Spring practice is upon us at last. I finally flushed the Sugar Bowl from my system and my usual optimism returned with the warmer weather. I remain hopeful this could be one of the best defenses ever seen at Clemson...though poor depth in the defensive backfield is a glaring concern. The development at safety this spring will determine much of what happens elsewhere on the depth chart this fall; shaping the entire defense with it.
Fortunately, a lack of depth doesn’t mean a lack of returning experience or versatility, both of which will be crucial this fall with so few bodies at safety and in the defensive backfield at large. Spring practice will be a time to cross-train players at multiple positions should injury strike, as it did so badly at corner a year ago. Four returning players will comprise the bulk of the rotation at safety, and contingent on developments elsewhere, two of whom will likely find snaps at other positions as well.
On the strong/field side, K’Von Wallace returns after a very solid season backing up Van Smith before he became a starter after Tanner Muse was injured and Smith slid over to replace Muse. Wallace is the best zone and pass defender of the returning group but do not mistake that for thinking he can’t lay the wood; his goal-line PBU on Jaylen Samuels at NC State kept Clemson from potentially losing in overtime (that plus our totally illegal laptops on the sideline). Wallace will continue to cross-train at corner this spring and could play there in a pinch; the obvious problem there though would be exacerbating the lack of depth found here at safety. This means Denzel Johnson must make strides this spring to earn the trust which would then allow for Wallace to slide to other roles as needed.
The same can be said for Tanner Muse and Isaiah Simmons at free/boundary safety. Muse, and especially Simmons, are both physical specimens who need more work on the nuances of pass coverage and run fits. There were times each were out of position in coverage and in filling gaps, which is crucial for free safeties in Brent Venables’ 1-gap scheme, in which a safety has gap responsibility. I am especially eager for Muse’s continued development since it will allow for Simmons to drop in at Sam linebacker, where I feel he has by far the most upside compared to the true Sams on the depth chart.
Help is coming to the defensive backfield when the remaining freshmen report in August, but no position group bears watching quite like safety this spring (yes that includes quarterback). The development here will have a ripple effect on the entire defensive backfield, and will shape both the strategy and formations Venables chooses to employ in 2018. Here’s to hoping Muse improves enough to allow Simmons real snaps at Sam, and the same from Johnson to allow utility work for Wallace. There’s no position group I’ll watch more closely for the next six months.