Spring questions on defense: Can Muse be a star? How does LB shake out?
|Thursday, February 16, 2017, 11:48 AM- -|
It seems like defensive coordinator Brent Venables has faced an uphill battle every year he’s been on campus, having to replace most of his defense each year.
That isn’t the case in 2017. In fact, Venables will return starters Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Dorian O’Daniel, Kendall Joseph and Van Smith. That doesn’t include players like Scott Pagano, Ryan Carter, Marcus Edmond and Mark Fields, who have all started at one point or another in their careers.
That’s a lot of experience and talent, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t holes to fill and that there aren’t question marks.
Let’s take a look at a few of those question marks heading into spring practice.
Who will provide leadership?
Venables often tells the media that the most successful teams he’s been around have been player-led, and he’s been fortunate in that he’s had players like Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, Ben Boulware and Mackensie Alexander to provide vocal leadership for his group.
O’Daniel, Wilkins, Joseph and Ryan Carter are all candidates to step into those roles. All have experience, and none of them are camera shy. But it’s hard to replace the fire of someone like Boulware, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind to his teammates or in the media. Spring practice will tell us a lot about who the new leaders are.
Who steps into starting roles at cornerback ?
Two of the spots in the secondary were occupied last year by Cordrea Tankersley and Johnson. One corner spot – the one opposite Tankersley – was manned by a committee of players. Ryan Carter (624 snaps), Mark Fields (337) and Marcus Edmond (323) saw the most playing time last season among the returnees and each had one interception. However, Carter played primarily in the nickel role.
Edmond made three starts and battled a hamstring injury, but made two game-saving plays against both Louisville and N.C. State. Fields saw his first real season of experience. Trayvon Mullen played 115 snaps as a true freshman. Amir Trapp played in three games during his redshirt freshman season.
Clemson brought in two defensive backs in the 2017 class who could both play corner. At 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, A.J. Terrell has the size to help right away. LeAnthony Williams is smaller at 6-foot, 175 pounds.
What happens with Christian Wilkins?
I am anxious to get back in the swing of things and find out from Venables and head coach Dabo Swinney if Wilkins stays at defensive end, moves back to defensive tackle or plays in both spots. This could be his last year on campus – he’s eligible for the NFL Draft next year – and his position in the NFL is likely to be at defensive tackle.
Will Tanner Muse step into a starting and starring role?
With Johnson off to the NFL, one of the safety spots is open. We saw glimpses of what Muse could do last season, and he excelled on special teams. But can he vault past Denzel Johnson, Isaiah Simmons and perhaps even Wallace to jump into a starting role? The coaches raved about Muse during bowl practice, and he saw meaningful snaps late in the season. The spring will tell us more about where he fits.
He played in all 15 games last season, and even though he had just 109 total snaps, he finished 13th on the team in total tackles (with 24).
Who replaces Boulware on the field and how does the LB rotation shake out??
There were times last season when Jalen Williams was listed as the backup to Boulware at the weakside linebacker spot, and when Williams was injured J.D. Davis was listed as the backup. However, Venables told us that Jamie Skalski has spent time at that spot, and I wondered how the rotation would look entering the spring.
I asked Venables that question during bowl practice, and it's obvious he wants to cross-train most of his guys and see what happens.
He told me that Shaq Smith will train at both the WILL (weakside) spot and the MIKE (middle spot). Another player we've wondered about is Chad Smith, and Venables said Smith will train at all three spots. Skalski will also work out at all three spots, as will Wiliams. Kendall Joseph will work out at the MIKE and WILL, and Tre Lamar will stay at the MIKE.
Again, it will be interesting to see how this rotation looks on the post-spring depth chart.