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2016 Clemson Football Season Preview: Linebackers

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Let's take a look at Coach Venables and his corps of linebackers heading into 2016.

Straight Boss
Straight Boss
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I'm hoping I don't have to go back and do a major revision on this article before it publishes like last year when Korie Rogers just quit out of nowhere during fall camp.  Luckily, that (along with Kendall Joseph's injury) didn't end up haunting the team, as Ben Boulware, who is a freaking boss, and B.J. Goodson did iron man work at the position and earned All-ACC honors along the way.  That linebacker room got a lot nastier with the additions of five star Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith, not to mention Boulware 2.0 in Jamie Skalski, who has made a push to play as a true freshman.  This has got to be refreshing for Coach Brent Venables, after no doubt holding his breath most of last year as Boulware and Goodson logged ridiculous snap counts.  Hopefully, improved depth will help cut down on some of the gap busts that led to big plays given up last year.  With the offense this team has, the defense just needs to make the other side earn it and things will be just fine.  So, without further ado, let's take a look at the position breakdowns.

SAM (Strong Side Linebacker): Projected Starter:  rs Jr. Dorian O'Daniel (181 snaps, 32 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 PBU in 2015)

O'Daniel finally sits atop the depth chart after plugging away as a backup and special teams demon the last two years. He already is the resident GT wrecker, having had two tremendous games against the Jackets, but now he hopes to be the jack of all trades that this position really requires in Coach V's defense. He can play the run and is fast/quick enough to handle slot and tight end coverage (clocked sub 4.5 this summer). I've always been a fan of "DOD" and am looking forward to his getting extended playing time. A true SAM is essential against teams like Auburn who run spread sets but try to run at you the majority of the time.  He brings the second most snap experience to the corps behind Boulware (not counting Wiggins from 2014) and will be a major cog in the machine as a redshirt junior. You would have to say he is an upgrade to the Blanks/Carter combination that handled this duty last season.

Depth: rs Jr. Korrin Wiggins (521 snaps, 40 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 2 interceptions in 2014)

Wiggins is coming off that knee injury that took him out of 2015 and is still rounding into shape.  Should the injury bug not hit, the staff should be able to ease him back into the mix.  Wiggins is a very heady player who logged a ton of snaps in 2014, though he isn't a real playmaker as DOD nearly matched his tackle total in 2014 with a fraction of the snap load.  Of course, doing your freaking job is not to be underestimated and Wiggins was that type of guy and should be again when he sees the field.  Wiggins also has seen work at safety, but I would suspect he will log most of his action at SAM as he works to regain full mobility.  A healthy Wiggins gives the defense a great depth boost and much needed experience to a talented but untested group.

soph. Jalen Williams (85 snaps, 15 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks in 2015)

Williams was called on to play very little in 2015 and the vast majority of his action came in the Wake Forest game when Boulware first hurt his shoulder and was held out of that mismatch. He is undersized for Will, so the move to SAM makes more sense, though I suspect he might be the backup Will should something happen to Boulware early on in the season. Williams does have a nose for the football and isn't afraid to go flying in looking for action, but he isn't able to hold up on blocks like bigger LB's and can get swallowed up in that regard. It is doubtful Williams ever becomes a major cog in the defense but he can find a role as a backup here and a special teams demon.  Shaq Smith's development will determine how much, if any, Williams plays Will in addition to SAM work he might draw.

(Note: Obviously this spot will see some action by defensive backs like Ryan Carter and K'von Wallace in pure nickle situations so I am not counting them as linebackers here.)

WILL (Weak Side Linebacker): Projected Starter: Sr. Ben Boulware (850 snaps, 138 tackles, 8 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 7 PBU, 2 Interceptions in 2015: All-ACC).

The undisputed leader of the Clemson defense has to be Ben Boulware, who brings by far the most experience and production to the linebacker group. Boulware is a straight War Daddy, if such a term can apply to a non DL, and put together an All-ACC 2015 while playing with one arm the latter part of the season. Boulware has only added to his legend in the off-season by calling out doubters on Twitter, clowning the Sooners, and stealing the show at ACC media days with his wardrobe choice.  He is the heart and soul of this side of the ball and embodies the type of passion, physicality, and commitment his coordinator and position coach expects. Boulware will be called on once again to shoulder a heavy snap load as the depth behind him is seriously unproven.  His 2015 backup, as mentioned earlier, was Jalen Williams and might be again if, God forbid, something befall Ben in the early part of the season.

DEPTH: Soph. J.D. Davis (19 snaps, 6 tackles in 2015):  Yep, that's a Davis twin listed second team on the last official depth chart before fall camp.  I'm actually going to state for the record I am hoping one of these Davis twins emerges as a player and validates their place on the roster.  We'll get the "I told you so" stories from Coach Swinney, but I will take them gladly. The alternative is they eat two scholarships for the next three seasons in a Drew Traylor, Spencer Region fashion. That said, both Davis's saw heavy special teams action last year.  We'll see if they are a part of the supposedly revamped special teams units going into this season.  I really don't feel J.D. would be next up behind Ben, I suspect Jalen Williams would be at this point.

