2009 Clemson Preview - Defense
Clemson CB Crezdon Butler
Clemson CB Crezdon Butler
Posted May 21, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Clemson Tiger Defense

Clemson Tigers

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Clemson Preview | 2009 Clemson Offense
- 2009 Clemson Defense | 2009 Clemson Depth Chart
- 2008 Clemson Preview | 2007 Clemson Preview | 2006 Clemson Preview   

What you need to know: Dabo Swinney’s best recruits of the offseason haven't worn helmets in years. He lured Kevin Steele away from Alabama, giving Clemson one of the nation’s premier defensive coordinators. While it’s not as if the Tigers have been underachieving on this side of the ball, his presence and track record ensure that they’ll remain one of the ACC tightest defenses. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be welcoming back a mess of really talented players from a unit that allowed under 300 yards and 18 points a game a year ago. Save for a need to bag more sacks, Clemson has no glaring weaknesses on D. It’s stout versus the run, gives up no ground in pass defense, and stiffens better than anyone in the red zone. Steele inherits no less than eight All-ACC candidates, headed by Da’Quan Bowers up front, Kavell Conner at linebacker, and Chris Chancellor at corner. Steele’s pristine reputation as an assistant won’t be in jeopardy with this crew.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Kavell Conner, 125
Sacks: Ricky Sapp, 2.5
Interceptions: Chris Chancellor, Crezdon Butler, 4

Star of the defense: Senior CB Chris Chancellor
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior SS DeAndre McDaniel
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DT Jarvis Jenkins
Best pro prospect: Sophomore DE Da’Quan Bowers
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Chancellor, 2) Bowers, 3) Senior LB Kavell Conner
Strength of the defense: Stuffing the run, pass defense, red zone defense
Weakness of the defense
Getting to the quarterback

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Although Dorell Scott must be replaced in the middle of the line, the Tigers feel very good about their situation up front. Six players who started at least one game in 2008 return, headed by 6-4, 275-pound sophomore Da’Quan Bowers. A man-child at defensive end, he has an enormous upside that’s about to be approached. In his first year out of high school, he wasted little time cracking the lineup, finishing with 47 tackles eight tackles for loss, a sack, and a Gator Bowl MVP award. With his size and speed, he’s an ideal strongside end, harassing the quarterback and clamping down in run defense.

Assuming he can get back from last November’s ACL tear, 6-4, 240-pound senior Ricky Sapp will bookend Bowers, giving Clemson a pair of Bamberg (S.C.) High School graduates at defensive end. The fastest linemen off the edge, he gets off the snap in a hurry and has scary closing speed. Still, he needs to finish the rush better, collecting 28 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and just a pair of sacks before being lost with the knee injury.

One of the bigger surprises of last fall was 6-4, 305-pound Jarvis Jenkins, who went from a little-used freshman to a stout run stuffer as a sophomore. Now, in his third year, he’s poised to make a push for All-ACC honors. Fueled by athleticism and explosive first step, he erupted for 36 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, a couple of sacks, and seven quarterback pressures.

When injuries hit the line last September, 6-2, 315-pound sophomore Brandon Thompson was forced to remove his redshirt and play in the final 12 games. He showed glimpses why he was one of the most sought after lineman of 2008, making 25 stops, five tackles for loss, and a sack. He’s very strong and has the solid base to stand his ground at the point of contact, ingredients of a budding run stopper.

Projected Top Reserves:
Whether or not he starts a game, 6-3, 255-pound senior Kevin Alexander is a starter-quality defensive end a great insurance policy for Sapp’s rehabbed knee. He’s played a ton of football over the last three years, starting 10 games in 2008 and making 34 tackles and three tackles for loss. A former linebacker, he plays with excellent and has the upper body strength to manage bigger players.

Junior Jamie Cumbie was eyeing a breakthrough season in 2008, but injuries to both wrists forced him to redshirt after the opener. A converted defensive end, he’s uniquely built at 6-7 and 270 pounds to bat down passes and obstruct throwing lanes. While not your typical space-eater, he has particular on third down for his ability to get penetration.

