Clemson has reached the mid point of the season and a needed open date breather before taking the trek to Tallahassee next weekend. It is a good time to analyze the position groups in terms of what was expected, what has occurred, and what we might see going forward. This, of course, is one guy’s take and really intended to start a larger discussion where the good readers can offer their own opinions. The best news is the team is 7-0 and in complete control of its destiny despite more scares than most thought would happen.
Defensive Tackle: This team has some seriously bad dudes on the defensive line. Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence have produced at an All-Conference level so far and Scott Pagano and Albert Huggins haven’t been much of a drop off from that. These guys consistently blow up the interior of the opposing OL and have made inside running next to impossible for teams to pull off. They had an “off” game against NCST, but still put together multiple tackles for loss and some sacks even then. This is the deepest unit on the roster when you consider talent AND production together from the 2 deep.
Midseason Grade: A
Defensive End: There was a lot of trepidation about this spot in the fall as Clemson was looking to replace two studs who left early for the NFL. To make matters worse, the most experienced returner, Austin Bryant, went down with an injury before the season even began. However, Christian Wilkins rode in on his white horse and saved the day by not only filling the strong side DE position but playing it at an All Conference, perhaps even All American, level. It’s not often you can say a guy could legitimately make All American in more than one position, but Wilkins is that type of freak. On the other side, Clelin Ferrell has stepped in off his redshirt year and immediately provided some very strong play. He isn’t approaching what Shaq Lawson or Vic Beasley were yet, but you can make a case that he is better than both were at the same stages of their careers. Now Austin Bryant is back in the fold which offers more flexibility with the use of Wilkins and the depth of the position in general. Richard Yeargin and Chris Register have been mostly solid in backing up the starters. There is another level this group can reach in terms of pass rush, but I will say they have exceeded my expectations so far this year. I was just hoping the spot wouldn’t be a glaring hole in the defense. Kudos to Coach Hobby here for sure.
Midseason Grade: A-
Linebacker: We’ve heard a great deal about “competitive depth” from the coaches this season. This position is where that statement hasn’t played out in terms of snap distribution, especially at the Will position. Once again, Ben Boulware is logging heavy snaps and only got the walkover SCST game as a reprieve. Otherwise, his snap total would be far and away the most on the defense. Boulware is the undisputed leader of the defense and his presence is invaluable, but I am worried about fatigue as the season goes on if a reliable backup doesn’t emerge. Kendall Joseph has done a good job in the middle considering his lack of experience, though his play has not reached what the previous two MLB were doing (though both were NFL draft picks, one a first rounder). Highly touted Tre Lamar has been in the mix, but Joseph has logged 400 more snaps to this point. SAM has seen the musical chairs approach once again with Dorian O’Daniel, Jalen Williams, Ryan Carter, Korrin Wiggins, and K’von Wallace all getting time there. Jalen Williams coming back from injury is a much bigger deal than some folks might think because the SCST game revealed, as I predicted in the preseason position analysis, Williams IS the backup Will if it means significant snaps. We are once again keeping the fingers crossed that #10 stays healthy, for certain, and Joseph does too, though Lamar will become a great player in time. Overall the group has been better about not giving up huge runs outside of some Lamar Jackson virtuosity. Coverage has been adequate, though NCST and Troy both did a good job picking on the linebackers in coverage.
Midseason Grade: B
Cornerback: Clemson fans have been incredibly spoiled by the corner play since 2014 when MacKensie Alexander and Garry “The Gambler” Peters were dominant forces on the outside. That trend continued last season with Cordrea Tankersley taking over for Peters. Whatever coverage problems that occurred in those two seasons were usually the result of a safety or linebacker screwing up. There was a big question mark looming over one of the corner positions coming into this season. However, the three headed attack of Ryan Carter, Mark Fields, and Marcus Edmond has performed admirably so far this season and mitigated the loss of Adrian Baker, who was the heir apparent to Alexander coming out of 2015. This secondary survived a huge test against Louisville’s dynamic attack and has bent a few times but not broken. Tankersley has continued to play at an All Conference level and the others, Edmond in particular, have delivered some clutch plays. I must say I feel this position is as deep as it has been in a while with young talent like Trayvon Mullen coming along and Baker attempting to return to the fray. They have exceeded my expectations so far.
Midseason Grade: B+
Safety: The most glaring hole left in the defense from last year was at safety, where not only uber talented but enigmatic starters Jaron Kearse and T.J. Green departed early for the NFL but also promising freshman Jeffrie Gibson decided to transfer out. Dabo Swinney made some bold declarations in the spring that the secondary would in fact be better this year despite the losses, which was a not so subtle way of saying the new group would be more assignment sound. So far that has been the case, though some of the physical growing pains have been evident. Van Smith has great heart and plays bigger than he is, but he’s had some shaky moments in coverage (see the Troy game) and in the open field (see the NCST game). Jadar Johnson has continued his ball-hawking ways and has largely been very sound. Depth here is still a concern as the starters are logging just about every snap in meaningful times. Johnson and Smith are 1 and 2 in snap load so far with Tanner Muse and Denzel Johnson only getting mostly garbage time snaps at this point. The Tigers need the depth to grow here like at LB. They will be tested in various ways with Florida State, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse having unique ways to attack a defense.
Midseason Grade: B
Kickoff/Punting/Coverage: I’ll start with the bad and end with the good. Punting has been poor and the Tigers are fortunate it hasn’t cost them a game. Teasdall is not doing anything better than last year despite having more experience. His only real positive is that he avoids kicking touchbacks for the most part, but when the team has needed some big punts in close games, he hasn’t delivered. The coverage has been solid, but teams are mostly fair catching what have been short punts. Kickoff, however, has been LIGHT YEARS better than last year. Huegel has shown the growth you would expect from a returning starter and routinely blasts balls into the endzone, negating any return threat. When teams have returned kicks, the coverage has been there to snuff it out. My only gripe have been a few squib calls at the end of halves that needlessly gifted field position to the opponent. Huegel has proven he will consistently blast the ball so I say let him do it every time.
Midseason Grade: C (kickoff gets A-, punting gets a D+)
I know I was not alone thinking the defense would need the experienced offense to carry it a bit during the season as new faces got broken in. Instead, the 7-0 start has largely been a product of outstanding defense covering for some bad mistakes from the offense. The defense had a poor third quarter against Louisville, a poor fourth quarter against Troy, and a shaky fourth quarter against NCST. Otherwise it has been playing lights out football and is once again a top 10 unit nationally. Venables and his staff earn every single penny they make and the group should only get better with Bryant returning to the mix. Once the offense gets out of its own way, the team should look like the threat to Alabama many expected to see from the start.