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Spring Football Preview: Defensive Questions

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Clemson should field an even stronger defense in 2017, but it is not without questions.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2014, Brent Venables’ unit returns mostly intact and with far more known commodities than unknown. The coach who successfully reloaded NFL draft-decimated defenses in both 2015 and 2016 to launch Clemson on national title runs now enjoys a bevy of experienced talent. With 7 starters returning, many expect a season similar to 2014 (in terms of both defensive potential and the new faces on offense) in which Clemson rode the nation’s top-ranked defense to a 10-3 record.

While there is less depth at defensive tackle than I would prefer after Scott Pagano’s graduation and subsequent transfer, there should be far more overall depth than Clemson enjoyed in either 2015 or 2016. As such, most of my questions have to do with key replacements and depth chart reshuffling. All things considered, this should be the most interesting spring in years.

Who are the backups on the defensive line?

Clemson’s line excelled over the last few seasons due to extremely talented depth at defensive tackle and outstanding positional coaching from Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby. Minus Pagano, there’s less depth in the middle than previously expected; minus Brooks and Hobby, the coaching at the very least is no longer a constant. This is a make-or-break offseason for Jabril Robinson and Sterling Johnson, who risk further underclassmen surpassing them on the depth chart. I am eager to see Albert Huggins’ and Nyles Pinckney’s rumored progression, since I expect each to be the first two off the bench after Wilkins and Lawrence and therefore contribute meaningful snaps. Will they progress enough to mitigate the drop-off behind the starters?

Who replaces Ben Boulware?

There is only one hole to fill at linebacker, but it is the gaping hole left by the legendary Ben Boulware at Will. Starting Mike linebacker Kendall Joseph is reportedly splitting time at Mike and Will, leaving the door open for Tre Lamar to make his case at Mike and thus push Joseph to Will. Meanwhile, Shaq Smith is a monster of a man after his redshirt and should be the presumptive favorite at Will — assuming the aforementioned position change does not materialize. Jamie Skalski is also pushing at Will, and regardless of the shuffling and eventual pecking order, Mike and Will should be in good hands among these four men.

At Sam, Dorian O’Daniel is entrenched and should log even more snaps since he proved his reliability and versatility, particularly in the postseason. O’Daniel can keep Clemson in the 4-3 more often than not, without needing to sub for a nickel corner. Chad Smith is training at all three linebacker positions, and could serve as a “glue” player instead of merely a special teams demon. Jalen Williams has served as the emergency glue player at Will and Sam in relief of both Boulware and O’Daniel these past two years, but I’ll look for a better athletic fit to fill this role.

Will anyone emerge as clear starters at corner?

Based on the size Venables covets, I look for Trayvon Mullen and AJ Terrell to take all of the meaningful snaps boundary corner. While obviously light on experience, these two are the best athletic options to replace Cordrea Tankersley’s size and speed; their technique and aggression will determine how well his shoes are filled.

Field corner is as it was all of 2016, wide open and likely manned by committee once again. Undersized yet fiery Ryan Carter has worked his way from a “5 heart” to reliable fan favorite. Marcus Edmond is the slightest body, but his game-winning plays against Louisville and NC State leave no doubt of his ability to play above himself in the clutch. Mark Fields is the best athlete, but technique and emotion have limited his workload. The battle between these three is one of the most interesting races between now and August.

Who replaces Jadar Johnson?

Replacing Jadar Johnson is the most intriguing and most difficult question for me on this defense. Tanner Muse had himself an excellent end to the season, but will he continue to back up Van Smith at free safety or will he move to strong safety? Based on last year’s depth chart, it would seem Denzel Johnson is next man up at SS. If so, I expect this would open the door for the prototypically-built Isaiah Simmons to supplant him. To answer these questions I look for the known commodities. Muse and Smith are the only proven, experienced safeties, so of course I favor moving Muse to the strong side to put each on the field together. The wildcard here is Simmons.

Is it unfair to hope for transfers?

Forgive me while I steal Dr Quacking Tiger’s thunder here, but it’s one of my biggest questions this entire season...

I am loath to critique anything the staff has done lately, even regarding roster management; obviously things have worked better than imagined. As an alumnus, I love the commitment Coach Swinney embodies by not forcing non-contributors out of the program like we see elsewhere. I love that Clemson and Swinney take the high road. But I don’t consider it selfish to hope for more space in the 2018 recruiting class.

There’s no class more impacted by the national championship than the one that follows it, and to sign fewer than 15 players again is more tragic than it is inexcusable. The 2018 class will almost certainly be the most talented class — based on average rating per player — in school history by a comfortable margin. But as of now it may only have room for 10 or 11 players, which I regret to say is indeed poor roster management. Such a small class next winter would extend beyond this gripe; it would be the biggest wasted recruiting opportunity in program history.

I expect a few early-draftees (Wilkins, Hyatt, and Cain are the most likely), but the best case scenario for the sake of the program is for those buried on the depth chart to transfer for playing time elsewhere. Attrition in college sports naturally has a stigma, but this year any attrition has this silver lining: it would allow Clemson more room to leverage its brand -- currently at an all-time high — in the elite 2018 class.

PROJECTED TWO DEEP

Note: Clemson does not flip its defensive ends to the strong or weak side of the field like it does with the back 7 (Sam, Will, and secondary align on their respective short or wide side each snap). The “weak side” DE aligns across from the left tackle; the “strong side” DE across from the right tackle, no matter which is the actual strong or weak side.

WDE (RE): Clelin Ferrell, Xavier Kelly
DT: Dexter Lawrence, Nyles Pinckney
DT: Christian Wilkins, Albert Huggins
SDE (LE): Austin Bryant, Richard Yeargin

Will: Shaq Smith, Jamie Skalski
Mike: Kendall Joseph, Tre Lamar
Sam: Dorian O’Daniel, Chad Smith

Boundary Corner: Trayvon Mullen, AJ Terrell
Field Corner: Ryan Carter, Mark Fields
Strong Safety: Tanner Muse, Isaiah Simmons
Free Safety: Van Smith, Tanner Muse
Nickel (replaces Sam in 4-2-5): Ryan Carter, K’Von Wallace
Dime Box Safety (replaces DT in 3-2-6): Isaiah Simmons, K’Von Wallace