This time last year, Clemson was bringing back just about everyone on defense.
The entire defensive line was returning. Two of the three linebackers were back, and three of the four starters were back in the secondary. Not to mention there was a ton of depth behind those starters and guys with plenty of playing experience.
It’s no wonder Clemson’s defense led the nation in scoring defense, yards per rush allowed, total sacks and tackles for loss in 2018, while ranking in the top 5 nationally in total and rushing defense.
But that was last year. This year, the situation has flipped.
Gone is defensive tackles Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Albert Huggins, as well as defensive end Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. At linebacker Kendall Joseph is now graduated and Tre Lamar left a year early to try his hand in the NFL.
Cornerback Trayvon Mullen also left a year early for the NFL, while his backup, Mark Fields has exhausted his eligibility.
“There is a major difference from where we were,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
In other words, the Tigers are starting all over on defense. Their just not losing seven starters, but they are losing depth at some of those positions as well.
“We have to start over. We say that all the time, but you literally have to start all the way over,” Venables said. “There is just a lot of coaching, teaching and correcting, nurturing, guiding, we are in a much different place.”
But don’t worry, Clemson still has a lot of talented players, they just have to gain some experience.
Xavier Thomas will begin his sophomore year and will replace Ferrell as the Tigers’ top pass rusher. As a true freshman, and as a reserve defensive end, Thomas recorded 35 tackles, had 10.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks. He also added four quarterback hurries and had one forced fumble.
On the other side, K.J. Henry and sophomore Logan Rudolph will get an opportunity. Henry was a top 10 overall recruit in the Class of 2018, while Rudolph was a coveted recruit from the 2017 class.
At linebacker, Isaiah Simmons is back to play the strongside and the nickel position, while Chad Smith, James Skalski and Shaq Smith will be battling for the other two spots. Though they have never been full-time starters, all three have acquired plenty of experience the last few years.
In the secondary, the Tigers are little banged up this spring with sophomores Kyler McMichael and Mario Goodrich and freshmen Joseph Charleston and Ray Thornton nursing injuries. However, three of the four starters are back, including A.J. Terrell at cornerback and K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse at safety.
“We just don’t have a lot of experience back,” Venables said. “They just weren’t starters. You lost the starters like we did last year, but there is just not much experience.”
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