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2021 Clemson Football Season Preview: Safeties

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I daresay I won’t be alone in closely watching Clemson’s safety group this year. Watching and breaking down pass coverage is by no means is as fun as watching a dominant pass rush, and I’d love to tell all but the most pessimistic or overly-analytical of you readers to just have fun watching what should be a dominant defensive line this season. After all, safety is a lot like the interior offensive line: the good flies under the radar but the bad is glaring and lends itself to a lot of blame, equally fair and unfair.

It’s for this reason I handle safeties in the annual preview and review series: I am more inclined toward identifying coverages in film review than any other facet of the game on either side of the ball. I duly try to put more blame on the call or a forgivable scheming situation rather than a knee-jerk hot take around a player’s talent or mental capability after an errant coverage bust. Even with Brent Venables making the calls, every game there are plays where the offense makes the right call or read against the coverage, and the seemingly at-fault player shouldn’t be on the hook.

But all the alarms we sounded in recent years over the safety roster were impossible to ignore after the way the season ended; issues were not an Ohio State one-off and safety angst is even out in the open now amongst a handful of brave credentialed Clemson reporters.

I said in review for 2020 that while the 2021 safety unit’s “floor” (the minimum expectation) should be higher thanks to every player returning, the unit’s “ceiling” (ultimate potential) has to rise in turn for Clemson to truly have a chance to win another national title. Like we saw a year ago, Clemson can certainly get to the CFP given its overwhelming talent versus the schedule. But to have a chance to win it all, the back-end has to improve. With urgency.

Given half the expected contributors were not even available for the spring game, it’s difficult to project a leap just as it was a year ago when the pandemic shuttered spring practice and the normal offseason development programs. Like clockwork though, I find myself clinging to this off-season’s relative normalcy to explain why I believe that ceiling should indeed rise.

If/when my annual preseason lurch toward optimism proves misplaced for the safeties, as it has just about every year except 2019, I’ll rip this piece to shreds in January when I go through the post-mortem!

First, a refresher on how Clemson structures its defense and how it affects safety roles and nomenclature. Traditionally, defenses are split into strong side versus weak side. This is in relation to the opposing offense’s “formational strength,” meaning which side of the formation has the most bodies/eligible receivers. If the offense has two tight ends and a receiver on the left, that’s the strong side. Clemson though is more inclined toward a field versus boundary designation than a strict strong versus weak.

Meaning, Clemson aligns based from where the ball is snapped rather than which side of the play the offense places more bodies. For instance, if the ball is nearer the offense’s left hash than right, the left side of the formation is the boundary side because it’s closer to the sideline; the right side would be the field side because there’s literally more field with which to work. In most cases, the boundary/field versus weak/strong identifier is semantic, since usually the boundary is the weak side and the field is the strong side, but it is important to make this distinction to understand how Clemson’s safety positions differ from the traditional norm.

This leads to the two safety positions: free (boundary side) and strong (field side) safety. Before spread offenses became the norm and necessitated widespread use of two high safeties, the free safety was your archetypical deep “center fielder” ball hawk, and the strong safety would be your modern hybrid linebacker like Isaiah Simmons or Barrett Carter with more underneath or run gap responsibilities. With plenty of two-high, but especially the boundary/field as opposed to weak/strong designators, Clemson doesn’t pigeon-hole either role; Clemson simply keeps the free safety on the short side of the field and the strong safety on the wide side of the field.

In detailing personnel below, I’ll use the pre-camp depth chart. Some players are listed at both positions, like Nolan Turner listed a co-starter in each role, but I will default toward which position each player will likely find most of his snaps. Tyler Venables should find most of his backing up at Sam so I’ve left him for Coach Craft’s (no relation!) linebacker preview.

Field/Strong Safety

Lannden Zanders

Zanders was admittedly not the player Clemson needed alongside Turner in 2020, and in January he underwent surgery only weeks after the season ended. This gave me pause at the time and sure enough, earlier this month he revealed he actually played the entire season needing surgery to repair just about the most messed up shoulder possible. I’m glad I reserved overly harsh judgment back in the winter (though I was unfairly harsh in-season) before knowing the extent of the injury, on the hunch it had been nagging throughout the year given the quick turnaround between the season and the operation. It turns out the injury should’ve been debilitating: a torn rotator cuff and labrum.

