2011 Position Analysis: Defensive Backfield with Charlie Harbison

via media.orangeandwhite.com

Charlie Harbison came to Clemson in December 2008 as the defensive backs coach. Coach Cheese played his college ball at Gardner-Webb and signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent following his college career before coming back into coaching. Harbison has coached both defensive backs and wide receivers on the collegiate level, with stops at Gardner-Webb, UTEP, Clemson, Alabama, LSU (under Saban), and Mississippi State before being lured back to Clemson for a second tour of duty by Coach Swinney as the Co-DC. It should be noted that he served as the defensive coordinator in his final year at Miss. State. Harbison's first stint at CU was from 1995-1997, where he coached defensive stars Brian Dawkins, Dexter McCleon, Antwan Edwards, and Leomont Evans. Here is what we thought of Harbison following the 2010 season.

Below are the main performance metrics that we will use to grade our defensive backs coach:

  • Recruiting
  • Coverage ability
  • Run support
  • Tackling

Clemson suffered key losses in the defensive backfield entering the '11 campaign. Gone were former All-American DeAndre McDaniel, Marcus Gilchrist, and Byron Maxwell. We cautioned that McDaniel's leadership would be missed, Gilchrist's versatility tough to replace, and run support had some question marks with Maxwell's departure well before the season began. These predictions proved to be true as the Tiger defensive backfield as a whole took a bit of a step back from '10. This follows a small drop off from performance during the '09 season.

Here are the players attributed to Clemson's secondary:

#

Player

Pos.

Hgt.

Wgt.

Cl.

Exp.

Hometown

High School

5

Jonathan Meeks

S

6-1

210

Jr.

2VL

Rock Hill, SC

Rock Hill HS

14

Martin Jenkins

CB

5-9

175

So.

1VL

Roswell, GA

Centennial HS

15

Coty Sensabaugh

CB

6-0

185

*Gr.

3VL

Kingsport, TN

Dobyns-Bennett HS

17

Bashaud Breeland

CB

6-0

185

*Fr.

RS

Allendale, SC

Allendale-Fairfax HS

21

Darius Robinson

CB

5-11

170

So.

1VL

College Park, GA

Westlake HS

27

Robert Smith

S

5-11

210

Fr.

HS

Saint George, SC

Woodland HS

29

Xavier Brewer

CB

5-11

190

*Jr.

2VL

Jacksonville, FL

Bartram Trail HS

31

Rashard Hall

S

6-1

210

J*Gr.

2VL

Saint Augustine, FL

Saint Augustine HS

32

Carlton Lewis

S

6-2

205

*Jr.

2VL

Saint Augustine, FL

Saint Augustine HS

37

Kantrell Brown

S

6-2

195

*Sr.

3VL

Saint Matthews, SC

Calhoun County HS

38

Garry Peters

CB

5-11

190

*Fr.

RS

Conyers, GA

Heritage HS

As you can see, this group had relatively few senior players. In fact, the only folks who will not return next season are Sensabaugh and Brown. Brown, as shown subsequently, only played 43 defensive snaps in '11 so he did not have a major role last season. He's been mostly a ST player. Clemson did return some experienced underclassmen. The name that obviously sticks out is Hall but Brewer and Meeks have some previous experience.

I'll start with the complaint we've been screaming about all season: practice philosophy. We've yelled about this topic until were blue in the face during the season and we'll keep discussing it. Clemson's practices are not physical enough. What does this really mean? Because the ones don't go against the ones enough and because there is an overall (i.e., head coaching) philosophy that avoids full contact-especially if a group of players complains/recommends less contact-the team is not (A) physical enough and (B) fundamentally sound. It is my opinion that many of the items we'll discuss in this article are directly related to practice philosophy. Blocking and tackling are things that players learn through repetition. These items are perfected through live contact, get after someone's ass drills that should be performed from Day 1 through the bowl game.

