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2021 Clemson Football Season Preview: Linebackers

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CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Time for the linebackers! Coached by the defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, this group provides a lot of salty, savvy veteran leadership. Last year, Dabo Swinney said he didn’t think he had had a better group of Linebackers at Clemson. Not sure that really came to fruition, but such is coach speak.

This group features the eternal 70th year starter James Skalski (insert Hunter Renfrow ‘he has been in college football forever’ joke, but in this case it actually is true) playing Middle Linebacker, and graduate redshirt Senior Baylon Spector as the starting WILL linebacker. Then you put Sophomore Trenton Simpson as your starting SAM linebacker and that is your starting lineup.

Skalski, Spector, Simpson.

Basically the same group you had starting by the end of last year.

Departures

The notable departure from last year’s squad is Mike Jones. Who? He started the season as the SAM and started 7 games, played well to begin with, but dealt with a hamstring injury and had been passed on the depth chart by Simpson. He still played a good bit and was productive but didn’t want to transition to playing more WILL and sitting behind Spector there for another year. He transferred to LSU with a stat line of 30 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, two interceptions, and a forced fumble in 2020. He is currently the 4th LB, maybe 5th, competing against 3 senior starters for playing time and being asked to play inside (but Coach O called them all starters...lol). Coaches will promise you anything, grass isn’t always greener. Best of luck to Jones who was solid at Clemson and had waited for his time.

Kevin Swint was also moved from LB to DE full-time. This was a good roster move because the numbers at LB were too high and Swint is better served trying to catch on at DE.

Newcomers

The newest members at LB are very exciting and will be contributors sooner rather than later. Jeremiah Trotter Jr. is the future at MLB. He profiles as a Venables type of LB but with a bit better range and ability to scrape. He got to campus as an early enrollee and showed flashes in the Spring. He is super committed, leader by example type of player—good instincts and toughness. I don’t see Trotter redshirting and should get a good number of snaps in a crowded position group.

Barrett Carter is a linebacker. He was categorized as a Safety during his recruitment but he was always going to play a hybrid role. He picked things up fast, which is not easy to do in a Venables defense. Carter is one of the rising stars on defense and will get to see the field this season. The question is more ‘where’ rather than ‘when.’ He profiles as a SAM who has more coverage ability than Simpson. But you don’t want to take Simpson off the field, so it gets a bit tricky to find him playing time. Carter will likely find a role playing in Dime packages, but Malcolm Greene is your primary Nickel player (we will see if he can find a role in Nickel as one of the LBs). Carter, however, has played some Mike in practice, which is more for passing downs (you remove Skalski and have another coverage player with better sideline to sideline coverage). UGA isn’t exactly a threat, but Carter’s role will expand with more true spread teams.

Starters

At this point, we know what we get with Skalski. Veteran leadership. Understands the defense and a general on the field. Undersized but shows toughness, gives the defense a chirpy edge. At his best when attacking the line of scrimmage. Struggled against Notre Dame and Ohio State, bigger offensive lines, when getting caught and not getting off blocks. Venables loves to use his MLB to blitz and apply pressure. This is Skalski’s game. Good instincts to rush the passer. Struggles at times to get sideline to sideline, scraping from A and B gaps to C gaps (but he also isn’t supposed to do all that much in Venables scheme). Elite QB speed has given Skalski troubles in the open field at times (particularly against Fields), and not elite in pass coverage. Rarely out of place, however (Ohio St is the only game where the OC got the best of Skalski and BV as DC).

Spector is a little bit more gifted physically. A bit taller and faster—he started the season last year looking like an All-American, but hit a wall and spent far too much time in big games out of position and breaking down in coverage for a veteran. Spector has added another 5-10 pounds of muscle (weighed in at 239) and looks poised to play at a high level. I want to see Spector rush the passer a bit better this season. Too many times Spector would get bounced when blitzing and didn’t get close to getting home. Spector also needs to work on doing a better job of taking on blockers at the point of attack and also getting off blocks more efficiently. Still—we have seen Spector play at a very high level and Clemson will need that right out of the gate against UGA.

Trenton Simpson was the freshman phenom last season who kept amassing snaps as the season progressed. Simpson is a natural pass rusher with length, size, and athleticism. He spent much of his high school years rushing the passer and Venables used his gifts to make up for an obviously deficient pass rush. Simpson is still learning how to be an every-down LB who is as good against the run as the pass. Coaches have challenged Simpson to be more consistent—not just making the flash plays. Trenton didn’t fully understand the defense last season and that knowledge is coming along.

BUT—flash plays Simpson does make! He gives BV’s a versatile weapon to move around and stress offenses. Simpson also provides a nice complement to Skalski and Spector, raising the athleticism of the defense overall. He also complements Malcolm Greene when he is inserted at Nickel.

Reserves

The reserves really remain the same as last year—just need to add the two incoming freshmen.

One of the first off the bench (apart from Carter in certain packages) is likely Kane Patterson. Kane has elevated to first off the bench at the end of camp. He has added a bit more bulk and weighed in at 234. As a junior Kane got the nod over the other players in his class, avoiding a redshirt year. He logged 138 snaps last season (just over 200 for his career) with 23 tackles, two for loss, and an interception (7 tackles against Ohio State). Patterson probably gets to 150 snaps but will have to remain patient with the numbers and players vying for coveted snaps.

Jake Venables was the main backup last year at MLB. He started 4 games last season and played in 9 games. He is a redshirt junior with 542 snaps under his belt and 84 career tackles. He is up to 243 lbs and will occupy the role of being an inside thumper and physical presence. You know what you get with Jake—limited sideline to sideline speed but he has the trust of coaches and experience. Venables is a solid player who generally fills the right gap and knows the defense inside and out.

LaVonta Bentley is the bone-crushing head hunter that fans want to see more on the field. He was extremely productive in the garbage time snaps he got to play last season. 16 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and an eye-popping 3.5 sacks in just 73 snaps (83 for his career). He is only a redshirt Sophomore but needs to get enough snaps or you have to think he might get the itch to look elsewhere (although plenty of opportunity opens up next season with the departures of Skalski and Spector). Hopefully, he gets over the 100 snap mark. Bentley profiles much like Skalski—an undersized, blitzing linebacker who creates havoc.

The other reserves are Sean Maguire and Sergio Allen. Maguire played much of last season with a club on his hand. He is up to 234 and playing more WILL after getting 100 snaps last season. Hard to see that number increasing with the addition of Trotter and Carter. Allen is fighting for playing time after curiously playing 5 games last season and only 18 snaps (4 games is the max to redshirt, so perhaps this was Allen’s covid year). Positively, Allen is up to 230 lbs.

This group will also contribute heavily on special teams.