Zanders’ shoulder issue is easy to spot in hindsight, and explains why he wasn’t more of a physical presence which, again, Clemson desperately needed when paired with Turner. We’ve already seen what a true off-season program AND a healthy frame offer Zanders in his development, and his weight climbed to an extremely encouraging 217 pounds entering camp. I’m no longer ready to write Zanders off in favor of newer players like my late season knee-jerk, and feel much more confident in both Zanders and the strong safety position group in general with a more developed Zanders and some competitive depth behind him.

RJ Mickens

Mickens should show a noticeable improvement relative to last year’s sophomore contributors since he, at least, enjoyed a normal offseason unaffected by a pandemic shutdown following his freshman season. Mickens didn’t find many snaps in crucial, game-on-the-line junctures last year except in bad situations at Notre Dame — and even I said at the time it was too soon to lump on a freshman in his first crunch-time action, filling in late for Zanders after the latter was knocked out of the game. There will be plenty of rotational snaps for Mickens to continue to develop given Clemson’s schedule, though I wonder if he’ll be able to hold off an acclaimed freshman behind him — not to mention Turner’s “or” status as the co-starter at the position — and carve out a role in base or even dime packages.

Andrew Mukuba

This is the impact player I’m most eager to watch. Barrett Carter may have the most hype of the freshman defenders, but as long as Carter lines up at Sam and not safety, it’s Mukuba who will draw my eye every time he’s on the field. This is the player I had in mind all off-season when speaking of Clemson’s need for the safety ceiling to rise, not just returning experience raising the floor by default. It’s unlikely Mukuba will supplant either of the entrenched, experienced starters ahead of him — given Zanders’ clear physical improvement — but very few draw rave reviews from Brent Venables so quickly. Mukuba should be a true star in time, and may force himself into a major role in dime packages as he gains experience throughout the year.

Boundary/Free Safety

Nolan Turner

Who would’ve guessed the preferred walk-on, zero star, “five heart” Turner would be here going on six years now — three of which a starter? (I point to the 3-3-5 being Clemson’s base defense in 2019 and Turner was your field safety when Isaiah Simmons manned a roaming middle safety role and K’Von Wallace dropped to nickel). By now we know good and well what Turner brings, and it’s nothing but good for the defense and especially the safety unit now that we can count on your more archetypical strong safety lining up beside him in a healthy, stronger Zanders or dynamic Mukuba.

Turner isn’t who Clemson wants flying the alley or isolated in man coverage (unless Chris Olave cuts off a post route too soon on an expected Justin Fields scramble) but there is no doubt he is who Clemson wants on the field for every critical passing down. Nothing is more important for a safety than knowing his assignment within the defensive structure and playing it soundly, and by this point we know Turner won’t bust. He’s the James Skalski in the back-end, there’s no downside to his return.

Joseph Charleston

Charleston has the most physical upside on the boundary side of the unit, and I would’ve been cautiously optimistic to see him start this year had Turner elected to move on. Charleston will still find plenty of snaps like he did a year ago being the third safety in the dime, and that’s before considering Clemson may choose to rest Turner more than the usual starter since he’s so experienced that the staff may choose to substitute even more liberally early on in games. A third year junior now, this is usually the offseason when we see the “light come on” after a sophomore year full of steady improvement.

Jalyn Phillips

A year ago in this space, I labelled Phillips my dark horse for major contributions to the unit, primarily due to a bulkier build than his contemporaries at the position. It never materialized though and Phillips labored a clear tier behind Charleston despite looking the most likely box safety when packages call for one.

Now the safety room is more crowded and Phillips will have to emerge if he’s to contribute meaningful snaps — though admittedly “meaningful” snaps will be few and far between with this schedule. That’s good news for every player on the roster and for a staff already more than inclined to push as many players as possible through growing pains in-season. There should be noticeable improvement both from a normal offseason and a schedule which offers a solid workload for about eighty players on the roster.

In summary, I predictably feel much better about the safety room than I did in the spring. I told y’all I’d talk myself into optimism anyway, but at least I can point to clear signs (Mukuba’s reviews, Zanders’ health and weight gain) to go alongside a year in which there was no attrition at the position.

This is a group with plenty of experience, lumps and all, to go alongside an exciting new prospect to help raise that ceiling. The return of a strong conventional four-man pass rush up front will help, but reading between the lines in fall camp to date, this season should be a substantial step forward in leaving Clemson’s long-running safety angst behind it.