Forged on fundamentals and peak fitness, Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph revels in his role as the quiet leader in the middle of the Tigers' defense.
CLEMSON, S.C. — Kendall Joseph is a starting inside linebacker for Clemson, the curiously unacclaimed leading tackler for a team that remains in the chase for a second straight College Football Playoff appearance. He is also a health science major who earlier sat through an 8 a.m. anatomy class. He had little choice in this: The only other available time for the course is 3 p.m., and that's a problem when football practice is a compulsory part of your existence. So a 75-minute lecture at a normally unconscionable hour it is. But on this Tuesday of the Tigers' bye week, Joseph arrives at Memorial Stadium in good spirits, having laid someone out not long before.
In a very important turn of events, the cancellation of the class after anatomy permitted the redshirt sophomore to nap before his obligations. And the snooze, he notes, was awesome. "You have to find happiness where you can get it," Joseph says, almost as an afterthought, which is fitting enough. He knows what unexpected value can be found in those.
If everyone still sleeps a bit on the 6'0", 230-pound metronome in the middle of third-ranked Clemson's defense, Joseph is not tossing and turning over it. He's delighted to qualify as overlooked because that means he is playing, which he had not done much of for two seasons due to circumstances mostly out of his control. First there was too much depth stacked in front of him. Then too many injuries befell him. Now, no one else on the roster has amassed more tackles than Joseph's 65 stops. Now, only one other Tigers defender surpasses his six tackles for loss, and only two have registered more snaps than Joseph's 456 on the season. His Clemson career may have begun in ironically mercurial fashion—the Belton, S.C., native actually turned down the program 45 minutes from home before reconsidering that same night—but now there may not be a more fundamentally adept and reliable performer on the roster.
Faced with yet another consequential showdown with Florida State on Saturday night, the Tigers will deploy the nation's No. 2 overall defense, per Football Outsiders' S&P+ metric. To date, they've once again earned credit for reloading a unit that produced four first- or second-round selections in last May's NFL draft. What's undersold is the ability to identify—the need to identify, really—replacements like Joseph, the disciplined cogs that produce tackles but few mistakes and that solder together the whole operation. "He loves the preparation, he likes the grind of the practice, and from a linebacker standpoint, he's got everything you could want," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says. "He's got great instincts, he's got explosive power, he's got incredible toughness and a high football IQ. That's a pretty good combination. He's exactly what we thought he'd be."
Clemson actually thought he'd be this a year ago. A productive spring positioned Joseph for a starting role as a redshirt freshman in 2015, which was no minor accomplishment: He might have beaten out senior B.J. Goodson, who went on to record 160 tackles and become a fourth-round draft pick. "I thought I was ready for it—I thought I was ready for the action, the lights last year," Joseph says. But early in preseason camp, during the NCAA-mandated no-pads portion of August workouts, Joseph wrapped up a tackling bag and rolled to the ground, a drill the linebackers do every year without incident. This time, there was an incident. Joseph landed awkwardly and sprained his AC joint. A would-be starter couldn't move his arm before he even had a chance to put on shoulder pads. "A freak accident," Joseph says.
Somehow it was the more explainable of his two significant injury setbacks. On his very first day back at practice after rehabbing the shoulder, Joseph's knee felt odd while he was running. He didn't twist it or plant funny, so he finished the workout and then told trainers something wasn't right. He soon learned he had a torn meniscus that required surgery. Add a concussion suffered during a mid-November practice, and a potential breakthrough season ended with a total of 63 snaps played over seven games, virtually none at full health. "He was definitely upset," Clemson linebacker Dorian O'Daniel says. "He felt like an old man. His body was always tired."
That would be disappointing to many, but it could not rankle anyone more than it did Kendall Joseph. For most of the preceding decade, he exhibited a doggedly conscientious approach to strength and conditioning and building his body. This is to be expected when your father is, literally, a bodybuilder: In the early 2000s, Miguel Joseph participated in multiple regional or national events in the sport, finishing second as a heavyweight in the 2005 South Carolina National Physique Committee competition. Kendall tagged along for plenty of his father's muscle-specific, three-hour workout grinds—"Be about to pass out after he got done, that's what I remember," Kendall says—though his own torments commenced in the summer between fifth and sixth grade. Miguel woke his son up every morning at 8 and put him through a routine mostly involving box jumps, running hills, push-ups and sit-ups. If Kendall did any lifting, it was at extremely limited weight with a focus on proper technique, so as not to damage a still-growing frame.
He loathed the toil until he saw the results. A tubby offensive lineman previously, Kendall transitioned to running back that fall. "Ever since then, I knew: If you put the work in, it'll pay off," Kendall Joseph says. "And I started loving it."
Despite his parents' divorce when he was an eighth-grader and his father's move to Charlotte, N.C., that naturally halted their daily workouts, Joseph's ascent assiduously moved along on, well, training wheels. Weight-room work was essentially elemental at Belton-Honea Path High, and Joseph would become three-time state weightlifting champion there in addition to a two-way standout at linebacker and running back. As a high school sophomore, he latched on to Flight School Training, a facility in Anderson, S.C., and began honing his speed and overall athleticism under the direction of Flight School's owner, Scott Littlejohn. Joseph worked out with Littlejohn as many as four times a week during the off-season; Clemson's leading tackler figures his chances to play in Death Valley would have been D.O.A. without Littlejohn's assistance just when colleges began to seriously evaluate prospects.
