Years from now, when anyone looks back at this golden age of Clemson football, Deshaun Watson will always be viewed as the centerpiece. The Tigers became nationally relevant under coach Dabo Swinney before Watson's arrival, but the prized quarterback launched Clemson into a new stratosphere that ended with a White House visit on Monday to celebrate a national championship. A two-time Heisman finalist quarterback who tormented Alabama in back-to-back national title games, winning the second and becoming the most accomplished player in Tigers history, Watson will deservedly be the face of these Clemson football teams.
But the story of Clemson's rise is far more than just Watson's rise at quarterback, and the story of Clemson that's yet to be told will be about more than the quarterback, too. The Tigers would not have won a national championship without the remarkable growth of their defense into a reliably great unit on a yearly basis, something that is now taken as a given but shouldn't be taken for granted.
The talk of this offseason is about how Clemson will go about retooling its offense without Watson, in addition to tailback Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. The good news, however, is that Clemson has an established foundation on defense that can weather losses and keep the Tigers afloat at or near the top of the ACC. Much of the defense returns intact, allowing the 2017 Tigers to defend their ACC and national championships by leaning on a unit that, over the past five years, has developed from unreliable liability into the backbone of a championship team.
It's been especially true up front. This week's Sports on Earth defensive lineman rankings include three Tigers near the top at their positions: No. 3 defensive end Clelin Ferrell, No. 3 defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and No. 2 defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. All three players have an argument for being the best player at their position nationally, giving the Tigers a wealth of talent on the line despite having five players from the unit selected in the past three NFL Drafts (Carlos Watkins, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, D.J. Reader and Grady Jarrett). Clemson has become a D-line factory almost on par with Alabama, a remarkable feat for a team that appeared to be so lost defensively in the recent past.
Five years ago, Clemson emerged on the national stage, winning its first ACC title in 20 years and playing in its first major bowl game since winning the 1981 national championship. But that Orange Bowl made it difficult to view the 2011 season positively: The Tigers backed into the division title after losing three of their final four regular-season games, and they allowed 70 points in a bowl beatdown at the hands of West Virginia that prevented the season from being celebrated. Instead, it was merely an indication of how far Clemson still had to go, having not fielded a top-20 team in over a decade as it struggled to shed its reputation for underachieving.
Swinney responded by hiring Brent Venables from Oklahoma to run the defense, giving a long leash to an experienced, respected coordinator. Recruiting was already on the upswing when Venables arrived -- the 2011 class ranked 10th in the 247Sports composite ratings -- but the new coordinator succeeded in unlocking the potential of the unit, making it among the steadiest in the country, with the ability to both produce and replace NFL talent annually.
(Above: National rankings of Clemson's offense and defense in Football Outsiders' FEI and yards per play since Swinney's first full season as head coach.)
The top-ranked 2014 Clemson defense had four players drafted, and the 2015 team avoided falling too far to give the Tigers a chance to get to the playoff. That defense lost seven drafted players, and yet Clemson responded by building a top-10 unit in 2016 that held nine teams to 17 points or less, shut out Ohio State and got enough stops to allow Watson and the offense to beat Alabama for the national title.
The most impressive stat of the entire College Football Playoff was the fact that the Tigers held Ohio State and Alabama to a combined 5-of-29 on third down, a 17.2 percent conversion rate. (Last season, the worst conversion rate in the FBS was Tulane at 27.8.) Holding the Buckeyes to three third-down conversions was just another way to illustrate how lopsided that semifinal was, when the Tigers won the Fiesta Bowl 31-0. Holding the Crimson Tide to just two third-down conversions was the most important number of the national title game: Alabama's inability to stay on the field on offense allowed Clemson to run 99 plays and wear down the Tide defense, opening the door for the comeback from a two-touchdown deficit.
Clemson did this with a mix of veterans and new faces. Linebacker Ben Boulware, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley were seasoned stars, but Lawrence and Ferrell were merely freshmen. This year, the defense says goodbye to those key first-team All-ACC performers -- and Boulware was regarded as the emotional leader of the unit -- and yet the Tigers still have the type of personnel returning that just about any team would be jealous of.
