Surprisingly, safety is likely 2016’s most improved position group relative to 2015; which isn’t at all what one would expect after replacing two NFL draftees at the position. Sure, optimism called for the expected drop-off in athleticism and run support to be more than made up for by the assertion that the ultimately fatal busts would diminish. Jadar Johnson was a rock in deep coverage all year and Van Smith improved after a shaky start to prove this assertion true:
On the surface it seems Clemson will take a clear step back in pass defense, but when one considers how the safeties were grossly overrated a year ago and the potential depth of this year’s squad, it likely won’t be the step back many think. Kearse’s production nosedived along with his draft stock in the second half of the season, and while Green was a heat-seeking missile, the majority of the crippling busts were on him. It’s more likely we see a trade-off in run support for better coverage in the back — a welcome development considering an opponent’s only hope to defeat Clemson is to try and outscore them through the air.
I was more cautious than most; I didn’t think the busts would suddenly vanish with less-experienced replacements and I rightfully feared Smith would take his lumps in run support and in man coverage situations. Smith steadily improved, and most importantly stayed healthy, but the true revelation in the backend was the sudden breakout of Johnson into an All-ACC performer and unquestioned team captain.
Johnson provided the consistent, sound coverage we hoped for, with the ball-hawking athleticism he supposedly lacked. His 5 interceptions led the team and almost always were jaw-dropping, crucial picks. I will forever hold a soft spot for him for not being discouraged by a far too low snap count, in hindsight, before this final season; for his honest takes on opponent QB talent or lack thereof; and most of all, for his farewell speech:
JADAR WINS MY JUST-NOW-MADE-UP UNSUNG HERO AWARD.
Muse found snaps in garbage time and in spot duty, but made a real impact with his play on special teams to complement his 24 tackles and interception touchdown against Syracuse. Muse has the speed and measurables Venables craves, and a solid redshirt freshman season under his belt should leave him adequately prepared to fill Johnson’s suddenly humongous shoes.
Smith put on serviceable weight last offseason and it allowed him to hold up on the field, totaling over 100 tackles. I felt my skepticism in his ability was vindicated after getting trucked by NC State’s QB in the open field, but Smith closed nicely down the stretch (only the one bust against Alabama comes to mind) with 5.5 TFLs and 2 interceptions to boot.
Another offseason to work on speed and strength should help Smith continue to progress on the field. This is a sophomore with fewer than 100 snaps to his name who made the leap to over 100 tackles without a serviceable backup, all while playing the most difficult (both due to mental strain and potential for disaster) position in Venables’ aggressive cover 4.
The biggest question mark on the team became one of its most pleasant surprises. The safety position is why Clemson is not your current two-time reigning national champions; to lose two NFL starters and actually see an improved product the following year (en route to the title) is a marvel of coaching and player ownership.
Johnson emerged as a leader and a star in his final year of eligibility, and Smith provided the steadiness Clemson lacked in 2015. Combine their performance with the promise Muse displayed, and there is a strong starting lineup in the defensive backfield in 2017. Relative to preseason expectations, safeties exceeded those expectations more than any other position group.