Coming into the 2017 season, everyone knew how good Clemson’s defensive front was going to be. With defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence returning, as well as defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, Clemson has one of the best defensive fronts in college football.
Though the Tigers had to replace All-American Ben Boulware at weakside linebacker, veteran Kendall Joseph has slid over and has not missed a beat, while Dorian O’Daniel is having an All-American type season through the first three games.
But in the secondary, no one really knew what to expect. Sure the Tigers have some talented, but young players in Trayvon Mullen, Mark Fields, A.J. Terrell, Tanner Muse and Isaiah Simmons, but no one really knew what they were going to do now that they had to replace All-ACC players Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, who both graduated.
So far, they’ve done well.
Second-ranked Clemson, who will host Boston College this Saturday in Death Valley for a 3:30 p.m. kick, ranks second in the ACC and 14th nationally in passing defense through the first three weeks of the season, allowing just 132.3 yards per game. Also, take into account Clemson is the only team in the country to play two top 25 teams and one of those teams was Louisville, who had Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Lamar Jackson.
So far, the Tigers are allowing the opposition to complete just 35-of-71 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns. Of course two of those touchdowns were allowed in garbage time when Clemson played a lot of third- or fourth-team defenders who have not had a lot of experience.
“They’ve been really good,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve only been out of position a few times…we had one bust on our DBs the other night, and the other one was one of our backers wasn’t where he was supposed to be.
“They’ve been in position. We haven’t had [knocks on wood] a million pass interferences. I know we had two pretty quick in the Auburn game, but we really cleaned that up and are playing with much better technique.”
Clemson (3-0, 1-0 ACC) sacked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham 11 times, and at least half of those sacks were due to the secondary’s coverage. In the Louisville game, Jackson completed just 21-of-42 passes, but before the backups came in after Clemson built a 26-point lead through three quarters, the Heisman winner was just 12-of-26 for 118 yards against the Tigers’ starters and second team players.
“But after three games and a couple of top-15 matchups, we’ve held our own and done a pretty good job,” Swinney said. “I like the depth, and it’s unfortunate that we’ve had a couple of guys go out. Van (Smith) got hurt, Muse got kicked out [on a targeting penalty against Louisville], but we’ve had guys go in and play in crucial situations. I like the depth that we’ve been able to create after three games. We’ve got good versatility there. Our corners…we’ve got a bunch of corners that can play both sides.”
With what has happened with Smith and Muse the last two games, it allowed guys like K’Von Wallace and Isaiah Simmons to get valuable experience. Wallace played excellent in the win over Auburn while Smith nursed a knee injury, and then Simmons led the Tigers with nine tackles in the Louisville game and played well following Muse’s ejection.
“They’ve been much more disciplined as a group,” Swinney said. “I knew that coming into it. Y’all have heard me say that many times…I feel like this is the best secondary that we’ve had. They’re the deepest, most versatile group that we’ve had. We haven’t come close to what I think the potential is.”