2013 Position Analysis: Defensive Backs and Mike Reed

Tyler Smith

Coach Mike Reed assumed the defensive back coaching duties here following the departure of Charlie Harbison after the 2012 football season. Reed's college playing experience was at Boston College in the early ‘90's. He was a 7th round selection by the Carolina Panthers back in '95 and was with the team for two seasons before playing two seasons with the Frankfort Galaxy of the World League / NFL Europe. Following his playing days, Reed coached in Europe before moving back to the college ranks at Richmond in 2000. Reed coached the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs from 2002 - 2007 then moved back to NCAA action at North Carolina State, where the fruits of his work were quite less than stellar, if you recall. Reed left NCST in late 2012 to become Clemson's defensive backs coach.

We look at the following areas when assessing the performance of a defensive backs coach:

  • Recruiting
  • Defensive Back Play
    • Coverage Skills
    • Run Support
    • Tackling

Recruiting

We discussed Reed's recruiting at NCST in an article immediately following his hire at Clemson. There we clearly pointed out that Reed had not been an exceptional recruiter for the Pack and we'd need to see improvement to match up with Harbison's track record as a recruiter. Here is the list we've credited Reed with while at Clemson:

NAME

Position

Hometown

Ht/Wt/40

Rivals Rating

Assigned Recruiter(s)

Class

Justin Falcinelli

OL

Middletown, MD

6'5"/300

3 stars

Brent Venables, Mike Reed

2014

Kyrin Priester

WR

Fork Union, VA

6'1"/185

3 stars

Mike Reed

2014

Chris Register

DE

Greensboro, NC

6'4"/240/4.5

3 stars

Robbie Caldwell, Mike Reed

2014

Marcus Edmond

ATH

Hopkins, SC

6'1"/175/4.5

3 stars

Mike Reed

2013

Kyrin Priester

WR

Snellville, GA

6'1"/181/4.5

3 stars

Mike Reed

2013

He's credited with Priester (twice) and a couple others. This is hardly hitting home runs on the recruiting trail but he has only been here for one full season. We like to give a guy some leeway early on to allow him to establish himself and his style-so I'll hold off on being too critical too soon with Reed. Reed has been recruiting parts of Georgia and the Central Savannah River Area along with holdovers in eastern North Carolina and guys from the DC area. He has connections in the Northeast (born in Delaware, played college ball in Boston, then coached in Philadelphia).

Defensive Back Play

This topic is one that I'd sum up very simply: The cornerback position improved greatly; the safeties were often confused and allowed a lot of big plays.

We were a bit concerned entering this season because there were many injuries to key DBs last year and a lot of questions about this group going into the fall. We understood that there would be a changing of the guard at the safety position and we would get a couple guys back who were injured at the end of last season. We all assumed the strength of this unit would be Travis Blanks. Blanks had a tremendous freshman campaign playing largely the nickel role and one would think getting him on the field in a more permanent safety role would be advantageous for this defense in spite of having to replace Rashard Hall and Jonathan "No Arms" Meeks from the previous year. We were a bit nervous but optimistic that healthy corners could improve Clemson's play this season. The last sentence played out well...the chaos around the safety spot did not.

Clemson's corners were a lot more aggressive this season. We saw more press coverage out of this group and they were able to physically neutralize folks through this strategy. I will admit I almost fainted when I saw us jam receivers during the first few games--as we have repeatedly wondered why Clemson chose to bring in the tweener/bigger defensive backs and then didn't jam the hell out of the opposition. This physicality put these guys at the LOS and integrated them into run support schemes. I don't recall many complaints regarding the tackling, which is always a good thing. In fact, its difficult to remember a CB group who tackled this well. Making your players more physical often improves tackling abilities as a side benefit. Unlike the previous season, there isn't a scene that comes to mind where the opposing QB trucks one of our corners and the technique overall looks better, though we always see lapses where players should be lower when attempting a tackle. Every now and again we saw a corner flying in with his head down which is (A) dangerous and (B) a very good way to miss a tackle. Utilizing leverage and balance in football is extremely important and playing too high at any position is detrimental, hence we harp on this point constantly but for good reason.

I thought the corners were more than adequate as pass defenders. I think we were all scared of Robinson after his 2012 performances in coverage. He was benched for Peters in '12 and yet still listed as starter before UGA. He raised his game, and for that he deserves a lot of praise. Breeland and Robinson are the two that caught my eye the most but overall I thought the whole lot of them were improved and played good technical football both defending the pass and providing support on run plays. It is tough to get a good comparison year to year as many DBs were injured in '12, but you cannot deny that there was overall improvement. In fact, the success of last season convinced Breeland to skip his final year of college and head into the draft-where some have projected him go within the first three rounds. Since we don't think he would've raised his stock much with another year, we can't really fault him, but it is a big concern this fall.

