Before I begin; the usual disclaimers. This is my opinion and I hope this will be very informational for you as a pre-camp primer. However, the goal here is as always, is for you to make up your own mind. This is a preview that is basically my opinion of where we are "post-spring." Some of this information will correlate with what happens in August, but certainly not all of it.
It's important to remember that most players are going to come back in better physical condition but, some are not. Some young players are going to have the light come on for them in fall camp, but most are not. That's college football, and part of what makes it great is the "unexpected turn of events" aspect. So this is just an evaluation of where the defense is heading in to fall camp if everything remains status-quo.
This is the second in four posts that will serve as a pre-camp primer for the Defense and Special Teams. : Intro/Defensive Line, Linebackers (this post), Defensive Backs, and then a Special Teams post. I have decided to publish the schematics post closer to the season as part of the Shakin' the Southland Season Preview.
If you didn't get a chance to read them, here are the four previous articles related to this one:
Season Preview from the "Pumper" point of view here.
Season Preview from the "Dumper" point of view here.
Offensive Preview from the "Realist" point of view, here.
Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Linemen
Feel free to express your own opinion in the comment section. As in all of these posts, I'll be taking down our predictions in this post to revisit in the "Horowitz Award" Standings where some will be provided either a 7 course meal donated by "Chez Crow" and some will get to raise their "Brag Flag" atop their own personal "Observation Boast."
For your convenience, I bolded and mostly separated the players by paragraph so that you could reference this later if you wanted. Most reviews will encapsulate individual performance on film from last season and the spring game. Asterisks indicate that the player has already redshirted.
The major concern I have at LB right now is that we currently have nobody emerge from the spring with the ability to diagnose a play as quickly and as accurately as Stephone Anthony. SA was at the point where he could fully trust his eyes to make an instantaneous decision and always be right. On top of that, he had the speed, power, and aggression to do something when he got there. Tony Steward was less aware than SA but, he was also faster than most RBs we faced last year. Those "erasers" (his legs), cut down angles that the RB thought would be there.
So heading into camp, here's our Front 7 situation in a nutshell. We have defensive linemen that do their job well (Watkins, Reader, and Byers) but they are not playmakers. They absorb double teams and do a satisfactory job of keeping OL off of the 2nd level but they don't separate and shed as well as the guys last year. So, it is crucial that we find playmakers at LB in a hurry or we're going to get used to giving up big plays in the run game. Somebody in the Front 7 has to get to the right place, defeat a block, and make a play. It's that simple.
In the spring game, we gave up long run after long run. The Orange and White offenses combined for 52 points in the first half and the White Team averaged a ridiculous 7.7 yards per play. Gallman and Davidson, the RBs with the best vision, routinely had time to find the weak spot in the Front 7 and one-cut their way to major yardage.
Without "plus" players (ie. players that can read, react, shed blockers, and make the tackle), the margin for error is thin. Right now, the only proven "plus" players in the Front 7 are Lawson and Boulware (Goodson at SAM in "Under" shift would be one as well). Thus begins the search to find LBs that can diagnose the play, get to the play in a hurry, and make said play.
Ben Boulware (6'0, 235, JR) has the distinction of being the best returning LB in 2015. Boulware started really slow last year and struggled in all aspects of playing LB in Venables system except for tackling. Then Tony Steward went down and forced Boulware into a starting role against Louisville. Louisville came right out and tested BB repeatedly in the first quarter. The light came on though, and we all breathed a sigh of relief as Boulware delivered. He earned himself more playing time and the rest of the year he continued to deliver. The lasting memory of him in the 2014 season was when he blew the Oklahoma game wide open with a Pick 6 of Trevor Knight. Double B can be found on film blitzing more than any other player last year. He is especially proficient with bullet stunts in the A and B gaps. He runs towards the LOS like a wedge breaker on the kickoff team and wreaks havoc. He has no fear. I feel like this is one reason he did not move to MLB in the spring as the MLB won't be in a blitz-friendly alignment as much. His biggest weakness, despite the INT TD, is in coverage where he has to move laterally. Like Spencer Shuey, he's got great downhill aggression, but he is not so great laterally and changing direction. Hopefully, he has improved in that area from last year. He reminds me of a smaller/faster version of Chad Diehl, a rolling ball of butcher knives.
B.J. Goodson (6'0, 240, SR) is making the switch from being the on-the-line SAM in our 4-3 Under base package to MLB where he will take over for 1st round pick, Stephone Anthony. Unfortunately, Goodson was inactive for the spring game so I did not get to see him perform at his new position. Last year, he had the MLB body but not the MLB instincts. Goodson's strength is his strength. He's a big dude that brings a low center of gravity and I would not at all be surprised to see him move back to SAM against pro-style teams like ND and FSU or even play some DE this year (a la Kevin Alexander) in a pinch. Last year, Goodson backed up Anthony and did play a little bit at MLB with limited results. He certainly looked the part but, he made some completely wrong reads and got lost in traffic at times. Because I did not get to see him in the spring, I still have reservations about whether or not he can handle MLB. He belongs on the field for sure. It just may be a case of how fast the young guys progress. If a guy like Kendall Joseph has a Boulware emergence, this could potentially allow Goodson to play SAM at times.
Kendall Joseph (5'11, 225, FR*) is close to being ready for primetime. In the spring game, he had a nice backside fill and TFL on Dye near the goalline. It was the only negative play for the defense in the first 6 series. He has the best awareness of the new ILBs and he reminds me of Keith Adams a little bit. If he gets any better, he could be the answer at MLB.
Korie Rodgers (6'2, 235, FR*) will hit. He will splatter some people but he needs to diagnose plays better. He needs to just do his job, and get his run fit instead of guessing where the RB might go (a la Tony Steward vs. Georgia last year). He knows how to scrape very well but, you can't run around traffic and make every play like you did in high school. You have to BE the traffic sometimes, stick your nose in there, and make sure your gap is covered so that you prevent a cutback lane. There is no escape from doing your job and trusting the other LB to make the play.
Jalen Williams (6'0, 215, FR) started for the Orange in the spring game and showed that he is small and doesn't pack the punch needed to stuff OL. Even if he did, like Rogers, he doesn't have high level read/reaction skills yet either. He plays fast and seems to make his mind up quickly, but he doesn't always make the right read. He's got some talent though and he is already solid in coverage. He displayed some ruthless aggression as well. He had an excellent backside fill in the spring game to stuff C.J. Fuller and he has picked up Boulware's "wedge breaker" into the line aggressiveness. He's just a little feast or famine right now. One minute he's breaking through and making a play, the next minute he gets pancaked by Maverick Morris. I automatically admire anyone that leaves the armpit of the south to come to God's Country, but Jalen needs to get with the nutritionist/S&C and put some weight on that behind.
Chad Smith (6'3, 215, FR) was solid but unspectacular in the spring game. I think he's one of the rare LBs that comes in mentally ahead of where he is physically as a true freshman. He naturally understands leverage, how to shed blockers, and understands his job on every play. For some reason, he just doesn't make plays and you kind of forget he's even out there. His future is bright and I expect him to battle Jalen Williams (and Shaq Smith perhaps) for a spot in the two deep next year. The weight room is calling for him as well.
J.D. Davis (6'2, 220, FR) and Judah Davis (6'2, 220, FR) have the right height, size, and pedigree to play at Clemson. As you know, we haven't had too many better linebackers than their Dad, "The Judge" Jeff Davis. Their issue is technique and feet. They do not have very good change of direction skills, J.D. especially. He takes a lot of shuffle steps to get moving in the other direction. I also don't see sound read skills with either one of them. After their initial read step, confusion seems to set in. J.D. missed three pass keys on one play that I saw in the spring game. I think Judah is a touch ahead of J.D. and looks more in control and more confident in his reads. These two need individual work on gathering themselves and exploding towards their read. Another year of strength training is in their future as well so, we'll check back in with them next spring.
Korin Wiggins (5'11, 195, JR) is a "plus" player, but I consider him more of a DB and not truly a member of the Front 7 even though I list him with the SAMs here. He played a lot of safety in the spring game and he seemed to have adjusted there pretty well. We already know that he was a good player at Nickel Back last year, so it's nice to see him handle a different role and add some depth there. Like Marcus Gilchrist before him, Wiggins has the "jack-of-all-trades" ability in the secondary. I don't know what his combine numbers are going to be but, his versatility should pique the interest of the NFL with their schematic complexities and roster limits. For now, he's still better at NB where he can show his ability to cover in space and make tackles around the line of scrimmage. I would not put it past the defensive staff to move him to BCB when camp starts either.
Dorian O'Daniel (6'2, 215) has all the athleticism to be a starter for us. He just has a more-sound player, Wiggins, in front of him. We saw O'Daniel get extended playing time in the Georgia Tech game last year and perform quite well in relief of the slower Goodson. He did have a bust that led to a long run but, it was right after Paul Johnson masterfully adjusted his blocking scheme and confused our assignments. That happens against GT. O'Daniel is a sure tackler and not a big hitter. That's ok, as long as you make the play consistently and you can tackle in space. O'Daniel does that. He is really good with his hands when both bringing down RBs and shedding blockers. My issue with O'Daniel is that he needs to put on 10 pounds and he needs to be more physical in taking on blocks at times. Even in the spread, he's going to have to take on pulling guards and Tight Ends in a SAM role. He would be more effective to beat the blocker to the spot, stuff/destroy the blocker in the hole, and not give the RB a lane to run through. O'Daniel likes to slow down before contact, get his hands on the blocker, toss him to one side as the RB runs by him, and hang on until the RB goes down. This habit makes it less likely that Venables will use him in "4-3 Under" and that Venables will run "Over" primarily this year (unless Goodson gets switched back to SAM).
It may seem like Travis Blanks (6'1, 205, JR*) graduated two years ago, but he is still just a junior. Blanks fell prey to an injury and then fell prey to an upgrade in DB talent. As the starter at FS, he tore his ACL at the end of the 2013 season. A more talented guy, Jayron Kearse, took over and developed into the player we had hoped Blanks would become and then some. I had high hopes for Blanks as a FS after this gorgeous interception of Zach Mettenberger in the 2012 Peach Bowl. However, in 2013, Blanks was a liability back there. He could not cover in man to man and he could not tackle. He became a one-dimensional player that was only effective in zone/robber concepts. Unfortunately, as I said last year when Kearse and Wiggins broke out, I no longer see a spot in the two deep for Blanks. I think the best thing for the former 4-star is to transfer somewhere where he can get a better opportunity.
Kraken Depth Chart:
B.J. Goodson, Ben Boulware, Korrin Wiggins
Kendall Joseph, Korie Rogers, Dorian O'Daniel
Jalen Williams, Chad Smith, Travis Blanks
Judah Davis, J.D. Davis, T.J. Burrell, Quintin Hall
Veteran Talent Grade (Goodson, Boulware, Wiggins, O'Daniel, Blanks): B
New Talent Grade (Joseph, Rogers, Williams, Smith, Davises): B
Player who could surprise in 2015: Kendall Joseph
Defensive Backs are next.