Though the Clemson defense returns more players this year than it has the last two years combined, defensive coordinator Brent Venables says they still have to starter over.
The defending national champions return seven starters from a defense that ranked eighth nationally in total defense and 10th in scoring defense on 2016. However, the unit lost starters like Ben Boulware at linebacker, Carlos Watkins on the defensive line, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and safety Jadar Johnson in the secondary.
“You start over at everything,” Venables said following Friday’s practice. “You have to start over. Who are your leaders? You are building depth, and competing to replace really good players and really good leaders. Ben and Carlos, Jadar and Cordrea that four-header, plus (Scott) Pagano are some really good football players, a bunch of tough guys and some great leaders.
“You have to replace them with good players, tough guys and great leaders. You have to earn that, too. Again, you have to earn it and it will take us time to judge a guy and grade a guy and that takes time.”
At linebacker, Venables returns Kendall Joseph in the middle and Dorian O’Daniel at the strongside position. Several guys, including former five-star recruits Tre Lamar and Shaq Smith are vying to replace Boulware.
But it just doesn’t end there, Venables, who coaches the linebackers, says every linebacker will be cross trained at all three backer positions.
“We are hoping to find out more about guys by playing them at different positions and getting them out of their comfort zone and seeing who can handle it,” he said. “We are trying different lineups.”
Joseph returns as the top tackler. He registered 124 tackles in 2016, while tying for the team-lead in tackles for loss with 13.5. He also had 16 quarterback pressures.
“Those are two guys that were starters … both great leadership and Dorian played his best year of football since he has been here,” Venables said. “Kendall was just outstanding and was ultra-consistent and really played well as well. Hopefully, they will stay hungry. What I like about both of them is that they are hungry and they come ready to work.”
As for the secondary, Venables feels good about having Ryan Carter back after he had what he called a “very good year” last season while playing a number of different roles for the Tigers.
“We think he can do multiple (positions) again, and we are hopeful he will be ready to play like he did a year ago,” Venables said. “He was really good.”
Venables also thinks they have good young players in Mark Fields, Trayvon Mullen and K’Von Wallace, and then of course Marcus Edmond.
“I really should have started it with Marcus Edmond,” Venables said. “He made some incredible plays last year and has been a great leader and worker. He is quiet and unassuming, but he is super consistent.”
As for the safeties, Venables said Van Smith is working at both strong and free safety, though he played primarily at free safety last season. Tanner Muse, Denzel Johnson, Korrin Wiggins, Isaiah Simmons, Nolan Turner and Kyle Cote are also working at the safety positions.
“We have a good group and a good rotation of guys there,” Venables said. “We are excited about that group of guys. They have good football intelligence, a good feel for the game and a good understanding for what we are doing. They are just a bunch of guys that understand. That is it as much as anything. They get lined up and let you coach them hard. They play hard.”
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