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2020 Clemson Football Season Preview: Safeties

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

At last, we’re back in business. All spring and summer I chose to protect myself from potential letdown, and could not pour myself into the usual preseason prognosticating and supremely overconfident predictions in case the Powers That Be canceled the season. So I’m catching up here with an obligatory look at the safety group after a shallow dive into what I expect from Clemson this season and an outline on defensive alignments.

Ryan provided the staff’s expectations in another article, but I want to lay out a few thoughts here now that the dust has settled and all systems are go — or as much as they ever will be — for this season.

First, with Ohio State out of the way, Clemson should be safest bet for national champion and Trevor Lawrence is a huge favorite for the Heisman. Before the Big Ten postponed, I leaned toward OSU and Justin Fields respectively in those two trophy chases; I think OSU is the best team top to bottom by a decent margin (I know, I’m sorry) and Fields is in a much more statistically friendly offense, all else being equal.

Yet now Lawrence finds himself the undisputed face (perhaps even voice) of college football with a body of work, supreme talent, and elite program to kick start his campaign while his toughest competition sits on the shelf. In such an unpredictable year, this head start is noteworthy.

The safer than ever before presumed CFP participants are Clemson, OU, Bama, and UGA, and this far out I like Clemson’s chances against those three far more than against OSU. The folks in the Big Ten will try and put an asterisk next to any trophy Clemson or the SEC earn this season, but the national champion can and will come from the Power 3 leagues this year without any sort of rationally believable dispute. Unless you’re a Buckeye, which never allows for any sort of rationality.

Second, the ACC made the absolute best of a bad situation with the 10 game conference slate plus 1 non conference game. Though I’ve long favored the usual 8 game slate which allows Clemson non-conference scheduling flexibility along with the crucial 7th home game for the local economy, moving to 10 conference games actually improved Clemson’s strength of schedule while ensuring the most flexibility possible in a season which still may go off the rails. Best of all, no more idiotic divisions and thus a better contest in Charlotte’s ACC Championship Game.

Keeping Notre Dame was paramount for schedule strength. Trading Akron, South Carolina, and NC State for Miami, Pitt, and VT are outright upgrades purely from a strength standpoint. Losing Louisville hurts, and as a South Carolinian I’m forever scarred by the SEC’s decision to drop the Palmetto Bowl.

It’s particularly disappointing to lose the chance to extend the streak against UofSC and tie the series streak record — but the good news is Will Muschamp won’t be fired for at least two more seasons and their 2021 recruiting to date looks horrible. But this remains an improved schedule, and if Clemson were able to keep South Carolina instead of the Citadel, it would be a slam dunk.

Thirdly, and segueing into defensive alignments, it’s not news to say Clemson will once again enjoy defensive line depth after a down year up front. This means a likely return to the traditional 4-3 and penetrating line play on standard downs.

Brent Venables will call his trademark fire zone blitzes from any and every alignment, but the 4-3 Over is his calling card. It’s an alignment most long-time readers are more than familiar with, and is more conducive to the defensive dominance we’ve come to expect than relying on last year’s dime to create confusion — though that certainly worked out better than we hoped until New Orleans.

This isn’t to say the 2019 dime is off the table with Simmons in the NFL; it simply won’t feature the roving Simmons playing four different positions, doing everything from blitzing in all those fire zones to covering a deep half in a disguised inverted cover 2.

This season’s dime will likely revert to the 3-2-6 dime alignments pre-2019. I charted the starting defense I expect on September 12th, though there’s little doubt we’ll see this change after Dabo’s initial deference to upperclassmen expires and the freshmen (Bresee and Murphy say hello here) force their way into the large roles we expect from the 5-stars.

2020’s base defense is a pure 4-3.

I figure a little more than half of this chart is entrenched while the rest will continue to develop. Both safeties (I’ll detail the differences in the two roles in a bit), Kendrick, the linebacking unit, Foster, and Davis are bona fide, no doubt starters. Pinckney is more or less interchangeable with Jordan Williams, but Brian Bresee may supplant them both by November. Henry will find a lot of competition from Myles Murphy, and Goodrich has an entire host battling him at field corner (and actually at this point I expect Booth to start given Goodrich’s lingering health issues from fall camp).

It’s 2020’s dime that is considerably harder to project. Who’s to say Clemson won’t roll out a 3-3-5 rather than a 3-2-6? In recent years, Simmons, and even K’Von Wallace, blurred that line so much that labeling it became mere semantics. Further compounding matters is how many different bodies fill the safety room now, though all are young and unproven except Turner.

Which leads to the safeties themselves.

Strong vs Free

In the traditional sense, the strong safety is the hybrid linebacker who most often rotates down into the box when eight are needed in it. He is the safety who lines up on tight ends and splits out against unbalanced wideout sets, while the free safety is more deep coverage-based.

The deep “center fielder” archetype describes your traditional free safety. Before the advent of the spread made two deep safeties commonplace, the free safety was just about always your deepest defender; a speedy headhunter roaming the back end while your strong safety flew the alley and had more run gap responsibilities.

Clemson doesn’t typecast its safeties quite so much as most defenses, especially not in this traditional sense, and it goes without saying there are far more coverage responsibilities for each position now than in the olden days. It’s more accurate to label Clemson’s safeties the way we do the receivers and cornerbacks: field (wide side of the formation) and boundary (short side of the formation).

