Athens (my newish hometown) is a swamp... Crabgrass threatens my life every time I step out my back door... I’m writing a Clemson position preview... This can only mean one thing.
College football is almost back!
I drew the linebackers preview this year, and I’m psyched. It’s not often you get to write about a unit with the potential to be the best in the nation (although whoever is writing about the defensive line will get to share my excitement).
LET’S GET TO WORK!
Weak Side (WILL) Linebacker
Trenton Simpson - Jr. - 6’3”, 240
Trenton Simpson - 2021
|Games||Solo Tackles||Ast Tackles||Total Tackles||Tackle for Loss||Sacks|
|Games||Solo Tackles||Ast Tackles||Total Tackles||Tackle for Loss||Sacks|
On a linebacker depth chart littered with stars, Simpson shines the brightest. Last season, The former 5* recruit out of Mallard Creek High School (Charlotte, NC) thrived at the SAM (strong side) linebacker position. This season, Wes Goodwin is moving him inside the box and unleashing him at the SAM position formerly held down by current Buffalo Bill, Baylon Spector.
On first glance, moving the multi-talented Simpson inside the box, when he was wreaking havoc from the SAM spot last season is puzzling. Then you realize Barrett Carter was created in a lab specifically to play SAM linebacker at Clemson, and Simpson is up to 240 lbs and will be expected to play inside the box next season in the NFL, and it makes perfect sense.
Simpson is widely regarded as a first round NFL talent, at a position that often times isn’t valued in the first round. He’ll need to show the NFL he can hold up at the point of attack, shed blockers, and find the ball in traffic. He was working in clean air at the SAM position, but now finds himself fighting it out in the trenches on most plays at the WILL. It may take a minute to adjust, but Simpson is talented enough to figure things out and lead the team in tackles.
Recently at Clemson, the WILL has been more of a run stuffer than a pass rusher, but I expect that to change this year with Simpson. He’s a gifted pass rusher who gets home more often than not when he’s sent on a blitz. Look for a few more blitzes, and also look for Simpson to move around and attack the quarterback from different spots. He will line up at WILL initially, but that doesn’t mean he’s stuck there the entire game.
Enjoy Simpson this season, because he’ll be playing on Sunday next season.
SAM (Strong Side) Linebacker
Barrett Carter - So - 6’1”, 225
You don’t move Simpson from SAM to WILL unless you’ve got a stud like Barrett Carter to replace him. The former 5* recruit out of North Gwinnett High School (Suwanee, GA) is ready to step in and make his presence known after spending a year of apprenticeship behind Simpson last season.
Carter brings something different to the SAM position. He’s smaller than your typical linebacker at 225 pounds, and can cover in space like a safety. At the same time, he is a violent tackler capable of stopping a running back in his tracks. He flies around the field, looking for something to hit, and once he hits it, it stays hit. He reminds me of former Tiger great Dorian O’Daniel in terms of size and playing style, but Carter is the more explosive athlete (and that’s saying something because D.O.D. was a killer).
I expect to see Carter coming off the edge as a pass rusher on one play, filling the hole on a run play the next, and then locking up a tight end in man coverage to finish the series. The offense will never be certain what Carter is up to on any given play, and that’s one of the reasons why the SAM linebacker is so important in this scheme. It’s all about versatility, and Barrett is as versatile as they come at linebacker.
The only part of Carter’s transition from apprentice SAM linebacker to master SAM linebacker that could prove challenging is the mental aspect of the position. He’s going to be asked to play linebacker on one play, safety on the next, and Goodwin could throw in a touch of slot corner, just for funsies. Physically, Barrett is capable of filling all of those roles. Mentally, he’s capable as well, but it might take him a few games to settle into the role and play fast. Once that happens, he has the potential to be one of the most dynamic defenders in the nation.