Watch Out For
... Bowers to blow up. He was feeling his way through as a rookie, yet still made an impact and finished on a high note, collecting three tackles for loss in the Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska. If he can turn some of those quarterback pressures into quarterback sacks, he could be a force up front for Clemson.
Strength: Stopping the run. After allowing just 127 yards a game and seven rushing touchdowns, the Tigers might be better against the run this fall. In Jenkins and Thompson, they’ve got a pair of powerful wide-bodies, who aren’t easily moved off their blocks.
Weakness: Sacks. With the talent this team has up front, 14 sacks in 13 games is woefully unacceptable. Too often, the ends over ran the play, allowing quarterbacks to step up and escape the pressure. It’s imperative that the ends do more than flush the pocket, turning more of those pressures into sacks and forced fumbles.
Outlook: The talent and depth is in place. Now, the defensive line needs to produce for a dozen games. The Tigers will be just fine against the run, but Bowers, Sapp, and Alexander have to do much better than the 3.5 sacks they produced a year ago.
: 8


Projected Starters: The Tigers went with a youth movement at linebacker in 2008, which will pay big dividends in 2009. All three starters are back, and no lettermen of relevance ran out of eligibility. Senior Kavell Conner was a smashing success in his debut as a full-timer, leading the team with 125 tackles, six of which were behind the line of scrimmage. From his weakside position, the 6-1, 225-pounder plays tough and fast, showing keen instincts for getting to the ball.

As debuts go, the one spun by 6-2, 225-pound sophomore Brandon Maye wasn’t too shabby either. In his first year without a redshirt, he solidified middle linebacker for the Tigers, making 87 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. A high-energy, sideline-to-sideline defender, he showed a knack for sifting through the wash and popping the ball-carrier.

After being a spot starter in his first two seasons, 6-1, 215-pound junior Scotty Cooper is in line for a promotion at strongside. One of the best athletes of the group, he plays with great range and intensity without losing control of his assignment. A decent pass defender as well, he had 28 tackles a year ago and started four games.

Projected Top Reserves: The veteran leader of the reserves is 6-1, 220-pound senior Jeremy Campbell, a three-time letterwinner and a special teams contributor. A steady producer with 32 games of experience on the resume, he was in on a career-high 31 tackles last season.

Redshirt freshman Jonathan Willard is being groomed as the successor to Conner at weakside in 2010. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, he has loads of speed and potential, but will need to shake off some rust, having played just half a season of football over the last two years.

Watch Out For
... more heat. New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele wants his players to be more physical and aggressive, and this collection of athletes has the skill set to wreak havoc from different angles on the field.
Strength: Range. By design, the Tiger linebackers are undersized, fast, and capable of covering big chunks of turf in a small amount of time. They’re not maulers, but they are the kinds of athletes, who are highly instinctive and can be used on the blitz or as pass defenders.
: Physicality. In the box, the linebackers are prone to being bullied, especially when linemen float beyond the first level of defense. Maye is the biggest member of the rotation, and he only goes 6-2 and 225 pounds.
Outlook: A major concern heading into 2008, the Tigers have solidified this unit thanks to the emergence of Conner and Maye. Cooper needs to be more than just an occasional contributor, and depth will be a concern unless a few of the kids grow up real fast.
: 7.5


Projected Starters: The program will be looking to retool at safety after Chris Clemons and all-star Michael Hamlin graduated. In response to the need, 6-1, 200-pound junior DeAndre McDaniel is being moved from linebacker to strong safety, where his size will no longer be a hindrance. A tremendous athlete, he plays with intensity and is one of the hardest hitters on the team. Despite being somewhat miscast a year ago, he still managed to make 77 tackles and four tackles for loss, and has an All-ACC ceiling as soon as this fall.

Bridging the gap at free safety is versatile 5-11, 190-pound senior Sadat Chambers, who has lettered on both sides of the ball and has started to get comfortable in the defensive backfield. He moves well in space and will play bigger than his size. As a reserve in 2008, he was in on 168 snaps and made a career-high 21 tackles.

Returning together at cornerback for one final engagement is the senior tandem of 5-10, 165-pound Chris Chancellor and 6-0, 185-pound Crezdon Butler. Chancellor has 30 career starts, gradually becoming the type of pass defender, who has attracted the interest of NFL scouts. He has the speed and hips to lock down the other team’s best receiver, and the best ball skills of the defensive backs. Over the last two years alone, he’s broken up 18 passes and picked off eight.

