Spring Practice Preview: Plenty of talent at the linebacker spots

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Mike Jones should be a big factor in Clemson's 2020 defense.
Mike Jones should be a big factor in Clemson's 2020 defense.

After coming up short in the national championship game, the expectations are still higher than ever and with spring practice kicking off Wednesday, it’s time to take a look at where Clemson stands position by position.

Clemson defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Venables has to replace two starters in his group with the departure of Chad Smith at the WILL (weakside) spot an Isaiah Simmons at the SAM/Nickel (strongside) spot. Smith finished fourth on the team with 80 tackles, including 5.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks to go along with eight quarterback pressures.

Simmons won the Butkus Award, becoming the first Clemson player in the award’s 35-year history to earn the honor presented annually to the nation’s top linebacker and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year after being credited with team-high 107 tackles (16.0 for loss), 8.0 sacks, 10 pass breakups, three interceptions (returned for 42 yards), a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 818 snaps over 15 games (all starts).

The good news is that MIKE (middle) backer James Skalski is back for his senior season, and not only provides a wealth of leadership and experience, but he’s also the signal-caller for the defense.


Roster (depth chart returners, freshmen)

Mike Jones, Jr. – Redshirt Sophomore (6-0, 225)

Baylon Spector – Redshirt Junior (6-1, 230)

Kevin Swint – Freshman^ (6-3, 245)

Jake Venables – Redshirt Sophomore (6-1, 230)

Kane Patterson – Sophomore (6-1 225)

Bryton Constantin – Redshirt Freshman (6-2, 220)

Trenton Simpson – Freshman^ (6-3, 225)

Keith Maguire – Redshirt Freshman (6-2, 220)

LaVonta Bentley – Redshirt Freshman (6-0, 235)

Sergio Allen – Freshman^ (6-1, 215)

James Skalski – Graduate (6-0, 235)

^ Early Enrollee

Three Questions

Who steps in at the WILL?

Getting the first crack at the spot will be Baylon Spector. Spector recorded the first two sacks of his career in the Tigers’ Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State last December. Spector has a nose for the football and would have already played at a lot of places but has been in a logjam behind Smith and others. In the 30 games he has played in, he has recorded 53 tackles, including seven tackles for loss. As a backup in 2019, he tallied 45 tackles, including six for loss and two sacks, while playing in all 15 games. Also getting a look at the spot will be Maguire (who will get a look at both outside spots), Bentley and newcomer Sergio Allen.

Who takes over at the Nickel/SAM?

Let’s face it, Simmons will be hard to replace because he could do so much. He was listed as a linebacker but sometimes lined up at end, lined up on a slot receiver, lined up at safety, or as a traditional linebacker. That kind of versatility will be hard to replace, but the Tigers’ defensive line should be better and allow Venables to go back to more basic defense. Enter Mike Jones.

Jones enters 2020 credited with 22 career tackles (4.0 for loss), a forced fumble and a pass breakup in 196 snaps over 18 career games. There are a number of players that can come in here and challenge for playing time at this spot. He was credited with 19 tackles (4.0 for loss) a forced fumble and a pass breakup in 181 snaps over 15 games a year ago.

Which of the younger players will step up?

This is one of the more intriguing spring camps that I can remember. The Tigers lost six linebackers after the 2018 season and Venables brought in a lot of freshmen. However, he relied on the experienced guys (Skalski, Smith, Simmons) as starters while rotating a host of young players. Bentley, Spector, Maguire, Patterson, Venables, and Jones all got a chance to play. Now we get to add in Allen, Trenton Simpson, and Kevin Swint to the mix and this camp promises to feature perhaps one of the best linebacker competitions in recent years. Why? Because there is a large number of them, and they all can play.

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