Spring practice for the Clemson Tigers begins this week. Fresh off a National Championship, they will get the first look at retooling their defense for the upcoming season. For the past five years, defensive coordinator Brent Venables has lead one of the best units in college football. It is no surprise that the Tigers’ rise to one of the best programs in the country coincides with their defense being among the nation’s elite. Clemson will lose some high level talent from last season’s defense, so the Tigers spring practice will be their first chance to see how the unit will look moving forward.
Clemson Tigers Springs Practice Gives First Look at Retooled Defense
They will head into the 2019 season needing to replace seven starters from their National Championship defense. They lose all four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and a starting corner. Defensive tackle Albert Huggins, who replaced the suspended Dexter Lawrence in the College Football Playoffs, has also graduated. Clemson recruits at a very high level, but it will still be tough to replace the bulk of their front seven, most of whom will be playing on Sundays next year. The Tigers will also be without their two expected replacements at defensive tackle in the spring.
Their 2018 defensive line was one of the most talented groups ever assembled, but the loss of the linebacker tandem could prove harder to replace. Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph started together for the last two seasons, and were the second and third leading tacklers for last year’s team. There will be plenty of opportunities during the Tigers spring practice for new names to emerge. Clemson is among the nations elite programs, so they do not have time for rebuild. They need to reload once again.
One plus for Coach Venables is that he will have a deep experienced group returning in the secondary. Isaiah Simmons was last season’s leading tackler, with 88 stops including nine for a loss and two sacks. He returns at safety along with Tanner Muse, K’Von Wallace, and Nolan Turner. Simmons is a big safety and may play closer to the line while the Tigers figure out who fills in at linebacker. The other three combined for four interceptions and 11 passes defended while rotating at safety. A.J. Terrell returns at one of the corner spots. He had three interceptions in 2018, including one he returned for a touchdown to open the National Championship Game.
Players Who Will Step Up
Xavier Thomas was a solid contributor as a freshman defensive end. He was of course playing behind two future pros, so his opportunities were limited. The 6’3″, 255-pound pass rusher had 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in his first year on campus. Expect both of those numbers to go way up. Thomas is an explosive pass rusher and has the size and strength to hold his own against the run.
Linebacker Shaq Smith has yet to fulfill his potential since arriving at Clemson. He was a heralded recruit, with all the measurables to become a dominant player. With the top three linebackers all gone from the 2018 unit, Smith needs to step up. He can uses the Tigers spring practice as his chance to solidify himself in one of the linebacker spots.
True freshman Anthony Booth is an early enrollee, and he will look to step in at the open cornerback position. The 6’1″, 188-pound corner was one of the highest rated recruits in the country this cycle. Both Scout and 247Sports had him rated as the second-best corner in the class, with Scout having him among their top ten players overall.
The biggest help to retooling the Clemson defense will be how explosive their offense will be in 2019. The Tigers return the bulk of their production at quarterback, running back, and receiver. Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne will both be in the Heisman Trophy conversation next season. While the receiver tandem of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross is as good as any in the country. As the defense figures out who will step up, they will have the luxury of an offense that could be record breaking in 2019. The pressure for the defense to be on the same elite level as the past five years will be diminished because the offense will score in bunches.
If Clemson wants to make an expected fifth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff, the defense will need to develop. Their offense will allow them more of a learning curve, but how they replace the abundance of talent lost will be key. It will be a new list of names that Coach Venables will use to build this defense. The Tigers spring practice will be the first chance to see how he begins to put it all together.
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