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2008 Clemson Preview - Defense
Clemson S Michael Hamlin
Clemson S Michael Hamlin
Posted Apr 21, 2008 2008 Preview - Clemson Tiger Defense

Clemson Tigers

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Clemson Preview | 2008 Clemson Offense
- 2008 Clemson Defense | 2008 Clemson Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Clemson Preview | 2006 CFN Clemson Preview 

What you need to know: While there are openings and uncertainty at linebacker, the rest of the defense is in good shape with size and speed up front and depth and experience in the secondary. CAT safety Michael Hamlin heads a backfield that boasts four returning starters and a slew of letterwinners. Even without DE Phillip Merling, the Tigers have recruited well enough in recent years to dominate in the trenches and create outside pressure. Mega-recruit DaQuan Bowers has an ACC body and 15 spring practices behind him. One of the most heralded recruits to ever sign with Clemson, he’ll join Ricky Sapp to give the defense a scary and speedy pass-rushing tandem.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Michael Hamlin, 97
Sacks: Ricky Sapp, 5
Interceptions: Chris Chancellor & Michael Hamlin, 4

Star of the defense: Senior NG Dorell Scott
Player who has to step up and become a star: Redshirt freshman LB Brandon Maye
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S DeAndre McDaniel
Best pro prospect: Scott
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Senior SS Michael Hamlin, 2) Scott, 3) Sophomore DE Ricky Sapp
Strength of the defense: The front four, the back four, pass defense
Weakness of the defense: The linebackers

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: While losing DE Phillip Merling to the Miami Dolphins certainly stings, there’s enough returning talent for the Tigers to survive up front. Some of the pressure of replacing his production falls to junior Ricky Sapp, a budding star at bandit with the speed off the edge to be one of the league’s best pass rushers. A little bigger and stronger at 6-4 and 240 pounds, he’s coming off a breakthrough season, making 52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, and a team-high 22 quarterback pressures.  e won’t be Merling in run defense, but his ability to create pressure and drop back into coverage make him a special player.

For the time being, the new strongside end is 6-3, 245-pound junior Kevin Alexander, a career backup getting his first opportunity to start. He played in every game a year ago, making 32 tackles, one tackle for loss, and a sack. A former linebacker with a good burst, he’ll need to be far more productive to remain atop the depth chart.

The defense is set on the inside with the returns of senior tackles Dorell Scott and Rashaad Jackson.  Scott earned honorable mention All-ACC after making 50 tackles, five tackles for loss, and three sacks in his second season as a starter.  A rock in the middle of the line at 6-4 and 320 pounds, he has the quickness to make plays in the backfield and the attention of countless NFL scouts.

While Scott gets more pub, Jackson is no slouch on the defensive line. Quicker and smaller at 6-2 and 280 pounds, he turned his first opportunity for significant playing time into 37 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 14 quarterback pressures.  When he comes to play on every down, he’s tough to handle one-on-one.    

Projected Top Reserves: Technically, true freshman Da’Quan Bowers is listed as a backup, but that’s not likely to last very long. One of the most decorated recruits in school history, he was as good as advertised in the spring, devouring blockers and climbing a step closer to a starting job.  At 6-5 and 265 pounds, he’s freakishly ready to make an impact just a few months removed from high school.

Not to be forgotten is sophomore Kourtnei Brown, one of the top weakside ends in the country in 2007. An explosive pass rusher at 6-4 and 225 pounds, Sapp’s backup appeared in 11 games as a true freshman, making a dozen tackles, two tackles for loss, and the first of what should be many career sacks.

After playing most of his career at defensive end, 6-7, 270-pound junior Jamie Cumbie is making a permanent shift inside, a move that’s a better fit for his style of play. As a three-game starter a year ago, he had 29 tackles, three tackles for loss, a couple of sacks, and 10 quarterback pressures.

