In 2018 most would likely tell you the secondary was the weakest link of a defense that finished the season as the nation’s best per the S&P+ rankings. To be fair, it was the safety play more so than the play of the corners. Fair or not however, at times it was the entire group that drew the criticism.
The Tigers came into 2018 paper thin at safety. With Isaiah Simmons sliding over to the SAM, that left only Tanner Muse and K’von Wallace as the only two guys with any real experience. Nolan Turner and Denzell Johnson were the backups, and though both had seen the field at times, they were not very experienced.
Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies exposed some of the issues on the back end of the defense early on, as Kellen Mond torched the Tigers in a gritty second half performance in Week 2 in College Station. From then on, it wasn’t an issue again until the regular season finale against in state rival South Carolina. The easy schedule, absent of great passing offenses, combined with a dominant front four, masked some weaknesses.
Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks had their way with the secondary that night, accumulating over 500 yards through the air and scoring 35 points. The South Carolina offensive gameplan included everything but the kitchen sink, such as gimmick formations and a heavy dose of tempo. It wasn’t pretty. The safeties got burned repeatedly, creating some concern as the Tigers headed into the playoff.
It was the last time the secondary would look bad. Dominant performances against Pitt, ND, and Alabama, en route to the teams third national title, would give fans reason to be optimistic about the group heading into 2019.
This secondary will no longer have the Power Rangers to mask any deficiencies. They’re going to have to perform, and they’ll have to do it without Trayvon Mullen. Instead of being the weak link, they’ll need to become a strength. Especially early in the season.
With AJ at one corner spot and Muse and Wallace back at safety, experience won’t be an issue. The only thing not settled is who starts opposite Terrell. Derion Kendrick received high praise during spring practice after moving over from receiver, and is one of the favorites to lock that spot down. Five star recruit Andrew Booth might have something to say about that though. The fifth best corner in the country is about to arrive on campus and will be making his case during camp.
Regardless of whoever winds up winning the job, expect this group to be really good this season. Possibly even exceptionally good. With the team having to replace six guys out of the front seven, they’ll need to be. There was a time not so long ago the Tiger secondary was known as the “No Fly Zone.” Expect that mantra to return in 2019.