CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney was informed, after a bowl practice in December, of the disappointing news regarding that day’s release of the 2014 Associated Press All-America football teams.
The three squads, totaling 33 players, included just one Clemson player, defensive end Vic Beasley. One out of 33, for the nation’s top-rated defense.
Feeling snubbed, Swinney’s face looked like he’d just swallowed a lemon.
“I don’t understand all that stuff, I don’t know how all that happens,” Swinney said, “but I know there ain’t six (defensive tackles) or nine (linebackers) better than Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony. These guys are special, off the charts.”
Since leaving Clemson better than they found it — from the 70-33 debacle against West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl to the No. 1 defense in the land — Anthony and Jarrett have loudly clawed their way up the boards of NFL draftniks in hopes of a Day 2 selection Friday, when the second and third rounds are held.
“The highly rated guy coming out of high school out of us three was Stephone, and he was a great player coming in,” Jarrett said. “I guess me and Vic kind of developed as players coming up through the Clemson program with the coaches we had. That’s definitely helped us get to this point.”
Anthony, who left the school second all-time in logging snaps among Clemson linebackers, led the Tigers in tackles in 2013 and 2014. He had considered forgoing his senior year to enter the NFL draft, but came back to bolster his stock, and after a strong NFL Scouting Combine in February is considered a strong second-round prospect.
“A lot of scouts love the fact I’m a student of the game,” Anthony said. “They love my athleticism, they love the fact that I can run and I play downhill in the run game. They love I can get out and cover and play in space.”
Jarrett became the heart and soul of Clemson’s defense; though his numbers don’t leap off the page, his college legacy was symbolized last week when Sports Illustrated published a podcast called “the All-Tape Team” saluting low-stat, high-impact draft prospects and ran a photo of Jarrett under the headline.
“Grady Jarrett is a plugger, he’s underrated,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “I think he’s going to end up being a third-round pick and a guy who has a nice career in the NFL. I would want Jarrett on my team.”
Jarrett has not traveled the country for individual visits, but he had private workouts with Atlanta, Cleveland and Tampa Bay.
“I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback, hearing back from people who say I did it well and they love my tape,” Jarrett said. “It’s been real positive, and I’m ready for this draft.
“It’s definitely an exciting time, and I’m just hoping for the best.”
The Big Three figure to be followed by other key contributors to last year’s defense once the draft reaches its later rounds Saturday. Defensive end Corey Crawford, cornerback Garry Peters and safety Robert Smith (Woodland) could snare a late-round pick, while linebacker Tony Steward and defensive linemen Tavaris Barnes, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson could also latch on somewhere.
“The IQ I have for the game has helped me out,” Smith said. “I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder from the time I got here through my development at Clemson. I’ve always been willing to work harder than anybody else.”
Clemson only had one defensive player selected in the 2014 draft (cornerback Bashaud Breeland, fourth round, Washington). The Tigers haven’t had more than four defensive players taken in any one draft since 1999, when a program-record six defenders were grabbed among the first 250 picks.
Punter Bradley Pinion, quarterback Cole Stoudt and wide receiver Adam Humphries also could get a look at the next level, either as late-round picks or undrafted free agents.