The safety position was, well, a circus. After the tremendous freshman year Travis Blanks had at nickel we were all jacked up about him entering the starting lineup and getting even more snaps. The move from the 5th DB to starting safety proved to be more of a transition for Blanks than anyone expected. To his defense, he was injured throughout the year though most of the mistakes we saw were mental. He and the other safeties were frequently lost in coverage and were a critical reason Clemson gave up so many long passes.

The Tigers struggled mightily with routes over the middle. This play is unacceptable and must be improved. We would have liked to see better run support out of this group as well. There were frequent times when the safety should have been in the alley to provide support but was out of position. So far as tackling goes, I don't recall too much poor effort here. This view may be clouded by not seeing a guy like Meeks fly into a play with no intention of wrapping up--only being out of control trying to decapitate the offensive player.

Generally, the issue was the player being out of position and not necessarily poor technique. Poor position was on both running and passing plays which indicates cautious / unsure play. We saw several running plays where we needed a safety in the alley and he was a step behind / cautiously filling and too many painful times where a receiver was virtually unguarded down the seem / middle of the field. These items should be improved with film review, practice, and (obviously) more experience. Had Clemson gotten better play out of their safeties in 2013 the overall defense likely would be talked about as one of the better units in America. Most teams did not really beat Clemson moving the ball methodically down the field but instead benefited from confusion and poor positioning from the safeties.

All the guys, particularly the larger corners, need to continue to work on hip flexibility. When we brought in the bigger "hybrid" DBs for service at corner we knew it would be more difficult for them to turn and run with good WRs without improved footwork and hip turn. This is something we know Venables vented about to Harbison - he did not care for the recruiting strategy that had been implemented, not because of their height or speed, but simply because they were all so stiff in the hips. On a more optimistic note, there has been a shift in strategy to implement more contact at the LOS. If you have bigger DBs, using them to keep the WR from getting a free release covers up downfield coverage issues that may be present.

Working against Reed (and the defensive backs) is core flexibility training needed to play skills positions. Over the past couple years we've repeatedly heard tales of defensive backs who left Clemson unable to bend over and touch their toes, or just being called "stiff" in NFL workouts. We've also read of players out of school for a month or so saying they were better athletes than ever due to differing training techniques. I am not sure why this is still an issue but it clearly is. As we've repeatedly discussed here, flexibility at the defensive back position is a must. Isometric exercises are fine, but need to be complemented with something else to keep guys flexible.

Tackling statistics from 2013 can be seen below with the individual pass defense items to follow.

Player

Position

G-S

Snaps

Hit

Ast

Total

Robert Smith

S

13-13

814

60

19

79

Bashaud Breeland

DB

13-12

701

54

20

74

Jayron Kearse

S

12-3

444

34

21

55

Darius Robinson

CB

13-13

671

32

5

37

Travis Blanks

S

11-10

475

25

10

35

Garry Peters

CB

10-0

247

22

6

28

Martin Jenkins

DB

13-4

311

20

6

26

Korrin Wiggins

S

12-0

292

12

2

14

Cordrea Tankersley

DB

12-0

21

6

7

13

Jadar Johnson

S

11-0

98

5

7

12

Taylor Watson

S

11-0

50

4

2

6

Jerrodd Williams

CB

12-0

31

4

2

6

C.J. Jones

CB

9-0

44

1

2

3

Ronald Geohaghan

S

8-0

10

1

1

2

Individual Pass defense items are seen here. It is worth noting that Breeland had 13 PBUs on the year, far and away the best on this team.

Player

Position

G-S

Int

Yards

Avg

TD

LG

Jayron Kearse

S

12-3

4

62

15.5

0

37

Bashaud Breeland

DB

13-12

4

49

12.3

0

29

Darius Robinson

CB

13-13

3

35

11.7

1

35

Korrin Wiggins

S

12-0

2

19

9.5

0

15

Ben Boulware

LB

11-0

1

1

1

0

1

Martin Jenkins

DB

13-4

1

52

52

1

52

Robert Smith

S

13-13

1

28

28

0

28

Corey Crawford

DE

13-12

1

18

18

0

18

Stephone Anthony

LB

13-13

1

0

0

0

0

Totals

13-13

18

264

14.7

2

52

I am sure you noticed Corey Crawford, Stephone Anthony, and Ben Boulware on this list. Take away their interceptions and the secondary had 15 picks on the year with two of those interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Even with the issues Clemson had at the safety position, the passing defense improved dramatically over 2012, as shown below. I will point out that improved play by a matured front four did provide a portion of this jump. The improved line factor is tough to quantify but clearly helped this secondary. The defensive backs do deserve their share of the credit for these improvements. Just think what these numbers could have been had the safeties understood their responsibilities and executed. We did go over the individual scoring plays in the Season Review post, and I think you'll find that one could probably knock 7-10 ppg off this Clemson defense's scoring average with good safety play in 2013. In many games we would've shut out the opposition with better play from Blanks, Smith, and Kearse. I believe you'd see us in the Top 10 in Scoring defense and probably 5-10 places better in Total Defense with this fixed.

