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Clemson Football class of 2022 Primer: Defense

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A loaded 2022 Defensive class could help propel the Tigers to another elite class

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a believer in a strong defense winning championships, then you’re going to love the 2022 class. Both locally and nationally, the defensive side of the ball for next cycle’s class is absolutely loaded with talent. Every position group has elite prospects that could potentially fuel dominant Brent Venables-led defenses for years to come. A few weeks ago I wrote about Clemson’s status for many of their top targets on offense, but if the Tigers are going to finish near the top of the nation’s recruiting rankings they will be driven by an elite defensive class.

That starts in the trenches, where, shockingly, Clemson has made great initial impressions on numerous elite Defensive Lineman. There is a lot of meat on the bones in these position groups, and the Tigers should be able to eat well given their pedigree of recruiting elite Defensive Lineman.

The cream of the crop in the interior trenches seems to start with 5-star DT Walter Nolen. While Nolen grew up in Mississippi, he briefly played at IMG, and now resides in Memphis, TN. He has been likened to Ed Oliver, and possesses rare strength and quickness for his size. Clemson has offered and is likely to draw a visit at some point, though I expect Nolen to ultimately stay in the SEC. Travis Shaw, a hulking 5-star prospect out of North Carolina, is another elite Defensive Tackle prospect the Tigers are after. Shaw is arguably the staff’s top target at the position, and Todd Bates has been working him for multiple years. Although he resides in the Tar Heel State, Clemson’s toughest competition for his services is likely to be UGA.

While Nolen and Shaw are currently the highest-rated DT prospects Clemson is after per recruiting services, there are many more top 50, even potential 5-star players at the position the Tigers could land. The prospect who has exploded recently, and rightfully so, is Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy. The newly-minted 5-star from Lakeland, FL was recently ranked by 24/7 Sports as a top-5 overall prospect in his class. Based on the disruptiveness and athleticism put on film up to this point, it is hard to argue with that. Clemson fans will remember Lakeland as a traditional Florida Gator stronghold, and the High School of the transfer portal-bound DeMarkcus Bowman. However, it’s actually Oklahoma who leads by courtesy of him having two parents who attended the university. If Brownlow-Dindy can make it to campus it is very possible Clemson could make a move, but until then they are behind in the pecking order.

The last two interior Defensive Lineman to monitor for now are 4-stars Mykel Williams and Caden Curry. Williams is from Georgia, and reminds many of current-UGA DT Travon Walker. The staff believes he can play both inside and out, and it is very obvious Mykel is one of their very top targets at any position. Georgia leads at this juncture by virtue of the lack of visits, with Clemson, Auburn, and Tennesee not far behind. Curry hails from Big 10 country, but that does not make him any less of a target. Clemson is recruiting Curry hard, but I have a tough time seeing anyone but Ohio State winning out in the end.

On the edges there is just as much talent available. In a standout group, 5-stars Shemar Stewart and Enai White have emerged at the top of their class. Clemson has offered both, although White is a significantly more realistic option. The #6 overall player according to 24/7 Sports’ rankings, White hails from Pennsylvania, but has never looked likely to stay home. Ohio State will serve as the primary competition, but Clemson has positioned itself exceptionally well even without having the prospect yet visit. If I had a best guess as to one truly elite edge who will join the class, Enai would be the first name on the list. Stewart is a South Floridian who began the cycle as the country’s top overall prospect, and is someone I expect to remain in the SEC.

The next tier of elite 5-star edge rushers has Malick Sylla and Marvin Jones Jr. The Tigers will look to increase their presence in Texas and land Sylla, and the uber-athletic prospect holds Clemson in high regard. Jones is another South Floridian interested in the Tigers, and has as intriguing upside as any other prospect at his position. Both prospects are likely a Clemson visit away from having the Tigers become serious contenders.

The final tier of edge rushers currently on the board are Kenyatta Jackson and Jihaad Campbell. In what is becoming a theme at the position for this cycle, Jackson is also from Florida. Clemson is in a very good spot for the top-100 prospect, and if his progression continues at its upward trajectory there’s a strong chance he ends up in the class. Campbell is the final name to know, and was a little-known 3-star when Clemson offered months ago. His recruitment has since blown up, however, he has publicly stated he is looking to decide very soon. Campbell is very high on Clemson, and so it will be interesting to see how Clemson chooses to manage the situation.

Linebacker recruiting is going to be incredibly straightforward for Clemson this year. Jalon Walker is the top target, and could very likely be the only LB they take in the cycle. This is another Tar Heel state product where Clemson’s top competition probably won’t be North Carolina (Ohio State this time), and the potential 5-star holds connections to current Tigers Mike Jones Jr. and KJ Henry. The Buckeyes and Clemson both view Walker as the top LB on their boards. Shawn Murphy and Daniel Martin are also being recruited, but I do not expect either to end up at Clemson.

Without a doubt, the most loaded position group in the 2022 cycle is at Cornerback. Seriously, there might be as many as 7 5-star caliber corners in this class. Clemson has offered 8 prospects, and will look to take 2 with a potential 3rd prospect as an oversign. Domani Jackson, Denver Harris, Jeadyn Lukus, Daylen Everette, and Jaheim Singletary are the names to immediately know and all 5 are rated in the top 32 of 24/7’s rankings. With numbers figuring to be difficult for programs to manage over the coming years, Clemson will likely pursue the prospects who reciprocate the most interest.

That list starts with Lukus and Everette. How lucky are the Tigers that a 5-star corner popped up in-state? Clemson is the heavy favorite for both prospects right now, and that would be one heck of a haul. Clemson is also in the top-3 for Singletary, who favors the Gators just a few months away from a decision. Jackson and Harris are both likely top-10 overall prospects at any position in the country, and both recruitments will be marathons, so we’ll see if Clemson chooses to play the long game for either. Nickel prospect and 3-star Nikai Martinez is another name to know.

Lastly we have Safety, which is full of players who could outgrow the position this year. Keon Sabb and Malaki Starks are 2 prospects who fit this mold, and both are elite, 5-star prospects Dabo Swinney and staff would love to land. Both players could realistically play either Safety or Linebacker in college, which one would think would be something that benefits Clemson due to the development of Isaiah Simmons. Sabb is still a long way away from deciding, but Clemson, OSU, Michigan, and Penn State all figure to be involved heavily. Sabb’s Dad is fond of Clemson, and getting them both on campus would go a long way.

Starks is a classic head-to-head battle with Georgia for a peach state product. Georgia leads once again by virtue of not having any visits going on, but assuming Starks visits before making a decision the Tigers can make a big move. Starks is a bona fide stud and one of my favorite prospects in the class. Beyond those 2, the safety board includes 4-stars Xavier Nwankpa, Larry Turner-Gooden, Alfonzo Allen, and Azareyeh Thomas. Nwankpa is seemingly high on the board but will be a very difficult pull.

Once again, the defensive side of the ball looks like it will be the driving force behind another elite recruiting class. Clemson will get theirs next cycle, but ultimately the ceiling of the class will be determined by the outcome of the current season. If the Tigers win another national title there is no telling how much talent they could eventually reel in. Regardless of the season, however, for the class to really take off prospects have to be able to visit campuses again. The way that Clemson typically recruits is not particularly compatible with the situation brought on by the pandemic. Until then it is unlikely the Tigers will be able to generate the recruiting momentum that they typically enjoy. When visits are allowed again dominoes will start to fall, and Clemson will put together another class capable of winning national titles.