CLEMSON – It should be easy to get noticed standing right in the middle of one of the best defenses in college football. But Clemson middle linebacker Kendall Joseph is surrounded.
He plays next to Ben Boulware, a bearded cartoon character of an All-American candidate known for big, sometimes controversial hits and quick wit.
“He can be a goofball,” Joseph said.
At 6-feet tall (generous listing) it’s hard for the 230-pound Joseph to see over larger personalities on a defensive line anchored by colorful Christian Wilkins (6-4, 310).
“He keeps us loose,” Joseph said. “What a clown.”
The defensive backs lead the way as Clemson leads the ACC in interceptions going into Saturday’s home game against Pittsburgh.
And the camera follows Brent Venables, screaming sideline instructions with such emotion a staffer is assigned to constantly pull the Tigers’ defensive coordinator off the edge of the field.
Joseph, a redshirt sophomore from Belton, quietly fits into the star-studded system within an undefeated No. 2-ranked College Football Playoff team. No problem; he grew up training in a bigger shadow. His father Miguel Joseph was a competitive body builder.
That makes Joseph, a small-town guy with a gritty work ethic, the consummate Dabo Swinney recruit.
“He studies the game and prepares as well as anybody we have,” Swinney said. “He’s one of those underrated guys on our team. Not a lot of flash, you don’t hear him a lot, I don’t even know if he gets interviewed a lot. But he’s incredibly important to this football team.”
‘Totally, fully invested’
Joseph also is a leading example of recruiting and player development depth that has kept Venables’ defense atop the ACC despite losing waves of key contributors to the NFL two years in a row. He leads the Tigers with seven tackles for loss. He is third on the team in total tackles at 73, one behind Boulware and two behind free safety Van Smith.
B.J. Goodson, the middle linebacker during Clemson’s 2015 run to the national championship game, is now with the NFL’s New York Giants.
The Tigers haven’t skipped a beat.
“He’s completely, totally, fully invested,” Venables said. “He values all of the things you have to do before you ever get to the practice field and game day.
“He’s real humble, tough, hard-working, blue-collar. He’s our kind of guy. But he’s talented as well.”
Well, of course.
Joseph began working out with his dad as a sixth-grader. At first it was just running. When Joseph noticed how much that helped with other sports, he encouraged friends to tag along. Fun runs led to competitive training games.
“Who can get to the top of the hill first?” Joseph said. “Things like that.”
Nutrition was part of the program, too. As dad counted calories, so did his ahead-of-the-curve son.
A ‘prepared’ mindset
Kendall Joseph grew into a four-time state weightlifting champion at Belton-Honea Path High School. Truth is, he might have beaten Goodson out for the middle linebacker spot last year if not for injuries that limited him to seven games and 63 snaps.
Miguel Joseph isn’t doing much body building these days. The veteran truck driver recently had shoulder surgery but keeps in shape with daily runs. Stephanie Joseph, “the biggest influence on my life,” Kendall says, serves as a victim’s advocate at the Anderson County courthouse.
Together, the proud parents are enjoying an undefeated season as much as their son.
“I prepared hard for the moment,” Joseph said. “I kind of believed and prayed about it. If you put the work in, things pay off at the end. That’s been my mindset and this year the hard work is paying off.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff