I guess I am blessed this season to preview two position groups with perhaps the best players on either side of the ball. Both the running backs and linebackers feature two outstanding returning players. In the case of the linebackers, the All-ACC and All-American duo of Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. take center stage. This position group is top heavy in terms of experience as a lot of veteran depth plus star Trenton Simpson have moved on, but there is a lot to be excited about on the second level of the Clemson defense.
Wes Goodwin not only had to try to fill the giant shoes of defensive coordinator left by legendary Brent Venables, he also had to take on Coach V’s position group as well. I’ve done several linebacker previews over the years here at STS, and I always sang the praises of Venables’s skill as a linebacker coach. Clemson saw a dip in talent and production from this group between the Reggie Herring years and when Venables took over, but having All-ACC and All-Americans at this spot (not to mention Butkis Award winners and finalists) became the norm again in 2013.
Last year’s defense was a bit of an enigma to me. Ultimately it was the secondary that proved to be the biggest weakness of the group, but we only saw flashes of real dominance from a defense that had the talent to produce it at a more regular rate. There were certainly stretches of some great play, especially the middle portion of the pivotal game at Florida State, but all three losses featured teams going over 30 points. The standard has got to be higher for this upcoming season and the linebacker position offers extremely versatile starters to be able to be dynamic. However, much like 2015 when B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware rarely, if ever, came out of a game that mattered, those starters will need to stay healthy due to vast inexperience behind them.
Clemson said goodbye to Trenton Simpson, drafted in round 3 by Baltimore, Keith Maguire (moved on from football), LaVonta Bentley (transfer to Colorado), and T.J. Dudley (dismissed from the team, transfer to Ole Miss). The Dudley situation was definitely unexpected and unfortunate because there really was no way to fill that via recruiting or even the transfer portal at this stage of the game. Dudley was the clear #4 linebacker (and #2 inside option) coming out of the spring. Thankfully the Tigers are deep enough in the secondary now to feature more 4-2-5 type looks vs. 4-3. All three front line Clemson LB’s are the prototype of the modern era, great in space but physical enough to handle things in the box.
Mike (middle linebacker): Jeremiah Trotter, Jr. (658 Snaps, 92 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 6 PBU, 2 interceptions).
Trotter, Jr. emerged as a true superstar as the season went along after the preseason hype focused on Simpson and Carter. As you can see above, he filled the stat sheet as the leading tackler for the defense as well as leading the team in TFLs and sacks (tied with Myles Murphy). He even ranked tied for third in PBUs and second in interceptions. Trotter Jr, like his father, has a clear NFL future and will be a potential first round pick after this season when he becomes draft eligible. I list Trotter, Jr. at Mike here, but he is versatile enough (as are Carter and Woodaz) to play any of the three linebacker positions should it be called upon. In my view, he is the most talented middle linebacker since Stephone Anthony helmed the #1 2014 defense. Only health issues can prevent another massive season out of Trotter, Jr.; particularly with Clemson’s prowess across the DL to keep blockers off of him.
Will (weakside linebacker): Barrett Carter (832 snaps, 77 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 8 PBU, 2 interceptions).
Carter arrived on campus as a highly touted 5 star recruit, and “Agent 0” has not disappointed in his first two seasons. Carter’s prowess led to the somewhat less effective position move for Trenton Simpson to Will in 2022, but Carter had some incredible moments and that snap count goes to show just how much the coaches wanted him on the field no matter what down or distance or personnel group was involved. Carter possesses defensive back speed on a now 231 pound frame and offers some of the queen on the chessboard versatility that superstar Isaiah Simmons did back in 2019. Carter can blitz as well as cover and has become an increasingly physical tackler as he has matured. Like Trotter, Jr., a healthy season from Carter should result in major production and awards with a likely early entry to the NFL draft.
Sam (strongside linebacker) Wade Woodaz (180 snaps, 20 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 PBU).
Woodaz might not have been as flashy a recruit as Simpson, Trotter, Jr. or Carter, but he really emerged during 2022’s stretch run and, for me, really flashed in an impressive fashion. I feel similarly about Woodaz as I did Baylon Spector prior to Spector’s coming out party in 2020. The guy Dabo now refers to as “Woopazz” offers tremendous height and range for a linebacker/safety hybrid player that the SAM position calls for. The photo above shows him breaking up a pass vs. UNC’s stud slot receiver Josh Downs. Woodaz clocked in at 232 pounds at the weigh in ahead of fall camp, up from 215 the year before. I expect his snap totals to easily reach 550 or more this season, and we should see some strong numbers to go with that based on his tackle/TFL rate as just a true freshman last year.
After those three guys, it becomes a game of potential versus production. Guys like Kobe McCloud, Dee Crayton, and Jamal Anderson, all true or redshirt freshmen, are the depth before you get to walk-ons. Coaches and fans alike are certainly hoping these guys can be brought along at a slower pace versus thrown into the fire due to necessity. There is some high level help on the way, particularly 5 star Sammy Brown, but that won’t be available this season.
Clemson’s defensive top 11 is as good as anyone’s in the country for this year. The linebacker corps features two of the three preseason first team All-ACC. I look forward to seeing how much Wes Goodwin improves as a DC and position coach from year 1 to year 2. Clemson certainly faces some dynamic challenges, including the sneaky Duke offense led by Riley Leonard right out of the gate, so improvement will be key to Clemson’s chances of making the last 4 team playoff before it expands in 2024.