CLEMSON — The root of Clemson’s problems on defense can be traced back years before the 667 yards allowed at Florida State on Saturday.
The defensive shortcomings originated long before the 70 points surrendered in last year’s Orange Bowl and predate the tenures of both Kevin Steele and Brent Venables as defensive coordinators.
Clemson’s troubles revolve around its defensive line and can be traced back years earlier to issues on the recruiting trail.
The Tigers have only two defensive linemen playing – Malliciah Goodman and Josh Watson – from its combined 2008, 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes.
Clemson (3-1, 0-1 ACC) lost a staggering amount of defensive line talent over the last two years – a combined four players selected in the second round of the NFL draft – and Clemson has failed to reload with impact players.
ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill said defensive line depth is critical to a team’s success.
“You’re about as good as your personnel,” Luginbill said earlier this year. “You can coach them up and things of that nature, but you have to have guys. The offensive skill in the game of college football the last five years has elevated so significantly that it puts such strains on defenses.
“You are now just trying to slow people down and hope you get a three and out here and there. That’s why there’s such a premium placed upon the front four and why a SEC team has won six straight national titles, because they are so much better in the front four than everybody else.”
Clemson’s undermanned defensive front allowed Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel to throw for 380 yards Saturday. It allowed Seminoles blockers to smother linebackers and safeties to open up clear running lanes.
“The great defenses out there are disruptive up front,” Venables said. “It’s not there right now. … We have to get better at developing that front four. I think they will improve. There is some youth there.”
Clemson has plenty of youth because of the 2008-10 recruiting classes.
Clemson signed just two defensive linemen in 2008, and neither player redshirted. Da’Quan Bowers left early for the NFL in 2011, and Brandon Thompson graduated after last season.
The 2009 class was eroded by the transition from head coach Tommy Bowden to Dabo Swinney.
The class contained only three defensive linemen: Goodman, Tyler Shatley, who moved to offensive guard, and Darrell Smith, who also changed positions.
Clemson hoped Goodman would break out later in his career like Bowers and Andre Branch, but Goodman has no sacks this year and five in 1,535 career snaps.
“I have not been satisfied with how I’ve been playing,” Goodman said
In 2010, Clemson signed three linemen, including Watson, who is part of the rotation but has not had much impact. The Tigers also signed Tavaris Barnes, a four-star star recruit, and Tra Thomas. Neither has been much of a factor.
The 2011 class has yielded two contributors in Corey Crawford and DeShawn Williams, who are still gaining experience.
“I think we have really good talent,” said Swinney, whose team plays at Boston College on Saturday. “We are going to have a special, special group in the trenches, on both sides, in the near future.”