When Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green all announced they were turning pro last January, people wondered how Clemson was going to recover from losing so much talent in the secondary.
Those doubts increased when safety Jefferie Gibson later announced he was transferring to another school, cornerback Kaleb Chalmers was kicked off the team and cornerback Adrian Baker tore his ACL during the first week of spring practice.
Though the Tigers, who rank No. 3 and visit Florida State on Oct. 29, had two of the nation’s best recruits coming in Trayvon Mullen and K’Von Wallace to help provide depth in an inexperienced secondary, expectations for Clemson’s pass defense were low.
There was no way Clemson was going to survive this kind of turnover, right? Wrong. The Tigers have not only survived, but they have flourished in the secondary.
Heading into the off week, Clemson ranks in the top 12 nationally in six pass defensive categories. Dabo Swinney’s secondary ranks second in yards per attempt (5.2), third in touchdown passes allowed (4), fifth in interceptions (11), fifth in passing efficiency defense (90.95), 10th in yards allowed (166.1) and 12th in completion percentage.
Also, it is not like opponents are not throwing on the Tigers (7-0, 4-0 ACC). Clemson’s opponents have thrown the football 222 times already this season for an average of 31.7 attempts per game.
“Yeah, we’ve got good players. We’re really good up front and we’re recruited well there,” Swinney said. “We have great coaches that do a great job developing those guys.”
Mike Reed is in charge of the Clemson secondary, and has coached up players like first year starter Jadar Johnson, sophomore Van Smith and others like Ryan Carter, Mark Fields and Wallace. And then there is Marcus Edmond. An unknown before the season started, Edmond has made the two biggest plays of the season thus far – last week’s interception in overtime to secure the win over N.C. State and then the game-winning tackle in the Louisville win.
Then of course there is All-American candidate Cordrea Tankersley, who has shut down one side of the field.
It also helps to have a defensive front that is considered one of the nation’s best pressuring the quarterback. Clemson ranks second nationally with 25 sacks this year, while also recording 77 quarterback pressures.
In all, 14 different Tigers have registered at least one sack in the first seven games.
“It starts there with Marion (Hobby) and Dan Brooks. They do a tremendous job developing the talent that we have, and we’ve recruited well,” Swinney said. “And then we’ve got good backers and good guys that can cover on the back. And Coach (Brent Venables), man, he does an unbelievable job every day and every week giving our defensive guys a chance to be successful. They play with great effort. They take a lot of pride in what they do. We prepare extremely hard each and every week.
“So they have got it done — that’s really nothing more than that. You affect the passer each week, good things happen. We’re able, for the most part to do that. I thought we were not as good against N.C. State. But we have been a really good team against the rush and our ability to usually take away what they do best. Bottom line is we’ve got good players that believe in what we do and play extremely hard.”