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Clemson Tigers Spring Football: Cornerbacks

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NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Alabama vs Clemson Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Brent Venables: “A little short-handed at Safety and Corner.”

Dabo Swinney: “Ding, ding. You know, if somebody is a winner after five days—I think our corners have won the day.” “No, I don’t feel better about the depth. I love our frontline guys...but I’ll feel better when Kyler and Mario get here.”

These two quotes pretty much summarize the corner position heading into the heart of Spring football. The starters are all high quality, NFL level talents, but the depth—what little exists—is completely unproven.

Remember that due to injuries Clemson had to go seven deep at corner at times last year. We only have three returning players who have played a snap at corner and only 5 corners total. You can say that K’von Wallace can jump in and play corner, but then you take a starter from the Safety position. Bringing in Kyler McMicheal and Mario Goodrich is huge, but the numbers at the position mean they need to stick at corner to start when they might be better suited to play Nickel or Safety.

Depth is an issue at corner and it might be the biggest depth concern on the entire team, certainly on the defensive side of the ball.

The lack of depth at corner limits the versatility of the roster and the options available to the coaching staff. Let me break it down to give you a better idea of what I mean.

Departures

The departure of Ryan Carter means you lose a starting field corner who played a ton of snaps during his career at multiple positions including corner, nickel and safety.

Marcus Edmond got injured during the Auburn game and never really recovered, logging less than 100 snaps for his senior year. Edmond entered Spring last year as the starter at the boundary position and Trayvon Mullen had to grow up fast as his replacement.

Amir Trapp transferred after struggling to see the field much after the NC State game.

Incoming

Kyler McMichael and Mario Goodrich will join the team by Fall camp, but won’t be available for Spring. Since this is specifically about Spring I won’t go into these players much, but both will be given every opportunity to provide immediate depth at the boundary and field corner positions.

The only real newcomer is redshirt Freshman LeAnthony Williams. LeAnthony will likely start as the backup at the Field position, immediately playing in the two deep. His first year is likely to mirror that of AJ Terrell who was given more snaps last year as he earned the coaches trust and out of necessity because of mounting injuries. Williams gives you a player without any truly elite tools, but he is above average at everything without any major deficiencies in his game. During his redshirt year he gained about ten pounds of muscle and looks physically ready to play and he also worked on his technique and feet. Look for Williams to also contribute on special teams this year.

Clemson really needs Williams to be ready. AJ Terrell is the first man off the bench, but if there are any injuries, Williams could be forced to play 300+ snaps as opposed to 100-250 snaps.

Returners

Jr Trayvon Mullen is a threat to leave early for the NFL after this season. He is the next great boundary corner for Clemson. He has the length, size, and speed. He has improved his technique and is more physical in the run game. Look for him to make the next step from good player to a player who offenses have to gameplan around.

Sr Mark Fields returned to Clemson after a frustrating Junior campaign. He decided to not jump to the NFL and is the starter at the field position entering spring. Fields’ junior season was marred by injury and questions related to his attitude (although I think those were overblown). Mullen, Fields, and Terrell were all injured at various times last season and so durability is definitely a cause for concern.

Fields improved his technique last year, cutting down on pass interference calls. Trusting his technique will again be important this season. Fields is extremely fast, but sometimes doesn’t play as physical as he could despite looking the part. Improving in run support and being a willing tackler is an area that could be improved. Fields should have over 500+ snaps this year and has the talent and the experience to be a shutdown corner.

Soph AJ Terrell played 237 snaps last year and came on as the season progressed. The former 5* recruit recorded an interception, six pass breakups, and fifteen tackles last season. Terrell should almost be considered a de facto starter at this point. He is the first man off the bench and could double or even triple his snap count this season. There just aren’t other players the coaches trust at this point. Terrell is your next starting boundary corner and could also jump to the NFL after his junior year. He has that kind of talent and opportunity ahead of him.

RSoph Brian Dawkins Jr. has yet to log a meaningful snap in his career. He is the fifth corner on the depth chart right now and might receive playing time in a pinch. He will battle with the incoming freshmen to keep his spot on the depth chart. He is just a redshirt Sophomore, but this offseason and next will determine if he will be a contributing back-up or a career reserve.

Also of note

Also it bears mentioning that Dorian O’Daniel graduated. Why? Simply because the Nickel/SAM position was handled by an actual LB almost exclusively last year. This seems to be Venables preference, but in years past a corner has played the Nickel position much more (Carter, for example, played the position as a Sophomore and Junior). Lack of depth at corner means you will see more Jalen Williams starting at the Nickel/SAM. Simmons is another option, but that pulls him from the depth at Safety (same goes for Muse). Look for Spector as a potential player here as well.

My point is that a corner is less likely to jump into this position because of depth concerns but I’d love to see packages where you could get Mullen, Fields, and AJ Terrell on the field. Clemson won’t see many elite offenses that can really throw the ball, but it would be very interesting to try Terrell in that Nickel spot if you wanted to improve coverage and get your best pure athletes on the field.

Outlook

The corner position has premium talent. Any team in college football covets corners like Mullen and Terrell. Early in Spring camp #WRU is struggling with consistency because of the talent at corner. Depth is a huge concern, however, and this position group must stay healthy. If Fields can fulfill his promise then the defense could be the best in the country. The corners also have the luxury of the best returning defensive line in the country. That alone can make a good corner great and a bad corner serviceable.

Mullen, Fields, and Terrell are elite. A two deep of Mullen (boundary) and Fields (field) starting with Terrell and Williams as the backups is elite. But if you reach below that line things enter the unknown.