Clemson lost six linebackers from the 2018-19 defense, including Tre Lamar, who declared for the NFL Draft following his junior season, and Shaq Smith, who transferred to Maryland after his redshirt sophomore year.
But the good news for defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the Tigers is that they have brought in five talented true freshmen linebackers from the 2019 recruiting class, including LaVonta Bentley, Keith Maguire, Kane Patterson, Greg Williams and Bryton Constantin, all of whom enrolled this summer.
Venables is ready to coach them up in fall camp and hopes they’ll be ready to contribute in some capacity this season.
“This group of freshmen that are coming in, we really feel good about their size, athletic ability, speed, instincts. They’re going to have to help us,” Venables said. “And a year from now, we’re going to lose two-thirds of that starting group again. And so between this year’s recruiting class and the 2020 recruiting class, it’s going to be real critical to build our defense for the future.”
Patterson will work at MIKE linebacker in fall camp, while Bentley will work at WILL and MIKE, and Maguire will work at WILL and SAM. Constantin will miss fall camp after suffering an ACL injury in February but hopes he will return to full health in November.
Since the group arrived on campus this summer, Venables has been pleased with their maturity, focus level and willingness to put in work in the film room.
“That group of guys, it’s a very focused group of guys that we brought in,” he said. “Very serious. I walked out from upstairs, and they’re all in there huddled up watching tape. That’s the way, any time I’ve been in this building this summer, people have been in the meeting rooms every single day.
“It’s an ambitious group of guys that I really look forward to coaching.”
Whether the freshmen linebackers learn Venables’ scheme quick enough and show enough in fall camp to crack the linebacker rotation in 2019 remains to be seen. But Venables is hopeful that the newcomers can at least help out on special teams.
“We’ll see with this new group of guys, and we’re going to need those guys,” he said. “Linebackers and the secondary will make up the large percentage of all your special teams units. So in order for us to play at a high level, particularly positions that maybe we don’t have as much depth, some of those fringe guys have to do a good job of being able to contribute at a high level in our special teams units.”
Last summer the NCAA passed a rule allowing any player who hadn’t already redshirted to play in up to four games without burning their redshirt, and Venables knows that rule could be beneficial for any of the freshmen linebackers who may not be ready to see extensive action this season.
“I think it’s a great rule for all the reasons you would expect, to help guys retain eligibility, because it is a developmental game,” he said. “Everybody wants to speed up and get out of college. But in reality they go to the NFL and take redshirt years, because they’re not quite ready. It’s a man’s game. The best players on the planet are in the NFL, and there’s not a lot of patience in the NFL, either. You go in there, you make an impact and you get out. That’s your career. It’s very short lived. So, you want to go in there and make the best impact, the biggest impact you can. So, to develop in the right way in college is the way to go.”