Watch Out For ... Bowers to quickly develop into a phenomenon in the ACC. He already has an NFL body, and had seven tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks in the spring game. If he doesn’t make the Freshman All-America team, it means he missed significant time with an injury.
Strength: NFL-caliber talent. With Sapp and Bowers on the outside and Scott and Jackson on the inside, the Tigers have four linemen who might someday play in the pros. Minimum. There’s also a host of top-tier youngsters buried on the three-deep who’ll help bolster depth.
Weakness: Tackle depth. After Scott and Jackson, the Tigers mostly have question marks on the interior. Players, such as Cumbie, Miguel Chavis, and Jarvis Jenkins have potential, but haven’t accomplished much at the position at this level.
Outlook: The line boasts an ideal blend of outside explosiveness and inside power, giving the program one of the best front fours in the ACC. Although a tackle or two needs to step up and provide support in the rotation, the Tigers have little to worry about with this group.
Rating: 8.5


Projected Starters: Four of last year’s top linebackers are no longer on the roster, easily making this unit the defense’s biggest concern. The most accomplished of the returners is 6-1, 225-pound junior Kavell Conner, a two-game starter who had 46 tackles and a couple of tackles for loss.  The favorite at weakside, he needs to start making a few more big plays and distinguishing himself in order to stay there.

On the inside, 6-1, 215-pound redshirt freshman Brandon Maye made the most of his opportunity for more reps by delivering play after play in the spring. He plays with a perpetual energy, going from sideline-to-sideline to make a stop and enjoying the spotlight. In a short period of time, he has shown enough to be no worse than a vital part of the rotation this fall and the possible catalyst for this group.

The front-runner at strongside is 6-1, 210-pound sophomore Scotty Cooper, who had 33 tackles and started a couple of games a year ago, including the bowl game. Undersized but very quick in space, he made a quantum leap in field awareness and system knowledge with last fall’s playing time.              

Projected Top Reserves:
Junior Jeremy Campbell is primed for a bigger role, even if he can’t unseat Cooper at strongside. At 6-1 and 225 pounds, he has been in on more than 100 snaps in each of the last two seasons, making 11 stops a year ago. He was cross-trained in March and April, opening the possibility he’ll also get snaps at weakside.

The permanent suspension of presumed starting middle linebacker Cortney Vincent puts senior Josh Miller in a position to play more than he has at any point in his career. A journeyman who has seen action in 37 games, he needs to prove he’s more than a live body or someone who can bust the wedge on special teams.        

Watch Out For
... Maye. Sure, he’s young and raw, but he’s also the one linebacker who consistently stands out from the crowd. He brings an energy and a confidence to a unit that’ll need an extra helping of both this fall.
Strength: Range. By design, the linebackers are small, fast, and capable of covering a lot of ground in a hurry. They’re not maulers, but they’re the type of athletes who can be used on the blitz or as pass defenders.
: Top-end talent. As it’s comprised now, the Tigers have marginal talent at linebacker, and even more concerns with the reserves. At least not this season, no one in this group has All-ACC aspirations.
Outlook: When opposing offenses draw up a plan of attack, this is the group they’ll look to expose. The linebackers will make lots of plays, but not the game-changers who Tiger fans have grown accustomed to over the years.
Rating: 6.5


Projected Starters: With all four starters returning to the nation’s 13th-ranked pass defense, good luck throwing on the Tigers this season. The cornerbacks will again be juniors Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler. While the 5-10, 170-pound Chancellor lacks ideal size, he has improved dramatically in his cover skills and rarely misses assignments. He had 52 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a team-high four picks, solidifying his standing as the program’s most reliable pass defender.

The 6-0, 185-pound Butler has an edge in size and is one of the best all-around athletes on this side of the ball. A quarterback in high school, he’s still learning the position, but continues to get better with each passing season. In his debut as the starter, he had 61 tackles, three tackles for loss, and three interceptions.

Senior safeties Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons will form one of the best tandems at the position in the country. Hamlin is an All-America candidate, a 6-3, 205-pound enforcer who hits like a linebacker. Entering his fourth season as a starter, he had a career-high 97 tackles, three tackles for loss, and four interceptions. A terrific blend of size and athleticism, the staff is still pushing him to be more of a playmaker in his final year.

