What UVA Football fans need to know about the Clemson D

ACC Championship GameClemson lost Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Trayvon Mullen from its defense after winning the national title in January.

The offense returned Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins, but the defense was supposed to be a work-in-progress in 2019.

Yeah.

So, Clemson is second nationally in total defense (232.8 yards per game), first in scoring defense (10.1 points per game), and didn’t give up more than 20 points or 294 yards in a game this season.

So much for the nonsense about the D being a work-in-progress.

“Yes, we had some great players leave, but we have great players here. That was my big thing coming into the season, was I felt like this was the best back seven that I had had since I’ve been a head coach,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

Three members of that back seven – linebacker Isaiah Simmons (84 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, seven sacks), cornerback A.J. Terrell (22 tackles, four pass breakups, two interceptions) and safety Tanner Muse (61 tackles, five PBUs, four INTs) – were just voted to the All-ACC first-team defense.

The Tigers D also had two on the All-ACC second team – defensive tackle Tyler Davis (39 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, three sacks) and cornerback Derion Kendrick (28 tackles, three PBUs, two INTs) – and three more on the third team – defensive end Xavier Thomas (20 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, two sacks), tackle Nyles Pinckney (27 tackles, four TFLs and one sack) and safety K’Von Wallace (53 tackles, six PBUs, two INTs).

Throw in defensive end Justin Foster (30 tackles, eight TFLs, three sacks), who was an honorable-mention selection, and that’s nine of your starting 11.

The weak part was supposed to be the line, but Thomas and Foster at end and Pinckney in the middle at tackle, and the experience at linebacker and in the secondary, it’s almost as if you don’t miss the studs from last year now playing in the NFL.

“I just think, yes, we lost some great players up front, but we had a great group in our back seven coming back,” Swinney said. “Again, good, young talent in that D-line that’s developed nicely, really has been able to just go play, have not had to have a lot of pressure put on them when it comes to just having to feel like they got to make a play, this and that, because you’re not great on the back end.

“We certainly expected to be a good defense. That’s just the standard that we have. We lose players every single year on offense and defense. We feel like we’ve recruited well and developed well. If you do that, you got a good chance to sustain some consistency.”

It’s been a while since Clemson has faced any kind of a challenge. Just one game in 2019 has been within two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Tigers’ 21-20 win at North Carolina back on Sept. 28, and even that day, the D shined, limiting ACC Rookie of the Year QB Sam Howell to 144 yards on 15-of-27 passing, and holding the Tar Heels to 290 total yards.

Getting ready to face #23 Virginia in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game, Clemson may be lining up across from the best QB it’s had to face to this point in 2019 in the form of Bryce Perkins (245.6 yards per game passing, 57.3 yards per game on the ground, 64.2 percent completion rate, 27 total touchdowns in 2019).

Perkins, the second-team All-ACC quarterback in 2019, behind Clemson’s Lawrence, has been at his best down the stretch for the ‘Hoos – averaging 286.5 yards passing, 103.0 yards rushing and accounting for 13 total TDs in Virginia’s last four games, all Cavalier wins.

“He’s a great player. First of all, he’s a great leader. You just see that in him. He plays with an incredible will to win. He has this belief to him. It’s very easy to see that,” Swinney said of Perkins, a senior and second-year starter.

“He’s very dynamic. Just seems like he comes up with the big play when he needs to have it,” Swinney said. “They’re passing the ball for 260 plus yards a game. Just a guy that can beat you with his feet and his arm. Going to be a handful for us. Everything is going to go through him. They do a great job schematically to make sure he’s equipped with answers. Just going to be a great competitor to have to find a way to beat.”

There’s a healthy amount of respect for Perkins from the Clemson side.

You could say the feeling is mutual.

“They’re great at causing havoc, getting pressure,” Perkins said of the Clemson D. “One way or another, they’ll blitz this side, and then they’ll blitz this side. It’s always making teams uncomfortable, making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the backfield, turnovers like that. They do a great job of causing havoc.

“We’re going to have to come in prepared and ready for it,” Perkins said. “This week is going to be definitely important as far as game planning and film watching to make sure we’re in the best situation to handle different and various types of pressures that they bring.”

Story by Chris Graham


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