It's hard to imagine this won't be a top-10 unit nationally, again, and potentially even more, giving Clemson confidence that it can remain in the playoff conversation, even if it won't quite be a frontrunner despite its defending champion status.
Defensive line. It all starts with that front, which is deeper than those three superstars, with key contributors like juniors Austin Bryant and Albert Huggins -- although a season-ending injury to junior end Richard Yeargin is a blow to depth. This is the best defensive line in the country, featuring the versatile Wilkins -- who has played both end and tackle -- the playoff breakout star in Ferrell and the mammoth, athletic Lawrence, who is an early candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and may be as talented as any player in the country at any position. Wilkins is likely to play tackle, his more natural position, this season, and a Wilkins-Lawrence tandem at tackle can be as intimidating as any in recent history.
Linebackers. Boulware wasn't actually drafted, but he's nevertheless the biggest loss on the defense. Still, the Tigers return a pair of veterans in junior Kendall Joseph and senior Dorian O'Daniel. Joseph ended up 15th in our linebacker rankings, after finishing with 108 tackles, 12 ½ tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception in his first year as a starter. O'Daniel chipped in 54 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. The other spot remains an unknown with Boulware gone, with sophomores Tre Lamar and Chad Smith vying for the middle linebacker job in the spring.
Defensive backs. It's the second year in a row that Clemson says goodbye to a first-team All-ACC cornerback. First it was Mackensie Alexander, and now it's Tankersley, leaving cornerback as a question mark. Seniors Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond both have substantial experience, while sophomore Trayvon Mullen and junior Mark Fields were both top-100 overall recruits who are searching for breakout seasons. Rising star junior Van Smith anchors the secondary at safety after finishing with 95 tackles and two interceptions in his starting debut. Sophomore Tanner Muse, who had a pick-six against Syracuse last season, is the early favorite to start alongside Smith.
There is a lot of quarterback attrition in the ACC, including Watson and all the ACC Coastal contenders, but Clemson will have to face a solid roster of quarterbacks, including division foes Deondre Francois of Florida State and Lamar Jackson of Louisville, Jake Bentley of rival South Carolina and transfer Jarrett Stidham of Auburn. The Tigers' biggest strength matches up with perhaps the biggest questions for the Noles and Cardinals, who are trying to fix problems on the offensive line to protect their talented quarterbacks.
Clemson has reloaded in the back seven with relative ease the past few years, and it has the defensive line talent to mask holes on the back end by consistently creating havoc up front. The Tigers ranked third in tackles for loss per game and 10th in sacks per game in 2016, with a disruptive line filled with players who are uncommonly athletic for their size. Few offensive lines are equipped to handle them, and as long as the current unit stays healthy, that will be even truer this fall as Lawrence and Ferrell grow into sophomore superstars. Only a few years ago, such reloading would sound shocking, but Clemson has raised the bar to where this type of production is expected.
Instead of being the point where everything fell apart, the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia five years ago will now be looked back upon as an integral part of Clemson's journey. The Tigers won the ACC and got to an Orange Bowl -- an accomplishment that should not be diminished as a key step -- and were dealt a massive reality check about how much progress still needed to be made. Since then, the Tigers have become a complete program, continuing to step up their recruiting while making the right hires, led by Venables. Venables continues to patiently bide his time, happy in a well-compensated coordinator role in which he is among the most acclaimed assistants in the country. Given the level of Clemson's recruiting, as long as Venables is calling the shots defensively, there's no reason to expect the defense's production to slow down.
Replacing Watson at quarterback will dictate how quickly Clemson is capable of competing for another national championship, but even while that issue is sorted out, there's no need to worry about the Tigers fading from the national spotlight. While Clemson is unlikely to repeat as national champion with Watson now wearing a Houston Texans jersey, the talent assembled on defense both made a title possible and ensures that the Tigers won't fall far after reaching the pinnacle.