Fr. Shaq Smith:  I'm sure the vast majority of Tiger fans are looking at five star Shaq Smith as the heir apparent to Ben Boulware. That is certainly the outlook for the future, but the jury remains out if Smith will be deemed ready to take on that role this season.  Coach Venables has been hesitant to commit to Smith playing this year the way he has with Tre Lamar.  However, this could very well be motivational as it is hard to imagine Smith not playing as a true freshman.  He simply brings a physical presence that these other WILL candidates don't.  Not busting and being gap sound is all that stands in the way of Smith being firmly on the second team, but as of August 23, Smith is firmly on the redshirt bubble.  His natural pass rush ability should definitely come into play as the Will tends to blitz more than the other linebacker positions.  Hopefully, the reduction of the package that comes with game planning as opposed to camp will help Smith gain Coach V's trust.

MIKE (Middle Linebacker): Projected Starter: RS Soph. Kendall Joseph (63 snaps, 11 tackles in 2015).

One of the biggest holes to fill (no pun intended) in the 2016 defense is the one left by All-ACC performer and current New York Giant, B.J. Goodson at Mike.  It is hard to believe that Joseph was beating Goodson out for the starting job prior to suffering an injury that severely limited his 2015 action and production. Knowing the player Goodson was, Tiger fans can only be giddy over the prospect of a healthy Joseph being an upgrade at the position.  Of course, we all know things can change when the lights come on for real so the jury is clearly out on the upgrade thing.  I think I speak for nearly everyone in saying I will gladly take Goodson's production from Joseph in 2015. The best news here is Joseph won't have to shoulder nearly the snap load that Goodson had to last year.

DEPTH: Fr. Tre Lamar:  Big Tre is the reason Joseph can be spelled much more than Goodson was in 2015.  Lamar has looked every bit the five star prospect he was when he signed and enrolled early.  It is rare to hear the kind of praise out of Coach Venables, for a player this young, that we have heard this camp.  Lamar is an absolute physical specimen and is the prototype MIKE 'backer.  This is shaping up to be a situation similar to 2014 at WILL when Tony Steward and Ben Boulware were able to divide snaps at about a 60-40 rate.  Joseph and Lamar only have game experience to gain, but this position appears to be in very good hands for the next two to three years. Keeping a fresh body out there should help cut down on some of the problems in the run game we witnessed down the stretch in 2015.  Lamar could very well be the starter here by the end of the season and the battle should keep both players sharp.

RS Fr. Chad Smith: We have heard very little about the progress of Chad Smith as he comes off his redshirt year until a recent post practice Dabo interview when he discussed him.  There have been reports he has struggled with added weight as he's a stout 240 pounds now.  I was not even fully sure if he had been working at Will or Mike, but Swinney said he is "behind Tre" which means he's at MIKE now after beginning at WILL.  He wasn't listed on the last official depth chart.  Smith may very well become the type of player his four star rating suggested coming in, but it could be on the Eric Mac Lain or Kevin Dodd trajectory where patience is required.

Wild Card: Fr. Jamie Skalski:  I was with many others in feeling Skalski's hope to play as a true freshman would come if he could win the kickoff job.  However, he's gotten some love and appears to be on the bubble to play this year as a linebacker.  This is something to monitor because Skalski could very well emerge as a factor for depth at Will.

COACHING: Brent Venables has done a magnificent job turning the Clemson defense into a consistent top 10 performer after several years of underachievement in the Swinney era.  Even throughout the down years of the 1990s and early 2000s, most of Clemson's top talent could be found on this side of the ball.  Everything flipped when Chad Morris came to town and the offensive production took off like a rocket.  Now the program has found the balance required on both sides to seriously contend for the national title.

Elevation in recruiting has been a major part of this, but talent alone doesn't win and Coach V's efforts (along with his staff) should be commended.  Coach V has also provided a serious upgrade as a position coach for the linebackers over Kevin Steele. Clemson had ZERO All-ACC linebackers from 2009 to 2012 (continuing a trend from the Bowden era), but beginning in 2013, Clemson has had at least one first, second, or third team linebacker on the All ACC team (5 selections in the last three years). It hasn't just been guys like five star Stephone Anthony either, as lightly recruited Spencer Shuey was a third team selection in 2013 and B.J. Goodson was second team last year.  That speaks volumes to the upgrade Venables has provided at this position and the defense as a whole.  A defense approaching the top 10 this season should put Clemson in Tampa and cement Venables as one of the top 2 or 3 defensive coordinators in the land considering the roster turnover the last two seasons.