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2021 Clemson Season Preview: Cornerback

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Andrew Booth Jr. and the boys are looking for redemption in 2021. The talent is undeniable, but question marks loom.

NCAA Football: Miami at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

I was originally slated to preview the quarterback position, but I procrastinated and Ryan, ever the go-getter, snapped it up. The only thing left for me to claim was corner, and I was a tad bit concerned, because Clemson has one functional quarterback (I would have said some nice things about Taisun and Will Taylor, but lets be real, it’s DJ or bust) and I had a moment of panic, thinking we carried 35 corners, like most teams. Then I remembered we only have 6 scholarship corners on the roster and a wave of relief washed over me. I wasn’t going to have to block out an entire day to knock out this position preview. Now, with that not-so-amusing anecdote out of the way, let’s get to cornerbacking.

Looking Back

Looking back, in this case, is the best way to look forward.

2016

Cordrea Tankersley - 794 Snaps

Ryan Carter - 565 Snaps

Mark Fields - 332 Snaps

2017

Trayvon Mullen - 658 Snaps

Ryan Carter - 686 Snaps

Mark Fields - 246 Snaps

2018

A.J. Terrell - 805 Snaps

Trayvon Mullen - 701 Snaps

Mark Fields - 302 Snaps

2019

A.J. Terrell - 785 Snaps

Derion Kendrick - 689 Snaps

Mario Goodrich - 205 Snaps

2020

Derion Kendrick - 382 Snaps

Andrew Booth - 335 Snaps

Sheridan Jones - 300 Snaps

Mario Goodrich - 237 Snaps

For the first time in forever (I could go back further than 2016) Clemson didn’t have two clear cut starters at corner. Going into the season, I thought we would get a Kendrick-Booth, two-headed monster with Sheridan Jones as the nickel and Goodrich playing a supporting role. Instead, we got a mélange of five different guys (Malcom Green had 197 snaps too) that either couldn’t stay healthy, couldn’t stay out of the “love shack” or couldn’t stay productive.

Derion Kendrick turned out to be an excellent field corner struggling to lock down the boundary. Ohio State noticed and turned him into a guy racing to get in the camera frame as a Buckeye receiver waltzed into the end zone. Justin Fields played great, but he was throwing confidently into big windows. Some of that is on the safety play, but a good bit of it is on the corners. Maybe the loss warped my memory, and I refuse to go back and watch that abomination again, but I remember saying “how is he that open?” instead of “what a catch, nothing else you can do about that!” over and over again until all the liquor was gone.

To make matters worse, Kendrick was persona-non-grata in run support. Seriously, I watched a few plays where it looked like he was trying to stay blocked in order to avoid making an attempt at a tackle. When he did find himself in the position to make a play on the ball carrier, he was straight up ankle biting and hoping the dude tripped.

Clemson lacked a lock down corner last year for the first time in a long time, and it showed up at the worst possible moment. I’m not saying Clemson beats Ohio State with better corner play, I’m not into revisionist history like our friends in Columbus, but it sure as hell wouldn’t have hurt.

I know it sounds like I’m bagging on DK, but I don’t think he was put in the best position to succeed last year. He’s a sticky field corner who eats up throws across the field, runs out routes better the most receivers, and is great when he can break on balls thrown in front of him. He’ll be great at UGA as long as he’s not expected to lock up big receivers on the outside. He knows the spotlight is on him after getting a reprieve from Kirby Smart after his somewhat acrimonious exit from Clemson. I wish nothing but the best for him after he gets burnt crispy in the season opener.

This brings me to 2021

Starting Boundary Corner

Andrew Booth Jr. - Jr. - 6’0”, 200

Booth oozes talent. For my money, he’s the most athletic player on the Clemson roster, and was probably the most athletic player on the Clemson roster last season as well. He makes the extraordinary look mundane. Those one-handed interceptions (plural) last season were some of the most incredible plays I’ve seen on a football field from a defensive back, and I watch waaaaaay to much football. At the same time, he teases us with otherworldly talent, but has yet to put it all together. If it’s going to happen for him, 2021 is the year it needs to happen. He’ll be drafted on pure athleticism alone, but he has the potential to be the first corner off the board in next years NFL draft.

It’s not like there is a glaring weakness that holds him back. He wasn’t “injured” last year, but it felt like he was always nursing some little aggravation. Occasionally, you would see him fly into the picture late after his man picked up an easy first down because he was a little nonchalant in coverage and gave up too big of a cushion. He was still good, but he wasn’t great, and I don’t feel like he had the full faith of the defensive staff. If he did, he would have been on the island against Ohio State instead of DK, because he’s the lock down corner the 2020 team desperately needed.

For Booth in 2021, he’s got to add making the mundane look mundane to his to reach his full potential. This is his NFL contract year. If he’s on the Clemson roster in 2022, something has gone wrong. He has all the necessary skills to go from a guy who makes spectacular plays, to a spectacular player. His performance will dictate Clemson’s success against the upper echelon teams.

