of preparation leading up to the season opener, when they’ll most likely be relegated to the scout team. Swinney said none of the players were arrested but would not say if they were all involved in the same violation of team rules.
While the offense continues to search for answers, Clemson’s defense is in the unusual position of taking the lead. Crawford is one of the defense’s most talented players, but Lawson is a more than capable backup. Last year he had 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, nine quarterback pressures and one pass breakup in 337 snaps over 13 games. His four sacks tied William Perry (1981) and Ricky Sapp (2006) for the most by a Clemson true freshman.
Cornerback Garry Peters, who has started five games in his career and was derailed by an injury last season, had four tackles and a team-high two pass breakups in 49 snaps against Georgia last season. He was expected to compete for the starting job this spring, but this could open the door for Mackensie Alexander, one of the most highly touted players in the Tigers’ 2013 signing class. He was rated as the No. 4 overall player in the nation by ESPN.com, the highest rating by a Tigers signee since Da'Quan Bowers was No. 1 in the class of 2008. He was also ranked as the No. 2 defensive back in the nation and No. 2 player in Florida by ESPN.com but redshirted last season after a preseason injury.
“A few years ago, we were awful on defense. We didn’t have any players and hadn’t recruited anybody, had awful defensive linemen and all that stuff,” Swinney said. “Now those same guys are all seniors and we’re the greatest thing ever. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t get caught up in all that. It just comes in cycles. You have everybody back on one side and holes in the next. That’s football. It makes it fun trying to put it all together, but I am excited about our defense, that’s for sure.”
Clemson fans should be too -- in spite of the recent suspensions.