Heading into the 2021 season, Clemson's linebacker room looks to be loaded with not only talent but plenty of depth as well.
With spring practice set to begin on Wednesday, the competition for snaps should be fierce. The Tigers return plenty of experience, but there are also a number of second and third-year players looking to take that next step and find a spot on the two-deep.
Here's a breakdown of the Tigers linebacker group as the team starts spring practice Wednesday:
Key Departures: Mike Jones Jr. (transfer)
Key Returning Players: James Skalski, Baylon Spector, Trenton Simpson, Keith Maguire, Jake Venables, Kane Patterson, LaVonta Bentley
Early Enrollees: Jeremiah Trotter Jr.
Position Coach: Brent Venables (10th season)
Top Dog: There is no doubt that Skalski is the leader of this group. Skalski choosing to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA and return to the Tigers for a sixth season was a huge boost for the defense as a whole. Skalski only logged 291 snaps last season due to an injury, but still managed to record 44 tackles, 3.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks. He is the quarterback of the defense so to speak, and getting that kind of production and experience back for one more season could prove to be invaluable.
Instant Impact: Trotter is talented enough to come in and compete for immediate playing time and enrolling early will help with the learning process. However, the Tigers have a crowded linebacker room that is littered with talent and Venables demands a lot out of his linebackers. It will be interesting to see how he performs in the spring.
Rising Star: As the 2020 season progressed, it became harder to keep Simpson off the field. After playing more than 270 snaps as a freshman, and with Jones transferring out, Simpson could be a key component of the Tigers defense next season and this spring will be instrumental for him as far as taking that next step in his development.
Developing Talent: After coming to Clemson as a highly-touted prospect in the Tigers 2019 recruiting class, Bentley has struggled to get on the field. This spring could be a big one for Bentley, who was considered one of the best inside linebackers in the country coming out of high school. He is now entering his third season, and this could be the season that he takes that huge jump in his development.
Hole to Fill: It looked like the Tigers were going to return the entire starting defense next season, but the transfer of Jones means they will now return all but one. Simpson looks geared to step into that role by all appearances and the spring will be the first step in that process.