THE COMPARISON IS NATURAL.
South Carolina lost a star-studded cast from a stalwart defense the season before and stumbled to a disappointing 7-6 record in 2014 primarily because of that unit’s porousness.
Clemson fielded, arguably, the nation’s best defense this past season, but has lost four first-team All-ACC players from that unit and six others who contributed mightily. Three starters return for next season.
The inclination is to believe it is Clemson’s turn to fall flat and go through the same kind of rebuilding season USC did a season ago. Do not be fooled. Clemson will not experience the same kind of free fall on defense next season.
The difference is that the Tigers are not rebuilding on defense. They are reloading.
Dabo Swinney, speaking this past week in West Columbia prior to addressing the Fellowship of Christian Athletes development dinner, explained why he believes that is true.
“When you lose Tajh Boyd, who’s the winningest quarterback in the history of your school with 58 school records, what do you do? Well, here’s Deshaun Watson,” Swinney said. “When you lose Sammy Watkins, here’s Artavis Scott. When you lose Vic Beasley, here’s Shaq Lawson.
“You have to have that type of competitive depth throughout. You’re not always going to have the perfect scenario at your positions. But you want competitive depth.”
That, apparently, is what USC was lacking a season ago after the departures of All-American defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles along with standouts Chaz Sutton, Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree.
A huge drop in talent and an overall lack of experience proved a lethal combination for a defense that ranked 89th nationally in scoring defense and 92nd in total defense.
Just as USC took its biggest hits with departures along the defensive line, Clemson will face significant losses up front next season. Beasley was a consensus All-American at end. Grady Jarrett was first-team All-ACC at tackle. Corey Crawford, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams all started along the front.
“You don’t just replace that,” Swinney said, but it sure helps to have senior end D.J. Reader, junior end Kevin Dodd, junior tackle Carlos Watkins and junior end Lawson coming back. All rotated in to significant playing time a season ago, and all will be drafted into the NFL eventually, according to Swinney.
“The difference is, those guys are going to have to play more snaps and are going to have to grow up,” Swinney said. “Our depth is going to be inexperienced and young.”
Developing consistent success is all about plugging players into holes and building depth throughout the program. Swinney said producing five consecutive top-15 national recruiting classes has solidified about every position on both sides of the ball, with some deeper than others.
If nothing else, consistency has been a hallmark of Swinney’s program of late. The Tigers have notched four consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins, trailing only Alabama and Oregon with seven each and Northern Illinois with five.
When Clemson broke through in 2011 with an 11-win season and the program’s first ACC championship since 1991, Swinney said it was worth celebrating, but ...
“That was all great,” he said, “but can we be consistent in that?”
The consistency has come with back-to-back 11-2 seasons, then a 10-3 mark this past season. Those three seasons were punctuated with bowl victories against perennial powers LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
“My goal has always been to build a program, not a team,” Swinney said. “Build a program that can sustain success, which we’ve had.”
On the surface, that sustained success might be in question for next season because of the deep losses throughout the defense. But not when a program reloads rather than rebuilds, as Clemson is doing on that side of the ball.