2011 Clemson Preview – Defense
Clemson DT Brandon Thompson
Clemson DT Brandon Thompson
Posted Jul 2, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Clemson Tiger Defense

Clemson Tigers

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Coordinator Kevin Steele has done a terrific job in his first two seasons in Death Valley. However, he could be facing his toughest challenge to date. Not only must the Tigers replace six starters, but three of them, DE Da'Quan Bowers, DT Jarvis Jenkins, and S DeAndre McDaniel, were members of the All-ACC first team. The D plans to regroup around DT Brandon Thompson, DE Andre Branch, and FS Rashard Hall, while banking on the quick maturation of some youngsters. Dabo Swinney's latest recruiting class had a bumper crop of defensive stars, including DE Corey Crawford and a phenomenal collection of rookie linebackers. The biggest concern lies with a defensive backfield that'll be adjusting to life without three really talented starters.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Corico Hawkins, 71
Sacks: Andre Branch, 5
Interceptions: Xavier Brewer, Rashard Hall, 2

Star of the defense: Senior DT Brandon Thompson
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Xavier Brewer
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Quandon Christian
Best pro prospect: Thompson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Junior FS Rashard Hall, 2) Thompson, 3) Senior DE Andre Branch
Strength of the defense: Overall athleticism, pass defense, getting to the quarterback, limiting the big play
Weakness of the defense: Linebackers, replacing three first team all-stars

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: While two starters are back on the defensive front, two major pieces of the puzzle are off to the NFL. All-American DE Da'Quan Bowers left voluntarily and All-ACC DT Jarvis Jenkins exhausted his eligibility. Replacing the two stalwarts will be one of the top priorities of the staff during the offseason. The program has a long history of outstanding line, a trend it plans to continue in 2011.

Senior Andre Branch is poised to step out of Bowers' shadow and pick up where he left off. A starter in all 13 games last season, he helped form a dynamite bookend, making 55 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, five sacks, and 16 quarterback pressures. Relentless in his pursuit, he always plays to the whistle and has the 6-5, 260-pound frame to provide the necessary support against the run.

The anchor on the inside will be 6-2, 310-pound senior Brandon Thompson, a veteran of three letters and 25 career starts. He plays very low to the ground, accentuating an already powerful base. In his best season as a Tiger, he had 56 tackles, 7.5 stops for loss, and 15 quarterback hurries. After being overlooked by voters in 2010, he's headed toward All-ACC honors in his final year on campus.

There's a mad dash to bookend Branch at defensive end. And some good options. Junior Malliciah Goodman has played more than 300 snaps each of the last two year, making 32 tackles, three stops for loss, and three forced fumbles in 2010. Big and strong at 6-4 and 265 pounds, he has the huge mitts needed to control opposing blockers. Senior Kourtnei Brown is an explosive all-around athlete, who needs to sharpen his fundamentals as a pass rusher. Recovering from a sprained knee in March, he's expected back in the summer. The sky is the limit for 6-5, 275-pound rookie Corey Crawford , who's already on campus. The heir-apparent to Bowers and a coveted recruit, he's already succeeded in turning the coaches' heads.

Benefitting when Thompson gets doubled will be 6-4, 270-pound senior Rennie Moore , a veteran of three letters. Undersized for the position, he has a good burst and no shortage of confidence, making 26 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and two sacks last season. Sophomore Tyler Shatley is a plugger and one of the most powerful players on the line. He got 127 snaps as a rookie, earning his first letter and making 11 stops.

Watch Out For … Crawford's growth. Everyone loves his potential to be a factor in the rotation this fall and a starter in 2012. It's going to be fun watching his evolution, beginning in the summer and continuing in the fall. There's a reason why his combination of size and quickness has begun drawing comparisons to Bowers.
Strength: Athleticism. The ends have explosive tendencies and the tackles get off the ball in a snap to make plays behind the line. Purely in terms of measurables, this is one of the most combustible groups of linemen in the ACC.
Weakness: Delivering. As good as the linemen look on paper, it's time for them to start delivering on a more consistent basis. Branch and Thompson are just fine, but the defense needs the likes of Goodman and Brown to have their breakthrough moments.
Outlook: Clemson is in good shape in the trenches, but being just good isn't, well, good enough. In Thompson and Branch, the Tigers have a terrific inside-outside duo, respectively. However, overcoming the losses of Bowers and Thompson will be the onus of last year's backups.
Unit Rating: 8


State of the Unit: At face value, the Clemson linebackers appear to be a marginal group that's short on star power and long on mediocrity. That might be true of the holdovers, which includes only one full-timer. However, the picture won't truly become clearer until the newest crop of defenders arrives in August, an epic haul that will be serving the program for the next four seasons.

In the middle, junior Corico Hawkins is the safest bet to keep his starting job in 2011. A tough, blue-collar defender, the 5-11, 230-pounder started every game in 2010, finishing with 71 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and three sacks. More steady that spectacular, he does a nice job of diagnosing running plays, fighting through the traffic, and wrapping up in the open field.

For the time being, 6-3, 215-pound sophomore Quandon Christian and 6-2, 220-pound junior Jonathan Willard are holding the edge on the outside at strongside and weakside, respectively. Christian has bulked up since arriving, yet is a top-flight athlete. One of the risers of this unit, he started seven games in his first year of action, collecting 24 tackles. Quick and athletic, Willard logged a pair of starts in 2010, chipping in 27 tackles on only 160 snaps.