Jeremiah Trotter Jr. - So - 6’0”, 230
I spent about an hour researching this spot, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on the MIKE linebacker depth chart. My boy QT said to look out for Trotter on his most recent camp update on twitter so I’ll start with Trotter. It’s not that Clemson doesn’t have an answer at middle linebacker, it’s that they have three answers at middle linebacker and they all have different merits.
Coming into Clemson, Trotter was considered a 5* recruit by ESPN, and one of the top 10 players in the nation. The son of former star NFL linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Sr. is a natural middle linebacker who grew up with a living library of football knowledge at his disposal. He played sparingly last year while he added some muscle to his frame and acclimated to college football.
People who have access to fun stuff like practice and scrimmages report that Trotter has been on a seek and destroy mission all fall camp. He’s smaller than a typical middle linebacker, but that’s nothing unusual for Clemson. James Skalski and Kendall Joseph were all small(ish) middle linebackers. Out of the group of former Clemson middle linebackers I just mentioned, Trotter has the most natural talent, and it’s a good ways back to 2nd place.
The one question I have about Trotter is his ability to hold up against a power running attack. He’s elite at avoiding blocks, but his ability to shed and find the ball will tell the tale of his sophomore season. If I’m an offensive coordinator, I try out the young buck early and often with a pulling guard (or a fullback if they still exist in the wild). Running away from him is futile. I expect teams to attempt to run over him, but that means they’re going to have to make it through the Clemson defensive tackles, and that’s not going to happen very often. If he can adjust to the physicality of the position, and there is no reason to think he won’t, much like Clemson’s other two starting linebackers, he has early round NFL potential.
LaVonta Bentley - RS Jr. - 6’0”, 235
If you have a decent sound system, and you can tell when LaVonta is on the field, because when he hits someone, it sounds different. It’s less of a traditional thud and more like sledge hammer hitting a cinder block. When LaVonta sticks you, you stay stuck.
If a team wants to go heavy and try to run it through Clemson, I expect to see the former 4* linebacker out of P.D. Jackson-OIlin High School (Birmingham, Alabama) on the field. Bentley reminds me of former Clemson middle linebacker B.J. Goodson. Much like B.J. when he was at Clemson, LaVonta is overshadowed by other stars on the defense, but he does his job, and does it well.
If everyone is healthy and Bentley starts, he’ll start at the MIKE. What makes him particularly useful on this team, however, is his ability to play the WILL position as well. Last season when Spector sat out against Georgia Tech with a sore knee, Bentley stepped into the WILL position and led the team with 13 tackles, including 3 tackles for loss and a sack. He also put up 9 tackles as a reserve against NC State. When he’s on the field, he has a innate nose for the ball, and once he finds the ball, he tries to dislodge it from whoever is carrying it through force.
Bentley would start for the vast majority of top 25 teams this year, and he might start for Clemson, but if he doesn’t, it’s not because he isn’t a baaaad man who hits like a dump truck, it’s because Clemson has an embarrassment of riches at linebacker.
Keith Maguire - RS Jr. - 6’2”, 240
I have Maguire listed 3rd, but he could also start at MIKE linebacker without any drop off. At 6’2”, 240, the former 4* linebacker out of Malvern Prep (Media, PA) is the largest of Clemson’s three-headed Cerebus at middle linebacker. He’s probably the best in coverage of the three middle linebackers. He’s an athlete with long arms, good instincts and played some running back and receiver in high school. If the other team is interested in exploiting the short or intermediate middle of the field in the passing game, Maguire is the guy you want at middle linebacker.
Like Bentley, Maguire also provides depth at the WILL linebacker spot. That could come in handy early in the season. With XT on the mend, Simpson might slide down and play defensive end in pass rushing situations. If/when that happens, I expect to see Keith come in and fill the WILL spot because of his coverage abilities.
