When you look at Clemson’s defense the last few of years, it has been ranked in the top 5 and top 10 in virtually every category.
Of course, a lot of the attention has gone to the Tigers’ front four during that time, when it had Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant dominating the line of scrimmage. All four of those guys are now in the NFL and three of them—Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence—were selected in the first 17 picks of last year’s NFL Draft.
This year, Clemson’s secondary has received much of the credit and deservedly so as corner A.J. Terrell and safeties K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse are having All-Conference and All-American type seasons.
However, the position that perhaps has really allowed Brent Venables’ schemes to shine is that of the SAM/Nickel position.
Dorian O’Daniel, now playing with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL, first took off in the 2016 season. His versatility at the position gave Venables the ability to play his 4-3 base when he needed to and quickly shift to his nickel and dime packages without having to sub different players in and out to counter offenses’ hurry up schemes and spread looks.
O’Daniel was big enough to play up and stop the run when the Tigers were in their base defense and then blitz off the edge or cover the slot receiver, tight end or running back out of the backfield when offenses went four wide or showed empty set looks.
“It is great. You can always, as long as they are subbing and situationally to sub your one player for another, but that is not easy to do,” Clemson’s defensive coordinator said. “You get 85 scholarships and to have somebody with that kind of versatility is hard to find. So, it is a great luxury and the more they play, the better they will be.”
O’Daniel blossomed in his role, becoming an All-American in 2017, while being a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker. When O’Daniel moved on to the NFL at the end of the 2017 season, Isaiah Simmons took over. And though it took a little while for him to fully understand his job, by the end of the Tigers’ second national championship run in three years, he had a complete understanding of what he was supposed to do inside the scheme.
In the spring and summer, the 6-4, 230-pound redshirt junior perfected his position and got a better understanding of the entirety of the defense as well. This year, he has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the country.
Heading into Week 11 of the college football season, Simmons is the only Power 5 player with 65 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. He also has one interception, has broken up 6 passes and has 12 quarterback pressures.
On Monday, Simmons was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
“It has certainly helped Isaiah, too, in his growth,” Venables said. “He has learned how to play versus big people, versus the option, versus the spread and all of it.”
And the versatility of O’Daniel and Simmons has given Clemson the luxury of playing whatever scheme it wants without having to switch out players to accomplish it. The results, the Tigers have been the most efficient defense in each of the last three seasons.
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