CLEMSON -- When Clemson linebackers Levon Kirkland and Ed McDaniel kneeled next to a 600-pound Siberian Tiger for a promotional poster in 1991, it was a fitting marketing ploy. Facing the Clemson linebacking corps was an intimidating prospect for offenses in the 1980s and '90s.
Clemson led the nation in rushing defense in 1991, the last time the Tigers won an ACC title. Some dubbed Clemson the Southeast's Linebacker U.
But that rich tradition has been lost. After producing at least one All-ACC linebacker every year from 1988 to 2001, a period when 13 Clemson linebackers were selected in the NFL draft, Clemson has had only one All-ACC linebacker since 2001, Leroy Hill (2003-04).
No longer being a linebacker factory might explain Clemson's decline in run defense.
From 1988-2000, Clemson ranked among the top 25 in rush defense 11 times in 13 seasons. Since 2001, Clemson has ranked in the top 25 in run defense three times. Clemson ranks 77th in rush yards per attempt (4.5) entering Saturday's ACC championship game in Charlotte. The No. 21 Tigers (9-3) face No. 5 Virginia Tech (11-1), which has one of the country's best rush offenses.
Lost art of tackling
Kirkland works in the Clemson admissions office and still follows the program closely. When the former NFL star attempts to explain the loss of the linebacker tradition, he begins with practice.
"People would say you can't do the stuff we did in practice," Kirkland said. "But I think the thing that made us really battle ready was the middle drill where it's just the offensive line and running backs versus the defensive front seven -- no receivers, no defensive backs -- in a really small space, maybe 15 yards wide. That was the thing most of us didn't look forward to, but it was something we did every Tuesday and Wednesday, and it made us battle tested. I also think it made our offensive line and running backs tougher."
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said earlier this season he would welcome the opportunity to have his defenders engage in more live tackling, but noted few offensive coaches around the country would agree to such physical practices. Instead of tackling, Clemson, like many programs, simply wraps up ball carriers in simulated game conditions.
"We've been doing (no tackling) long enough -- we've learned to manage," Steele said. "It's repetition, just getting guys to rapid-fire response, which is our biggest problem."
Still, perhaps the missed tackles -- Clemson had four in its 34-13 loss at South Carolina -- can be traced to less physical practices.
Said Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson earlier this season: "We don't tackle in practice … It just kind of (affects you) when you get in the game, because the whole practice, the whole week, you go through without taking a person to the ground."
Coach Dabo Swinney said his practices are tough and similar to those at Alabama, which ranks No. 1 in total defense.
"We go pretty hard in practice," Swinney said. "We hit and go good as much as anybody in the country. … There are a lot of teams that don't ever tackle. Alabama, they don't ever tackle to the ground. Ever."
Practice provides the polish, but what kind of raw talent has Clemson recruited?
From 2002-10, Clemson signed a handful of four-star linebackers and no five-star linebackers, according to Rivals.com. The four-star recruits were Antonio Clay (2005), Josh Miller (2005), Cooper (2007), Tig Willard (2009) and Justin Parker (2010).
To illustrate the lack of big-play ability Clemson linebackers have demonstrated this year, the linebackers have combined for 11 1/2 tackles for loss and one sack.
At Alabama, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw have combined for 25 tackles for loss and 10 1/2 sacks this season.
The good news for Clemson is its drought of signing elite linebacker talent ended in February when Clemson landed five-star linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward.
While Steward is out with a knee injury, Anthony is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (4) among linebackers and has the group's only sack despite playing in a reserve role.
"They have high ceiling and have made good progress but still have a long way to go," Steele said of his young linebackers. "Stephone will have a play or two where he's big-eyed but he's really smart. He's making a lot of progress. Lateek (Townsend) is making progress … Quandon (Christian) is doing a good solid job."
Clemson has one linebacker commitment in its 2012 class. The success of the linebackers over the several years depends on this young group developing.
"This group of guys is going to be really good one day," Steele said, "and it better be one day soon."
Complex or complicated?
Like some fans, Kirkland has wondered if Clemson's defense is too complex and leads to hesitation. Steele and Swinney reject this hypothesis. Steele said hesitation on the field is due to inexperience, not his scheme.
"It's complex; it's not complicated," Steele said. "We have a rule here. If we are not executing something by Thursday, we take it out (of the game plan)."
Steele said the issue is more about translating work on the practice field to the game field.
"A lot of guys can swat a ball in a batting cage," Steele said, "but when it's coming off the mound at 95 (mph) and fans are screaming, it's a different deal."
Clemson All-ACC linebackers since 1980
1980 - None
1981 - Jeff Davis
1982 - Johnny Rembert
1983 - Henry Walls
1984 - None
1985 - None
1986 - None
1987 - None
1988 - Jesse Hatcher
1989 - Levon Kirkland
1990 - Levon Kirkland
1991 - Levon Kirkland and Ed McDaniel
1992 - Ashley Sheppard
1993 - Tim Jones
1994 - Tim Jones
1995 - Anthony Simmons
1996 - Anthony Simmons
1997 - Anthony Simmons
1998 - Rahim Abdullah
1999 - Keith Adams
2000 - Keith Adams
2001 - Chad Carson
2002 - None
2003 - Leroy Hill
2004 - Leroy Hill
2005 - None
2006 - None
2007 - None
2008 - None
2009 - None
2010 - None
2011 - None