I’ve had the honor of doing the linebacker preview and review for STS the last couple of years. This has generally been a very fun group to discuss since Brent Venables came to town and upgraded what had been a bit of a weak link unit in the Kevin Steele era. Venables has had at least one first, second, or third team All-ACC linebacker from his unit every year since 2013.
Last year saw both Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph honored, with O’Daniel being a Butkis Award Finalist. Tiger fans know they can count on Venables to develop his talent (as well as help identify and acquire it). The 2018 defense looks to feature the deepest group of linebackers since the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when Clemson’s second team linebackers would have started just about anywhere else in the land. When guys like Chad Smith, Shaq Smith, J.D. Davis, and James Skalksi are your backups, things are pretty strong.
Clemson employs a base 4-3 Over which designates a MIKE (middle linebacker), WILL (weakside linebacker), and a SAM (strongside linebacker). I do not include nickel package secondary guys, who will be covered in the CORNER/SAFETY previews.
NOTE: STATS are SNAPS, TOTAL TACKLES, TACKLES FOR LOSS, SACKS, PASSES BROKEN UP, QUARTERBACK PRESSURES, and INTERCEPTIONS in that order!
MIKE: Projected Starter—Jr. TRE LAMAR (331, 52, 5, 4, 1, 3, 0). The massive Lamar unfortunately saw his 2017 campaign end early after he destroyed James Blackman in the FSU game. His snaps and production predictably went way up as a starter (102 to 331). He easily would have reached 500 had he stayed healthy. In the end he wound up virtually splitting the snaps at Mike in half with J.D. Davis. While you will see their production numbers are extremely similar, Lamar brings another level to the position with his NFL body. Even still, it is nice to know a guy like J.D. Davis, who has grown into a good player, is there to help Lamar not have to log the ridiculous snap totals that Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson had to back in 2015. In fact, it is hard for me to see anyone on this unit reaching Dorian O’Daniel’s 718 snap total last season thanks to the depth available.
Lamar has reportedly been tasked with improving his pass coverage acumen in the offseason. It surely will be a factor in improving his NFL stock in a draft eligible year. As I noted in the 2018 vs. 2014 defense article posted last week, Lamar is a major X factor in how high the ceiling for this defense can be. If he can put together 500 or so healthy snaps and show growth from the emerging star we saw last fall, his will be yet another name going off the draft boards early from this defense. You just don’t see that many 6’3” 245 monsters who can move like he can at linebacker at this level.
Gr. J.D. Davis (332, 55, 4.5, 1, 0, 0, 0). This Davis twin has slowly climbed out of five heart status to a very solid contributor to the defense. J.D. was called on to step up when Lamar was lost and the defense nearly didn’t miss a beat. He had one or two moments in the Alabama game where I found myself wishing for Lamar to be out there, but for the vast majority of the time he was getting it done. If nothing else, Clemson is blessed to have a veteran guy like J.D. ready to go in support of Lamar. It also keeps Kendall Joseph from having to slide back over from his more natural Will position. Davis should see 300 or so snaps once again this season as he and his twin brother attempt to trump their famous father in one category: National Championships won.
RGr. Chad Smith (133, 20, 3, 0.5, 1. 3. 0). Chad saw his snaps go from 20 to over 100 last season while he continued to be a key special teams contributor. Chad has and probably will see time at both Mike and Will this season. Known for his strict military-like personality from being raised in a military household, Chad should be beginning to fully blossom under Coach Venables’ teaching. Several linebackers have made big jumps in year 3 over the last six years such as Dorian O’Daniel, B.J. Goodson, and Stephone Anthony. The only problem with Chad is having proven veteran talent ahead of him on the depth chart, but I still feel his snap load should go up again this season to around 200 or so.
Gr. Judah Davis (54, 13, 1.5, 0, 0, 1, 0). Judah returns for his final season as mostly a special teams contributor. It will once again be very hard to break into meaningful snaps considering how many guys are fighting for time.
WILL: Projected Starter—RGr. KENDALL JOSEPH (679, 87, 5, 0.5, 2. 10, 1). Joseph turned down leaving early for the NFL draft, which has been overlooked a bit due to the returns of Wilkins, Bryant, and Ferrell, but it could be nearly as impactful to a potential National Title run. It is no coincidence that veteran LB’s were at the heart of the 1981 and 2016 title teams. Joseph actually saw his numbers drop from 2016, but most of that was due to the improved depth at the position which afforded the starters more rest as well as the more ball control offense last year’s team featured. Joseph can be counted on to make very, very few mistakes and can rarely be found out of position or making a bad run fit. This went a long way in seeing explosive runs go down by the opposition. While Joseph doesn’t seem to blitz as much as his predecessor Ben Boulware, he did rack up ten quarterback pressures. I’m sure he’s looking to improve on finishing those off for sacks this season.
