After a year of just doing running backs, I’m back in the saddle to talk about the linebackers as well. Obviously we head into 2020 with an unprecedented mix of anticipation and anxiousness. Clemson again returns a loaded roster poised to make a run at a National Championship. It is amazing to think about this considering that just getting one more seemed so out of reach a decade ago. Should the season go on as hoped, Brent Venables will once again get to flex his impressive acumen not only as a defensive coordinator, but as a linebacker coach as well.
One of the most glaring weaknesses of the pre-Venables era of defenses, and really the stretch between Reggie Herring and Venables, was the unspectacular and sometimes terrible linebacker play. Who can forget teams like Boston College repeatedly burning the Vic Koenning linebackers with passes to running backs like Andre Callender? I’m sure most have PTSD from very poor linebacker play verses the Paul Johnson option and the zone read spreads with Kevin Steele.
Now Clemson boasts Butkus Award finalists each of the last three seasons, with superfreak Isaiah Simmons bringing home the award last year. The recruiting has improved for sure, but the coaching has improved even more. Paul Johnson put himself out to pasture after having his offense humiliated by Venables the final four times they met.
This year’s linebacker corps is led by fifth year senior James Skalski. Skalski finally got a full season of health last year and responded with 105 tackles (second only to Simmons), 7.5 tackles for loss (TFL), 4.5 sacks, and 4 passes broken up (PBU). Skalski is the lone returning starter at linebacker and the unquestioned leader of the unit, if not the entire defense. Brent Venables is very likely going to adjust his defense once again after featuring hybrid 3-3-5 looks the majority of last season, and that should mean even more action for the MIKE (or middle) linebacker in the scheme who has traditionally led the team in tackles during the Venables era. Of course, Skalski is able to play MIKE or WILL, and will start at one or the other depending on who emerges as the next best guy.
The other known starter heading into the season will be Mike Jones, Jr. at SAM (strongside linebacker). He has heavy shoes to fill after Dorian O’Daniel and Isaiah Simmons, two incredibly productive and athletic players, took that position to a whole new level. Coach Venables has been pretty effusive with his praise for Jones during the off-season, and we all know Venables doesn’t hand praise out lightly, so that is a good sign to Jones’s development.
Still, the SAM is not going to look quite the same after having an absolute freakazoid doing it last season, so expectations for Jones should not be weighed the same. I expect solid “do your job” performances with not quite as many “wow” moments as we saw in 2017 and especially last year. That will be just fine for the 2020 defense which figures to not have as many weaknesses to cover up (mainly the front four). Jones should see a heavy snap increase after logging just 181 last season. Simmons logged a team high 818. My expectation will be somewhere in the 550-600 range for Jones.
The next most veteran guys in the corps are Baylon Spector and Jake Venables. Spector is easily my pick for the “where did HE come from?” award on this year’s defense. This is an award inspired by the unexpected rise of Spencer Shuey a few years ago. Spector is likely the first man out at the WILL position after putting up 45 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks, and a PBU in 284 snaps in 2019. Spector definitely showed flashes last year and garnered some playoff snaps, which is the ultimate sign of progression under Venables.
Jake Venables certainly needs no introduction, being the eldest son of the man himself. Venables is your prototypical thumper MIKE linebacker. He brings similar attributes to former MIKE Tre Lamar without some of the 5 star physical size. Venables is no small fry though, coming in at 6’1” 237. You certainly know the intensity meter is on 11 with that last name. Jake’s 2019 produced 38 tackles, 9.5 TFL (impressive!), and 1.5 sacks on 217 snaps. He figures to see a lot more action and could allow Skalski to slide to WILL in certain situations and packages.
The program has brought in a lot of young linebacker talent the last two cycles, and it will be interesting to see who among the group earns Venables’ favor enough to play beyond garbage time. Kane Patterson and Keith Maguire found their names on the depth chart by the end of last season, so you figure those two might be a little ahead of LaVonta Bentley from their signing class. After them is the 2020 class featuring Trenton Simpson, Sergio Allen, and Kevin Swint. These guys have, no doubt, been thrown in the fire during fall camp to see who might offer quality depth behind the top 4. Clemson’s approach, especially since the 2015 season, has been to play a lot of guys, but Venables can still be stingy with the snap loads for his position group. Maguire and Bentley redshirted at the four game limit last year and Patterson got just 64 snaps. Who will be the next difference maker to emerge in the next year or two? Maybe one will surprise and make a bigger than expected impact this fall.
Even though James Skalski is the probably only “name” folks outside of Clemson know, Brent Venables has an impeccable track record of having guys ready to play when their time comes to step into the light. Guys like Shuey, B.J. Goodson, Kendall Joseph, and Chad Smith all came up with big seasons after being pretty lightly used backups in their early careers. Skalski, at minimum, should continue the streak of All-ACC performers from this position group which began in 2013.