In their last outing, fans witnessed the Clemson defense being out-coached and out-played in the Sugar Bowl. Saturday, the Tigers look to make a statement that the playoff loss is in the past and they are a different team in 2021.
There is a ton of evaluation to be done in every level of coordinator Brent Venables' defense. With critical veterans and enticing early enrollees not expected to play, there will be plenty of Tigers' defenders seeing a chance they otherwise wouldn't. Ahead of the game, head coach Dabo Swinney and the rest of the Clemson coaching staff are only looking to evaluate further after just weeks of spring practice.
Here are five things to be on the lookout for regarding both pairs of defenses on Saturday:
1. How much better is Bryan Bresee?: Facing an understaffed offensive line for the Orange team, Bresee has a golden opportunity to give fans the same excitement as coach Swinney has had regarding the sophomore interior tackle. While he won't have the pleasure of playing alongside his partner in crime Tyler Davis Saturday, the White roster for Clemson hails Bresee, Tre Williams, Xavier Thomas, Justin Mascoll, and mid-year edge Cade Denhoff. With plenty of room to work in, expect to be just as excited post-game about Bresee as the coaching staff has been all spring.
2. Prove it time for every cornerback: No position on the Clemson roster is in more of a bind than defensive back ahead of the spring game. Taking the recently departed Derion Kendrick's No. 1, Nate Wiggins will step into the spotlight in his first snaps as one of only four available cornerbacks for Saturday.
Sitting on the Orange team, Wiggins and Andrew Booth Jr. face a loaded White team receiving corps featuring spring standout Ajou Ajou, 6-foot-5 early enrollee Dacari Collins, and previous freshman phenom E.J. Williams. On the other side, Fred Davis II and Sheridan Jones have arguably the easier draw matchup-wise but will face Uiagalelei rather than backup Taisun Phommachanh. It won't be easy for the four enduring, but the Tigers' coaching staff will have endless tape to roll through after Saturday and could help decide whether Swinney dips into the transfer portal for the first time in Tiger Town.
3. Chance for unproven linebackers: Redshirt sophomore LaVonta Bentley is in the middle of no man's land with his placement on the White team. With sixth-year senior James Skalski presumed out of the contest, Bentley's most experienced linebacking partner comes in junior Kane Patterson, who registered just 138 snaps last season.
The lack of experience besides Bentley could become a blessing or a curse depending on his performance. Senior Baylon Spector is expected not to play for the Orange team. Still, the opposing side also features Trenton Simpson and standout freshman Jermaine Trotter Jr., who has been 'as good of a linebacker prospect out of high school,' as the Tigers could have asked for in his first spring.
4. Can Thomas show any development?: Just like Bresee, Thomas has a dream matchup in his first fully healthy showing for the Tigers in a while. Thomas has had a one-step forward, two-step back type of career, starting strong in his freshman year but still has failed to reach his monster potential with some of the reasoning entirely out of his control.
Having a full spring advantage over his competition and injured defensive end K.J. Henry should leave Thomas feeling he has a perfect storm brewing for his final year. However, it will be no new revelation to walk away from Saturday, feeling that Thomas is still the same player he was three seasons ago.
5. Who steals the show at safety with Mukuba out?: Andrew Mukuba was the most praised member of the secondary this spring, and he's only been at Clemson for a few short months. While it's a shame that fans and media alike won't be able to see the freshman standout who has earned player and coach respect alike, there's plenty of options that still need their moment in the deepest part of the defense.
Both rosters feature four listed safeties expected to play; Joseph Charleston stands out as a possible option for most improved. Miserable at times in coverage last season, Charleston is now in his third year; typically, the season players are liable to make their college careers' biggest jump. With Lannden Zanders out for the White team, Tyler Venables and Ray Thornton III will be the top options, and just as Charleston, could fair well from a good outing in their second and third seasons, respectively.
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