Jr. James Skalski (174, 37, 2, 0.5, 0, 2, 0). Skalski, like Chad Smith, saw his snaps go way up in year 2 at Clemson. His position on the depth chart is largely contingent on his recovery from a foot fracture. The redshirt possibility is there in case it doesn’t come around, but hopefully Skalski will be able to return from it and build on the promise he has shown. He has drawn some strong reviews from practices back in the spring.
RSoph Shaq Smith (73, 14, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1). Has the proverbial light come on for the talented Shaq Smith? There has been talk that it just might, and with Skalski’s foot issues, Shaq has certainly garnered more opportunities to break into the regular rotation and see his snap total jump. We’ve seen that high school film and heard about that strength/speed combination he brings to the table. Now it is time to see that #5 do some real damage when it really counts.
SAM: Projected Starter—So. ISAIAH SIMMONS (258, 49, 3, 1, 5, 0, 0). Most fans would agree that the biggest shoes to fill from last year’s team are Dorian O’Daniel’s. DOD came into last season with a heap of praise from coaches and teammates (most notably Hunter Renfrow) and made good on all of it with a monster season. It certainly was the most dominant performance from this position since Brent Venables came to town. O’Daniel was everywhere and made huge pick six plays in two prime time road games which put those opponents to bed. There is no doubt some adjustments will be made to make up for all the things the veteran O’Daniel was able to process and execute in 2017. Simmons is making the move from safety with all the physical tools you would want in this position. However, fans should know that great 40 times, vertical leaps, etc, don’t always translate to great play on the field. Can Simmons handle the mental part of the game playing closer to the box so he can play as fast as he is? He’s risen to the top of the depth chart which is a good sign, but the bright lights are coming. O’Daniel’s ability to stay on the field no matter what formations or personnel groups were thrown out there was a major plus. I’m not sure Simmons will be there yet, but the talent is undeniable.
Gr. Jalen Williams (193,18,2,1,3,2,0). It’s nice that the Tigers have a veteran like Williams for insurance. Williams has quietly put together a solid career despite being an undersized guy who doesn’t possess the wow physical tools of a lot of the guys in the linebacker room. Williams might get beat physically here and there, but Coach Venables can trust him to handle his assignments and not just “turn guys loose” or other glaring mistakes which can lead to explosive plays. Williams saw his snap load decrease a little last year mostly because O’Daniel was so dominant, but I would expect it to get back over the 200 mark in his final season.
THE NEWCOMERS: RFr. Baylon Spector. Spector is coming off his redshirt season as a probably SAM linebacker. However, he has reportedly worked at all three positions in the fall, so we will see where he rolls out when he gets a chance. I would expect Spector to be looked at mostly as a special teams contributor as he grows and waits for the older guys to move on.
Fr. Mike Jones, Jr. Jones, Jr. was one of my favorite recruits to follow as the #WETOODEEP18 class was being put together. Jones, Jr. was specifically recruited as a SAM linebacker and I would expect him to challenge Williams for second team reps at the position this fall. Mike will even don Dorian O’Daniel’s #6. He, along with Xavier Thomas, are hopefully part of what could be a pipeline of talent from the IMG Academy in Florida.
Fr. Jake Venables. The last name says it all right here. The only thing a guy from that family knows is intensity and passion. I’m not sure when Jake will get his time, but I feel pretty strongly he will make is presence felt before his career is over. Jake is likely working as a MIKE and probably projects best to that position going forward.
In conclusion, playing linebacker in this defense should be a dream. That all-time DL will no doubt occupy the opposing offensive line enough to let the linebackers run clean to the football. Such a veteran group, quarterbacked by Kendall Joseph, should be able to align and recognize things as quickly as any group since the 2014 unit. Very few, if any, teams exist in the country who can just line up and come at the Tigers. The only other option is misdirection, trickery, and pace in hopes of getting the Tigers out of position. While the Syracuse game last year showed the team can have a bad night at the office in that regard, It is usually difficult to get Brent Venables more than once with a trick (see the TE shovel pass others tried post Pitt in 2016). The linebackers (as well as the safeties) will be the ones to see to it that their guy just has to be better than our guy for a play to work. I know everyone is excited for the season and this position group should be a big reason why.