Last year, Clemson’s defense was tied for 102nd nationally with Rice, Southern Cal and Virginia Tech in plays that exceeded 20 yards or more.
It was an embarrassing fact for a defense that takes so much pride in stopping its opponents and getting off the field. However, 71 times the opposition broke through for a gain of at least 20 yards.
“That was just from a lack of communication,” safety Jadar Johnson said.
The safety positions played a big part in that lack of communication as some of the big plays that were allowed where a direct result of what was or wasn’t going on in the secondary. As the Tigers’ last line of defense, former safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green, now both in the NFL, were at times out of position and sometimes failed to communicate to the other, or anyone else in the secondary, that they were going to freelance.
The end results were long plays by guys like Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who the No. 3 Tigers’ will see again on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. In last year’s game, Cook had two long runs on FSU’s first two series, including a 75-yard run for a touchdown on the second play of the game.
“Our main focal point for the back end was just getting better with communication. I felt like some of the big plays we gave up last year were all because of communication,” Johnson said. “Somebody did not say something to the other person and we just lost something in the back end.”
With Johnson, a senior, leading the way, communication isn’t a problem anymore, which is ironic considering the 6-foot, 210-pound safety is perhaps the most soft spoken and quietest guy on the team.
“He is usually pretty quiet and low key and everything like that so when you hear him speak up, you know he is saying something for a reason,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “You really have to pay attention to him, unlike someone who is outspoken all the time.”
In a sense, Johnson has become the leaders of the defense, the quarterback if you will, especially in the secondary as he tries to talk to guys like Cordrea Tankersley, Van Smith, Marcus Edmonds, Ryan Carter, Korrin Wiggins, Mark Fields, K’Von Wallace and Trayvon Mullen to make sure they are all on the same page.
But Johnson refuses to take all the credit. In fact, he will not take any of it. He says it has been a collective effort, which begins with the most experienced of the group – Tankersley.
“That has been a big focal point ever since the spring. Every time we get on the field, we are out there talking,” Johnson said. “Anything you see, call it out because you never know how that might help the person next to you.
“We worked on that through spring and into camp so it has just come natural as soon as we got on the field.”
It is showing in the results, too. Clemson ranks No. 8 in plays of 20 or more yards allowed, with just 22 thus far.
Johnson leads the Tigers (7-0, 4-0 ACC) with three interceptions, as well as six passes broken up to go along with his 29 tackles, including 22 solo tackles. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney called him the most valuable of the defense and his proud of the way he has embraced his role as a leader and has made a difference on the field, in the meeting rooms and off the field as well.
“I definitely think that has something to do with it. I know from a preparation standpoint he is making sure all of those guys in the film room are on point, knowing their jobs and knowing what they are supposed to do,” Wilkins said. “I don’t hear Jadar’s name getting called out too many times in practice for not knowing what do to. That just shows he is really taking his job seriously.”
After the Tigers concluded the season last year in Arizona at the national championship game, assistant coach Mike Reed and defensive coordinator Brent Venables came to Johnson and the others and told them what they needed to work on so they could eliminate the big plays they were allowing.
Venables says Johnson has stepped and has made the most of his opportunity.
“He has been really good. I’m real proud of Jadar in how he has matured and handled his role, his willingness in the first half of the season to be coached and to lead … to embrace the grind and to handle both the good and the bad,” Clemson’s defensive coordinator said. “He has been great.”
And so has Clemson’s secondary as a collective group. The Tigers rank second nationally in passing yards allowed (166.1), eighth in interceptions (11) and second in touchdown passes allowed (4).
And though he will not take the credit, it all starts with their quiet leader.
“Jadar really stepped up and got a lot more serious in what he has to do,” Wilkins said. “He embraced his role as a leader, and as a starter, and he has really been affective for us. He has been making plays left and right. I enjoy practicing with him. He likes to set the tone at practice and everything, trying to strip balls and getting that mindset of creating turnovers and things like that. I personally enjoyed playing with him and watching what he has been doing for us this year.”