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Clemson's interesting approach to coaching the D-line

Dan Brooks came to Clemson from Tennessee, where he also shared D-line coaching with another assistant. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- Their paths first crossed nearly 20 years ago at Tennessee. Back then, Dan Brooks was helping turn out one star defensive tackle after another. Marion Hobby worked in the strength and conditioning room.

"I was kind of hiding Marion out, honestly, hoping to get a spot for him on the field," said former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.

It never happened at Tennessee, but Hobby eventually got his job coaching defensive ends. Brooks moved on to Clemson, and that is where they reunited in 2011 with a setup unusual to most. But not to them.

Hobby would coach defensive ends; Brooks would coach defensive tackles. Both had worked in a similar way at previous stops. So did defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who also split defensive line duties while he was at Oklahoma.

It makes sense, considering the different techniques and responsibilities required of each position. Yet only three other Power 5 schools (Florida State, Kansas State and Texas A&M) have separate coaches for defensive ends and tackles. Most opt for one defensive line coach to handle everyone.

There is no arguing the results at Clemson. Defensive line is the position that has turned over the most in the past three years, with players either graduating or leaving school early for the NFL draft. As a result, a familiar refrain plays on a loop: How will Clemson deal with losing so many players up front? Every year, Clemson answers in the same way.

Over the past five years, Clemson has 590 tackles for loss, most in the nation. That's 100 more than 125 of the other 127 FBS teams. Where Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd once thrived, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Carlos Watkins and Clelin Ferrell now do. That is a tribute not only to what Venables has done since he arrived, but to Hobby and Brooks, who work seamlessly together to keep the line functioning as the heart of the defense.

"It's like watching two conductors directing a beautiful symphony of defensive linemen wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines," said former Clemson guard Eric Mac Lain, who had a front-row seat watching both coaches during practice for five seasons.

Or to put it another way: "The line is a picket fence," Hobby said. "We have to make sure that our players are on the same page because they are one. That requires constant communication between us."

When Dabo Swinney took over as Clemson head coach, he understood the value in splitting the coaching duties between ends and tackles. He wanted his defense to thrive in the trenches. The way to do that was to give his players specialized coaching and more than one pair of eyes on what they were doing.

Venables changed nothing when he arrived in 2012. In fact, he believes splitting the duties is an absolute necessity given the shifting responsibilities for ends.

"It's more stressful now than ever to play defensive end in college football," Venables said. "I think they get more looks, more false reads, more things happen at them really fast that they have to make really quick decisions. I'm glad we've got the two best in the business at coaching those two groups."

The chemistry came easily for Brooks and Hobby, not only because of their selfless personalities but because they knew how to function in a similar system. Brooks spent 15 seasons at Tennessee, and the majority of those years he worked with Steve Caldwell, who coached defensive ends.

During that time, Brooks coached three future first-round picks and helped mold a defense that ranked among the best in the country. Caldwell was right there with them, and both took turns with the ends and tackles -- understanding the more they could teach their players, the better they would become.

Clemson has done the same with Wilkins, who has played both tackle and end this season.

"We were both on the same page all the time," said Caldwell, now coaching the entire defensive line at Boise State. "Neither one of us had big egos or were worried about who was getting credit. We had a lot of guys, they might play for me on first and second down on the edge and then they'd move inside and play in our other package for Dan on third down. We would study the protections, and we would come up with a game plan together to be successful."

Hobby worked with Rick Petri at Ole Miss after leaving Tennessee, coaching ends while Petri coached tackles. So when Hobby arrived at Clemson after serving as Duke's defensive line coach and defensive coordinator, he welcomed the opportunity to work with Brooks. No. 1 on his list of priorities: listen.

"He understands the ends, I understand D-tackles," Hobby said. "Sometimes we'll say, 'Coach, how do you see this? What would you tell him here? Sometimes when we get in pass-rush stuff, we don't care who helps that guy. I might make a comment to a defensive tackle, 'Man, that rush would be good if you do this' or he might tell a defensive end, 'Hey, you need to stick your foot in the ground, you need to turn that into power.'"

Their backgrounds allowed them both to reach this point. Brooks grew up on a farm and later went into the military. Both experiences taught him work ethic and discipline. He is the first one to arrive every morning, beating the strength and conditioning staff. He is the last to leave at night. His consistency, and the constant example he sets, led to a nickname coined during his time at Tennessee: the Oak Tree.

"Always," Fulmer said. "That's what he is, just a big ol' consistent guy that's not going away."

Hobby was raised with a focus on family and made it a priority to learn every step of the way. His time as a standout defensive end at Tennessee has helped him mold all the defensive ends he has worked with throughout his career.

Take Beasley as an example. When he arrived, Clemson had no idea where to play him. When he left, he was ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a first-round pick, and last week he was named an All-Pro in his second season with the Atlanta Falcons.

"[Hobby] wants you to have success on the field. That's one of the things I love about him. He cares about his players," Ferrell said. "He's going to fight for us. He always looks out for us. We love him as a coach. We'd walk through a wall for that guy."

Former Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader, now with the Houston Texans, had nearly the exact same thing to say about Brooks.

"Coach Brooks is going to respect you, and you're going to respect him," Reader said. "He's going to demand a lot of you. He's going to fight for you. He loves his players. No matter what, he has his players' back."

While Venables takes front and center answering all the questions, Hobby and Brooks work diligently in the background. Indeed, Brooks wants to stay so far in the background he hates getting his picture taken. Every year on picture day, the defensive tackles get one chance to get their group shot right. "If you mess it up, you mess it up," Reader said.

Not much gets messed up around the defensive line, though. Brooks was just recognized for his hard work, earning AFCA assistant coach of the year honors. But in typical Brooks fashion, he dishes off the compliments.

"I can't even think about getting ready for last week's game or this game against Alabama with all the things they do if Coach Hobby and I weren't together," Brooks said. "If I were starting as a head coach or a coordinator, I would demand two coaches for the line. I know there's a lot to the secondary with nickel and dime, but up front -- that's where the game starts."