Final grades: Tiger LBs productive stepping into bigger roles

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Baylon Spector led Clemson in sacks and QB pressures. (ACC photos)
Baylon Spector led Clemson in sacks and QB pressures. (ACC photos)

We continue our look at the Tigers’ 2020 season position-by-position with the linebackers:

2020 final LB depth chart (snaps/final PFF grade)

WLB Baylon Spector - 6-2 230 gr.* (517/70.6)

Keith Maguire - 6-2 230 r-fr. (100/86.7) Or LaVonta Bentley - 6-0 235 r-fr. (73/82.7)

* Redshirt junior in eligibility.

MLB James Skalski - 6-0 240 gr. (291/73.8)

Jake Venables - 6-2 235 so. (319/75.8)

Kane Patterson - 6-1 225 so. (138/63.5)

SLB/NB Mike Jones Jr. - 6-0 220 so. (359/77.9)

Trenton Simpson - 6-3 225 fr. (271/59.6) or Tyler Venables 5-10 200 fr. (214/52.4)

Other scholarship LBs: Kevin Swint 6-3 230 fr. (35/70.6), Sergio Allen - 6-1 225 fr. (18/64.1)

Stat leaders

Sacks: 1. Spector (4.5) 2. Simpson (4) 3. Bentley (3.5)

TFLs: 1. Spector (10.5) 2. Simpson (6.5) 3. Jake Venables (5.5)

Tackles: 1. Spector (72) T-2. Jake Venables (44) T-2. Skalski (44)

Misc: Caused fumbles - Spector (2); interceptions - Jones (2); QB pressures - Spector (11); pass breakups - Jones (4).

TigerNet Take

David Hood: James Skalski is the unquestioned leader of the linebackers, and with good reason. He's been around since 2016 (yes, he played in 14 games during the Deshaun Watson National Championship season) and when he's healthy and in the lineup the defense is usually pretty good. He wasn’t healthy for all of 2020, suffering a significant groin injury, but returned in time for the Tigers’ late-season run. The good news if you’re a Clemson fan is that he will be back for an incredible SIXTH season next year.

Jake Venables was solid if not spectacular in Skalski’s absence, right up to when he broke his arm at Virginia Tech. LaVonta Bentley and Kane Patterson both stepped in and provided depth at the middle linebacker spot. Mike Jones Jr. has stepped into a leadership role at the SAM (strongside) linebacker spot, but freshman Trenton Simpson earned early snaps and showed he has the potential to start somewhere in the defense sooner rather than later.

At the WILL (weakside spot), Baylon Spector was a consistent force all season. I would have loved to have seen more of the freshmen, like Kevin Swint and Sergio Allen, but the group simply had too many bodies in the way for them to get meaningful playing time. That sets up a scramble in the spring and fall – all of them are back and add Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter to the mix.

Brandon Rink: Replacing a unicorn kind of defensive athlete such as Isaiah Simmons was going to be a tall task and the Tigers took at least a small step back at linebacker. That said, Jones Jr. performed well for his first year as a starter and freshman 5-star Simpson made some plays while still learning the finer points of being a full-time defender.

Spector led not only his position group but also the team with 4.5 sacks. He also tied with defensive tackle Bryan Bresee for the lead in QB pressures (11). In more limited action, his listed backups led the way positionally in PFF’s grading with Maguire (86.7) and Bentley (82.7) and carving out more playing time for them should be a priority in 2021.

The issue of course, for the large group of rising redshirt freshmen and sophomores, is no space currently to move up with the entire depth chart slated to come back. We’ll see what kind of patience there is down the roster through spring ball.

Having his season cut short due to injury, Jake Venables went into the clubhouse leading in grading at middle linebacker and stayed there (75.8), also ending up with the most snaps (319) as Skalski missed time due to injury and suspension. If Skalski can stay on the field more in 2021, that should be a boost to the group and Jake Venables should continue to be a reliable backup, possibly more in a rotation with Patterson and incoming freshmen.

TigerNet Grade: B

Final grades: Defensive end

Final grades: Defensive tackle

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