Clemson football preseason camp has begun, and with it, my annual lurch from offseason pessimism to optimism. And in a twist from recent years, certainly compared to the peak dynastic era from 2016-2020, the position I cover herein is not the relative weakness for the defense or roster as a whole.
2021 required a palate cleanse. What we hailed to be a return to normal after 2020’s weirdness wasn’t quite the triumphant return to the level we enjoyed in the aforementioned period. Not that 2021 was remotely a failure, but it could’ve been far worse than the 10-3 record Clemson managed when we look closer at some of those wins. Throughout the spring I stewed on this; looking at how much tougher 2022’s schedule would be — considering opposing quarterbacks at least — lamenting the recruiting slide, and resigning myself to the notion we’d level out into a top 10 program and no longer top 3.
Like clockwork, June and July turned me quite around. Recruiting exploded with summer visits, the new coordinators explained some most-welcome tweaks coming in 2022, and dudes clearly worked hard to get in the required shape. There’s even been a new round of conference realignment to get my blood up.
Specifically to the safeties, there’s more talent than we’ve seen since roughly 2015 to pair with what has more often than not been an experienced but limited position on the roster. Except in 2019, when K’von Wallace and Tanner Muse were rock solid and drafted the next spring, most would point to the safeties being the weakest link on otherwise dominant defenses since 2016.
Safety concerns are no longer glaring, and the two-deep is stronger than it’s been in ages around here. Though the depth beyond the two-deep is scarier given the Lannden Zanders situation, the improved safety talent is most welcome news in a year with many proven QBs on the schedule. I have more nervous interest for the 2022 Tigers than overconfident expectation in quite a while, but this will be a much-improved safety group and keep games low-scoring while we wait and see with the offense.
Reminder: in Clemson’s defense the strong safety is the field (wide side) safety; the free safety is in the boundary (narrow side). Traditionally the strong and free terminology applies to the roles more so than alignment. A strong safety was a hybrid linebacker in a 4-4 box, for instance, and the free safety was the deep middle ball-hawk. At Clemson it merely denotes on which side of the field the safeties aligns, and underneath or deep responsibility is determined by the coverage and the opposing formation.
Your returning ACC Rookie of the Year, Mukuba is undoubtedly the star in the back end and will be on the field for every crucial snap; though not always at safety since he’s a co-leader for the nickel corner role alongside Malcolm Greene.
Mukuba was the newcomer with the greatest impact on the 2021 Clemson defense, stepping in and quickly improving upon the performances at the position since Wallace left after 2019. In a defense loaded up front, Mukuba is the most critical piece in the entire defense given not only his elite level, but the ways in which Wes Goodwin will utilize him. Not the ultimate chess piece like Isaiah Simmons, but the top playmaker behind the back seven.
He runs the alley better than any safety since early-season 2015 Jayron Kearse, and covers well enough to earn practice reps at corner (not merely nickel). Sure I’m biased toward safeties, but there is no more important player to the Clemson defense than Mukuba.
Mickens will find plenty more snaps at strong safety than the 300+ he earned last year with Mukuba splitting snaps at nickel corner. He has the physical profile you desire to play either safety role and with two years to develop in the program this is the year he’s expected to be a solid contributor. If Mukuba is at nickel, Mickens is the third safety I want on the field.
I’ve eyed Phillips for a breakout for two entire years now given he most looks the part to enforce in the free/boundary safety role, but to date he has earned mainly bit-part, backup snaps. There’s urgency now with really only Tyler Venables and freshman Sherrod Covil offering any depth or competition behind him. This position will (finally) be Phillips’ to lock down and form an imposing tandem with Mukuba alongside him.
The new old man in the group, Venables’ decision to remain in Clemson and not follow his father to OU was likely an afterthought to most back in the spring. Without Zanders, Joseph Charleston, or Keon Webb on the roster, Venables’ return is far more important and relieving than I would’ve believed eight or nine months ago.
Venables can play either safety role and though he doesn’t have the athleticism we lived with — and perhaps underrated — in Nolan Turner, knowing your assignment is the most important part of the position. Venables is not a question mark there.
Clemson can win with all four of these safeties, and there’s a newcomer turning heads again this year too...
Covil has already developed a reputation on the practice field as an aggressive hitter who plays bigger than his frame, drawing comparisons to Wallace. There is always room on the field for another enforcer, but his workload will be determined by how well he grasps calls and signals in a pinch. Hopefully, Covil will be brought along slowly while the established group ahead of him shines, but if an injury hits the group, Covil seems the type to be a plus player sooner rather than later.
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