#5. Is this group of defensive backs the best in the ACC?
Yes. Clemson led the ACC in passing defense by a wide margin last season, giving up just 188 yards per game, and now all four starters return with an extra year of experience under their belt. Cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor have developed nicely in Vic Koenning's zone scheme while cat safety Mike Hamlin is viewed as one of the top safeties in the ACC and free safety Chris Clemons is one of the most fundamentally sound tacklers on the team. Is there room for improvement? Sure, however if you are looking for the top defensive backfield in the league, the Tigers have it.
#4. Who will backup Mike Hamlin and Chris Clemons at safety?
One area the Clemson coaching staff wanted to address in recruiting with the 2008 class was the safety position, and rightfully so. While the starters are locked and loaded for the upcoming season, there's not a tremendous amount of proven depth behind them. Entering spring practice, former linebacker turned running back Sadat Chambers moved back to defense to serve as Clemons' backup and DeAndre McDaniel, who's status for the 2008 season could be in doubt due to off-the-field problems, was listed on the second team behind Hamlin. McDaniel also spent spring practice playing as a linebacker in Clemson's nickel package. So where does that leave the Tigers in regards to backup safeties? Good question. Part of the answer will rest in the hands of a former cornerback- Haydrian Lewis. Lewis tore his ACL last year against Georgia Tech and is getting close to full strength during offseason workouts and will likely get a look at safety during preseason camp. In addition, freshmen Spencer Adams, Rashard Hall and Carlton Lewis will also get looks as well. Adams was the No. 11 safety in the nation in the 2008 recruiting class and is also a sensational athlete in track and field. If he has a strong preseason camp, expect him to see the field on Aug. 30. As long as Hamlin and Clemons stays healthy, everything here should be fine. If one were to go down to injury, especially Hamlin, things would change dramatically.
#3. What about depth at cornerback? Is that a concern?
Not at all. Reserve Byron Maxwell has slowly regained confidence since tearing up his knee before his senior year in high school and he saw the field for 317 snaps a year ago. In addition, don't forget about sophomore Marcus Gilchrist. The North Carolina native saw action in all 13 games last season, including 159 snaps on defense as well as significant action on special teams. Even though he's playing behind a solid starter in Chancellor, his snaps should go over 200 this coming season. Also- keep an eye on redshirt freshman Coty Sensabaugh, who performed well on the scout team a year ago and will get his chance as a reserve corner and special teams player this season. The bottom line here is Tigers have options with experience should Butler or Chancellor go down to injury.
#2. How high in the 2009 draft will Mike Hamlin go?
Hamlin is considered one of the top safeties in the nation entering the season and was voted to preseason first-team All-ACC team this past week during the league's football kickoff held at Reynolds Plantation. He was a second-team All-ACC selection last year when he had 97 tackles, four interceptions and 10 passes defensed. He's also one of the leaders on the team- having been voted the defensive captain last year before the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. With a strong senior year and a good showing at the NFL Combine next February, Hamlin could move into the first day (rounds one and two) of the 2009 draft. Keep in mind safeties are generally not thought of as top 10-15 picks at the NFL level. In fact, you have to go all the way down the last pick of the first round to find a safety drafted this past April.
#1. How can this unit get better?
One of the big ways the Clemson secondary could get better, or at least more productive, would be to have a better pass rush. The Tigers ranked 10th in the league in sacks last year and that number will have to go up in order for this unit to have more interceptions. From an X's and O's standpoint, you'd like to see more consistency from Clemons, who was made the scapegoat on what ended up being the game-winning touchdown pass for Boston College last year in Death Valley. On the play, he bit on play-action allowing WR Rich Gunnell to run wide open deep downfield. Given the amount of experienced talent returning, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning could also use more man-to-man coverage in certain situations to give opposing offenses a different look. He did that some in 2007, but don't be surprised to see slightly more this year.
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