Here lies my only concern on the top level of this Clemson Tigers 2018 defense; getting beaten over the top. Following Van Smith’s surprising early departure to the NFL, Clemson lost what would’ve been the secondary’s undisputed leader and most versatile player given Smith’s ability to play either safety role. In fact I consider Smith the toughest departure to replace this season — rather than 2017 defensive MVP Dorian O’Daniel — given the depth at linebacker. Entering the spring, safety was my one hedge against what I believe should be the greatest Clemson defense of all time.
Safety is perhaps the toughest position on this defense from a mental/assignment standpoint when considering the pressure Brent Venables likes to put on opposing quarterbacks. The top priority in a Venables system is to take away the run and make a quarterback have the game of his life against constant pressure (or the appearance of it), and when you look at Clemson’s few defensive lapses over the years, we see this very pattern; more often when not when Clemson’s defense is off, the culprit is found at safety. Clemson isn’t a pure quarters/cover 4 defense like Pittsburgh or the new-look FSU (our best pressure packages come from cover 3 looks), and when Venables is comfortable with his secondary, single-high safety looks are the overwhelming norm. From here Venables unleashes his fire zones, which should be illegal when you have a defensive line already this good.
By all reports, the preseason development at safety has been as desired. K’Von Wallace is the best-known commodity who will take over for Smith as the jack-of-all-trades safety and will play every crucial snap at field safety. Tanner Muse, previously known more for his reckless abandon in coverage and eagerness to fly into the box and cause mayhem underneath, has matured into a reliable boundary safety.
The lingering fear behind these two, however, simmered well into the summer. With Isaiah Simmons’ move to Sam linebacker (don’t get me wrong, I love the move), only Denzel Johnson and Noah Turner bring any experience to either safety position behind Wallace and Muse. Any injury to the starters would thrust a barely experienced and completely unproven player into the lineup, creating a major weakness in an otherwise ferocious defense not only due to the drop off in personnel, but how it would limit the playbook to more conservative coverages. But again, the reports from camp provided encouraging news for the depth here; Johnson and Turner have developed enough to earn the staff’s trust.
And yet I can’t help but hold my breath with this unit. Like we saw at cornerback against NC State a year ago, injuries can decimate the most talented of groups and render half the playbook impractical. Considering the strength of the Tigers’ front 7, opposing offenses will already see their best (if only) chances to beat Clemson are with quick passes and fades, hoping for chunk plays from mistakes on the back end. Injuries here would only exacerbate Clemson’s relative weakness.
Even with the newfound confidence in Johnson and Turner, four reliable safeties aren’t enough for me to erase this one lingering question mark; it’s why I expect one of Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael (or both) to cross-train from their current cornerback roles and why Simmons’ move may not prove permanent. It goes without saying every unit needs to stay healthy, but avoid the injury bug in the defensive backfield, particularly at safety, and I believe this will in fact be the greatest Clemson defense of all time.
Wallace is the headliner at safety thanks to a significant workload each of the past two years, both as a frequent substitute and starter the majority of last year, after Muse’s hand injury forced Smith back into the free safety role and paved the way for Wallace to show his quality. Who can forget him highhandedly saving the NC State game in back to back plays?
While safety roles (deep zone, underneath zone, M2M, etc) rotate by offensive formation and play call, Wallace is equally impressive in man coverage against unbalanced sets as he is the lone deep safety, being truly the best coverage safety on the roster.
Turner was a late offer in the 2016 recruiting class which some whispered was a nepotism or favor offer since Turner’s late father played with Dabo Swinney at Alabama. Based on the limited snaps we’ve seen, I think this is an unfair assessment. Turner exceeded expectations with an active performance in the spring game and has developed his body enough to see the field and justify his scholarship.
The role for Turner this season will be to earn as many reps as possible in garbage time in order to develop enough to step in adequately should injury strike. With the defensive line and linebackers in front of him, Clemson need only ask for reliable coverage from its safeties, not necessarily transcendent play. Turner, entering his 3rd year in the program, should provide this.
Muse is an athletic specimen built like a modern hybrid linebacker, and thus excels as an in the box safety. Even with an injury limiting his snaps last year, he was 5th on the team in tackles. His role as a boundary/free safety means he will be free to fill in run support more often than Wallace or play deep in cover 1 or 3. I, for one, am eager to see his development in coverage, since he has drawn praise for his improved coverage integrity to complement his already lauded physicality underneath.
Let’s not forget it is Muse’s development this offseason which allowed Simmons to move to Sam linebacker, since Simmons was the primary competition for snaps at the position. If the staff is confident enough in Muse to move his competition to a different position simply to get the 11 best defenders on the field, there is less cause for concern than I originally thought when Smith declared for the draft.
Another relatively late offer but in the 2015 class, Johnson enters his redshirt junior campaign with only just over 100 snaps to his name in his career. Fortunately, the staff is pleased with his development to the point I expect his career snap total to triple at the very least this season; not only due to his spot on the two-deep, but because Clemson should find itself in plenty of garbage time where it can empty the bench. Unfortunately, I have yet to witness the improvements to which the staff has alluded. In the spring game and fall scrimmage (admittedly the only reps I’ve personally witnessed in 2018 so I have only a tiny sample), I did not come away with the impression Clemson is fine at safety behind Wallace and Muse.
The fact remains Johnson is almost certainly improved this preseason and should improve more over the course of the year since he will have his first significant workload. I consider it crucial Clemson substitutes liberally, whether in garbage time or not, to keep the starters healthy and to build experienced depth here. The bottom line is this staff has to be taken at its word (seriously, with the shape this program is in, most gripes are nitpicks), and if Johnson has their trust then he has mine.