Swinney says spring will be critical for inexperienced defense
|Saturday, February 13, 2016, 8:01 AM- -|
When the Tigers take the practice field on the final day of February, all eyes will be on Brent Venables and the young Clemson defense.
Very few questions surround the Clemson offense, but for the second season in a row, the bright lights will shine on Clemson’s defensive coordinator to see if he can once again rebuild a defense that lost eight starters and most of its playmakers.
After 2014, everyone wanted to know how Venables would replace Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Corey Crawford, Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward and Robert Smith. Fast forward one year and Clemson’s fourth year defensive coordinator is tasked with replacing Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, D.J. Reader, B.J. Goodson, Mackensie Alexander, Travis Blanks, T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney took time during his signing day press conference to preview what spring practice might hold and he started with offense, saying that despite losing Charone Peake, Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, the best is yet to come for the offensive side of the ball.
“We have about everybody back on offense. We are going to lose Charone Peake and plug Mike Williams in there,” Swinney said earlier this month. “He is pretty good so that will fill a big void right there. All the other guys are pretty much back. I think we will be better. I think we will be better on the offensive line even though we are losing two really good players in Mac and Gore. I think that the maturation of some of these younger guys means we are a complete offense right now.”
However, there are question marks on every level of the defense, starting with how to replace the production of Lawson and Dodd who combined for 49 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks.
“But right now, getting better defensively is our main focus going into the spring,” Swinney said. “We have to replace B.J. Goodson. We have to replace Shaq (Lawson) and (Kevin) Dodd. Defensive end is where the lights will shine the brightest. I love the guys we have on campus. I think we have recruited well. But it's next man up. It's the next guy's opportunity. Clelin Ferrell is coming off a redshirt year. (Richard) Yeargin got some experience. (Chris) Register - hopefully we've got him healthy now and he's ready to get in that mix Austin Bryant really played well for us. We will throws Xavier (Kelly) in that mix. LaSamuel (Davis) is here. So it will be very competitive.”
There is plenty of young talent to man both of defensive end spots, but Swinney is anxious to see who will rise to the occasion during spring practice.
“I think this year we will have more competitive depth in that d-line than we did last year. Last year, we had depth, but it wasn't very competitive,” he said. “The drop off from Shaq and Dodd to those next guys was pretty big. That is just called experience. Not a drop off in talent - just experience. Whereas this year it will be a totally different deal. When you have the competitive depth, it really makes everything better. Because we're talented.”
In the secondary, Clemson returns Cordrea Tankersley, who was 20th in the nation in interceptions per game with five, but they also return several players who have seen plenty of playing time but have been biding their time behind other players.
“And then obviously we have to figure out the secondary situation,” Swinney said said. “Getting Cordrea back was big. Looking at our corners, love Mark Fields, Adrian Baker, Ryan Carter, Marcus Edmonds, Kaleb Chalmers - these are all guys on their way to being great players. And then you start with Jadar (Johnson) and Van (Smith) at safety and we will see where the rest of the guys are. I think we have a good group.”
At linebacker, the Tigers only lost Goodson, but it will be up to some of the players who were used sparingly last year to hold off 5-star mid-year enrollees Shaq Smith and Tre Lamar.
“I am anxious to see those backers step up. We have a bunch of guys that got experience last year,” he said. “But it's the same thing - we had a drop-off in experience from B.J. and Ben to the total lack of experience with Jalen (Williams) and Kendall (Joseph) and J.D. and Judah (Davis). Nobody had any experience. That will all be different this year. Then you throw in Shaq and Tre Lamar and get (Jamie) Skalski in this summer - I think it will be a good situation.”
Who will step up and claim the eight vacated spots on defense? Only time will tell, but Swinney and Venables will be watching beginning February 29th.