Safety Jayron Kearse had a quick assessment for those doubting No. 6 Clemson’s defensive strength.
“I guess,” the junior said simply, “they didn’t do their homework.”
There are quite a few people likely playing catch-up. After losing eight starters from its No. 1-ranked defense a year ago, the unit is playing a major role in the Tigers’ undefeated start.
Clemson (4-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) will try to keep the momentum going against one of its most-baffling offensive opponents in Georgia Tech (2-3, 0-2) on Saturday.
Kearse is one of three returning defensive starters for the Tigers, who last year led the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards given up at 260 a game. That group featured plenty of experience – and two NFL first-round draft picks in Atlanta Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley and New Orleans Saints linebacker Stephone Anthony.
But these Tigers keeping making big plays.
Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins plugged the hole when Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer attempted a tying two-point conversion with 7 seconds left in the Tigers 24-22 win last Saturday night.
Clemson is 23rd nationally in overall defense. The Tigers held Irish tailback C.J. Prosise, who had gained 600 yards in the first four games, to 50 yards on the ground. They collected four turnovers, all in the second half, to hold off Notre Dame’s comeback.
Kearse saw things gelling this spring and summer when players accustomed to backup roles like Watkins, linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd grew into take-charge playmakers.
“Now, that we’re out under the lights, I don’t feel like this is a surprise,” said Kearse, who forced one fumble and recovered a second last week.
Lawson and Dodd each had 3.5 tackles for loss in last week’s win. Linebacker B.J. Goodson had an interception and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the defensive concern was never with its starters this year, but with the younger players having to step in as primary backups.
Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables went with the front-line players most of the way against Louisville and Notre Dame the past two contests, which were decided by a combined five points.
“We do have to develop some depth and I think we’re in the process of doing that,” Swinney said. “We played two games and played a lot of people and then we had two games that came down to the last play. You play your best people in critical situations.”
All Clemson defenders should get a workout this weekend with Georgia Tech and its option-based attack. The Yellow Jackets have averaged 28 points and 409 yards in their past five games against the Tigers.
“They’ve got a bunch of next-level guys,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said of Clemson’s defense. “They had seven last year that are actively playing in the NFL off of that defense, and they’ve probably got that many or more this year.”
Not if you listen to Venables, grateful his team hung on – “BYOG, bring your own guts,” as Swinney said after the game – but disappointed they let a comfortable, 18-point lead nearly slip away in the final quarter.
Notre Dame is “a good football team and they showed us a few things that we need to get better at,” Venables said. “It’s a good learning opportunity.”
Boulware, the junior middle linebacker, said Clemson will keep working to match last year’s top-ranked defense and build on the accolades these Tigers have gotten in recent weeks.
“I’m just focused on playing sound defense and getting the win at the end of the day,” Boulware said.
Who: Clemson (4-0, 1-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (2-3, 0-2)
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Line: Clemson by 6 1/2