The 'No. 1 area' for Clemson to improve in 2023

The 'No. 1 area' for Clemson to improve in 2023


The 'No. 1 area' for Clemson to improve in 2023


While Clemson’s offense and the new direction it’s heading under first-year coordinator Garrett Riley has garnered much of the attention around the Tigers’ program early this offseason, the top priority when it comes to improving in 2023 lies on the other side of the ball.

Riley will be heavily involved in bringing some fresh flavor to a passing game that Dabo Swinney said needs to “get back to being who we’ve been around here for 10, 12 years in the past,” but Clemson’s coach said it’s the Tigers’ ability to defend the pass that needs the most work heading into next season.

“That’s the No. 1 area where we’ve got to get better,” Swinney said.

Clemson finished 28th nationally in total defense this past season under first-year coordinator Wesley Goodwin, but the Tigers plummeted to the bottom half of the ACC against the pass, yielding nearly 232 yards per game through the air. That ranked Clemson 76th nationally after the Tigers finished 40th the previous season.

Personnel played a part in the struggle as Clemson broke in three new starters in the secondary following the departures of All-ACC corners Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich. Nolan Turner also left big shoes to fill at free safety, though Clemson replaced some of those losses with a pair of seniors in Sheridan Jones and Jalyn Phillips.

Goodwin shouldered some of the blame after the Tigers allowed 337 passing yards to Wake Forest in late September, acknowledging he left some of Clemson’s young corners on an island too often. Clemson varied its coverages more the rest of the way with mixed results. The Tigers allowed more than 250 passing yards in eight games and more than 300 three times, including a season-high 360 to South Carolina in the regular-season finale.

An inability to keep the ball in front and prevent explosives was the biggest issue. Clemson allowed 48 completions of at least 20 yards, 19 more than last season.

Asked if he felt like the defense needed to take a different philosophical approach to its coverage going forward, Swinney said the issues stemmed more from a lack of inexperience.

“I love what we’re doing (philosophically),” Swinney said. “I think we’re in a really good spot there personnel-wise and then also just where I think we’re heading coaching-wise. Maybe we didn’t quite get some of the results, and we’ve got to be a little better on the offensive side, too. Sometimes those affect some things, but the main thing is being more disciplined in our pass defense.”

With a year of seasoning under its belt, the group won’t be nearly as green next fall. Barring any transfers following the spring, the secondary is set to return its entire two-deep from last season. That includes Jones and Phillips, who each elected to use their COVID years to return, as well as sophomore cornerback Nate Wiggins (team-high 13 pass breakups) and safety R.J. Mickens (team-high three interceptions).

Swinney is hopeful that will help the Tigers take a big step forward on the back end as much as anything.

“We’re going to have more experience back, and we’re bringing in some more guys for depth that can be able to help us there,” he said. “But the discipline, details and really learning from our mistakes.

“When you are who we are up front, you’re going to see more in the pass game than you do in the run game. So it’s more of a natural (thing) and sometimes that can get skewed a little bit, but that’s where we’ve got to get better.”

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