The time for speculation for 2018 is nearly over, but before we get there, I wanted to look at the current makeup of the 2018 Clemson defense and try to compare back to the current gold standard of modern Tiger defense from 2014. I will also take a nod to the 1990 group with the understanding that 1990 was pre-HUNH/Spread football and in my opinion that team, though great for sure, didn’t face the firepower and diversity the 2014 group did nor this year’s team will.
Anytime I’ve heard Brent Venables talk about the 2014 defense, I just get the feeling it was his favorite group maybe of his entire career. I could be wrong and he’s always reluctant to compare players or units to other players or units, but the gleam in his eye just seems different when that group is discussed. I will revisit the depth chart of that team unit by unit, then look back at that season and how they did vs. what they faced. By any measure, that 2014 team set a standard that the other Clemson units had never seen before or since (beyond 1990). It is just a shame that team didn’t have the 2015-16 offense or 2012-2013’s units or there would likely be a much bigger trophy than the Russell Athletic Bowl in the case.
Maybe Coach V’s affinity for that group is partially stemmed from it having to carry the team for stretches of that season when Deshaun Watson was injured and Cole Stoudt was playing at less than 100%. The margin of error was pretty thin for several of those games.
2014 Defensive Line: Though this group didn’t grace the cover of Sports Illustrated or other prominent football publications the way the 2018 unit has, it was as deep and talented as any Tiger DL in my lifetime, which includes the units in the 1980s and early 1990s. The starting group featured the electric Vic Beasley, perhaps the best pure pass rusher in Clemson history, Grady Jarrett, whom I rank as the best player on that defense, Deshawn Williams, who continues to draw an NFL paycheck, and Corey Crawford, who was one of the best edge setting DE’s I’ve seen in college.
Behind those guys were the likes of future professional Tavaris Barnes, Josh Watson, Carlos Watkins, DJ Reader, and Shaq Lawson. Only Watson didn’t last beyond a year in the NFL, Lawson was a first round pick, and Reader was recently lauded by JJ Watt as the best Nose Tackle in the entire NFL. That was a ridiculous two deep (in some cases three). The 2018 group is stacked to be sure, but to dethrone the 2014 group will take as much as this tremendously talented unit can give.
2018 Defensive Line: As of this writing, the depth chart for the upcoming season features a whopping four potential first round draft picks in the starting unit. Draft pick status is very nice indeed, but ultimately the production on the next level truly marks the greatness of a player beyond college. Grady Jarrett has easily produced first round draft pick performance though he was woefully underrated in the draft itself. Shaq Lawson, on the other hand, needs to stay healthy and put together some good seasons to live up to his first round billing. Professional success doesn’t necessarily put one defense above another during the college years though. Josh Watson was a really productive player as was Williams and neither have made a big impact at the next level as of yet (Williams is still working at it).
The X-factor for the 2018 group is probably the massive force that is Dexter Lawrence. The details of his 2017 injury have finally come to the surface revealing how limited he truly was when he was able to play at all. He was a huge factor in the double-digit sack annihilation of the Auburn Tigers at the beginning of last season. Quacking Tiger and others have touted the “DexStar” as the potential #1 overall pick of the upcoming draft should he stay healthy for the season. That, of course, would be unprecedented for a Clemson player and would surely mean the 2018 defense was a nightmare for offenses. Christian Wilkins could easily be the most decorated DL in Clemson history at year’s end with multiple All-American awards and potential national accolades for position.
One of the most freakishly athletic big men I’ve ever seen, Christian Wilkins brings incredible motor and smarts to the position as well. Other athletic giants of years past such as William Perry and Chester McGlockton usually flashed their unreal ability but would also be prone to stretches of laziness (which both guys had to fight perception wise when drafted into the NFL). Wilkins can never be found loafing as far as I can tell, even famously sprinting to the endzone to celebrate touchdowns with the offense.
Playing on the outside of those monstrous defensive tackles are Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, who are certainly a more effective pass rushing duo than the Beasley/Crawford/Lawson/Barnes group from 2014. While Beasley and Lawson were elite pass rushers, neither Crawford nor Barnes excelled in that regard and were much better run stuffers. Ferrell and Bryant have both shown tremendous pass rush ability (both have had games with multiple sacks), and Bryant in particular has made some highlight reel interceptions and pass break ups in space.
