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Clemson Football Season Review: Linebackers

Looking back at the 2019 linebackers

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Clemson entered the 2019 season with major questions at linebacker. The Tigers returned one preseason All-American in Sam linebacker/Nickel Isaiah Simmons, but lost five out of the six top inside linebackers from 2018. Then there was the unexpected transfer of presumed weak side starter Shaq Smith. Combine that with the losses along the defensive line, and it certainly appeared Brent Venables had his work cut out for him. The longtime coordinator coaches the linebackers, and the Tigers have produced an All-American at the position every year since 2013.

Kent State v Clemson
They’ve come so far since 2017
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Faced with historic losses up front, Clemson shifted from their traditional 4-3/4-2-5 front to a 3-3-5 for much of 2019. Without the Power Rangers, Clemson’s linebackers were tasked with blitzing and stunting more than in years past and they delivered. Smith, Skalski and Simmons were three of the top four tacklers, and contributed fifteen of the teams forty-five sacks. The trio were a big part of how Clemson managed to finish in the top ten in TFL’s the year after losing so many elite defensive linemen.

Mike Linebacker

The coaching staff was high on James Skalski in August and Skalski, coming off a redshirt due to injury, met the expectations in his first year as a starter. The “super athletic Ben Boulware” comparison is legit, and Skalski still put in yeoman’s work on special teams. He’s relentless fighting offensive linemen in the running game and a plus pass rusher for his position. The senior finished second on the team in total tackles and is going to be one of the leaders of the defense in 2020.

Will Linebacker

Chad Smith is an American musician who is best known as the current drummer of the band Red Hot Ch was a key part of the Tigers defense this year, and proved a lot of us wrong. It’s fair to say almost no one expected this much of Smith. The fifth year senior had never started a game before 2019, and he had more tackles this season (80) than he had in his career prior to that point (74). Smith, another former special teams grinder, played the best game of his life in the Fiesta Bowl, taking home defensive MVP honors after a dozen tackles. Similarly to Skalski he was better playing the run than in pass coverage, although Smith lacked the explosiveness as a push rusher.

Like almost every inside linebacker group Skalski and Smith left something to be desired in pass coverage, but Venables was mostly able to scheme around that. Clemson’s inside linebackers job was to play the run, rush the passer, and provide some coverage underneath.

Backup’s Baylon Specter and Jake Venables had great TFL numbers given how few snaps they received. Isaiah Simmons (and experienced depth at safety) was a key part of how that happened.

Sam Linebacker/Nickel (Isaiah Simmons Appreciation Hours)

Isaiah Simmons is the best linebacker I’ve seen play for Clemson, and he might have been the best defender, period. The redshirt junior led the Tigers in snaps (818), tackles (107), TFL’s (16), sacks (8), QB pressures (15) and tallied ten passes broken up and two interceptions en route to the Butkus Award. It almost does Simmons a disservice to describe him as a linebacker given the variety of roles he handled for the defense. Simmons lined up as an edge rusher, inside linebacker, safety, outside linebacker, nickel back and corner over the season, sometimes during the same game. There’s a reason PFF declared him the most versatile player in college football this year. He just jumped off the screen and demanded the offense keep their eyes on him at all times. The Tigers never quite found a backup (the only other player to clear 700 snaps was A.J. Terrell) and will miss Simmons dearly. He’s about to make an NFL fanbase very happy.