It's no secret that one of the weaknesses that came with last season was a lack of communication behind the defensive line. The secondary drew the brunt of the ridicule for the explosive plays that became the identity of the defense in 2020.
However, the lack of communication and inconsistent play was evident between the linebackers and secondary as well, which led to many of those breakdowns. It's why Ed Orgeron and the program spent top dollar to bring in Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker to coach the linebacker unit.
The leadership of the linebackers is critical to the success as any defense to get the players organized on each play. Last year, the Tigers rolled out a veteran group in terms of class but didn't have the on field experience. The Tigers once again return a veteran unit with Damone Clark headlining the unit but there's some uncertainty about what the group will look like behind him.
Clark himself took a fair bit of ciriticsm a season ago but he feels most of his troubles came from a lack of understanding and with a better grasp on the play book and what's expected of him, Ed Orgeron was quick to call him one of the most improved players in the spring.
"There's room for me to get better every day. I'm nowhere near where I wanna be," Clark said. "I'm going to continue to have meetings with coaches, continue to learn the defense. I know what I have to do now and I know I have a lot of people looking at me."
Of course there are young prospects like Antoine Sampah, Josh White and Greg Penn that the program is really excited about. Veteran Micah Baskerville missed the spring to focus on academics and it's not yet known when or if he'll be rejoining the team.
But behind Clark, the consistent rotation will likely come down to a few new faces in Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr. and JUCO linebacker Navonteque Strong. Jones has the winning pedigree as a rotational defensive piece for Clemson en route to a national championship and three College Football Playoff appearances.
In hopes of looking for an expanded role on the defense, Jones elected to transfer and is an athlete who moves well and covers in space, something Jones was able to do pretty well in his time at Clemson. Jones is a player that can be versatile during an era in college football where offenses attempt to create mismatches in space with a linebacker.
Strong is an interesting case as he came in right away during the spring and separated himself due to his hard hitting, physical nature that impressed his teammates and coaches. In two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Strong recorded 163 tackles including 29.5 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks.
"When we put them pads on, if you want a thumper, Bugg is your guy," Clark said in the spring. "Seeing Bugg come in from JUCO and he didn't know anybody at first, so he was quiet. Now that he knows us and knows the team, he is more open. It's an open competition in the room each day."
Clark, Jones and Strong make up a group that could be one of the most improved in the SEC if all goes to plan. Having an instructor like Baker will only improve the group as many of the players have already talked about the impact he's had on the linebackers.
“The first thing I always want to look for is toughness. Are they tough? You want ‘em to have good length, good speed," Baker said. "They have to be able to play in space, the ability to make open-field tackles. Then, high-character guys. I really believe that if a guy is willing to come in and work and take care of his business, he’s going to be a really great player one day.”