When a team has to replace both of its starting safeties for the upcoming season, it might seem that is the area of the most concern for a football team.
That might be the case for most programs, but most football programs are not built like Clemson’s. Head coach Dabo Swinney is convinced, when the Tigers are allowed to play football again, the safeties will be a strength for the 2020 football team.
It is a surprise development, considering Clemson has to replace three of their top four safeties from last season due to graduation, two of which were taken in last month’s NFL Draft. Tanner Muse went to the Raiders in the third round and K’Von Wallace got picked by the Eagles in round four.
Reserve safety Denzel Johnson also used up his eligibility.
Swinney credited safeties coach Mickey Conn with doing a great job identifying the right guys in the spring and getting them ready to play. Lannden Zanders, Joseph Charleston, Jalyn Phillips and Ray Thornton showed a lot of promise in the nine spring practices the Tigers were able to get in before the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down.
“Those guys came a long way,” Swinney said. “They just got better, better and better. I am really excited about that group. Then you throw Nolan (Turner) back in there, when he gets back in the fall, I think that is going to be a strength for our team.
“We are fast, physical, we are athletic at safety. These guys have a really good knowledge base.”
Turner missed the nine spring practices due to shoulder surgery. He is expected to be back and completely healthy when camp is scheduled to begin in August. With Turner sidelined in the spring, it allowed a couple of other players to get the reps he would have received during practice.
“That is the thing, and that is what I always tell these guys, you can always tell who is preparing and who is not,” Swinney said. “They played last year, but they were not frontline guys. But they had the same opportunity to learn, to practice, to watch, to pay attention. It is pretty cool to see those guys be ready for their opportunity.
“It is very obvious that they were preparing kind of in the dark if you will. Now, boom! They are stepping into this moment and they are ready to go. So, I feel really good about that group.”
Freshmen R.J. Mickens and Tyler Venables, who enrolled in January, got an opportunity to learn a lot at safety this spring, while Ben Batson has also moved back to safety after playing quarterback the last two years.
“What an awesome job our safeties did this spring,” Swinney said. “That is going to be a strength for us, I don’t have any doubt about it.”
Turner is the veteran of the unit. He finished sixth on the team with 66 tackles in 2019, though he started just four games. He also was tied for the team lead in passes broken up with 10.
The senior also had two interceptions. One came in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia, when he intercepted a pass in the end zone on the Cavaliers’ opening drive.
Turner made perhaps the biggest play of the year in the Fiesta Bowl when he picked off Justin Fields’ last-minute pass in the end zone to secure the Tigers’ 29-23 victory over Ohio State, sending Clemson to its fourth national championship game appearance in five seasons.
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