Butler shares a lot of Chancellor’s characteristics. He, too, has been a dependable starter over the last two seasons, using his quickness and instincts to jump routes and stick to his man. He rarely gets burned, and has the size to be an effective run defender, by cornerback standards. An active all-around player, he enters his final year with 147 career tackles and a dozen takeaways.

Projected Top Reserves: Somehow, the staff is going to find a way to get 5-11, 185-pound junior Marcus Gilchrist off the sidelines and into the fray. A backup the last two seasons, it’s getting harder and harder to keep him out of the huddle. He has 21 tackles, showing off the explosiveness and big hits that portend an uptick in activity.

Butler’s backup entering the season will be 6-1, 200-pound junior Byron Maxwell, a physical corner who’ll light up receivers like most safeties. While not the athlete or pass defender that Chancellor and Butler are, he’ll force receivers to short-arm passes, and makes the most of his opportunities. Despite not starting a single game in 2008, he still had 54 tackles, three tackles for loss, and four breakups.

Watch Out For
... Chambers to struggle to keep his job. The staff experimented toward the end of spring by giving Gilchrist some reps at free safety. Don’t be surprised if that continues again in the summer. He has more upside and natural, and if he looks comfortable, he may have a starting assignment by September.
Strength: Cover skills. When playing Clemson, you better be prepared for a lot of close contact. The Tigers give away very little room, pressing receivers and redirecting a slew a passes. Last year’s team was No. 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, picking off 19 balls and allowing a mere 5.2 yards an attempt. This year’s edition has a chance to be every bit as stingy.
Weakness: The safeties. Hey, you can do a lot worse, but there is some concern now that Hamlin and Chris Clemons are gone. Although the coaches love McDaniel’s makeup, he still has to prove he can make a smooth transition after years of being a linebacker.
Outlook: For the third year in-a-row, Clemson will be home to a dynamite defensive backfield and one of the best collections of talent in the ACC. It’s become a trend in these parts. Yeah, the safety issue needs to be addressed, but the way the program has recruited in this area, it’s a hurdle it can clear. Against a schedule that’s short on potent passing games, the Tigers will again have one of the nation’s best pass defenses.    
: 8

Special Teams

Projected Starters: A new punter and placekicker are being sought, which has kept special teams coordinator Andre Powell busy in the offseason. The favorite to succeed Mark Buchholz at kicker is redshirt freshman Spencer Benton, who has great pop in his leg, but has work to do with his accuracy and is a complete unknown in pressure situations.

Replacing Jimmy Maners will be sophomore Dawson Zimmerman, who actually got a dozen opportunities to punt as a rookie, averaging just over 36 yards. One of the nation’s top recruits at punter in 2008, he, like Benton, has great leg strength, now needing to fine tune the little things in his craft.

It’s worth knowing junior Richard Jackson because he’s a former high school All-American and a capable backup at punter and placekicker. Yeah, he lacks consistency, but you can do a lot worse as far as reserves go here.

In seniors C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford, the Tigers boast two of the most explosive return men in the country. Spiller is the front man, but both players have the jets to hit a seam and be off to the races with just a sliver of daylight. 

Watch Out For ... the development of Benton. While the program loves his potential, it’s also holding its breath about entering the season with a freshman at such a vital position. If he buckles at the prospect of kicking in front of 75,000 fans, it could cost Clemson in the standings.
Strength: The return game. With Spiller and Ford handling punts and kickoffs, the Tigers have two of the most exciting return guys in the country. With support from the blockers, Spiller, in particular, has the gifts to be an All-American on special teams.
Weakness: Inexperience of the kickers. Although Zimmerman punted some in 2008 and both were coveted recruits, neither has much relevant experience at this level, particularly Benton. Jackson better remain limber all year because it wouldn’t be a shock if his number is called at some point during the year.
Outlook: It’s always a little dicey when the anchors of the special teams are first-time punters and kickers. Clemson will excel with its return game and coverage units, while holding its breath that Benton and Zimmerman are ready to perform like veterans.   
: 7