While Clemson’s defensive line dominated the headlines, the 2018 linebackers unit was experienced and rarely made mistakes. Venables tends to get the most out of his linebackers, having had at least one All-ACC linebacker every year since 2013. Clemson’s upper-class trio of inside linebackers were solid in 2018, and Sam linebacker Isaiah Simmons was perhaps the MVP of the defense. Although issues cropped up in pass coverage at times the linebackers were a key part of Clemson’s excellent run defense.
The Tigers base out of a nominal 4-3, with the Sam having turned into a safety/linebacker hybrid. The position is distinct from the other two, essentially serving as a fifth DB or third LB depending on the offensive formation. Because most teams base out of 11 personnel (duh) the Tigers are usually in a 4-2-5 look with Simmons as the nickel. Simmons and backup Jalen Williams took most of the snaps here. The Sam is usually under two hundred and twenty pounds, whereas the Mike and Will check in above two hundred thirty-five.
The Mike and Will are classic inside linebackers. They are mostly interchangeable and tasked with stuffing the run, hopefully holding up in pass coverage and rushing the passer. The majority of these snaps went to a departing trio of Tre Lamar, Kendall Joseph or J.D. Davis.
As an aside Clemson uses its ends in ways that often look like 3-4 linebackers, increasing the number of “hybrid” defenders on the field. The Tigers have also gone to dime looks heavily, and it’s worth watching to see if the Will (who has to cover a slot receiver in 2 x 2 4 wide sets, and has generally less strenuous run responsibilities) evolves into more of a linebacker/safety type over the next few years.
Tre Lamar was one of the better run stuffing linebackers in the country, and fast enough to play the deep middle in some Tampa two schemes, but his lack of lateral mobility at 255 lbs. made him a liability against shiftier receivers. That’s true of pretty much every middle linebacker, you can live with that. Lamar, a Butkus award finalist, declared for the draft after an excellent season. Kendall Joseph was a solid run defender, competent against the pass and an important leader of the defense. The two were excellent in pursuit and a big part of Clemson’s big play prevention. J.D. Davis outperformed the “five heart” label and provided important depth as a senior. Although Lamar, Joseph and Davis each only had one pass broken up this year, the linebackers excelled at limiting the damage after a completed pass. Venables is fond of sending pressure, and the inside linebackers performed better in this regard. Lamar got three sacks, Joseph had three and a half and Davis contributed two.
James Skalski was expected to take more snaps, but an early toe injury led to his redshirting. The special teams star has a chance to feature heavily next year, and returned for the postseason thanks to the new four game redshirt rule. His injury left room for Chad Smith and Shaq Smith to take snaps, although neither particularly stood out. Shaq Smith, a former five-star recruit, has yet to have a major on field impact as a Tiger.
The Sam position is often where Clemson finds its most productive linebacker. Last year Dorian O’Daniel’s play at this position was impactful enough to earn him a shot at the Butkus award. After forgoing the draft Simmons may have the same opportunity next year. The converted safety help up in the box against pretty much everyone but Alabama and his ability to match wide receivers in coverage is crucial to Venables scheme. Simmons managed to break up six passes and force three fumbles in 2018.
Venables is comfortable asking linebackers to play quite a few snaps, and this trend continued into 2018 with Kendall Joseph playing 738 snaps and Simmons playing 780. Given how hard Clemson leans on its top linebackers, and with the three most heavily played inside linebackers leaving, there are real questions about depth going into next year. The returning inside linebackers combined for less snaps last year than J.D. Davis. Getting Simmons back was important but there may be some growing pains next year as inexperienced players grow into their roles.