Can the secondary help keep Clemson's defense at the top of the rankings?


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Mackenside Alexander is one of the leaders in the secondary
Mackenside Alexander is one of the leaders in the secondary

CLEMSON – Jayron KearseJayron Kearse
Jr. Safety
#20 6-4, 210
Fort Myers, FL

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and the Clemson defense reached the pinnacle last season, and the only valley they want to reside in this season is Death Valley.

Clemson’s defense finished the 2014 season ranked first nationally – a stated goal prior to the start of last season.

The loss of Grady JarrettGrady Jarrett
Defensive Tackle (2011 - 2014)
#50 6-0, 290
Conyers, GA

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, Vic BeasleyVic Beasley
Defensive End (2010 - 2014)
#3 6-2, 236
Adairsville, GA

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, Stephone AnthonyStephone Anthony
Linebacker (2011 - 2014)
#42 6-3, 245
Polkton, NC

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, Robert SmithRobert Smith
Safety (2011 - 2014)
#27 5-11, 215
St. George, SC

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and Garry PetersGarry Peters
Cornerback (2010 - 2014)
#26 6-0, 194
Conyers, GA

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, among others, has been tirelessly written about over the last few months as the Tigers went through spring practice, and the naysayers have been out in full force expecting a drop-off from the 2015 unit.

But, what hasn’t been written is that Kearse and this year’s defense expect to be better, as the junior safety said he wasn’t satisfied with just being part of a top-five secondary. He won’t be satisfied until the Clemson defense is ranked number one in every category.

“We can be one of the best in the entire country,” Kearse said during a recent spring practice interview. “Last year, we finished in the top five in the secondary and we can definitely go for number one this year and not just in the secondary, but for the whole entire defensive unit. We're not trying to drop off anywhere.”

Last season the strength of the team was in a veteran and deep defensive line. This year however, the strength of the defense lies with Kearse and cornerback Mackensie AlexanderMackensie Alexander
RS So. Cornerback
#2 5-10, 190
Immokalee, FL

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.

“I think it does because we have guys that have played,” Kearse said. “Where we came from and where we ended up last year, guys on the back end are going to have to step up. Talking to Coach Swinney, he said this will be our strong suit of the team. We have to keep that in the back our mind whenever we go out and go to work. We know that he's counting on us and the team is counting on us so we have to go out there and practice like we're the best.”

Losing talent to the NFL is nothing new to Clemson as the Tigers have had three consecutive first round picks in the NFL Draft, giving Kearse and his teammates the benefit of knowing how to replace talent and leadership.

“We lost a lot of guys to the NFL and guys going on with their future careers but we have the same mentality because we came out after playing against Ohio State and we had the same mentality that we have now,” he said. “We can be the best in the ACC and we still can be the best in the nation. I just have to come out here and work on being a leader and trying to push everybody to do great things. Like I said last year, you'll know about Clemson's defense.”

At 6-4, 217 pounds, Kearse knows that in addition to stepping up his game, he will also have to fill a leadership void on the defense, something he said he’s prepared to do.

“Not just going out there and leading by example but talking to guys, taking in the young guys and going to watch film with those guys and teaching those guys the ropes - things those guys don't know,” he said. “Instead of them having to wait for a coach, they can come to me and I can be able to help them, because I'm getting smarter with studying the playbook and the familiarity with the game. Even though I'm learning free safety, I played that my freshman year so I can help those younger guys that are backing me up with getting things down instead of them having to go to Coach Reed or Coach Venables.”

The torch is passed with every new year and this year it’s Kearse’s turn to carry it.

“It wasn't really strange. Guys have to step up,” he said. “We know that when guys leave that other guys have to step up. It's been that way around here and everywhere, when you lose guys like Sammy [Watkins], guys like Artavis [Scott] step up. When Tajh [Boyd] left, you had Deshaun [Watson] step up. You just have to be ready to step up and take the torch from those guys.”

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