Once upon a time, in a land that now seems far away, Dabo Swinney was a young and struggling coach whose future seemed to depend on a big hire.
After the offense bogged down in 2010 during a 6-7 season, the Tigers' first losing mark in 12 years, Swinney decided he needed something new and different. And that's what he found in Chad Morris, who brought from Tulsa an aggressive tempo while spreading the field horizontally and vertically.
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A sleek, high-flying offense sounded great and all. But aren't championships won with defense? How could the Tigers possibly field a top-shelf defense with the program's brand so geared to pyrotechnic offense?
Swinney never understood the premise that scoring a bunch of points and playing dominant defense were mutually exclusive notions. And as much as Swinney loves finding ways to move the ball and getting to the end zone, he's plenty fanatical about controlling the line of scrimmage on defense and coming up with stops that give the offense more opportunities to put up points.
But a year after the Morris hire, Swinney's alleged devotion to defense was a national punch line after West Virginia hung 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl to severely tarnish what had been a successful 2011 season.
Even when he made a move at coordinator, firing Kevin Steele and bringing in Brent Venables from Oklahoma, it was far from a slam dunk. Sooners fans weren't exactly devastated to see Venables go after his defense was subject to some regular Big 12 lashings against high-powered offenses.
This is important foundational context to consider as we attempt to assess the monster that Clemson has become. Elite offensive players made the Tigers really good, but consistently dominant defense -- particularly the talent up front -- is what has made this program great.
At this point there is no question that Clemson's defensive line ranks among the premier wrecking machines in college football. For four consecutive seasons, the faces have changed, but the Tigers have continued to disrupt and overwhelm the line of scrimmage.
And now, in a development that seems borderline unfair, opposing offensive lines get the fearsome task of facing seniors Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, fourth-year junior Clelin Ferrell and junior Dexter Lawrence. Again.
It would have been hard enough for opposing offenses in 2018 had Wilkins and Ferrell done what many expected and turned pro. It actually seemed quite realistic for some time that Bryant would join them in leaving early for the NFL. But while most mock drafts were listing Wilkins and Ferrell as virtual locks as first-round picks, NFL representatives weren't as convinced. The league's advisory committee came back with second-round grades for both of them. Other trusted NFL personnel were telling Clemson's football staff that it might be wise for them to stay another year.
So all three of them returned, based on the hope of becoming sure-fire first-rounders in 2019 and making a lot more money. And soon after their decisions were made, Swinney trashed the national folks whose shock at the decisions was based on the faulty premise that they were first-round locks.
"Bottom line is they didn't get the grade they wanted," he said. "That's one of the problems that we have out there is there's a lot of rhetoric that gets created in that process for these people, whether it's this.com or this person who is putting out his mock draft and they've got this person at this pick. Well, guess what? That person doesn't own a team. He don't get a pick. And has no influence either. If you're not really educated in the process, you can make some bad decisions based on bad information."
Even if you removed Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant from the equation, Clemson's 2018 defensive line would've been formidable. Lawrence has shown enough over his first two seasons to warrant forecasts as a possible No. 1 pick. The 2018 signing class included two five-star defensive ends, Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry. Senior tackle Albert Huggins is a powerful force inside, as is Nyles Pinckney. Redshirt freshman tackle Jordan Williams seems to be a star in the making. The end positions also have returning experience in Richard Yeargin, Chris Register, Justin Foster, Xavier Kelly and Logan Rudolph.
So how did this football program, which since that 70-33 debacle against West Virginia has amassed a national title and a 72-11 record, construct what has become an assembly line of elite defensive linemen?
Clemson's defensive lines were plenty good on a consistent basis under Steele and predecessor Vic Koenning. But Venables began taking things to a new level upon his arrival. After plenty of shaky moments in his first season, a young defensive line started to grow up in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU. That night in the Georgia Dome, sophomores Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Josh Watson, Corey Crawford and DeShawn Williams frequently overwhelmed a big, physical Bayou Bengals offensive line. Most Clemson fans remember that night for the offensive magic that allowed Clemson to convert a fourth-and-16 on the drive for the winning field goal, but it was also a catalyzing evening for a defensive line that has never been the same since.
Over Venables' six seasons, Clemson has amassed 706 tackles for a loss and 260 sacks. Over the same stretch, Alabama has 578 tackles for a loss and 234 sacks. Ohio State: 549 tackles for a loss and 228 sacks. Florida State: 523 tackles for a loss and 200 sacks. So it can be convincingly asserted that no other defensive line has been as consistently stifling as Clemson's.
Clemson's success has been driven by excellent recruiting, yes. But this story is also heavily rooted in talent identification and development. Jarrett, a three-star prospect according to Rivals, was far from a headliner of the 2011 recruiting class. Beasley came to Clemson as a three-star running back who was later moved to tight end, then to linebacker, and finally to defensive end. Fast-forwarding to 2015, star end Kevin Dodd was a three-star member of the 2011 class and all but forgotten before he blossomed into an elite end as a junior.
Two key figures in this excellent run of development were Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby, who coached the line together for six consecutive years culminating in the 2016 national title -- a trophy that came after the defensive line controlled the trenches against Ohio State and Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Brooks, who retired, had a long and distinguished career that included a lengthy stint under Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. Hobby, who joined the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, was a seasoned groomer of defensive ends.
Swinney hired Alabama grad Todd Bates away from Jacksonville State to coach the line by himself in 2017. When the NCAA approved a 10th full-time assistant for staffs this past winter, Swinney promoted defensive analyst Lemanski Hall (his former Crimson Tide teammate) to team with Bates. Hall coaches ends, and Bates oversees the interior.
To those who are familiar with this defensive line group and the bond they share, their decisions to stick around weren't all that surprising. When they're not making life difficult on opposing offensive coordinators, they are savoring the college experience away from the field. Wilkins' longtime love of the Power Rangers led to the 2016 defensive line purchasing replica outfits and showing up at their coaches' homes for Halloween.
"I used to have it all back in the day," Wilkins says. "I had the PJs, the pillowcase, the cover and everything. I was really a big-time Power Rangers fan. ... Every day before practice -- that's one of our handshakes -- we all morph. We all morph and power up. When the helmet comes on, it's morphin' time. It's time to power up. Every time I get a sack, that's always my sack celebration - I morph. It's something that we kept from last year, and every time a guy leaves, he passes it on to the next ranger."
Swinney's program has amassed a 40-4 record the past three years, with two of the losses coming against the Saban Dynasty. This elevated profile has allowed Venables and his staff to recruit on a national level, as evidenced by the geographical diversity present on the defensive line alone.
Wilkins, from Springfield, Mass., could've gone anywhere and was interested in Ohio State but fell in love with Clemson. Ferrell is from Richmond and was heavily pursued by Virginia Tech. The Tigers' staff plucked Lawrence from the Raleigh suburbs, right from under the nose of NC State and Dave Doeren. Bryant came to Clemson from deep in South Georgia, not far from Tallahassee. Henry, who announced his pledge to Clemson in December, is from Winston-Salem.
So there's not as much pressure as before to spot the developmental jewels like Jarrett, Dodd or others. Consider this: The 2018 defensive line roster includes four Rivals five-stars and nine four-stars.
Venables will lose a load of that talent after this season. But if recent history has taught us anything, it's that Clemson has a load of talent to replace it.
History has also taught us Swinney's hunch from years ago was right: It's not that far-fetched at all to pair a high-scoring offense with an asphyxiating defense. In the Upstate of South Carolina, it's a mere fact of blissful life.