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Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Backs

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The Defensive Backfield has enjoyed an overhaul in the past year and half where stars like Jayron Kearse and Mackenzie Alexander have emerged as two of the best returning players in the ACC. What's on the horizon for the Clemson DB corps heading into the season?

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

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 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 some players are going to come back in better physical condition and some are not.  Some players are going to have the light come on for them in fall camp and some are not.  That's college football, so this is just an evaluation of where the defense is heading in to fall camp.

This is the third of four posts that will serve as a pre-camp primer for the Defense and Special Teams. I have decided to publish the schematics and prediction post closer to the season as part of the Shakin' the Southland Season Preview.   I guess I get a little excited for football and want to put everything out there.

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, Linebackers,

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.

Legion of Groom

I must say that I was not a big fan of the firing of Charlie Harbison as our DB coach.  Harbison had a track record of developing players into pros (Brian Dawkins, Antwan Edwards, Dexter McCleon, Byron MaxwellMarcus Gilchrist, and Coty Sensabaugh to name a few) and I thought it was too risky to lose him and his credibility to bring in someone new.  He was also involved in Mac's recruiting and I was concerned we might lose him, thereby starting a DB defection that would cease only when the new DB coach proved himself.

Well, just two and a half years later, the risk has already paid off and my crow is delicious.  I have been very impressed with the job that secondary coach Mike Reed has done so far.  It's obvious that the technical skills, aggressiveness, physicality, and cohesion as a unit has increased since his arrival.  The selfish and soft style of play that permeated the defensive backfield from 2009-2012 has all but disappeared.

To add to that, from a personnel standpoint, the plan is working.  It's abundantly clear that Venables and Reed are distinguishing between what they want in a Safety and what they want at CB.  This is different from Harbison's ideology that the 4 DB positions are interchangeable and that you should recruit hybrid athletes and put the best four on the field.   With an upgrade in talent on the recruiting trail, I think Venables and Reed have the right plan.

Perhaps most notable, though, is that Coach Reed has brought with him an emphasis on physicality and proper tackling.  You could see the contagious pride in delivering big hits emanating from the DBs in the spring game.  They enjoy hitting and they support each other doing it.  It is fun for them.  No longer do we have to watch a JV tackling exhibition like we did in Tallahassee in 2012.

Players are more sound, more aggressive, more confident, and more talented.   So, trading Harbison for Reed was the right move and keeps Dabo's "good hire" streak alive.  Players are being developed faster and the improvement in guys like Kearse and Peters last year was absolutely massive and totally unexpected.

However, if the spring game is any indication, Reed and Venables are going to have to do it again.  We return 3 solid players with starting experience and a whole lot of green, moldable youth around them.

On the first play of the spring game, CB Ryan Carter and S Jeffrie Gibson both committed a bust on a play action bomb to Mike Williams that went for 60 yards.   2 plays later, Williams caught an uncontested slant (on Mac and Kearse's side this time) and comfortably jogged into the endzone.  That about sums up the defensive back play from the spring game.   Bust after bust.  There were times where I'm not sure I've ever seen WRs THAT wide open that often.

The good news is that as the game went along, things tightened up a good bit.  The question remains, though, was that because of the DBs getting it together or the insertion of Kelly Bryant and Tucker Israel at QB?  I can't be sure but I'd guess it's probably a little bit of both.

We already know that Mackenzie Alexander and Jayron Kearse are as good as any DB in the conference.  The other safety position should be solid as well.  It will be manned by either T.J. Green or Jadar Johnson and both of them are solid players with experience. Robert Smith, "the General" back there last year, who operated in a mistake-free zone, has departed.  However, Smith was smaller and slower than Green and Johnson, so there is upside at SS heading into camp.  Will we see a Kearse/Peters-like acceleration in development from Green and Johnson?  This just in...the coaches are touting that very acceleration in development for T.J. Green.

There is one spot in the defensive backfield, though, where we exited the spring with real concerns.  The play at Boundary Conerback (BCB) was subpar in the spring game.  Let me ask you this, if you're the OC facing Clemson and you know that they have 3 DBs that can do their job and 1 that can't, where are you going to throw the most?  Exactly, and Darius Robinson would agree with you.  That is precisely what the offense did on the first play of the spring game and it went for 60.

We head into the fall still having to find a solid replacement for Garry Peters.  Peters was simply awesome last year in both coverage and run support and I did not see any BCB even remotely close in ability to Peters in the spring game.