Let's start with the core statistics, first looking at pass defense statistics:

#

Player

Position

G-S

Int

Yards

Avg

TD

LG

PBU

5

Jonathan Meeks

S

14-10

3

58

19.3

0

41

5

31

Rashard Hall

S

13-12

2

50

25

0

26

1

29

Bashaud Breeland

CB

14-7

2

93

46.5

0

64

4

21

Darius Robinson

CB

11-6

1

2

2

0

2

1

29

Xavier Brewer

DB

13-13

1

0

0

0

0

7

37

Kantrell Brown

S

14-0

1

43

43

0

43

0

15

Coty Sensabaugh

CB

14-14

1

0

0

0

0

13

27

Robert Smith

S

14-1

1

0

0

0

0

0

14

Martin Jenkins

CB

14-3

0

0

0

0

0

6

32

Carlton Lewis

S

12-0

0

0

0

0

0

2

Total

12

246

20.5

0

64

39

Overall these figures are not very good. We point out to you though that M2M defenses pride themselves on lower completion rates (see PBUs) and not so much on turnovers. A good M2M defense also requires a strong pass rush. Turnovers occur more with Zone-based schemes because more guys are watching the QB. In M2M you cant afford to do that. Clemson probably played 60/40 Man/Zone. These numbers show that Meeks led the team in interceptions and Sensabaugh in passes broken up. 13 is a good figure there, however 12 INTs is not a great number and the total PBUs is low. That tells you the CBs didn't have good positioning or much help from the safeties. When Clemson had a great year in pass efficiency two years ago, it was Hall and McDaniel who were all over the receivers in assisting Butler and Chancellor. This year the deep safeties were not there to help, and it affects the stats of both CBs and Safeties. Here is how Clemson's pass defense compared to other Tiger teams since 2008:

Year

Pass YPG

Pass Nat. Rank

2008

172.54

12

2009

162.79

7

2010

191.85

22

2011

217.5

50

You probably noticed the same things I did: Clemson is giving up more yards and worsening in pass defense. Why is this happening and what can this staff do to correct this? As everyone knows, Clemson's offense is much faster paced which can place the defense on the field more than in previous seasons. I'll give you that. Also, any pass defense begins with the defensive line and the line drives overall defensive success against both the run and pass. Clemson was not particularly deep here and did struggle at times which adversely affected the defensive backfield. Our DL substituted less and less this year, and the lack of pass rush really kills a M2M defense. As mentioned, Clemson was fairly inexperienced at DB and lost lots of quality snaps following the '10 campaign. The injury to Hall obviously did not help matters, and Meeks appeared largely clueless.

However, there are core issues here that could be improved with this group. We noticed that Clemson was playing man and some man/press throughout the season yet always gave up a free release to the receiver. Clemson, through more physical practices against guys like Sammy Watkins, Nuk Hopkins, and Dwayne Allen shouldve been able to perfect jamming techniques and eliminate these free releases. Eliminating the free release throws off route timing and, overall, makes the receiver work harder. Jamming is something that you absolutely cannot half-ass, thus requires constant physical practice because an improper jam results in a burned defender.

Our safety play was really nothing to write home about this season. Yes, I am aware that Hall was hurt but there were poor angles and blown coverages many times this season by all of them. The corner coverage was better and did improve over the course of the season. Sensabaugh, in particular, evolved greatly from start to finish and will likely get a look from folks at the next level.

One more issue, that will be expanded upon in the DC/LB article for Steele, is the complexity of the scheme. This single issue is likely a core driver for the decline in our pass defense. Think to yourself, how often do you see Clemson DBs jumping around, signaling constantly to each other, and out of position on the snap? That one problem cost Gilchrist several times in 2010, and was probably his only negative in our eyes. Our guys have had too many coverage adjustments to make, and when they can't decide where they should be, then they'll never have the right position or leverage on the snap, which just gets you beat faster down the field. What our pass defense needs is a simpler package to carry into games, and they'd look 10x better.

Here are statistics associated with tackling and participation:

#

Player

Position

G-S

Snaps

Hit

Ast

Total

31

Rashard Hall

S

13-12

799

58

31

89

5

Jonathan Meeks

S

14-10

744

45

16

61

29

Xavier Brewer

DB

13-13

771

45

15

60

17

Bashaud Breeland

CB

14-7

643

42

11

53

15

Coty Sensabaugh

CB

14-14

993

36

4

40

14

Martin Jenkins

CB

14-3

304

17

10

27

21

Darius Robinson

CB

11-6

346

16

2

18

32

Carlton Lewis

S

12-0

143

6

4

10

37

Kantrell Brown

S

14-0

43

8

2

10

27

Robert Smith

S

14-1

59

7

2

9

38

Garry Peters

CB

11-0

12

4

2

6

48

Dante Stewart

CB

2-0

2

0

1

1

Total

4859

284

100

384

Clemson had issues all over the place with players not being in the correct position and not using proper tackling technique. This unit was really no exception when you look at them as a whole. I'll concede that the defenders were placed in tough situations due to linebacker incompetency, or bad edge control by the DEs, but that is still no excuse for not wrapping up and taking poor angles to the football. Along these same lines, I was also underwhelmed by our defensive backs' abilities to get off blocks. This group simply has to get more physical and aggressive. To do that, Clemson must adjust its practice philosophy so that the players (and here the perimeter players) beat the hell out of each other blocking/tackling to engrain proper technique in deficient areas.

