I quoted Dabo Swinney in my season preview article on the linebacker corps as he said then, “I don’t think we’ve had a better group.” Looking back, it didn’t bring back memories of the 1990 linebacker group or even the 2014 quartet of B.J. Goodson, Stephone Anthony, Ben Boulware, and Tony Steward. Nevertheless, the group was solid for the vast majority of the season in what was a transition year for the Clemson defense, replacing the majority of its secondary and the Butkus Award Winner, while also being one year removed from replacing its starting defensive line. Injuries reared their ugly heads for two of the starters as well as a primary backup, but fans got to see the promise of a brighter future at a position set to lose nobody.
MIKE (Middle) Linebacker: Starter James Skalski (291 snaps, 44 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 PBU).
We predicted great things from Skalski heading into 2020, and he largely delivered when he was on the field. Unfortunately, injuries robbed him of several games and then a targeting call (pictured above) took him out in the first half against Ohio State. Fans got the good news that he will return for another season with the NCAA COVID waver. There is no doubt he is a difference maker when he is on the field, blending excellent instincts with well above average physicality. He made second-team All-ACC even with as much time as he missed. For the first time ever, Brent Venables will have his defensive captain coming into a sixth season in the program.
Jake Venables (319 snaps, 44 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 PBU)
As you can see above, Venables actually logged more snaps than Skalski this season, though he would be lost for the season just as Skalksi was able to return. The older Venables is not as rangy as Skalski, which was particularly noticeable in the loss to Notre Dame, but he is definitely a strong contributor who can provide sound depth going forward. Jake will be working to hold off his younger competition in the race to backup and eventually replace James Skalski.
Kane Patterson (138 snaps, 23 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 int).
Kane Patterson found himself in the spotlight against Ohio State when Skalski was ejected for targeting. As we know, there were very few positive highlights defensively for the Tigers that night, but the experience Patterson was able to gain late in the season has to be a positive going forward. Patterson flashed some good athleticism on his interception against Pitt. Patterson, along with his fellow signing day classmates, find themselves in that pivotal year 3 where many either make a statement or get lost in the shuffle, potentially transferring out to find PT elsewhere.
WILL (weakside) linebacker: Starter Baylon Spector (517 snaps, 72 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 PBU)
Spector was my preseason “Spencer Shuey where did he come from? award” nominee for this year. He really put together a strong season overall, though we saw a dip in production in the latter part of the season. Spector’s production was usually a lot better when paired with James Skalski versus one of the backup MIKE linebackers. He certainly put together the best season of his career to date as a full-time starter for the first time, leading the team in sacks and TFL. Hopefully he can put together an entire season playing as well as he did in the first half of the 2020 campaign.
Keith Maguire (100 snaps, 16 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 PBU)
Maguire managed to hit the 100-snap mark on the nose, which you usually want to see for a guy not redshirting. Of course, this year everybody got a redshirt no matter what the snap total was! Maguire is another guy who was thrust into some prime time duty because of injuries, seeing meaningful snaps against Notre Dame in South Bend in particular. It never appeared he was a threat to Spector’s status, but it will be interesting to see if he can make headway in the spring to challenge for more playing time.
LaVonta Bentley (73 snaps, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)
Go ahead and mark me down as a major LaVonta Bentley fan. I’m not quite sure what has kept him behind some of the others, but when he has gotten snaps, he has been like a heat-seeking missile flat laying dudes OUT. He easily seems like the biggest hitter of the defense, even ahead of Skalski, and who doesn’t love that from a linebacker? Just check those TFL and sack numbers relative to his snap count. I’m hoping for a larger dose of physicality from the Tigers on defense in 2021, and Bentley could be a major factor in getting there. Hopefully he will clean up whatever issues have put him behind the others in the spring, summer, and fall.
SAM (strongside) linebacker: Starter Mike Jones, Jr. (359 snaps, 30 tackles, 4 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 2 int).
Jones, Jr. had the unenviable task of stepping in for the prototype Isaiah Simmons. While Jones does not possess all the freakish talents Simmons does, he acquitted himself very well when he was healthy. He made the seemingly only good defensive play all night in the Sugar Bowl, picking off Justin Fields in the end zone to briefly stem the tide. He was one of the steadiest players on defense and should be poised to have a very good 2021.
Trenton Simpson (281 snaps, 32 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 sacks)
Simpson was the lone five-star recruit of the 2020 linebacker group, and he certainly flashed what earned that ranking. Simpson’s role expanded exponentially in the wake of Mike Jones’ injuries, beginning with the Notre Dame game in South Bend. From that point on, Simpson’s role and impact continued to increase, and he was arguably the best pass rusher on the team by year’s end, nearly taking the team lead in sacks with significantly fewer snaps than Spector or Myles Murphy. Simpson actually lined up at defensive end for a few snaps in the Cotton Bowl. It will be interesting to see how Brent Venables works to employ Simpson as well as Jones, Jr., as both are quality players. The SAM position should be great shape in 2021.
Overall, I would say the linebackers had a solid B to B+ season. There is certainly room for this group to take another step with the entire unit set to return, and competition should be intense with so many experienced players fighting it out for time. This doesn’t even account for players like Sergio Allen who was recognized as a scout team player of the year in a traditional redshirting season for him. The incoming recruiting class features some exciting talent at the position as well. We could very well see some attrition with so many numbers, but it is certainly better to have too many than too few quality players.