Film Study: Clemson's Ferocious Defensive Front May Be the Best Ohio State Has Seen in Years

By Kyle Jones on December 19, 2016 at 11:30 am
Sophomore ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell have lived in opposing backfields this season
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, and Jonathan Hankins? Or Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Vic Beasley, and Da'Quan Bowers?

Ohio State Football Film Study

While both the Buckeye and Tiger offenses were engineered with the same philosophies in mind five years ago, the similarities between the two programs don't end there. Both teams have sent countless star defensive linemen to the next level over the past half decade, with the trend expected to continue in this spring's NFL draft.

More than any other position, the value placed on this position has increased drastically in recent history, spurring much of the S.E.C.'s dominance on the national stage. But Clemson and Ohio State have followed suit, placing a premium on identifying these players, regardless of their location. As a result, both programs are making their second playoff appearances in three years.

The Buckeyes have certainly faced talented fronts under Urban Meyer before, most notably the Alabama line featuring A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, both of whom were selected in the second round of the most recent draft to go along with Jonathan Allen, the potential top pick this April. There was also the Michigan State front led by Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell that shut down the Buckeyes in their only loss of 2015.

But it's quite possible that Pat Elflein, Billy Price, and the rest of the Ohio State offensive line will line up across from the most talented unit they've ever seen in the upcoming Fiesta Bowl. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has been an excellent recruiter throughout his tenure, bringing all kinds of talent to the western tip of South Carolina, but he's put a special focus on this crucial position group over the past few years.

Recruiting stars can often be misleading and overrated, but this year's group of Tiger D-linemen has more than lived up to the hype. As the unit looked to replace Lawson and Dodd this season, three young players have easily filled the void.

Senior Nose Tackle #94 Carlos Watkins - 6'3" 305 lbs:

The only true veteran of the unit leads the team in sacks with 8.5, and although he may be the least explosive athlete of the bunch, he gets off blocks quickly and can often be found in opposing backfields.

Watkins beats the guard to stuff the runner
Freshman 3-Technique Tackle #90 Dexter Lawrence - 6'5" 340 lbs:

The crown jewel of the 2016 recruiting class, Lawrence has shown great athleticism for his massive size, tallying 13 QB hits, 19 hurries, and 6.5 sacks.

Sophomore Strong-side End #99 Clelin Ferrell - 6'5" 265 lbs: 

The speed-rusher of the group, Ferrell aligns to the wide side of the field on most downs. This long and lean athlete does a good job of using his hands to get off blocks and make plays in space, mustering five sacks, seven QB hits, and 15 hurries in his first year as a starter.

Ferrell strings out the play for a sack
Sophomore Weak-side End #42 Christian Wilkins - 6'4" 310 lbs 

Possibly the most singularly-talented member of the entire team, Wilkins matches the size of an interior lineman with the speed and athleticism of a typical pass-rushing end. Though he only registered 3.5 sacks this fall, he led the team with 12 tackles-for-loss and 17 QB hurries, creating countless opportunities for his teammates to get the glory.

This quartet leaves little room for error, anchoring a unit that registered 46 sacks and 112 tackles-for-loss this season, the nation's second-best marks in both categories. On early downs, the Tigers rarely blitz, instead relying on these athletic big men to shoot gaps and create chaos in the backfield on their own. Unlike some fronts that simply use their linemen to occupy blockers to free up the linebackers to make tackles, the Tiger front looks to get upfield and make the plays themselves.

With so much talent at his disposal, defensive coordinator Brent Venables forces opponents to pick their poison. While the interior of Buckeye O-line is both experienced and talented, the pure size of a player like Lawrence will be an issue for the smaller Elflein and Price inside when trying to run the ball. The Buckeyes simply won't be able to line up and push this massive front backward. 

If an offense tries to throw on an early down, Wilkins and Ferrell can collapse the pocket by themselves as the back seven drops into coverage. The most pressing threat for Ohio State is the matchup of Wilkins against right tackle Isaiah Prince, who has struggled mightily in pass protection at times. If Prince is able to manage his assignment against the talented end, though, things won't get any easier, as Venables dials up countless stunts and blitzes to free up his star pupils.

One of his favorite means of doing so is via the 3-2-6 'package' that is often trotted out in passing situations. While such a personnel grouping may sound conservative, the Tigers regularly bring pressure with five or six rushers, disguising the direction of the rush and confusing pass protectors.

Clemson's overload blitz
FSU has no chance to slow down this train

But while there is solid depth at the position, the Tigers have been hurt at times by long drives as Lawrence and Watkins tire quickly. Run/Pass options that force these big athletes to pursue ball carriers laterally tire them out quickly, forcing backups without the same skill sets to take over as offenses hit the red zone.

Additionally, Louisville's designed runs for quarterback Lamar Jackson gashed the Tigers, using their aggressiveness against them in gap-blocked schemes like Counter or Power-Read. Although some Buckeye fans have become numb to the effectiveness of similar play calls for J.T. Barrett, he's clearly a capable runner and will have to be one again to take the pressure off his offensive line in pass protection.

Most of all, though, the battle between these two units may be mental. These Tigers create a massive front that shouldn't move as well as they do for their size. When the Buckeyes' OL has struggled this season, it's often started a snowball effect, with young players like Prince and left guard Michael Jordan struggling more and more as the game goes on.

Wilkins, Lawrence, and the rest of the Clemson front will make plays, there is no doubt about that. The real test for Ohio State's big men will be how they respond to them.

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