Clemson DBs: Inexperienced But Talented

by - Correspondent -
Will any teams challenge Miller this season?

The physical and mental demands placed upon a defensive back may make it the toughest position in football. Just think about it for a minute - Besides having to be exceptional athletes that possess a rare combination of speed, power, and agility, they must be mentally sharp enough to deal with immense pressure, make a number of decisions on the run, and put in countless hours of off-the-field preparation. And while great instincts are vital, they are but one small part of the formula for success.

You see being a good defensive back is like being a poker-playing gunslinger that doubles as a decathlete. I know.... it is a pretty ridiculous analogy, but there is a lot of truth to it. First of all, he must have that innate ability to know his opponents' next move. A good defensive back watches as much film as possible in an effort to pick up on the slightest tendencies an opponent may show. He studies the wide receivers to find their preferred releases and any false moves such as head fakes or stutter steps. He will watch a quarterback to determine his arm strength, accuracy, and how well he looks off defenders. He may also search for any tendencies displayed under pressure and what type of runner he is. Secondly, he has to deal with extreme pressure. Like the gunslinger, everyone knows when a defensive back makes a mistake. And even though his mistake does not result in death, he may sometimes wish it did. Letting a wide receiver get by you to catch a long touchdown in front of 80,000 folks is not something from which you can hide. What is worse is that the open wide receiver is not always the nearest defensive back's responsibility, but he will have a hard time explaining that to fans who want him on the bench. Finally, like the decathlete, a defensive back has to be a very well put together physical specimen that does not need to be the best, but must be above average in a number of different physical qualities. Speed is a given. Power is sometimes overlooked because of their generally smaller stature (in relative terms), but they need to be physical enough to deal with everyone from wide receivers to offensive linemen. The list continues with qualities like body control, agility, etc. When you break it all down, defensive backs have to be football machines.

Two of the most basic defenses for a defensive back are Cover 2 and Man. The generic Cover 2 involves two safeties that split the field into deep halves. Considering a field is just over 53 yards wide, that is a lot of room for them to cover. With the ball in the middle of the field, they usually line up 10 - 14 yards deep. The safety to the strong side normally splits the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, while the weak side safety splits the difference between the defensive back and the offensive tackle. Meanwhile, the two cornerbacks and three linebackers provide the "underneath" coverage by dividing the area into fifths. A good stance for a cornerback is legs shoulder width apart with the outside foot forward in his stance as it supports his weight while positioned underneath his nose. The knees and waist are slightly bent and his arms are hanging free and relaxed. Their alignment is slightly outside of the wide receiver because it allows them to contact the wide receiver as he releases downfield. This is a must for two reasons: 1. It forces the wide receiver closer to the sideline on an outside release. The sideline acts as a 12th defender and this reduces the area in which the quarterback may place the ball. 2. More importantly, it forces the wide receiver to flatten his route. This gives the safety enough time to rollover the top of the wide receiver as he breaks into one of the two deep zones. Linebackers also help the safeties in deep coverage by making route reads. They will sometimes run deep with the tight end and/or running back if the wide receivers take outside releases to stretch the zone vertically. In essence, the linebackers then take responsibility for any deep routes that may be run down the seam. A defensive back in a Cover 2 will more times than not look to the quarterback for a read on the play.

A Man-to-Man defense is tougher on a defensive back because they usually have no help. One small mistake can result in a quick touchdown for the offense. The alignment in this defense can vary depending on the call, but the stance is pretty much the same. The defensive back wants to have his shoulders in front of his hips and maintain a low base as he backpedals on the snap of the ball. On the snap, the defensive back locks onto his designated man and begins his progression reads. Because of the vast number of routes a wide receiver can run, the defensive back must first break it down into short, medium, and deep patterns. As the wide receiver crosses into each range, the defensive back is constantly analyzing the receiver's actions and looking for the first sign of a definitive pattern. As soon as the defensive back has identified the pattern, he will come out of his backpedal to either run with the wide receiver or break on a ball that is being thrown. The key is for a defensive back to not over-commit. A post can easily turn into a post-corner just as a stop can turn into a stop-and-go. This is where all of the off-the-field preparation begins to pay off. It is also where agility and recovery speed comes into play. A defensive back has to be able turn and run in a fluid motion that does not cause him to lose ground. This is why many cornerbacks are rarely taller than 6'1" or so. The taller an individual is, the harder it is for him to turn his hips and run. What is lost in size is hopefully made up for through speed.

ROVER (Strong Safety)

According to the post-spring depth chart, Jamaal Fudge (5'10", 10 - R/So.) is the starter. He was voted as the most improved defensive back on the field and in the weight room during the spring. Fudge spent all of last year backing up Brian Mance at cornerback. A majority of his playing time up to this point has come during mop up duty. However, he was second on the team in special teams tackles last year as he proved he has a nose for the ball and can deliver a hit. He possesses better-than-average coverage ability for a Rover. Pound for pound, he is the third strongest man on the team. He will have to rely on this strength as he transitions into the physical nature of the position. This is the part of the position change that will be the biggest question mark for Fudge. If he can handle it, he will be a very good Rover.

