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Clemson 2020 Season Review: Safeties

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NCAA Football: Boston College at Clemson Josh Morgan-USA TODAY Sports

Welp. It was a rough year for the safeties, and I feel even worse about it when I read through expectations from the preseason in my preview column. There are too many “old takes exposed” lines to count in there, from my digs at Ohio State all the way down to my unwarranted optimism for second-year players — those who didn’t redshirt in 2019 because the staff knew they needed as many snaps as possible before Muse and Wallace left. Yet they found almost zero critical snaps to their names before 2020 anyway and did it ever show.

I am an optimist by nature. I am also a lifelong Clemson homer. Clemson’s recent dynastic run has justifiably entrenched a confirmation bias. But the warning signs at safety were there in the preseason and honestly have been for pretty much this entire run. I’m going down the line from my safety preview to address where I was right, where my optimism was misplaced, or where I was plain wrong in my expectations.

There are back to back paragraphs in the preview just before I dive into personnel which duly stick out in my defense:

[Safety coverage] 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.

And in my mea culpa:

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.

Woof, that was a reach; what I called “mystery” was a horror in 2020. The recruiting misses (both in terms of losing top prospects to competitors and taking fallbacks who aren’t cutting it) are well documented. But they have never been so glaring as they were down the stretch where they finally reached critical mass in New Orleans. We are long used to seeing Clemson safeties beaten in man or pattern match zones by motion or route combos; that is how the defense is structured and where it will always be vulnerable. We are not used to seeing the deep middle of the field wide open again and again like no one knew the play call.

I hedged on the safety group’s quality with a reference to the modest recruiting average, yet discounted it and lurched headlong into my confirmation bias — which was especially foolish given that the truncated off-season almost certainly stunted development — and thought (read: hoped) a unit with only one blue chip recruit would improve simply because we’re Clemson and by gawd we’re elite. Depth was already an issue due to inexperience and became untenable after injuries mounted, but it is impossible to sugar coat how badly the safety room was exposed from October onward.

Like in the interior offensive line, the talent acquisition has to improve because development takes 2-3 years at this position and there are no quick fixes until Clemson actually does something with the transfer portal (LOL). This is why a 0 star recruit is your best player at the position for what will be multiple seasons now. Make of that what you will.

Lannden Zanders

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.

Another gem (of many to come) from the preview! To be fair, I fell for some optimistic staff quotes in part because I did not attend the usual August scrimmage (thanks to a pandemic) where I form my own impressions. Zanders enjoyed a large snap count and was Clemson’s best option at field/strong safety, but he either wasn’t healthy, wasn’t ready yet, or more alarmingly, his modest offer list out of high school told us more about his ability than a Clemson offer would suggest.

Clemson wasn’t strong in run support from the position and was still vulnerable when safeties were isolated in coverage — a known weakness I hoped Zanders’ speed would mitigate. Based on his surprise surgery this month, it is unfair to judge his first season under fire harshly. Zanders still may prove to be a solid player with full health and another year to grow. He has great speed and gave the desired effort underneath despite a substantial size disadvantage.

Jayln Phillips

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. Along with Charleston, these two provide a rare case where I’m more interested in watching the back-ups than the starters.

Phillips was a non-factor this past fall, and I take full blame for putting too much stock in his build, going down the “he’s the only box safety body” rabbit hole, and discounting the developmental steps Venables needs to see from safeties before allowing them on the field. It was Joseph Charleston who became the 12th starter in the 2019 dime look, not Phillips, and we can only hope he develops into an option to push Zanders for snaps or provide a sturdier option in underneath defense. The reason we haven’t seen more of him hinges on his deeper coverage responsibilities.

Ray Thornton

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.

This wasn’t quite off base since Thornton wasn’t expected to be a major contributor yet. Thornton found himself right in the middle of the safety pecking order in 2020 — beneath Turner, Zanders, and Charleston but above Phillips and Mickens — and his stats reflect this. In 10 games he logged a decent workload but not much of a statistical impact. Most of his crucial snaps weren’t ideal since they came on the heels of a Turner ejection or a Zanders injury, and like Mickens he is too early into his career to reach the level Clemson needed.

RJ Mickens

I didn’t even list RJ Mickens in the preview because it is not fair to expect a true freshman safety to contribute in a system that puts so much pressure (both in mental responsibilities and physical matchups) on its safeties, and thus I didn’t expect any critical snaps for him. Yet at the end in South Bend Mickens was forced into premature action due to a rash of defensive injuries we haven’t seen in living memory. I won’t rehash the result because it is not a fair assessment to make in that game situation, nor at this stage in his career. There are as many as four more years of growth ahead.

Nolan Turner

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.

This was the most accurate prognostication, which isn’t surprising because we’ve seen the most film on him. He met expectations for both good and ill; Turner was absolutely crucial to the back of the defense, being the only experienced safety, yet was not a plus player in the alley or whenever schemed into single coverage. He had few if any mental busts though, and that is indeed the most important trait in your typically deepest safety.

Kyren Williams’ opening touchdown in South Bend is etched into my brain and I will always worry about a deep mismatch as long as Turner is on the field against elite competition, but I will continue to feel worse when he’s off the field in 2021 than when he’s on it until we see development from Phillips, Charleston, Mukuba, etc. He was the best player at either safety position, but again that’s an alarming indictment on safety recruiting for a top-3 program over half a decade.

Joseph Charleston

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.

Charleston definitely won the battle for third safety in the 3-3-5. At first glance, I felt he had a quiet year and was subsequently shocked to find he logged over 500 snaps this past fall. Those are near-starter level numbers and will pay dividends in the future. Based on his workload it’s fair to say he met or perhaps exceeded the expectations I had for him this year.

Had Turner not announced his return for his sixth year, Charleston would start at boundary/free safety alongside Zanders in 2021. I’ll shift my undue preseason optimism from Zanders to Charleston this year, and look for a bigger step in development from the only safety on the roster (aside from the incoming Andrew Mukuba and an unready RJ Mickens) whom our recruiting peers actually wanted to sign.

In summary, Clemson was nowhere near good enough at safety to win or play for a national championship. The good news is there should be an improvement in 2021 simply through experience gained and no attrition, but whether it will be enough is my question. The only real chance for a drastic short term improvement would be in the transfer portal. Clemson has taken a step toward using it, but I’m not holding my breath that safety (or any) help will come from it in 2021. 5-star OLB/safety tweener Barrett Carter may provide an instant talent infusion, but again, he’s an incoming freshman who would take time to develop into a trusted option in whichever role Venables chooses for him.

There are long term answers coming in Mukuba, Mickens’ development, and some higher-level 2022 prospects for which Clemson is in position. But Clemson hasn’t closed those in the past. As far as 2021 is concerned, the unit’s floor should be higher thanks to 2020’s trials. The ceiling needs to rise in turn to really contend.