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STS Clemson Season Preview: Cornerbacks

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

This is a pretty easy preview to write. Clemson has three elite level corners that can win championship level football, but then there is a big break between those three and the rest of the group. The rest of the players have talent, but they aren’t ready yet for that next level.

Gone are Ryan Carter (629 snaps during the regular season last year) and Marcus Edmond (surprisingly only 46 snaps due to injury), who were seniors, and Amir Trapp (57 snaps) who transferred to Furman and will play against Clemson in Week One of the 2018 season. (**all snap counts don’t include the Bama game)

Junior Trayvon Mullen is going to the NFL next year. He is the alpha, lead corner on the team who will lockdown the boundary corner slot. After a strong Sophomore campaign where he played 600 snaps and worked the boundary corner, often against the opposing team’s best wide receiver, he is set to do it again. Mullen’s health is key to allowing Brent Venables defense to remain aggressive and attack opposing QB’s.

Next is either senior Mark Fields or true sophomore AJ Terrell at the field corner spot (although either can backup Mullen and switch to the boundary when needed). Fields had an up and down Junior season and contemplated trying to go to the NFL after logging only 246 snaps. He was limited by injury after the Syracuse game. His return gives Clemson some proven depth and Swinney has stated that this is the best version of Mark Fields to date. My understanding is that he still struggles with the ball in the air at times, but has shown marked improvement this offseason. The potential hamstring tweak is worrisome because Fields has a history of lingering injuries over the course of his career.

AJ Terrell, as a true freshman, was able to amass 230 snaps. That experience is huge right now because Terrell is going to be a de-facto starter even if Fields walks out first (and by most accounts Terrell is outperforming Fields through camp). Terrell is legit and will take over the boundary spot next season. After this season you only have Terrell as a player with a couple of seasons of experience—talented but thin.

The depth is scary at this point from an experience standpoint. No player on the two deep after the top three players has played a snap in major college football. There is talent, but the lack of depth is troubling.

LeAnthony Williams is a redshirt freshman who shows a lot of upside and will become a contributor in time. Williams only weighs 178 pounds right now and needs another five to ten pounds of mass to get to that optimal 185-190 range for a corner. He needs to work on consistency. He will have a good/great play and then struggle on a few. That will come with maturing physically and gaining experience. He will be a two deep player sooner than later, but it would be nice to give him 100 snaps this year as opposed to 250-300.

Kyler McMichael weighed in at 196 pounds and is physically ready to contribute, but still needs work to put it altogether. He will definitely play this season and has flashed at corner for sure, but needs more work on his technique and understanding the defense before he can reach that level of consistency. Kyler is fast though. Legit 4.4 speed (and not hand-timed, that is laser, combine legit speed). He and Goodrich seem to be sticking at corner for the time being.

Mario Goodrich weighed in at 199 pounds and has also flashed during camp, but had a groin injury that has kept him out of lots of the scrimmage work. That is really not good when you want to see the field as a true freshman because it gives the coaches even less of a chance to evaluate your in-game reliability and aptitude.

So you have three guys who you need to play in the two deep or step into the two deep with a single injury. The only other player on the roster is Brian Dawkins Jr. at 168 pounds. I’m not going to count him out after hearing Dawkins Sr’s Hall of Fame speech, but he has struggled against taller wide receivers in practice and in scrimmages to date. The defense as a whole can absorb a lot of injuries, but not at corner this year and really not in the secondary.

In an emergency, K’von Wallace could play corner, but that isn’t ideal because the way things have shaken out in camp is that Wallace is your primary Nickel and Simmons rotates to Safety when that happens. Simmons then leaves his SAM spot. An injury at corner where Wallace goes to corner means Simmons is playing Safety. Remember that Denzel Johnson only played around 50 snaps total last season (30 of them against The Citadel). Turner is fast and serviceable and Johnson has the athleticism, but neither is ideal. Also remember that Clemson at one point last season needed to go six and seven corners deep last year at one point due to injury. If that happened this season you would be starting a true freshman or Dawkins Jr with zero depth.

Starting corners for Clemson are elite. The top three are as good as any in the country. The depth is less than ideal with regards to experience and numbers at the position, but the talent is definitely solid. To be clear, this is a better situation than almost any team in the ACC (but this team is being judged by national championship standards and the greatest defense of all-time at Clemson discussions where the depth is a concern).

Landing Andrew Booth was really important for the depth at the position, giving you an elite corner to pair with AJ Terrell (who could bolt for the NFL after next season) and Kyler or Mario if they both stay at corner.