While the season certainly ended on a sour note in the Sugar Bowl (ironic, I know), I think it would be difficult for any Clemson fan to truly quibble with the 2017 team and its overall performance. As noted by myself and others along the way, what Clemson was able to accomplish this season in the wake of losing its best player ever, a top 4-5 all time WR, a top 3-4 all time TE, and the school’s single season rushing record holder, was remarkable and praiseworthy. Almost any other program losing that type of talent in the last 20-25 years has taken a serious step backwards, but the Tigers won the ACC and made the playoff for the third straight season.
The defense was a huge reason this season was a successful one. This article will review the play of the linebackers and the position coach, Brent Venables. (Note all video clips are the property of their original owners, stats are attributed to clemsontigers.com)
I’ve included the statistics for the group through 13 games. The official Clemson statistics have not added the Sugar Bowl numbers to this. I have the raw numbers from ESPN but those do not include the snap counts, so I have left them off.
One thing that jumps out is how the snap distribution is not nearly as one sided as it was, say, in 2015 when Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson racked up counts in the 800s. The 2017 defense played less snaps overall, thanks to a more ball control oriented offense, and Brent Venables seemed more willing than ever to roll his backups into the game this year. Injuries had a little to do with this as well, especially in the case of Tre Lamar who missed the last four games after suffering what must have been one of the worst stingers in history vs. FSU.
In the preseason preview, I noted how much better the position group has been during the Venables era, best seen by the number of All-ACC and All-American performers from the group compared to the Koenning and Steele eras. The All-Conference streak continued, this time with Dorian O’Daniel making first or second team All-ACC (depending on the service), a few All-American teams, and the finals for the Butkis Award. Kendall Joseph was a third team All-ACC selection by the coaches. A very strong case can be made for O’Daniel being the MVP of the entire defense, if not the team, for the 2017 season. His versatility as a run defender as well as a guy who could cover TE’s, backs, and slots in man-to-man enabled Venables to avoid smaller nickel packages. This was particularly vital when the DB depth was dangerously thin in Raleigh.
O’Daniel’s play was truly outstanding, and his two monster pick sixes were a major reason the Tigers were able to navigate the extremely difficult September stretch of games featuring Auburn, Louisville, and Virginia Tech. His departure may indeed leave the biggest hole of all to fill, and the Tiger defense is most certainly going to have a different attack next season without his ultimate Swiss Army Knife skill set. How this guy wasn’t even listed as a draft prospect on the ESPN scroll during the Bowl Season is beyond me. I feel confident Dorian will get drafted and find a good home in the NFL.
Kendall Joseph turned in another solid season, albeit more quiet than the year before in terms of TFL and sacks. There was no question that Clemson blitzed a lot less this year than in the previous two and Joseph was not sent anywhere near as much as former WILL Ben Boulware. Joseph will return for his senior season which is a big boon for next year’s prospects.
Tre Lamar stepped into the starting MIKE position and had a very solid run before his injury. Ironically, he went down not too long after making the biggest play of his young career when he smashed James Blackman and created a turnover vs. FSU. The defense was not really the problem against Alabama, but I know I was among many who wondered if it would have been even better had Lamar played at MIKE in place of J.D. Davis. Certainly his size and physicality matched up better vs. the Tide attack. He should be due for a very big 2018 as a seasoned Junior.
The aforementioned J.D. Davis was a solid contributor this year. We all know he doesn’t possess the physical tools of Lamar or some of the others, but he is a smart player who has clearly garnered the trust of Brent Venables, which is a feat worth noting. Honestly, his production this season outweighed what many felt he would ever do in a Tiger uniform and he should be counted on for quality depth moving into his final season next year. He was the second leading tackler in the Alabama game, putting up 8 with one TFL.
Jalen Williams was able to spend the entire season at SAM after moving around last year from SAM to WILL. O’Daniel’s dominance and health made this a quiet season for Williams, but he still ranked fifth in snaps for the unit. Like Davis, he lacks elite physical tools but is serviceable thanks to his knowledge of the system and nose for the football. He actually tied O’Daniel for PBU’s. Williams has another year of eligibility. It will be interesting to see what he chooses to do should he not win the SAM job.
James Skalski, a.k.a. Boulware 2.0, became a bit of a hero in my eyes after seeing pictures of his battle damaged helmets. He certainly looks to be the heir apparent for Joseph at the WILL position after seeing 148 snaps of action before the bowl. Skalski got extended time in the second half vs. Bama and posted 4 tackles. This clip was from last year, but was one of my favorite hits of the season and shows what Skalski can do to a person. He’s an exciting prospect!
Chad Smith saw his most snaps at linebacker this year and continued to lead the way on the coverage units, tying for a team high 8 tackles on special teams. He has had to be patient playing behind veterans like Boulware and Joseph these last two years. This should be a big spring for him as he enters his redshirt junior season battling for even more playing time for next season. The former four-star recruit hasn’t yet lived up to that billing, but we have seen guys like Dodd and O’Daniel blossom late in their careers and the ink is not yet dry for Smith at Clemson.
Shaq Smith came off his redshirt year and posted just 73 snaps, almost entirely in mop up time of blowouts. He still looks every bit of the five-star talent he was billed as coming out of high school, but his adjustment to pure linebacker in this system has not been as quick as some (including me) though it would be. He likely needs to dedicate himself to the game the way O’Daniel needed to so his physical ability can take over. His progress this spring will be a big one to watch.
Judah Davis rounds out the group after being primarily a special teams guy this season. He went down with a knee injury late, so we will see how that affects his work in mat drills and spring ball. It is hard to project his role growing much more considering the talent ahead of him and the unit slated to only lose one player.
Coach Venables continues to produce not only as the coordinator of the defense, but also as the linebacker coach. It is very hard to find fault in how productive and sound his linebackers have been. Other than a bumpy stretch in 2015 when Boulware was playing with one arm, basically, the tackling and run fits have been very good the majority of the time. While the decision to not play Lamar in the Sugar Bowl was a head-scratcher, I feel Venables has more than earned the benefit of the doubt and made the decision based on information folks like me simply don’t have.
Venables has manged this excellent linebacking corps largely without a true world beater at the position, with the possible exception of Stephone Anthony. We will see how the two five-stars on the roster (Lamar and Smith) grow as both have now had two full seasons under their belts in the program. The development of O’Daniel over the course of his career should be counted as a major feather in Coach V’s hat. As usual, in Venables we trust!