<
>

Big vacancies on defense headline Clemson's spring

Clemson kicks off its defense of the ACC championship Monday when it begins spring practice. Dabo Swinney’s roster still has tons of talent, but with a host of stars — particularly on defense — moving on to the NFL, there are also some big questions looming over the Tigers.

1. Who’s rushing the quarterback?

The Tigers waved goodbye to their three leaders in sacks from 2015, including both starting defensive ends — Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. The pair, both underclassmen, accounted for more than 50 percent of Clemson’s sacks and nearly 40 percent of its tackles for loss, which means there’ll be a couple of huge vacancies up front. Sophomores Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Richard Yeargin will get first crack at filling the void, but all are short on experience, making every rep this spring valuable. Meanwhile, Rashaun Smith and Tre' Lamar — two early enrollees — will be in the group of linebackers looking to fill some depth at that position, too.

2. Who’s handling the back end of the defense?

It’s not going to be an easy spring for defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who has the unfortunate task of not just replacing his top two pass-rushers, but also four starting defenders in the secondary — all underclassmen. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander, safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green and nickel Travis Blanks all departed for the NFL draft, leaving Cordrea Tankersley as the only holdover. The Tigers made some noise late in the recruiting process to add some young talent, but veterans Jadar Johnson, Adrian Baker and Ryan Carter and sophomores Van Smith and Mark Fields are going to need to prove themselves worthy successors in a unit that was arguably the best in the country last season.

3. Big names returning

We’ll finally see wide receiver Mike Williams on the field again this spring — his first serious work since injuring his neck in Week 1 of the season. He won’t see full contact during the spring, but simply getting him back into the fold should be a huge boost for the Tigers. Defensive back Korrin Wiggins, who tore his ACL last fall, could be limited, too, but is a potential impact player in the secondary. Then there’s the case of Deon Cain. The receiver was suspended before the Orange Bowl for violating team rules, but Swinney has said that if the sophomore keeps out of trouble, he could be back in the mix moving forward.