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2021 Clemson Defense Will be Nation’s Best

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Remarkably, every single starter is set to return.

With spring practice underway at Clemson, a look at the defense is almost an exact look back at last year. Returning stars are eveywhere for the Tigers.  

Clemson just ranked in the top 15 in total defense, led the nation in sacks, ranked second in tackles for loss, fourth in turnovers forced and tenth in third down percentage this past season. Coordinator Brent Venables and the Tigers just had one of the best defenses in all of college football yet again. Remarkably, ten starters have returned. Looking ahead, Clemson is going to be as good as it gets defensively in 2021. Even in February, it's fair to say the Tigers will be the nation's very best unit. It may not even be close.

With cornerback Derion Kendrick turning down potential first round NFL Draft consideration to come back for a final year, and James Skalski, Baylon Spector and Nolan Turner all returning for bonus seasons at Clemson, the top of the depth chart will return nearly completely intact. In all, the Tigers are currently poised to suit up as many as 24 of their top 28 tacklers, a stunning collection of talent that doesn't even include veteran edge rusher Xavier Thomas, who missed most of last season due to coronavirus. 

A total of nine Clemson defenders earned some level of All-ACC recognition this past fall. Eight of them are coming back and are coming back to play for the best defensive coordinator in the country.

Up front, the Tigers will boast the nation's most dominant and dynamic defensive line once more. It's a potentially generational group. Thomas, Tyler Davis and K.J. Henry have combined for 48.5 career tackles for loss and that is with Thomas and Davis missing significant time this past year and only Thomas, of the group, having played a single upperclassman season. As true freshmen, tackle Bryan Bresee earned first-team All-ACC honors after 6.5 tackles for loss and end Myles Murphy led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss, adding four sacks and three forced fumbles. 

Linebackers Skalski and Spector, both second-team all-conference players, are two of the most veteran and productive defenders in the entire country. They have combined to play in an astonishing 110 total games to date. Skalski has over 200 career tackles. In contests he has played all four quarters in over the last two years, Clemson has not allowed more than 23 points. Jake Venables, Brent's son, was also productive before breaking his arm. Expectations are high for incoming five-star Barrett Carter.   

After second-team All-ACC honors as a sophomore, Kendrick earned first-team praise as a junior. A former wide receiver, he has developed into one of the nation's top cover corners. Nolan Turner, whose interception of Justin Fields in the endzone helped the Tigers advance to the national championship game two years ago, was named a second-team All-American by USA Today. He has played in 55 career outings. Andrew Booth was a second-team all-conference corner and Lannden Zanders was honorable mention at safety. Fellow safety Joseph Charleston was the team's third-leading tackler.

The talent and production, experience and leadership, will be everywhere on Clemson's defense next season. A half dozen stars could be pre-season All-Americans. Beyond just that, the second team defense will be a formidable, established group featuring a number of proven standouts. There will be rotational players with clear NFL upside.  

Under the accomplished mainstay Venables, the Tigers will undoubtedly continue to attack. Since 2013, his defenses have led the nation in tackles for loss five times and finished no worse than sixth nationally in that category in a single year. Clemson's 3.83 sacks per game in 2020 were the most of the Venables era, potentially the most-ever for the program. Given the depth and familiarity across the board, the schematic options Venables will have this fall will be virtually unlimited. 

The Tigers have had many great defenses. This fall could be one of their best. It will very likely be the national standard.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports