In 2018, Clemson’s defense was arguably among the best it’s ever been in the program’s history. That cemented their status as such following a convincing national championship win where they proved themselves to be the only defense capable of truly containing Tua Tagovailoa. Entering 2019, Clemson will have to replace a ton of production from last year’s squad, particularly among the defensive line.
Unlike the offense, the defense has the most compelling storylines this spring. Here are the ones to keep an eye out for:
Defensive Tackle Void
Gone from Clemson is perhaps the most vaunted pair of defensive tackles since the Perry Brothers in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. Additionally, the two tackles slated as the primary starters, Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams, will miss the spring due to respective surgeries. As such, most of the snaps will go to freshman defensive tackles and Xavier Kelly, a converted defensive end who has spent the last season making the move inside. Fans know Pinckney can play, and Jordan Williams got plenty of snaps last season to make the move for a bigger role. The spring will be important for starting to develop essential depth in the interior, especially given Clemson’s penchant for rotating players throughout the game.
While you hate to see Pinckney and Williams miss the spring due to injury, this might’ve been a blessing in disguise; these other young defensive tackles are going to need all the work they can get before the summer.
With Mullen deciding to forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft and Mark Fields graduating, there is an open void at the corner spot opposite AJ Terrell. Out of Clemson’s major signings, four-star Sheridan Jones enrolled early and figures to get in on the competition. Additionally, Kyler McMichael and Mario Goodrich, both of whom got time as true freshmen last season, will get a crack at holding off Booth in the spring (they’ll also have to contend with five-star Andrew Booth in the summer). McMichael figures to get the first crack at the job in the spring, as he was the first to replace Mullen when the latter went down against Syracuse last season. There’s also the possibility of Goodrich playing safety as well, which could factor into the battle as well. LeAnthony Williams will be another name looking to fight for some time as well, as the rising sophomore seeks to take advantage of a competitive group of highly touted corners.
New Men in the Middle
Kendall Joseph held down the fort as Clemson’s MIKE and WILL linebacker for several solid seasons. JD Davis is also departed, who had a surprising bulk of playing time (along with his share of ups and downs). Tre Lamar also opted for the NFL Draft after putting together his best season as a Butkus Award finalist. Taking up the reins is junior Shaq Smith, who entered the program as one of the top linebacker prospects in the country. Many expected him to be a much heavier contributor coming into his junior year, but has only seen the field sparingly after redshirting his freshman season. Smith will be expected to emerge as a leader on the defense looking to re-tool its veteran presence. It’s clear to see the athletic ability is there, and it’ll be interesting to see how he tackles his opportunity coming into the spring.
Of course, the other linebacker positions must be filled as well (sans Isaiah Simmons, who plays the hybrid nickelback role). Chad Smith, who has one year of remaining eligibility left, will likely see more time at either Will and/or provide valuable depth behind Shaq Smith. Skalski, who was redshirted by the coaches last season to preserve a year, will likely get the nod at Will beside Shaq Smith. Skalski, who coaches have been very high on, was stashed last season due to the team’s depth at linebacker (and foresight by coaches on situation heading into 2019). Baylon Spector, who saw some decent action as a freshman, could be one to keep an eye on in the linebacker rotation as well.
New Edge Rushers
Clemson must replace not one, not two, not three, but four of its starters along the defensive line (plus a starting backup in Albert Huggins). An infusion of talented youth will no doubt have the most spotlight on them having to follow in the footsteps of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, and Austin Bryant.
While questions remain in the middle, the edge continues to have some good depth. On one side, Justin Foster is one of the most established veterans at defensive end, and will get an opportunity to step into a starting role after two solid years as a reliable rotation player. In two years, Foster has amassed 25 tackles (including 7.0 for loss), a fumble recovery, and 2.5 sacks.
Meanwhile, Xavier Thomas is the big name to look for in year two after showing his raw potential as a pass rusher during his freshman season, where he accumulated 43 tackles (10.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks, and two pass breakups in 304 snaps. He earned a heavy amount of playing time as a freshman defensive end, which allowed him to put his explosive speed off the edge on display. Not bad from one of the top-ranked prospects of 2018.
The key for Thomas in his second year will be becoming more effective in the ground game; there were times last season when he wasn’t as effective in stopping the run. However, with that comes more experience and coaching.
Other names to watch in the rotation will be sophomore KJ Henry, who opted to redshirt last season given the depth and rotation at the position. A year stronger and polished, Henry should earn plenty more snaps this year (This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as I and others here at STS oft-wished the Tigers had opted to redshirt Huggins, who didn’t get a ton of time in stacked DT rotations until his final two seasons). Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Justin Mascoll should get time in the rotation, as will sophomore Logan Rudolph, who earned 141 snaps last season.
This will be a fun season to watch a mix of young talent emerge at all levels while backups and rotation players from last season build on their experiences from a year ago. The defense will undoubtedly draw the most eyes this season, particularly at defensive line and Mullen’s boundary position.