Clemson allowed 3,045 yards through the air and 26 passes for touchdowns last year. Opponents had a pass completion rate of 58.3 percent. This year, competing in a league where 10 of 12 starting quarterbacks return from 2011, those numbers will need to improve. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables will bring a new scheme to an experienced secondary. That new scheme should include improved tackling, an area where Clemson consistently struggled last year. But making the new coach’s transition smoother, Clemson returns seven contributors in the secondary, with Coty Sensabaugh being the only glaring loss at that position.
It’s important to note that senior Xavier Brewer is moving from cornerback to free safety, and Clemson’s leading tackler in 2011, Rashard Hall, missed spring practice due to a January knee surgery. However, it looks like Hall is back to prime form. In a situational scrimmage yesterday, Hall had three interceptions. The defense forced a total of six turnovers. Betcha Venables is saying, “Take that, Coach Morris.”
According to Greg Wallace of orangeandwhite.com,Venables said yesterday,
“The number one stat in football is scoring defense. It’s a big thing we’re emphasizing, not letting people score and improving on red zone defense. If you hold teams to 17 points or less, you’ll be a top-10 (scoring defense) team but it’s relative to the style of teams you play.”
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Swinney said, “We created turnovers today. Our secondary is very active and is getting their hands on balls. They are breaking on balls and we are tackling better. I’m impressed with that.”
Here are the guys that are expected to be key players this year for Clemson’s secondary:
-Baushaud Breeland- This sophomore’s earned a starting spot at cornerback. Breeland played some quarterback in high school, and that experience should help him read opposing defenses. Breeland played in all 14 games last year for the Tigers, and had seven tackles in Clemson’s win over Florida State. He was able to learn from Brewer last year, and that should pay dividends.
-Cortez Davis- A redshirt freshman, Davis will be backing up Breeland at cornerback. He’ll give Breeland great competition for the starting job despite his game inexperience. Davis reminds me a little of N.C. State’ s David Amerson because of his size.
-Xavier Brewer- How easily Brewer will adjust to his new role at free safety will go a long a way in determining this unit’s success early in the season. He’s played over 1,000 snaps and will be a leader on a defense. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brewer moves back to his old position at times this season if the combination of Robinson and Jenkins can’t get it done.
-Jonathan Meeks- This junior had 65 tackles and three interceptions last year. Meeks was inconsistent at times and his tackling was questionable. If he doesn’t produce, Hall would fill this role.
-Rashard Hall- Clemson’s leading tackler last year, Hall is listed as OR on the depth chart with Meeks at strong safety because he was sidelined in the spring. If Hall plays like he scrimmages and his knee shows no signs of slowing him down, that will be tremendous for Clemson because of Hall’s versatility. He is expected to play some dime and free safety, and his smarts on the field point that he’ll be Clemson’s multitasker on defense.
-Darius Robinson- This junior is listed as the other starting cornerback. The fact that Brewer was moved to safety shows theses coaches have some confidence in this guy’s ability. Robinson played in 11 games last year and had 22 tackles and one interception.
-Martin Jenkins- He played in all 14 games last year and had 23 tackles. Jenkins will back up Robinson, but this position could be the biggest question mark in the secondary.
-Travis Blanks- Though he’s a true freshman, Coach Swinney has spoken so highly of him already, I don’t see how this guy gets redshirted this year, especially with pressure on the coaches to get improved play at this position. Blanks would see time at safety and nickle.
Experience doesn’t mean everything, but for defensive backs in a pass-oriented leauge, it means something. Baushaud Breeland is my pick for Clemson’s break out player on defense. There’s a lot still to play out here before September 1, but I’ll say that Clemson’s secondary takes a huge step forward this season and becomes one of the most improved units on the field.