Clemson enters the 2018 Spring Football period with as deep and talented a front seven as can be remembered in my lifetime. Nearly everybody who will be a factor in the fall is on campus already, including stud five stars like Xavier Thomas. Today we will take a look at the linebacker position as it stands this spring and what to look for coming out of the Orange and White game which concludes things.
Coach Brent Venables only has one guy to replace from the linebacker corps from last year’s ACC title team, but it is guy who was arguably the most valuable player on the defense a year ago in Dorian O’Daniel. O’Daniel’s supreme versatility at the SAM position was a major reason the defense was able to perform at a top 5 level. The SAM position is perhaps the biggest position battle looming this spring because the most veteran returning player, Jalen Williams, should be challenged by the younger, but more talented, Isiah Simmons. Coach Venables was very quick to not dismiss Williams’ chance of holding on to the job in his initial interview, and Williams certainly has gained the trust of Coach V over his time. Simmons, for some, is a no brainer considering his size and tremendous speed, but the depth in the back four is a concern for the staff and Simmons very well could be needed at safety as much as SAM. I would fully expect Coach V to take a look at some other options at SAM from the deeper pools at MIKE and WILL. Tanner Muse could also potentially get a look at SAM, but some of the issues with moving Simmons there apply to Muse as well. Baylon Spector comes off his redshirt and will look to throw his name into the mix at SAM as well. Mike Jones is on campus with a SAM makeup, but he is a likely redshirt candidate. I will just remind people that Coach Venables can adjust his SAM responsibilities to fit a different style like he did in 2014 when he moved B.J. Goodson, a natural MIKE, to SAM (subbing to a true nickle vs. spread formations). My prediction is Williams will hold the SAM starting spot, at least officially, until fall camp at least.
The MIKE position welcomes back Tre Lamar, who missed the last part of the season with what must have been one of the world’s worst stinger injuries ever. Lamar had a very solid sophomore campaign and was actually having one of his best games against FSU before getting hurt. J.D. Davis took his place as the starter and played well enough, but Clemson fans know that Lamar offers a lot more punch at the position. These two form a strong 2 deep which should hold throughout the spring. If Lamar is able to make the jump from year 2 to 3 that he made from 1 to 2, the former 5 star recruit should be ready to add his name to the list of All-ACC linebackers from Clemson.
The WILL position received an excellent boost when Kendall Joseph decided to return for his senior season. Joseph offers All-ACC level play and tremendous experience, not to mention the flexibility to play MIKE or WILL. Joseph will likely get a lighter load in the spring and fall having earned his stripes these last two seasons. There is a log jam of 3 guys who have all been listed as WILL linebackers at some point: James Skalski, Chad Smith, and Shaq Smith. Skalski and C. Smith enter their junior and redshirt junior years, respectively, having been big special teams contributors with an increasing snap count at LB. Shaq Smith has been redshirted, then used sparingly after coming in a very heralded 5 star recruit. His transition to pure LB has been a slower process, but this is about the time that Dorian O’Daniel began putting things together in his career. I will be very interested to see where these three shake out in the pecking order (and which guys move to MIKE or perhaps even SAM). Judah Davis also returns for a final season, though his role is primarily a special teams guy.
Overall, the battle for SAM will dominate the story line on defense and those not inside the program will certainly not know Coach Venables’ true master plan for the fall until the games start. The good news is there is a lot of talent and experience with this group as the snaps were distributed out a lot more than the 2014-2015-2016 stretch where 3 to 4 guys got all the snaps. Coach Venables’ track record at developing guys and being able to replace high level performers with little drop off is impressive. Guys like Stephone Anthony, Ben Boulware, and B.J. Goodson left what seemed to be gaping holes in experience and production only to see a new face perform at or near the same level the following season.