- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes his defense is in better shape for next season, even if attrition and the number of Tiger underclassmen at the NFL combine indicate otherwise.

Swinney said Monday as his team opened spring workouts that the Tigers had more competitive depth up front, among linebackers and in the secondary - a difference from a year ago when Clemson needed to replace eight starters and crossed its fingers that the front-line players would stay healthy to keep from exposing a lack of support behind them.

“I like where we are on defense, I really do,” Swinney said.

The Tigers, 14-1 last season, more than made up for the losses as new starters such as defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd kept Clemson in the top 10 defensively.

The Tigers won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and advanced to the national title game before losing 45-40 to Alabama seven weeks ago.

Much of that defensive group is gone and showed off its talents this past weekend in Indianapolis. Lawson and Dodd, both considered first-round NFL draft picks, along with three starters in the secondary (cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green) all gave up their eligibility to jump to the pros.

Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson, the team’s top tackler last season, was also at the combine and put up one of the leading performances in front of NFL scouts.

Freshman defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said the Tigers have to quickly adjust to their old leaders being gone.

“It is a little weird not seeing certain guys like Kevin Dodd and Shaq not out here with us. They did a good job leading this group,” Wilkins said. “Now, my mentality is I’ve got to be more of a leader.”

It’s a mindset that must spread throughout the defensive roster, Swinney said.

Ben Boulware is the team’s lone returning linebacker while only cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is back among the secondary starters from last season.

But Swinney said the Tigers have stockpiled players at those spots the past few years and will look to tap into those reserves this spring. The coach said Clemson must work out many players this spring to guarantee the depth necessary to make another run at the College Football Playoffs.

“We’ve got some guys (on defense) that could go play today,” Swinney said. “But not a lot of those guys.”

Clemson’s deepest area seems to be up front where Wilkins, junior Carlos Watkins and Austin Bryant will make a solid core. Already here for spring ball is early enrollee Dexter Lawrence, a defensive tackle from North Carolina considered the No. 2 college prospect this past recruiting cycle.

Center Jay Guillermo said the young linemen have already made an impression on the team. “They’re going to be hard to stop,” he said, smiling.

Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said the newcomers understand the legacy left behind and don’t want to be the group that stumbles on high expectations next season.

“We’ve been to the championship game and know what it takes to get back there,” he said. “We don’t have time to rebuild, we’ve got to reload.”

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