It certainly is nice doing position reviews when your team has won the National Championship. Nobody has to look at a group and say, “well, this weakness eventually cost us.” This team had a few weak points, some of which falls in my position group, but you don’t win the whole thing and go through Ohio State and Alabama to do it if you have some glaring weakness on your team. This team was very good top to bottom. All hail the 2016 Clemson Tigers!
Clemson once again experienced great fortune with health at the LB position. The starters were able to log nearly every meaningful snap beyond one game where Boulware was held out as a precaution. There is no doubt Brent Venables leans very heavily on his starters at this position group.
WILL (weakside) Linebacker: Ben Boulware (882 snaps, 131 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 PBU, 12 QB pressures): My nickname for Boulware is “The Boss.” Ben finished his senior season as one of the most decorated players in Clemson history. Ben took home first team All ACC honors, co-defensive player of the year, and defensive MVP of the title game along with some other major awards and recognition for All American teams, ESPN top 50, etc. There were a few cringe worthy moments where Ben got caught in man coverage where he isn’t the greatest, but those moments were sparse and offset by a total focus and intensity which allowed a defense replacing six guys (5 underclassmen) who were NFL draft picks from the previous season to actually be BETTER. Jeff “the Judge” Davis was the heart and soul of the 1981 team, and Ben was the heart and soul of this one. Neither guy is/was a guy with the super measureables, but usually the very best leaders are guys who completely maximize their talent and inspire others to do so as well. Ben capped off his amazing season and career with one of the most epic speeches of all time on the stage in Tampa, something ranking up there with any classic Steve Austin, Ric Flair, or “The Rock” mic moments in pro wrestling. This guy will be missed and leaves some huge shoes to fill next season. Like Ben said on Twitter, “The separation is in the preparation.”
Jalen Williams (214 snaps, 24 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU, 1 QB pressure): I put Jalen here, though he logged a lot of time at SAM this season, because he took the starter snaps at WILL when Boulware was held out. Williams actually had better numbers in 2015, but his role was bigger this season when he wasn’t limited by injury himself. Williams is lauded for his football acumen and versatility which helps offset being undersized. It would be a mistake to not consider him a real factor to nab a starting position next year even with more highly recruited and more physically gifted guys going after this spot. Coach Venables’ trust is not easily won and Williams has it beyond several other guys, at least entering the spring of 2017.
James Skalski (20 snaps, 14 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QB pressure, 8 special teams tackles): Skalski is already being considered a Boulware 2.0 and his brief action on the defense didn’t sway that notion for me. He had just one sack, but it was perhaps the most brutal sack of the season as he absolutely smoked the SC State QB. Skalksi was a major reason the kick coverage was so much better in 2016 and offers a lot of promise heading into his sophomore season.
Chad Smith (20 snaps, 19 tackles, 10 special teams tackles): Chad began showing some of the promise that had many Tiger fans so excited when he signed. Though his role on the defense was very limited, Chad was a major factor on kick coverage and tied Tanner Muse for the team lead with 10 tackles on that end. I’m not sure where Chad will be slotted in the spring, as he could compete at the WILL or MIKE spots (or even SAM?). You can definitely argue Clemson would have been the 2015 champs with decent kick coverage and Smith and Skalksi were big cogs in making that a reality in 2016.
MIKE (middle) linebacker Kendall Joseph (930 snaps, 124 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 16 QB pressures): The biggest shoes to fill from 2015 were left by B.J. Goodson, who was big time on his way to All ACC honors and a 4th round draft selection by the NY Giants. Kendall Joseph quietly stepped in and put up similar numbers to Goodson’s senior campaign. The best news is Joseph is returning to anchor the middle of the defense next season. Joseph logged an insane number of snaps which might lead folks to question the depth here, but Goodson came on after very limited duty in 2014 and was a major force in 2015. Venables just leans on his starters at LB and rotates it a lot less than other positions.
Tre Lamar (102 snaps, 22 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU): Lamar got some experience as a true freshman five star recruit, though not nearly as much as many (including myself) foresaw in the fall. Lamar flashed that talent when he was in the game, however, and delivered some punishment in the run game. Lamar got burned by inexperience in a few moments, most notably in the NCST game, but there is plenty to be excited about with Lamar and his future. The goal would have to be working towards 30-40% of the snap load at MIKE next year. If he really comes on, there is the chance Joseph could slide to WILL in an effort to get the best three guys on the field. This isn’t unprecedented as Venables has moved guys like Stephone Anthony and B.J. Goodson from one year to the next to get them on the field.
SAM (strong side) Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (479 snaps, 60 tackles, 10 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU, 6 QB pressures): Dorian O’Daniel went from being the designated GT option wrecker on the defense to the featured SAM linebacker on the defense. His versatility allowed Clemson to play far less nickle defense (using a corner or safety at SAM) this season compared to 2015. He was particularly important against spread teams with a running quarterback, like VT, and his absence was felt when he was sent off for targeting in the ACC Championship. There is no reason to think D’OD won’t be a major factor on next year’s defense and probably log even more snaps than his career high 479 from 2016. Paul Johnson should be thrilled! I expect Jalen Williams to be the primary backup here when Coach Venables doesn’t go nickle or dime but we will see who else gets a look in the spring.
Redshirt report: Shaq Smith comes off his redshirt looking like a Greek God. He will certainly be a person of interest in the competition this spring. There is a lot of talent in the linebacker corps for 2017, but that leadership and heart void left by Boulware can’t be underestimated. Shaq has the personality to emerge in his area as he grows in the program.
Coaching: What can you say about Brent V that hasn’t already been said? The guy just gets it done no matter who departs the program. The development at his position group has been impressive, as guys like Anthony, Shuey, Steward, Goodson, and Boulware all became major forces before they were done in the program. The consistency and production, All-ACC recognition, etc, speak for themselves. The days of lamenting the leaky LB play during the Vic Koenning and Kevin Steele eras seem like a distant memory now. Kendall Joseph is just the latest name to seemingly come out of nowhere to put up monster numbers. The question is who will be the next new name?
GRADE: A (only a few coverage issues from an A+)