All it took was a face mask full of Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence for an entire game last December for Virginia Tech center Eric Gallo to get the point.
When No. 12 Tech (4-0) hosts No. 2 Clemson on Saturday night, Gallo knows he’ll see Lawrence, who had two sacks in Clemson’s 42-35 win in the ACC championship game. Gallo is the kind of no-nonsense player who normally offers evaluations on opposing players without emotion, but Lawrence elicited a different response.
“That’s one of, if not the toughest players I’ve ever blocked,” said Gallo, who offered a nod when asked if Clemson’s defensive line would be the toughest he has faced. “We’re going to have to have great discipline, mentally and physically, when we’re blocking him on every play.”
Of course, Lawrence is only a small portion – though there’s nothing small about the 6-foot-4, 340-pound behemoth, who has 1½ sacks this season – of Clemson’s most daunting single unit.
Christian Wilkins (6-4, 300 pounds), who is as adept lining up at defensive end as he is on the interior, and Clelin Ferrell (6-5, 260)join Lawrence as returning starters on the Tigers’ line. Wilkins, a Nagurski Trophy finalist last season, is second on the team with 2½ sacks, while Ferrell has 14 tackles, including a sack.
As formidable as that trio has been, it doesn’t include the group’s most effective player.
With Wilkins sliding back to tackle to fill in for Carlos Watkins, who graduated after earning first team All-ACC and Associated Press second team All-America honors last season, there was an opening for a starting end. Austin Bryant, a 6-5, 265-pound junior, has responded by leading the team with five sacks and six tackles for loss.
Led by Bryant, Clemson (4-0) is tied with Old Dominion for second nationally in FBS with 17 sacks. Clemson’s line has accounted for 11½ of those.
“They’ve got almost an embarrassment of riches over there on the defensive line,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “I know some of the guys that they’ve recruited, and they’re not on the two-deep. I mean, they’re just really talented.”
In addition to an insatiable appetite for harassing quarterbacks, Clemson is 12th in the nation in rush defense, holding opponents to 92.5 yards per game.
Auburn had just 38 rushing yards Sept. 9, Boston College gained 97 yards on the ground last Saturday in Clemson and Louisville ran for 116 yards on Sept. 16. Clemson and Tech are among just 13 teams that have surrendered an FBS-low one run of 20-plus yards.
In last season’s ACC championship game, Tech ran 35 times for 102 yards, its lowest total of the season. Quarterback Jerod Evans was sacked four times
Since running for 101 yards and a touchdown in Tech’s season-opening win against West Virginia, quarterback Josh Jackson hasn’t contributed much to the ground attack in the past three games (21 carries, 43 yards total). Awareness of Clemson’s pass rush will be his paramount concern.
“I’ve got to play like I always play,” Jackson said. “Even though they definitely have a great line.”
Along with Gallo, Tech has left tackle Yosuah Nijman and left guard Wyatt Teller back as starters from the ACC title game. Right guard Braxton Pfaff and right tackle Kyle Chung will be first-time starters against Clemson, which has won four consecutive games by an average of 19 points against the Hokies.
Tech’s offensive line has been strong in pass protection and has improved as a run-blocking unit for an offense that has given up only four sacks and averages 218.3 rushing yards per game (33rd in the nation).
“It’s a lot of the same (Clemson) guys as last year,” Gallo said. “So, having played them, we know their talent level and how good they are and, transitioning to this year, how good they are on film.
“They have a lot of experience together, a lot of games played together. The way they work with each other, and then I’d say their size and athleticism. I’d say all of them are very athletic, rangy, able to get their hands on people. So that, combined with their strength, makes them good players.”