With spring football behind us, impressions from the both spring game and the initial depth chart provided a bit of insight for what to expect from the Clemson defense in 2016. I feel confident that the front 7 will be solid at worst and ferocious at best, but the real questions still remain in the secondary.
After so many defensive backs departed from the 2015 team, finding reliable bodies for a two-deep was already a challenge with only 4 or 5 defensive backs on the field when Clemson employs its standard 4-3 or nickel (4-2-5) formations. But what about Brent Venables' go-to 3rd down scheme, the 3-2-6 formation known lovingly at STS as the DIME OF DOOM?
First, I want to discuss what exactly is a dime defense and how Venables used it to finish in the top 5 nationally in 3rd down % defense three years in a row, including the #1 ranking in 2015. Then I will of course project the personnel Clemson will likely use for the dime this season and whether this year's secondary can continue its success.
The term "dime" actually derives from the nickel, which intuitively alludes to a formation with 5 defensive backs. The dime takes it a step further with 6 DBs on the field. While a nickel formation can be a 4-2-5 or a 3-3-5, the dime is even more flexible since it can be employed with 4 corners and 2 safeties or 3 corners and 3 safeties in addition to the variables up front.
With the advent of the spread offense in the early 2000s -- specifically the air raid -- and its subsequent proliferation throughout all of college football, defenses had to adapt to counter 3 and 4 wide receiver sets. The days of solely winning at the line of scrimmage were over, since spread passing teams got the ball out quickly to the perimeter and took yardage in chunks at a time.
As is always the case in football strategy, the defense caught up (somewhat) in the never ending game of cat and mouse primarily through depth and flexibility in the secondary. The dime defense evolved from a situational, long pass defense formation to one which could be employed without substitution thanks to hybrid defenders, like Clemson had in 6'5" 225 pound safety Jayron Kearse.
Clemson is particularly complex with its interpretation of the dime in that it often brings its third safety and linebackers down to the line of scrimmage to show blitz and further torment an offense in its pre-snap reads.
With the threat of havoc from Kearse plus linebackers B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware, Clemson took a traditional pass defense and turned it into a dementing blitz package that consistently both hurries passers and locks down receivers.
Below is a standard 4-1-6 dime defense. Notice both outside linebackers are replaced by a two extra cornerbacks: the nickel (N) and dime (D) backs to counter a 4 wide set.
Next, a 3-2-6 defense which closer resembles Clemson's preferred third down havoc alignment from the last 2 years. Clemson would put Jadar Johnson in Kearse's strong safety position ($) and move Kearse down to a box safety role (D) to spy or blitz.
From this set, Clemson would often stand both linebackers (M and J) on the line of scrimmage in an effort to confuse the quarterback and offensive linemen into calling the wrong protection. Most times Clemson also brought Kearse down to the line to further confound the quarterback.
Multiple Looks and Calls
The gif below shows Clemson align exactly as shown in the image above: Kearse moves down from a 3 high safety look to the line to show man cover 2 vs App State's 4 wide set. Just as Venables intends, it confuses the App State QB who must slow his offense in order to adjust the call and protection:
Next, a fire zone (6 man rush, 3 deep and 2 underneath coverage) where we can see Kearse blitz from the weak side edge with the linebackers looping from the strong side towards the QB rollout. This forces an early throw underneath, which Clemson covered.
Clemson's dime isn't strictly a blitz package; against Miami we saw Venables employ 9 zone defenders to confuse Miami QB Brad Kaaya (which was still a good enough pass rush to knock Kaaya out of the game). Below, Clemson threatens another 6 man rush fire zone only to drop 9 defenders into coverage:
After the play above was rendered null due to an offside penalty, Miami had another shot at the conversion. Clemson kept the same personnel on the field, but this time shifted Kearse deeper into the box rather than on the line to blitz. The blitz came from the weak side, where Kaaya thought he had his split running back open along the sideline before Jadar made the easy read and interception:
Next: quarters coverage with a spy and 3 man rush vs Oklahoma. Watch Kearse spy Baker Mayfield then rush and force Mayfield back into the pocket when the he starts to roll outside:
Obviously, the difficulties in projecting how Clemson's dime will look this year stem from a lack of known commodities and the recovery of Korrin Wiggins; there are limited options to begin with, and quite a few contingencies with or without a healthy Wiggins.
If he returns, Wiggins could play nickel or box safety in the dime. Johnson could move down into the box safety role, but with Ryan Carter (current starter at nickel) listed as his backup at strong safety, we likely won't move Johnson down as we did with Kearse. I believe he and Van Smith will stay at home in their normal free and strong safety positions, respectively.
Carter will stay at nickel and Wiggins should play box safety. If Wiggins is not fully recovered by August -- since he's still not listed on the depth chart, we must assume right now he won't be -- it gets interesting.
Freshmen Isaiah Simmons at safety and Trayvon Mullen at corner will both avoid redshirts and take snaps early in the year. Mullen will join the battle at field corner to replace Mackensie Alexander (I still bet on Mark Fields here), but it is Simmons who I think will make a quicker impact due to this particular formation. With his length and athleticism, he is exactly what Venables wants from his 3rd down box safety.
Since Clemson uses the position to mainly blitz, cover underneath, or man up on a slot receiver/tight end, the risk of a bust is nothing compared to a safety in deep coverage. Without Wiggins, look for Simmons to step into Kearse's shoes on 3rd downs this fall and make his presence known. He has the physical skills to do everything Kearse did, and this role protects Clemson from the growing pains he will find as a safety on standard downs.
But bear in mind: that I pin these hopes on a player yet to even officially join the roster shows just how few known commodities remain in this secondary. I am firm in my belief that Wiggins is our first box safety if healthy. If not, this is how I expect Venables to keep up the pressure on 3rd downs:
Pass defense is without a doubt my biggest concern for the entire 2016 Clemson squad, but in writing this article I found reason for optimism. The lineup shown above is not a bad personnel grouping at all. It is the depth in the secondary where I now find my worry. Between the reliability found in Tankersley, Johnson, (hopefully) Wiggins, and even Smith and Carter, Clemson can continue its exotic blitz looks and subsequent 3rd down success. If nothing else, Venables has more than earned the benefit of the doubt.