Cornerbacks

I prefer Cordrea Tankersley (6'1, 195, JR) at BCB right now because he has a lot of speed and all the tools to be a successful BCB.  However, I thought that Tank looked like he was not ready for primetime last year.  In the spring game this year, he wasn't exactly locking down the starting job either.  He got called for pass interference in the endzone, gave up a TD to Scott on a redzone fade route, and then gave up a slant in the redzone that got to the 1 yard line as well.  Obviously, that is unacceptable.  He's a Junior now so this fall camp is his big moment to show what he can do.  The possibility now exists that he could be passed up by youth and never get the chance to have the "light come on."  He's got to get better immediately or Venables and Reed are going to be forced to allot his reps with the 1st Team (1s) to someone else.

I'm concerned about a repeat of 2011-13 where the BCB would be in position but didn't have the ball skills to make a play.  This resulted in them being picked on and the opposing QB throwing it to his side without concern for negative repercussions.

In some areas, Tank is already better than the 2012-13 BCBs.  He is very good against bubble screens and also a very good open field tackler.  The problem is that Ryan Carter is even better at doing those things.  Tank is getting by on potential and upside, but for how long?  I believe he will have a quick hook in camp if Mark Fields is as advertised, Ryan Carter improves his coverage skills, or they move Wiggins, Baker, or Chalmers to 1st team BCB.

Ryan Carter (5'9, 180, SO*) was the surprise of the spring and played himself into the two deep.  He's a small guy who reminds me a lot of "The Fire Ant" Martin Jenkins in style of play.  He hits harder than he should at his weight.  Carter also has a little Garry Peters in him as well and will "Gamble" at times...the wrong times.   He sometimes plays a pass first-position like a run-first player.  That's how you get beat and give up big yardage.  However, I still think he's got a future here just like Peters and Jenkins did.  He's a football player.  That punishing hit he had on Hunter Renfrow in the spring game was beautiful.  You can also really see that Jayron Kearse likes him and is supportive of him on the field.  If he plays, I think we'll see some really physical play while we chew our fingernails every time the ball gets thrown to his side. I think you're going to see him do some good things on special teams this year regardless of whether he plays meaningful minutes at BCB or not.

Thankfully, Mackenzie Alexander (5'10, 190, SO*) returns at field side cornerback (FCB).  He was projected to start his true freshman year but, was injured in fall camp and forced to redshirt.  Mac is special.  He has elite level athletic ability, maturity, and work ethic.  I will admit, though, I didn't see any improvement out of him in the spring game from where he was last year.  Maybe he was dogging it and just going through the motions.   I'm really hoping for him to make that jump from "great young corner" to "GREAT freakin' corner!"  We're going to need him to be able to shutdown WRs on the wide side for longer periods of time this year.  We will likely be without the electric pass rush we had last year and that will make his job more difficult.  He is going to have more responsibility in coverage.  If he doesn't get any better, I'm worried that the minor cracks in his game that we saw against Rashad Greene, DeAndre Smelter, and vs. timing routes against Wake Forest are going to become a lot more prevalent.

Cameron Scott (5'11, 200, FR*) is a little fireplug of a CB who has a prototypical RBs body.  He doesn't have a college-level RBs balance and his hips are a work in progress. He got knocked down by Trevion Thompson on a stalk block on his first play of the spring game.  In coverage, Thompson also got a step on him and Scott would've given up a bomb if Israel was more accurate with the throw.  I don't think he can be counted on in meaningful situations right now.

Kaleb Chalmers (6'0, 180, FR) is a true freshman CB that looks the part at 6'0" 180.  He demonstrated college level explosiveness when he ran through Hunter Renfrow to get a sweet ball jarring hit on a bubble screen to Sean "Die Hard" MacLain.  He's got a future here.  Obviously, Mark Fields is going to walk in the door and be put ahead of him on the depth chart but, near the end of August, he could make a move with how dire the BCB situation is for us. May the best man win.

Adrien Baker (5'11, 180, SO*) is a former FSU commit that we lured to the upstate.  He is another guy that, now in his third year in the program, should be making strides in production.  Baker didn't find himself near the ball as much in the spring game but, he does his job well and is more dependable in coverage than Carter, Scott, and Tank.  As Mac's backup, he should be able to minimize disaster if the unthinkable happens and Mac goes down.  Because he's not as aggressive, I don't think he's as suited to play BCB but, I wouldn't necessarily be shocked if they moved him over there either.

Marcus Edmond (5'11, 170, SO*) is a very good athlete.  It's taking him an extra long time to grasp DB though.  I think he's got one more spring here (maybe) and then he should probably transfer somewhere where he could play QB or RB.  Why does he still weigh 170?

