5 Burning Questions on Defense

CUTigers.com takes a look at five burning questions facing Clemson's defense entering the 2007 season.

Will Clemson be able to overcome inexperience at cornerback?
Three of the top four cornerbacks on the depth chart are two sophomores and a freshman. And while Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler each saw ample playing time last year as freshmen, they're still relatively inexperienced.

Newcomer Byron Maxwell looks good in the spring and is pushing Butler for playing time. Regardless of who starts between the two, there will still be plenty of playing time dished out between them. This leads to the question as two whether or not they can handle the job.

The answer appears to be a resounding yes. There's a reason that Clemson's secondary recruits were ranked as some of the best in the nation. It's because they're very good. Now, don't think for a moment that they won't make silly mistakes, because they will. But they're also so talented that they have the capabilities to produce bigger plays defensively than what transpired last season with two veteran corners.

The young corners on each side will have their ups and downs, but there should be many, many more ups than downs. And in two years, don't be shocked if the Tigers boast one of the top defensive backfields in the entire nation. They have the capabilities to be that good.

Will Ricky Sapp be the dominant player that everyone expected out of high school?
There were signs last year that Sapp could be a special player. He totaled four sacks last year, which were second-most on the team, even though he was underweight for his Bandit position.

But the spring came and there was more disappointment with Sapp than praise. Bandit coach Ron West was unhappy with the way Sapp applied himself and how the sophomore wasn't as dominant as he should be or the team needs him to be. As a result, redshirt senior Kwam Williams was named as the co-starter heading into August.

This is one of the more crucial positions on the entire defense and it is absolutely imperative that Sapp shine. He continues to bulk up, which is a good thing, but he also needs to dedicate himself to becoming the player all expect him to be. And that's why the coaching staff is on his case and pushing him so hard.

Will Phillip Merling and Rashaad Jackson be as dominant in the fall as they were in the spring?
To put it bluntly as possible, there's absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be. Let's put it this way, one coach even went so far as to say Jackson should be first team All-ACC when the season is over, while another coach said that Merling has the makeup, look and style of former Georgia star and current New England Patriots All-Pro Richard Seymour. Come to think of it, Merling even resembles Seymour facially.

The Tigers have been waiting for that dominant inside presence for several years and they finally look to have found him in Jackson. During the spring, head coach Tommy Bowden continually talked about the stellar player of Jackson. Bowden said they literally couldn't block the redshirt junior. Offensive line coach Brad Scott even joked about keeping Jackson on the sideline so the offensive line could get some work done.

Merling is also a player Clemson has been waiting for. The Tigers had Gaines Adams and his 12.5 sacks last season at one end, but got little pressure from the other end with Merling. If that can change this year, as the coaches expect, and Clemson can get pressure from both sides, then this could be a very nasty defense.

Can the Tigers survive with the same number of injuries they had last year on defense?
In all honesty, it really depends on where the injuries happen. At safety, yes they can. The Tigers are deep there with very quality players. Cornerback wise, Clemson is OK there, but no matter who would take the position over is going to be very inexperienced and sure to be picked on right way by opposing offenses.

The linebackers appear to be the deepest of any position on this side of the ball. During the spring, the Tigers had to practice without their three starters in Nick Watkins, Antonio Clay and Tremaine Billie, which allowed the younger players to get plenty of action and a feel for the positions.

Up front, there a little depth on the outside, but not much on the inside. By all accounts, Jamie Cumbie looks primed for a big season behind Merling and Williams is already pushing Sapp for the starting job. But behind them, there's very little as far as third team goes. The interior features Jock McKissic, Antwon Murchison and Elsmore Gabriel, which isn't exactly the Steel Curtain. At least one freshman, maybe two, is expected to have an opportunity to get some playing time as a backup to the starters.

When healthy, can the Tigers once again be one of the top-ranked defenses in the country?
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has put together two very good seasons since arriving from Troy in 2005. Last year, Clemson ranked among the nation's best in total defense (13th) and scoring defense (16th) last season. In 2005, Clemson ranked 11th in scoring defense.

With the players on defense and the extreme offensive weakness of the ACC, there's little reason why those numbers shouldn't be roughly the same. Heck, they could be even better. Health, maturity and expectations are the three keys to putting forth another good defense.

Assuming everyone stays healthy (and we all know what happens when you assume), the defense could thrive if the cornerbacks grow up in a hurry and display their vast talent. Also, if the linebackers and defensive ends are as dominant as everyone expects, then this could be a big, big year for this side of the ball.

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