Dabo Swinney was so impressed with what he saw from his defense during spring practice in April that he proclaimed it could be “as good as they want to be” this season.

Four games in, the Tigers haven’t lived up to that expectation.

They haven’t been North Carolina bad, mind you. And they’re still 4-0, ranked 5th nationally heading into Saturday’s ACC Atlantic Division showdown against No. 10 NC State.

But despite a rash of injuries and other extenuating circumstances, there’s genuine cause for concern.

After giving up nearly 400 total yards to Furman and 311 through the air against Louisiana Tech, Clemson got lit up for 45 points and 6 touchdown passes by Sam Hartman during a double-overtime win at Wake Forest last week.

Swinney knew coming into the season that the Tigers would have questions to answer on one side of the ball as they looked to bounce back from a disappointing 2021.

He just never imagined it would be a defense that returned most of its key contributors from a unit that allowed fewer points than anyone in the country other than national champion Georgia last year.

Clemson is ranked 9th in the ACC in scoring defense at 21.8 points per game and an uncharacteristic 104th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in pass defense with an average of 267.8 yards allowed per game.

“We’ve got a lot to teach and learn from,” Swinney said in the immediate aftermath of the game against the Demon Deacons. “There’s just a lot of things we’ve got to correct and we can correct.”

At least some of the fixes will come naturally with the return of injured starters.

Defensive end Xavier Thomas has not yet played this season while recovering from foot surgery. Tackle Tyler Davis has missed 2 games with a torn biceps tendon. Defensive backs Sheridan Jones, Andrew Mukuba and Malcolm Greene all have been sidelined and star end Bryan Bresee missed a game while mourning the death of his younger sister.

Bresee and Davis were back for the Wake Forest game. How many of the others will be ready to return for NC State isn’t known. Swinney has said it will be a game-time decision.

No matter who’s on the field or how well quarterback DJ Uiagalelei and his better-than-expected offense continue to play, the Tigers are living on borrowed time if they don’t start defending better.

Starting Saturday against the Wolfpack.

NC State’s receiving corps won’t present quite the challenge as Wake Forest’s deep, experienced group did last week and its offense isn’t designed to take as many downfield shots as do the Demon Deacons.

But with preseason ACC Player of the Year Devin Leary pulling the trigger and savvy coordinator Tim Beck calling the plays, you can bet they’ll try to test Clemson’s secondary with deep balls every chance they can when presented with man coverage.

Not only did the Tigers allow 8 completions of 22 yards or more against Wake Forest, they were called for interference or holding 6 times. More than 1 of those penalties were the result of cornerbacks Nate Wiggins and Toriano Pride being toasted so badly they had to tackle a receiver intentionally to prevent giving up a touchdown.

Clemson’s defensive front, which has accounted for most of the team’s 8 sacks through 4 games, could have helped the situation by putting more pressure on Hartman. First-year defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin also shouldered some of the blame by saying “There’s definitely a lot of things I could have done differently.”

“It seems like every coverage we played,” he added, “we gave up a big play in.”

Goodwin’s mea culpa is admirable. Coaches are supposed to shelter their players from public criticism by taking responsibility when things go wrong.

But if things don’t start improving and soon, his finger won’t be the only 1 pointing in his direction.
Or Swinney’s.

The head coach also would be open to criticism for deciding to elevate Goodwin to the coordinator’s position – a job he had never held before – rather than conduct a national search for a more experienced candidate to replace highly respected Brent Venables.

“Trust me,” Swinney said upon naming Goodwin last winter. “We’re going to be just fine.”

That might very well turn out to be the case once the walking wounded return to health and all the team’s key defensive pieces are back in place.

But if the improvement doesn’t happen and Clemson again falls short of the Atlantic Division title and a spot in the College Football Playoff, someone is going to have to answer for it.

The Tigers’ defense might have the potential to be as good as it wants. The question now is whether it has the ability to be as good as it needs to be.