ARLINGTON, Texas – Clemson’s defense has received notability throughout the season as one of the stingiest groups in the country, ranking in the top-10 in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing-efficiency defense.
The unit’s tenacity has the second-ranked Tigers in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year. They face off with No. 3 Notre Dame in Saturday’s Cotton Bowl Classic as a part of the CFP Semifinals in a matchup of unbeatens.
Since the September scare at Texas A&M, the Clemson secondary has taken a lot of heat and the media painted it as the “weak link” of the defense. Clemson only allowed greater than 200-yards passing four times in 2018 but allowed 430 in College Station and 510 to South Carolina in a 56-35 win in Week 12.
Junior safety K’Von Wallace remembers the talk about his unit starting before the season began and believes there is more talent on the Clemson defense than just the big guys on the defensive line.
“They said before week one even started that the defensive backs were the weak link,” Wallace said. “We have NFL guys up front, but we have NFL guys on the back end too who will play at the next level.”
All of the talk has the defensive backs talking and gives extra-motivation against Irish junior quarterback Ian Book, who put together an impressive season after taking over for Brandon Wimbush in Week 3.
Junior safety Tanner Muse is not surprised the blame falls on defensive backs because in his eyes, it always has and always will. He just wishes people would judge their success on body of work rather than a couple bad games.
“As long as I’ve played football the DBs have always taken the blame and it’s old as time,” Muse said. “People pick and choose what they want to see instead of looking at the whole season.”
According to Muse, the Tiger secondary has a chip on their shoulder and cornerback Trayvon Mullen did not hold back about having something to prove against Book in the Cotton Bowl.
“People only say that because we had two bad games,” Mullen said. “I don’t pay attention to them saying defensive backs are the weakest link. We have Saturday to prove that to people if that’s what they want to keep saying.”
They have their work cut out for them with the Irish offensive attack led by Book, who has completed 70.4-percent of his passes on the season for 19 touchdowns as opposed to six interceptions. The Irish average 6.18 yards per offensive play with 33.8 points per game.
Not to mention the Irish have a chip on their shoulder too as nearly a 13-point underdog, despite finishing the regular season unblemished.
Wallace wants Book to attack his unit through the air because he is eager to show what they are capable of against a good offensive team.
“We want them to throw the ball, we want them to try us, we can go out there and make plays and are confident in our ability to make every competitive play,” Wallace said.
One reason a lot of the media pins the Clemson defensive backs as a weak link is a lack of understanding of defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ schemes and coverages. Wallace and Muse were quick to point this out at Cotton Bowl Media Day in AT&T Stadium.
“Not a lot of people know what we’re doing so things we do get misconstrued because they don’t really know,” Muse said. “We’re usually on an island, so teams like Notre Dame throw a lot of 50/50 of balls.”
Wallace knows that the secondary has not been perfect, but he is frustrated with a lack critique from those who really don’t know what is going on in coverage.
“Even the media doesn’t understand what Coach Venable’s mindset is and our schemes,” Wallace said. “Sometimes we are in a different coverage and the media will say ‘oh they were in man’ but we weren’t. We know our mistakes and what we need to do to go out and play our best four quarters,” he said.
Sophomore cornerback A.J. Terrell took a different approach stating simply, “They can say what they want, that doesn’t really affect me.”