Well, this thing had to undergo several revisions thanks to injuries and defections...
First thing's first, if you didn't check out Kraken's fall camp preview on the linebackers from July 11th, then please go here and get caught up. I'd also invite you to check out our postseason review of the linebackers coming off the bowl win. The two prudent storylines from that were Boulware's move to Mike for the bowl game and the ability to redshirt Rogers and Joseph, as well as Travis Blanks (Register moved to DE full time).
Brent Venables has completely re-branded the Clemson defense during his time here. Perhaps the biggest factor in that transformation has been taking the linebacker position from a weak link to a strength. We all saw what happened in 2009 when the Tigers boasted a loaded defensive front, with future NFL draft picks Bowers, Jenkins, Thompson, and Sapp, as well as a secondary boasting NFL talents Gilchrist, Butler, Maxwell, and Sensabaugh, but were victimized (especially against GT, twice, and USCjr) by the linebackers in critical losses. Now the position has regained credibility with high level recruits who have seen guys like Stephone Anthony develop into NFL talents under Venables' tutelage. Gone are the days when a Kavell Conner plays 3 total snaps of defense against a spread team (looking at you Kevin Steele).
We all know Brent is really going to earn the paycheck this year, having to replace multiple 2 deep guys, including the best pure pass rusher in school history. Anthony and the Steward/Boulware combo only had to produce 75 and 98 tackles, respectively, thanks to the overall dominance of the 2014 defense. All those 3 and outs didn't make a 120 tackle season necessary. This year, there are likely going to be fewer 3 and outs and a less dominant DL eating up plays before the linebackers have to respond. We will get a good sense of how the new crew will hold up right off the bat against the savvy spread option attack Wofford brings to the table. Wofford isn't GT, but they are among the most proficient running teams at the FCS level every season. They will present some legitimate challenges, unlike Georgia State or SC State last year.
Clemson needs a big year from Ben Boulware. He is the unquestioned leader of the LB corps and is the key cog at either WILL or MIKE. As Kraken noted, Ben is a good tackler and a dangerous blitzer. It is likely Brent will need to get a little more creative in generating a pass rush, unless somebody beyond Shaq Lawson emerges as a force in the four man rush. Boulware should be at the top of the options there. Dabo described BB as "angry" and ready to be the guy. I will go ahead and project an All-ACC season out of #10, if he stays healthy.
The other veteran presence and group leader is B.J. Goodson. Goodson has spent time at Mike and SAM over the last two seasons and is a thumper. However, he is not the 5-star athlete that Stephone Anthony was and will need to be sound in his reads and technique to make up for that. It will be very interesting to see just how Brent deploys Goodson and Boulware. One thing I learned last year is you can't put too much stock in those early depth charts. Goodson ended up playing a good bit of SAM when he hadn't been listed at that position at all prior to the season. I would take Goodson starting at MIKE as a good sign of his development there. If BB starts at MIKE, it probably means Goodson just hasn't come along enough to allow Brent to move BB around more.
Kraken noted the progress of redshirt freshman Kendall Joseph in the spring. Clemson certainly needs two or three of the freshman/redshirt group to emerge as dependable 2 deep performers. Joseph's ability to play the MIKE effectively would allow Brent the flexibilty to use BB and Goodson in other roles more frequently. Joseph's camp was slowed some with an injury to his shoulder. Flexibility is a must in the ACC when you see everything from the GT option to the UNC spread to the FSU pro style offense. Just in the Atlantic, you have a diverse range of offensive attacks to deal with. The more we see Joseph on the field (due to performance, not necessity), the better the chances the Tigers can match up with those various attacks. Not to mention the Tigers will face ND, GT, BC, Wofford, and NCST, who all run their quarterback (plus Louisville if Bonnafon is the QB).
