Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know: As
long as the corners are fine, this will be one of the nation's
best defenses. The line, even without Gaines Adams, will be
amazing, thanks to the emergence of Ricky Sapp and a great
rotation of tackles. Assuming Tramaine BIllie (broken ankle) and
Antonio Clay (family tragedy) are back, the linebacking corps
will fly around and make plays all over the filed. The safety
situation is one of the ACC's best with Chris Clemons, Michael
Hamlin (broken foot and all) and DeAndre McDaniel all potential
all-stars, and the corners should be decent, at worst.
Tackles: Nick Watkins,
Ricky Sapp, 4
Interceptions: Crezdon Butler & Nick Watkins, 3
Star of the defense: Senior LB Nick Watkins
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore
CB Chris Chancellor
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Ricky Sapp
Best pro prospect: Junior DE Phillip Merling
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Watkins, 2) Merling, 3)
FS Chris Clemons
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, safety, tackle
Weakness of the defense:
Projected Starters: Who's
going to replace Gaines Adams? Sophomore Ricky Sapp might not be
the same player, but he's a 6-4, 220-pound athlete who could grow into a
dominant pass rusher after making four sacks, six tackles for loss and
nine quarterback pressures along with 20 tackles in a reserve role. A
top recruit two years ago, he should grow into an all-star over time,
even if he's not Adams against the run.
Back on the other side is 6-5, 270-pound junior Phillip Merling,
a nice, steady defender who flourished on the other side of Adams making
46 tackles, three sacks, ten tackles for loss and 20 quarterback
pressures. The former tight end is great against the run, and athletic
enough to get into the backfield. Somewhat quietly, he'll grow into a
good pro prospect.
The tackles are rock solid. 6-4, 305-pound junior Dorell Scott is
an anchor who is one of the ACC's stronger interior pass rushers and is
a brick wall against the run with 54 tackles and three sacks. He can
play either tackle spot and will start on the nose, where he should earn
All-ACC honors and be one of the team's most productive linemen.
Next to Scott will be 6-3, 290-pound junior Rashaad Jackson after
getting the start late last year and finishing with 26 tackles. A terror
in the backfield, he has the quickness, toughness and experience to grow
into the starting job. He's a high-energy defender who was simply too
good to keep off the field.
Projected Top Reserves: In a rotation with Jackson
at tackle will be 6-6, 295-pound junior Jock McKissic, a starter
for the first 12 games of last year before giving way in the bowl game.
Even so, he finished the year with 18 tackles, ten quarterback hurries,
and an impressive 82-yard interception return for a score against South
Carolina. He's better against the run than the stats might indicate.
Combining with Sapp at end will be 6-3, 245-pound senior Kwan
Williams, adding a little more size. A backup behind Gaines Adams,
he made ten tackles and a tackle for loss. He isn't anywhere near Sapp's
class as a pass rusher, but he should be strong against the run as past
of the rotation.
Watch Out For ... Merling. Overshadowed by Gaines,
it's now Merling's time to shine. He's not Adams, but he's a big,
talented all-around defender who'll earn all-star honors and be the
focus of most blocking schemes.
Strength: Talent. Merling, Scott and Jackson are all good enough
to be in the hunt for All-ACC status, while Sapp is an emerging
superstar. There's plenty of promise among the reserves.
Weakness: Consistency. Clemson didn't face too many great
running teams, and got rolled over by South Carolina and Virginia Tech.
Even without Adams, this is an experienced enough group to be even
Outlook: Georgia Tech, Miami, Boston College and
Virginia Tech will all be loaded on the defensive line and should get
plenty of attention, but Clemson's will be every bit as good. The
tackles are fantastic, with Scott about to blow up into a star, while
Merling and Sapp will ease the loss of Adams. Everyone can get into the
backfield, and everyone can make plays against the run.
Projected Starters: The
linebacking corps has the potential to be among the best in the
ACC, and possibly the nation, but there are a few uncertainties
to deal with. The first issue is with 6-0, 220-pound junior
Antonio Clay, a possible all-star who stepped in for Anthony
Waters early last year and finished third on the team with 95
tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. An undeniable talent in the
middle with great speed and hitting ability, he's expected to be
back in time for fall practices after leaving school to help out
his family after the death of his sister in a tragic car
The other main question mark is on the strongside, where 6-1,
210-pound senior Tramaine Billie is back after missing
all of last season with a broken ankle. Undersized at 6-1 and
200 pounds, he makes up for it by making play after play after
play thanks to his quickness and non-stop motor. Originally
considered a top running back prospect, he moved to safety and
then became a star at linebacker with 171 tackles in three
6-2, 220-pound senior Nick Watkins led the team with 116
tackles and seven tackles for loss on the weakside, after making
99 stops as a sophomore, and will be in the hunt for All-ACC
honors. While the 6-2, 220-pounder is merely average against the
pass, he cleans up everything against the run with fantastic
range and quickness. He's also a superstar on special teams.
Projected Top Reserves: Until Clay is back in the
swing of things, it'll be up to 6-1, 235-pound junior Cortney
Vincent to man the middle. One of the team's bigger
linebackers, he made 24 stops as a top reserve with two starts.
He's always flying around and always working.
Behind Billie on the strongside will be 6-2, 215-pound sophomore
Jeremy Campbell, who made 15 tackles as a true freshman.
