3 pressing offseason questions for Clemson's defense

3 pressing offseason questions for Clemson's defense

Football

3 pressing offseason questions for Clemson's defense

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With the offseason a couple of weeks old now, The Clemson Insider is pondering some of the most pressing on-field questions for Clemson’s football program as the Tigers wipe the slate clean and start fresh in 2022.

Clemson is coming off yet another 10-win season, but there’s still some uncertainty and room for improvement in all facets of the Tigers’ game heading into Dabo Swinney’s 14th season at the helm. After probing the offense, here are some inquiries regarding the defensive side of the ball.

Will Bryan Bresee return to his pre-injury form?

Longtime defensive assistant and first-year defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin is inheriting one of the ACC’s top defensive lines. With players like Myles Murphy, Tyler Davis and K.J Henry returning – the Tigers are also awaiting a decision from veteran defensive end Xavier Thomas – Clemson should once again have one of the country’s more formidable defensive fronts next fall.

Bresee may be the best of the bunch.

Clemson’s star defensive tackle was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a freshman All-American in 2020 and started the first four games this season before it ended prematurely after he suffered a torn ACL in late September. Through the first 16 games of his Clemson career, Bresee has 9.5 tackles for loss, including 5.5 sacks. How highly do coaches and media members think of Bresee’s talent? He was named third-team all-ACC this year despite playing in less than one-third of the season.

There’s a reason why some recruiting services ranked Bresee as the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect a couple of recruiting cycles ago. At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, he has a combination of strength, get-off and quick-twitch ability that not many interior defensive linemen possess at that size.

If he can get back anywhere close to his pre-injury form, Bresee will almost certainly be a high NFL draft pick come 2023. There’s no reason to think he can’t other than any injury requiring reconstructive surgery is always tricky.

Barring any setbacks, Bresee is on track to return in some capacity during spring practice with the expectation that he’ll be back at full strength come the fall if not earlier. He’s a massive piece for Clemson’s defense not only because of his talent but also because of the opportunities that can be created for other players up front given the attention he requires from opposing offenses. 

What do the Tigers do at linebacker?

Clemson does have one starter at the second level returning in Trenton Simpson, but the Bruise Brothers are gone.

That was the nickname given by Swinney to James Skalski and Baylon Spector, Clemson’s veteran linebacking duo. They played alongside each other as starters for the last couple of seasons and spent a combined 11 seasons in Clemson’s program. 

Skalski, who’s played in as many games as any player to ever come through Clemson, led the Tigers with 100 tackles this season from his middle linebacker spot. Spector was right behind him from his weak-side ‘backer spot, racking up 85 stops. Skalski (698) and Spector (593) logged more snaps than anybody on defense this season, and the duo combined to play more than 3,300 snaps during their collegiate careers.

That’s a ton of seasoning, production and leadership to be losing. And with Skalski and Spector hogging the field, there’s not a lot of experience behind them.

LaVonta Bentley, who got a couple of spots starts for Spector when the latter was injured this season, figures to get a long look as Spector’s potential replacement. Meanwhile, Skalski’s primary backup in the middle, Kane Patterson, transferred out of the program late in the season.

Clemson has a couple of former five-star signees at the position in Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter, who saw some extended reps at times in certain packages at outside linebacker. If the Tigers want to get more athletic at the position as a whole, they could also mix things up with Simpson, who had 12 tackles for loss, six sacks and three pass breakups from his strong-side spot and may be Clemson’s most complete ‘backer.

Might Clemson move Simpson to the middle and slide Carter in as a starter on the outside? The Tigers have options at the position, including the transfer portal if they feel like they need a plug-and-play guy or two.

Who takes over at corner?

The defense is being hit hardest by attrition in the secondary, where Clemson is losing all but one starter.

The Tigers feel like they have answers for the departure of sixth-year safety Nolan Turner in Jalyn Phillips, R.J. Mickens and Tyler Venables, who were all part of the rotation at the position this season. Phillips started three games at free safety when Turner was injured and finished the season with 47 tackles and three pass breakups.

Those answers are less clear at cornerback.

Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich are taking a lot of all-around production with them to the NFL after forming the top corner tandem in the ACC this season. They combined for 14 pass breakups and five interceptions and may have been the league’s best tackling corners, too, combining for 87 tackles.

Sheridan Jones has to be considered a favorite to take over at one spot after spending the season as Clemson’s No. 3 corner. He’s also the only corner left on the roster (not counting nickel Malcolm Greene) with any starting experience. Fred Davis, Nate Wiggins and early enrollees Jeadyn Lukus and Toriano Pride will make for an interesting competition beginning this spring, and don’t be surprised if Clemson brings in more at the position through its current recruiting class.

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