The depth, on paper, is pretty scary this season as well (for the opposition). When you march two five-star prospects out with your THIRD team, it says a lot about what you are working with. Still, much is left to be proven for the likes of Jordan Williams, Xavier Kelly, Justin Foster, Nyles Pinckney, and Logan Rudolph. Guys like Albert Huggins and Chris Register have logged a lot of snaps by this point, and Huggins in particular seems primed to have a great season (which bodes well in the hopes of resting Lawrence and Wilkins a little more during the season). The scenario reminds me of 2014 when Josh Watson was like the fifth starter on the DL and virtually split the snaps with Williams during the season. We know Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry are too talented not to see time (especially with the new redshirt rules which provides a mulligan, in a sense, for staffs with true freshmen). This might be the tightest battle in terms of argument between position groups when it is all said and done. I didn’t even mention a guy like Richard Yeargin who has experience but is returning from a year long injury.
2014 Linebackers: Usually a top defense in the nation will feature multiple future pros, and the 2014 team is no exception. The marquee name on this unit was Stephone Anthony, who fully realized his five-star status in the middle of this unit and ultimately became a first round draft choice. At Will was the two headed monster of Tony Steward and Ben Boulware, who virtually split the snaps and offered different skill sets for Coach V to play with.
One of the most interesting moves of that year was the shift of BJ Goodson to SAM and playing more 4-3 Under than we have seen before or since from a Venables defense, but in my mind is a testament to V’s versatility and willingness to adjust to get his best players on the field. Goodson was certainly one of the best as he eventually was an All Conference performer and currently mans the middle linebacker spot for the New York Giants. Korrin Wiggins was the change up against nickle and spread and put together a very good season in that capacity before being lost to injury going into 2015 and never being quite the same. What that unit lacked was the depth that 2018 brings to the table, but the program was fortunate to not suffer any major injuries that season (especially to Anthony or Goodson). Steward missed some time but fortunately the team had Boulware to step in there. Kellen Jones was the other two deep LB.
2018 Linebackers: This is as deep a group as I can remember without going back to 1990-91. The headliner is the underrated (comparatively) Kendall Joseph. Joseph isn’t the personality that Boulware was and doesn’t possess the five star hype that a Stephone Anthony or Tony Steward came with, but he has been a rock at LB for the last two seasons. Already an all conference performer, Joseph will be looking to add bigger honors behind his name this season and hopefully an enhanced NFL stock. Joseph has logged heavy snaps at both MIKE and WILL which offers Coach V the versatility to slide him either place to get his best guys on the field. The first guy off the bus award would go to Tre Lamar, who has that Brian Urlacher build. Lamar is looking to return from a bad shoulder injury which knocked him out of the stretch run last season just as he was coming on (see the destruction of James Blackman as exhibit A).
Other four and five star names like Chad Smith and Shaq Smith are now upperclassmen looking to have break out seasons. Clemson legend Jeff “the Judge” Davis’s twin sons (especially J.D.) and James Skalski are also coming to the party with experience and some production. The lone “question” as far as the starting unit goes is at SAM, where converted safety and athletic freak Isaiah Simmons battles veteran Jalen Williams and freshman Mike Jones for the job. Simmons certainly looks the part on paper, but will he garner the trust to do his job? Williams certainly has been a guy Venables likes and Jones has drawn praise, but it remains to be seen if this group can hold up to the Goodson/Wiggins combo in 2014 (or the outstanding play from last year’s SAM Dorian O’Daniel).
The 2018 unit can probably absorb an injury a little better than 2014 could, but going into things I would give the edge to 2014 in this position group...for now. Talents like Lamar and Simmons could change this narrative quickly, however.
2014 Secondary: We’ve all been a little concerned about the depth coming into this season in the secondary, but that 2014 unit walked a razor thin line all year long in this regard. The starting unit was very good featuring one of the all time great corners in Clemson history in Mackensie Alexander and “The Gambler” Garry Peters on the other side. Talented future star Cordrea Tanklersley looks good on the depth chart but in reality wasn’t truly ready at that point and saw Peters log the vast majority of the snaps after serving a one game suspension in the UGA game. Martin Jenkins aka “The Fire Ant” was a fiesty Swinney favorite who unfortunately was injured the majority of his career, including parts of 2014.
Alexander and Peters played nearly every meaningful snap and thankfully stayed healthy or the narrative on this defense might be similar to teams I recall in the 1990s which were victimized in the secondary despite having strong front sevens. Safety was just slightly better in terms of depth with starters Robert Smith and Jayron Kearse backed up by the steady Jadar Johnson. However, the fourth safety was the recently converted T.J. Green who was/is an incredible athletic talent but was just learning the position in 2014. Injuries like what the 2017 team saw in the secondary would have been an extreme problem for the 2014 team, but thankfully it didn’t become an issue.
The 2018 team comes in with three very good corners in Trayvon Mullen, Mark Fields, and A.J. Terrell. Mullen is already a fully proven guy who in my opinion could be the best corner in the ACC when it is all said and done. Fields has long been lauded as one of the most talented guys on the roster who is coming off injury looking to secure the bank at the next level as a senior (which really tends to focus guys). Terrell is a five-star talent who gained valuable reps last year in the wake of the injuries to Fields and Edmonds. The questions start after that where only inexperienced redshirt freshmen and true freshmen exist to step in should the need arise.
The signings of Mario Goodrich and Kyler McMichael were absolute musts and the staff is pushing both to be ready to support LeAnthony Williams and Brian Dawkins Jr (who were 2nd and 3rd team respectively at BOTH spots coming out of the spring). The safety group features veteran Tanner Muse and rising star K’Von Wallace but is also shaky in terms of depth with Simmons moving to SAM and both Denzell Johnson and Nolan Turner coming off of injuries. It is possible either McMichael or Goodrich could be moved to safety in case of an injury, but it is more likely the staff will move Cornell Powell over full time from WR. (I will refrain from the Kelly Bryant or Christian Wilkins to safety jokes but feel free to fire away in the comments).
The bottom line is 2014 was razor thin in secondary depth and 2018 is looking to be in a similar spot. The discussion for best defense could come down to the health of the 2018 unit. As great as the front seven is for this team and was for 2014, a hole in the secondary can absolutely kill you in today’s game as much as ever. Teams like NC State and FSU and Louisville have the requisite skill at QB and WR to exploit it enough should that problem arise. Of course, unlike 2014, the 2018 team’s offense should be much more equipped to support it.
Obligatory 1990 team notes: OK, so the famed 1990 defense featuring guys like Levon Kirkland, Chester McGlockton, Wayne Simmons, Ed McDaniel, etc, was awesome. However, the best QB’s they faced all year were Shaun Moore of UVA, Shawn Jones of GT, Jason Verduzco of Illinois, and (gasp) Bobby Fuller of USCjr. None of these guys surpassed 3000 yards and only Verduzco and Maryland’s Scott Zolak’s were in the nation’s top 20 for passing yards. Chances are most readers of this site have never heard of any of those guys, which should also tell you something. The vast majority of teams had to run to win games and the 1990 team was elite against the run. Both Jones and Moore provided that Tiger team with its two losses with both making pivotal plays in the passing game to help make that happen. Had that team run into Miami or Florida State or Florida or BYU, I’d have an easier time talking about them.
Like 2014, that team ended the season on a very high note with absolutely destroying its bowl opponent. Most units, even the great ones, run into a rough game. 2014’s defense was worn down and eventually out by the UGA run game. Of course, starters Corey Crawford and Garry Peters (both elite run defenders at their position) were not available for that game. The losses to FSU and GT can be directly tied to the offense turning it over or otherwise being inept. One slip by Alexander in the FSU game is the only reason they went over 300 yards passing and they held a historically great GT offense way below its average. If 2018’s unit can avoid the type of “slip” game like that UGA game or last year’s Syracuse game, it will take the crown. So, fire away in the comments with your thoughts and predictions!