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The Day After: Evaluating the Clemson Tigers 2017 Recruiting Class (Defense)

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - CFP Semifinal - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now we move to the defensive side of the ball. Find the offensive side here.

So how do we judge a recruiting class in the modern era of recruiting? Most often we use composite star rankings and class rankings to determine the value of a class. Stars do matter, but they don’t tell the entire story. I’m continuing a longstanding tradition here at STS to evaluate recruiting classes not simply by star rankings but also digging into the actual roster and seeing if our needs are met.

One thing to note further about this class is Clemson signed 9 midyear players who are already on campus. This will help the ability of these talented prospects to contribute sooner rather than later.

KICKER

BT Potter. My first ever Special Teams man crush. Potter was quickly on the QT hype train. Credit goes to BV and others for his recruitment. We didn’t wait very long to offer and grab another South Pointe product along with DK.

BT will upgrade our kickoffs immediately. He can kick it way out of the endzone. He will also challenge for kicking field goals if Huegel can’t return to form.

Defensive End

Best class in the nation, both with regards to numbers and elite talent.

We surpassed any expectations here and definitely met our needs. Clemson lost no players from last year, but gained three commitments. Next season Clemson loses three seniors Bryant, Yeargin, and Register. You can also expect to lose Ferrell to the NFL Draft. Signing three players might seem like an overload, but if you sign two or three in the next class you have 8 or 9 players and no large gaps in your recruiting.

With the commitment of Trevor Lawrence I think we haven’t emphasized the impact of the Xavier Thomas signing. XT was the #1 overall defensive lineman and defensive player in this class. It isn’t just signing 5* talent, it is the caliber of 5* talent you get that matter too (which is something recruiting class rankings can struggle to articulate). I think Parsons, Adam Anderson, and Anoma (although his all-star game inflated his ranking a bit) will be very good players, but there is a gap between them and XT.

Thomas gives you someone who is strong, fast, and relentless. He will step immediately into the two deep for Clemson and give our defensive line another pass rushing threat. But he has the strength to play the run. Oh, and his motor is now relentless. IMG helped him see the level of competition he would be facing in the ACC and met the challenge. The return of Bryant and Ferrell gives him time to come in as a freshman and learn without the pressure of needing to deliver right away. Even though Clemson was one of the best defensive lines in the country last year, there is still a role for a speed, edge rusher to give the starters a break. I think you will see XT used as a change of pace defensive end (but he can still dominate run or pass).

My immediate comparison is Carl Lawson (or rather what Carl Lawson could or should have been in college if he wasn’t hampered by injury—he showed out in the NFL this year though). XT, like Lawson, doesn’t have the insanely long arms, but he has the burst and strength to keep from getting reached by Olineman. XT also has really powerful hands. Crazy short area quickness who tackles and hits with authority.

Doesn’t hurt to be bringing back the best defensive line in the country. We can expect the same level of play, if not slight improvement. Dexter Lawrence should recover from foot and ankle injuries. Bryant gets another year to develop, years removed from his foot injury. Ferrell and Wilkins continue to be beasts.

I expect Yeargin and Thomas to battle for two deep reps with Logan Rudolph. Before his injury, Rudolph was poised to be a breakout rookie. He just plays extremely hard and many around the team believe he has an NFL future. The depth here is ridiculous. Xavier Kelly should also push for more reps as he continues to master the mental aspects of the game. You also have Justin Foster who played as a freshman and Chris Register, a senior, who can still give you snaps.

With all that depth the staff could try to redshirt KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll. You don’t normally redshirt 5* defensive lineman, however, so look for Henry to play in a backup role. Henry gives you an elite ceiling with his frame and wingspan. His ability to play will depend on how he can gain weight (huge advantage that he is already on campus) and maintain his quickness with the weight. Henry provides a perfect compliment to XT. The future is bright at the position.

Justin Mascoll, who ended up as the #142 overall player in the 247 composite, is icing on the cake and gives Clemson another prospect who will need time to develop, but has a high ceiling. Mascoll has an incredible wingspan, like Henry, and will need to continue to add some weight. Give him a redshirt year and he will be able to compete.

Defensive end is healthy for the foreseeable future.

