As I stated in my linebacker previews the last two seasons, Coach Brent Venables has taken a position that was a weakness from the time Anthony Waters blew out his knee in 2006 through the Kevin Steele era, to a strength of what have been powerful defenses at Clemson. Recently departed Ben Boulware continued to build upon the strong upward trend of the position begun by Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony through B.J. Goodson. Now the Tigers boast perhaps the greatest depth of talent at the position since the vaunted 1990-1991 units terrorized opponents. Clemson required some good fortune on the injury front the last two seasons as the starters played a heavy snap load, but that will likely be less of a concern heading into 2017. This defense has already begun to hear whispers of the vaunted 2014 unit which led the nation, and while Coach V won’t ever heap that type of praise on the front end, the expectations are extremely high for the ‘17 defense and with good reason.
Clemson employs a base 4-3 Over which designates a MIKE(middle linebacker), WILL(weakside linebacker), and a SAM (strongside linebacker). I do not include nickle package secondary guys, who will be covered in the CORNER/SAFETY previews.
MIKE: Projected Starter Soph. TRE LAMAR (102 snaps, 22 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 Sack, 1 PBU in 2016) Lamar got his feet wet backing up Kendall Joseph last year after coming to Clemson as a highly touted 5 star talent out of Roswell, Georgia. Lamar has the prototype NFL MIKE body standing 6’3” and topping 240 pounds. Lamar showed excellent pop at the point of attack in his limited duty, though he struggled in some cases with lateral movements and coverage. The fact Joseph has been practicing mostly at WILL demonstrates Lamar has made the necessary progress for Venables to trust him in a starting role. The goal would be for Lamar to make the kind of jump Kendall Joseph made from year one to two as his snap total should triple at the minimum. His larger presence should make inside running vs. Clemson even more difficult than it has been.
RSoph Chad Smith (20 snaps, 19 tackles in 2016) Chad has been a guy Clemson fans have been waiting on since he came in as a highly recruited 4 star. While he hasn’t emerged as a major force at linebacker as of yet, Smith made hay as one of the special teams standouts last season. This is a route more typically taken by linebackers in their development. Former Tiger stud Leroy Hill went from a special teams demon his first two years to an All ACC dynamo the last two. Chad, like Lamar, offers excellent size at 6’4” 235. There have been questions about his ability to handle the weight but his movement has looked much better in recent times. Fans should judge his progress by how Venables chooses to sub for Lamar. If Joseph slides back over to MIKE, it is likely a sign that Chad hasn’t quite put it all together yet. I would expect Chad’s snap load to surpass 100 this year at the minimum and a much better evaluation will be able to be made then.
Jr. Judah Davis (25 snaps, 6 tackles in 2016) All the five heart haters out there are probably rolling their eyes getting to this name. Judah has been the lesser of the Davis twins and likely will see another very limited role in 2017. He would probably be about fifth or sixth in the MIKE pecking order if it really came down to it. The hope is that Davis can provide some good special teams play.
WILL: Projected Starter RJr. Kendall Joseph (930 snaps, 124 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks in 2016) Joseph returns as the most experienced and productive member of the LB corps. He turned in an outstanding first season as a starter, filling in admirably for the departed B.J. Goodson. Joseph is sliding over to WILL, which actually fits his body type a little better than MIKE. Joseph showed some nastiness on his limited blitzing opportunities, namely when he buried FSU QB Deondre Francois in Tallahassee. Venables blitzes the WILL a lot more so Joseph should get more opportunities to get sacks. Joseph is yet another example of a guy with limited experience showing he was ready once his time arrived. Hopefully he won’t have to shoulder such a heavy snap load, but it is possible that he will play both WILL and MIKE depending on how much Venables trusts the backups at the two positions. Joseph should contend for All ACC honors without question if he remains healthy. The bigger hole to fill is the leadership void left by the legendary Ben Boulware, and while Joseph is not the same personality, his leadership will be vital to the group. Can Joseph and Lamar diagnose plays as well as Boulware? Let’s hope it is at least close.
Soph. James Skalski (20 snaps, 14 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack in 2016). We haven’t heard that much about Skalski this preseason, but don’t be shocked if he is logging a lot more snaps in 2017. Skalski’s short stints on the field showed he has a serious radar for the football and he delivered a monstrous sack against S.C. State. The Boulware comparisions are inevitable, and we can only hope he develops into Boulware 2.0. He did have some personal tragedy to deal with back in the early part of the year and you never know how that might affect a player, but I have my eye on Skalski as a major special teams missile and depth guy for this season.
