Meet Kevin Dodd, the product of a perfect storm and now a reckoning force on the Clemson defensive front, joining Shaq Lawson as bookends who excel in wreaking havoc.
While Clemson coaches were confident with Lawson, a preseason all-conference selection, Dodd has made a seamless leap from understudy to help ease the transition following the loss of nine starters from the nation’s top defense.
Through the first four games Dodd has been prominent and assertive. His third down sack in the final seconds helped assure Clemson’s win at Louisville, and he earned ACC defensive lineman of the week honors for his performance against Notre Dame. Dodd forced a fumble, totaled eight tackles including 3½ tackles for loss and two sacks, and helped stop quarterback DeShone Kizer on a potentially game-tying two-point conversion.
Dodd wasn’t always convinced he would find his way in football. But Steve Eoute, his coach at Riverside High in Greer, said the raw talent was evident from a distance.
“You immediately noticed him because of his size,” said Eoute. They met after Dodd transferred from Greer High for his final two years. Dodd was naturally strong and quick for his size. “His shoulders were above everybody in the hallway.”
Eoute said Dodd was the best defensive lineman he coached in 27 years including Travelle Wharton, who played at Hillcrest High but and distinguished himself as an offensive lineman at South Carolina and during 10 seasons in the NFL.
“For Kevin in high school it was almost like a game you’re playing the backyard,” Eoute said. “It wasn’t that intense.”
Realizing he probably couldn’t survive on talent alone was likely the root of his reticence toward the game, Eoute said. “The natural stuff can take you only so far.”
After a semester at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., Dodd entered Clemson and played a smattering as a freshman. “After that first full year of getting some experience under my belt I just started taking the game more serious and started working on my craft,” Dodd said.
A toe injury curtailed his sophomore season and Dodd received a medical redshirt. Upon returning last year he was required to learn patience behind Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes. Apparently the lessons stuck.
“I’m proud of Dodd because he never quit believing in himself,” said Coach Dabo Swinney. “He continued to prepare and learn.
“He is a great example to us in recruiting. Not everybody is Sammy Watkins as a freshman,” he said. “Kevin is such a great example (of) guys that get better and guys who develop.”
Any question about what Clemson’s defense could do for an encore after last season has largely been answered. Clemson again ranks among the nation’s top defenses (22nd in total defense) entering Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech with Dodd and Lawson anchoring the edges.
Eoute said it was simply because of the unknowns with four new starters. “There were a lot of questions about Kevin,” he said. “You hadn’t seen him in a lot of snaps.”
Eoute likes what he’s seen thus far. “I think he’s showing a lot of maturity,” he said. “He’s showing an understanding of their defense as to what they’re wanting him to do.”
And the two talented, productive ends make it tough on any offensive line.
“If you’ve got one good defensive end, you can run away from them or double team them, do things to control that one side,” Eoute said, “But when you’ve got equal threat on both sides that’s kind of hard to defend against.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables characterizes Dodd as a “self-made guy” with a chance to be a great player. NFL Draft Scout listed Lawson as the No. 3 defensive end in the country this season, Lawson 16th.