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Mid-season report card: Defense

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With No. 3 Clemson off this Saturday and halfway through the season, let’s take a look back at what the Tigers did right and wrong in the first seven games.

Here is how The Clemson Insider graded the Tigers’ defense through seven games. Through seven games, Clemson’s defense ranks eighth nationally, allowing 298.6 yards per game and ninth in scoring defense at 15.3.

Defensive end

When Austin Bryant got hurt during fall camp, no one knew really what to expect from the defensive end positions. They were already replacing two starters, who are now in the NFL, in Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, and the loss of Bryant left no one with sufficient experience to start. To try and combat that, the coaching staff moved Christian Wilkins outside where he has flourished, which also allowed redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell to come along at the right pace. The result, the two have a combined six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss to go along with 22 quarterback pressures and four passes broken up. Chris Register and Richard Yeargin have also been productive when coming in with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and five quarterback pressures. Austin Bryant returned to the lineup for the first time this season against NC State and recorded a half sack. With Bryant back, and Wilkins still expected to help out, the defense end positions at Clemson are just fine. Grade: A

Defensive tackles

The Tigers have been dominant up the middle of the defense. Carlos Watkins, Scott Pagano and freshman Dexter Lawrence have done nothing but cause havoc for centers and guards. Watkins is quietly having an All-American type season with 40 tackles, 4.5 sacks and seven quarterback pressures. The senior also has also batted down a pass and caused a fumble. Pagano has 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback pressures. Lawrence leads the front with 44 tackles 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one pass broken up and a team-high 17 quarterback pressures. He had 10 tackles and a sack at Auburn in his first game as a collegiate player. Albert Huggins has also been productive when he has played. The sophomore has 14 tackles, three sacks and four quarterback pressures. Grade: A

Linebackers

Ben Boulware is the leader of the group but he does not lead them in tackles. That belongs to sophomore Kendall Joseph, who has 66 tackles, six tackles for loss, sack and six quarterback pressures and an interception. Joseph opened the season with 14 tackles at Auburn. Boulware is not too far behind, he has 59 tackles overall, including four tackles for loss, sack, two forced fumbles and six quarterback pressures, one pass broken up and one interceptions. Boulware had 18 tackles in Clemson’s win over Louisville on Oct. 1. Dorian O’Daniel has been solid at the strong side position. He has tallied 29 tackles, 22 solo hits, four tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and one PBU. He also has three quarterback pressures.  Jalen Williams, who also plays the strong side as well as the nickel position, is the fourth different linebacker to grab an interception, though the unit sometimes is criticized for not being able to cover well. Grade: A

Cornerbacks

At the start of the season, this was the most securitized area on the team. Heading into the off week, Clemson ranks in the top 12 nationally in six pass defensive categories. The unit ranks second in yards per attempt (5.2), third in touchdown passes allowed (4), fifth in interceptions (11), fifth in passing efficiency defense (90.95), 10th in yards allowed (166.1) and 12th in completion percentage defense. Also, it is not like opponents are not throwing on the Tigers. Clemson’s opponents have thrown the football 222 times already this season for an average of 31.7 attempts per game. As expected, Cordrea Tankersley, who has 22 solos tackles (30 overall) and six PBUs, is having an All-American type season as he has become one of the best shutdown corners in the country. On the other side, Marcus Edmond, Ryan Carter, Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen have all rotated in and out and have each had their moments this season. Edmond made the play of the game in each of the Tigers’ wins over Louisville and NC State. Grade: A

Safety

One reason why Clemson has been so much better in the secondary, has been the improvement of play at the safety positions. Jadar Johnson, the quarterback of the secondary, plays at strong safety and leads the team with three interceptions. He also has six PBUs to go along with his 29 tackles, 21 of which are solo tackles. Johnson also leads the defense with 463 snaps. Van Smith, who plays free safety, is a heat seeking missile. He ranks second on the team with 63 tackles. He has four tackles for loss and two passes broken up. He has also caused a fumble. Of his 63 tackles, 39 have been solo. Smith is considered one of the best tacklers on the team. Smith is second behind Smith with 460 snaps. Grade: A

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