The first step in projecting any position group’s performance is to try and qualify talent with returning experience; counting returning starters shows less and less the more a position’s snaps are distributed. This is how many correctly guessed Clemson’s safety play would improve in 2016, even though both 2015 starters moved on to the NFL. A year ago, strong safety Jadar Johnson was a 5th year senior with plenty of knowledge and experience; then-sophomore free safety Van Smith was already seen as a fundamental upgrade at the position. Very rarely did we see the sort of deep coverage busts through which Clemson suffered in 2015, and when Clemson only busted one long touchdown to OJ Howard instead of several, the Tigers defeated Alabama for the national championship.
Here in 2017, Clemson returns even more experience plus a starter, and the depth is as talented and versatile as Venables could hope.
#19 Tanner Muse, Redshirt Sophomore, 6’2”, 220
Muse redshirted in 2015 and spent 2016 as Smith’s primary backup at free safety. He is expected to be the physical force on the back end of Clemson’s defense thanks to a freshman campaign in which he gradually grew more comfortable and earned an increasing number of snaps throughout the year, culminating in 4th quarter snaps in the national championship game. To play even a single snap late against Alabama is a bonafide cause for optimism on its own. Muse has been refreshingly critical of his 2016 performances when watching film, and this sort of self-awareness bodes well for his development.
#11 Isaiah Simmons, Redshirt Freshman, 6’3”, 223
Simmons embodies the outstanding length, athletism, and versatility Venables covets and is thus the player with the highest upside at either safety position. Also among the frontrunners to start at nickel, Simmons likely earns snaps at box safety in the dime defense in addition to his duties at either safety position and nickel. I for one am most excited to see Simmons in live action, since he is such a tantalizing prospect who can make an impact from essentially three different positions. Evidenced by the disappointing need for a redshirt, his development is limited only by his consistency and mental dependability — once the proverbial light comes on, Simmons can be an elite defender.
#23 Van Smith, Junior, 5’11” 191
Smith was something of a surprise in 2016 in that he turned out to be such an upgrade over a departed 2nd round draft pick. While not as physically imposing, Smith was rarely out of position and flies the alley extremely well, usually delivering a good thump while securing the tackle. In pass defense, Smith struggled when isolated in man coverage early in the year, but is an outstanding zone defender. Busts were few and far between, and even the most obvious mistake — releasing OJ Howard on a fake screen wheel — was due more to over-aggression than simply busting a coverage.
Smith is precisely the sort of heady defender Venables wants anchoring his backfield, and I’d compare him to 2014’s Robert Smith in that regard, but with much more physical upside. Considering the strength of Clemson’s front 7 — and opponent’s likely reluctance to run into it — Smith likely will see his tackle total drop this season, but have far more opportunities to track down errant throws downfield.
#14 Denzel Johnson, Redshirt Sophomore, 6’0” 202
Here is where Clemson will feel the loss of graduate transfer Korrin Wiggins and the shocking Xavier McKinney to Alabama commitment this offseason. Behind Smith, there is no clear solution at the position; in fact, Ryan Carter took second strip snaps at the position in the last fall camp scrimmage. Johnson redshirted in 2015 and labored through 2016 on special teams, highlighted by this hilarious fumble recovery TD against SC State. He earned garbage time snaps late in blowouts, but didn’t make the gains required to alleviate strength concerns in the spring or offseason. Were Smith to fall prey to injury, it’s likely Clemson employs one or many of its cross-trained options like K’Von Wallace, Simmons, Muse, or even freshman AJ Terrell in a pinch. Johnson will likely continue to earn garbage time snaps this season, but any further contribution would be a welcome step forward in his development.