Clemson might be the new D-line U

Clemson vs Louisville is a game of most sacks vs most-sacked (0:59)

Lamar Jackson is one of the most exciting quarterbacks to watch, but it's his history of getting sacked that makes Louisville's showdown with Clemson's D-line so interesting. (0:59)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Dabo Swinney appreciates as much as anybody what the likes of Deshaun Watson, Tajh Boyd, Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins have meant to Clemson's football program.

Swinney also understands that if you're going to win a championship -- or championships -- a good place to start is the defensive line.

"We've built the program from the inside out," Swinney said. "The quarterbacks and skill players get all the flash and pizzazz. But there's no question about it: Our team and program have been built from the inside out in the trenches."

The defending national champions (even though Swinney dismisses the notion that the Tigers are defending anything) reminded the college football world yet again on Saturday that their dominance up front defensively is as much a part of Clemson's heritage as orange tiger paws, Howard's Rock and running down the hill.

"The guys who came before me, they set the stage and laid the foundation -- the Vic Beasleys, the DeShawn Williamses, the Grady Jarretts," said Christian Wilkins, Clemson's All-American centerpiece to a defensive line that spearheaded an 11-sack performance in the 14-6 win over Auburn, one off the Clemson school record for sacks.

"Those guys are part of our inspiration to work so hard. We know we have to do it right for the guys who came before us. Since Coach Swinney has been the head coach, we have a long list of guys who've come through Clemson and torn it up on the defensive line. It's our job to live up to that and keep that tradition and legacy going."

Only LSU (14) has had more defensive linemen taken in the last 10 NFL drafts than Clemson (13). In the last three NFL drafts alone, Clemson has had six defensive linemen selected. Last season, 11 former Clemson defensive linemen had jobs on NFL teams. This year, there were eight former Clemson defensive linemen on NFL opening-day rosters, albeit two have transitioned to outside linebacker in the pros.

"I wish people could see how we practice every day. If you don't bring it, then your brother is going to challenge you," said Clemson junior defensive end Austin Bryant, who tied a school record with four sacks against Auburn. "That's how we do it here, and that's how the standard has been set, getting talented guys here who want to work and want contribute to the team first, and then everything else will fall into place."

Wilkins added: "If you're not willing to compete here and want to take a day off in practice, you're going to get exposed."

Clemson's blend of size, athleticism and depth in the defensive line sets the Tigers apart. It's reminiscent of Alabama under Nick Saban. Players come and go on Clemson's defensive front, but there's never any drop-off.

"You set new goals every year, and we've set a goal to be one of the best defenses in Clemson history," sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell said.

Clemson has recruited great players on the defensive line under Swinney and gone everywhere from Georgia to North Carolina to Virginia to Massachusetts to get them. The way the Tigers have reloaded year after year has been even more impressive.

"Recruiting well starts with evaluating well," Swinney said. "It's not just who everybody else says is a good player. It's who you think is a good player and developing those guys. Vic Beasley didn't start a game here until his fourth year. Kevin Dodd never started a game at Clemson until his fourth year. They were redshirt juniors in their first starts and very average players. Vic had never played defensive line. He was a running back, and Kevin was a one- or two-star recruit.

"But we evaluated them and got them in the right spot, and when their time came, they were ready."

Even for the Tigers' menacing defensive front, the challenge goes to a whole different level on Saturday against Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy last season and rolled up 457 yards of total offense and accounted for three touchdowns in a 42-36 loss to Clemson.

As good as Jackson was a year ago, the Tigers think he's even better and more dangerous this year. Jackson leads all FBS players with 505 yards of total offense per game and has accounted for eight touchdowns.

"He was the Heisman Trophy winner for a reason, the best player in college football," Wilkins said. "He's just a winner, and when his team needs him, he's always coming up big. I was watching [Louisville's second game], and it looked like North Carolina had him for a second, and psych, no they didn't because he stepped up big.

"He can do a lot of different things. From what I've seen, he's throwing the ball a lot better than he has. It's really scary to see, honestly, and impressive how good of a player he's become. He's the total package."

Clemson's defensive line has a way of making for a long day for all quarterbacks, even one as dynamic and elusive as Jackson, who's no stranger to being sacked. Since the start of the 2016 season, Clemson leads all FBS teams with 60 sacks. Jackson, meanwhile, has been sacked an FBS-high 48 times over that same span.

"He'll be up to the challenge, and so will we," Wilkins said. "You come to a place like Clemson to play against the best. We get a chance to do that."

Wilkins' eyes have grown weary from watching so much tape of Jackson, who's been known to keep opposing defensive coordinators and defenders up at night.

"I'm going to need some sleep going against him, so I can't allow him to keep me up," Wilkins joked.