No. 5 Jayron Kearse

Position: Free safety

Year: Sophomore

Height/weight: 6-4, 205

Hometown: Fort Myers, Fla.

Last year: 55 tackles (sixth on the Tigers despite playing the 11th-most snaps) and four interceptions, which tied for the team lead.

The Tigers' breakout defensive player of the year has to build upon it.

Jayron Kearse forced his way into action early last September, and was entrenched at safety next to Robert Smith once Travis Blanks struggled (and eventually went down with a torn ACL.)

He's the definition of a playmaker, swarming to the ball and stabbing four picks last fall, equaling top cornerback Bashaud Breeland to pace Clemson.

By the way, this stat seems impossible: while Breeland registered a team-best 13 pass break-ups (plus the four interceptions), Kearse had zero pass break-ups, meaning he got his hands on four opposing passes in 2013 and caught all of them.

Kearse also had just a half-tackle for loss, unsurprising since defensive coordinator Brent Venables doesn't favor the safety blitzes. Who knows, maybe the Tigers give the 6-4 sophomore more looks at the backfield in 2014?

This Kearse quote from Dabo Swinney last spring was kind of fun: "He needs to worry about becoming a great safety for us. That's all he needs to be worried about."

As in, Kearse has room to improve like any other young player, but he's perfect at that free safety spot.

Smith's as dependable as they come at strong safety; it's not like anyone's rooting for the safeties to rack up tackle totals, but Smith and Kearse are very much the solid safety nets when things break down.

If the pair takes that next step from good to great, Clemson's defense becomes even more promising.

-Aaron Brenner


Coming up: No. 4 Mike Williams