LB review: Clemson Starters Helped Ease Transition
Editor’s note: @ClemsonSI is running a series of 10 positional breakdowns each day reviewing the 2019 season.
Like defensive line, Clemson was replacing key starters in Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph heading into the season.
Despite veteran defensive coordinator Brent Venables being the linebackers coach, there was still concern about depth and how effective the Tigers would be at the position.
Throw in the wrench that Venables shifted to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme for much of the season, and it was a year of change for linebackers.
That schematic shift actually benefited this group, though. Isaiah Simmons went from star to superstar and became the most versatile player in the nation. James Skalski developed into a force at the line and behind the line of scrimmage, and Chad Smith did more than just hold his own in his final season with the program.
The Tigers never really used a ton of players at linebacker, but some of that was because the starters played so well and fit the scheme.
Position breakdown: Simmons was one of 68 players in college football with 100-plus tackles. He also led Clemson with 16 tackles for a loss and eight sacks. Simmons picked off three passes, broke up several more and pressured the QB.
Simmons, who left early and is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, was the key cog in Venables’ scheme and allowed Clemson to transition to a defense that ranked in the top 6 nationally in both points and yards allowed per game.
Skalski had a career year, recording 90 tackles following a redshirt season. He added 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss.
Smith also had 3.5 sacks and added 5.5 tackles for a loss to go with his 74 tackles, which ranked third on the team. Smith also forced two fumbles and recovered one.
Baylon Spector was the only other linebacker to make the top 10 on the team in tackles with 42, but Jake Venables also came off the bench to record 32 tackles. Mike Jones Jr. had 19 tackles in a reserve role behind Simmons, who rarely came off the field. Kane Patterson was the only freshman LB to play in enough games to avoid a redshirt season.
Strengths: It all started with Simmons. He could do it all at all three levels of the defense. That allowed Venables to move other players around and take the heat off an inexperienced defensive line.
Skalski gave the Tigers that hard-hitting presence in the middle of the defense. He was a leader on and off the field and his ability to blitz effectively and stop the run helped that D-line as well.
Smith covered a lot of ground sideline to sideline and really kept this unit from being a weakness.
Weaknesses: There wasn’t a ton not to like about this unit in 2019. Skalski and Smith weren’t great in coverage, which made the matchup against LSU especially difficult in the national championship game. Smith didn’t play at all because of that. Skalski ended up getting ejected for targting.
The lack of depth didn’t end up hurting them because the three starters stayed healthy, but it could have an impact on 2020 as only Skalski returns.
Overall grade: B+