Spring Preview: 5 Questions for Clemson’s Defense

Clemson Tigers football is back on the practice field Monday to being preparations this spring for the 2023 season.

Dabo Swinney’s defense returns a ton of talent on all three levels. Ruke Orhorhoro and Tyler Davis anchor the defensive front. A pair of star linebackers will handle the middle of the field and the secondary showcase several familiar faces.

However, there are plenty of questions to answer this spring. Here are five:

What will Wes Goodwin do in Year 2?

The transition from Brent Venables to Goodwin wasn’t seamless. There were bumps in the road. There were times Clemson took a while to adjust in games. There were moments Goodwin had to learn from. That’s natural when stepping into a role you’ve never done before. 

So how he and Clemson move forward in his second season as defensive coordinator is the key in 2023. It’s hard to evaluate and adjust during the season as much as you might want to, but with an offseason to break everything down from 2022, you’d think Goodwin will be more prepared. There will be schematic tweaks with a different personnel group. There will be lessons learned on what not to do from last year. 

The spring will also show how Goodwin is developing young players and putting them in positions to succeed. Last year wasn’t perfect, but Goodwin likely will grow in Year 2. 

Does Clemson have enough depth at defensive end?

This question won’t be completely answered in the spring, but it’ll show how much progress needs to be made in the fall. Clemson is loaded at tackle, but the pass-rusher room hasn’t built quality depth yet. 

Xavier Thomas is the top dog returning, but he’s been slowed by injuries. Justin Mascoll is likely the other starter, but this position will feel the losses of KJ Henry and Myles Murphy. 

Behind those two is a group of returning players without much experience. This is a big spring for Cade Denhoff, Zaire Patterson, Greg Williams, Jahiem Lawson and Armon Mason. DE coach Lemanski Hall will learn a lot about that group and needs to get as many guys ready to contribute as possible. 

The Tigers also have some younger inside players, like prized recruit Peter Woods, who could get a look playing end as well. 

Which freshmen have the best chances at being instant impacts?

Clemson has 14 scholarship freshmen from the 2023 26-man recruiting class already on campus. They all have a clearer path to playing time than the ones who will arrive this summer. Not only will they get to develop on the field in spring ball, they’ll also go through the weight-room program along with getting other resources. 

Woods is the likeliest candidate for early playing time, but he’s not the only player to watch this spring. Vic Burley is another defensive lineman who already has the body to impact the defense. Chris Vizzina will get a chance at earning the backup quarterback role. A talented trio of offensive linemen – Ian Reed, Harris Sewell and Zack Owens – will get valuable reps and tutelage from OL coach Thomas Austin. At least one of them could emerge from the spring on the depth chart.  

What can the secondary do to improve after a lackluster season?

This is more of a direct question for Mike Reed and Mickey Conn, two coaches who have a lot of work to do this spring. Clemson’s pass defense ranked 76th nationally in 2023. It marked the first time the Tigers finished in the 70s since 2012. Swinney mentioned the need to improve the pass defense several times during his Feb. 1 press conference. 

The Tigers gave up too many big plays and weren’t nearly as efficient as previous seasons. Injuries and inexperience played roles, but the numbers should’ve been better. To fix it, they’ll look to a host of veterans who underperformed at times. Cornerback Nate Wiggins had early-season struggles, but he came on strong late in the year as a big-time playmaker. Sheridan Jones, who struggled to stay healthy, returned to anchor the other side. Depth players like Toriano Pride Jr. and Jeadyn Lukus have some seasoning but need to come on strong as sophomores. Myles Oliver is back from an injury that derailed his freshman year.

The safeties are a deep group that underachieved at times. The Tigers need more out of Andrew Mukuba in Year 3. Jalyn Phillips is a calming influence back there. R.J. Mickens could be more consistent, and Tyler Venables should be back from an injury. 

This group should be, and has to be, better this year. 

Are the young linebackers ready for the next step?

There might not be a better 1-2 punch in the country at “Mike” and “Will” linebacker than what the Tigers have this season. Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter enter as All-American candidates. They’re going to combine for a gazillion tackles and big plays this season. 

But behind them, there is a big drop-off in terms of experience. The Tigers lost “Sam” linebacker Trenton Simpson to the NFL and “Will” backup LaVonta Bentley to the transfer portal. Keith Maguire, who played 42 career games, gave up football. 

There appears to be talent in the room, but it’s time to grow up guys like Wade Woodaz and T.J. Dudley. Kobe McCloud is coming off a redshirt season and will get chances this spring. Dee Crayton and Jamal Anderson are a pair of early-enrollees who will get looks as well. This feels like a really healthy position, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get this group ready for the fall.

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