CLEMSON -- Imagine losing a player comparable to a 21-year-old Reggie White. That is the prospect facing Clemson football this year.
The college version of White, an NFL Hall of Famer, is the comparison Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has offered for Da'Quan Bowers. Steele should know because he coached the late White at Tennessee in the early 1980s.
Clemson won just six games last year despite fielding the nation's sack and tackles- for-loss leader in Bowers, who is projected as a top 10 pick in next month's NFL draft. Not only does Clemson have to make dramatic offensive strides next season with a first-year quarterback to avoid another disappointing season,
Steele will also have to find a way to retool what was a dominant defensive front last season.
"We don't have free agency and we can't draft them based on the positions we need," Steele said. "We'll certainly miss Da'Quan. He is obviously one of the better players to play college football in the last couple of years at his position. I've told people, you don't replace a Da'Quan Bowers, but maybe two or three people can, and then through the scheme of things, we can move things around and adjust things.
"All of that production does not have to come from one guy or one position."
Maybe two or three players can combine to create an aggregate sum close to Bowers' 15 1/2 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last season, but Clemson does not have a player like Bowers capable of swatting double teams away like beach balls, making players around him better.
Andre Branch will start at bandit end after recording five sacks and 7 1/2 tackles for loss in nearly as many snaps (651) as Bowers played (683) last season. Branch has the athleticism to get to the quarterback, Branch said it is just a matter of refining technique to boost production.
Malliciah Goodman will open at the opposite defensive end spot and is coming off a relatively disappointing sophomore season when he tallied just three sacks. But Bowers did not break out until his junior year like another South Carolina native, Penn State's Courtney Brown, and the staff believes Goodman possesses considerable upside.
Though Steele compared Bowers to White in 2009 and predicted Bowers' 2010 breakout, the veteran coordinator says he is more concerned about the interior of the defensive line than defensive end. Defensive tackle depth thinned with the graduation of Jarvis Jenkins and Miguel Chavis.
To bolster depth, defensive end/tackle tweener Tavaris Barnes will play exclusively at defensive tackle.
"Probably the biggest concern for me and the staff was Jarvis Jenkins commanded double teams pretty much all year long," Steele said of last season. "When you can demand double teams on both sides of the ball (Brandon Thompson and Jenkins), that's four guys on two. We had a distinct advantage there."
If Clemson loses that advantage, it will place more pressure on a secondary replacing three starters, and more pressure on a linebacker corps that, while talented, is short on game experience.
"We're young," Steele said. "We're younger than people think."
Young, and lacking a youthful facsimile of White.
Follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter @travis_sawchik.
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