Clemson defensive backs coach Mike Reed is in a better place at the safety positions this year than he was heading into spring practice this time last year. Of course the reigning national champions will begin spring practice on March 1 with the return of free safety Van Smith and a host of other players who got valuable experience in 2016.
Reed does have to replace First-Team All-ACC strong safety Jadar Johnson, who led the team with five interceptions. And though that is a tough loss, Reed is in a better situation than last year when he had to find new starters for both positions after losing Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green to the NFL.
However, there will be a lot of competition this year to find Johnson’s replacement as Tanner Muse, K’Von Wallace and Isaiah Simmons will battle it out in the spring and fall camp.
Van Smith: In his first year as a starter, Van Smith finished third on the team with 114 tackles from his free safety position. The rising junior did a complete 180 on his tackling from the year before as he became one of the best open field tacklers on the team. Of his 114 tackles, 77 were solo tackles, which ranked tied for second on the team. He also tallied 5.5 tackles for loss, caused two fumbles and had two broken up passes to go along with his two interceptions. His most memorable play came in the Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State, when he picked off a pass in his own end zone and returned it 86 yards to set up Wayne Gallman’s 7-yard touchdown for the game’s final score in Clemson’s 31-0 victory.
Tanner Muse: The rising redshirt sophomore showed flashes here and there of what he could do in 2016. He played in all 15 games as a reserve safety and on special teams. He returned an interception 64 yards for a touchdown against Syracuse, while also blocking a punt against Alabama in the national championship game. He also finished the year with a team-high 10 tackles on special teams, tied with reserve linebacker Chad Smith. Muse is known for his athleticism and his big hits. However, Reed said he has come a long way in improving with his coverage skills and technique.
K’Von Wallace: As a true freshman in 2016, Wallace played in all 15 games and was listed as Smith’s back up in the Fiesta Bowl and the national championship game. He recorded just six tackles in his 109 snaps, but he did record one interception. Wallace is a hybrid safety that can help at corner and the nickel back position as well. He still has a lot to learn, but Reed likes his potential and what he could possibly do for the Tigers in the future.
Denzel Johnson: He was a little bit of surprise last year on the back end as he earned playing time, and by the end of the year was list as Jadar Johnson’s backup in the Fiesta Bowl and in the National Championship Game. Denzel, a rising redshirt sophomore, played in 13 games and registered 11 tackles. He had five tackles against South Carolina in the regular season finale.
Isaiah Simmons: At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, look for Simmons to be in the mix this spring to replace Jadar Johnson. Like Wallace he is very athletic, and like Muse he can be very physical. He has great instincts to the football. Before being redshirted last year, Simmons was a First-Team All-State player out of Kansas, where he recorded 92 tackles. He also returned a kickoff return for a score and had a fumble return for a touchdown as well. He was also a state champion in the long jump for his high school track team.
Nolan Turner: He also redshirted. His late father, Kevin, played with Dabo Swinney at the University of Alabama, and in the NFL with the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Nolan (6-2, 190) redshirted in 2016. As a senior in high school, he recorded 63 tackles and had five interceptions. He is a natural at the position and has great instincts. He will battle for playing time this season.
— Above photo: Clemson safety Van Smith (23) runs back the ball 86 yards after an interception against Ohio State during the fourth quarter in the 2016 CFP semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on New Year’s Eve. (photo by Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)
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