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Gridiron Greats: Ranking the top 5 DE’s in Clemson History

Gaines Adams (93) was among the most dominant defensive players in Clemson football history

     The Tiger Sports Staff is introducing a new series this week: Gridiron Greats. The staff collectively researches and votes to determine which players from Clemson’s history were the most effective at each position. For the purposes of this series, the staff is not including current players in the rankings. However, each week will include an examination of current players and their potential to rank among the greats. 

#1. Vic Beasley

     There have been a lot of great defensive ends in Clemson’s history, but Vic Beasley will go down as Clemson’s best. The two-time Consensus All-American owns Clemson’s all-time sack record (33) and all-time tackles for loss record (52.5). Beasley is also in the conversation for the ACC’s best defensive end, ever. He’s first in sacks since 2005 and second in all-time tackles for loss. Along with his All-American honors, he was the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014. In two games versus South Carolina, Beasley had four sacks and five tackles for loss.

     Beasley’s combination of speed and strength was something that we’ve never seen before. Beasley ran a 4.53 forty-yard dash and put up 35 bench press reps (225 pounds) at the 2015 NFL Combine. His burst off the snap is one of the best I have seen from anybody. His bend, hands and spin move were absolutely lethal. Beasley was drafted eighth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by his favorite team, the Atlanta Falcons.

#2. Gaines Adams

     The legacy of the late, great Gaines Adams will live on forever in Clemson Tigers football lore. From his game-changing 66-yard fumble return for a touchdown in 2006 against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, to the record-tying 28 sacks accrued throughout his four-year career, Adams established himself as a Clemson legend en route to being drafted fourth overall in the 2007 NFL Draft.

     As a senior, Adams helped sparked an epic fourth-quarter comeback over the Demon Deacons following a muffed snap on a field-goal attempt. By forcing a fumble after the muff and returning it to the end zone to incite a 14-point comeback in the fourth quarter, Adams forever instilled himself as a Clemson legend.

     During the course of his illustrious college career, Adams tied Michael Dean Perry’s Clemson record with 28 sacks, a record that was not broken for nearly a decade later.

     Tragically, Adams passed away due to cardiomyopathy following his third season in the NFL. He was 26 years old at the time. The tremendous impact that Adams made upon the Clemson football program has never waned in importance, as his locker-room leadership and on-field dominance helped set the tone for a Clemson program on the rise.

#3. Shaq Lawson

     Shaq Lawson is third in our defensive end countdown. Lawson was a part of the Clemson defense that finished the 2015 regular season in the top ten and was an integral part of Clemson’s run to the National Championship in 2015. He led the country that year with 22 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Lawson was a guy that possessed many talents as a defensive end. He was disruptive against the run and pass and had a motor that was always revving. He was able to be effective despite an injury that hampered him throughout the 2015 season. The former D.W. Daniel High stand out spent one year at Hargrave Military Academy before coming to Clemson in 2013. After his decorated career in Tiger Town, Lawson was drafted to the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

#4. Da’Quan Bowers

    When he signed his letter of intent to attend Clemson in 2008, Da’Quan Bowers became the The Tiger’s first national top overall prospect to sign to the program. Over his three years at defensive end (DE) for the Tigers, Bowers was one of the most productive players at the position in the program’s history. By the time he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010, Bowers had totalled 150 tackles, set the Clemson record for sacks by a defensive lineman (19.5), was a unanimous All-American and was named the 2010 ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

     Playing with fellow defensive end Andre Branch, the duo formed the most lethal pair of DE’s to wear orange and purple in the decade of the 2000’s. Bowers was an athlete with a rarefied skillset of speed, size and power that, when combined with a keen mind for the nuances of the game, propelled him to one of the most storied careers in Clemson history.

#5. Andre Branch

       Over the four years he played for the Tigers, Andre Branch totaled 179 tackles, 34.0 tackles for loss, 17.5 sacks and made at least one tackle in 41 straight games. Branch was a model of improvement during his time at Clemson, enhancing his abilities every season. During his first year playing on the team, Branch did not start a game and had five games in which he did not play at all. By the time he was a senior, though, Branch was a co-captain, was second on the team in total tackles (85) and lead the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (17).

     Branch was a versatile player that excelled at rushing the passer but could also be relied upon to drop back in coverage. He was not the fastest player at his position, but his technique and strength allowed him to be used in nearly every defensive scheme employed by the Tigers during his time at Clemson.

What Current Tigers Could Make This List?

     This year’s defensive line may be the best in Clemson’s history, with redshirt junior Clelin Ferrell and senior Austin Bryant being the bookends. Ferrell currently has 20.5 sacks and Bryant has 15.5. Both were key pieces on defense for the 2017 Playoffs. Ferrell broke out in the 2016 Fiesta bowl with three sacks in Clemson’s 31-0 route over Ohio State and Bryant recorded his single-game high with four sacks against Auburn in 2017.

     Expect both Ferrell and Bryant to add to their decorated careers. As far as the draft goes, CBS Sports has Ferrell fourth(first round) and Bryant 76th (third round) on their big board.

     In addition to Ferrell and Bryant, Clemson has more defensive ends that can make their way onto this list, but it is too early to tell. Xavier Thomas (ESPN’s fourth ranked player in the class of 2018), KJ Henry (ESPN’s sixth ranked player in the class of 2018) and Justin Foster (sack and fumble recovery versus Texas A&M) all look promising. Credit goes to Head Coach Dabo Swinney, Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables, Defensive Line Coach Todd Bates, Defensive Ends Coach Lemanski Hall and Strength and Conditioning Coach Joey Batson for recruiting and developing this deep unit.

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