Overall Coty Sensabaugh made tremendous strides on the corner. He set a Clemson record with snaps played; over 800 for a CB is ridiculously high. We were extremely skeptical of his ability out there, particularly in man coverage, early on this year. He did, however, improve drastically and was a definite strength of this pass defense.

The safeties, however, never played to the level we anticipated. The loss of McDaniel and the early season injury to Hall were two items that this crew could not overcome. Tackling was fair and the angles taken by these folks were frustrating at times. I really wish that someone would tell Meeks that he indeed does have arms and he can use them while tackling, or that he REALLY needs to work on those cover skills. To their defense, there were some items that adversely affected play but nonetheless this group has plenty to improve upon moving forward. Robert Smith and Garry Peters need to elevate their game as well, as Meeks and Hall are going to be seniors in 2012. Call me skeptical about Brewer playing more SS.

As for the others, we think Robinson has the skills to be a solid corner here. He didn't play as much as he should've in his freshman year, but he's got the speed, and really needs to bulk up in his upper body. Breeland was a guy we started hearing about in winter drills last year, and really took off in his first year off a RS. Again, he has the speed, plays meaner than the others, and just needs to add some muscle. Bashaud has the most potential of the group at the moment, but we won't heap too much praise just yet, we saw what happened to Quandon Christian when we did that last year.

Martin Jenkins was a guy we were told would get some KR/PR reps, but he's not out there. He's got the speed, lacks height, and as such is suited to Slot/Nickel corner. We really liked his tenacity there this year, moreso than Brewer's, and wish he would've gotten more snaps down the stretch than he did. Brewer should not duplicate 770+ snaps.

We're excited to see if one of the freshmen coming in or off RS will step up to compete. Cortez Davis might get his first shot at CB, but I'd love to see him slide in behind Hall this year. Travis Blanks might even do the same. The other freshmen: Tankersley (likely S), Geohaghan (likely S), and Williams (CB), will benefit from a RS in 2012.

Recruiting:

Harbison brought in four players during this recruiting cycle (see below) and has generally been one of the very best recruiters in the SE.

Name

Position

Hometown

School

Rivals Star Rating

Recruiter

Josh Brown

DT

Aiken, SC

South Aiken

3 stars

Charlie Harbison

Oliver Jones

OL

Ninety Six, SC

Ninety Six

3 stars

Charlie Harbison

Cordrea Tankersley

DB

Aiken, SC

Silver Bluff

3 stars

Charlie Harbison

Marty Williams

ATH

North Augusta, SC

Fox Creek School

3 stars

Charlie Harbison

In general, Coach Cheese recruited players from central South Carolina (Aiken/Augusta), Fulton County through Columbus and SW of Atlanta, and Central Alabama, and clearly had his highest success in South Carolina's CSRA. His pulls weren't necessarily flashy this year but were solid. Again Harbison delivered on the recruiting trail, which is something that head coaches all over the place have noticed year in and year out with Charlie.

However, this Shelby native having no territory around Charlotte puzzles us. Why put Pearman (also from Charlotte) in a local hotbed of talent and not your best recruiters? If Dabo had any sense, he'd pull Harbison and the others out of Alabama, where our success rate is astonishingly low, and put him in Charlotte and only Charlotte in NC.

The Verdict:

We hailed great praise at Coach "Cheese" over the years for various reasons but, most importantly, because we think he is one hell of a football coach. There is absolutely no doubt that many programs around the country would love to have him on their staff and have heard second hand that several schools within the Southeast tried to no avail to woo him away from Clemson. Our opinions combined with others we have heard make us believe that Harbison is a real asset and our Pickens County Pride is fortunate to have him on staff. Despite this great coaching, it is tough to instill the items necessary to succeed if you are handcuffed by overall philosophy and this has to change on the practice field. Fortunately for Harbison and the DBs, the only real loss is to Sensabaugh assuming that Hall successfully recovers from his offseason surgery and recovery plan. Coach Cheese also has some good athletes coming in this season's freshman class. Travis Blanks highlights this group and we expect him to push some incumbents immediately.

Long and short, we knew this season would be a transition season in the defensive backfield and were not overly surprised by what we saw. We expect this group to be improved next season because of experience and maturity gained in '11.

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