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2012 Position Analysis: Defensive Backfield with Charlie Harbison

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. Cheese left Clemson to join Ellis Johnson on the Auburn staff following the regular season's completion.

Streeter Lecka

We have been doing these position reviews for several years now, so feel free to see what we said about Coach Cheese and the DBs following the 2010 season and the 2011 season. As a reminder, here are the methods that we evaluate our secondary coach(es):

  • Recruiting

  • Coverage ability

  • Run support

  • Tackling

Recruiting is the easy one here. Coach Cheese has an excellent reputation on the recruiting trail and has landed some nice commitments for our Tigers over the years. He chases players all over the Southeast and, because of the aforementioned reputation, opened a lot of doors for Clemson. Harbison generally works the Midwestern South Carolina line, Georgia, and Alabama. While Harbison's last couple classes may not have been as flashy as some of the previous ones, don't be fooled because this man can flat out recruit. We have often questioned Dabo/Scott's choice in NOT letting Harbison run the Charlotte to Atlanta corridor. He was born in NC and would be a better choice to hit the talent rich Charlotte/Atlanta areas instead of sending him to Alabama. He should get official credit for Tankersley in this class, but that is it that we can definitively say, and that isn't enough. Jadar Johnson was officially recruited by Hobby, but remarked that he loved Coach Cheese and that he was a big factor in his commitment.

It has been some time since Harbison landed a top tier commitment, though if we land Dylan Sumner-Gardner from Texas, we may give some credit to CH. Last year he did land 4 3-star commits: Marty Williams, Oliver Jones (RS), Tankersley, and Josh Brown. Neither Brown or Williams made it in to Clemson. Prior to that, he landed 2 4-stars in Cortez Davis and Corey Crawford. Hopefully Clemson can continue to Carver HS connection that Charlie worked up for us.

Clemson's secondary play made you want to rip your hair out at times this season. Before pointing out more and more flaws from this group, I will make note that this unit was plagued by injury and had a very, very young defensive line in front of them. We all know that defensive backs are helped tremendously by a good front four and harmed when those guys cannot get pressure on the opposing quarterback.

A hernia injury (one of numerous groin-area injuries in 2012) to Martin Jenkins prior to the season put him out for all of '12. Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson's injuries were a big blow to this unit at midseason, though they weren't actually doing great at the time. The loss of reserve Jerrodd Williams did eat into depth and, at a minimum, meant someone else would be on special teams in addition to other game snaps. Clemson was thin on the depth chart for most of the season's second half in the secondary--a fact that was widely highlighted by the media and coaching staff.

The Tigers gave up big play after big play (again this season) and often looked lost and confused. Technique was lacking and contributed to a lot of the big plays the defense gave up in '12. We've discussed Clemson's desire to get bigger corners on the team. That is cool, and we support that because you don't want a Martin Jenkins out there on the island against a Megatron, but you must realize that the bigger corners give you more physicality at the cost of speed. Why Clemson chooses to play M2M-and man press-and will not jam the opposing receivers is beyond me. You jam them because the bigger guy is usually not as flexible in the hips to be able to redirect himself when the receiver gets a release. He's also not likely to be as coordinated in his backpedal/slide. That is why you recruit the bigger defenders. Instead, you see a lot of the issues we saw this season. We have guys who have issues with hip flexibility and who cannot recover if they are ever out of position. Being physical at the LOS should help with a lot of these issues in because a receiver who gets a free release--especially a good receiver--is very, very dangerous. The choice to jam or not to jam is not necessarily a Harbison issue and is more along the lines of general defensive philosophy. Are our guys strong enough to properly do it? That is another question. We will acknowledge that Harbison actively sought the hybrid defensive backs, leaving Clemson without a really true cover corner (maybe) after Breeland got hurt. We'll also point out that the entire defensive staff, along with the HC, approves offers, not just the position coach, so there is blame to go around.

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.

