I was able to enjoy some of the greatest defenses in Clemson history as I rose up through middle school into high school. Those teams were usually defined by a stable of linebackers that were the envy of just about every college program in the country. Henry Walls, Terrence Mack, Jesse Hatcher, Ed McDaniel, Doug Brewster, John Johnson, Levon Kirkland, Ashley Sheppard, and Wayne Simmons were household names with Clemson fans. When Tommy Bowden got the job at Clemson, he reflected on facing the Tigers during those days and said, "You would come to the stadium in two buses but would leave in a bus and two ambulances." The program was still able to pull in some top flight linebackers during the 90s like Anthony Simmons, Rahim Abdullah, Wardell Rouse, and Keith Adams, but the depth had eroded. By the time 2005 came along, Leroy Hill was the last of what could be considered the great Clemson linebackers. Anthony Waters had a chance but a knee injury in the first game of 2006 derailed him. Some of the more talented Tiger linebackers, like current NFL backer Kavell Conner, were sometimes misused to the point that we didn't know just how good they were. Conner played like 3 snaps against Middle Tennessee State in 2009! The Kevin Steele era was a forgettable one from a linebacker perspective, and some of the worst defensive performances of that time (see GT games, West Virginia game) featured egregious mistakes from the linebacker position.
Brent Venables entered the program in the wake of the Orange Bowl disaster and the hope that the Tiger defense and linebacker corps in particular would regain some of the bite it had lost. Fast forward to the 2014 Orange Bowl and the play of Spencer Shuey, Stephone Anthony, and Quandon Christian were the highlights of the defense. Matt Millen raved about their play and Braxton Miller took a beating that Major Harris could relate to. We now look to the 2014 Clemson linebackers to be a strength of the defense and build on the improved performances of 2013.
SAM Backer: This is a fluid position due to the way Clemson tries to match up with different offensive sets and personnel packages. When facing a traditional 21 or 22 personnel package, Goose Creek's T.J. Burrell is set to take over the role played by Quandon Christian. Burrell got in 80 snaps last season while Christian logged 489, so Burrell should project to at least 300 snaps if he maintains his first team status. The interesting thing to watch here is how much Venables goes with Travis Blanks or Korrin Wiggins, who are both coming off injuries, even in non-nickel situations. A curveball got thrown on August 15th when Swinney said Blanks could redshirt, which is probably connected with the knee injury. No Blanks would mean a much heavier load for Wiggins. This is certainly the most fluid position of the three linebacker spots. The darkhorse here is redshirt freshman Dorian O'Daniel, who also stands to gain snaps if Blanks is out, though I picture O'Daniel in the Christian/Burrell role. This is the spot that gives you some pause before you can really start to rank this unit up with some of the better ones Clemson has had. When you look at the impact Quandon Christian had in the GT game and the Ohio State game, you begin to realize the importance of this SAM spot versus run heavy schemes.
MIKE Backer: Clemson fans can rest easy with the return of former Rivals 5-star linebacker Stephone Anthony out of Anson County HS. Anthony began to show the form and promise that came with his signing as 2013 went on and played perhaps his best game as a Tiger versus Ohio State. Anthony piled up 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 5 passes broken up (with that huge interception to seal the bowl game) on a whopping 802 snaps. If you want to know the value of depth and competition, look no further than the career of Anthony, who had to regain his job from Spencer Shuey following the 2012 season. Anthony elevated his game and is a major candidate for All-ACC and All-American in 2014. Anthony will hopefully not have to pull down as many snaps this season and will look to get sharper in his zone drops in hopes of securing a high round pick in next spring's draft. He certainly comes in with the most hype since Anthony Waters in 2006, so we will hope for good health so he can try to fulfill that promise.
Anthony is backed up by junior B.J. Goodson who has shown he can lay the wood in his limited opportunities. Goodson is a physical 235+ and pulled down just 33 snaps in seven games last year after battling some concussion issues. It will be important for Goodson to help buy Anthony 130-150 snaps of rest so the Tigers can stay strong in the fourth quarter. It appears plan B will be Ben Boulware who has been cross training at Will and Mike in the fall. Many of the late defensive lapses in the Bowden era were due to the lack of quality depth on defense. Clemson's good depth up front was very evident in the later stages of the Orange Bowl and made a big difference in that victory. The darkhorses here would be one of the 3 incoming freshmen who have gotten some very positive reviews from their teammates in camp. Chris Register, Kendall Joseph, and Korie Rogers are all the type of size/speed combinations that used to be a regularity in the Tiger LB corps. The race will be on to see which of these avoids a redshirt.
WILL Backer: Clemson has been strong in this position for the last three years or so with Tig Williard and Spencer Shuey. First in line for 2014 is senior and former High School Butkis Award winner Tony Steward. Steward has had a career snakebit with knee injuries, the last one coming just after the medical redshirt threshold, but all reports say Steward is moving better than he ever has since getting to campus. Clemson fans can only hope Steward can put together Shuey-like production in 2014, and he certainly looks the part at a chiseled 6'2" 238 pounds. Steward pulled down 167 snaps last year and figures to eclipse 500 easily this season. Competition will come in the form of sophomore Ben Boulware, who made some waves with his reckless abandon in 2013. Boulware reminds me a lot of Keith Adams and Leroy Hill who both made their marks as special teams dynamos before emerging as star linebackers. There is no shortage of passion and toughness from Boulware which should keep the seat nice and warm for Steward. Tiger fans should feel very good about the two deep at WILL. The darkhorse here is Kellen Jones who has cross trained at all 3 linebacker positions while he sat out his transfer year and just before his injury last year. If Jones comes on, that could allow Boulware to play more MIKE and challenge for the backup spot there.
Season Projection: Barring injury to Anthony, the Tiger LB corps should be at least as good as it was in 2013. I project the combination of Steward and Boulware to match the numbers put up by Spencer Shuey last season and for Anthony to get to 150 tackles. The X-factor is the SAM position, but I like the move of Travis Blanks back to SAM where he was more effective in 2012 (provided he plays and is healthy). Blanks going full time to SAM will allow for him to hopefully become a more every down guy at that position. This is essential when facing teams like UNC who will play with pace and keep you from using your sub packages. A healthy Blanks should supplant Burrell as the front line SAM with Wiggins and Martin Jenkins (whom I consider a corner and didn't discuss here) as the primary men in the nickel/dime packages. Clemson will need all of these guys due to the wide range of offenses seen in the ACC, not to mention what UGA and USuC bring to the table. I also project two of the three freshmen to play from the Register, Rogers, and Joseph group. Their presence will be needed on special teams and for depth at MIKE, particularly. Venables said this after the first practice in shells, "I like all of three of our young freshmen – Chris Register and Kendall Joseph and Korie Rogers. All three of those guys have showed they have instincts and they are physical. They all move pretty good and have a good level of football intelligence and have good football size already. They have a bright future because they also have high football intelligence."