Clemson has become synonymous with success in college football. In the last six years, the Tigers have six ACC titles, six trips to the College Football Playoff and two national championships. It won't surprise anyone to read that Clemson will be a good team in 2021.
That would be a major mistake.
Yes, the unit played a disastrous game in the season-ending 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. However, the Tigers had another strong year defensively to that point. They otherwise allowed just 4.6 yards per play and 17.5 points per game.
Short of two rotational linemen, everyone will return to the defense next season. And we mean everyone.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA determined 2020 wouldn't count as a year of eligibility. As a result, Clemson is set to bring back three key seniors: linebackers Baylon Spector and James Skalski, along with safety Nolan Turner. They finished as three of Clemson's top-five tacklers.
Additionally, draft-eligible cornerback Derion Kendrick returned. He ranked as the No. 21 prospect in the 2021 class, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in mid-December.
With two exceptions, freshmen and sophomores composed the rest of the depth chart. Defensive tackles Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams played in 11-plus games but have since transferred. They're the only notable losses from a top-20 defense (that entered bowl season as a top-five defense).
Expectations will be incredibly high for this unit in 2021. Considering the depth of highly recruited talent up front and those players' actual production, that should be the case.
Most importantly, this isn't praising some previous top recruits simply for being on the roster; the front seven is proven.
Freshman end Myles Murphy led Clemson with 11.5 stops for loss. Freshman tackle Bryan Bresee, sophomore end K.J. Henry and freshman linebacker Trenton Simpson each had 6.5 tackles for loss, and all four players were 5-stars. So was Xavier Thomas, who notched 3.5 sacks in a limited role after a long and difficult recovery from COVID-19. Tyler Davis, a 4-star, is a two-year starter at tackle.
At linebacker, Spector notched a team-best 65 tackles this past season. Skalski, who amassed 90 stops in 2019, communicates the defensive calls from coordinator Brent Venables.
Mike Jones Jr. tallied 26 stops at his strong-side linebacker spot, and Jake Venables had 31 tackles. He's a backup for both Jones and Skalski, while Simpson will play behind Jones. For good measure, Kane Patterson and LaVonta Bentley combined to make 31 tackles as reserves too.
While the secondary needs improvement, Clemson should be optimistic.
Kendrick earned first-team All-ACC honors, while Turner and cornerback Andrew Booth landed second-team recognition. Lannden Zanders started alongside Turner at safety, and both Joseph Charleston and Sheridan Jones held significant roles.
Cornerbacks Mario Goodrich, Malcolm Greene and Fred Davis II and safeties Tyler Venables and Ray Thornton III all played regularly too. The secondary is stacked with experience.
Let's be perfectly clear: Development isn't always linear, and experience doesn't guarantee success or even improvement. Yet with eight defensive backs selected in the last five NFL drafts and a top-30 pass defense every season from 2014 to 2019, Clemson has earned some benefit of the doubt.
Plus, as the Tigers lose only two rotational pieces, they're bringing in a new wave of top talent.
Best of all, though, this defense will be tested immediately.
Clemson kicks off the campaign against Georgia—a likely Top Five team—in Charlotte on Labor Day weekend. Georgia returns quarterback JT Daniels, running backs Zamir White and James Cook and a host of receivers led by George Pickens.
While anyone can spend several months touting Clemson's defense, the result of that matchup is infinitely more important than offseason hype. But with every starter and practically the entire depth chart returning, the unit is built to thrive immediately.
If this defense plays anywhere near its enormous potential, Clemson will assemble a dominant year that results in a seventh straight trip to the College Football Playoff.