Tackling is always a pet peeve of this site. I would not say that I was overly impressed with our play here, though a lot of the other coverage issues I've complained about also fit into this equation along with the green players we had along the defensive line. I have never been impressed with Jonathan Meeks' tackling skills. He comes in wanting to lay the kill shot and potentially ruins what would have been a decent play on his part because he has no arms. He does not wrap up properly-which is very important. When we played LSU, you probably noticed that their defenders were aggressive but not out of control. They ran through the offensive player and did not dive for him. They were at the proper pad level and played well. We often play too high which reduces balance and available leverage. A specific example that sticks out was Xavier Brewer nearly getting trucked by Dylan Thompson. The good thing about getting trucked by a quarterback is that it should be a memorable experience-one that makes a player cognizant that playing out of good football position will get you embarrassed.

The real statistic of interest for a secondary is their performance against the pass. Clemson has seen a downward slide since 2008--the year prior to Kevin Steele and Cheese's arrival in Tigertown. The statistics below are pretty telling and very alarming.

Year YPG National Rank
2008 172.54 12
2009 162.79 7
2010 191.85 22
2011 217.5 50
2012 250.3 81

While some of these numbers can be explained by the Chad Morris up-tempo offense that puts the defense on the field for long periods of time, I believe we'll all agree that we have issues in the secondary. 250 ypg in the air--and against some of our pitiful foes--is nearly inexplicable and I would have a tough time believing those numbers had I not seen the games with my own eyes.

The individual statistics can be seen below (note that all information came from the CUAD website):

Player Position G/S Snaps Hit Ast Total
Rashard Hall S 13-9 776 60 25 85
Xavier Brewer DB 13-11 711 50 14 64
Jonathan Meeks S 13-13 835 47 15 62
Travis Blanks DB 13-8 563 40 11 51
Bashaud Breeland CB 10-5 369 25 7 32
Garry Peters CB 12-5 522 13 7 20
Cortez Davis CB 13-0 106 13 5 18
Robert Smith S 13-0 104 8 6 14
Darius Robinson CB 7-6 281 11 2 13
Taylor Watson S 12-0 27 3 4 7
Dante Stewart CB 7-1 62 5 0 5
Beau Brown S 1-0 1 0 0 0
C.J. Jones CB 4-0 8 0 0 0

Not surprising, players with the most snaps had the most tackles--led by the free safety Hall. I knew that Blanks had a ton of action but did not realize he was involved in a tackle in nearly 10% of his overall snaps. The corners and reserves obviously rounded out this group.

On the pass defending side of things, I counted 35 PBUs for the DBs on the year. Garry Peters led all with eight, followed by Blanks with 7. Other key items within the pass defense can be seen in the table below.

# Player Position G/S Int Yards Avg TD LG
31 Rashard Hall S 13-9 4 17 4.3 0 17
5 Jonathan Meeks S 13-13 2 74 37 1 74
9 Xavier Brewer DB 13-11 2 12 6 0 12
21 Darius Robinson CB 7-6 1 3 3 0 3
26 Garry Peters CB 12-5 1 3 3 0 3
11 Travis Blanks DB 13-8 1 0 0 0 0
Total -- 11 109 9.9 1 74

As you can see, our corners really only had four picks on the season amongst themselves. This is not good. Everyone understands it is easier playing centerfield to pick the ball but I believe we all expected more out of the corners. Overall, the number of INTs is also insufficient. We aim for one INT every 15 pass attempts, and obviously we didn't hit it.

Clemson loses Brewer, Hall, and Meeks next season to graduation. Brewer is a guy who gave the tigers quality snaps at corner but should never be confused with a legit safety, as we've discussed here many times. Putting Brewer at FS/SS was always a disaster. Hall is a guy who you'll always ask yourself "What if?" After a stellar freshman season and promising future as a sophomore, Hall suffered a rough injury early last season and many questioned whether he should shut it down immediately following the injury and get it fixed. Hall was determined to play, underwent surgery last January, and missed all of Spring practice rehabing the left knee. He didn't appear to be his old self this year, and that is a shame because three years ago we all thought he would be kicking it in the League as a top tier pick. Meeks was sometimes frustrating but gave this team a ton of snaps. We mentioned his unconventional tackling methods earlier and will note Meeks got turned around and out of position at times this season. The regression of these two players, along with DeAndre McDaniel, is pretty damning on Charlie Harbison.

