CLEMSON -- If one is looking for context in Clemson camp, Kevin Steele is the first opinion to counsel. The Tigers' new defensive coordinator has an impressive collective of suitcase stickers from stops at Nebraska, Florida State, Alabama and the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

So what does Steele make of the Tigers' defensive line?

The group is receiving preseason praise with Ricky Sapp blurring off the edge, Brandon Thompson collapsing pockets and Da'Quan Bowers beginning to tap his enormous potential.

Clemson Nation is banking on that group to be a keystone to build around in 2009. Yes, questions abound on offense but there is little concern over Steele's defense, a predicted strength that starts up front.

It is a group ranked in the top quarter

of the ACC by national publications, ranked in the top 10 nationally by Phil Steele, despite registering a paltry 14 sacks last season. Last season, Sapp tied for a team-best two sacks. Bowers was limited to one sack after entering the season as ESPN's No. 1 prospect.

"I've been around some pretty good ones," Steele said. "Those two ends are pretty special. ... And this front probably has more depth than any place I've ever been."

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been unable to tell at times whether the first or second defensive line was on the field, which Swinney assures is a good thing, a testament to the depth that includes Kevin Alexander and Malliciah Goodman at end, Jamie Cumbie and Miguel Chavis behind Thompson and Jarvis Jenkins at tackle.

With such depth, some have questioned why the staff plans to play Goodman, a talented true freshman.

"The biggest thing is it helps us stay fresh," Steele said. "If you can keep people fresh and you go into the fourth quarter when it is hammer time ... you (can) really put it on them. It makes you more effective on third down."

If Goodman continues his standout play -- he registered two sacks in Saturday's scrimmage -- the Tigers' reserve ends could form a formidable rotation.

Steele also plans to utilize Alexander like a 3-4 rush outside linebacker in certain packages within his hybrid, attacking-style defense, essentially placing three defensive ends on the field.

The potential is enticing for the Tigers.

Bowers says entering his second season he has a much better grasp of the game, and his performance through the spring and summer, dating back to the bowl game corroborates his statement

"It's looking good," Bowers said of the front four under. "I think our wins are going to come from winning in the trenches."

Sapp appears to be 100 percent healthy after tearing his ACL last season. Swinney said he looks like a wide receiver exploding off the line, and Goodman is playing so well Swinney has already decided to toss away the redshirt.

"We have much better personnel than (last season's production indicates)," Swinney said. "I'm excited to cut them loose and let them play.

"If we have 14 sacks this year, then something went way wrong."

Spiller on Maxwell list

Clemson running back C.J. Spiller was named to the Maxwell Award watch list Wednesday. The award is presented to the most "Outstanding Player in College Football." Spiller is already on the Walter Camp and Doak Walker Award lists.

Reach Travis Sawchik at tsawchik@postandcourier.com and check out his Clemson blog at www.postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks.