By Will Vandervort
When fall camp opened up this past August, Clemson defensive back Bashaud Breeland came in feeling better than he has in a long, long time.
“I felt great,” the junior said. “I knew then that I could really be myself.”
And man has he been himself. Through the first five games of the season, Breeland has become the shutdown corner defensive coordinator Brent Venables has desired him to be. He is tall (6-foot), big (195 pounds) and fast (4.4 speed). He is also strong.
At one point in Saturday’s 49-14 victory over Syracuse, Breeland took on a wide receiver trying to block on a throwback to quarterback Terrel Hunt, threw to the turf and then came up to make the tackle. Instead of the play going for a big gain or even a touchdown it went for five yards.
“We are aggressive with him, that’s for sure,” Venables said. “He is being a lot more physical so we are trying to put him in position to make some plays that way.”
Breeland is making a lot of plays for the third-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0 ACC) thus far. He already has two interceptions, which is second on the team to Darius Robinson’s three, while he also has 19 tackles and three sacks.
Against Syracuse (2-3, 0-1), he had one interception—a diving grab in the second quarter—and a pass broken up, which could have been a second interception, had the wide receiver not held Breeland’s jersey on the play. Wide receiver Chris Clark actually grabbed Breeland as the Clemson corner out ran him to the football on a third quarter pass down the near sideline.
“They kind of grabbed me,” Breeland said smiling.
After dealing with a hamstring injury for much of last season, missing the last three because of it, it messed with his confidence and brought in a little self-doubt. Breeland spent most of the spring and summer getting back to full speed, and focusing on the one thing that got him to Clemson – his closing speed.
Breeland showed his closing speed is where it needs to be now. Early in the second quarter, with Syracuse driving, he initially got beat by Clark, but he made up for it with his closing speed and then jumped in the air to snag the pass away for the Tigers’ first of four interceptions on the afternoon.
“Coming into college, my closing speed was one of my biggest assets,” Breeland said. “Now that I’m healthy, I’m getting back to making the plays some people think I’m not supposed to make.”
A lot of people are starting to see Breeland make those plays, including the ones that count the most.
“I bet you for the most part he is on tape,” Venables said. “They see him. He is playing with great technique and is in good position. He is playing with speed and he is playing physical. He is consistently playing with good technique and good eyes.”
Breeland’s play is helping Clemson have one of the best secondaries in the country. Through five games, the Tigers have intercepted nine passes.
“It is great just to see him making those plays,” said Robinson, who leads the squad with three picks. “He is really, really focused. He comes to the sideline and talks about it all.”
With Boston College and No. 8 Florida State coming to Death Valley in the next couple of weeks, Breeland and the rest of the secondary will get a chance to see how much they really have improved this year. Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig and FSU’s Jameis Winston are two of the best quarterbacks in the ACC.
Winston threw for 393 yards and five scores in the Seminoles’ win over Maryland on Saturday.
“It is a long season and (Breeland) is going to continue to see better and better players out there, but I think he is ready for that challenge. He is really getting better and playing on a lot more consistent level,” Venables said.
For Breeland, he is going to do all he can do to help his team, whether that is playing man coverage against the opposition’s best receiver, sacking the quarterback or playing assignment football.
“I want to find a significant role on this team where I can help my team win,” he said. “My focus is trying to find my identity or what I’m good at and what I can do to contribute to this team.
“It feels good to be making plays, but I don’t really look at whether (the NFL) is really looking at me or not. I just want to play my game. I want to just go out there and get better each game.”