Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd find themselves carrying a flag that has been tattered and torn a bit over the past decade.
Five Clemson defensive ends — Gaines Adams, Phillip Merling, Da’Quan Bowers, Andre Branch and Vic Beasley — have been taken in the first or second round of the NFL draft in the past 10 years, and both Adams and Beasley were selected in the top 10.
None of those five has been selected to the Pro Bowl. Now, Lawson and Dodd seem like locks to join that fivesome, and they might both end up going in the top 20.
Neither pass rusher is worried that Clemson’s recent history could hurt him on the draft’s opening night April 28 in Chicago.
“I don’t have anything to do with the other ends in previous years,” Lawson said. “I know it’s been unsuccessful for those guys, but I feel like I can still do what I do and have a great career.”
Lawson and Dodd took slightly different paths to the top of the draft. Lawson, a 6-foot-3, 269-pound blue-chip recruit, played a complementary role in his first two seasons but still racked up 21 tackles for loss and entered the 2015 season as a clear first-round candidate.
He didn’t disappoint. After Beasley joined the Atlanta Falcons, Lawson stepped boldly into the highlight role on Clemson’s defensive line, racking up 12.5 sacks and 24.5 TFLs in an All-America season that ended with a two-sack performance in the College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama.
In February, Lawson turned heads at the NFL combine by posting an impressive 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash. A complete defensive end who’s capable of playing the run well, Lawson is widely considered the second-best edge rusher in the draft, trailing only Ohio State’s Joey Bosa.
“I bring a lot of different moves to the pass rush,” Lawson said. “People say I’m mostly a power guy; I don’t see myself as just a power guy. I can spin, beat you off the edge, run past you — everything.”
Dodd had to wait a little longer for his turn in the spotlight.
Buried on the depth chart somewhat during his first three seasons because of the deep pool of talent at Clemson and a 2013 knee injury that forced him to redshirt, Dodd entered the 2015 season with little fanfare, and Lawson’s dominance kept his teammate off the radar for much of Clemson’s unbeaten run to the title game.
Then, with Lawson battling a knee injury as the Tigers entered the postseason, Dodd blossomed into a star. A productive player who had recorded 15 TFLs and eight sacks in the regular season, Dodd wrecked Oklahoma’s game plan with a sack and 3.5 TFLs in the Tigers’ semifinal win.
He backed up that performance in a big way in the championship game. Working against Alabama right tackle Dominick Jackson, Dodd was a wrecking ball, posting three sacks and five TFLs.
Dodd — a bigger, rangier player than Lawson at 6-5 and 277 pounds — has little patience for people who caution against picking him based on those two games.
“I got my chance, and I produced,” he said. “I tell those guys to look deeper in their homework next season. I was doing it all season.”
Lawson and Dodd combined for 48 TFLs and 24.5 sacks, building an on-field relationship that was unmatched at the college level.
“He’d make a play, I’d make a play, we worked together,” Lawson said. “We’re brothers. We aren’t comparing each other on and off the field. We worked together. We made each other better to get us to the situation that we’re in.”
Now, their pairing and the talent of the defense around them has prompted questions about how much each player benefited from his bookend and the defense as a whole.
“We helped each other,” Dodd said. “I’d be crazy if I sat here and said Shaq didn’t help me, and Shaq would be crazy if he said I didn’t help him get pressure each play. The goal was to get after the quarterback. We did that a lot this season.”
Lawson and Dodd believe their individual play stands on its own merit. Built bigger than a lot of collegiate defensive ends, the Clemson standouts are rare because they were so effective at holding the edge and making stops in the running game in addition to their pass-rushing prowess.
“You judge a defensive end by his sack numbers, but when I turn on the film, I look at his effort, his ability and the guy’s body of work,” Dodd said. “That’s the kind of guy I was. … You throw on the tape, you’ll see Kevin Dodd at the ball.”
That’s exactly the kind of edge rusher NFL teams are always trying to find — no matter how defensive ends from their school have fared in the past.