Whoever was responsible for it, Joseph believes his innate compulsion to throw around large amounts of weight—he is certain he never missed a summer workout in high school, even though they weren't obligatory—afforded him all his opportunities. "I knew that this was what it takes to be successful on the field," he says. "I learned from a young age that you can't sit around eating chips and expect to be good. Some people can. Some people are freaks. But I'm not a freak like that, so I had to put some work in."Grant Halverson/Getty Images
His time at Flight School was serendipitous for another reason: There, Joseph built a connection with Ben Boulware, a similarly diligent but decidedly more high-strung football star from Anderson County. After Boulware committed to play at Clemson, defensive coordinator Brent Venables asked if he knew of any capable players in the area worth a look. Boulware didn't have to think long. He dropped Joseph's name immediately.
"I honestly saw myself in him," Boulware says. "He's the black version of me, and I'm the white version of him. That's really the best way to put it."
Clemson's other starting inside linebacker hastens to point out that his recommendation of Joseph was but a small help. "I could've told coach V to watch his film, and if he sucked, coach V wouldn't have offered," Boulware deadpans. But it was a boost nonetheless, and Joseph would prove to have the goods. Laying in bed and revisiting Joseph's game film in early 2013, Venables had an epiphany: Man, I really like this guy. He messaged then-Clemson assistant Chad Morris, the recruiter assigned to Joseph's area, to begin the process of setting up a visit.
Though Joseph did not have pupil-dilating measurables, Venables was struck by the prospect's precocious fundamentals. Joseph played with knees bent and a flat back. He had good hands. He could leverage much bigger linemen who worked to the second level to block him. "He knew how to stymie them and cross-face and get off and find the football after that," Venables says. "He was able to play fast in traffic. That's an aberration. That's not the norm."
Joseph laughs at the ultra-low stance his high school coaches demanded of linebackers—"I thought it looked cooler to put your hands on your knees," he says—but he realizes the onerous drills aimed at playing low or honing hand placement or avoiding false steps served as a football advanced placement course. The fundamental expertise allowed him to compensate, and then some, for a modest frame.
It's a dynamic Clemson saw, too, even if Joseph didn't initially see himself at Clemson; he was inclined to attend college somewhere outside of his South Carolina comfort zone. And he smiles, too, at the memory of calling Venables to announce his commitment to Duke. The Tigers' defensive coordinator responded to the news by filibustering for 90 minutes about how no one would coach Joseph any better. Before the night was out, Joseph pledged to play for the school just up the road from home.
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A stuffed inside linebacker corps in 2014 precipitated a redshirt season, but the program's instincts about Joseph's technical proficiency and readiness manifested in spring football the next year. Venables reviews every practice snap and awards or subtracts "production points" accordingly; an interception is a plus, for example, while a bad alignment or missed tackle earns a demerit. Across 15 spring workouts in 2015, Joseph posted the highest production points-per-play rate of any Clemson linebacker. "It wasn't even close," Venables says. "It was two to one." For that reason, despite the injuries that would plague Joseph months down the line, Venables privately delighted in the ready-made replacement he had on hand after Goodson graduated.
"He's not 6'3", 250, you know, but he plays big and he plays fast and he plays consistent as much as anything else," Venables says. "That's what you need in this game to play well as a unit. Nobody has to be Superman—it helps once in a while if you got that guy, too. But he's been terrific and has really meshed well."
This is plainly evident in the linebackers room, where Joseph and Boulware sit side-by-side, front and center, carrying on their own hushed mini-colloquies over play calls and formations and blitzes, often to the frustration of Venables, who claps at them to recapture their attention. "We probably get chewed out every day," Boulware says. The duo that serves as the mainframe of Clemson's defense is, in truth, trying to be productive—they merely hope to decipher what Venables is teaching without interrupting him. "Sometimes coach V talks a different language that we haven't caught up to yet," Joseph says. "You know how coaches always say, 'You know what I'm saying?' You'll be like, 'Yeah.' But you don't know. That's kind of how it goes."
Comfort in communication cannot be overvalued, given how Boulware and Joseph are the conduits for all the calls to all levels of Clemson's defense. "They drank the same water growing up," Swinney says. "They understand each other's world." While Boulware plays angry, as Venables puts it, Joseph proceeds less volubly to similar results. Still, any reticence is relative. O'Daniel, the Tigers' redshirt junior linebacker, recalls Clemson defending a zone read play in the season opener against Auburn and watching Joseph shoot a gap and meet the running back in the hole with a solid, percussive hit worthy of a unit-wide celebration.
When Venables praises Joseph for letting the system feed him opportunities, the numbers suggest it's deserved. But it's also not entirely emblematic of how Joseph interprets his responsibilities. "I can just play downhill," he says. "I was never one to sit back on my heels and wait. For me to be able to use my instincts, to see what's going on and attack it, I think that's helped me play well."
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A few hours later on this Tuesday, well after his nap and gab session on the fourth floor of Memorial Stadium, Kendall Joseph finds something entirely different to attack: A nail.
Clemson's open week brings with it Build Day, in which the entire team participates in a community service event. This year, they bus to Greenville, S.C., to commit a few hours to helping Habitat for Humanity construct or finish off homes on Hope Bridge Way.
Joseph's assignment is established by a nametag on his chest: Engineered Systems House. At the end of a cul de sac, with no shade to speak of and therefore no respite from a fairly withering afternoon sun, Joseph bends at the waist and hammers away, driving nails into a wall frame. It figures: The guy who made his way to Clemson thanks in part to fundamentally adroit play is tasked with the work fundamental to building a home.
When he sees defensive linemen walking down the street, Joseph waves and offers a goofy smile. He later turns his attention to defensive back K'Von Wallace, who appears to be struggling with an uncooperative nail. "You all right?" Joseph asks. "Because I'm done over here." When O'Daniel successfully finishes hammering together his own portion of the wall, Joseph offers a high five. Soon, he's on a brief but necessary hydration break. After pulling a beverage out of a cooler and taking a swig, Kendall Joseph walks back to the house lot, happy to do the job that holds everything together.