CLEMSON — Clemson returns double-digit starters off of last year’s defense, to go along with plenty of other players who saw significant playing time.
Clemson finished second in the ACC in scoring defense, the unit ranked fifth nationally in success rate, but there were also big-play struggles. The Tigers fell to 19th nationally in yards per play allowed as teams found splash plays against the unit run by defensive coordinator Brent Venables. That was on full display in the College Football Playoff loss to Ohio State.
However, things point to Clemson bouncing back strong in 2021. There are playmakers, elite talent, and experience at all three levels. Still, some individuals can allow a unit to go from good to great.
Here are the three players who could make or break the Clemson defense in 2021.
A five-star recruit out of Charlotte, N.C, in the class of 2020, Simpson received plenty of playing time as a true freshman. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound linebacker played in 12 games recording 32 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a forced fumble. A hybrid player who can play multiple positions, Simpson flashed some elite playmaking ability as a rookie.
“Trenton Simpson is, you know, he’s working Will, is working Sam, is a guy that we can do a lot of things with,” Dabo Swinney told the media this spring. “He’s made a lot of progress. Great for us as a true freshman. He’s on his way to having another great year for us if he stays healthy.”
All signs point to Clemson using Simpson at the hybrid Sam linebacker, spot while James Skalski handles Mike and Baylon Spector runs at Will. At this spot, Simpson will be asked to rush the passer, fit the run and cover in space. There will be a lot on the sophomore’s plate, but the young player has All-American potential.
Andrew Booth Jr. is getting plenty of preseason hype, and the former five-star recruit from Metro Atlanta is expected to be one of the best cornerbacks in college football this fall. However, his potential running mate could be equally important to Clemson’s success.
Jones was a top-150 recruit per the 247 Sports Composite in the class of 2019. The Virginia native started eight games last season, recording 22 tackles, with three pass breakups and an interception. However, that wasn’t good enough in his eyes.
“Last year was kind of a low point,” said Jones. “Some ups, but definitely some downs. I learned through it all. I feel like this year — not just me but the whole secondary coming back — we are going to be hungry and make more plays.”
The competition at cornerback is wide open, but the junior brings a plethora of experience to the table. If Booth and Jones can become a rock-solid cornerback combination, it’s a game-changer for the defense.
Another top-150 recruit in the class of 2019, Charleston was a major recruiting win for the Clemson football program in the Atlanta suburbs. Despite not being a full-time starter last season, the safety played over 500 snaps and finished the year with 55 tackles. As nickel and dime defenses become essential, every program needs a third safety like Charleston.
“Man, Joseph is a fun guy to watch play football,” said Swinney. “If I was playing wideout, I’d know where No. 18 is because he’s going to be around that ball. You’re going to know it when he’s there. He’s a very physical player, he loves that part of it. He can play either safety.”
The coaching staff considers the junior to be the third starter behind Nolan Turner and Lannden Zaners at safety, and that’s a good thing. Charleston will once again log a ton of snaps this fall and needs to be a productive player for the Tigers. If this veteran produces at a high level, Clemson can be electric in both nickel and dime packages.