CLEMSON -- When asked how he would build his ideal defense earlier this year, Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said he would start with lock-down cornerbacks. The rationale is playing man coverage is one of the most difficult tasks in football, and if a player is capable, it frees up other defenders to support the run or blitz the passer. Defensive backs have taken on added importance in the age of spread offenses as base defenses now essentially include five defensive backs.
With cornerback play at a premium, the young Clemson defensive backs logging extra snaps in practice this December might determine the Tigers' success next season.
Consider after the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 31, the Tigers will have lost seven starters from the defensive backfield in three years. Last year, it was a pair of corners that had accounted for 80 combined starts in Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor. A year earlier, it was two safeties who are on NFL rosters, Michael Hamlin and Chris Clemons. The bowl practices are the last for defensive backs DeAndre McDaniel, Byron Maxwell and Marcus Gilchrist. McDaniel, Maxwell and Gilchrist have been a part of units ranking seventh in the nation in pass defense last year and 26th this season.
Next fall, Clemson will field at least three inexperienced players
in nickel packages and four in dime groupings.
How will Steele and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney reload?
"It's called developing your players and recruiting the right guys," Swinney said. "All of our guys last year that went to the NFL are on rosters. Maxwell, DeAndre, and Gilly (Gilchrist), it's fixing to be their turn. Then next guy up, and that's the way it should be."
The next guys up include three highly rated, four-star corners from the 2010 recruiting class: Darius Robinson, Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins. Robinson and Jenkins played as true freshmen.
Their tasks will likely be made more difficult next year as Da'Quan Bowers and his 15.5 sacks are expected to depart campus.
"I'm just trying to work to get better," said Robinson of bowl practice. "I'm trying to get my technique better. It's all about working hard, grinding."
Jenkins said he likes how Steele often employs man coverage and challenges his defensive backs.
"Man (coverage) is the reason I'm here," Robinson said. "Anyone can play zone. I feel like if I come here and play in a scheme where there is a lot of man. it will help me reach my potential.
"(Steele) wants us to have that attitude where we feel like no one can beat us."
Xavier Brewer gained experience this year and will likely be counted on to fill a corner spot next year, but Brewer was often targeted by opposing quarterbacks this season and gave up several long gains.
The Tigers are better situated at safety, where Rashard Hall returns and Jonathan Meeks showed good ball skills and striking ability in the season's second half.
"Brewer, I think, has established himself," Swinney said. "Coty (Sensabaugh) has played a lot. Meeks is ready. Rashard Hall and Carlton (Lewis) have come a long way.
"Some of those young guys are going to step up -- the Peters, Darius Robinsons and Martin Jenkins. They've played and they haven't even had a spring practice yet or summer (work outs). We have a good group, a good nucleus. …I think we hit on all those DBs."
Check out the Clemson blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/tiger_tracks and follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter (@travis_sawchik).