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2023 Clemson Football Season Preview: Safety

Clemson’s safety room is poised for a major bounceback season. Be sure to check out the video above to dive deeper.

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Looking Back at 2022

Clemson’s passing defense had a down season last year and the safeties were part of the problem.

Andrew Mukuba had an excellent freshman campaign in 2021 that saw him named to PFF’s All-ACC 2nd Team. Expectations were understandably sky-high for his sophomore campaign. Unfortunately, a dislocated elbow and several other injuries knocked his year off kilter. His PFF grade tanked and opponents hit on big plays all too often. He still played 579 snaps, but he was compromised by injury and it showed on the field.

Fortunately, RJ Mickens was still exceptional. He led all Clemson safeties in PFF grade and interceptions (3). Jalyn Phillips led the group in snaps with 670 and proved to be quite reliable. Sherod Covil got 158 snaps as a true freshman and was a valuable contributor. Tyler Venables played 246 snaps and posted a very low PFF grade in the process. As with Mukuba, he wasn’t 100% healthy and it likely hurt his performance.

Previewing 2023

Clemson’s top three safeties (by snap count) all return, giving them a very veteran group. Andrew Mukuba is the biggest name and there is an expectation that he can exceed the high bar he set as a freshman now that he is healthy. He is up 10lbs from the 185lbs he played at last season which will hopefully help keep him healthy and allow him to be a bit more physical. PFF is betting on a bounce-back season and has him as a pre-season third-team All-ACC.

Jalyn Phillips used his COVID year to come back and try to elevate his game from steady and reliable to NFL draft-worthy. We’ll see if he takes that jump, but even if he doesn’t he is a valuable contributor. PFF also has him as a pre-season third-team All-ACC selection.

RJ Mickens returns and while he isn’t listed as a starter at safety, they have to find a way to get him on the field as much as possible. He played 524 snaps last season and finished fifth in the ACC in PFF grade. At 210lbs, he is Clemson’s biggest safety. PFF has him on their pre-season second-team All-ACC roster. With the lack of depth at linebacker, we may see all three safeties on the field together with one of them at the nickel (and only two linebackers). Andrew Mukuba has taken snaps at nickel in Fall Camp. However they find snaps for him, RJ Mickens is a key player for this defense.

Beyond those three, there is strong depth at safety thanks to sophomore Sherod Covil and freshman Khalil Barnes. Covil was a four-star (.9202) from Chesapeake, VA regarded for his physicality. He should get an extended opportunity to showcase that in a reserve role this season. Khalil Barnes of course was the star of the Clemson Spring Game, snagging the game-winning interception. He is another former four-star (.8941) and joins Clemson from Bogart, GA (near Athens). As a recruit, 247Sports listed him at 185lbs, but he just weighed in at 199. Assuming that is good weight, he could be a guy that makes meaningful contributions right away, especially on special teams.

With all that depth, it isn’t the worst thing that Tyler Venables is headed for a redshirt. Unfortunately, he tore his hip and was going to have to play through injury if he took the field this year. Instead, he’ll use his redshirt. He came to Clemson in 2020 so he will be a redshirt senior in 2024 and still have a COVID waiver in his back pocket if he wants to play in 2025. In the event that Mukuba, Mickens, and Phillips all leave after this season, Venables will be critical in 2024 along with the aforementioned Covil and Barnes.

Kylon Griffin redshirted last season and adds to the depth. He was a three-star out of Montgomery, AL who played just four defensive snaps last season. The safety room is rounded out by true freshmen Kylen Webb from Tampa, FL, Rob Billings from Milton in the Atlanta suburbs, and walk-on Carson Donnelly. Although the safeties underwhelmed last season, they look poised to make major improvements in 2023.

For more, check out this video: