Brent Venables had something happen last year that hadn’t happened in nearly a decade. His defense allowed more than five yards per play. Personally, I think the mark of a good defense is holding teams under that number because you’re typically going to be in the top-20 or so teams in the country if you do so. Venables’ defense did all of the other things well like they normally do, but they gave up more yardage than usual and they ended up being exposed in the playoff.
One of the reasons that Venables’ defense has improved is the wealth of talent he has up front. Clemson is young on the Defensive Line but the experience that they earned last year has gotten this group back to where they are expected to be. Myles Murphy leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks for the second straight year while Xavier Thomas has returned from Covid complications to look like his old self. UofL has done well to protect Malik Cunningham with pass protection and play calls but this is a different animal with the pressure Clemson can bring off the edge.
The interior of the line has been a focus for Clemson fans due to the injuries they’ve suffered but I think it’s the most important group on the team and I think they’ve played better than they’ve gotten credit for. Tyler Davis appears to be fully healed and back to making plays in the middle. This group's ability to eat up blocks is what has impressed me. If they’re not making the play, they’re clearing out space for the Linebackers to make the play. Their ability to make plays behind the line is what UofL needs to focus on but I just find it so impressive how much havoc they cause on each play.
Linebacker is always such an important group in Venables’ defenses and this year is no different. James Skalski and Baylon Spector are combining to average about 16 tackles per game which is the most for the top two tacklers for Clemson since 2016. It should also be pointed out that no one is even remotely close to them. James Skalski is always running free in the middle of the field and he is such a sound tackler. He doesn’t miss often and that makes it really hard to run the ball.
Spector is a really good athlete and runs things down on the edges. He is also typically free to run in the middle of the field because of the disruption of the Defensive Line. For what Clemson wants out of their Linebackers, Skalski and Spector are about as good as it gets. Trenton Simpson has a chance to be one of the best they’ve ever had at the second level once he grows as a player. Simpson is a former 5-star who is a freak athlete. He does just about everything well but you can tell that he’s getting by on his athleticism more than anything.
The secondary is where Clemson has been suspect for years but they have really improved at the Cornerback position, in my opinion. Andrew Booth has some of the best ball skills in the country and he always steps up when he’s tested. Mario Goodrich doesn’t get the attention that Booth does, but he is having a great season with 8 PBUs. Louisville has done well to get quick passes completed on the outside but I don’t know that they will have the opportunity to go after these guys down the field.
The middle of the secondary is where I expect UofL to attack. Nolan Turner is a fantastic player but he (and pretty much every other safety) doesn’t have the type of speed to keep up with a guy like Tyler Harrell if UofL can scheme up a play to get him in coverage. Andre Mukuba has been really great as a true freshman but I think he and R.J. Mickens are both inexperienced and could be put into situations where UofL could have a slight advantage. I think that Louisville should utilize their play-action pass game to try to exploit this group.