CLEMSON, S.C. — Another year, another major round of changes for Clemson's defense.
The team that used a strong front four and tight secondary to reach the national title game is taking hits in both areas this offseason. The again, it's not the first time Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has had to reload on defense.
A year ago, the Tigers lost eight of 11 starters from a defense ranked No. 1 nationally in yards allowed, yet rebounded to end 10th in the country this time.
"I expect us to have another strong defense next year," Swinney said.That's a tough challenge, especially with who the Tigers are losing.
All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson and fellow defensive end Kevin Dodd both are giving up additional college seasons for the NFL draft. The two combined for 24.5 sacks and were 1-2 nationally in tackles for loss.
Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green are also leaving. They comprised three quarters of Clemson's stellar secondary, which helped the Tigers rank 17th nationally in passing yards allowed.
Linebackers B.J. Goodson, the team's top tackler, and Travis Blanks also won't be back.
In all, Clemson will have turned over every defensive spot in the past two years. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersly and returning injured linebacker Korrin Wiggins are the only players who started games in 2014 will be in the lineup in 2016.
"People didn't think we could do what we did," Dodd said in the locker room following Clemson's 45-40 national champion loss to Alabama on Jan. 11. "They'll see what our young guys can do next year."
Dodd was evidence of that.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pound junior had played sparingly in 2014 behind starters Corey Crawford and NFL first-round draft pick Vic Beasley and was considered a question mark for the Tigers before the season began. But he finished with 12 sacks and 23.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage to play himself into a likely first-round selection in this year's NFL draft.
Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables have used a deep rotation of players to keep the Tigers fresh. Lawson and Dodd got invaluable experience, Venables said, in 2014 that prepared them to move forward this season.
"I think our guys next year will benefit from that, too," he said.
Backup Austin Bryant has shown flashes of what he can do already. As a freshman, he stepped in for an injured Lawson early in the Orange Bowl and played well.
The secondary should be Clemson's biggest area of concern entering next season with only Tankersley back.
Of course, any defensive issues will likely be covered up by Clemson's explosive offense.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson, third in last year's Heisman Trophy voting, is back for another season to lead an attack that put up more than 500 yards a game over its final 11 contests. It gained 550 yards against the Crimson Tide, the most they had allowed in a game all season.
Swinney is not looking for a defensive dropoff, saying: "We have built this program for the long term and I am confident in the talent of the young players we have."
This article was written by Pete Iacobelli from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.