We’re way, way past the point of betting against Venables’ being able to reload and produce an excellent defense despite losing a bevy of players to the NFL. The same goes for the position Venables coaches. The Tigers have had an All-American linebacker every year since 2013. But man, they are going to have their work cut out for them this year. This is the least experienced group of linebackers I’ve seen in my time covering this team, and the depth behind them is even greener.
Clemson runs a nominal 4-3 defense, with the three linebackers being designated the Will (weak), Mike (middle) and Sam (strong) linebackers. Defenses have been downsizing and the linebacker position is no exception, most of the Will linebackers are built more like Sam linebackers (6’something”, ~230 pounds) than Mike linebackers, who typically weigh 245+. The Will and Mike play mostly in the box and are reasonably interchangeable, although the Will is generally better in space and the Mike is usually your most physical linebacker. The Sam linebacker can serve as an outside linebacker or a nickel depending on what the offense is doing. The depth chart lists the position as “SLB/NB”, the only position to receive a slash designation. Versatility at the Sam position lets Clemson adjust between 4-3 and 4-2-5 looks without having to substitute. This keeps the defense sound against tempo and hybrid skill players on offense.
The Clemson Tigers will be without last year’s starter at Mike and Will in Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph, as well as a pair of key reserves in the Davis twins. On top of that expected attrition, five-star linebacker Shaq Smith transferred in the offseason. Fortunately, the Tigers return Isaiah Simmons at Sam. Simmons, a former safety, has only played Sam for a year but may already be the best hybrid linebacker in the country. He’s a playmaker who might be a first round pick someday soon. The starter at Mike linebacker is longtime special teams’ standout James Skalski. Skalski has drawn praise from the coaching staff and could be poised for a big year as a starter after injuries forced him to redshirt in 2018. Joining him will be Chad Smith at Will linebacker, the only player remaining from the two-deep at Mike/Will for the National Championship. The two combined for under two hundred snaps last season. Someone is going to need to emerge to lead the defense fast with two early challenges against Syracuse and Texas A&M.
As long as Simmons remains healthy, Clemson should get plus pass coverage from the Sam linebacker. He can man up on slot receivers, cover underneath zones or rush the passer effectively. The Mike and Will spots will be question marks until we see live action. Although they are primarily on the field as run stuffers, both linebackers need to be able to play in space for the defense to work at its peak. It’s hard to defend 2 x 2 formations without the Will covering the #2 receiver, and how well he can do this determines the defenses coverage options. The same goes for the Mike linebacker and the #3 receiver in trips formations.
Baylon Specter and Mike Jones Jr. are the listed backups at Will and Sam, with Jake Venables having a strong shot to see the field as well. The trio have a combined 83 snaps. Jones, an IMG product, is athletic enough to play either outside linebacker spot. The same can be said of Spector, who was the third string Sam for the championship game. Finding a backup Mike will be important. Both Spector and Jones Jr. (both listed at 225 lbs.) are undersized for the position. No backup was listed on the summer depth chart.
Behind them are four freshman who have the opportunity to see the field, as well as Bryton Constantin who will redshirt after suffering a leg injury during basketball season. Unfortunately for Clemson none of the linebackers were among the early enrollees who participated in spring practice. Four-star linebackers Vonta Bentley and Kane Patterson are the likely candidates for playing time. Linebacker is one of the positions that takes longest to develop, so we can expect some growing pains. Venables hasn’t traditionally liked to play young linebackers (outside of special teams), but might not have much of a choice this year.
Growing pains might be the reality for the linebackers for 2019. There are talented players on the depth chart but precious little experience. Outside of Simmons, who led the team in snaps last season, the four players on the summer depth chart had less than 250 snaps combined last year. Although there’s plenty of athleticism, mistakes might be a problem as young linebackers work out the kinks. Clemson is probably going to give up more big plays than last year as a result. Health will be important too. This is one of the thinnest positions on the roster and linebacker is one of the most physical positions in football.