For every Tech fan, memories of Sammy Watkins and the rest of the Clemson offense prancing up and down the field against the Hokies’ defense still burn like the games happened yesterday.
Accordingly, perhaps the most discussed issue about the team this offseason is “how can they prevent another ACC Championship game from happening?”
While it may surprise some, the answer likely lies with the defensive line.
“When it comes down to it, the whole defense is dependent on us stopping the run, opening up gaps for the linebackers to come through, and getting to the quarterback,” said defensive end James Gayle. “We want to make sure we continue on the path we left off on last year.”
The play of the defense line has always been a key to the success of Bud Foster’s famed gap defense, but Gayle in particular has the potential to shape the team’s performance. He recorded seven sacks last year, but if he’s able to put even more pressure on opposing offensive lines next season, spread offenses like Clemson may not be able to function quite so well against Tech.
“We have to make sure we stop the run,” Gayle said. “I feel like this season, that’s very important to all of us, especially on the defensive line.”
Another crucial part of playing solid run defense will be the performance of the team’s defensive tackles. The team currently has a wealth of talent at the position, as redshirt senior Antoine Hopkins and sophomore Luther Maddy jockey for playing time.
“I think we’ve got good chemistry, we’re all competing,” Maddy said. “I know we don’t have pads on yet, but we’re all pushing each other and everybody’s trying to get better together.”
Maddy earned raves for his performance at the end of last season, starting seven games as a freshman, and the development of his role will be an important part of the team’s fall camp.
“Luther had a great spring,” said Charley Wiles, defensive line coach. “We’re not going to let Antoine lose his starting position, but if we played 60 plays, Luther’s probably going to play at least half of them and I think we’ve got a good competition.”
Despite whatever battles go on among the various members of the line, it will still be important for the players to develop as a unit.
“We’ve been meshing for the past two years, so now we’re just coming back to where we left off last season,” Gayle said.
While the line itself is mostly unchanged from previous years, at least one thing is different about Gayle himself from last year: his weight. He added nine pounds to come into camp at 269, making him the largest end on the roster.