I like to look back at the preview for the position I did in August and react to what went down in the regular season. So without further fanfare, here we go!
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.
REVIEW: Ben was able to stay mostly healthy all year and produced a second team All-ACC season. Ben had two poor games late in the season when he was playing with one arm but rebounded in the bowl season with two good games. I thought he might move over to MIKE but Goodson allowed Ben to stay at WILL all year. He finished up with 82 tackles, 8 TFL's, 3.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles, and 10 quarterback hits. That's a stat line that speaks to Ben's relentless effort on the field. Ben still needs to work on his coverage and gap integrity but is poised to have another monster season as a senior next year. Tough as freaking nails!
Ben was backed up by Jalen Williams who was active in his limited duty this season. Jalen finished with 14 tackles, 2.5 TFL's, and 2 sacks. Most of this was done when he spelled Boulware in the Wake Forest game. Jalen will have his hands full fending off dynamic freshmen Chad Smith and Rashaun Smith in hopes of holding on to the second team WILL role. Hopefully Jalen can use his nose for the football to help the floundering kickoff coverage unit next year.
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.
REVIEW: I'll be doing the defensive player of the year article and B.J. Goodson will be one of the major contenders to win that poll. He was more than ready for the MIKE role and combined with Ben Boulware to give the Tigers one of the best linebacker tandems in the country. Like Ben, B.J. made second team All ACC with 108 tackles, 14 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, and 3 QB hits. Goodson, like Kevin Dodd, is a poster child for player development at Clemson. He was a limited contributor in the first two years, came on last year in an expanded role, and then was a dominant force in his last season. It was a major blessing that Clemson was able to have Goodson and Boulware avoid major injury. Goodson leaves some big shoes to fill for the next man up in 2016.
Kendall Joseph and Judah Davis were the backups to Goodson, although both saw very limited snaps during the season. They combined for 16 tackles and .5 sacks. Both will be competing with 5 star Tre Lamar this spring, summer, and fall for the all important MIKE linebacker position. Joseph had injuries slow his progress in the fall, and Clemson needs Joseph and Lamar to have a healthy battle all the way through.
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.
REVIEW: True to form, that SAM position was hard to get a read on during the season. The loss of Wiggins did increase the role of Travis Blanks, who put up a gutsy final season with 36 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, and 2 passes defensed. Blanks never got fully exposed as a pass defender, mostly because Brent Venables went with a combination of Ryan Carter and Mackensie Alexander as the nickel against more pass happy attacks. Dorian O'Daniel was once again called upon to wreak havoc on the Georgia Tech offense and that he did. O'Daniel still didn't play as much as I thought he would and he certainly was good in the snaps he was out there from what I saw. Dorian finished with 36 tackles and 5.5 TFLs. Wiggins should be back to full go in 2016, but the early departures of Green and Kearse might force Wiggins to play more true safety. O'Daniel should be ready to make that step we saw from Goodson in his final two seasons and I expect him to get at least as much action as Blanks got in 2015 unless Wiggins is full time SAM.
As I predicted, T.J. Burrell was outrecruited and never reached the snap totals he saw early in his career. The SAM position will be one to really watch in the spring and fall because of the attrition in the secondary. Carter and Wiggins could be called upon to compete for the open corner and safety positions.
In closing, we once again have been treated to the coaching genius of Brent Venables. He was able to cater the defense to the strengths of his linebackers and rarely had them in spots which exposed their flaws. The good Lord smiled upon the Tigers on the injury front because losing either Boulware or Goodson for extended time this year could have been enough to derail the magical 14-0 run. Now Coach Venables faces the challenge of replacing a key linebacker without having an experienced veteran waiting in the wings. We had Steward to replace Shuey, Goodson to replace Anthony, Boulware to replace Steward. It will be education on the fast track for young Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph.