Clemson’s linebackers entered the 2020 season with a lot of questions.
The Tigers had to replace All-American and first-round draft pick Isaiah Simmons and weakside backer Chad Smith.
Baylon Spector was penciled in to start in the place of Smith, while Mike Jones took over for Simmons at strongside linebacker. The good news was Clemson returned James Skalski, the quarterback of Brent Venables defense, at middle.
Spector and Jones ended up having good years, as Spector lead the Tigers with 70 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Jones, who missed two games due to a hamstring injury, finished the season with 29 tackles, including four tackles for loss. He also had two interceptions and broke up four passes.
Skalski earned second-team All-ACC honors despite missing three games due to a groin injury. He also played just three plays at Virginia Tech due to complications from the injury and then missed all of the second half of the Sugar Bowl due to a targeting penalty in the second quarter.
However, when he was playing, Skalski registered 40 tackles, had 3.5 tackles for loss and broke up three passes. He also recovered a fumbled and returned it 17 yards for a touchdown.
The Tigers finished the season leading the ACC in total defense, sacks and interceptions, while ranking second in tackles for loss, rushing defense and scoring defense.
However, there was a drop off in production when Skalski was not on the field. Communication was not as good, the defense was not always lined up, got gashed in the running game and had issues stopping the quarterback runs and scrambles.
Because of the injuries to Skalski, Jones and Jake Venables, Clemson had a lot of inexperienced players playing at linebacker, which led to some of the issues described above. However, guys like Kane Patterson, LaVonta Bentley and Keith Maguire showed promise, while true freshman Trenton Simpson really came on in the place of Jones.
Though he started just three games, he finished the year with 32 tackles, while playing in all 12 games. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks and six quarterback pressures.