Every year we watch Clemson get killed by top players either graduating or leaving early for the NFL. Then we all watch Brent Venables show why he’s the best defensive coordinator in the country as he just plugs in new guys and dominates. Statistically, the Clemson defense is better than they were last year. As crazy as that might sound, I think they are still improving.
Clemson lost their starting defensive line from the last few years as they were all drafted in the spring. Venables had one proven commodity returning in Xavier Thomas but no one else on the line had been put in a position where they had to be reliable contributors. The results have been a little mixed so far. They’re getting sacks like they always do but they’re not getting as many negative plays as usual. That was expected but it has been impressive to see the defense still play well without having the ability to just rely completely on their front four.
Outside of Thomas, Tyler Davis has been a key player up front for Clemson. Davis is a true freshman who has stepped into the defensive tackle role that Christian Wilkins played. Venables has always done well to find tackles that are well rounded and Davis is just that. He plays with good speed and quickness but he is very strong and holds his ground well. Probably the most impressive freshman Louisville will see this year. They will also rotate Jordan Williams with Davis and they play next to Nyles Pickney who is one of the few veterans up front. Justin Foster and Logan Rudolph are part of the rotation at the ends. Even though Thomas and Davis are the only guys that have shown they could be on par with the guys they lost they are much deeper than they were last year.
The best defensive player Louisville will see this year is Isaiah Simmons and I’m not sure it’s close. Simmons is listed as a “SLB/NB” but he’s more of a “defensive weapon” to me. Venables can do whatever is needed with him and I don’t know that I’ve seen anything like it outside of Derwin James at FSU. Simmons can line up as an edge rusher, spy, middle linebacker, slot corner, or robber safety. I followed Simmons’ recruitment as Louisville was in on him at one point and there’s no way I saw this coming from him. Brent Venables lets him loose like a pit bull on third downs and he just goes and chases the ball. I have no clue what Louisville can do to counter him and that’s partially because I don’t think Venables has a concrete plan with him.
The other linebackers for Clemson have been a step down from what they’ve had recently, in my opinion. The Tigers were caught off guard when Shaq Smith transferred this summer and they’ve had to make due with James Skalski and Chad Smith. Neither are bad players, but they don’t make the highlight types of plays that we’ve seen in the past. They are very good at executing their assignments and that might help them against a Louisville team that likes misdirection and relies on linebackers biting on play action in the passing game. This group is not very deep, so an injury or fatigue could play a role.
Clemson has had surprising issues at finding effective cornerbacks over the last handful of years but they’ve always been good at the top of the depth chart. A.J. Terrell has become a shutdown guy on one side of the field but they’re not as strong on the other side. Derion Kendrick switched to defense after last season and one the starting job. He had a pick six last week on a badly overthrown ball but he hasn’t shown too much so far to get an idea on how good he might be there. I think that Louisville’s passing attack is the best that Clemson will have seen to this point and they might get a chance to test these guys.
The safety spot for Clemson is very experienced with Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace. They’re also two of the players I really like on this team. Wallace was a very lowly rated player coming out of high school and he was undersized. He found his way on the field as a freshman and his role just kept growing. Really cool to see on a team full of elite players. Muse is a jumbo safety that has gone from being a hammer that was a liability in coverage to a guy that leads the team in interceptions. Louisville still should try to find ways to get Muse matched up with Tutu Atwell in the middle of the field.
The wildcard guy in the secondary is Nolan Turner. He’s listed as Muse’s backup but he sees the field a lot. I believe he’s a mainstay in their nickel and dime packages. Turner can play at two levels of the defense and leads the team in pass breakups. He also has two tackles for loss on the year and is sixth on the team in tackles. Louisville has had some issues running the ball lately and the second level players have been an issue when it comes to blocking. Turner is the type of guy that worries me as an edge defender. He can really move and he’s another guy on this team that executes at a high level.