Of the guys returning, we'll discuss Travis Blanks first. Blanks is as advertized--the real deal. He was the best athlete in this secondary and would have taken a more permanent role in the defense than nickelback if he had a little more experience. Blanks is an aggressive player who makes nice plays on the ball and can deliver the big hit. He was meant for the safety position and will fit into the base defense well for the rest of his Clemson career.

Clemson gets Darius Robinson and Breeland back next season which will help with corner coverage. Those two were probably the best options Clemson had there to begin the '12 season and the defense was definitely crippled without them. Garry Peters played quite a bit this year. What I saw there was inconsistency from game to game. Some weeks we thought he was the best thing that could have happened to the secondary. Others we were cussing nearly every move he made. Peters has a nice frame but has to work on his footwork. He simply doesn't have the speed to make up for any missteps on the field.

Across from Blanks, Smith will likely start the Spring as the other safety. Smith got over 100 snaps on the season as the backup strong safety. This is fewer than we'd hoped for in 2012 for him at the beginning of the year. He had ample opportunity to grab the spot while Meeks fought his own issues. He'll need to adjust to routine play as many of his snaps came against Duke. None of these came against FSU and only one against the Gamecocks.

We do not have so much confidence in Cortez Davis. He looked awful in Spring at CB (but understandably worse because Nuk is better than him), and didn't look any better this fall. We don't think he's flexible enough in the hips to make it there, he actually looks a little stiff. Some of this, as it was with Justin Parker's freshman complaints, is because he's not played enough and is confused, but some is also talent for the spot. CB is one of the easiest places a freshman can come in and play (RB being the other), and he didn't impress us at all. In the long run, he's a FS.

Clemson has a few incoming recruits to help out at DB, and unfortunately we will have to play a couple of them at a minimum. DB, along with DE, are two major needs in this class. Cordrea Tankersley from Hargrave has not qualified yet for Clemson because of the ACT score, but should be in this summer. Tank is a future SS in our eyes. Jayron Kearse, at 6'4" 195, is a FS. I would expect him to crack the 2-deep by late August. Jadar Johnson is a corner, and may or may not RS depending on whether we sign someone late. Should we sign M. Alexander, he'll be on the 2-deep immediately at CB and Johnson likely takes the RS.

Overall, we have been concerned about the Clemson secondary, particularly during last season. We have been concerned about backfilling the likes of DeAndre McDaniel, Crezdon Butler, Byron Maxwell, and other folks over Swinney's tenure. The Tigers' shift to the bigger "tweener" players looks to have become an issue due to lack of true coverage skills. We've also been concerned with practice and technique philosophy, but not all of that is on CH. All of the above came crashing down and resulted in the dumpster fire we saw in the secondary this season. While we still think Harbison is a good coach, something just wasn't right and his decision to leave eased what would have otherwise been a tough/critical decision by Dabo and Venables.

We hope that improvement in the front four will help this secondary tremendously. Venables was constantly bringing folks this season out of necessity (including DBs) but often to no avail as quarterbacks still had time to carve up this secondary. A front four (and really seven) that cause havoc certainly would help. Moving forward, the only real player I have utmost confidence in is Travis Blanks. That young man is a player-no questions on that front. The others still have things they need to improve upon to make me more confident and could be helped by coaching decisions (more jamming at the LOS, more 1's on 1's all season, better technique, etc...). As we move forward with Mike Reed, we'll be fair and honest. He'll get his due diligence but will also be held to the same standards we held Coach Cheese and any other DBs coach.