Defensive Tackle

Defensive tackle is also in a healthy position, but there will be a couple of huge 340 and 300 pound holes when Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence leave. Clemson met its needs in the 2018 class with regards to numbers with two takes in Josh Belk and Darnell Jefferies. The 2018 class met our needs with regards to talent, but will need to bring in at least one elite DT in the 2019 class and at least three to four DT’s overall in the next class.

The reason Clemson will need three DTs is that Albert Huggins and Christian Wilkins will come off the books, but Dexter Lawrence will undoubtedly also go pro. Clemson will need to give these upperclassmen their snaps while also cultivating the younger prospects. Jabril Robinson recently left the program as a senior. He had a productive role last year as a reserve, but it is good for the health of the position to give those snaps to Soph Nyles Pinckney and RFr Jordan Williams as the fourth and fifth men in the rotation. Clemson needs both of these players to develop this season because they are your likely starters next season.

Jr. Sterling Johnson also left the program. He played 83 snaps last season and could have broken into the two deep as a Senior but opted to leave the program with the entrenched starters, which is a wise move for him to get more playing time at this stage in his career. He finishes with 14 career tackles at Clemson.

The 2018 class did not have a deep pool for defensive tackles (only one DT in the top 50, Taron Vincent at #20). If the pool were deeper I would’ve advocated trying to grab another big body (I was of someone like Tommy Togiai, for example) for a third take, but two was perfectly fine.

Josh Belk and Darnell Jefferies were evaluated early in the process and Clemson decided they were the targets for this class. Belk is one of the more polarizing players in this class. Some had him as a top 50 player and other services had him as a 3* player. Belk is barrel chested and showed out in the Army all-star game. He came into his senior year out of shape and not dominating the lower level competition, but turned it on towards the end of the season. It is very important that both DT’s enrolled early.

Jefferies was coveted by many major programs and his offer sheet including Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, and Florida. Clemson made a connection with him and his family and flat beat out the other programs. Jefferies moves really well for his size and will start at 3-tech whereas Belk could play nose or 3-tech, but starts at nose. Ideally you would redshirt both, but with the numbers and need at the position you probably should play one of them if you can guarantee they get 100 snaps. This will be a very tough call.

Linebacker

Dorian O’Daniel I miss you already. Folks forget that DO’D was responsible for two pick sixes that helped make our early season matchups look like dominant wins. His versatility will be missed. Clemson brought in two LBs but had room for a third. We missed on Dax Hollifield to VT partly because we were unable to offer a scholarship early. We also missed on Payton Wilson to NC State.

The additions of Mike Jones Jr. and Jake Venables give Clemson 11 LBs, which is a decent number (this is one of the most complicated position groups to project with numbers because of where you put a SAM LB versus a Nickel back). We are fine with regards to numbers, but we have four LBs coming off the books next year and will need to bring in 3-4 LBs. It would help to improve our Nickel depth as well, which is impacted by our lack of numbers at Safety. We met our needs with numbers, but still could use a slight boost in talent at the position (or for players to reach their potential like Shaq Smith and for Tre Lamar to stay healthy).

Mike Jones Jr. was a Safety for his high school in TN but moved to LB at IMG. Clemson would love if he could stick at SAM, but it is a difficult position to play and it will take some time for him to acclimate. Playing at IMG, however, did give him a chance to see elite competition. Very early offer and commit, he was one of the vocal recruiters of XT at IMG. NFL bloodlines. Venables is a grinder and worker. At the Shrine Bowl you saw some of his limitations with regards to speed, but BV doesn’t need really fast inside LBs. Regardless, Venables gives you an intelligent, diligent presence in the locker room.

Next year JD and Judah Davis, Joseph, and Jalen Williams leave the program. Joseph is the MLB starter leaving in that group, but JD has logged a bunch of back-up reps and Williams is probably your SAM starter, especially with the lack of depth at Safety and Nickel.

If Tre Lamar is healthy, he is your other starter. Big years for Jr.’s Chad Smith and James Skalski to supplant JD Davis as the primary backups and log more snaps. Soph Shaq Smith also needs to see the field and continue to develop. He still has time, but this is a big offseason for him. Baylon Spector was surprisingly good in Fall camp last year and should be a quality special teams addition. If Spector could grab snaps at SAM, that would be huge. One of the underrated storylines for the 2018 defense is what to do at Nickel/SAM.