It is truly a luxury to have a player like Keith Maguire on the roster. He can do a little bit of everything, and do it well. He’s not a thumper like Trotter Jr. or Bentley, but he’s solid in the run game and in coverage. On most teams, he would be inked into the starting lineup on day one, and never come off the field. At Clemson, he’ll share time with 4 other high level linebackers. He might not be on the field as much, but when he is on the field, he’ll be fresh and ready to go all out until he’s worn out. Then the Tigers can plug another fresh, elite linebacker into the lineup, who can also go all out.
Sergio Allen - Jr. - 6’1”, 230 - MIKE/WILL
This is where Clemson’s depth at linebacker is on display because Sergio Allen is a baller. He can play either at the MIKE or WILL and can also be used as a situational pass rusher off the edge. He’s a guy to keep an eye on in the future. I know he’s listed as a junior, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he spends 3 more years and makes his mark on the program in year 4 or 5. The former 4* linebacker out of Peach County High School (Fort Valley, GA) gives me serious Chad Smith vibes, in terms of career arc.
Wade Woodaz - Fr. - 6’3”, 215 - SAM
Woodaz is interesting because you might see him in the two-deeps at SAM, behind Barrett Carter to start the season. The former 3* recruit out of Jesuit High School (Tampa, FL) is an exceptional athlete with good length for the position, and coach Goodwin likes his feel for the game. In reality, if something happens to Carter and he has to be off the field for any length of time, Simpson would most likely move back to SAM, because Bentley or Maguire can play WILL. When Clemson goes Nickel, you’ll most likely see either Malcolm Green or Andrew Mukuba come in from the secondary and play the SAM position. Still, cracking the depth chart at Clemson as a true freshman is impressive, and Woodaz appears to have a bright future in front of him.
T.J. Dudley - Fr. - 6’1”, 230 - MIKE/WILL
T.J. was a huge late get for Coach Goodwin after the defection of another linebacker from the 2021 recruiting class post-Venables. The former 4* linebacker out of Montgomery Catholic Prep (Montgomery, AL) can play either the MIKE or the WILL position. Physically, he’s ready to go right now, but he has the frame to be a beast after another year or two in the weight room. Once the game slows down for him, he has to potential to be a multi-year starter for the Tigers.
Kobe McCloud - Fr. - 5’10”, 225 - MIKE
Kobe was another late addition to the 2021 recruiting class. He was one of the more unheralded prospects in the class as a 3* recruit out of Gaither High School (Tampa, FL), but don’t let that discourage you because he has a high upside. He comes from an incredible football family. You all know his brother, former Clemson Tiger and current San Francisco 49ers receiver Ray-Ray McCloud. Kobe isn’t a burner like Ray-Ray, but he’s surprisingly adept in coverage for a linebacker (his highlight film is littered with diving interceptions) and likes to hit. His size held down his high school ranking, not his production (he holds the Gaither school record for tackles and interceptions in a career). Kendall Joseph was one heck of an undersized middle linebacker for the Tigers, and McCloud is a better athlete coming into Clemson. I don’t see Kobe making an impact this season, but don’t discount his ability to make an impact down the road.
NC State supposedly has the best linebackers in the ACC. Don’t buy into the hype. Clemson’s top 5 are better than the Wolfpack’s, and it’s not particularly close. The Simpson and Carter will be two of the most athletic linebackers in the nation, and if Trotter starts, Clemson will have the most athletic set of starting linebackers in the nation for certain. If Maguire or Bentley start, Clemson still has the most athletic set of starting linebackers in the nation, but the gap to second place is a little narrower. Outside of Simpson, they don’t have the production of NC State, but that’s because Carter and Trottter Jr. weren’t going to start as true freshmen over Skalski and Spector.
This group is somewhat insulated from injuries because of the versatility of the top 5 guys. Simpson and Carter can both play SAM. Bentley and Maguire can play either MLB or WILL. The Tigers should always be able to put a good, experienced group on the field, and can mix and match depending on the opponent. These five linebackers, combined with the best and deepest defensive front in the nation, makes this Clemson’s best ever front 7. I almost...almost...feel bad for all the Clemson haters, but will relish in their demise.
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