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Rebuilding the Defense … Again

Isabelle Davis, Contributor

Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables gathers with his team on the field against Georgia Tech.

For the second year in a row, Clemson has lost a significant portion of its starting defense. Brent Venables had quite the challenge to rework the front seven for the 2015 season, but now the secondary has been depleted in addition to a complete dismantling of the front seven yet again. 

Eight of the starting 11 jettisoned for the NFL back in May, so a lot of last year’s reserves will get their chance to make a mark. Players expected to step up to new spots include: Dorian O’Daniel, Christian Wilkins, Van Smith, Jadar Johnson, Marcus Edmonds, Kendall Joseph, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Bryant broke a bone in his foot and is not expected back until late September when the Tigers face off against Georgia Tech, although he will be an important player going forward. Richard Yeargin is expected to take his place at defensive end.

     Most of Clemson’s main pressure is created by the front seven. The defensive line and the linebacker corps comprise the strength of the defense. Venables has plenty of talent to work with, but getting them to gel quickly is the tough part. All of these guys have been on the team, but almost all of them have never had close to the amount of snaps they will have to handle this season. 

     The front line took a hit with the Austin Bryant injury late in summer camp, but Richard Yeargin has had plenty of experience playing end over the last two years and should fill in nicely. This isn’t the first time Clemson has lost a key player on defense either. 

The trick will be having Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins play in unity at defensive tackle. Watkins is a veteran on the defensive line and while Wilkins is young, he has a great amount of experience in game situations (453 snaps in 2015). Wilkins played in all 15 games last year, and he even started one in place of Carlos Watkins. 

Clemson’s ability to stop the run starts with plugging up the middle. The pressure on the quarterback starts with the line and their ability to

quickly collapse the pocket. Both require a stalwart inside wall to keep containment of the opposing offense. 

Ben Boulware returns as the anchor to the linebackers. He captained the 2015 defense and has made many key plays in tight spots. Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph figure to be the two other starting linebackers this year. Both have had some game time, but not much. Joseph totaled 63 snaps in seven games last year, and O’Daniel had 181 snaps in 15 games. O’Daniel is actually thought to be a sleeper candidate for the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in college football. Kendall Johnson is a redshirt sophomore and hasn’t really had much of an opportunity to shine other than in spring camp. 

     The secondary is the main weakness of the new-look defense. Cordrea Tankersley is the only returning starter, and he was supposed to be paired with Adrian Baker at cornerback, but Baker suffered a torn ACL during practice and will miss the 2016 season. Instead, Marcus Edmond looks to be the opposite corner this year. Edmond only had 53 total snaps over 15 games last year and seven tackles. Those numbers do not jump off the page, but Venables seems to think that he can handle the starting job. 

Van Smith (free) and Jadar Johnson (strong) will fill in as the starting safeties this year. Johnson played a healthy 234 snaps and had 17 tackles last year, but Smith only registered 75 snaps and seven tackles. The safety positions were the two most misplayed positions, outside of special teams, all year. Jayron Kearse consistently blew coverages against Alabama at strong safety which resulted in two touchdowns. Not to say Johnson will do the same thing, but he has more pressure to perform at least on a more consistent basis. Smith’s main job in this defense will be the last line of defense against the

run and the double coverage man on passes. 

Venables generally likes to use a position that is a hybrid of the strong side linebacker position and the nickel cornerback position. Korrin Wiggins will be the most likely man to step up in this position that was filled by Travis Blanks last year. Wiggins is coming back from his own ACL tear and will look to make a name for himself for the next season. 

Overall, Venables has proven time and again that losing key players on defense does not mean that the defense will suffer. In the 2014 season Clemson ranked #1 overall nationally in defensive efficiency. After losing three quarters of the defensive line and Stephone Anthony, Clemson ranked No. 2 in 2015 in the same category. The difference now is that most of the new starters are generally unproven. Only Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins had significant play time prior to this season. 

The most important thing is that the defense gel as a whole unit. It does not matter the talent or football IQ. The most important reason a team does well is because they play like a single organism. A wall of sorts. Clemson kicks off on Sept. 3 at Auburn.     

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