Jr. J.D. Davis (80 snaps, 11 tackles in 2016). J.D. has been the best of the Davis twins and the snap total shows it. He hasn’t been particularly productive in those snaps in terms of tackles but I think he might actually be a serviceable guy for the team this season. Like his brother, he can best help this year by showing out on special teams.
RFr Shaq Smith (redshirt 2016) Another guy Tiger fans are anxious to see is the infectious Shaq Smith. The former 5 star recruit spent last year figuring out things as a redshirt and getting even more diesel than he already was in Power Hour. Shaq has all the physical tools and is definitely a wild card to shake things up on the depth chart. He has the type of personality to eventually become a major leader on the defense and the team, but the performance on the field will need to happen first. If nothing else, Shaq is in the “first off the bus” club.
SAM Projected Starter: RSr. Dorian O’Daniel (479 snaps, 60 tackles, 10 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU in 2016) O’Daniel really began turning a corner the latter half of 2016 after being a career backup and GT option killing specialist his first two years of playing. His absence was palpable in the ACC Championship Game when he was sent off for targeting as the Hokies only then really started putting some offense together. O’Daniel has been garnering some rave reviews this preseason, most notably from Hunter Renfrow, and appears to have 100% focus on his game heading into his last season. He will be extremely vital against offenses like Auburn, VT, FSU, Louisville, and, of course, GT because he is the Tigers’ best option to hold up vs. the run game (and QB run game) as well as being able to cover. Coach Venables wants to stop the run at all cost, so his not being forced to go to a sub package vs. a spread formation would be a major advantage on first and second down. Dorian is one of the very few scholarship seniors on this team and should be counted on as a leader with a sense of urgency.
Jr. Jalen Williams (214 snaps, 24 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU in 2016) Williams enters this season as the third most experienced LB in the corps in terms of snap total. Williams battled some injuries in 2016, but he is a “glue guy” that Venables really likes and can play all the LB positions. Thanks to better depth, I project Williams to be exclusively a SAM this season. He struggled a bit when he had to come in for O’Daniel in the VT game last year, and it is hard to know how much injury played into that. When healthy, Williams has proven to be a capable player though not a real difference maker. Hopefully he can provide quality depth and not be forced into major action due to some form of attrition as he does have some physical limitations.
NEWCOMER Fr. Baylon Spector (6’1” 220 3 star recruit) With signees Justin Foster and Logan Rudolph slotted to play DE, Spector is the lone pure linebacker in this signing class. The legacy recruit has already drawn praise for toughness and football acumen from the coaches and appears to be a fit for the SAM position going forward. I would expect Spector to redshirt this season and be groomed to replace Dorian O’Daniel down the road.
2017 Projection: While the overall returning snap totals might be a little troubling for this group, I have grown to completely trust Coach Venables’ ability to have guys ready to produce when their time arrives. Guys like B.J. Goodson and Kendall Joseph have stepped up in recent years and produced All-ACC production after playing very limited snaps beforehand. Both were called upon to replace stud starters from the previous year who went on to the NFL (in Goodson’s case, he replaced an NFL guy and became one himself). There is no shortage of talent as the 2 deep boasts 2 five star and 2 four star recruits, not to mention 3 star Joseph who has played above that rating. The biggest question for me is the void that Ben Boulware left as a leader. The offense struggled a bit last year early on as the absence of Eric Mac Lain was felt more than one might have expected. There is just no way to measure what the leadership dynamic might be ahead of time. The best news for this group is they have the best defensive line in the nation in front of them to eat up blocks and demand double teams. They should stay clean a lot of the time and be able to hunt the football accordingly. If O’Daniel has really blossomed as signs suggest, teams will find it harder to force Clemson into the nickle with hopes of running at it or attacking with the tight end. The Auburn game will provide an excellent barometer for this group as they will bring the spread option/QB run game/tempo offense which requires outstanding LB play to slow down/stop. Look no further than the Steele days to remember what happens when the LB play is lacking against an offense of that nature. In the end, this unit should once again produce at least one All-ACC (1st through 3rd team) guy as it has every year since 2013.