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2016 Clemson Football Season Preview: Cornerbacks

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NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Oklahoma vs Clemson Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Guys, I think we are going to be alright.

To be clear I’ve gone back and forth on this preview, but I’m ultimately at peace with this analysis. Clemson is thin and inexperienced, the corners will give up some plays, but overall they won’t be the weakness of the defense.

Returning Starters:

Gone is the great Mack Alexander and long may the swagger with which he regaled the masses reign! Seriously, of course we are going to miss this guy, but the question is just how much??

Once again at the boundary corner position you have Sr. Cordrea Tankersley. The lone returning starter at corner. He should once again be the standout in the secondary. Last year he led the team with 5 interceptions and 9 pass breakups. Tankersley was also targeted more than any other corner early in the season, but he consistently held up on an island. He was one of the players Brent Venables needed to step up last year and he did.

In spades.

He was durable, logged a ton of snaps, and had 43.5 tackles on the season. He is long and holds up well at the point of attack. Cordrea is everything BV wants from his corners and his technique should improve slightly this year.

Who Plays Opposite Cordrea?

This has been one of the more intriguing storylines throughout fall camp. Are our corners underachieving or are our WRs just that good? Who is going to grab hold of this position with Auburn looming?

Jr. Adrian Baker seemed set to be the starter despite his lack of physicality at the point of attack. Another offseason would allow him to gain another 5-10 pounds to hold up over the entire season. He went down in the Spring with an ACL injury and is supposed to be back in October or November. Again, this is extremely optimistic and for a corner needing to make cuts, in addition to playing more physical, he won’t be a meaningful contributor this year.

Exiting Spring, Jr. Marcus Edmond was actually the starter at the field position. Edmond has barely seen the field during his career at Clemson, logging 2 tackles all of last year, but was poised to be the ‘newly dedicated breakout’ candidate of the offseason. That progress ground to a halt with a hamstring injury that kept him out of all of fall camp. He returned to action this week. While he has had the most time in the system, he really doesn’t have that much actual game experience.

This allowed So. Mark Fields and true Fr. Trayvon Mullen to get the majority of first team reps.

Mark Fields had a disappointing freshman campaign, despite being a heralded 4* recruit. He possess elite speed and physicality, but couldn’t put things together mentally. Fields also needs to improve his ball skills, sometimes he loses track of the ball in coverage and doesn’t have the best hands.

Trayvon Mullen came to Clemson in the summer. He shocked many in the recruiting world by picking Clemson over FSU and LSU. What a huge steal that is turning out to be with Auburn quickly approaching. Recruiting services had mixed feelings on Mullen after a lackluster US Army All-American all-star game. There were questions about his ability to stick at corner and need to gain weight. Well, after arriving in the summer in the 170’s, Mullen jumped up to 187 pounds. None of this was bad weight.

Mullen is competitive, long and strong. He has played his entire life as a corner and has been schooled by great high school coaching. He isn’t an athlete trying to play corner, he is a DB. He hasn’t shirked from the challenge of going up against the likes of Mike Williams and Deon Cain in practice.

Next you have a guy like Jr. Ryan Carter. He is your backup at multiple positions including Nickel, Corner, and even Safety. Carter is limited because of his height, but he is usually in position and plays scrappy, physical defense. Not someone you want starting all season, but a solid guy coming off the bench. Early in the season he will get reps, though, because he has the trust of the coaching staff.

The wildcard is K’von Wallace, another true freshman making waves. K’von will avoid a redshirt and is currently splitting time between corner and safety. His ultimate position is still to be determined and that determination will connect with other personnel decisions (like how much Nickel is being played and how Korrin Wiggins continues to progress). K’von is more of an athlete right now, but he is very instinctual and hasn’t been overwhelmed by installation. I think Dabo’s comparison to Marcus Gilchrist is spot on, he has that kind of talent and versatility, its not hyperbole.

OUTLOOK

Cordrea starts and continues his quality play.

The other corners were challenged in camp and had a bad second scrimmage. However, Fields was specifically stressed and targeted during that scrimmage. BV wasn’t too happy with the overall effort from the defense, but he has since said that none of the corners played awful football. Guys weren’t busting and out of position, these were just competitive plays being made by the WRs. As the DC, you can live with that in the grand scheme of things.

Unless Edmond just comes on at the end of camp I see Fields and Mullen splitting time with Carter who will get a decent amount of reps at Auburn with his experience. We’ll see how the week progresses, but normally you want your more veteran guys, which means Fields and Carter. At Auburn you want the most disciplined player, but also someone at the field corner who is going to be physical presence on short passes, bubble screens, and jet sweep action. I think the position will evolve from on-the-field performance more than anything though. I’m excited about Mullen’s future at the position.

We aren’t doomed at corner, but this is a position that will be stressed throughout the season because of an evolving pass rush and LBs who generally aren’t great in pass coverage. But really, only FSU and Louisville have QBs on the schedule that could pick apart our secondary. The bigger problem for Clemson has been busted assignments and mental and physical fatigue in the 4th quarter. Certainly the busts should diminish this season and hopefully enough depth can be established. Overall the corner play will go down a bit without Mack, but the secondary as a unit should decrease those chunk plays.