Tigers Working To Develop A Consistent Nickel
After losing so much along the defensive front following the 2018 season, the Clemson coaching staff were faced with a tough decision.
With very little experience at end, and no depth along the interior, the staff settled on going with a three-man front quite often.
Having a player like linebacker Isaiah Simmons made that decision a little easier. Simmons was only the most versatile player in the nation, playing more than 100 snaps at five different positions, and went onto win the Butkus Award.
With Simmons now off to the NFL, Clemson is tasked with having to replace its best defensive player, and at the most important position on the field in defensive coordinator Brent Venables scheme.
Mike Jones Jr., a redshirt sophomore out of Nashville, has spent his first two seasons in the program prepping to take over that key role. He has also spent that time soaking up as much as possible from Simmons.
"I learned a lot from Isaiah," Jones Jr. said. "Just being calm, and composed, and trusting your preparation, and believing in yourself on the field. Isaiah is a freakish talent, and he was a teacher, just being around him. But I feel like I am a freak just like him. Just playing confident, believing in yourself, working hard, and letting it all transfer to the field."
However, head coach Dabo Swinney knows the Tigers need to develop depth at the position. He knows that they won't be so fortunate to have a guy on the field that can do it all.
"We're rolling all kinds of guys in there," Swinney said. "We are teaching a bunch of them. We have a true 'Sam' (linebacker) situation, where we want to keep the normal 4-3 personnel in there, and then we'll have our nickel personnel as well. Obviously last year, we had a guy that could do everything. This year we've got to develop that, and that's probably one of the bigger goals is to really come out...feeling good about the nickel-SAM position as a whole, the combination of how we'll manage that position."
While Swinney knows what he has in Jones, there is still some uncertainty behind him on the depth chart. Before the spring was cut short, developing that depth and getting guys cross-trained was one of the top priorities. Now that will have to wait.
"The linebacker, when we're playing 21 personnel, 12 personnel, who can really go in there and give us that true Sam. All those guys are cross-training at 'Mike' and 'Will' too. Definitely Mike Jones is where it starts. But who is going to be the third corner/nickel that can play in there? And who is going to be that safety guy who can be the hybrid there? That's what we've got to figure out, and I think we have some really good candidates for that."