Coming into the 2018 season one of the biggest question marks for Clemson was the back end of the defense, and the safeties in particular. With Van Smith’s surprising decision to leave early for the draft and Isaiah Simmons making the move to the SAM to replace the departing Dorian O’ Daniel, the Tigers entered the 2018 season paper thin at safety, and pretty much one injury away from potential disaster. Fortunately the Tigers were able to avoid the injury bug.
K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse both came into the season with plenty of experience, but behind them were two guys in Nolan Turner and Denzell Johnson who had seen very little playing time. With so little depth, many wondered if the staff might try to work one of either Kyler McMichael or Mario Goodrich, both true freshman corners, in at one of the safety spots but that never came to fruition, as the coaches were obviously comfortable with what they had coming out of camp.
Junior K’Von Wallace would step into the starting spot at FS for all 15 games after seeing a ton of time and getting several starts in place of the injured Tanner Muse in 2017. Wallace is probably the best coverage safety on the roster and he is no slouch in run support either. Watching him, another aspect of his game that really stands out is his ability to make the open field tackles, something we saw out of him time and time again throughout the season.
Wallace turned in a superb season in 2018. On the field for 661 snaps, he was a constant presence on the back end and finished with 7 PBU and an INT. The pick came against NCST, the third straight season he has picked off a pass vs the Wolfpack.
Junior Tanner Muse was back at SS after an up and down 2017 that saw him miss significant time with an injury, starting all 15 games. Coming into 2018, the main concern with Muse was how much he had improved in his pass coverage. To often in 2017 we saw Muse get beat on plays in which he was caught peaking into the backfield, being a little to aggressive. Learning to play more disciplined in 2018 was a must, and while there is still room for improvement, it was something he was better at this season. There were still some busts, but that does not mean there was no improvement. His strength is still in run support however, as coming up to help stop the run is where he excels, as was on display many times during the season, including a 4th down stop in the National Title game. Muse played 664 snaps and had 76 total tackles, with 2 sacks, 2 INT, and 5 PBU.
Junior Nolan Turner really stepped up big this season. There were some moans and groans from some fans when Turner was offered in 2016, but Turner silenced all those critics with a very solid 2018 season. A season that saw him get better with each and every game, culminating in the CFP where it is safe to say he turned in his two best outings of the season. He had his only INT of the season in the Cotton Bowl vs Notre Dame and he played very well against Alabama in the National Title game, recording 4 tackles in his 26 snaps. Overall he logged 391 snaps on the season, gaining valuable experience for what should be an even larger role in 2019. He had 44 total tackles, 3 PBU, and the 1 pick.
Junior Denzel Johnson was the only other guy to see any significant playing time at safety. Totaling 378 snaps on the season, Johnson finished with 40 total tackles and 3 PBU.
More often than not these days, people tend to remember poor performances more so than the good ones. Overall, this group of guys turned in solid seasons. Of course there was the second half in College Station and the game against UofSC where the safety play left a lot to be desired. Outside of those, this group played pretty well, especially down the stretch where it seems safe to say they turned in their best outings of the season in the final three games.
All four of these guys will be back in 2019 and there is no reason to think they won’t all four take another step in their development. With another year under their belts, and with all the new faces the Tigers will have on the defensive side to start 2019, safety could possibly be one of the strengths going into next season, instead of one of the question marks like it was coming into 2018.