When Clemson’s defense comes up in conversation, a good bit of it revolves around the Tigers’ talented defensive line.
There’s a logical explanation for that. There are four actually.
With All-American Christian Wilkins, ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Dexter Lawrence, Fiesta Bowl MVP Clelin Ferrell and, a budding star in his own right, defensive end Austin Bryant, Clemson arguably has the best defensive line in the country. However, and though they will benefit greatly from Clemson’s front four, the secondary is not too shabby either.
Take the spring game for instance. Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper, Hunter Johnson and Tucker Israel combined to complete just 33 of 63 passes, a 52.3 completion percentage, for just 266 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions.
It also helps that it is a very competitive group. Of the four positions, on Van Smith at free safety has locked down a starting job, the rest is up in the air when fall training camp begins on Aug. 4
“We have not figured everything out yet. We just need to let them keep competing,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “It is a good group.”
It’s a group that is filled with depth and a lot of talent. At corner, the Tigers have Ryan Carter back along with Mark Fields, Trayvon Mullen, Marcus Edmond, K’Von Wallace and Amir Trapp. At safety, Smith returns as the starter, while Tanner Muse, Isaiah Simmons, Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner are all competing to play.
The longest pass play the secondary allowed in the spring game was a 34-yard reception to Ray-Ray McCloud, but that was on pop-pass. Other than that the secondary kept pretty much everything in front of them.
“We have four safeties that are kind of trust worthy guys,” Venables said. “The corners … they are a good group, so it has been really pretty good. There is no cause for alarm right now.”
Going into summer workouts, Venables was especially pleased with the progress of Mullen, who is competing for the starting spot at boundary corner. Last year, Mullen played in 13 games, three on special teams, as he recorded 15 tackles. However, he did take 115 snaps and had one pass break up.
“He is playing with a little better, cleaner technique, positioning and is doing a lot of things well early,” Venables said. “You have to win early at corner with the way we play. You have to win early and you have to be a great finisher too.”
They also have to be strong, which is an area Venables says Mullen has made great strides in. The Clemson coach said most schools just focus on having their corners run their corner drills and work on their speed and technique.
That’s not the case at Clemson. Venables wants his defensive backs to be physical in his system.
“You have to play functionally strong,” he said. “It has already helped him and it will help him make another huge jump over the summer between now and then.
“He has been doing well. He understands things. He is a little more confident. He has better overall technique. He knows when to be inside leverage or outside leverage, press, bail, all of that.”
Venables thought Mullen had a really good true-freshman year, even though Mullen might not have thought so.
“We were a good team. We won the national championship, I heard,” the Clemson coach said jokingly. “So I thought he played a lot and I thought (linebacker) Trey Lamar played a lot. That is just me, but they did not probably play as much as they would have like, but you know … it is hard anywhere, unless you just stink on offense and defense to just play every snap as a freshman. It is hard. It is hard to do.”
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