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2018 Clemson Cornerbacks Review

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Evaluating Half of the Defense’s “Weak Link”

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Trayvon Mullen thanks the haters and bids them adieu
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Clemson’s cornerback group faced it’s fair share of ups and downs throughout the year but should be remembered quite fondly in retrospect. Depth was a legitimate concern entering the season with only three proven returning players on the roster. Luckily, the trio of Trayvon Mullen, A.J. Terrell, and Mark Fields managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the season and bring consistency to a position that demands it in Brent Venables’ aggressive defensive scheme.

Throughout the year the overall talent level of the group was questioned by outsiders, especially following the passing performances of Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and UofSC’s Jake Bentley. This led to the secondary as a whole being labeled as the defense’s “weak link,” a description that was unfair for the corner’s who had performed well in general. Thankfully, all doubts were put to rest during the College Football Playoff during a two game run that saw the dismantling of Ian Book and Tua Tagovailoa and culminated with Clemson’s second championship in three years.

Departures:

Trayvon Mullen – 2019 CFP Final Defensive Player of the Game, Second Team All-ACC, 701 snaps, 37 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, 4 PBUs, 1 INT, 1 FF

Mullen came into the 2018 season surrounded by hype and anointed the leader of Clemson’s secondary. He responded to the challenge the way alphas do - by exceeding all expectations. Mullen’s high caliber of play effectively locked down his half of the field. This, of course, allows a Venables defense to reach its max potential and green light the front seven to play like a pack of rabid dogs. Mullen cemented his spot in Clemson lore during the team’s run to the national championship. After helping hold Ian Book to 160 yards passing in the CFP semifinal, Mullen was named the Defensive Player of the Game in the CFP Final following a 6 tackle, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception performance - all despite having to exit the game during the beginning of the 3rd quarter,

Mullen stifled an Alabama comeback attempt early in the 2nd quarter with the score at 21-16. His long return set up the final Clemson touchdown before the end of the first half.

Mullen shot the gap on the very next drive to stop Alabama on a critical 3rd down attempt before the half.

Mullen saved his best game for last and earned himself a big payday in the NFL draft following an outstanding junior season.

Mark Fields - 302 Snaps, 9 Tackles, 6 PBUs

Fellow STS writer Ryan Kantor said it best in his farewell article when he described Fields as “mercurial.” Fields had always flashed NFL-level talent, but injuries and inconsistent play never allowed him to blossom into the true shutdown corner of which he was capable. That led to Fields being passed by A.J. Terrell on the depth chart and seeing limited snaps over the course of the season. His play was neither spectacular nor disappointing, just underwhelming given talent and expectations.

However, when Clemson needed him most, he rose to the challenge and silenced the doubters in the national championship game. Fields stuck with Clemson through thick and thin, provided depth during his senior season, and ultimately went out on top. Respect.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Nobody is sleeping on Mark Fields after his performance in the National Championship
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Returners:

A.J. Terrell – Third Team All-ACC, 805 snaps, 53 tackles, 2 TFL, 7 PBUs, 3 INTS, 1 TD, 2 FF

Mario Goodrich – 113 snaps, 7 tackles, 3 PBUs

Kyler McMichael – 101 snaps, 2 tackles

LeAnthony Williams – 73 snaps, 8 tackles

Brian Dawkins – 3 snaps

A.J. Terrell continued to blossom over the course of the season, ending with third team All-ACC honors and grabbing the momentous pick six during the national championship game. Many thought that Terrell would be battling with Mark Fields for the second starting corner spot all year long but Terrell’s consistent excellence abruptly ended that discussion and he managed to start all 15 games. With continued development, he could follow in the footsteps of Trayvon Mullen next year and be a day 1 or 2 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Goodrich and McMichael both avoided redshirts and crossed the 100 snap mark as true freshman. McMichael came out of fall camp ahead of Goodrich, contributed early, but seemed to get passed in the CB pecking order by Goodrich as the season unfolded. Both players only saw action during blowouts, so it makes sense they managed to get on the field during the Notre Dame and Alabama games. Both will fight for the starting spot open opposite Terrell next year.

LeAnthony WIlliams remains a relative mystery on the team. The redshirt freshman came into Clemson as a 4-star recruit who many believed would develop into a consistent contributor. He still has plenty of time to meet those expectations but it’s discouraging that he didn’t manage to see the field in the final 6 games of the season. He is ahead of Dawkins on the depth chart.

Incoming Freshman:

Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones are the incoming recruits from the 2019 recruiting class. Jones enrolled in January and will have plenty of time to work on his physique, learn the system, and get baptized by WRU. He comes to Clemson well coached and will have the opportunity to contribute early. His speed is the only concern. Booth, although not an early enrollee, should fight for 1st team reps immediately with McMichael and Goodrich. He’s an instant impact alpha dog who will be a playmaker on defense for the next few years.

Overall:

Clemson’s 2018 cornerback group was often overshadowed by the elite defensive line and occasionally lumped in as part of the “weak link” secondary as a whole. The truth is they performed at an elite level all year, excluding the bizarre UofSC performance. The play of Trayvon Mullen and AJ Terrell can be considered the team’s best since the Mackensie Alexander/Cordrea Tankersley efforts of 2015. The group developed throughout the year and the young talent from the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes hint at continued success for years to come.