The linebacking corps for Clemson is always strong, yet often overlooked. This has come as anchors of the group like Spencer Shuey and Ben Boulware have failed to make a splash in the NFL. Of the five former Tigers linebackers in the NFL, four of them did not play in a typical linebacker role at Clemson. Three of them played in the secondary and one was a defensive end. This year’s Clemson linebackers will include a group of familiar faces and a group of bright new athletes trying to make the depth chart.
Filling The Middle
Contrary to the various looks he has run in the past, Brent Venables will be simplifying things down a bit this year. Clemson’s defense will base out of a 4-3 front this year. This allows for younger athletes to perform at a high level without worrying about varying assignments. Running this 4-3 base defense also allows the middle linebacker or Mike to be a major run-stopper. James Skalski will be the anchor at Mike this year. Skalski is the veteran leader of the defense pacing the returners with 90 tackles last year. Boulware and Shuey are accurate comparisons to Skalski as he has great vision and tackling ability, but lacks lateral quickness. Skalski will be backed up by Jake Venables and Kane Patterson, both sophomores who shared time on the field last season behind Skalski.
Making A SAM Linebacker
Mike linebackers are typically heavy run-stoppers that line up on the strong side of the field and focus on containing the run. In today’s world of pass-heavy offense, that is not exactly the case anymore. Sam linebackers require a lot of athleticism and versatility, especially at Clemson. Expect that versatility to shrink from previous years with players like Isaiah Simmons. In a 4-3 like Clemson, the Sam linebackers are heavy hitters that cover in space on slot receivers or tight ends.
Through the shortened Spring practice, there is only one name to grace Clemson’s depth chart as a SAM linebacker. Mike Jones Jr. leads as a starter. He accounted for 18 tackles during his redshirt freshman campaign playing both SAM and nickel. His numbers are not very impressive, but he was gaining valuable experience behind Simmons. Expect Jones to make a lot of plays from the Sam position this year, although limited in versatility. He must understand the system before he can step into that role of playing multiple positions. Nobody else currently holds a spot on the depth chart, but some talented freshmen will be looking to battle for playing time.
Wills Are Not Always Weak
Opposite of the SAM linebacker is usually the Will. Lining up on the weak side of the formation, a Will is typically seen as a smaller and more agile linebacker. With the changing of offenses and philosophies, a Will can be seen as more of a physical player compared to a Mike linebacker. Even though Clemson will base in a 4-3 this coming year, expect it to look like a 4-2-5 with the Sam covering a slot receiver and the Will in the box with the Mike.
Currently, Baylon Spector holds the job as Will. Spector comes into his Junior year with the most experience but could be challenged by freshman Keith Maguire or Venables. Venables is currently listed as a Mike, but could easily transition to Will. Another talented linebacker that could be added to the depth chart as a Will is Bryton Constantin. After a torn ACL and redshirting his freshman season, Constantin was poised to make moves this spring. That was stunted by a third ACL tear. Constantin has the ability to compete at Sam or Will, but likely will not be in action this year.
A Few Additions
Even though Clemson has a lot of depth in terms of linebackers, there are still a lot of highly-touted recruits coming in looking for playing time immediately. Most of the first and second-team positions are set in all three positions. Skalski is clearly the leader at Mike with Venables as Patterson. That leaves little room for four-star recruits Kevin Swint and Sergio Allen. Neither will see much playing time unless they show up in the fall and blow the other competition out of the water.
The SAM linebacker position will include a five-star recruit, Trenton Simpson. The number one outside linebacker recruit in the country is looking to compete immediately for the SAM position. Jones should start to begin the year and maintain that position throughout the season. Simpson, on the other hand, will see a lot of meaningful playing time as a backup. Simpson is expected to be the future of this linebacking crew.
The Final Say
The linebacking group for Clemson might seem like it is looking to fill large holes with the absence of Simmons and Chad Smith. Seasoned backups and a slight change in the scheme will fill these holes. It clearly will not look the same, but production will be very similar to previous years. Expect Skalski to stuff the run, but get beat a time or two in man coverage. Jones and Simpson will use their athletic abilities to make plays all over the field. Finally, a heavy rotation at Will can lead to a ton of valuable experience for several playmakers.