Mickey Conn is in a great spot as Clemson’s safeties coach going into the 2019 season. His position group is deep and features a perfect blend of veteran leadership and young talent.
A quartet of true freshmen safeties – Joseph Charleston, Lannden Zanders, Ray Thornton and Jalyn Phillips – have entered the fold with the four returning scholarship safeties: seniors Tanner Muse, K’Von Wallace and Denzel Johnson and redshirt junior Nolan Turner.
“We’ve got three seniors and a junior that’s been there, and then boom – here comes four freshmen coming in,” Conn said this past week at Clemson’s summer media outing. “So, it’s going to work out pretty well because those upperclassmen really have a grasp on the defense, and I think they’re going to really be able to help those younger guys along and learn it and know what to do, as well as myself and Coach V (Brent Venables).”
Charleston and Zanders both enrolled early in January and got a jump-start on their development by being able to go through spring practice and suit up in the spring game.
Charleston, a former top-150 national recruit from Milton High School in Georgia, recorded a team-best 83 tackles while helping his team to the 7A state championship as a senior in 2018.
Zanders was ranked as the 24th-best player in the state of North Carolina by ESPN coming out of Crest High School. He posted 51 tackles and five interceptions as a senior, returning two of the picks for scores, and also played receiver, logging 545 yards receiving and eight touchdowns on offense.
Conn liked what he saw from the two frosh in the spring and was pleased with their progress as far as learning the defensive scheme.
“I thought they both did an excellent job,” Conn said. “Joseph Charleston, his ability to hit – he is extremely physical, good tackler and caused several turnovers and fumbles during the spring, which I was glad to see. And he picked up on the defense, was not afraid to ask questions.
“And then Lannden, his ball skills — being able to go up and intercept the ball and get his hands on balls – is exactly what I thought he would do in the recruiting process, and it transferred right onto the field. I think he had two interceptions, one in two different scrimmages that we had, and did a great job. So, very pleased.”
Thornton was an early enrollee as well but missed most of the spring due to a labrum tear. The former Central (Ala.) High School standout was able to run and go through footwork drills toward the end of spring practice, though, and Conn is high on the tools that Thornton brings to the table.
“Ray was banged up, but Ray did go through the footwork with us, and I really like his speed,” Conn said. “I like his size and his desire that he’s showing to learn the defense. So, I’m excited about what he brings, too.”
Phillips, a former four-star prospect from Lawrenceville, Ga., enrolled this summer. He was ranked as the No. 28 safety in the nation by ESPN coming out of Archer High.
“Jalyn Phillips is going to be a great one, too. He’s a physical player,” Conn said. “He’s only been here for a few weeks, now, getting here at the end of June. But he’s doing good. He’s in the film room, he’s learning. So, he’s going to be a good one. He’s eager to go.”
Conn is excited to work with his freshmen foursome at safety in fall camp and hopes they will be ready to contribute this season whether it be on defense or special teams.
“That’s up to them,” he said. “They need to learn the defense and learn what to do, but we need the depth. So, I’m hoping that they’ll come in here ready to go this fall and have a role somewhere – if it’s on special teams and then work their way in, that’d be great.”