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Ferrell and Co., Humble and Hungry

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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How Clelin Ferrell and the defensive linemen carry themselves, and how they compete, helps define a program that is one of the nation's absolute best

I'm tired of seeing it, too. We're ready to just go out there and play and perform because that what it's all about.
~Clelin Ferrell

Clemson's defensive line is, without question, the best in the country. With all four starters, ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell and tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, returning as leading All-American candidates after combining for 45 tackles for loss last season, the Tigers are already being considered as one of college football's best units of all-time. Rings in hand, each of the aforementioned Clemson stars are likely future first round NFL Draft picks. For now, though, these Tigers are focusing on furthering their point.

The hype is something the Clemson defensive linemen are trying to downplay, a pretty rigorous process considering all of the understandable and overwhelming attention. Just as consistently producing elite players along the front four is a Tiger tradition, a hard-working, humble perspective has been as well.  

"When I came in, Coach Hobby, my old defensive line coach, and Coach Bates, too, they always talked to us about not taking the cheese," the edge-rushing Ferrell recalled. "Yesterday in the team meeting, Coach Swinney was getting on us: 'I hate seeing them old magazines. I hate that, it's all on paper'." 

Simply put, any college football conversation has to include Clemson. Remarkably, the Tigers are pursuing a fourth-straight playoff appearance, a chase that starts right at the line of scrimmage. Clemson ranked number one in the nation in team tackles for loss, stunningly, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and slotted sixth this past fall. In that span, only Alabama has been a more consistent winner. 

The Tigers are the game's barometer along the defensive line and this group looks like their best yet. Don't tell them that.  

"I'm tired of seeing it, too," Ferrell continued. "We're ready to just go out there and play and perform because that what it's all about."

Bryant, Ferrell and Wilkins all turned down high-profile professional opportunities for another chance to prove their collective worth. Correspondingly, Clemson, once again, has a core that has won, excelled even, at college football's highest level. Man-to-man, there is a clear understanding of what the expectations are and the sacrifices that must be made to reach them. The Tigers are still on a mission. 

Leaders on this club already have their legacies in place -- and still want more.   

"That means a lot, man, because obviously experience is huge in college football, just being able to have guys who have been there and know what it takes. Not even just have played in the game, but guys who have been to the pinnacle, guys that have played on the national championship winning team before and know what it takes to get to that moment," Ferrell added. "That's huge to have in your room."

The hunger for success, at Clemson, is widespread. It's also nothing new for veterans of the team like Ferrell. 

"Like Coach Swinney tells us all the time, you're not guaranteed to run out there first just because of what you did last year. You've got to go out there and earn it every single day and that's something I love about it because that's how I got on the field," he nodded. "I had to go out there and compete with my peers in my position room when I was a redshirt freshman, to go out there and earn the starting job. So that's what you've got to do every day, so it's just going to bring the best out of all of us."

Bad news for those who play the Tigers; even more upside is on the way. There is young talent all over the roster, especially up front on defense. Incoming freshmen like KJ Henry and Xavier Thomas are as dynamic as they come, with the credentials to boot. They are the next-in-line. Just like those who came before them, ability isn't the only thing that seperates them; attitude does, too.

"Oh, my goodness. Man, they've been great," Ferrell beamed. "I've always wondered with just the hype that our defensive line gets and then you still have guys like the No. 1 player coming in or a Henry who's regarded as five star. People ask them why are you going to a school where they're already so-called deep in the line? It's because they know that they're not afraid to come in and compete. They understand the great tradition and they understand that they have guys that aren't just about themselves. We're all about each other."

For all of Ferrell's remarkable skills, leadership is one of his best traits. Ferrell has a great appreciation for the platform he has as persistence opened the door for all of his recent production. A noted team leader, Ferrell is now passing along his frame of reference to the next generation. That type of bond and camaraderie is a big part of what makes Clemson so effective.   

Winning, year-in and year-out, means a certain perspective has to overlap personnel. In that regard, Ferrell and company are catalysts for the past, present and future. He is both an extension of head coach Dabo Swinney and a testatement to those who came before him at his position. That progression is critical to note, with more reciprocation at play here than you might think.    

"I see those guys come in and be able to take constructive criticism and come in and work hard and make the progressions that they've made throughout the summer. Man, it's been huge, and I love that about them," he added. "I'm very hard on them because I want the best for them because if I see the best coming from them, it's only going to make me better. I'm excited for the fall, their first fall camp coming up. It's like a dad seeing his kid go to school for the first time, know what I mean?"

How Ferrell and the defensive linemen carry themselves, and how they compete, helps define a program that is one of the nation's absolute best. Beyond merely the front four, their standard sets the tone for the entire team. Fans see Clemson dominating opponents at the line of scrimmage. Powerfully, their impact is so much more.  

"Well, first off, they're just great guys. They're all-around just good guys, and I mean, the intensity they bring to practice and how hard they work is just -- they radiate it, and it comes off on everybody around them," offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt noted. "When I am coming to practice, I know I'd better bring it because they're coming after me, so I need to match that intensity."

In addition to Bryant, Ferrell and Wilkins, other heavily-scouted Tigers also made the decision to return to Clemson. The shared message is clear.

"The great thing about them coming back, yes, it means we have great players, but more importantly, that's who is mentoring your young players. That's the leadership that is in your locker room," Swinney concluded.

Clemson's defensive line is paving the way for a true college football powerhouse. They don't want to hear about it, but they are eager to share.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports