Going into spring practice, Clemson’s safety position group was the biggest question mark in Dabo Swinney’s mind with the Tigers having to replace starters Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace as well as backup Denzel Johnson.
Clemson was also without senior safety Nolan Turner (shoulder) during the spring, but the Tigers’ youngsters at safety showed Swinney a lot during the team’s nine spring practices.
“It’s just a really good group, so I felt great about that,” Clemson’s head coach said during a media teleconference Friday. “That was my one question.”
Swinney credited safeties coach Mickey Conn for helping the Tigers recruit guys like sophomores Joseph Charleston, Jalyn Phillips and Lannden Zanders and redshirt freshman Ray Thornton, all of whom are much improved from a year ago according to Swinney.
“Mickey’s done a great job in identifying the right guys,” he said. “But Zanders and Joseph Charleston and Jalyn Phillips and Ray Thornton, those guys came a long way, got better and better and better, and I’m really excited about that group. And then you throw Nolan back in there, when he gets back in the fall, I think that’s going to be a strength for our team. We’re fast, we’re physical, we’re athletic at safety, and these guys have a really good knowledge base.”
Swinney says he can always tell which players are prepared and which ones are not, and it was clear to him while watching the aforementioned players this spring that they have worked hard to get ready for bigger roles in the secondary next season.
Zanders was on the field for 112 snaps last season, while Charleston played 92 snaps and Phillips logged 47 snaps. Thornton saw three snaps over four games while redshirting.
“They played last year, but they weren’t the frontline guys,” Swinney said. “But they had the same opportunity to learn, to practice, to watch, to pay attention, and it’s pretty cool to see those guys be ready for their opportunity, and it’s very obvious that they were preparing kind of in the dark, if you will. And now, boom! They’re stepping into this moment and they’re ready to go.”
Add in true freshmen safeties R.J. Mickens and Tyler Venables, and Swinney is even more excited about the pieces Clemson has in place at the position.
“With Nolan being out, where would we be at safety? That was probably the biggest thing,” Swinney said of the question he had entering spring practice. “I feel really good about our corner position, although it was a mess this spring because everybody was hurt. … But I know what we’ve got in that room as far as just the ability. But at safety, losing K’Von, losing Muse – two big losses right there – losing Denzel, and now Nolan’s out… That’s four guys that were really some really good players for us. So, how would we step up there, and man what an awesome job our safeties did this spring. I mean, that’s going to be a strength for us. I don’t have any doubt about it.”
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