When Mike Jones decided to put his name in the transfer portal on Monday, most fans and media alike were thinking Clemson will be okay. The Tigers have plenty of depth at linebacker, especially at the SAM/nickel position.
And they are right. Clemson has Trenton Simpson, who actually started over Jones in the Sugar Bowl. They also have Malcolm Greene, who emerged as a playmaker at the nickel position and brought a lot of energy to the defense.
Then there is freshman Barrett Carter, a five-star safety the Tigers signed back in December, who many believe can come in and play the strongside linebacker position as well.
However, what the Tigers do lose in Mike Jones is his leadership on and off the field. Jones is one of the more respected players in the Clemson locker room, a guy a lot of players look to for guidance and leadership.
Jones was the main person behind the football program’s peaceful demonstration last June as part of the Black Lives Matter Movement. He orchestrated the protest and got his teammates involved and then ultimately the football program as a whole.
Also, despite doing all of those things and getting himself ready to be a starter for a Brent Venables defense, he put himself in position to graduate in three years. That is commitment. That is determination. A leader like that is not easy to replace. The program will miss his leadership and resolve.
Who will be the next guy to step up into that role?
On the field, as I mentioned, Simpson (6-3, 225) already has. The Charlotte native recorded 32 tackles as a true freshman. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and forced a fumble. As mentioned, he started in the Sugar Bowl and also started against Boston College and Notre Dame, when Jones was out with a hamstring injury.
The coaches feel Simpson can be another Isaiah Simmons for the Tigers, a guy who can do it all at a high level. He already is ahead of where Simmons was as this point in his career and his body type is pretty close too.
Greene will strictly be a nickel back, but the 5-foot-11, 190-pound freshman can pack a punch. His energy was evident in the ACC Championship Game, helping a Clemson defense that held Notre Dame to season lows in points, total yards and rushing yards.
The Richmond, Va., native tallied 18 tackles, 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks while playing in 12 games, including three starts.
Carter was labeled as a linebacker by all the major recruiting services, but while he is more than capable of manning that position, Clemson doesn’t plan to limit him exclusively to any one role as he possesses the versatility to play all over the field on defense.
“We’re going to use him in a versatile way,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on early National Signing Day in December. “He’s not a guy you can kind of put in a box there. He absolutely can play linebacker, there’s no question about that. But we think he could play either safety, we think he could play nickel-SAM – I mean, he is as dynamic a guy as we’ve signed. And if you just watch him and what he’s done offensively as well – he’s fast, he’s got the size and the physicality to play in the box, but he’s got the speed and coverage ability and range to play on the backend.”
Carter – rated as a five-star prospect and a top-35 national prospect in the 2021 class by both Rivals (No. 21 overall) and the 247Sports Composite (No. 33) – played on both sides of the ball at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia, seeing action at linebacker, running back and even quarterback.
As you can see, Clemson has plenty of playmakers without Mike Jones. But replacing leadership is not as easy to do and though guys like James Skalski, Baylon Spector and Nolan Turner remain on a defense that will still return 11 starters, losing one of your team leaders is not an easy thing to replace.