Watch Out For … the cavalry. No one in America attracted better talent at linebacker in February than Clemson. No one. Stephone Anthony , Tony Steward , and Lateek Townsend had their choice of schools, and are going to shake up the depth chart immediately upon arrival.
Strength: The future. The returners are good, but the next wave of defenders has a chance to be great. The true freshmen were recruited to contribute right away, and their mere presence is going to light a fire under all of the veterans.
Weakness: Proven depth. The rookies will help, but the Tigers are still going to be green at linebacker. Hawkins, Christian, and Willard have starting experience, but the transfer of Brandon Maye leaves the program with a dearth of veterans at the position.
Outlook: The future is now at linebacker in Death Valley. While Willard, Hawkins, and Christian are solid players, with bright tomorrows, the focus will be on all of those precocious rookies. The mix of the kids and the vets will create an increasingly positive situation as the season develops.
Unit Rating: 7


State of the Unit: The secondary is going to be a rebuilding project for the coaching staff in the offseason. DeAndre McDaniel, Byron Maxwell, and Marcus Gilchrist all graduated … and all have NFL potential. The program has grown accustomed to having one of the nation's better pass defenses, vexing opposing passers and ranking 22nd in the country a year ago. Maintaining that level of stinginess is going to be a major chore in 2011.

The new leader of the secondary is 6-2, 200-pound junior FS Rashard Hall, a third-year starter who's going to be playing on Sundays real soon. He has good size and leaping ability, but excels most with his intangibles. He has a great feel for the position and is instinctive, breaking well on the ball and rarely getting caught out of position. Taking a backseat to his teammates last fall, he had 65 tackles and a couple of picks, raising his career total to eight.

Hall's tag-team partner at safety is going to be 6-1, 205-pound junior Jonathan Meeks , one of the budding stars of the secondary. Still evolving in coverage, he's a big hitter who needs to play with a little more discipline. About to receive a promotion and attempt to fill McDaniel's shoes, he had 28 tackles and a pick last year. Junior Carlton Lewis is a superb athlete at 6-3 and 215 pounds, but has been a little-used reserve in the first two years of his career.

The situation at cornerback figures to be a fluid one. Junior Xavier Brewer has the thickest resume, starting 10 games last fall and making 54 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, and eight pass breakups. While not the fastest of the corners, he compensates with his instincts and know-how. When Brewer wasn't in the lineup in 2010, 6-0, 180-pound senior Coty Sensabaugh would take his place, making 28 tackles but breaking up just a pair of passes. He has outstanding catch-up speed, which he needs to call upon a little more than the staff would prefer. Coming on very fast at cornerback is 6-0, 190-pound redshirt freshman Bashaud Breeland , one of the stars of spring. A tremendous all-around physical specimen, he's firmly in the hunt to be a starter early in his career.

Watch Out For … Hall to explode into one of the ACC's defensive stars. He sort of fell off the radar in 2010, taking a backseat to McDaniel and Gilchrist in the secondary. That won't be the case this year. He has a ton of talent, physical and otherwise, that deserves a bigger spotlight.
Strength: Ball skills. Even without McDaniel and the others, Clemson still harbors a bunch of defensive backs who go after the ball like wide receivers. It's an athletic bunch that breaks nicely on the ball and will secure it into the body when the opportunity presents itself.
Weakness: Defending the end zone. New year, same concern, especially with the heavy turnover. As good as the secondary has been lately, it has yielded 39 touchdown passes over the last two seasons. The unit has to improve at defending the red zone, especially versus some of the league's more potent passers.
Outlook: This figures to be a transition year for the Clemson defensive backfield. After Hall, who has the all-star chops, the Tigers will be forced to lean on some unproven players. Out of the handful of returning lettermen, the staff is banking on one new cornerback and a strong safety to excel after getting promoted.
Unit Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The Tigers are bringing back both of last year's kickers, forming the backbone of the special teams unit. The group's MVP from a year ago, senior P Dawson Zimmerman is coming off his best season, averaging 42.7 yards and improving the loft of his kicks. Sophomore Chandler Catanzaro became the school's first rookie placekicker in a decade, but connected on only 14-of-22 field goal attempts. A 6-2, 205-pounder, he has a big leg and an edict to improve his consistency on kicks from close range. Big-legged junior Spencer Benton is expected to once again handle the team's kickoffs. Not only does he provide support to the defense with his leg, but he's also the program's career leader in tackles by a kicker.

While Clemson has been one of the nation's most dangerous return teams over the last few years, keeping that trend alive will require replacing Marcus Gilchrist, one of the ACC's best in 2010. The staff looked at all options in the spring, an audition that'll continue into the summer.

Watch Out For … Catanzaro to get challenged by rookie Ammon Lakip if he can't straighten out his kicks. The Tigers are determined to be more consistent in the kicking game this season, which means no options are going to be taken off the table.
Strength: The return game. Yeah, there's no Gilchrist or C.J. Spiller or Jacoby Ford, but Clemson always seems to find a way to develop a gamebreaker in the return game. There are always dynamite athletes on the roster, and the units is geared to creating running lanes for those players to explode through.
Weakness: Inconsistency at placekicker. More than just a problem in 2010, this has become a growing trend over the past few seasons. A year after Richard Jackson missed 11 field goals and five extra point tries, Catanzaro was off on eight three-pointers. It's an area Clemson needs to polish up before the opener.
Outlook: Special teams is going to be a mixed bag for Clemson in 2011. The punter is solid, but the placekicker needs tinkering. The coverage units are tight, but a few capable return men still need to be mined. It's a work-in-progress that'll keep the coaching staff busy through the offseason.
Unit Rating: 7.5

- 2011 Clemson Preview | 2011 Clemson Offense
- 2011 Clemson Defense | 2011 Clemson Depth Chart
- Clemson Previews  - 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006