It has been a great summer of football recruiting for the Clemson Tigers. You never know when the next guy who might eventually make a list like this will come to town! I used Andrew Mukuba in the cover photo for this because he is off to a great start in his career at safety (and other spots too!). Now I’m going to try to pick the absolute cream of the crop from a very, very strong position group in Clemson Tiger history. Difficult and debatable, which is why I like a series like this one. Again, these are not ranked in any order other than the ease of my decision to add them.
Clemson’s defensive history greatly surpasses its offensive history if you think of it. The Ford era, which until Dabo Swinney was the peak era of Clemson football, was dominated by elite defensive groups. Clemson’s NFL contributions were almost always on the defensive side of the ball from the late 1970s through the end of the 20th Century. Clemson’s one and only current NFL Hall of Famer was a defender, and, of course, a member of this edition of Mount Rushmore.
- Brian Dawkins (1992-1995). My first memory of this all time great was unfortunately from the disastrous 1993 game at FSU where the Tigers were drubbed 57-0. One of the very few bright spots was a blocked kick that Dawkins picked up and was on his way to running back for a score, only to be caught by FSU kicker Scott Bentley to add insult to a whole lot of injury. However, the trademark grit and relentless effort that would come to define “Weapon X” was already on display on that scorching hot afternoon. The game was out of hand but #20 was still going as hard as he could go. Dawkins just got better and better as he went through his Tiger career, going from a last minute addition to his recruiting class to an All-American. He would go on to be one of the guys to redefine the safety position in the NFL, being able to cover like a corner, hit like a linebacker, and rush like a defensive end.
- Terry Kinard (1978-1982). There could be no valid Mount Rushmore for safeties without this iconic player. Kinard had one of the most decorated college careers of anyone of any school on his way to the college Hall of Fame. Kinard would go on to win a national championship at Clemson and two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Kinard is rightfully in the Ring of Honor. A member of the 1981 title team told me that Kinard, in his opinion, was the best player on that team. He still holds the career interception record with a whopping 17, which is even more impressive when you consider they played fewer games and saw a lot less passing in his time versus the last 20 years.
So 1 and 2 (or 1A and 1B if you’d rather) was super easy. The next two, however, not nearly as much. There was a lot to consider and a lot of intriguing candidates. What do you do with a couple of guys who moved around, like Isaiah Simmons and Antuan Edwards? What if a guy was more “elite” earlier in his career than later, like a Robert Carswell or a Robert O’Neill? What if he outgrew the spot like Darnell Stephens did? Oh well, here goes my final two...
3. Isaiah Simmons (2017-2019). So there is no question that Simmons is an all time Clemson great. The only question is how to “position” him. Linebacker? Corner? Safety? DE? He became the penultimate “Queen on the chessboard” for Brent Venables by his dominant 2019 Butkis Award winning season. He is easily one of the most freakish athletes I’ve ever seen wear the paw, and when the light came on for him down the stretch of the 2018 season, that team truly became its fully weaponized self as it went on its path of destruction to the national championship. Simmons produced at least one jaw dropping play in my eyes in every game of 2019. Justin Fields is still probably wondering where Simmons came from on that interception in the 2019 playoffs.
4. K’Von Wallace (2016-2019). I believe Wallace is one of the most underrated players in Clemson history. I also strongly considered Jamaal Fudge here, but Wallace was nearly as versatile as Simmons and the combination of those two helped Brent Venables nearly offset the heavy personnel losses in the front seven from the previous season enough to another National Championship. It took an all time great LSU offense to finally crack that defense, but Wallace took home four ACC Titles and 2 National Titles before beginning his NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sometimes it is what you don’t notice that makes a huge difference, and I can rarely recall a time I felt Wallace busted an assignment or made a huge mistake. I’m sure it happened but he was extremely sound and played a lot bigger than he was.
Obviously there were a lot of great players who I could have put here. In addition to some of the names already mentioned, I didn’t even bring up Tanner Muse, Nolan Turner, Travis Pugh, Javon Kearse, or Arlington Nunn who were all impactful players in their time at Clemson. Debate away!