Gerald McCloud (6'2", 195 - R/Fr.) is Fudge's backup. McCloud is extremely inexperienced as he spent all of his redshirt season at wide receiver. He has good size and speed for the position. Again, the biggest question is whether he can withstand the beating he will take at Rover. He is an impressive athlete that has worked extremely hard to improve his size and speed since arriving at Clemson. Look for him to see a lot of time on special teams.


Leading the list of free safety candidates is Travis Pugh (6'1", 195 - Jr.). He is one of the more experienced players after playing in every game last year as a backup to Eric Meekins, as well as the final six games his freshman year. He is a solid hitter that does not mind sticking his nose into the fray for run support. The biggest question surrounding Pugh is his speed. He has worked hard at it since coming to Clemson and it should be more than adequate for the position at this point. He will have step up and provide leadership for a very inexperienced secondary.

Tavaghn Monts (6'2", 192 - Jr.) is second on the depth chart at safety. Monts does not have Pugh's experience, but he may be a better athlete. He provided some good competition in the spring and will look to overtake Pugh during the preseason. He will provide good depth at the position and should see playing time on defense and special teams.


Tye Hill (5'10", 180 - R/So.) is penciled in as the starter at left cornerback. After spending his first two years at running back, Hill may be the biggest question mark on the defense now that he has made the move to cornerback. He has all the speed necessary for the position, but his lack of experience is going to hurt him at times throughout the season. The positive is that he has proven to be very coachable and he does not appear to be tentative in contact situations. Besides inexperience, the negative is that he will be the guy that quarterbacks pick on most this year. If he does not learn to man the position very quickly, it will be a long season for John Lovett and the rest of his defense.

Buddy Williams (5'11, 170 - R/Fr.) is Hill's backup. He impressed coaches as a freshman on the scout team. He is actually more experienced than Hill at the position due to the fact he played cornerback in high school and all of last year. What separates the two at this point is Hill is a little faster and a tad more physical. Williams has all of the instincts and ability to play the position and will be a very good player before he graduates. If he added weight over the summer, look for him to really push Hill in the preseason and see significant playing time throughout the season. He is probably the third best corner at this point and may end up being the first man off the bench for the right and left side.

Preseason All-American Justin Miller (5'11, 200 - So.) is the starter on the right side. Any Clemson fan that is even remotely interested in football knows this kid. He had an amazing freshman season as he showed great game speed and an ability to deliver punishing blows. He truly seems to have the complete package a coach looks for in a cornerback. He should see significantly less action this year, as quarterbacks will turn their focus to the other side. He will have to learn to deal with folks throwing away from him and play within the scheme. He will also have to deal with the pressure of being a star. His playmaking ability will have to go a long way in carrying a very inexperienced group. Fans should also look forward to him teaming with Derrick Hamilton on kickoff and punt returns.

Backing up Miller will be Ryan Hemby (5'10, 166 - R/Jr.). Pound for pound, he is the strongest man on the team. He played over 200 snaps his R/Freshman season, but saw that number drastically decline last year with Brian Mance and Miller taking most of the snaps. He is an experienced backup that will provide depth and solid leadership.

The wildcards in this group are Ronny Delusme (6'1", 205 - R/Jr.) and Toure Francis (5'11, 184 - R/Sr.). Both players suffered torn ACLs last year. Francis' injury came in the season opener against Georgia. He participated in the spring, but was held out of contact drills and scrimmages. Delusme's injury occurred in the Maryland game. He did not participate in spring drills as he rehabbed. When ready, Delusme could get a look Rover or Whip. He has good size and excellent athletic ability. He brings a fair amount of experience to that table as he has participated in 23 of the 25 games since his redshirt season. His biggest contribution this year may be on special teams and providing depth for Eric Sampson at Whip. Meanwhile, Francis looks to regain the starting cornerback position he had entering the opener last season. If proven in the preseason that he has fully recovered, he will definitely challenge Tye Hill for the slot and could easily overtake the position by the early part of the season. Regardless, he will see significant playing time if he remains healthy. He has amassed over 400 snaps in his career while being one of the leaders on the team. He could be a very pivotal player for the defense this season. It looks as if incoming freshmen Sergio Gilliam, Roy Walker, and Robert Resse will redshirt.


Again, this is a fairly inexperienced group with some promise. Unfortunately for them, their mistakes usually result in long gains or touchdowns. The success they have this year will be a direct result of how quickly they progress in the preseason. There will be no surprises like a Miller this year, but someone stepping up to provide solid coverage on the opposite side could go a long way towards the success of the defense. It will take more pressure off the safeties and allow them to provide much needed run support and help over the middle. John Lovett has a tough task ahead of him as he tries to get this bunch ready for a tough opener against Georgia in less than a month. The good is that all of the positions other than Miller's seem to be fairly wide-open heading into the start of two-a-days. Having these guys battling each other on a daily basis for a starting position will only make each of them work harder and get better. The bad is that Lovett only has about 30 practices to get them ready for game action. As the last line of defense, these guys cannot afford to falter or there may be quite a few shootouts throughout the season. The UGA game will be a great litmus test for this group. If they can find a way to hold their own, look for the Tiger defense to surprise people this fall

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