No drop-off expected for Tiger defense in 2019

CU Athletic Communications

Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables joined the Tigers in 2012 following a 2011 season in which Clemson ranked 71 and total defense and 81 in scoring defense. In his seven seasons at Clemson, he’s turned the unit into a perennial Top 10 finisher.

Clemson has ranked in the Top 10 in the country in total defense in all five seasons of the College Football Playoff era and has ranked among the Top 10 in scoring defense in four of those campaigns. Yet, for all of the success Venables’ defenses had produced in his Clemson tenure, the 2018 unit accomplished a first in school history, leading the country in scoring defense for the first time in program annals by allowing only 13.1 points per game.

All four of the All-Americans that comprised Clemson’s starting defensive line a year ago (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant) have departed for the professional ranks, providing opportunities for a number of young defensive playmakers.

Observers need not go further than asking former Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey about Clemson sophomore defensive end Xavier Thomas (Florence, S.C.). The freshman All-American and consensus Top 5 recruit from the Class of 2018 posted 43 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and 3.0 sacks, including a highlight-reel sack of Dungey on the final drive of Clemson’s come-from-behind victory against the Orange. 

Recruiting classmate K.J. Henry (Winston-Salem, N.C.) returns after electing to redshirt a year ago, when he personally approached the coaching staff with the idea after playing four games early in the season.

The defensive end group also includes junior Justin Foster (Shelby, N.C.), a trusted option by the coaching staff who had a sack and a fumble recovery at Texas A&M last year, as well as sophomore Mason Rudolph (Rock Hill, S.C.), who made 13 tackles in reserve. The staff has also expressed enthusiasm about Justin Mascoll (Snellville, Ga.), who redshirted his first season at Clemson last year.

The spring provided an opportunity for Clemson to rapidly develop some depth at defensive tackle, as Nyles Pinckney (Beaufort, S.C.) and Jordan Williams (Virginia Beach, Va.) – both presumptive favorites to start – were sidelined while recovering from injuries. Those absences provided spring reps for junior Xavier Kelly (Wichita, Kan.), who converted from defensive end prior to the 2018 season, as well as redshirt freshman Darnell Jeffries (Covington, Ga.) and true freshmen Tyler Davis (Apopka, Fla.) and Etinosa Reuben (Kansas City, Mo.).

Clemson graduated an experienced corps of linebackers in 2018, but coaches are intrigued by the athletic group taking the reins in 2019. The lone returning starter in the group is junior Isaiah Simmons (Olathe, Kan.), a converted safety who led the team with 97 tackles in 15 games (14 starts) in his first year as the team’s nickel/sam linebacker in 2018. 

The NFL Draft declaration of Tre Lamar opened larger roles for middle linebacker Chad Smith (Sterling, Va.), and the departure of 40-game starter Kendall Joseph at will linebacker could result in James Skalski (Sharpsburg, Ga.) earning the starting role after taking an advantage of new NCAA rules that enabled him to take a mid-career redshirt in 2018. Redshirt sophomore Baylon Spector (Calhoun, Ga.) and redshirt freshman Mike Jones Jr. (Nashville, Tenn.) could also carve out roles at the will and nickel/sam positions, respectively.

The script has flipped for Clemson in the defensive backfield, where a year ago the Tigers were in search of depth at safety to match the team’s experience in the front seven. Now, the Clemson defense is led by a pair of senior safeties in Tanner Muse (Belmont, N.C.) and K’Von Wallace (Richmond, Va.) who have played in a combined 88 career games with 45 combined starts. Behind that duo, the Tigers return senior Denzel Johnson (Columbia, S.C.) and junior Nolan Turner (Vestavia Hills, Ala.), both of whom answered any questions about the team’s safety depth by emerging as reliable contributors in all 15 games in 2018.

At corner, the veteran presence will be provided by junior A.J. Terrell (Atlanta, Ga.), who led the team with three interceptions in 2018, including a 44-yard pick-six to jumpstart Clemson’s 44-16 national championship victory against Alabama. The cornerback group also returns three sophomores who saw action a season ago, including Mario Goodrich (Kansas City, Mo.) and Kyler McMichael (Atlanta, Ga.), who played in 26 combined games as true freshmen in 2018, and LeAnthony Williams (Atlanta, Ga.), who appeared in seven games as a redshirt freshman.

The unit added an unknown X-factor in the spring when the coaching staff began cross-training wide receiver Derion Kendrick at cornerback. He impressed immediately, recording an interception against the first-team offense in an early spring scrimmage, and in early April, Swinney noted that the presence of Kendrick was a luxury to have a player that could start for the Tigers on either side of the ball.