Clemson might have ACC's best defense

Dabo Swinney and the Tigers look to continue their upward trajectory in 2014. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

CLEMSON, S.C. -- When I sat in Dabo Swinney’s office a year ago, the affable, energetic Clemson coach said his primary goal was the program’s sustainability. If the Tigers were annually in the top 15, he said, the conference titles and regular BCS bowl (and now playoff) appearances would follow.

An 11-win season in 2013, one that included the school’s first BCS bowl victory, was a step toward that standard of play. However, the task of following that season seems rather daunting, at least from the outside.

There’s less concern internally. Quarterback Tajh Boyd, receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant and tackle Brandon Thomas might be gone, but Swinney and his staff are confident about those replacing them. And they’re even more upbeat about a defense that could be the backbone of the team.

My top spring takeaway from Clemson’s camp is that, perhaps in contrast to those on the outside, no one here is bracing for a drop-off.

“The guys have set a standard. I don’t see it as refocus or rebuilding in any of that stuff,” Swinney said. “We’re not looking at who we lost. There’s turnover every year.”

Swinney mentioned that there are 19 scholarship seniors this season; Clemson had 21 the past two years combined. The defensive line alone has six.

“There’s a culture in place,” he said. “We have to protect that culture.”

Here are other takeaways from Clemson, including several items pertaining to the three-man quarterback race by Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and buzzed-about freshman Deshaun Watson.

Takeaway: Clemson might have the best defense in the ACC. (Yes, I know who else is in the league.)

A year ago, the secondary was arguably the weakest area on the field for the Tigers. This year, it appears that the rest of the unit won’t have to deal with overcoming a weak back end.