Clemson was supposed to have an elite-level defense led by a dominant defensive front this season. However, 2020 had other plans. Due to the unusual circumstances surrounding a season played in a pandemic, Brent Venables’ unit was not once at full strength and never really had a chance to play to their potential.
With Nolan Turner confirming earlier this week that he will take advantage of the extra year of eligibility and come back next season, that means that Venables will get all eleven starters back on defense in 2021.
That isn’t all he is getting back, though. Xavier Thomas has announced he will be returning and it is expected that Justin Foster will also be back. That basically gives the Tigers 13 returning starters on the defensive side of the ball seeing as Thomas and Foster were supposed to be the starting ends in 2020.
Tyler Davis was banged up most of the season and Derion Kendrick seemed to stay in the doghouse. Even when Kendrick was on the field he looked like a guy that had one foot out the door. James Skalski, Mike Jones Jr, Andrew Booth Jr, and Lannden Zanders also missed chunks of time and played at less than 100% for large parts of the season. Hopefully that is all behind them when spring practice kicks off in about six weeks and everyone will be back and fully healthy.
How good this defense is next season will all come down to how dominant the front four is. The Tigers are as deep and as talented as they have ever been along the defensive line and if they can get back to being able to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks without having to rely on blitzing, that will make everyone better. Including a secondary that was prone to giving up the big play in 2020.
Even with Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams transferring out, Clemson should be at least six deep along the interior of the defensive front next season. Bryan Bresee and Davis are proven commodities. Ruke Orhororo will be fully healthy and DeMonte Capehart and Tre Williams will have had a year to learn the system and will be competing for snaps. Incoming freshman Payton Page, who is a mountain of a man, could also come in and push for playing time.
Foster and Thomas both coming back, along with Myles Murphy and KJ Henry, gives the Tigers four talented ends that can rotate in and out. There’s going to be a lot of depth up front, meaning Venables will have a lot of options when it comes to scheming for opponents and a dominant pass rush can be the difference between a defense being really good and elite.
The front four isn’t the only position that will be loaded with depth and talent. LaVonta Bentley, Kane Patterson, and Keith Maguire will also be another year experienced, and pushing for playing time at linebacker. Trenton Simpson is poised for a breakout season in his second season in the program and Jeremiah Trotter Jr could turn some heads early. The front seven should be as good as any in the country.
Even the much maligned secondary should be much improved. There is a ton of talent at the corner spots and it starts with Kendrick. After the season Kendrick had in 2020, it’s probably safe to assume he will be on a short leash. However, Booth and Fred Davis are both former five-star players, and Malcolm Greene is a former four-star guy and all three will be hard to keep off the field next season. Mario Goodrich, another former four-star player, should also be back.
The safety spot is where the biggest questions lie. Outside of Nolan Turner there was a lot of inconsistency. A lot of that was youth and some of it was also due to the fact that there just isn’t any “elite” talent at the position. Joseph Charleston, RJ Mickens, Tyler Venables, Jalyn Phillips, and even Zanders, are all players that needed some time to develop.
While there’s no question Zanders did have some issues at times, he also played much of the season with an injury that required surgery last week. Everyone of those guys, other than Turner, were having to learn on the job this season. The hope is that with a season of experience, all of those guys will take a big step in their development over the offseason. And don’t overlook freshman Barrett Carter. He could come in and compete for time next season at safety.
This will be a defense that should come out hungry and motivated in 2021. The way the season ended will not sit well with anyone on that side of the ball, including Venables. It is a safe bet that the Tigers defensive coordinator will make sure any necessary tweaks are made to ensure his group plays to the best of their abilities next season.