Get ready for some new blood at linebacker in 2019
Not only is Brent Venables tasked with replacing his entire front four, he’s also going to have to replace two thirds of the starters at linebacker from 2018. So when the Tigers take the field on August 29, they’ll do so with almost an entirely new front seven, as Isaiah Simmons will be the lone returning starter.
Simmons, a redshirt junior, enters his second season as the SAM, one of the most pivotal roles on the defense. There are a ton of responsibilities that go along with playing the position, and as we’ve seen in the past, it takes time to learn it all.
For example, against spread formations, which Clemson sees a lot of, the Sam is often split out like a third corner to cover a slot receiver or tight end. What Clemson typically does, specifically, against 113 personnel, is split the Sam/Nickel out wide on the slot receiver. Then have a safety walk down into the box to fill the open gap normally filled by the Sam. It is aggressive, but something BV likes to do when he gets solid cornerback play outside and has physically gifted, and disciplined safeties.
With a year under his belt, expect Simmons to have a big season. There was a hiccup or two in 2018 as he was settling into playing the position but he should be much more comfortable there in 2019. As many will recall, it took Dorian ‘O Daniel about a season to acclimate to the position so there’s plenty of reasons to be enthusiastic about Simmons this upcoming season.
Redshirt freshman Mike Jones Jr will serve as Simmons’ backup this season. He’s likely the heir apparent to the spot once Simmons moves on and has seen plenty of practice reps at the position. He got into three games during his redshirt season last year and recorded 3 tackles in just 15 snaps.
Jones has spent time cross training and could also be used at the WILL. Depending on what a particular situation calls for, the staff has some flexibility with how they could use him.
On the other side, at the WILL, Chad Smith is set to take over. The fifth year senior has seen action in 43 games during his career and logged 280 snaps. He’s been credited with 74 tackles, 5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Smith has plenty of experience and has been a key contributor on special teams. He’s rarely out of position and is one of the most coachable players on the team. He does needs some improvement in his pass coverage skills though, but that’s been a common theme with many of the linebackers that have come through the program since Venables was hired.
At the MIKE it will be James Skalski. Before the transfer of Shaq Smith, Skalski had spent most of his time during the spring at the WILL, but with Shaq gone, expect a move to the middle.
Skalski chose to take a redshirt last season after breaking a toe, so he played in just four games. Two of those were the CFP games after coming back from the injury, as he recorded two tackles in the win over Alabama.
For his career, the redshirt junior has appeared in 30 games (2 starts) and logged 220 snaps. He’s got 61 tackles, 5 TFL, and 1.5 sacks. He’s got a motor that never stops and brings a physicality that the coaches love. Also look for him to step into one of those leadership roles on the defensive side left vacated by the guys that have now moved on.
Other guys that should see time are Jake Venables, Baylon Spector, Keith Maguire, Kane Patterson, and LaVonta Bentley. Venables and Patterson have been working in the middle, Bentley at the WILL, and Maguire has been doing a lot of cross training.
Venables is on record having told the media that he loves this group. He loves the depth and the way these guys play. By the time August 29 rolls around, you can best bet this group will be ready to go.