Under Brent Venables, Clemson’s defense has been remarkable.
Since 2014, the Tigers have been ranked in the top 10 in total defense every year, while also being ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense in five of the last six seasons. Clemson led the nation in total defense in 2014 and were tops in the country in scoring defense in 2018 as well.
With numbers like that, it’s no wonder why Clemson made Venables one of the highest paid assistant coaches in the country.
Last year, despite having to replace their entire defensive front, the Tigers finished the season sixth in total defense and third in scoring defense. Clemson led the ACC in 11 different statistical categories on defense, including scoring and total defense.
Despite playing 15 games, Clemson was the only defense in the ACC to hold its opposition under 300 total yards. Tigers’ opponents averaged just 288.3 yards per game in 2019.
No team gained 300 yards on the Tigers during the course of the entire college football regular season, a first at Clemson and anywhere else for that matter. They also did not allow an opponent to score more than 20 points until the College Football Playoff.
This coming season, Venables will have some new question marks on his defense, especially in the secondary where the Tigers will have to replace three of their four starters. Only corner back Derion Kendrick is back from a unit last season that ranked among the nation’s best and led the ACC in passing defense, yards per attempt, interceptions, touchdown passes allowed and defensive passing rating.
The defense must also fill in the holes left open by linebacker Isaiah Simmons, cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive end Logan Rudolph. Simmons and Terrell left a year early for the NFL, while Rudolph gave up his final two years for Hollywood.
Though Rudolph is leaving, Clemson is still in good shape at defensive end. Foster started 13 games there last year and played in all 15, while Thomas started eight and played in 12. Thomas missed three games due to a concussion.
Along with Thomas and Foster is K.J. Henry, who played as a reserve defensive end in all 15 games. He finished the year with 22 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. He also broke up three passes and had three quarterback pressures. Also back is redshirt sophomore Justin Mascoll, who is a year older, wiser and stronger.
Clemson also welcomes freshmen signees Bryan Bresee, Demonte Capehart and Myles Murphy to the mix up front this spring. Bresee (6-5, 295) and Capehart (6-5, 294) will help at defensive tackle, but Bresee can move outside if need be, while Murphy (6-5, 260) will help with depth at strongside defensive end.
Replacing three starters in the secondary that started for at least two full seasons in the secondary will be Clemson’s biggest challenge in the spring.
In his first year as a starter, Kendrick finished seventh on the team with 51 tackles. He had three tackles for loss, 10 passes broken up and had two interceptions. The coaches believe Kendrick is a future star in the ACC and he is nowhere near reaching his ceiling.
Nolan Turner, who has spent the last two seasons as a backup to Tanner Muse at free safety, will likely start the spring as the starter. Turner did start four games this season and played in all 15. He brings a ton of experience from his time the last two seasons.
Last season, Turner ranked sixth on the team with 66 tackles, including two tackles for a loss and tied Simmons and Kendrick with a team-best 10 passes broken up. Turner also had two interceptions, including the game-clinching interception to beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, sending the Tigers to the national championship game.
James Skalski returns at middle linebacker. He finished second behind Simmons in tackles with 105, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also broke up four passes and had 10 quarterback pressures.
Nyles Pinckney’s return at defensive tackle solidifies a defensive line that will be the strength of the Clemson defense next season. Freshman All-American Tyler Davis is also back at defensive tackle, as is veteran Jordan Williams.
Clemson will begin spring practice on Feb. 26.
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