This one is going to be pretty easy. Overall the defensive backfield performed admirably. The strength of the defense turned out to be along the defensive line, however. Inopportune busts (see OJ Howard's 5 catches for 208 yard championship performance) and being worn out during the second half of the season plagued the backfield and kept it from truly elite status.
Here is what I said about the Safeties in the season preview:
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.
Well, Kearse looked exactly like that for the first half of the season and (as has been documented from almost everyone) checked out after the Miami game. Part of this was deciding to go to the NFL, but it was also fatigue and playing a ton of snaps. Kearse was one of the first players to admit after the ACC Championship game that the defense was worn down and looking forward to the break.
In Kearse's defense, he was asked to do a lot more this season. He stayed on the field in Dime packages, for example (where he became less effective as the season went along getting to the QB). The missed tackles late in the year showed a lack of effort. He ended this year with 62 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and 6 passes defended. He missed 3 tackles in the Orange Bowl and was out of position a lot in the Championship game. He received a second round grade from the NFL board. Still, overall Kearse had a stellar career at Clemson but couldn't put it all together in the end.
T.J. Green was the breakout candidate that we predicted in the preseason. This was his first season starting at Free Safety (can you believe that, seems like he has been playing the position for years). He started his career as a Freshman at wide receiver (it was said when he signed that he should have been on the defensive side of the ball and that ultimately proved true) where he wasted a potential redshirt year. During the Oklahoma game last year he showed flashes of his potential. Green ended up with 95 tackles and despite busts in coverage, this will be a hard number to replace. Green's athleticism made up for some of the inability of our LBs to truly cover sideline to sideline.
Green is also jumping to the NFL. I think he was given bad advice and is the only player going pro I would have told to definitely come back. What is scary for Clemson moving forward is that Green played all of the snaps at Free Safety this year. Jefferie Gibson played 59 snaps but Green played almost all the rest. He leaves a huge gaping hole with regards to experience at the position. Coaches thought he was going to come back (and no one wanted or foresaw Gibson leaving). A note on Jefferie Gibson: Gibson was going to be a good player for us. He was a hard hitter and had a long frame with a freakish wingspan. He simply needed to get he mental part of the game down better and add a few more pounds of muscle, but it was coming together.
Green struggled at times with alignment, but he was a physical presence and very good in run support, a violent hitter when he took proper angles to the ball. I think we forget that he was a first-year starter and still grasping some of the fundamentals at the position. Struggled at times in pass protection, but wasn't awful in coverage. Again, too many missed assignments as the mental part of his game caught up to his physical potential.
Van Smith got a lot more playing time this year than anticipated in fall camp, logging 75 snaps. This is great, but he probably should have gotten even more. The coaches knew they would be replacing Alexander and Kearse after the season, but didn't plan on missing Green and Gibson. Smith made a splash in his limited action, primarily against Miami, and was given more opportunities at SS for Kearse. After the Miami game, he made some good plays but also whiffed on some tackles and was out of position at times. We will need him to step up next year.
Jadar Johnson is almost the forgotten man. He had logged over 500 snaps in his career and once challenged Kearse for the starting position. He makes the most of his opportunities, snatching to interceptions this past year but only had 15 tackles. Johnson needs to be more physical, but he will likely be the more steady/reliable candidate to start next season.
Brent Venables Magic
Those are your candidates for the two safety slots. Depth is a huge concern here. What will need to happen is Brent Venables once again needing to get creative to mask deficiencies related to depth. Here are some of the key pieces:
Korrin Wiggins is an absolute all-star at the Nickel position. Nickel was one of the problems for the defense all year (before the Bama game where the Safeties just played horrendously). BV decided midseason, in a stroke of genius, to move away from using Carter at the Nickel where he performed well, but got picked on a good deal. BV moved Baker to CB and put Mack in the slot. He won't have that luxury this year. Wiggins solves those problems.