Safeties

If Jayron Kearse (6'4, 215, JR) is not among the 5 best Safeties in college football this year, I would say he did not reach his potential.  I felt like last year he was phenomenal, but overshadowed by Vic, Stephone, and Grady.  He performed on or maybe just slightly below their level last year.  This year, I expect him to take the next step and become an All-American level player.  He comes into the season as the most talented player on Clemson's defense and seems to have assumed the leadership role back there to boot.  All eyes are on him now.  At 6'4" 215 pounds, he is an imposing physical specimen who can absolutely fly.  He's great in coverage. He's great against the run. He'll run down the opponent's fastest player on a breakaway (looking at you, James Quick).  In the spring game, we did not see Kearse at NB/Sam, but there was a sprinkling of that last year and a longstanding rumor of more NB work for him.  Venables started blitzing him more near the end of the season and, seemingly, there is nothing he can't do on a football field.  He is one of the most talented safeties we've had at Clemson in the past 20 years.  I would be surprised to see him still playing on Saturdays beyond this year.

I really liked Jadar Johnson (6'0, 200, JR) at the beginning of last year.  I thought he was a more solid fundamental player against the pass than T.J. Green and he had what should've been the game sealing interception against Florida State.  Now I'm worried that he might be in his own head and has regressed a little bit.  Whatever it is that the coaching staff likes better about T.J. Green, which is most likely range, physicality, tackling, and better recognition in run support, it seems to have Johnson a little confused back there.  He is comfortable in pass situations and he is good as the dime back, however, he had a bust on a post by Hunter Renfrow in the spring game that should've been 6 with a better throw by Schuess.

And yes, once again, we showed that we're still having trouble covering a post route by the slot receiver. That needs to be fixed soon since Louisville is the team that exposed this problem last year.

T.J. Green (6'3, 205, JR) got the call last year when starter Robert Smith was either hurt or suspended for hitting too hard.  A natural safety who spent his true freshman year as a WR, Green would be my starter right now.  He had some busts last year, especially against Boston College, but he seemed to improve as the year went on.  With his height, he fits the mold of the type of safety Venables and Reed want, tall and rangy. He is a very good tackler and after the performance of the LBs in the spring game, we might need that ability a good bit.

On the first play of the spring game, I thought Jeffrie Gibson (6'4, 210, FR*) might be Jayron Kearse wearing a different number. That's how much they look alike in pads.  Like Kearse, Gibson is also 6'4" and 200+ lbs.  Also like Kearse, he's a tad bit clueless back there as a freshman, but that's to be expected.  I expect the loser of the Green vs. Johnson battle to initially be the backup at both safeties but, Gibson should crack the two-deep this year at some point.  And yes, as has been mentioned by QT and some on the chatboard, Gibson can hit.

Van Smith (6'2, 170, FR) is long and lean and he put his reach to good use to get a nice PBU on curl intended for Trevion Thompson in the spring game.  My guess is that he could crack the three-deep as a true freshman, but that's probably not going to be good enough to avoid a redshirt.  Besides, at 6'2 and just 170 pounds, he could use the time to put on a serious amount of weight over the next year if he didn't play.  With the extra weight, I don't see why he couldn't push Johnson, Gibson, and Green for a starting role next spring.

Travis Blanks (6'1, 205, JR*) did not play in the spring game and It has been a long time since I have seen him in action.  The last time I saw him was during the 2013 season when his play was sub-par at Free Safety.  Since then, we have recruited multiple players that are performing at a much higher level than he did at Free Safety.  I see the possibility of him playing his way back into a NB role but, little to no chance of him returning to his old free safety spot.

Kraken Pre-Camp Depth Chart:

Mackenzie Alexander, Cordrea Tankersley, T.J. Green, Jayron Kearse
Adrien Baker, Korrin Wiggins/Ryan Carter, Jadar Johnson, Jeffrie Gibson/Korrin Wiggins
Kaleb Chalmers, Cameron Scott, Van Smith, T.J. Burrell
Marcus Edmond, Beau Brown, Travis Blanks
IncomingCB Mark Fields (5'10, 186, 4 star), S Tanner Muse (6'4, 205, 3 star), CB Amir Trapp (5'7, 152, 2 star)
Veteran Talent Grade (Mac, Tank, Green, Kearse, Johnson, Wiggins, Blanks) :   A
New Talent Grade (Baker, Carter, Gibson, Chalmers, Scott, Smith, Edmond): C+
Could Surprise This Year:  Kaleb Chalmers

Special Teams are next