We won the national championship so it is hard not to just march through these reviews and give everything an A+++. Overall the secondary wasn’t the strength of this team, but it held up in the end. I would be pretty hard on the Safeties/Nickel/SAM position if I was doing that review because of the chunk yardage and busts that still happened and the inability to find a player who could stay on the field at SAM (O’Daniel finally won the confidence of coaches in the end but when he went out with that targeting call—it looked bad). Jadar Johnson stepped up, however, and provided a ball hawking presence. At corner it was a mixed bag, but the key is that our corners almost never got beat over the top. The corners rarely got burned in man coverage for long touchdowns. Of course, we did commit an inordinate amount of penalties.
What did we get right??
In the season preview I said we were going to be alright and that we would be thin and inexperienced, give up some plays, but ultimately the position wouldn’t be the weakness of the defense.
The question was just how much we were going to miss Alexander. Cordrea Tankersly had 4 interceptions, 11 passes defended, and 52 tackles. But Tank made Venables scheme go, especially in the secondary. The defense started to run more Quarters looks, which are really a kind of Cover 7 where Tankersly is isolated one on one with the top receiver on outside coverage and the rest of the secondary plays a game of 3 on 2 where they pass defenders off to each other based on the route. The scheme can be complicated because you can leave Tank on an island.
Tank also was a special teams contributor on kickoff coverage for much of the season. I think we will miss some of his quiet leadership, work ethic, and example next season.
Tank still got a bit grabby at times and committed his share of penalties, but I loved this gem from PFF’s All-American team analysis (Tank was an All-American selection for PFF):
Tankersley’s coverage numbers this year are pretty eye opening, allowing a catch on 44.6 percent of the passes thrown into his coverage, giving up just 259 yards and one touchdown over the year, while picking off three passes and breaking up seven more. All that adds up to an NFL passer rating of 42.2 on throws into his coverage. King was targeted just 45 times in coverage, giving up just 18 receptions for 224 yards and coming away with two interceptions and eight pass breakups over the course of the year. A complete defender, he also excelled against the run.
Tank was extremely valuable and he did it against some of the top competition, shutting down guys like Bucky Hodges and Calvin Ridley. We got this one right.
Adrian Baker. Said the guy wouldn’t be a meaningful contributor this year despite Dabo saying he was going to ready and back by October or November. Sometimes Dabo uses the media to encourage players and create a positive vibe, so please don’t always take his words as gospel truth, especially when it comes to injuries. There is a method to the madness, however, and I believe he was trying to help Baker. Got this one 100% correct.
Marcus Edmond was poised to be a potential breakout player of the year until a hamstring injury set him back during Fall camp. Edmond turned out to be a decent backup during the season. He showed up in the biggest of moments for this team though. 11 tackles against Louisville, including the game clincher and his only interception of the season to beat NC State—pretty remarkable. Edmond only made 20 tackles on the season, but seemed to flash at the right time (a key TFL against Ohio State, for example). For a guy who only played 53 snaps his entire career coming into the year, he definitely made an impact.
Mark Fields. I was surprised to see that I wasn’t higher on Fields entering the season. I said this:
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.
Fields has now taken 410 snaps in his career, 332 this season alone, but he has less than stellar numbers. Only 14 tackles, 3 passes defended, and one interception in junk time on a poorly thrown ball up at BC (he did take the ball to the house though!) on the season. Fields also committed way too many PIs and was part of a revolving door of players at the field corner position trying not to called for the next penalty. Part of that is ACC refs targeting Clemson’s physical play in the secondary, but part of it was just poor technique.
Fields needs to learn to trust his technique with the ball in the air, not grab, and get his head turned around to make a play on the ball. Too many times he got caught on underthrown balls making too much contact because he didn’t have the awareness or body control needed. His other problem this year was not getting off blocks or setting the edge. He did not look good in his limited time against Alabama where he was consistently getting reached and losing contain. This will be a big offseason for him. I am disappointed that I was right that Fields would struggle this year.
Trayvon Mullen. I was a bit too bullish on Mullen. With the injury to Edmond I saw Mullen splitting reps with Fields and Carter. He didn’t have the impact that I thought he could as a true freshman, especially with the positive reviews coming out of camp. I underestimated the role Carter would play at Corner. Mullen did pull 115 snaps and made 16 tackles, but didn’t compete for first team snaps much of the season. He still has the best overall corner package with length, height, and size and will be needed to take more snaps next season (if not start at the boundary position). He was a special teams contributor this season on kickoffs.
Ryan Carter. This guy just keeps proving me wrong. Here is what I said:
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.
I wasn’t completely off, but he took those early season snaps and didn’t look back. His stats aren’t glowing or anything, 30 tackles, 7 PDs, 1 INT, but they are more than passable. I still think he is ideally suited to play Safety or Nickel and is better protected when playing the field position, but we will need him as a Senior at corner next year unless recruits AJ Terrell or LeAnthony Williams come in and blow up.
Carter played with better technique this year than in the past and still isn’t afraid to come and stick his nose in the run game.
K’Von Wallace. Said in the preview that he would avoid a redshirt and be a jack of all trades. He ended up logging 109 snaps (the redshirt wasn’t wasted). He splashed a bit midseason. He had an interception against NC State and was used situationally in some packages. O’Daniel started being used more than him as the season progressed. Dabo compared Wallace to Marcus Gilchrist and I still believe that is an apt comparison. If Wallace can add some muscle in the offseason and carve out a role, he can be a very valuable Nickel/Safety player next year.
This was the preseason conclusion:
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.
Certainly FSU, Louisville, and maybe Pitt (although this was more about missed assignments and not on the corners as much) gave the corners problems. Clemson continued to have late game breakdowns (more in the 3rd Q this year) and give up more chunk plays than you want.
The corners held up as a unit though. I think we were fortunate in the post-season to not go against any teams that could consistently challenge our secondary down the field. It played to our strengths. Next year we will miss Tank and don’t have a lockdown corner returning on defense. You need to fill JJ’s Safety position, but to really keep Venables scheme aggressive, you need a lockdown corner you trust. For that reason I have Tank as the most important position/player to replace for the defense this offseason.
Oh, I am supposed to give a grade. Well, Tank gets an A and everyone else is like a B- or C+, which balances out to an 87.5. This means if you come and whine to me I will make it a B+, but it should probably be a B.