During Tuesday’s media availability, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had some high praise for a certain position group that’s flown under the radar this season.
While Clemson’s safeties haven’t been a hot topic of discussion this season, they played arguably their best game this season at Louisville and stepped up with the game of the line.
With Saturday’s game coming down to the wire, it was the play of two freshman safeties — Andrew Mukuba and R.J. Mickens — which helped seal a 30-24 win for Clemson at Louisville.
Mukuba and Mickens combined for four tackles on Louisville’s final two offensive possessions.
It was Mukuba, who sacked Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunnigham on a critical fourth down and then Mickens, who stopped Cunnigham from finding the endzone on Clemson’s imperative goal-line stand.
It generally takes defensive players about a year or two, as far as a learning curve is concerned, but these two players aren’t your typical freshman. Just ask Swinney
“That’s why we recruited them,” Swinney said. “That’s a tough position, especially on defense, it does usually take a year. Last year, we were fortunate the year we didn’t count. So, Mickens is just a redshirt freshman, but he got some good experience last year and he was able to really learn. He’s a very smart player. He knows the game. He’s not your typical freshman walking in here from a football foundation standpoint. His dad [Ray Mickens] was a long-time pro. He was a great defensive back for a long time. He just came in here and physically needed to develop.”
Mickens has since come in and developed his body. He’s gotten stronger and worked hard to get to where is now, seeing a significant number of snaps during Saturday’s game.
“But, instincts and understanding of the game are very natural to Mickens,” Swinney added.
Swinney then talked about Jalyn Phillips, who’s also gotten into the mix at safety. While Phillips is a player that Clemson is excited about, his development hasn’t come as naturally as it has for both Mickens and Mukuba.
“Then you’ve got a guy like Jalyn Phillips, he’s a redshirt sophomore,” he explained. “He redshirted, got a little experience last year, and now…you’re starting to see that light really come on for him. That’s kind of the typical progression.”
It’s quite obvious the affinity that Swinney has for Mukuba. He contrasts from both Mickens and Phillips because he is, in fact, just a true freshman.
“Mukuba, he’s just a rare freshman,” Swinney said. He got a little overwhelmed. There’s a little stretch there where you start, he was awesome. When you’re in camp and really just seeing one team and its base stuff and then you get into heavy install, week-to-week game plan application, those types of things and he hits a little bit of a wall…he’s settled in. He’s learned everything, he knows it. But, he’s not your typical freshman. He covers up mistakes…Mukuba, he’s gonna be a good one.”
Swinney indicated that Mukuba is one of those rare guys, who’s fast enough to cover up some of the mistakes he may make as an 18-year-old.
He went on to praise the entire group and the job that safeties coach Mickey Conn has done with his particular unit.
“That whole group, I’m really pleased with the safeties. Nolan [Turner] has done a great job. He’s played banged up too. He’s been a great leader for us. Our safety group has been a real plus for us. Mickey has done a great job.”