GREENSBORO In 2011, Clemson gave up 394 yards per game and more than 29 points per game.
The Tigers shaved that to 356.7 yards and 22.2 points per game last season, and many predict Clemson will have one of the best defenses in the country in 2014.
Coach Dabo Swinney said Monday that nothing really changed other than the players growing up.
“In 2011 they were all freshmen. It’s all the same guys,” Swinney said at ACC Kickoff. “All those guys everybody talked so bad about in 2011, they’re still there. The same people. Now they’re talking great about them.
“Freshmen become sophomores, and sophomores become juniors, and juniors become seniors. Those guys have just improved.”
The senior defensive players were freshmen when Clemson lost four of its final six games of the 2011 season, including an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Now senior defensive end Vic Beasley leads a group that promises to be just as formidable as the Tigers’ offense has been during the past few years.
Beasley is one of only three All-Americans who returned to school this season. He led the ACC with 13 sacks and was third in the nation with 23 tackles for loss. With eight sacks in 2014, Beasley would become Clemson’s all-time leader.
Though reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston was the runaway winner of the preseason conference player of the year award, Beasley was the only other player to receive more than one vote.
He headlines a senior defensive class that includes linebacker Stephone Anthony, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, safety Robert Smith, defensive end Corey Crawford and defensive tackle DeShawn Williams. Beasley, Anthony, Jarrett and Crawford combined for 58 tackles for loss in 2013.
“Then we’ve got guys like (defensive end) Shaq Lawson who isn’t even a senior yet making a big contribution to the team last year” with 10 tackles for loss, Beasley said. “With guys like that, I feel like we just have so much experience, and with all the knowledge that we have as a defense, I feel like there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be the top defense in the country.”
Beasley said he and his defensive comrades felt slighted in previous years and they treated the 2013 season as redemption.
“A lot of people thought that we were the weak link of the team, so we came into that season last year with a chip on our shoulder, and we were just ready to make a statement to the country,” Beasley said.
A strengthened defense might be just what Clemson needs to make it to the College Football Playoff. Swinney doesn’t believe the offense will regress despite losing the school’s most decorated passer in Tajh Boyd and No. 4 overall draft pick Sammy Watkins.
Still, Swinney would welcome not having to post 40-plus points a game to ensure victory like in years previous.
“I would have no problem with a couple of them 17-14 games, but then everybody would be complaining because the offense stinks and we can’t score no points,” Swinney said. “You can’t ever win.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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