Clemson fans were relatively high on this position group heading into 2022, with the caveat of there being little proven depth behind the assumed two-deep; Lannden Zanders had suffered a career-ending shoulder injury in August and sadly bowed out from the sport.
Things looked good for the starters, however. Sophomore Andrew Mukuba had just completed one of the best freshman campaigns ever at safety for Clemson, garnering ACC Rookie of the Year honors as he started more games (10) in the defensive backfield than any other Clemson freshman in the modern college football era.
Alex Craft had this to say about him in his season preview of the safeties:
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.
This was not an uncommon opinion - the expectations were very high for Mukuba.
Joining him was veteran Jalyn Phillips, a long-time backup finally getting his chance to work the starting role at free safety. Phillips was expected to have a breakout season with his starting position and more than hold his own on the field.
Jalyn Phillips had an outstanding year at free safety, finishing second on the team in total tackles. He was a leader on the defense and commanded his role well with very few mental mistakes or missed tackles. His decision to return to Clemson for 2023 is a huge win and should make fans even more excited for this defense next year.
Andrew Mukuba, unfortunately, failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him following his stellar freshman season. Although he had a respectable year of production and finished fifth overall for total tackles on the team, he seemed to be missing that spark that led to his ACC ROTY campaign.
Too often it felt like we saw Mukuba out of position on an opponent’s touchdown or a step behind on his angle for a tackle. One glaring example came from this 72-yard touchdown pass from Rattler in Death Valley:
Some of that was due to #1 being shifted around - he started at cornerback against NC State when other starters were inactive - but it was plays like these that kept Mukuba in a bit of a sophomore slump for much of 2022. He was picked on a few times in crucial moments and disappointingly made a few too many errors for a player of his caliber.
On the other hand, RJ Mickens had a very productive junior year, hauling in a team-high 3 interceptions and 55 tackles. Despite only starting six games, Mickens made the most of his playing time and was consistently a playmaker on the field.
Tyler Venables struggled with his health in 2022 but still managed a solid season of production with 37 tackles and a PD.
Freshman Sherrod Covil was shown quite a bit of playing time for a freshman safety and largely performed quite well. He ended the season with 16 tackles and was reliable when called upon.
Finally, Carson Donnelly had his best play of the season in Clemson’s first game against Georgia Tech, blocking a punt to spark the Tigers’ offense in their 41-10 rout of the Yellow Jackets:
With Phillips returning for another season, Clemson will have nine safeties on scholarship for the 2023 season. The starters will likely remain Phillips and Mukuba, but Mickens and the rest of the unit will no doubt push for lots of shared playing time.
Everyone will be rooting for Mukuba to have a bounce-back season and return to his freshman level of playing. His struggles in 2022 were disappointing but he is without a doubt one of the most talented players on the defense. I expect big things from him next year.
Jalyn Phillips may be the most valuable piece of the secondary as a veteran leader and playmaker in 2023. His return is huge and I am very excited to see him play again in a Tiger uniform.
Mickens will certainly get his share of playing time but will have to be patient with two starting safeties ahead of him. Wes Goodwin will likely look to mix him in whenever possible, and if Mukuba matures into the positional swiss-knife we thought he might be in 2022, Mickens should see plenty of action.
Covil, Venables, Donnelly, Kylon Griffin, and the arriving freshmen safeties provide a wealth of depth for this unit, which should be one of the strongest on the defense in 2023.