We heard all offseason this was Dabo Swinney’s best ever secondary, and for the most part it held true. But once again, Brent Venables had to live with unheralded prospects or relative misfits at his toughest and most demanding position (sorry guys that’s not linebacker, it’s safety). This year experience and crazy experimentation delivered the best group performance we’ve seen from the safeties since 2014; the unit as a whole far and away exceeded the sum of its parts.
Regarding misfits, I use the term lovingly. K’Von Wallace is a boundary corner too slow to stick there. Tanner Muse is a 1990’s Under Sam linebacker too stiff to play the coverage role a Sam must play in modern spread football. Yet Venables found homes for them leading the back of his defense, and at last, the mental busts we endured in seasons past vanished.
Early in 2016, when Clemson lost Jayron Kearse and TJ Green to the NFL draft after a calamitous end to the 2015 season in the secondary, I believed their attrition would be addition by subtraction. Considering the fact Clemson finally has actual, highly recruited safeties to step into major roles in 2020 (seriously the only highly rated true safety prospect Clemson landed in the last decade was Kearse), it’s tempting to make the same assertion. This would be a disservice to the largely stellar play we witnessed at safety in 2019, no matter how we look forward, perhaps not to 2020, but beyond it with optimism.
For the interest of this article series Simmons is included with the linebackers, per the base defense depth chart. I would have to create new safety positions and review him in each role otherwise, which is undoubtedly NSFW. Naturally, I just talked myself into doing so this offseason.
Where to begin with Wallace, who was a dynamic water bug in his final year and gave us fond memories like dunking on NC State every year and the single greatest taunting penalty I’ve ever witnessed against FSU this year (sadly I could not find it on video, but envision one man having a suggestive dance off against an entire sideline and you get the gist). Wallace was far and away the emotional leader of the defense this season and contributed more to the magnificent scheming than anyone not named Simmons.
Wallace even played a near majority of his senior snaps in the nickel role once Clemson brought out the new-fangled dime of doom in week 2, covering underneath in man and zone with equal effectiveness, and blitzing better than everyone save Simmons. This was the unsung and criminally overlooked hero on defense; he who I consider the top-performing safety of the season. Muse received the All-ACC nods since he made more interceptions, because the only media who pay attention are our team-specific beat writers or your humble bloggers, and awards are based on stats alone to the bulk of voters who only see highlights of blowouts. Wallace routinely out-performed every other safety and proved far more valuable to the scheme.
Johnson had another quietly serviceable year, though did not see the same level of snaps fellow-backup Nolan Turner found both when replacing Muse and basically starting in the dime. Johnson primarily backed up Wallace when in base defense, which was essentially not Clemson’s base in 2019. His graduation will be felt if depth becomes an issue — with the young talent on the roster it should not — though Clemson will certainly miss an experienced backup with no proven commodities left at the position except Turner.
Muse improved his senior year enough to earn the aforementioned all conference honors, and enjoyed a senior year worthy of accolades until teams began to isolate him in cover 4 and cover 0. For his part, Venables needed to check out of the calls which put Muse in such situations (see ACC title game vs Virginia) and there is far less frustration and little to no shame for a safety to be beaten in man coverage. (Being beaten is not busting)! Most importantly, Muse eliminated the busts which plagued Clemson since 2015, and made more than a handful of game-saving, effort-based plays, without which Clemson would not have been in a position to play for another national title.
Muse’s loss will not be felt as much Simmons’ or Wallace’s, both because Nolan Turner steps into his role with experience, and Muse was not on the same level as were the other two. He grew from a high-risk high-reward wrecking ball of energy into a dependable leader who brought focused intensity to the back of the defense, sure-tackling, and incredible straight line closing speed for his size.
Turner has found Hunter Renfrow-like status on defense and it’s an admittedly easy comparison to make given their backgrounds and defining moments in game-winning plays. Turner’s value could not be overstated and is especially evident when Clemson surprisingly often took Muse off the field to utilize Turner’s superior coverage skills (need further proof Wallace was shafted by the ACC media? Ask them why Clemson didn’t want their all-conference safety in coverage, or outright benched him, against teams who could throw).
Turner is more than just the only returning semi-starter, he’s the only returning proven commodity (who still has weaknesses, make no mistake). There will be growing pains beyond Turner while much higher rated but scarily unproven safeties step into feature roles. We may see many of the 2016 and 2017 frustrations return early in the year while the young safeties learn on the job, but if Ian Book is the toughest QB on the schedule you can’t be overly concerned until we see Sam Howell again in Charlotte.
In short, there’s no sugar-coating the quick growth needed in the 2020 secondary. By the end of the season the safety unit should begin the realize some of its potential with new blood racking up their snap counts, and in 2021, return us to optimism in the defensive backfield like 2019 — but with a far greater sum of its recruited parts than 2019.