Starting Field Corner

Mario Goodrich - Sr. - 6’0”, 190

“Diamond” Rio Goodrich is the presumptive starting corner opposite Andrew Both heading into the Georgia game. If I remember the commercial correctly, 98% of college athletes go pro in something other than sports. 2021 is the year Goodrich gets to decide which side of that equation he falls on.

The former 4* recruit out of Missouri has been a solid depth piece over the course of his career, but has followed the Mark Fields “3rd on the depth chart when available” path thus far. The coaching staff will give him every opportunity to lock down the field corner spot. He’s shown flashes of brilliance in his career, including his 2 interception game against Pitt last season that netted him the ACC Defensive Player of the Week award, but the injury bug has seemingly bitten him every season.

When healthy he’s a smooth corner with long limbs capable of holding up in man or zone coverage. He doesn’t have the best top in speed, but he makes up for that deficiency with his ability to compete for balls in the air. Unlike some recent Clemson defensive backs, if he gets his hands on the ball, he has a good chance to pick it off. Remember though, “when healthy” is the major qualifier in the above paragraph.

In terms of the defense, this spot, as well as the free safety spot are the two question marks on an otherwise stacked defense. Rio will have a chance to step up and answer that question.

Nickel/Hybrid

Malcolm Greene - So. - 5’10”, 190

We learned a couple things about Green last year. His lack of size and top speed hurts when forced to line up as an outside corner. We also learned that he’s either Ryan Carter Jr. or Mini-K’Von Wallace (who like Greene, also went to Highland Springs High School program in Virginia) when he lines up at the Nickel position.

He’s the type of interchangeable piece that thrives in the Venables defense. He may not be ELITE at any one skill, but he can do everything well. In one drive you might see him line up in man coverage against a slot receiver, break off and cover the outside receiver on a corner blitz, blitz out of the slot, and drop off and cover a safety blitz. This is the piece Brent needs to make the magic happen in his blitz packages.

He’ll be a fun player to watch next season. Clemson needs him to stay healthy, because I don’t see another player with his skill set on the roster.

All the Rest

Sheridan Jones - Jr. - 6’0”, 185

The vast majority of teams in the nation would kill to have a talented, experienced piece like Sheridan Jones in reserve. In fact, the former eight-game starter has the potential to jump up and grab the field corner spot from Goodrich if he falters or gets banged up.

He’s the other guy in the mix at the nickel/hybrid spot, but he’s proven to be better on the outside. He started eight games last season but saw his playing time start to dry up on the rare occasion that the secondary was healthy. At the moment, he’s in the “good, but maybe not elite” category of defensive back. His top end speed and overall athleticism may be a tick behind some of the other players competing for a job. With that said, I expect him to log a ton of snaps in 2021.

Nate Wiggins - Fr. - 6’2”, 180

If you’re looking for the next A.J. Terrell on the Clemson roster, Wiggins is your guy (interestingly enough, he hails from Westlake High School in Georgia, as did Terrell). He’s a wire thin, rangy corner with shut down potential. 2021 is all about getting his nose bloodied in garbage time to prepare him for 2022 where he has a legit chance to jump up the depth chart and grab the starting boundary corner spot.

He needs to work on his body to keep from being pushed off the ball by bigger outside receiver, but that will come. If you’re looking for the next star corner to come through Clemson, Wiggins is a good bet.

Fred Davis - So. - 6’0”, 190

*STS Public Service Announcement: Don’t drive 115 miles an hour in 55 mile an hour zone...please.

For my money, Davis is the most disappointing player on the roster. Not because he isn’t talented, but because he almost killed a mail carrier driving like a total dumbass in the offseason. His discipline will be handled “in house” and will surely result in a suspension, but I doubt we’ll find out the length of said suspension until we see him on the field. I’m going to guess he’ll be locked in the “love shack” for a chunk of the season.

It’s a shame he couldn’t follow basic traffic laws (first and foremost because of the above mentioned mail carrier) because he would have been in the mix for the starting role opposite of Booth. He’s similar to Goodrich in build, and while not the fastest guy in the secondary, showed he can hold up in coverage because of his length and physical play. He positioned himself well with is play as a freshman last year. Now he’s going to have to fight his way back up the depth chart through some talented players.

2021 Outlook

Elite teams have 2 lock down corners. At the moment, Clemson has one potential star in Booth and a gaggle of former highly rated guys who have yet to break out at the other spot. Booth has to be the star everyone expects him to be for this secondary to work, and one of the other guys needs to step up and lock down the other spot. I don’t like time shares at corner.

These guys will get a shot to show their ability right out of the gate against a Georgia wide receiver group ravaged by injuries. If they hold up, Clemson should win the game. If they don’t, it’s a huge red flag for the rest of the season. I think they hold up and re-establish Clemson as the defensive juggernaut we’ve come to expect.