Cornerback

Gone are starter Ryan Carter and key reserve Marcus Edmond. Aamir Trapp also transferred to Furman. By bringing in two corners Kyler McMichael and Mario Goodrich we maintain 7 corners on the roster. However, the number would be better at eight if you are using a corner for the Nickel position. Clemson has told Kyler and Mario that they will both start at corner, but either could end up at Safety. Clemson’s total DB number is just 12 right now and that should be at 15-16.

Mark Fields returns as the lone senior. But Clemson needs to add two corners in the 2019 class. Clemson met its needs with regards to talent but could have brought in an additional corner or 2-3 additional DBs in the 2018 class. I am high on both Goodrich and McMichael. McMichael is #56 overall and Goodrich is just inside the top 100. The question for both is whether they can stick at corner or will they need to play Nickel/Safety.

Kyler has been working on his footwork to stick at corner, but he definitely has NFL caliber athleticism and speed. McMichael is already physically imposing at 6’1 and 200 pounds. He will avoid a redshirt and will play as a freshman just because he is physically ready to go and a dynamic athlete, great suddenness/change of direction.

Goodrich was a steal so late in the process and a signing day grab the coaches desperately needed with the numbers at DB. Goodrich will also start at corner, but both could play Nickel and follow the path of a K’von Wallace. Super Mario will be in Clemson in the summer and he has nothing but upside. Extremely long at 6’2 and plays with good instincts. You would like to redshirt Mario to let him develop a bit more physically and fill in that frame, but I’m not sure Clemson will have that luxury. Mario could step into a role at Nickel and special teams.

The one that got away is Patrick Surtain Jr. who gives Alabama a top CB talent immediately. UGA grabbing Tyson Campbell is also a big get for them.

Trayvon Mullen is your Junior starter at the boundary position and is a risk to jump to the NFL (which would further hurt your numbers and was another reason to bring in more DBs in this class). Soph AJ Terrell turned in a quality freshman campaign and is your backup at boundary with Fields likely starting at the field position. I’d like to see Terrell back-up both positions and possibly play Nickel, he is that talented and needs to be on the field. LeAnthony Williams was able to redshirt last year and will step into the two deep as a RFr. Dawkins Jr. is a Soph but has yet to play a meaningful snap.

Lots of talent, but only three players have even played a real snap of college football. Remember, Clemson had to go 5, 6, even 7 or 8 players deep at corner last year (with McCloud and Wallace) due to injuries. McCloud left to the NFL and isn’t an option in a pinch anymore.

Corner must stay healthy in 2018.

Safety

For the second year in a row Clemson failed to sign a true Safety prospect. Clemson did not meet its needs with regards to numbers. The question of talent is debatable because you can easily say that McMichael or Goodrich could be considered a Safety, but even then it takes from the pool of talent at corner or Nickel.

There is also a logjam at Safety. There are only 5 scholarship Safeties on the roster (although Wallace had to be used as a corner because of injuries last season) and three of them are Juniors. Losing Van Smith to the NFL draft was a huge blow for talent and depth.

RSJr. Tanner Muse began the year as the starter but a combination of his hand injury and struggling with coverage breakdowns led him to be replaced after the midway point of the season. Muse might be a candidate to play the SAM role, but the lack of options of at Safety will probably limit that possibility. RSJr. Denzel Johnson is physically gifted, but prone to busts. Clemson needs him to be able to step into the two deep this year. K’von Wallace will compete for a starting position.

RS Soph Isaiah Simmons is a beast and will be a force at the Safety position, but he also could be a versatile piece you want to use as a Nickel/SAM or in Dime packages. Simmons is such a physical specimen that you have to watch his draft stock after this year as well. Nolan Turner has played well on special teams and shows a great burst as a Safety. Still, it would be hard to ask him to step into a major two deep role.

Clemson already has one safety committed in the 2019 class, Joseph Charleston, and should grab 3 players, possibly even 4 in the next class (the 4th might project as a versatile corner, nickel, or SAM, for example).

Final Thoughts

With 5 remaining slots in the class there was an immediate need to add another offensive lineman and two more defensive backs. Additional takes at LB or DT could have helped build further depth for the roster.

The talent in this class remains historic and maintains Clemson’s national presence and ability to challenge for a national championship next year. It is also important to note that Clemson’s 5* talent is not like other 5* prospects. XT and TL are transcendent talents. This is also the best defensive line class in the nation.