Even before head coach Dabo Swinney’s announcement yesterday morning that Ebenezer Ogundeko had been dismissed from the football team “for a violation of team rules and behavior detrimental” to the team, it was widely known the Tigers’ defensive line depth has diminished from last season’s top-ranked defense.
Six of the eight players who received at least one start along Clemson’s defensive front a year ago have departed campus and landed on an NFL team.
The Falcons used their first- and fifth-round picks on Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett before Tavaris Barnes, Corey Crawford, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams signed free-agent deals with the Saints, Redskins, Broncos and Bengals, respectively.
This was Ogundeko’s opening for increased playing time heading into his sophomore season, but his future at Clemson would soon evaporate after he was arrested and charged with one count of financial transaction card fraud due to his work with another person to alter the number on the magnetic strip on the back of his credit card, which multiple sources reported.
Ogundeko — a former four-star recruit from Brooklyn, N.Y., who redshirted during the 2013 season prior to playing in seven games and logging a handful of tackles last year — was carving out a more sizable role and primed to be one of the first names called as a substitution at defensive end.
“I’ve seen Ebo grow and improve,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said following Clemson’s second scrimmage of the spring on April 1. “He’s gotten better.”
Now without his services, and without other front-four cogs that combined for 23 of the 29 sacks the Tigers’ defensive line accounted for in 2014, Clemson doesn’t have the wealth of seasoned options at defensive end and defensive tackle that were there a season ago.
But though the team retained just three players with starting experience up front, the makeup and outlook of the expected starting unit is solid.
And behind them, there are players who have the potential to replenish the line’s depth and eventually, as they get more reps and game action, reduce the drop-off that is bound to occur when so many contributors pack up and move on.
“I think we’ll be strong up front,” Venables said following the spring game. “We’ve got to continue to develop and continue to get better in our pass rush.”
Shaq Lawson (one career start), who entered college as the No. 1 prep school prospect in the nation, has shown signs of stardom while waiting to start and is ready to break out in that role during his junior campaign. Similarly, Kevin Dodd has waited three years for his shot and will get it opposite Lawson at the other end spot.
In between them, senior D.J. Reader (four career starts) and junior Carlos Watkins (one career start) will step in as first-team tackles.
The composition of the second team and how it will be deployed is unclear, but talent is present.
One player in particular who caught the eye of Venables during the spring is defensive end Richard Yeargin III, who redshirted in 2014 after signing with Clemson as a three-star recruit from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Richard Yeargin has really shown something,” Venables said after the Tigers’ second spring scrimmage. “He’s starting to play faster, stronger, just playing more sure of himself, getting more comfortable. He’s still got to take another step, but I’ve been pleased with some things from him, as well.”
Scott Pagano, a Hawaii native and four-star signee in the 2013 recruiting class, Jabril Robinson, a three-star member of the 2014 class, and highly touted early enrollees Albert Huggins and Sterling Johnson will battle for alignment at defensive tackle behind Reader and Watkins, who said he isn’t overwhelmed by his new task of being a leader and mentor of the young assets.
“I kind of feel (the pressure),” Watkins said during the spring, “but you know what your goal is when you’re coming in, and you know you really can’t fold under pressure because you have younger guys behind you looking up to you, you and you have to be there for them in certain ways and certain areas.”
Summer workouts and fall camp will determine the course of several freshman defensive linemen, including five-star tackle Christian Wilkins and four-star ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, and whether they will redshirt or become complimentary pieces.
Venables said in the spring that it is imperative for these players to begin their quest of restocking the defensive line by “just having a great summer in the next six months.”
“Really locking in and improving, attacking weaknesses and things of that nature,” Venables said. “I think we have a chance to be strong.”