Uncertainty about what Clemson defense will do this fall

Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader talks to reporters during the ACC Football Kickoff in Pinehurst, N.C., on Monday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

PINEHURST, N.C. — Clemson’s offense could storm back to elite status. Clemson’s defense could slip from its No. 1 rating.

Reality doesn’t always match the perception, but it would appear Clemson’s football games this season could be much different from the defensive filibusters of last year. That’s based on the return of young stars on offense and the absence of several defensive standouts who left for the NFL.

Players wearing polo shirts with their school’s logo stitched on one side — both those with the Tiger Paw and those without it — had varying views Monday at the ACC Football Kickoff on how Saturdays might unfold for Clemson once the fall rolls around.

For his part, Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader rejects the notion the defensive line has a dearth of experience. The Tigers’ entire starting defensive line of 2014 is on NFL rosters, but Clemson has 18 scholarship linemen on campus entering 2015.

“We’re not returning that label of ‘starter’ but most of the guys on our defensive line have played more than 500 plays, and all of them have (a bunch) of tackles,” Reader said. “We’ve got freshmen, and those guys were great high school players. We’ll develop them, and we’ll be fine.”

An early indicator of how well Clemson has developed the backups comes Sept. 17, when the Tigers visit Louisville. Last year’s matchup was quirky, in that neither team could seemingly buy a third-down conversion in Clemson’s 23-17 victory that failed to feature nearly as much offense as the score would indicate.

“That was a long game, because the offenses did struggle,” Louisville defensive end Sheldon Rankins said. “But with two great defenses against each other like that, that’s what you expect. Their defense was loaded with Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward, Grady Jarrett — they were stacked. A lot of guys were drafted. A lot of guys will get drafted next year.”

Could the going be easier for Louisville’s offense, now that Beasley, Anthony and the gang are gone?

“I think in a way, it could. I don’t know the kind of depth they have,” Rankins said. “Obviously, they could have had great guys behind those guys who step up and be a similar defense.”

N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett, whose Wolfpack served as one of Clemson’s five victims unable to exceed seven points last year, doesn’t expect to see a weakened Tigers’ defense.

“I don’t think it’ll be easier; they still have a great team, they still have great players coming back,” Brissett said. “It’ll depend on how we approach the week of practice and find a way to play our game.”

Clemson’s offense should be better, assuming sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson stays healthy. Watson was injured in the first half of games against Louisville and Georgia Tech last year, so neither Cardinals linebacker James Burgess nor Yellow Jackets defensive back D.J. White had a good read on how much that affected the Tigers’ offense.

“It was hard to tell because it was so early in the game,” said White, whose team returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns against backup quarterback Cole Stoudt. “Definitely with Deshaun, as talented as he is, he does bring a different dynamic with his ability, so that’s something I’m sure Clemson’s going to take advantage of – if he’s healthy.”

Wake Forest struggled to contain Stoudt in 2014, and Tajh Boyd in 2013 in Death Valley. The Demon Deacons have yet to face Watson, though they were burned by Artavis Scott on jet sweeps last year.

“I know how that atmosphere can get,” said Wake Forest linebacker Brandon Chubb, “and how a shifty quarterback in that type of offense can work.”