CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson safety Tanner Muse politely answered all the offseason questions from friends and fans about Clemson's revamped defense. Now, he sees the fourth-ranked Tigers' loudest responses are coming on the field.
"We know," Muse said, "we have the opportunity to be one of the best."
From the moment Clemson finished celebrating its national championship last January, the team was beset with questions — mostly from outsiders, Muse said — that the defense would be lost without its ferocious front four of starters with Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins all picked in first round of the NFL draft.
But these Tigers have performed well, even with the impact coming from a different source this source. While last year's team was led by the defensive front, Clemson's most dynamic defensive playmakers are on the back end. They have been getting consistent play from Muse, fellow safety K'Von Wallace and linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who leads the team in tackles and sacks.
Clemson has held each of its first eight opponents to fewer than 300 yards a game, something it had not done since 1956. The group has 29 sacks, second in the ACC and ahead of the pace set by All-Americans Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence a season ago.
The Tigers (8-0) will look for their 24th straight win when they face Wofford (5-2) of the Football Championship Subdivision on Saturday.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables knew it would take time for players forming the new defensive front to get comfortable in their roles, including Tyler Davis, the team's first true freshman to start an opener at defensive tackle in 45 years. So Venables schemed around the experience he had in experienced returners in Simmons, Wallace, Muse and cornerback A.J. Terrell, all starters for last year's national champions.
Venables has also used more three-player fronts to take advantage of Clemson's experienced depth at linebacker and secondary.
"You just play a little heavier to your strengths," Venables said.
That's meant lining up defenders Simmons and Wallace anywhere and everywhere. Both have rushed quarterbacks with their hand on the ground or come from way behind to disrupt opponents.
"We kind of feel sorry for the other offense because we know what it's like," Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said.
The results speak for themselves. The Tigers held Boston College to 177 yards overall and tailback A.J. Dillon to 76 yards after Dillon entered second nationally in rushing.
Simmons was a raw prospect when he arrived and needed developing, he acknowledged. These days, Simmons has a dogged work ethic that keeps him on his toes even after successful plays.
He's rarely satisfied with his performance and considered himself his own harshest critic, be it a sharper technique to tackle or being a step faster to make an interception.
"It's just in my mind where I know what I could do to make that play much better," Simmons said.
Wallace, a senior with a pair of championship rings, is just as relentless in preparing for games. He's also not shy about where he believes this group ranks among Clemson's greatest defenses.
"Our togetherness, us playing as a team as one collective unit, and the fact that we can continue to get better is something scary," he said. "We'll see in the games ahead, but I believe this can be a special defense."
Venables understands there's plenty of time for that to be borne out — or fall flat on its face as the Tigers seek a fifth consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff and their third championship in five seasons. Right now, he's glad for the work they're putting in at practice and the results they're getting at games.
"Happy for the success our guys are having," Venables said. "There's nothing better than playing well as a reward for the hard work they've put in."