Ever since Brent Venables came on as defensive coordinator back in 2012, the linebacker play at Clemson has improved tremendously during his tenure. They’ve been transformed into some of the best leaders for the defense and are often one of its top playmakers. In 2016, Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph continued that trend, as both were major reasons for Clemson’s continued defensive success. Coming into 2017, some new faces will be on display.
While the defense loses Boulware, Kendall Joseph will be returning. The redshirt junior was the more understated of the Tigers’ two starting linebackers (and perhaps the most consistent) last season, finishing as the second-leading tackler while being tied for first in tackles for loss. Joseph was a guy coaches talked about since he was a freshman, and even stated that he was potentially primed to beat 2015 starter B.J. Goodson as a redshirt freshman had he not gone down with an AC joint injury in August camp.
To nail home how big a deal that is, Goodson was drafted by the New York Giants in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Now, with the emotional leader in Boulware gone, the Belton, South Carolina native is the undisputed leader of Clemson’s linebackers. After holding down the Mike spot all of last season, Joseph is moving to Boulware’s old spot at Will, where he should continue to excel. In fact, he should actually be an upgrade at the position, as he is better at Boulware athletically and his ability to play in space. But if Joseph is making the move to WILL, who would take over his position at Mike?
Look no further than sophomore Tre Lamar.
Rated as one of the nation’s top linebackers in last year’s recruiting class, Lamar mainly saw time on special teams, though he still logged valuable snaps last season as a true freshman. During the spring, the Roswell, Ga. native worked exclusively at MIKE, while Joseph worked mainly at Will. Clemson often cross trains its linebackers the same way it does with their receivers, but it appears that Lamar is going to take that next step and could be slated to start the season at middle linebacker. As the quarterback of the defense, Lamar certainly has the athletic ability to succeed in the role, though orchestrating and having knowledge of the defense is just as crucial (if not more so) than athleticism.
Fortunately, having a smart and instinctive guy Joseph who played all of last season in the middle should help Lamar grow into the role. Having gone through a full year as a true freshman and getting a full offseason will help with that. The spring game showed promising signs, as the rising sophomore finished third on the White Team in tackles (6) and looked very improved from a season ago.
In addition, the Tigers return senior and Yellow Jacket killer Dorian O’Daniel. Often playing in Venables’ flex nickelback/linebacker position, O’Daniel has carved out a role as one of Clemson’s best players in run support. While he can be questionable in pass coverage, his athletic ability and versatility are essential in Venables’ ability to throw different looks at opposing quarterbacks. Look for O’Daniel to continue thriving in his flex role once again alongside the Joseph-Lamar duo.
The question facing this group will be establishing depth behind these three main guys. Junior Jalen Williams will continue playing a role as a reserve, though he has been plagued with inconsistency at times, particularly in pass coverage. When O’Daniel was ejected in the ACC Championship game against Virginia Tech, he had difficulty defending wheel routes and looked overwhelmed in coverage. With talented players behind him, Williams needs to be a bit more consistent to increase confidence in depth.
Then, there are the Davis twins in J.D. and Judah Davis. Both are often spring game champions, though both aren’t lacking in size and athleticism. J.D. even logged 80 snaps last season, which was only about 20 less than Lamar. Both have seen most of their time on special teams, and should continue to see most of their time there barring injury. Given the need for proven depth, both could always make surprise pushes at reserve roles.
In addition to them, young guys like Shaq Smith (who was a surprise redshirt last season), James Skalski, and Chad Smith will also be pushing for playing time and a spot at the rotation in 2017.
All in all, the likely starting core of Joseph, Lamar, and O’Daniel should be a strong one for Clemson. Talent remains behind them, but much of it remains young and untested in game time situations. Look for guys like Shaq Smith to make a push at playing time, while guys like Williams and the Davis brothers hold down the fort as the main reserve roles.