An intimidating hitter, he'll play a bigger role in the rotation
until Billie is back to his old self. He'll carve out a niche
for himself as a pass rusher.
Adding more size to the weakside will be 6-2, 230-pound
sophomore Kavell Conner, who made 31 tackles and turned
into a whale of a pass rusher. While it'll be next to impossible
to get Watkins off the field, Conner will see his share of time
in blowouts and on special teams.
Watch Out For ... Campbell and Vincent. The two
backups are going to see plenty of action throughout the year,
and they're good enough to step in and shine with bigger roles.
Clemson might not exactly be a linebacker factory, but it's
Strength: Potential. Assuming Billie and Clay are ready to
rumble from day one, the corps should be tremendous. The
starting three could all end up with All-ACC honors in one way
Weakness: Potential depth issues. If Billie and Clay aren't
ready and Campbell and Vincent have to start, the depth goes
from solid to nearly non-existent. The Tigers have talented
prospects who don't have a lot of experience.
Outlook: The linebacking corps was supposed to be
special last season, but both Billie and star middle man Anthony
Waters got hurt. The backups picked up the slack, and now
they're back and should be ready to roll. This isn't a big
corps, but it hasn't had much of a problem holding up against
power running teams. Quickness is at a premium over size, and in
the Clemson zone scheme, the linebackers fit the type.
Projected Starters: The Tigers
are more than set at safety, but have concerns on the corner
after losing C.J. Gaddis and Duane Coleman. 5-9, 170-pound
sophomore Chris Chancellor appears ready to hold down one
of the spots after making 38 tackles and breaking up five passes
as a key reserve and top special teamer. He came on towards the
end of last year and even earned a little bit of starting time.
Now he has to be a shutdown corner with the other corner spot
still up for grabs.
While it'll be an ongoing battle, 6-0, 185-pound sophomore
Crezdon Butler will likely start the season at corner after
making three picks with 34 tackles as a true freshman. A
superstar running high school quarterback in North Carolina, he
quickly adjusted to the defensive side and showed the speed and
potential to make him a promising defender. If nothing else,
he'll be the first man off the bench.
6-3, 200-pound junior Michael Hamlin is back after making
64 tackles and two interceptions despite suffering a broken foot
early in the year. One of the team's strongest defensive backs,
he also has the speed and ability to move to free safety if
needed. As good as he's been, he'll have to keep battling to
hang on to his job, and he'll have to do more against the pass.
More than anything, he'll have to get over another broken foot
suffered this spring.
The star of the secondary is 6-1, 205-pound junior free safety
Chris Clemons, who finished second on the team with 102
tackles and eight broken up passes. One of the defense's fastest
players, he has unlimited range with the open-field tackling
ability of a strong safety. He's all but certain to be an
Projected Top Reserves: It takes a top player to
have a shot at booting out a top veteran like Hamlin from a
starting spot, but freshman DeAndre McDaniel might do it.
Every bit the real deal he was expected to be coming out of
Hargrave Military Academy, he was on everyone's list of the top
defensive back recruits. He didn't disappoint in spring ball and
will find a spot somewhere in the secondary.
Battling Butler for playing time at one of the corner spots will
be 6-0, 195-pound redshirt freshman Byron Maxwell, a
promising all-around corner with good size and nice skills. His
problem has been his health, having been banged up for the last
two years and not being able to get on the field. If he's 100%,
he'll play a big role.
Watch Out For ... the corner production to not
fall off all that much. Gaddis and Coleman were strong, but
Chancellor and Butler can play. Throw Maxwell into the mix and
the Tigers will be fine.
Strength: Safety. Clemons is a rock, while CAT, or strong safety
spot, might even see an upgrade if McDaniel steps in for Hamlin.
It's not a stretch to call the safeties the best in the ACC.
Weakness: Interceptions. Last year's secondary only came up with
nine. Considering all the speed and talent across the defensive
backfield, there should be more picks.
Outlook: The Tigers lost Tye Hill and Jamaal Fudge
and turned out to have one of the ACC's best secondaries, and
now they'll best in the league again despite losing both
corners. The safeties are tremendous, the corners are promising,
and everyone can hit. If there's pressure up front, this group
will have a solid year.
Projected Starters: It'll be a battle all fall for the
kicking jobs. Junior soccer player Mark Buchholz will get the
first shot at taking over for placekicker Jad Dean, who had an
inconsistent year and didn't show any range. Junior Jimmy Maners
got work at punter this spring replacing Cole Chason and his pedestrian
38.6-yard average. However ...
Watch Out For ... Richard Jackson. It's not
a question of whether or not the redshirt freshman will start, it's a
question of how much work he'll get. A Parade All-American, he
has a cannon for a leg hitting a 64-yard field goal. He might get both
the placekicking and punting duties.
Strength: Jacoby Ford. One of the fastest players in the
country, the wide receiver is also an elite returner averaging 11.1
yards per punt return and 32.8 yards on kickoff returns.
Weakness: Blocked kicks. The Tigers allow too many of them.
Tightening up on kickoff returns is a must after allowing 23.9 yards per
Outlook: It's a wait-and-see attitude until
Jackson finds a spot. He needs to be everything he was supposed to be
coming into last year. The return game will be solid, and occasionally
spectacular, thanks to Ford and C.J. Spiller, but the coverage units
have to be far better.