CLEMSON, SC - The alarmists, pessimists and fear mongers are pushing for no college football this fall, but given that the Tigers began fall camp on Thursday and are preparing as if they will open the season on September 12 at Wake Forest, I'll provide a breakdown of the current depth chart for the 2020 season.
I'll begin up front since the biggest news of late is that starting DE Xavier Thomas will be red shirted for 2020, as Dabo announced to us after practice on Thursday. Thomas contracted the Coronavirus over the summer, recovered from it, and then developed strep throat. This resulted in him being out of shape and about 15 pounds overweight at the start of camp, and the staff decided it would be best for Thomas to sit out this season, get healthy and back in football shape. As per the red shirt rule, Thomas will be able to play 4 games at any point of the season and maintain his red shirt status, so we will would likely see him in South Bend against Notre Dame in November as well as the ACC Championship and CFP/bowl. You may recall James Skalski took a similar path in 2018. The loss of Thomas leaves the Tigers with 3 experienced and talented defensive ends: KJ Henry, Justin Foster and Justin Mascol. They should still have a dominant defense with that rotation at end, and they also have a couple sublimely talented freshman ends in Myles Murphy and Greg Williams. Furthermore, former 5-star DT Bryan Bresee is versatile enough to play DE at a high level if needed, just as Christian Wilkins did a few years ago.
That segues nicely to the interior front, which is far and away the most improved position from this time last year, when the Tigers had absolutely no experienced DT's in fall camp. Now they have returning starters Tyler Davis, Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams, backed up by Darnell Jefferies, Ruke Orhorhoro and Etinosa Reuben, all of whom have plenty of experience. Behind them are freshman phenoms Bryan Bresee and DeMonte Capehart. The defensive front was the weakest unit on the team last year, despite arguably the nation's best defense, and it should be a strength this season.
The back seven last season was the best Dabo has had as a head coach, and they were best in the nation against the pass up until the Championship Game, leading the Power Five with 19 interceptions. However, they have lost First-Team All-American and Butkus Award Winner Isaiah Simmons and Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP Chad Smith at the linebacker/nickel positions, three of their top four safeties in K'Von Wallace, Tanner Muse and Denzel Johnson as well as starting corner AJ Terrell. Returning safety Nolan Turner also missed the spring with a shoulder injury, so all four of the two-deep at safety from last season were absent last spring. Thus, the safety position was the first thing I asked Dabo about after the first practice last spring. Although the Tigers only had 9 spring practices due to the pandemic, Dabo is very optimistic about what he has at safety between Nolan Turner, Lannden Zanders, Ray Thornton, Joseph Charleston and Jalyn Phillips. He is also excited about true freshmen RJ Mickens and Tyler Venables. They also moved Ben Batson over to safety after serving as backup QB last season. At corner, returning starter Derion Kendrick has All-American potential, and the Tigers have returning experience in LeAnthony Williams, Mario Goodrich, Sheridan Jones and Andrew Booth. They also have a couple of talented former 4-stars in freshmen Fred Davis and Malcolm Greene. At linebacker, expect Mike Jones, Jr. to have a breakout season in filling the role of Isaiah Simmons at nickel, and James Skalski has All-American potential at MLB. He was listed on 3 national award watch lists this summer. Baylon Spector and Jake Venables also have a ton of experience at the linebacker position, and Kane Patterson has great potential behind them.
With the talent and experience the Tigers have on the defensive side of the ball and Brent Venables, the best defensive coordinator in all of college football, I expect Clemson to once again have the best defense in the nation. Under Venables, the Tigers have led the nation in sacks and tackles-for-loss over the last 6 years. Sacks were down a little last season, at 3.13 per game and 12th in the nation, but I expect that number to go up this season. The Tigers have led the nation in scoring defense over the last 3 seasons combined, and I expect them to lead the nation again in 2020.
Be sure to check back for my offensive outlook, and click on the link below for interviews and more coverage!
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