Clemson Football: Tigers Poised for a 2013 Breakout Season on Defense
Most can remember the Clemson Tiger defense under first-year coordinator Brent Venables during the 2012 season.
It certainly had its rough spots—especially in the secondary—but the defense showed signs of life as the season progressed. It sparked to life in the Chick-Fil-A bowl against LSU, and proved to be among the biggest deciding factors in the game—forcing the LSU Tigers to eight three-and-outs en route to a 25-24 victory.
Now in year two, the Tigers have had a full offseason in Venables' system, and they have more numbers and flexibility at certain positions that they just didn't have this time last year. With the biggest question regarding a possible national championship being the Tigers' defense, the difference could be the emergence of playmakers that could make this defense thrive.
But what players have the chance to emerge as solid playmakers for this defense?
DE Vic Beasley
The progression of the defensive line in their first full offseason under Venables' scheme has paid dividends for Beasley, who has finally found a home at defensive end. Beasley's spring performance has him atop the post-spring depth chart heading into summer and fall camp.
Beasley saw time as a situational pass-rusher last season and came up with eight sacks—good enough to lead the Tigers and place him fourth in the ACC. After another year of growth in the position, Beasley is ready for a larger role.
He'll look to provide a more consistent pass rush for the Tigers, which was missing at key points throughout the season—especially against teams like Florida State and South Carolina.
With Clemson having been spoiled by productive pass-rushers like Gaines Adams, Ricky Sapp, Da'Quan Bowers and Andre Branch throughout the years, Beasley may find himself next in line as the Tigers' best quality pass-rusher.
DT Grady Jarrett
According to Tigernet, the junior defensive tackle has begun to emerge as a key piece of the Tigers' defensive line—playing well in the Tigers' bowl game against LSU and being voted co-defensive MVP by the coaches.
Jarrett continued his upward ascension with a productive spring, and despite his undersized frame at 6'1, 290 pounds, he is able to gain leverage on opposing offensive linemen.
Not only does Jarrett have good NFL bloodlines and a strong work ethic, but he also boasts All-ACC potential along a more experienced and battle-tested defensive line in their second year under defensive coordinator Venables.
S Travis Blanks
As the crown jewel of the 2012 recruiting class, Blanks played mostly on a rotational basis alongside Quandon Christian at the hybrid Nickel/Sam position in Venables' defensive scheme. His quickly became known for his aggressiveness and athleticism in his freshman year.
Blanks was perhaps the most consistent defensive back in the Tigers' secondary, and was named Second-Team Freshman All-American at the end of the season.
Now, Blanks will take on a bigger role in his sophomore year by fully making the transition to safety as a full-time starter. Having Blanks on the field full time will give the Tigers plenty of relief in the secondary, where safety play was inconsistent for much of last season.
Blanks' aggressive style of play and athletic ability could give the Tigers the playmaker at safety that it hasn't had since DeAndre McDaniel.
LB Kellen Jones
After sitting out his first season due to NCAA transfer rules, the sophomore linebacker is ready to get on the field.
Jones adds both depth and numbers to an already increasing position that has seen its struggles over the past few seasons. Jones' familiarity with Venables' scheme already gives him a big opportunity to succeed and make the Tigers' front seven one of the best in the ACC.
He has since taken on a "jack of all trades" approach to getting time on the field in the fall, according to Orange and White. Working at all three linebacker positions in Venables' defensive scheme makes him a versatile option that the Tigers didn't have last season.
Jones will likely see most of his time at the Will position. Following the end of spring practice, he was in competition with Spencer Shuey for the position—finishing second on the post-spring depth chart.
Nonetheless, look for Jones to get plenty of time on the field in the linebacker rotation, a unit with higher expectations and playmaking ability.
LB Stephone Anthony
Anthony was one of the best linebackers coming out of high school, ranked No. 1 at his position by ESPN. He has shown plenty of promise, but has yet to really break through. He has been going through his paces at the Mike position, but was replaced midway through last season by Shuey, who went on to become the team's leading tackler.
This offseason, the thought was that Anthony might be moved to the Will spot, where his athletic ability could be better used to run and hit. But Venables opted to keep him at the Mike, instead moving Shuey to the Will spot to compete with Kellen Jones and Tony Steward.
He has since bulked up to 246 pounds. Venables told Tigernet during spring practice that he now has the size he needs for a middle linebacker, and that "He is just now getting comfortable at Mike."
As the Mike, Anthony is essentially the quarterback of the defense, and his play at the position could dictate their success. Anthony has All-ACC potential, and this could be the year he breaks through in an improved linebacker corps.