Another redshirt freshman who we hoped would step up and help the 2 deep was Korie Rogers. Rogers was the highest rated LB recruit of the 2014 class, but shockingly decided to give up football just as he was about to play some significant snaps. The importance of linebacker depth can be proven just from last year's experience, where Ben Boulware had to step up for Tony Steward in the Louisville game and then again for Stephone Anthony in the bowl game, while Dorian O'Daniel had to come in for major snaps in the Georgia Tech game. Now, that depth is a serious question heading into the season.
Jalen Williams is an interesting player to watch and appears to be slotted for the MIKE position, but may also have to play WILL. Some might consider him a 5-heart, but early fall talk says this guy is a football player who can help down the line.
Will that be this year? Williams is very likely to play an important role in the two deep now that Rogers is gone. If nothing else, Williams seems to be the type that can help on the special teams units. It certainly would be nice to not have to rely on our first line LB's to man the coverage teams.
Chad Smith is one that could be on redshirt watch this year, though that is much less likely with the departure of Rogers. Smith was around in the spring, but it would be nice to be able to hold him like the staff was able to hold all the freshmen linebackers last year. We'd all like to see that depth chart stacked with redshirt juniors and seniors just about every year, with only the super-special freshman or sophomore in the mix. That's harder to do in the 85 scholarship limit era, but last year's defense was an excellent example of the benefit of having a lot of experienced veterans across the board. Smith looks like a guy being groomed for that WILL position, and we will see if the staff can hold him or not.
I guess I should mention the Davis twins.
There, I did it. Let's move along.. Both of the twins might actually be in the mix and got on the "will play" list. Starting the eligibility clock on them now is no big deal, since they will likely be special teams only guys, at least for the first two years. The move of Martin Aiken to LB had me thinking that at least one would redshirt, but who knows how long it will take to get Aiken game ready at that position, if it works at all.
We at STS have bemoaned the lack of bulk Aiken has put on during his time at Clemson at DE, but now it might pay off if he can move well enough to play linebacker. It is hard to know how quickly he can adjust to the position, but I feel he has a better shot to contribute here than on the line. Needless to say, we need Boulware and Goodson to stay healthy!
This has been a very intriguing position to watch in the Venables era. He threw us a curve last year, sliding B.J. Goodson over to SAM to match some of the run heavy attacks on the schedule. DB Korrin Wiggins had a very good year manning the SAM position versus the spread attacks, but Wiggins has spent a lot more time at safety during fall camp. Unfortunately, Wiggins tore his ACL and is out for the season. Even in his absence, I certainly expect to see more of the vaunted "Dime of Doom" defense that debuted last year. Having guys like Wiggins and Kearse who can man up in the box as well as cover makes that type of defensive attack extra dangerous. I mentioned O'Daniel earlier and he's got the jack of all trades makeup for this position. He's quick and fast enough to cover, but is bigger than Wiggins to deal with the run game. Travis Blanks got suddenly thrust back into the limelight with the injury to Wiggins. We can only hope that he is indeed fully healthy and can produce to the 4-star projection he came to town with. I certainly am pulling for Blanks because he is a first class kid who has had to deal with injuries, much like Charone Peake on the other side of the ball.
T.J. Burrell is a guy who appears to have been outrecruited, and he saw fewer snaps in 2014 than 2013, but he is another that could work his way back into the mix with the loss of Wiggins. I'd love for somebody to become a LaMarcus Joyner type here because that really helped the 2013 FSU defense be nasty. Could we see Kearse slide down here this season? That is a scary proposition for opposing offenses to consider.
In closing, Clemson fans can rest easy knowing this position is under the guidance of Brent Venables. Brent has been every bit the home run hire that Chad Morris was on offense. He helped turn Stephone Anthony into that guy we saw wrecking Virginia Tech in 2011, but for EVERY game, instead of just one or two. The improvement of Tony Steward from the UGA game to the USCjr game was palpable. Hopefully we'll see that same progression from the young linebacker talent on this team before the road trip to Louisville, when it will be tested by the offensive mind of Bobby Petrino, before the EPIC throwdown with Notre Dame in the Valley.
Oh, and when I think of linebackers, I think of...