Before Wiggins injury, he was set to make a big impact. Good in coverage, in run support, and doesn't bust. The staff will have to decide if it wants to move him to Safety (where he would start) and risk messing with a good thing (like Travis Blanks Sophomore year) or keep the winning grade at Nickel. Ideally, you would keep him on the field as much as possible. Certainly at Nickel with the potential to move to Safety in certain packages.That move is also connected to how much Dorian O'Daniel can stay on the field at the SAM/Nickel or if Tanner Muse is used as a SAM or Safety.
The offseason plan for Muse seemed to be that he would play Nickel/SAM (depending on how much he grew), but I think the staff might re-evaluate that move and see if he can stick at Safety. By all accounts, Muse is one of the redshirt players to watch. He certainly looks the part with speed and athleticism. The question now is how he will handle the grind of contact (he could always deliver a big hit in high school but wasn't as good being consistent and physical in run support, for example) and nailing down a position. Watch in fall how much he cross-trains versus focusing in on one position.
We aren't recruiting anyone who will have an immediate impact at Safety at the present moment.
Mackensie Alexander is the greatest cornerback in modern Clemson football history. I think you can argue that Donnell Woolford is the greatest cornerback, especially with his ability to return kicks, but in an era of spread offenses Alexander stands out. The number of TD's allowed in the last 20+ games (ZERO) is reason enough. I feel like we all got robbed of another season watching Alexander play, however, because of the groin injury he suffered his freshman year. He is gone now though so I won't dwell on the loss of one of my first public recruiting crushes.
Cordrea Tankersly coming back is huge, though. Tank has been through the refiners fire with teams actively trying to expose him, instead of throwing Alexander's way. Tank was a question mark coming into the season after having an inconsistent sophomore year. Tank was productive with 48 tackles, 9 passes blocked, and 5 big interceptions. His pick against UNC sealed the game and was one of the better individual efforts from the secondary all season long. He did give up some passing yards as the season wore on, but will be the alpha corner next year.
Lining up opposite of Tank will be a key piece of the puzzle for BV's defense next year. Teams will look to gameplan and pick on that player. Adrian Baker is the most likely candidate who played well during stretches of the season. Baker's problem is that he has not been physical enough during his time at Clemson. That showed up in a major way during the National Championship game where a tackle of OJ Howard on a 2 and 12 swing pass could have allowed Clemson a chance to tie the game. Baker is smart and good in coverage but will need to add some muscle and weight to his frame. BV wants his corners to shed blocks and tackle in space. Baker isn't there yet in order to be an every-down player, especially with DE (setting the edge in run support) being another question mark.
Mark Fields is the other major figure at the position. He was able to log 70 snaps over the course of the season. I thought he would be able to handle more snaps during his recruitment, but during fall camp needed more refining of his technique. He is poised to have a breakout year if he can continue to add to the mental part of his game (including reigning in his emotions on occasion). He has all the physical tools, an absolute steal late in the process last year.
Ryan Carter played a ton of snaps at the Nickel position and will likely get a chance to play more at CB next year. He will again provide an extremely important supporting role, adding needed depth. His height is a limitation, but his speed has translated and he doesn't shy away from contact at the point of attack. Marcus Edmond will have another offseason to add bulk and muscle. He must get more physical to see increased playing time. This is his year to prove he can contribute.
The other name to watch is Denzel Johnson. He was a late offer last year and I was not impressed with his film at WR and didn't think he would make a contribution there with our stacked numbers and talent. I also didn't like taking a scholarship away from the 2016 class with someone hadn't played a lot of defense. Word is that Johnson has excelled on the scout team and could provide depth next year. He is an important scholarship with numbers so tight.
Overall the secondary did its job for the majority of the season. Corner play was above average in pass coverage and run support. Safety play for much of the season was strong in run support overall. The secondary was plagued by missed assignments from Safeties, obviously in the champs game, and from weaker Nickel play. The secondary also had the advantage of playing with elite defensive ends and pass rush, along with poor ACC QB play. Replacing 3 out of 4 of those pieces will be difficult, but Brent Venables has enough talent to hold things together if Wiggins returns to form and starters stay healthy.