Top 10 Tigers 2016, No. 8: Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley was Clemson’s greatest thief in years

Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley led the Tigers with five interceptions in 2015, and is the only returning starter in the secondary. (Allen Randall/Clemson sports information)

CLEMSON — Clemson has placed its share of cornerbacks in the NFL in recent years: Marcus Gilchrist, Byron Maxwell, Coty Sensabaugh, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander are all in the league.

None of those guys ever picked off five passes in a season in a Clemson uniform.

That’s a distinction held by senior corner Cordrea Tankersley, who in 2015 became the first Tiger to count his single-season interceptions on an entire hand of fingers in six years. Safeties DeAndre McDaniel (eight picks) and Rashard Hall (six) led the way in 2009.

Tankersley’s five INTs in 2015 were the most for a true Clemson cornerback in 13 years; Brian Mance and Justin Miller had eight and six, respectively, in 2002. Tankersley, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Friday, was also one of three ACC defenders last season with five or more picks; Miami corner Artie Burns (six) was drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Boston College safety Justin Simmons (five) went to the Denver Broncos in the last pick of the third round.

Not bad for a lanky former track star from Beech Island, S.C. who was fairly unpolished when he arrived at Clemson after spending 2012 at Hargrave Military Academy.

What’s Tankersley shooting for his senior year?

“Try to repeat,” he said. “You always want improvement, so I just want to be more fundamentally sound, work on my technique and be a student of the game.”

There will be a lot riding on Tankersley in 2016, after losing Alexander and Breeland to the draft as early entrants two of the past three offseasons. Breeland, Washington’s 2014 fourth-round pick and two-year starter, is a more apt comparison to Tankersley; both players were three-star recruits, neither was a pure corner when they arrived at Clemson, and both have great hands.

Tankersley is a rock at corner while defensive backs coach Mike Reed surveys his options to start at the second spot. Mark Fields was the talk of spring ball, but Marcus Edmond was a surprise starter listed on the post-spring depth chart. Ryan Carter is also a factor as a potential corner, safety or nickel back, while Korrin Wiggins also seeks a home after rehabbing his torn ACL. The Tigers lost Adrian Baker (torn ACL) and Kaleb Chalmers (dismissed for a drug arrest) earlier this year.

So when Tankersley chose not to follow Alexander and safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse to the pros after 2015, there was a big sigh of relief among the Clemson coaches. Tankersley is the DBs’ de facto leader.

“They’re grown men. They’ve got to carry their own weight,” Tankersley said. “But it’s my job to lift them up and keep encouraging them.”