I hope you’ll forgive my hiatus from the community over the past month or two; it’s taken me some time to get the bitter taste of the alleged “Sugar Bowl” out of my mouth, among other health concerns I’ve been dealt since the holidays. (And don’t ask for film review; there was nothing groundbreaking to be found in analyzing that catastrophe to begin with and now it’s certainly best to leave it alone).
Reviewing and critiquing the performance of defensive backs is probably the hardest of all position groups to assess; safeties even more so than cornerbacks due to the lack of All22 film available on the Internet at large and the increasingly exotic coverage schemes which make assignments sometimes unclear. Not only is safety the toughest to grade (to me), it’s the toughest to play in Brent Venables aggressive scheme, where aggression can be preyed upon by offenses seeking to attack a safety’s eye discipline.
Four players formed the bulk safety rotation as the year progressed, and ultimately became a sound unit. Tanner Muse and Isaiah Simmons provided a physical presence at free (boundary side) safety, while Van Smith and K’Von Wallace were steady in the back from the strong (field side) safety position; Smith even filled both spots when Muse was limited by a broken hand and Wallace filled into Smith’s role magnificently when he was injured (see: NC State’s last two plays). There’s little to complain about from this position group, which should be even better in 2018 with budding stars in Simmons (my man crush on defense) and Wallace likely earning the bulk of the snaps.
Muse stepped into the starting free safety role this season after Smith moved back to the strong side after Jadar Johnson’s departure. I was in favor of this move because it put Clemson’s two best safeties (at the time) on the field together and it allowed Muse to provide a more physical force in run support from the position than we enjoyed from either Smith or Johnson in 2016. The drawbacks were Muse wasn’t as solid in coverage and was often too emphatic on making a collision, failing to wrap up on occasion; this was later exacerbated by the broken hand and cast which he played through, ultimately leading Smith to find time at free safety with Wallace stepping in at strong. It was nonetheless a solid year for Muse, who was 5th on the team in tackles despite his injury.
Simmons is the most intriguing player in Clemson’s entire defense for as long as he chooses to stay on campus; there’s a real chance he will jump to the NFL next year with his insane measurables. In all it was a successful redshirt freshman campaign which saw him earn more snaps throughout the year, particularly in Muse’s stead. Simmons was the dime linebacker in Clemson’s 3rd down package this year, for which he is ideally suited with his size and speed, and even earned a sack from the position. I’m curious to see if he will get any time at Sam linebacker in 2018 given Dorian O’Daniel’s departure (personally I would love this since I don’t see anyone else of O’Daniel’s caliber on the roster) but with Smith moving on to the NFL, it’s more likely Simmons will stick at safety.
While Smith’s early departure came as something of a surprise given his iffy draft stock, it is nonetheless a blow to a secondary which must now replace its most experienced starter and unquestioned leader in the backfield. Smith only had one interception on the season, but it very likely saved the FSU game and secured the Atlantic division title. It’s safe to say Smith was Clemson’s best safety in 2017, building off a solid 2016 campaign which landed him on the All-ACC 2nd team. Smith’s ability to play both safety roles was invaluable with Muse’s injury, which took pressure off the less-experienced Wallace and Simmons. After O’Daniel, Smith is the toughest defender to replace in 2018.
Wallace was a late steal in the 2016 recruiting class and it’s easy to see now why Clemson was ecstatic to land him so late in the cycle. After fighting for and nearly landing the starting boundary corner role, Wallace consistently found time at strong safety and even nickel in passing situations. His versatility will be paramount for the defensive backfield in 2018 as he will be relied on to fill Smith’s shoes. I consider Wallace an athletic upgrade, and with seasoning will be a superior player. It’s impossible to forget his nearly single-handed deliverance against NC State, in which we saw him make game-saving plays in the final two snaps. In all it was an extremely successful campaign for a young player who should’ve seen more snaps than he did.