The 6-1, 210-pound Clemons has started 26 consecutive games at free safety, proving to be both durable and one of the surest tacklers on the team. He’s been top three in stops the last two years, racking up 94 tackles, two tackles for loss, and two interceptions as a junior. Another physical and agile athlete, he’ll be a disruption against the run and the pass.     

Projected Top Reserves: The backups are terrific, led by the sophomore trio of CAT safety DeAndre McDaniel and corners Byron Maxwell and Marcus Gilchrist. A top recruit from a year ago, McDaniel got on the field right away, making 33 tackles, four tackles for loss, two picks, and six pass breakups. A special athlete at 6-0 and 200 pounds, he spent time at safety, cornerback, and strongside linebacker in the spring. Beginning in 2009, he’ll be a fixture somewhere in the starting lineup.

In a lot of places, the 5-11, 180-pound Gilchrist would be starting by now. Instead, he’ll keep pushing Chancellor for playing time and serving an important role on the second team. He got his feet wet as a true freshman, backing that up with a terrific offseason, flashing improving cover skills.

Maxwell is another young defensive back with a bright future at Clemson. At 6-1 and 185 pounds, he has ideal size and physicality for a cornerback to along with good feet and ball skills. Healthy for a change, he played in 13 games, posting 27 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a sack.   

Watch Out For
... the Tigers to finish the season ranked in the top 10 in pass efficiency defense.  Not only do four starters return, but the line will provide constant pressure and the ACC has a shortage of big-time passing attacks.
Strength: Depth and talent. Not only is the two-deep fantastic and littered with future pros, but the defensive backfield as a whole returns a whopping 13 players who earned a letter a year ago. No one wants to be faced with injuries, but the Tigers would survive the loss of a player or two as well as any program in the country.
Weakness: Depth at free safety. Relatively speaking, the weakest spot in the secondary is behind Clemons, where junior Sadat Chambers has moved from running back to provide some help.
Outlook: For the second consecutive year, Clemson will be home to some of the best secondary talent in the ACC, combining outstanding athleticism with intimidating hitters. If, as expected, the Tigers are generating pressure up front, it’ll be next to impossible to navigate past this group.
Rating: 9

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Most of the pieces are in place for Clemson to have one of the best special teams units in the ACC. The fly in the ointment, however, could be senior PK Mark Buchholz, an ace in close who has hit just 6-of-17 career field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards. While the leg strength is there, he needs to improve his accuracy, or else one of the highly-regarded true freshmen, Spencer Benton or Dawson Zimmerman could get a long look in August.

No such worries exist at punter, where senior Jimmy Maners returns after earning All-ACC recognition. In his first season handling the job he averaged 42.8 yards per kick to hold off Richard Jackson, the likely heir apparent.

The return game figures to be downright incendiary with explosive juniors C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford fielding kickoffs and punts, respectively. Spiller ranked No. 14 nationally a year ago, and Ford has the track speed to hit a seam and be off to the races. 

Watch Out For ... Buchholz. If Clemson is going to live up to the hype and win the ACC, at some point during the year, it’ll need Buchholz to nail a clutch kick from long range. If it’s from outside 40 yards, all of Tigertown will be holding its collective breath.
The return game. The healthy return of Ford, who missed part of last year with a broken ankle, along with Spiller gives Clemson two of the most exciting and explosive return specialists in the country.
Coverage units. The Tigers were uncharacteristically brutal a year ago, finishing 88th on kickoffs, 115th on punts, and allowing three special teams touchdowns.  Special teams coach Andre Powell is working overtime to make sure last season’s futility was an aberration.
Outlook: The Tigers are in good shape provided Buchholz doesn’t go into a prolonged slump or cost the team a game during the year. Spiller and Ford are offensive weapons who can score from long distance and play pivotal roles in the battle for field position.
Rating: 7.5