Year

YPG

National Rank

2008

172.54

12

2009

162.79

7

2010

191.85

22

2011

217.5

50

2012

250.3

81

2013

201.1

16


2014 Prospective Depth Chart
CB FS SS CB Nickel
Garry Peters Jayron Kearse Robert Smith Mac Alexander Travis Blanks
Jadar Johnson TJ Green TJ Burrell/Cordrea Tankersley/Wiggins Martin Jenkins Korin Wiggins
Baker/Edmond Baker/Edmond


The chart is just a best guess. Clemson has thus far moved Travis Blanks down to Nickel, but do not be surprised if he shifts back to Safety if any injury occurs. Wiggins got some PT at the Nickel spot with Jenkins last year, and we do think he'll turn out to be a good enough player to push someone at either CB or Safety. TJ Green recently moved back to FS from WR. We think that you'll see plenty of the top 5 guys there plus Wiggins and Jenkins this season. As for the youngsters, we're just not sure. Baker, Edmond and Johnson all need to start pushing someone. Johnson is probably in the best position of the 3 to push Peters, and I'm hoping he at least doubles his snap count.

Cordrea Tankersley is not suited for CB and should stay at SS, but thus far has made no great impression on the field, as you can see with his snap counts. With a year of prep, its time for this Sophomore to get it together or go. TJ Burrell is a guy recruited at OLB but who we think should be at SS, he's just not big enough for the OLB spot. Its possible you see him at SAM/Nickel depending on the running strengths of each opponent.

And no, we don't think Ryan Carter is going to push anyone.

Overall

The overall vibe I get from most Clemson fans and site readers is that they are more pleased with the on-field production than in years past. Some of this success comes with Venables putting in more items, some with a more aggressive attitude for the corners, some from improved play from the defensive front, and some with these guys maturing while being healthy. As with assessing Reed's recruiting value, I don't want a knee-jerk reaction one way or another for this assessment. Reed surely coached the corners to improvement and he gets credit there. Safety play was rough to watch at times and absolutely has to improve.

Overall, there was still the sense that guys were lost, were not properly prepared, or could not effectively communicate during games. This resulted in players being grossly out of position which ultimately ended up points given up. As we mentioned repeatedly, this defense would have been very good had the Tigers not given up big plays week after week on bust after bust-and that is almost completely attributable to the DBs (and safeties, for the most part). Not having everyone prepared and on the same page is on the defensive backs coach.

I'll remind everyone of our discussion last season. We'll continue to hold Reed to the same standards we held previous coaches:

What is Harbison's issue is the relative confusion we've seen in the defensive backfield the past couple seasons. Last year we rationalized that Steele's schemes may have been overly complex and caused confusion. This season, Brent Venables' efforts are less complicated overall. We can see that pretty easily. There are less front shifts and we do not see DBs pointing and yapping about the formation adjustment instead of getting into position at the snap. A lot of the things that we are complaining about here aren't some exotic defensive item, it is understanding the difference between a two and three-deep zone and having enough communication amongst your defenders to assure everyone is on the same page and implements the same strategy.

These guys have to better understand their roles and where they need to be. That preparation has to be instilled by the position coach.

The 2014 Tigers have a lot of work to do. This group loses Breeland to the draft and Robinson to graduation. This means that Jenkins and Peters (along with some young bucks who most don't know much about right now) will be called upon to step up and provide critical snaps. I am not as optimistic about the corner play, though do see a guy like Peters being called upon to be more physical due to his size. Peters' career to date has been a mixed bag-with some excellent games back in '12 followed by times of extreme confusion and disgust. We've discussed issues with hip flexibility that are typical for bigger defenders and hope to see improvement there-though being more physical at the LOS should help there.

The safeties have to better understand their responsibilities and assure they are positioned properly. Clemson has plenty of talent to be good at safety but have to mentally understand coverage rules. Additionally, we'll be focused on the return of Travis Blanks. He showed us in '12 that he has the skills to be a jam up defensive player. The big questions are whether he can put himself in proper position and how he will respond from the ACL injury suffered against The Citadel.

Most are happy with the improvement we've seen here. Again, this was obvious with the corner play and overall pass defense statistical improvement. I suspect a completely accurate assessment of Reed will not be available until 2015. By then he'll have several recruiting cycles under his belt along with player cycles on defense. I am interested in seeing how this group will perform next season following the attrition at corner then how they will perform in 2015 when Clemson will need to completely retool the defensive front.

Reed has a big group of newcomers to work with. We are obviously excited to see Alexander on the field and see how guys like Kearse and Green play out as their careers evolve.

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