If there is one question mark on defense in 2018, it is at the strongside linebacker position.
For the last two years, Dorian O’Daniel anchored the spot and he did it as well as anyone who has played there. One of the more versatile linebackers in Clemson history, the former All-American could stop the run, blitz off the edge and cover in space.
He finished his last season at Clemson as a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award after leading the Tigers in tackles with 104, including 11.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and three passes broken up. He also became the first linebacker in Clemson history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same season.
“Dorian was an every-down guy, which is very unique at that position,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Sophomore Isaiah Simmons has been dubbed as the heir apparent at the SAM/Nickel position. He is listed ahead of senior Jalen Williams and freshman Mike Jones on the preseason depth chart.
“He is a guy with unbelievable athleticism and speed,” Swinney said. “He’s got the physicality.”
As a freshman last year, Simmons played in 12 games, mostly at safety. He had 49 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack and broke up five passes.
“He is big and strong. He can run. He can blitz. He has pretty good coverage ability and he can play multiple positions,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “That is what we like about Isaiah is his flexibility.”
The one thing Simmons likes about his new position is his freedom. He is free to move around more and freelance a little, whereas in his old free safety position he had to stick to the coverages and try not to get out of position.
He also likes the fact he can blitz more in his new role than he did a year ago.
“There is a lot more freedom than there is at safety,” Simmons said. “At safety, it is like, ‘this where you have to be.’ In nickel you are playing the gray area a lot more and you are able to move more freely.
“I get to blitz a lot. At safety, you don’t get to blitz very much and I like to blitz a lot.”
Simmons played a lot of free safety last year, which is on the other side of the field. However, he also learned the strong safety position so he understands where the help is coming from.
“It lets me know who is going to be where, at what time and in what plays,” he said.
Simmons learned a lot about his new position thanks to Williams. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound hybrid linebacker says Williams has been great in teaching him techniques and teaching him the main parts of the position.
“I have learned a lot from Jalen,” Simmons said. “He has a lot of experience at the position and this is only my first year playing it as my main position. He teaches me a lot of the little things that I should know like the techniques I should use as opposed to another one, just really small things that you would not know unless you had experience playing there.”
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