While the Clemson offense has had to come into its own, the defense has been pretty solid for much of the first six weeks of the season.
The Tigers, who host No. 20 NC State on Oct. 20, have one of the country’s best defenses yet again as it ranks in the top 10 nationally in three of the four major categories, including scoring defense where they rank seventh and lead the ACC at 14.5 points allowed.
Fourth-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) also ranks seventh nationally in passing defense (152.8 ypg) and third in total defense (261.2 ypg).
Here are my grades for the Clemson defense at the halfway point of the season.
As expected, Clemson’s defensive front has been difficult for anyone to handle. The Tigers are averaging 9.7 tackles for loss a game, including 3.3 sacks. They rank third nationally in sacks (20) and second in tackles for loss (58). Of those, the defensive line has been responsible for 38 of the 58 tackles for loss and 15 of the 20 sacks. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell is having a monster season, again. He is tied for second in the ACC with 6 sacks and his 8 tackles for loss rank fourth in the conference. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is also having a good year with 5.5 tackles behind the line and 2 sacks. Austin Bryant has 3 sacks from his defensive end position, while recording 5.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Freshman defensive end Xavier Thomas has come on as well, with 5 tackles behind the line and 2 sacks thus far. His sack of Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey was a memorable one. Defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney has three tackles for loss. So far, 12 different players on the defensive line have recorded at least one tackle for loss. Grade: A+
Don’t think the defensive front is having all the fun. Middle linebacker Tre Lamar leads the Tigers with 42 tackles. He has two sacks and has 3.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Both sacks came in last week’s rout of Wake Forest. Weakside backer Kendall Joseph and strongside backer Isaiah Simmons have 31 tackles each. Joseph has one sack and two quarterback hurries, while Simmons has broken up two passes. Reserve linebacker J.D. Davis has also been impressive. He has 23 tackles including two for loss and one sack. He also has one quarterback pressure. Shaq Smith, Jalen Williams, Chad Smith and Judah Davis have all played well at times, too. The number one concern for the backers is still their ability to cover in space. A couple of times this year, especially at Texas A&M, they have had issues covering the running backs coming out of the backfield and the tight ends. Grade: A
The numbers can be deceiving. Clemson is second in the ACC in passing defense, yielding just 152.8 yards per game. Opponents are completing just 49.3 percent of their passes, a league best. So, on the outside looking in, it looks pretty good. However, not all things seem as they appear. Though the Tigers have looked good in recent weeks, this is still the same secondary that allowed Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond to throw for 430 yards and three touchdowns. Granted they dropped four interceptions and that might have changed things, but the fact is they still gave up 430 of the 917 yards they have allowed this year in one game. Clemson has played just two teams that can throw the ball since the A&M game. They were much improved against Syracuse and Wake Forest, recording an interception in both games. They also limited Syracuse’s Eric Dungey to 250 yards and no touchdowns. Not great numbers, but much improved compared to what Mond did. Wake quarterback Sam Hartman was just 7-of-20 for 74 yards last week. However, with quarterbacks like NC State’s Ryan Finley and Florida State’s Deandre Francois still on the schedule, the secondary will be tested much more in the weeks to come. As for the players, K’Von Wallace is having a pretty good year at strong safety. He is tied for third on the team with 23 tackles. He also has two passes broken up and two quarterback hurries. Free safety Tanner Muse has really come on the last two games. He has one of the Tigers’ two interceptions and has 18 interceptions to go with two pass breakups. He is perhaps the most improved player in the secondary the last two weeks. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen has been shutting down his opponent, as few teams have even attempted to throw the ball at him. Fellow corner A.J. Terrell is coming into his own as well. The sophomore has been very physical. He has 17 tackles thus far, the Tigers’ other interception and has one pass broken up. Corner Mark Fields has two passes broken up, though he dropped two sure interceptions, while freshmen Kyle McMichael and Mario Goodrich have received some very good experience at the cornerback positions as well. McMichael played a lot in the Syracuse game after Mullen went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Reserve safeties Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson have also improved since the start of the season. Johnson is credited with two broken up passes. Grade: B