Clemson’s defensive is becoming known for replacing star talent without any dropoff in production. In 2018, the Tigers had three defensive linemen drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. The defensive line then exceeded expectations in 2019 by improving in many statistical categories. It was no secret that the defensive secondary was a strength for Clemson in 2019, with four selections in the NFL draft. Here is a look at how Clemson will replace such high-caliber production in the defensive secondary going into the 2020 season.
The Experience of the Defensive Secondary
Even with the loss of A.J. Terrell, the cornerback position will look very similar to 2019. Derion Kendrick returns as a starter and leader of the defensive backfield. It looks like Mario Goodrich will be starting on the other side of Kendrick, as he was Terrell’s backup a season ago. The juniors will lead the group with their experience and level of play.
Backing up Kendrick and Goodrich will be Andrew Booth Jr. and Sheridan Jones. Booth and Jones are coming into their sophomore year looking to make a splash. They will both see plenty of game action, just like last season. This is due to Brent Venables being great at getting a lot of talent on the field during games. Booth and Jones reflect a talented cornerback room that will push the starters to perform at their best.
This crowded cornerback room will include a senior in Brian Dawkins Jr. and incoming freshman, Fred Davis II. Davis comes in as a four-star recruit and an early enrollee. Even though spring practice was cut short, Davis was still able to get a feel for how the collegiate level operates during his short time at Clemson. Expect a significant amount of playing time from all seven cornerbacks.
A Mostly Unproven Group
The safety position in Venables’ scheme is an odd group. He is known for lining up his safeties all over the field with a variety of assignments. Most safeties on Clemson’s defense will not fit into a typical title of free or strong. They will simply be a safety, and some will spend time at outside linebacker as well.
Coming into spring practice, the depth chart had only one name at the free safety position, Nolan Turner. He was the star of the Fiesta Bowl last season when he intercepted a Justin Fields pass in the endzone with just seconds left on the clock. Clemson will look for Turner to anchor the defensive secondary with top-level experience.
Battle at Safety
After Turner, there are several talented and inexperienced athletes looking to step into primetime roles. The experience that this group has comes mostly in the form of special teams play and totals 42 combined tackles between four players. The most notable athletes from this group are sophomores Lannden Zanders and Joseph Charleston. Zanders finished his 2019 season with 14 tackles, two sacks, and a pass breakup. Charleston was highly recruited as the 13th-ranked safety in the nation. Zanders and Charleston should be battling for starting positions throughout the season.
The safety position will also see playing time from three incoming freshmen. Some recruiting sites listed RJ Mickens as a cornerback. The Tigers will have Mickens playing safety. ESPN ranked Mickens as the 14th-best safety in the 2020 recruiting class. Mickens will be accompanied by Malcolm Greene and Tyler Venables, the son of defensive coordinator Venables. Greene finished his high school career as the 22nd-best safety in the country by ESPN and will enroll in the fall. Venables, like Mickens, enrolled for the spring semester and began spring practice with the rest of the Tigers before campuses shut down. Expect a big position battle going into the season. All of these talented athletes will see significant playing time in early games like Georgia Tech and Akron.
It is commonplace for Clemson to replace talent without any dropoff. This year, the defensive secondary will be no exception. Expect to see a lot of different names cycling through the cornerback and safety positions. Most of the starters are set, but talent and the ever-changing schemes of Venables will give plenty of opportunities for everyone to shine.
The position to keep the closest eye on will definitely be the safety position. Zanders and Charleston will battle for starting positions. Greene and Mickens will develop their talent to compete early. The cancellation of spring practice halted the position battle. It is tough to say which safety will be playing where come fall but expect quite a battle in camp.
Time and time again, Venables’ defense has been forced to replace high-level NFL talent. He has done it without much dropoff if any. Last season, the defensive line held the enormous task of replacing talent. This year, it is the defensive secondary. The cornerback position is solid with four returning athletes that started or made contributions last season. Safeties are another story as only one has secured a spot on the depth chart after a spring practice that was cut short. Expect to see several names at safety, and expect to see production levels to be comparable to last season.