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2015 Clemson Football Season Preview: Defensive Backs

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The defensive backs should easily be the strength of the defense this year. This group will be challenged by the lack of a consistent pass rush, but depth and quality talent remains across the positional group. I expect that Venables is going to get creative in his usage of the secondary to help apply pressure and add them to situational blitz packages. I think you will see a Dime package (with 1 LB) where Jayron Kearse moves from Safety to down in the box and Jadar Johnson plays the Strong Safety position--effectively freeing up Kearse to blitz the QB. Venables will leave Alexander on an island (one on one coverage) for much of the game, which grants a lot of versatility for the entire defense. Enjoy watching Alexander and Kearse because they are likely headed to the NFL after the season.

Key Losses:

Garry Peters. Peters established himself as a reliable and physical corner opposite of Alexander. Struggled some in coverage but progressed as the season went along. Initially not a starter out of fall camp but overtook Tankersly after his suspension in the Georgia opener.

Robert Smith. Smith was a reliable and dependable player in Venables defense. He didn't bust on many plays (play out of position) and was good at diagnosing between run and pass. He wasn't as athletically gifted as other players on the roster with limited top end speed, but he took better angles to the ball in his senior year and helped steady the defense.

Korrin Wiggins. Lost for the season to an ACL tear. Not enough is being made of this huge loss. Wiggins quietly amassed 500+ snaps last season and was another dependable, physical presence in Nickel coverage. While Travis Blanks seemed to be leading at the position in Fall camp before the injury, I maintain that Wiggins was still headed towards the majority of the snaps during the season. There was a serious amount of trust that Venables had in Wiggins. This is a huge blow to the secondary but luckily an area with some depth.

Player Position Year Height Weight Star Rankings Games Games Started Solo Tackles Assisted Tackles Tackles for Loss Total Tackles Sacks Interceptions
Mackensie Alexander CB R Sophomore 5'10" 195 5 13 13 15 6 2 21 0 0
Adrian Baker CB R Sophomore 5'11" 190 3/4 4 0 1 1 0 2 0 0
Ryan Carter CB R Sophomore 5'9" 180 2 12 0 2 1 0 3 0 0
T.J. Green FS Junior 6'2" 208 3 11 0 14 4 0 18 0 1
Jayron Kearse SS Junior 6'4" 215 4 13 13 45 15 5 60 3 2
Jadar Johnson SS Junior 6'1" 205 3 13 1 10 2 2 12 1 2
Cordrea Tankersley CB Junior 6'1" 195 3/4 13 1 11 1 0 12 0 0
Korrin Wiggins NB Junior 6'0" 200 3/4 13 6 22 12 3.5 34 0 2
Dorian O'Daniel SLB/NB R Sophomore 6'1" 215 4 12 0

19

9 1 28 1 0

CB Marcus Edmond (6'0, 170, R Sophomore) is also returning but didn't record a stat in 4 games played of special teams. Travis Blanks (6'1, 210, R Junior) suffered a knee injury last year and redshirted but has 86 career tackles and one interception.

A Note On Each Returning Player

Corners

Alexander takes away his man during a game. Apart from the fall in the FSU game and some tough back shoulder throws against GT, Alexander was one of the best CBs in Clemson football history. He hates leaving the field (he hates missing a rep during practice) and can be found after a game in the film room dissecting the film. Workaholic. Driven towards the goal of becoming an NFL draft pick. Should increase interception total this year but QB's rarely throw his way.

Tankersley is going to start opposite of Alexander. He exited the Spring last year as the favorite to unseat a suspended Garry Peters but struggled in the fall and against Georgia. Can be physical at the point of attack but needs to work on not committing pass interference. He will be picked on during the season.

Adrian Baker has risen the most during fall camp and is now legitimately in play for the two-deep spot backing up Mack for the 5 plays he will take off during the season. Baker has slowly improved his physicality and ability to jam at the line, but still needs to improve. In Brent Venables scheme he wants his CBs to play tough against the run, jam at the line, and tackle in space along with defending the pass.

Carter lacks ideal size at the CB position, which will always limit his potential and ceiling, but he does play physical. Not afraid to mix it up and solid special teams contributor. I don't see him getting all that many meaningful snaps this season, but the opportunity is there for more playing time down the road as his technique improves. Tough kid.

Edmond is another late Fall camp riser. Edmond has moved from top transfer candidate to in the mix for some playing time. Still is not at all physical and needs to add more weight. If he can't continue to add physicality to his game then he won't see the field much.

Safeties

Jayron Kearse is a man beast. He has added an additional 5-10 pounds of muscle and will play more in the box this year (he will get moved around all over). Mental game has improved dramatically. No longer gets baited or a threat to bust on plays. Superior athleticism. Nose for the football and should have a stellar year that vaults him into fringe NFL candidate.

T.J. Green started settling into the Safety position at the end of last year and during bowl practice. Lots of trust with Green now at Free Safety (so much that Johnson has stayed at SS). Superior athleticism to Robert Smith but will have to adjust to full-time playing and the grind of preparation each week. Holds up well against the run and improved technique in pass defense. Breakout candidate.

Jadar Johnson is stuck behind Kearse. Extremely productive player in terms of interceptions and tackles based on his number of snaps but just isn't as athletic as Kearse. Lacks elite top-end speed and has struggled with focus in the reliever role. Remember he was still battling with Kearse last year for the starting role heading out of Fall camp.

Travis Blanks will be called upon to return to his freshman prowess after a shaky Sophomore campaign spent at Safety (although he did play injured during some of that time). At Nickel, Blanks will do less diagnosing of plays and can be a more physical presence. This position receives a ton of snaps, so a lot is riding on his knee holding up.

O'Daniel has his breakout game against GT. He is physically ready to play, but still needs some seasoning and work in pass coverage before taking the proverbial next step. Should log over 300 snaps this year and be a big special teams contributor.

Player Star Ranking Height Weight
Kaleb Chalmers 3 5'11 180
Mark Fields 4 5'10 195
Denzel Johnson 2 6'0 200
Van Smith 3 6'0 190
Amir Trapp 0/2 5'7 155

Kaleb Chalmers (redshirt) is going to take some development and will definitely redshirt. He has some athleticism but was always a boom or bust player in high school--taking too many risks to grab interceptions. Has a steep learning curve at the present moment.

Mark Fields was such an excellent steal for us late in the recruiting season last year. He would be close to starting for USCjr. Will avoid a redshirt and play primarily special teams while getting spot duty at CB. Physically ready to play but needs work to refine his technique at the college level. Still needs some work flipping his hips but part of the future at the position.

Denzel Johnson (redshirt) is also a definite redshirt. This was always a curious pick-up for me because it was obvious he was a better wide reciever prospect but had no way of hanging with the caliber of recruit we are currently bringing in. I don't see an elite defensive prospect on any of the film I have seen or any reports I have been given.

Van Smith is another bubble prospect who might avoid a redshirt, but I would be fine if he could be protected because he is likely to get less than 100 snaps. Smith profiles similarly to Robert Smith but has a high ceiling because he is more athletic. Smart player who was well coached in high school (along with Fields).

Amir Trapp (Redshirt): Positives are that he is quick. He also looks like an eighth grader trying to run around with the Varsity team. Tiny. The 155 pounds listed by Clemson may be generous.

Overall this will be the strength of the defense. We should be fast, athletic and smart. Mike Reed has been such an immense improvement over Coach Cheese. Reed coaches solid fundamentals and technique, which gets consistently translated into games. We lack a bit of ideal height at CB, but the Reed era is such a marked improvement and another positive hire by Coach Swinney. Losing Wiggins hurts the overall outlook but if there are no other injuries than this unit should be top 15 in the country. That may not happen, however, because of a much weaker pass rush. Still, I don't see any QB on the schedule that is going to carve up this secondary.