Final Grades: Arrow pointing up for high-performing Clemson safeties
|Thursday, January 13, 2022, 8:00 AM- -|
Clemson football put a wrap on another double-digit win campaign recently, and with the help of analytics, we take a deeper look into the 10-3 Tigers season by position, continuing with the Clemson safeties.
2021 Clemson Safety Stats(players in order of snap count)
Nolan Turner (Super Sr. 6-1 205)
2021 PFF (Pro Football Focus) grade: 62.9
0 pass defenses
Nolan Turner gave Clemson an extra year, and after Lannden Zanders went down with an injury, it was critical. He provided steady play and an all-important veteran presence for an otherwise young group of safeties. Turner led all safeties in snaps despite missing the first two games of the season and the Cheez-It Bowl.
Andrew Mukuba (Fr. 6-0 185)
2021 PFF grade: 77.5 (No. 5 in ACC)
6 pass defenses
When Nolan Turner was held out of the season opener with an injury and true freshman Andrew Mukuba got the start, it seemed like Clemson’s defense was in trouble. That was not the case. Mukuba played at a high level from the very first game of his collegiate career. He was excellent in run support, perhaps best demonstrated in Clemson’s win at Louisville when he played a big role in slowing down Louisville’s speedy quarterback Malik Cunningham.
While Mukuba didn’t have any interceptions, he was often in the right place at the right time in coverage. He was PFF’s No. 5 safety in the ACC and a member of their freshman All-American team. The conference also named him the ACC defensive Rookie of the Year.
Jalyn Phillips (Jr. 6-1 210)
2021 PFF grade: 55.4
1 pass defense
Phillips saw his playing time more than double from 2020 as he helped fill the void caused by the Zanders injury. PFF grades highlight a mid-season lull, however he ended strong with a good performance in the bowl game across 73 snaps.
RJ Mickens (So. 6-0 200)
2021 PFF grade (0-100): 82.5 (No. 2 in ACC)
0 pass defenses
PFF’s No. 2 rated safety in the ACC was Clemson reserve RJ Mickens. He was very good in coverage – leading Clemson safeties with two INTs – and great in run support. PFF ranked him as the No. 1 ACC safety in run support. On the game-winning goal line stand at Louisville, he made several big plays that helped Clemson secure the win (keep an eye out for No. 9 in the video below). Expect Mickens to see his snap count expand in 2022.
Tyler Venables (So. 5-10 200)
2021 PFF grade: 63.4
2 pass defenses
Venables is a versatile asset for the defense. He played the most at free safety, but he also played a lot of slot cornerback. He is strong in pass coverage and played a significant role as just a sophomore.
Last year, TigerNet graded Clemson’s safeties at a C+. With Zanders suffering a season-ending injury just a couple plays into the first game and Nolan Turner missing a few games, you’d expect it to get worse this year. Instead, the young crop of safeties rose to the occasion and played at an impressively high level.
It starts first and foremost with Andrew Mukuba. He could become an all-timer at Clemson if he continues to improve from his starting point as ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. RJ Mickens stood out in reserve duty while Jalyn Phillips played a big role and finished on a positive note. Tyler Venables played at a high-level and should be an important part of 2022’s depth.
Looking ahead, Nolan Turner departs after a six-year career at Clemson. He did an outstanding job bridging the gap between the starting duo of K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse to what 2022 holds, which could be the best safety group Clemson has had since the Brian Dawkins days. Zanders should return from his shoulder injury and join a safety group that has four other players who you’d feel comfortable starting in any game. Earning snaps will be very competitive and I’d expect a lot of rotation and some three-safety looks to maximize what could be Clemson’s strongest position group in 2022.
TigerNet Grade: A