The game of football is often determined by who can control the line of scrimmage. From a defensive perspective, that sentiment gives the Clemson Tigers a marked advantage in every time they line up this season. It is well known that they will have one of the most talented and deepest defensive line groups in the country this season. The big question when it comes to coordinator Brent Venables’ unit is who will step up to lead the Clemson Tigers secondary. The defensive backfield is the one position where proven talent and depth doesn’t immediately jump off the page. As good as they are in the trenches, missed assignments, poor tackling, and bad coverage can undermine their dominant defensive front.
Clemson Tiger’s Secondary Preview
The front seven of this defense returns most of its contributors from a season ago, but the secondary is a bit lacking in experienced depth. Clemson has been at or near the top of the recruiting wars recently, so there is no shortage of talent to step up. As far as what they have returning, safety Tanner Muse and corner Trayvon Mullen Jr. headline that list.
Muse is a talented and physical safety, who was fifth on the team in tackles in 2017. The 6’2” junior is still working on his consistency, and he needs to cut out some of his penalties and other bone head plays. His health is also a concern. His missed time last season and in the spring with hand and wrist injuries. He does have a knack for making big plays. Muse has an interception and fumble return for a touchdown for his career. Each of those have come in the last two meetings with Syracuse. He also partially blocked a punt in the title game against Alabama two seasons ago. If he can stayed focused, consistent, and healthy, Muse could emerge as the leader in the Tigers secondary.
Mullen spent most of last season opposite of Ryan Carter. With his corner partner now gone, the junior will take over the number one corner role for the Tigers secondary. Mullen has the size and ability to have a monster season locking down receivers. His length and athleticism allow him to hang with wide-outs step for step or recover well to break up passes. He had three interceptions last season, and showed his physicality with 40 tackles.
Ready to Step Up
As mentioned earlier, Clemson has been highly successful in recruiting the last several years. Despite not having loads of experience, Clemson’s secondary will not be hurt by a lack of talent. Junior K’Von Wallace is poised to breakout this year. He started the last five games in 2017 after Muse injured his hand. He saved Clemson from an upset loss late last season. Wallace had a perfectly timed pass break up and the game clinching interception in the final minute at N.C. State. He will likely play safety again this season, but he has also worked at corner and at nickel, so his versatility could come in handy.
Mark Fields, Nolan Turner, and Denzel Johnson will all play a part in building the depth in the Tigers secondary. Fields has been in and out of the lineup at corner during his three seasons in Clemson. The ability is certainly there, but he needs to stay healthy so he can contribute more on the field. Turner will rotate in at safety after playing mostly on special teams as a freshman. Head coach Dabo Swinney has praised both he and Johnson during the beginning of fall camp. Johnson has appeared in just nine games in two seasons, but his playing time should increase significantly in 2018. All three will need to contribute if the Tiger’s secondary is to be at its best.
Four star freshman Kyler McMichael could work his way on to the field as well. Junior Isaiah Simmons is also a player to watch. He is one of the more versatile defenders Clemson has and could play at either safety or linebacker. He adds another option for Venables to rotate in.
“Nolan and Denzel are playing with more confidence, and they just know what to do.” Coach Swinney said when praising his young DBs after a fall scrimmage.
The Tigers had one of the best pass defenses in the nation a season ago. Their young secondary will be helped greatly by the potential dominance of the defensive line. With all four NFL draft picks returning up front, opposing quarterbacks may not have the time to find the holes in the Tigers secondary. The ability to control things at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the opposing backfield will ease the pressure on the back line of defense. If Clemson is to make another run to the College Football Playoff, they will need a leader to emerge in the secondary. The talent is there, now the production needs to follow.
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