An easy rule of thumb is you’ll find the strong (field) safety behind the nickel/Sam, and the free (boundary) safety closest to the boundary corner and Will linebacker. When not splitting deep halves or quarters, obviously, Venables rotates the deep safety role based on offensive formations rather than a strict rule requiring the strong safety to always be the one to shift, flip, or come down and the free safety the one to remain deep.

Contrary to the unbalanced sets mentioned above, in single deep calls against 10 or 11 personnel sets in a 2x2 alignment, it is the free safety who drops down to cover the weak/boundary side slot while the strong safety has deep responsibility. I mention this because offenses scheming the free safety into single coverage like this has actually been Clemson’s greatest weakness in coverage in recent years, whether it was Tanner Muse or Turner in the role.

That wart will remain a weakness with the safety room possessing the least amount of recruited talent of all position groups on the roster based on 24/7 Sports recruiting metrics. The caveat is that the recruiting average is skewed by zero-star recruit Turner, who is far and away the leader in the safety room with a bevy of experience and clutch plays to his name, despite being an athletic mismatch most offenses will aim to exploit whenever possible.

Yet, for the first time in years, Venables has actual recruited safeties vying for roles rather than converted corners and linebackers. Aside from Turner, who will remain a rock in the back, the safety room has exciting potential and mystery alike in largely unknown relative newcomers.

Strong Safety

#36 Lannden Zanders, Sophomore, .8648 (3 star)

You won’t ever see Zanders’ jersey number from the back but you’ll see the hair from anywhere. Without a spring game, I’ve yet to get an adequate read on his proper strengths and weaknesses; his mostly garbage time snaps last year tells me little since a player’s greatest progression usually comes after his first year. Those snaps were crucial though knowing what Clemson would lose at safety after 2019, and that’s the reason he (and seemingly every other safety in last year’s class) did not redshirt in 2019.

What we’ve gleaned from camp reports are all positive, and we can expect Zanders to play an active role across the defensive backfield. He seems to have the capability to fill either of the safety archetype roles, though especially when paired with Turner, Zanders will be the one most frequently asked to cover underneath or in space when not in a two deep call. Zanders looks like the starter for the next three or four years depending on how this extra year of eligibility shakes out for everyone, and may prove to be a star in his career.

25 Jalyn Phillips, Sophomore, .8851 (3 star)

Phillips is the new Swiss army knife in the back end and will play both safety positions and maybe a bit of nickel as he develops. By nature of backing up both safety roles, we’ll see him on the field plenty as the first off the bench and likely in the dime if that means three safeties again.

I’d say Phillips is the best looking safety on the roster. That’s why he’s been cross-training at multiple DB positions. He’s your most likely “12th starter,” like Turner was a year ago, depending on the formation shuffling. Paired with Charleston below, these two provide a rare case where I’m more interested in watching the back-ups than the starters.

16 Ray Thornton, Sophomore, .8729 (3 star)

Being on the depth chart at all should mean plenty of playing time at Clemson, though some of Thornton’s presumed playing time late in games this year may end up being split with formerly-redshirting freshmen who no longer need to redshirt to keep an extra year of eligibility. It’s safe to say Thornton (and those behind him) will see the field plenty in September as Clemson opens the season with tuneups and builds experience for a back-loaded schedule — experience which could prove necessary should COVID hit the roster.

Free Safety

24 Nolan Turner, 5th year Senior

Turner is the most experienced safety and the room and the expected leader, a quasi-starter in the de facto base dime defense a year ago. I wouldn’t place him in either of the traditional safety position archetypes, though his coverage roles have certainly (and correctly) asked him to remain deep like a typical free safety rather than man up on tight ends or play underneath — with Simmons playing the middle safety role in last year’s dime, Turner was indeed most often required to play deep while Simmons flew around. In the 4-3, he’ll stick to free/boundary safety and his responsibility will rotate with the call and offensive formation.

Notice there’s no 24/7 rating next to his name because Turner was not exactly considered a prospect by recruiting services. We’ve seen more or less the best case scenario in his scholarship offer unfold, with momentum shifting and game winning plays making up for — and often immediately following — horribly missed tackles in space or losing single coverage battles. Venables will have to protect against opponents scheming to isolate him, but that’s long been the case at the position. Turner won’t mentally bust, and that’s more important in a safety than being a sure tackler or plus athlete.

18 Joseph Charleston, Sophomore, .9376 rating (4 star)

Charleston is the highest rated safety on the depth chart this year and Turner’s direct backup, though his main competition for playing time will be Phillips in their chase to be the 3rd safety in the dime. Phillips has a bit more size so it’s likely we see Charleston play the deeper role Turner played last year when in dime, while Phillips plays box safety like Wallace did in 2017 and 2018 dime looks.

Given his higher rating, Charleston is the one I’m watching closest this year to see how his development progresses. He or Phillips are in line for a heavy workload this year in what is effectively an audition to take Turner’s place next year — assuming Turner doesn’t come back for a 6th year — and his development is where we will most likely find the answer to any lingering question marks on the safety unit throughout the season.